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By Dee Henderson
Walker Large PrintCopyright © 2006 Dee Henderson
All right reserved.
Chapter OneONE YEAR LATER
Mark Falcon knew success and enjoyed it. As the late afternoon sun came in the floor-to-ceiling windows of his office, it reflected off the architecture awards on the side table, a rainbow painting the wall. His son made the shadow of a barking dog in the blue and purple bands. Mark judged the distance and made a bear appear, which moved in to gobble up the dog.
Benjamin laughed. "Your hands are huge, Dad."
The boy's wonder combined with the name Dad-he had done a few things very right in his life, and marrying Sharon and adopting her son last year were near the top of the list. "Yours will one day be as big." He made the shadow of a tree house. "The tree house blueprints should be done printing. Why don't you go see?"
Benjamin dashed from the office to the open drafting room. Mark followed at a more relaxed pace. Nine now, with a touch of McGyver in his unquenchable curiosity, his son seemed to be thriving under his attention. Mark was trying to rearrange his life to provide that time, but he had worried about the transition.
He was confident now that keeping the family in Benton, Georgia, an hour and twenty minutes outside Atlanta, had been the right decision. The schools were good, the hospital and medicalclinic where Sharon continued to work top-notch, and the town still had open land and woods around it. Mark didn't mind the occasional commute to Atlanta when business required it; the pace in Benton better fit what he wanted for his family.
He watched his son carefully tear the blueprint from the wide printer. "It's perfect."
Mark picked up an empty carrying tube. "I'm glad you like it. We'd better stop by the lumber mill this weekend to order our supplies. By the end of October you'll be inviting your friends over."
"You'll teach me to use the saw?"
"I will. You can even make the trim if you like; we'll finish this tree house right. A good architect always finishes the finer details." He offered Ben a pen and an official label for the blueprint tube. "What do you say we pick up your mom and get dinner? I'm starved."
Sharon tried to keep her last patient appointment to no later than five on Wednesday nights so they could have a family night. The last couple of weeks their dates had been hot dogs from a street vendor and rented inline skates at the park. For a practical doctor, Sharon didn't always act much older than her son.
"Can we invite Aunt Carol?"
"If she's free." Mark had a soft spot in his heart with Caroline's name on it. She had introduced him to Sharon. "Call her and see."
They ended up at the mall after eating at the pizza buffet. It was Benjamin's idea of the perfect evening and Mark would agree. He walked with his wife window-shopping while Caroline and Benjamin invaded stores to compare toys and laugh at silly things like fish wind chimes and talking doorbells.
He paused with Sharon at the upper floor courtyard, waiting for Benjamin and Caroline to catch up, and couldn't resist leaning over to kiss his wife. A year since their honeymoon and she could still make him forget his name.
Mark reluctantly ended the kiss. "Tell me you don't have early rounds tomorrow."
She smiled slowly. "Nine o'clock."
Mark rubbed his thumb on Sharon's shoulder blade, appreciating the answer, and even more the promise in her smile. A guy didn't deserve to be this happy. He couldn't resist reaching up to touch her face and trace her smile and the perfect little dimple next to it. "I'll take the morning off and drive you in to work, then take Benjamin to school." His words were simple enough, but the huskiness in his voice conveyed a return promise for tonight. He hoped Benjamin would find a book and volunteer to turn in early with his Snoopy desk light on. It was time to go home. Mark slid his hand down to grasp Sharon's, looked around, and didn't see Benjamin.
"He's across the way at the pet store scoping out the puppies," Caroline offered. She was leaning against the railing overlooking the lower level, her attention focused across the walkway at his son.
The faint blush coloring her cheek and the back of her neck made Mark squeeze Sharon's hand, move to the railing, and lean forward to see Caroline's expression. "Sorry."
She smiled even as her blush deepened. "Don't be." Caroline watched Sharon join Benjamin at the pet store window and laugh with him as one of the puppies rose to plant his feet on the glass. "My sister deserves to be happy."
"So do you."
"I am happy." "Hmm." Mark thought she was, to the extent she didn't know what she was missing in life. "Would you like a date next week? I know a nice guy who's interested."
"You know I'm seeing Luke." "My cousin could use some competition. He's cancelled on you too often due to work." "He's been busy."
"No disrespect to Luke, but he's had a year to get his priorities sorted out. Work followed him to the wedding, and it's still following him. I'd say that's enough time to reevaluate things. Besides, you would really like this guy, Caroline. Let me at least introduce you."
"Is he an architect or in construction?"
"He owns a furniture business."
She turned to rest her back against the railing. "He sounds more interesting than your financial advisor."
"Who thought you were adorable and was crushed when you politely declined a second date. Come on. You'll enjoy yourself. You ought to take me up on an introduction at least once a year."
She answered his verbal nudge with a smile. "Next week-" She shook her head. "Sorry, school extracurricular events are just getting started, and I'll be tied up with registration and scheduling."
"And the following week you'll be busy grading papers."
"What can I say? A fifth grade teacher's time is in high demand." She patted his arm. "I'm comfortable being single and still looking. Marriage is work."
"But the compensation is high." How Caroline ended up shy when her sister was an extrovert was a mystery, but he thought it rather a nice one. He was going to help her find a relationship that worked; he had set his mind on it. She was just going to take someone special. He thought it was Luke, but that wasn't coming to pass as he'd hoped, much to his disappointment. Mark leaned down to pick up the new package resting near her feet. "I see Benjamin found his kite."
"It will need a lot of string and running room to launch it."
"Those are the best kind." He slipped the receipt in his billfold, then tugged out the money to repay Caroline, and tucked it along with an extra twenty in the side pocket of her purse. "Go to a movie on me."
"You're welcome, and please rub off on your nephew a bit more. I had to tug the fact he wanted a kite out of him." He added the sack to those he carried. Benjamin was just beginning to accept that it was okay to ask him for something. "He's frugal to the point of making me feel like the kid and he the adult."
"He'll grow out of it by the time he gets a driver's license and wants to borrow the car and twenty bucks."
"I hope so. Ben's making me feel guilty about being rich. It's been a while since that emotion was around."
Caroline laughed and he smiled back. She had long ago given him the gift of liking him regardless of what he owned.
He remembered what he meant to ask earlier, and Mark's smile faded. "Any more hang-up phone calls?"
Caroline's smile disappeared too. She shook her head.
Someone had developed the habit of calling her at six A.M. and hanging up when she answered. "You'll tell me if they start again?"
He searched her face, looking for any indication she was merely being polite. If he thought trouble was blowing in again, he'd mention it to Luke. Hang-up phone calls had started the trouble for her last year, and Mark wasn't going to let it flare up again without reacting early.
Luke and Caroline had gone several tense rounds last fall over what to do. Luke tried to protect her against an unidentified person on the edge of stalking her, and Caroline found Luke's concern smothering. Mark didn't want to open that can of worms again now that they were finally getting their relationship back on track, but if trouble had returned, ignoring it wouldn't help. Mark understood the edgy concern Luke felt-a few of the "gifts" involved had been sent to Sharon to be delivered to Caroline.
"You've got that look again. That protective, in-your-domain, determined look," Caroline remarked.
"You are in my domain," Mark replied, keeping it low-key, still feeling out the boundaries she'd accept.
"I appreciate it, but let this be."
If she was denying getting calls, he didn't have much choice. "I'll let this be."
She smiled her thanks. A guy could get lost in that smile. It was time he reminded Luke a year had passed. If the man wasn't so busy with work, he would have long ago realized just how special Caroline was and made their relationship permanent. "Are you going to join us for Labor Day weekend in Atlanta?"
"I'll have to bring some work along, but Benjamin insists I come see his Atlanta Braves in person."
"I'm glad." He'd known if he set Benjamin to the task he'd get a yes. "Plan to come Friday and stay through Monday evening."
"We'll talk about it."
Sharon and Benjamin joined them, and Mark squeezed her hand and let the matter drop. He stepped forward to offer the sack holding the kite to his son. "Let's go home, buddy. I want a rematch on the video game."
Caroline slowed her sedan and lifted a hand to acknowledge Benjamin's wave as Mark pulled into his driveway. It wound back to the home he had designed and built with a family in mind. An evening at the mall had been a nice time. She appreciated the fact Mark went out of his way to include her occasionally in their family nights.
She clicked her headlights to high beam as she entered the heavier woods, glad the country road was rarely traveled except for residents who lived in the area. Down an incline, around a forty-degree curve to the left, she slowed and made a sharp turn into the gravel driveway to her house. The headlights bounced off trees and hanging branches and cast moving shadows along both sides of her car.
She pulled into the garage and parked, the darkness total as she shut off the car. Her keys held as weapons between her knuckles, she walked to the farmhouse, opened the kitchen door, and flipped lights on inside. The kitchen counters were clear, the spider fern turning slowly in the movement of air, a faint steady click and then the icemaker dumped ice. She was alone.
She shut off the alarm system and walked over to touch the new message button on the answering machine. The single message was the library confirming that a requested book was in. Whoever had been calling her had moved on. The troubles last fall had been more than enough for both Luke and herself: phone calls, unexplained small gifts, that last frightening bouquet of roses. The matter was behind her now, and she wanted it to stay buried.
Caroline moved toward the hallway, stepping out of her shoes and tossing them toward the steps. When Sharon and Benjamin had lived with her, the living room was often strewn with toys and the cupboards filled with the basics that little boys loved. The house was too quiet now, and the holes on the shelves where Sharon's knickknacks had been were still waiting to be filled.
Caroline sorted the mail she'd picked up at the roadside mailbox after school and took the two magazines with her to the back patio. She turned on the outside lights and looked around the backyard and woods before settling into a chair. The backyard was her special domain, the terraced flower beds and winding walkways her creation.
She flipped through the first magazine. What would she do with a garlic press? She turned down the corner of the catalog page, marking it as a good illustration to use during her chef elective. Somebody in the class could find an Italian recipe that called for the use of this special gadget. Pungent foods tended to get the boys interested in at least trying cooking for themselves.
Caroline thought again about Mark's offer to set up a date and knew she would eventually say yes, if only to sidestep the friendly pressure. Mark was right; Luke had been busy lately, and she had been content to let their relationship drift and not press the issue. She longed for a deeper relationship with Luke. She wanted more, but it hadn't happened over the last year. Maybe it was time to let go of that hope and move on.
I'm not sure what to do, Lord. Luke is not the kind of guy you push. I'd like to be more than casually dating him, but I don't know how to get that to change. I can't compete with his work, and I'm smart enough not to try. I just don't think he's ready to settle down.
It was so easy to love Sharon and Benjamin. During the last several years since Sharon's first husband had passed away, Caroline had poured her time and love into helping her sister with Benjamin. It had been a joy to do so. Loving her students was easy too, for she could find ways to help them enjoy school.
But figuring out how to love Luke-he was nearly as much a mystery after a year as he had been the day of her sister's wedding. She admired what she saw in him and thought loving him would be richly worth it, but she didn't know how to get inside his head. He wasn't a man who easily shared much of himself.
The phone rang. Caroline waited for the answering machine to kick in, not willing to answer any calls without first screening them. She hoped there never was another heavy breathing phone call while Luke was around. The man was a bit frightening when he shifted into work mode.
The phone stopped ringing.
Caroline closed the magazine. Uneasy now with the night around her, she rose. She stepped back inside the house and shut the patio door behind her. No one was out there. No one. But she didn't like the feeling on the back of her neck, wondering if someone was watching again ...
He watched her rise from the chair through the zoom lens and took one last photo. He'd rattled her with the phone call. He didn't like it when her smile disappeared and those worry lines reappeared, but at least the call had gotten her to look up so he could get the silhouette photo he wanted.
Going by touch, he slowly advanced the film to minimize the clicking sounds. He'd need to develop the photo with care given the backlighting from her house, but he thought all the photos from tonight would turn out.
Leaves tickled his face as he turned to follow lights coming through the trees. A car slowed through the turn in the road and then drove past Caroline's driveway.
Months of watching Caroline had shown she rarely had company after sundown.
Excerpted from True Courage by Dee Henderson Copyright © 2006 by Dee Henderson. Excerpted by permission.
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