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"The Widow Swift?" Lucy made a face as she absorbed her daughter's latest tidbit of gossip. "Who calls me that?"
Madison shrugged. She was fifteen, and she was doing the driving. Something else for Lucy to get used to. "Everyone."
"Like, the six people who live in this town."
Lucy ignored the light note of sarcasm. The Widow Swift. Good Lord. Maybe in some strange way this was a sign of acceptance. She had no illusions about being a "real" Vermonter. After three years, she was still an outsider, still someone people expected would pack up at any moment and move back to Washington. Nothing would suit Madison better, Lucy knew. At twelve, life in small-town Vermont had been an adventure. At fifteen, it was an imposition. She had her learner's permit, after all. Why not a home in Georgetown?
"Well," Lucy said, "you can just tell 'everyone' that I prefer to be called Lucy or Mrs. Swift or Ms. Swift."
"A name like 'the Widow Swift' tends to stick."
Madison seemed amused by the whole thing, so much so that she forgot that parking made her nervous and just pulled into a space in front of the post office in the heart of their small southern Vermont village.
"Wow, that was easy," Madison said. "Okay. Into park. Emergency brake on. Engine off. Keys out." She smiled at her mother. She'd slipped into a little sundress for their trip to town; Lucy had nixed the flimsy slip-on sandals she'd wanted to wear. "See? I didn't even hit a moose."
They'd seen exactly two moose since moving to Vermont, neither en route to town. But Lucy let it go. "Good job."
Madison scooted off to the country store to "check out the galoshes," she said with a bright smile that took the edge off her sarcasm. Lucy headed for the post office to mail a batch of brochures for her adventure travel company. Requests from her Web site were up. Business was good to excellent. She was getting her bearings, making a place for herself and her children. It took time, that was all.
"The Widow Swift," she said under her breath. "Damn."
She wished she could shake it off with a laugh, but she couldn't. She was thirty-eight, and Colin had been dead for three years. She knew she was a widow. But she didn't want it to define her. She didn't know what she wanted to define her, but not that.
The village was quiet in the mid-July heat, not even a breeze stirring in the huge, old sugar maples on the sliver of a town common. The country store, the post office, the hardware store and two bed-and-breakfaststhat was it. Manchester, a few miles to the northwest, offered considerably more in the way of shopping and things to do, but Lucy had no intention of letting her daughter drive that far with a two-week-old learner's permit. It wasn't necessarily that Madison wasn't ready for traffic and busy streets. Lucy wasn't ready.
When she finished at the post office, she automatically approached the driver's side of her all-wheel-drive station wagon. Their "Vermont car," Madison called it with a touch of derision. She wanted a Jetta. She wanted the city.
With a groan, Lucy remembered her daughter was driving. Fifteen was so young. She went around to the passenger's side, surprised Madison wasn't already back behind the wheel. Driving was all that stood between her daughter and abject boredom this summer. Even the prospect of leaving for Wyoming the next day hadn't perked her up. Nothing would, Lucy realized, except getting her way about spending a semester in Washington with her grandfather.
Wyoming. Lucy shook her head. Now that was madness.
She plopped onto the sun-heated passenger seat and debated canceling the trip. Madison had already voiced objections about going. And her twelve-year-old son, J.T., would rather stay home and dig worms. The purported reason for heading to Jackson Hole was to meet with several western guides. But that was ridiculous, Lucy thought. Her company specialized in northern New England and the Canadian Maritimes and was in the process of putting together a winter trip to Costa Rica where her parents had retired to run a hostel. She had all she could handle now. Opening up to Montana and Wyoming would just be spreading herself too thin.
The real reason she was going to Wyoming, she knew, was Sebastian Redwing and the promise she'd made to Colin.
But that was ridiculous, too. An overreactionif not pure stupidityon her part to a few weird incidents.
Lucy sank back against her seat, feeling something under herprobably a pen or a lipstick, or one of J.T.'s toys. She fished it out.
She gasped at the warm, solid length of metal in her hand.
She resisted a sudden urge to fling it out the window. What if it went off? She shuddered, staring at her palm. It wasn't an empty shell. It was a live round. Big, weighty.
Someone had left a damn bullet on her car seat.
The car windows were open. She and Madison hadn't locked up. Anyone could have walked by, dropped the bullet through the passenger window and kept on going.
Lucy's hand shook. Not again. Damn it, not again. She forced herself to take slow, controlled breaths. She knew adventure travelcanoeing, kayaking, hiking, basic first aid. She could plan every detail of inventive, multifac-eted, multi-sport trips and do just fine.
She didn't know bullets.
She didn't want to know bullets.
Madison trotted out of the country store with several other teenagers, swinging her car keys as if she'd been driving for years. The girls were laughing and chatting, and even as Lucy slid the bullet into her shorts pocket, she thought, Yes, Madison, you do have friends. Since school had let out, her daughter had been making a point of being miserable, if only to press her case for Washington.
She jumped into the driver's seat. "Saddle up, Mom. We're ready to roll."
Lucy didn't mention the bullet. This wasn't her children's problem, it was hers. She preferred to cling to the belief that she wasn't the victim of deliberate harassment.
The incidents she'd endured over the past week were random, innocent, meaningless. They weren't related. They weren't a campaign of intimidation against her.
The first had occurred on Sunday evening, when she'd found a dining room window open, the curtains billowing in the summer breeze. It was a window she never opened. Madison and J.T. wouldn't bother. But Lucy had dismissed the incident, until the next night when the phone rang just before dawn, the caller breathing at her groggy hello, then hanging up. Too weird, she'd thought.
Then on Tuesday, while checking the mailbox at the end of her driveway, she'd had the distinct sense she was being watched. Something had alerted herthe snapping of a twig, the crunching of gravel. It wasn't, she was certain, her imagination.
The next morning, the feeling was there again, while she was sweeping the back steps, and ten minutes later, she'd found one of her tomato plants sitting on the front porch. It had been ripped out of the ground.
Now, today, the bullet on her car seat.
Maybe she was in denial, but she didn't believe there was enough to take to the police. Individually, each incident could have an innocent explanationher kids, their friends, her staff, stress. How could she prove someone was watching her? She'd sound like a nut.
And if she went to the police, Lucy knew what would happen. They would notify Washington. Washington would feel compelled to come to Vermont and investigate. And so much for her low-profile life.
It wasn't that no one in town knew her father-in-law was Jack Swift, a powerful United States senator. Everyone knew. But she'd never made it an issue.
She was his only son's widow; Madison and J.T. were his only grandchildren. Jack would take charge. He would insist the Capitol Police conduct a thorough investigation and make sure his family wasn't drawing fire because of him.
Lucy couldn't imagine why anyone going after Jack would slip a bullet onto his widowed daughter-in-law's car seat. It made no sense. No. She was safe. Her children were safe. This was just
Madison had started the engine and backed out onto the main road without Lucy noticing, much less providing comment and instruction. "You're doing great. My mind's wandering, that's all."
"What's wrong? Is it my driving?"
"No, of course not."
"Because I can get someone else to drive with me. It doesn't have to be you, if I make you nervous."
"You don't make me nervous. I'm fine. Just keep your eyes on the road."
Madison had a death grip on the steering wheel. Lucy realized she'd scared her daughter, who noticed everything. "Madison. You're driving. You can't allow yourself to get distracted."
"I know. It's you."
It was her. Lucy took a breath. She could feel the weight of the bullet in her pocket. What if it had worked its way under the seat and J.T. had found it? She shut off the stream of what-if scenarios. She'd learned from hard experience to stick with what was, which was difficult enough to absorb.
"Never mind me and drive."
Madison huffed, annoyed now. With her blue eyes and coppery hair, her introspective temperament and unbridled ambition, she was so like her father. Even Madison's two-week-old driving mannerisms were pure Colin Swift.
He'd died, suddenly and unexpectedly at age thirty-six, of a cardiac arrhythmia while playing tennis with his father, his life and a brilliant career at the U.S. State Department cut short. Madison had been twelve, J.T. nine. Not easy ages to lose a father. Six months later, Lucy had plucked her children away from the only life they knewschool, friends, family, "civilization," as Madison would say. But if they hadn't movedif Lucy hadn't done something dramatic to get her bearingsthey'd have been in danger of losing their mother, too, and that simply wasn't an option.
There'd been nothing from Sebastian Redwing when Colin died. Not a flower, not a card, not a word. Then, two months later, his lawyer showed up on Lucy's doorstep offering her the deed to his grandmother's Vermont farmhouse. Daisy had died the previous year, and Sebastian had no use for it.
Lucy threw the lawyer out. If Redwing couldn't even offer his condolences, she didn't want his damn house.
A month later, the lawyer was back. This time, she could have the house at a below-market price. She would be doing Sebastian a favor. His grandmother had wanted someone in the family to have the house. He had no brothers or sisters. His parents were dead. Lucy was the best he could do.
She'd accepted. She still didn't know why. Sebastian had once saved her husband's life. Why not hers?
In truth, she couldn't pinpoint one clear, overriding reason. Perhaps the lure of Vermont and starting her own adventure travel business, the stifling fog of grief, her fears about raising her children on her own.
Maybe, she thought, it boiled down to the promise she'd made Colin shortly before he died. Neither had known until that day on the tennis court that he had a heart condition that could kill him. The promise had seemed like one of those "if we're trapped on a desert island" scenarios, not something she would ever need to act on.
Yet Colin had been so sincere, so serious. "If anything happens to me, you can trust Sebastian. He's the best, Lucy. He saved my life. He saved my father's life. Promise me you'll go to him if you ever need help."
She'd promised, and now here she was in Vermont. She hadn't heard from Redwing, much less seen him, since she'd bought his grandmother's house. The transaction had been handled entirely through his attorney. Lucy had hoped never again to be so desperate that she'd feel compelled to remember her promise to Colin. She was smart, she was capable, and she was used to being on her own.
So why was she packing herself and her kids off to WyomingSebastian Redwing countryin the morning?
"You're doing great. Just keep driving."
With one finger, Lucy traced the outline of the bullet in her pocket. There was probably an innocent explanation for the bullet and all the other incidents. She should just focus on having fun in Wyoming.
The locals still referred to Sebastian Redwing's grandmother as the Widow Daisy and the remnants of her farm as the old Wheaton place. Lucy had learned Daisy's story in bits and pieces. Daisy Wheaton had lived in her yellow farmhouse on Joshua Brook for sixty years as a widow. She was twenty-eight when her husband drowned saving a little boy from the raging waterfall in the hills above their farmhouse. It was early spring, and the snowmelt had made the falls treacherous. The boy had gone after his dog. Joshua Wheaton had gone after the boy. Later, the falls and the brook they were on were named after him. Joshua FallsJoshua Brook.
Daisy and Joshua's only child, a daughter, couldn't wait to get out of Vermont. She moved to Boston and got married, and when she and her husband were killed in a hit-and-run accident, they left behind a fourteen-year-old son. Sebastian came to live with Daisy. But he hadn't stayed in Vermont, either.
Seven acres of fields, woods and gardens, and the rambling yellow clapboard farmhouse were all that remained of the original Wheaton farm. Daisy had sold off bits and pieces of her land over the years to second homeowners and local farmers, keeping the core of the place for herself and whoever might come after her.
It was said Daisy had never gone back to Joshua Falls after she'd helped pull her husband's body out of the frigid water.
The Widow Daisy. Now, the Widow Swift.
Lucy grimaced as she walked up the gravel path to the small, classic barn she'd converted into office space. She could feel the decades yawning in front of her and imagined sixty years on this land, alone.
She stopped, listening to Joshua Brook trickling over rocks down the steep, wooded embankment beyond the barn. The falls were farther up in the hills. Here, the brook was wide and slow-moving before running under a wooden bridge and eventually merging with the river. She could hear bees buzzing in the hollyhocks in front of the garage. She looked around her, at the sprawling lawn, lush and green from recent showers, and the pretty nineteenth-century farmhouse with its baskets of white petunias hanging on the front porch. Her gaze took in the stately, old sugar maples that shaded the front yard, the backyard with its vegetable garden and apple trees, and a stone wall that bordered a field of grass and wildflowers, with another stone wall on its far side. Then, beyond that, the wooded hills. So quiet, so beautiful.
"You could do worse," Lucy whispered to herself as she entered her office.
She had learned most of what she knew about the Wheaton-Redwing family not from closemouthed, elusive Sebastian, but from Rob Kiley, her only full-time employee. He was parked in front of his computer in the open, rustic space that served as her company's home base. Rob's father was the boy Joshua Wheaton had saved sixty years agoone of the circuitous but inevitable connections Lucy had come to expect from living in a small town.
Rob didn't look up. "I hate computers," he said.
Lucy smiled. "You say that every time I walk in here."
"That's because I want to get it through that thick, cheapskate skull of yours that we need a full-time person to sit here and bang away on this thing."
"What are you doing?" Lucy asked. She didn't peer over his shoulder because that drove him nuts. He was a lanky, easygoing Vermonter whose paddling skills and knowledge of the hills, valleys, rivers and coastline of northern New England were indispensable. So were his enthusiasm, his honesty and his friendship.
"I'm putting together the final, carved-in-stone, must-not-deviate-from itinerary for the father-son backpacking trip." This was a first-time offering, a five-day beginner's backpacking trip on nearby trails in the southern Green Mountains; it had filled up even faster than he and Lucy had anticipated. Rob looked up, and she knew what he was thinking. "There's still time for J.T. to join us. I told him I wasn't a substitute for his real dad, but we can still have a lot of fun."
"I know. This is one he has to figure out for himself. I can't decide for him."