Authors: Marilyn Pappano
They were taking a break, sitting in the shade cast by a majestic live oak and drinking bottles of cold water that he’d retrieved from an ice chest in the pickup bed, and she was thinking how out of shape she was for physical labor, when the front door silently swung open. Ghost or Grandmother? she wondered, then Grandmother stepped out onto the porch. Her gaze flickered over Reece, her mouth tightening, then she took in the progress Jones had made.
“You’ll be ready to plant soon.”
She looked again, then made eye contact with Reece. “Supper is in fifteen minutes. If you delay, the leftovers will be in the refrigerator, and you will clean up after yourself.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Reece echoed Jones. As the door closed, she wrapped her arms around her knees, resting her chin. “Do you suppose she cleans up after herself on Lois’s days off?”
“I imagine not. Though she’s probably very neat by nature.”
“You’d think I’m some sort of slob, the way she acts, but I’m not. Except for the clothes I left on the floor when I changed, but that wasn’t my fault.” She told him about Grandfather’s visit.
When she was done, he gazed thoughtfully into the distance. “Have you considered taking his advice?”
“And going home? No. I came here to find out what happened that summer.”
“Sounds like he wants his family secrets to stay secret.” Jones stretched out his legs, leaning back on his elbows, and studied her. “What’s the worst case? You remember a little less of your childhood than most people do.”
“I have nightmares.”
“Take sleeping pills. See a therapist.”
She scowled at him. “I
“There’s a reason your brain blocked it out to start with. You couldn’t handle it.”
“I was thirteen. I can handle anything now.”
He tilted his head to one side, studying her before quietly asking, “Are you sure? Have you considered all the possible reasons you blocked it? Maybe you were attacked that summer. Or molested. Maybe you witnessed something.”
“Like what?” Her voice didn’t sound like the voice of a woman who could handle anything, she noticed, and clamped her jaws shut.
Jones shrugged. “An attack on someone else. A death. A murder.” Another shrug.
She swallowed hard, wanting to protest that none of those things could possibly have happened. Something that significant would stand out in her memory, not disappear into blackness. She would have remembered.
But that was the point. She couldn’t
And if the event
involved an attack, molestation or someone else’s death, was she sure she
Yes. Knowing was better than not knowing. She could always deal with knowing, with the help of time, friends and maybe a therapist. But not knowing…for fifteen years, not knowing had been the worst thing in her life.
Very quietly she repeated, “I
Jones understood. Hell, he felt the same way about Glen. He needed to know what had happened to his brother. But he couldn’t help but think he was better able to handle his own nightmare than Reece was hers. Which didn’t make any sense. Neither of them had family to turn to for support, but at least she had a couple of best friends. He had a lot of buddies, but no one that close. And though she might not look it, she was tough. Coming back here proved it.
They worked until the sun was low in the sky. As they cleaned up, he caught her grimacing with the discomfort of muscles unaccustomed to his kind of work. “You want to take a shower and ride into town with me for a burger?”
That wasn’t at all what he wanted to offer, he realized the instant she turned toward him. The shower part, okay. They were both caked with sweat, dirt and cement dust, and he knew from long experience that he smelled about as bad as he looked.
But he didn’t want to go into town. He didn’t want a burger. He didn’t even want to get dressed after the shower. And he wanted to take that together.
She removed the ballcap and ran her fingers through her damp hair. “I suppose I should eat whatever Lois prepared for Grandmother.” A light flickered on, the dim illumination of a pole-mounted lamp above the driveway. She looked up, appearing to listen to its hum for a moment, then smiled. “I’ll meet you on the patio as soon as I’m clean.”
He watched her go into the house, and continued to watch for a while before a breeze stirred that brought his attention back. He gave the area around him an exasperated look. “If ol’ Arthur can hang around and pass on messages, why can’t you, Glen?”
There was no answer, no sight or sound out of place.
“You always did like to make me work for stuff.” Giving a whistle for Mick, he headed for the cottage. The dog joined him from the spot where he’d been sleeping on the patio, trotted inside the house and climbed onto the sofa, settling in comfortably.
Jones was quick at showering and dressing. With five brothers and sisters, he’d had to be. He put out fresh water and food for the dog, then walked to the door. Mick followed him with a mournful whine. Jones told him no, told him that he was just taking Reece out for a burger. Whether it was the mention of Reece or the burger that excited the mutt, he wasn’t sure, but somehow when he locked up and walked back to the house, the dog was beside him.
The only lights visible in the big house came from the downstairs hallway and Reece’s front upstairs bedroom. Either Miss Willa’s room was on the other side of the house, or she went to bed awfully early.
Before he reached the table that was his destination, the side door opened and Reece came out. She was dressed like him—jeans, T-shirt—and her hair, like his, was still damp. If she’d put on makeup, he couldn’t tell—which was the point of makeup, his older sister had once told him. Though both his sisters had worn a lot of it, and his nieces, if he had any, had likely dipped into their mothers’ cosmetics—and fashion style—about the time they started kindergarten.
One of the traditions he’d been happy to leave behind.
“Is your grandmother settled for the night?”
“She’s in her room with the door closed. One of the first lessons I learned here was that meant leave her alone.” Her smile was faint. “I left a note for her.”
For the first time in Jones’s memory, Mick willingly gave up the front passenger seat for someone else, jumping over the console to the rear seat, then sitting with his chin on the seat’s back so Reece could scratch him. He thought of their conversation about relationships, when he’d silently listed what she was looking for:
loving her dogs unconditionally.
He had to admit, he was pretty much a sucker for someone who treated Mick the way she did.
Instead of a hamburger joint, they wound up at a table on a small brick patio outside Ellie’s Deli, where a friendly waitress named Gina supplied Mick with a chew toy and a bowl of water. She asked for their drinks, and Jones ordered a beer, Reece iced tea. When Gina returned with the drinks and took their dinner orders—they both got burgers, after all—he picked up the icy bottle and studied it a moment.
All afternoon he’d been wondering when to tell her what he’d learned from Mark. Well, not all afternoon, he corrected himself as he watched her lay the straw aside and lift the glass of tea to her lips, drinking long and slow. He’d spent a good part of it wondering when they would get to finish that kiss, because it wasn’t done, not by a long shot.
But the conversation with Mark had been in the back of his mind, stewing there behind the lust and need. It wouldn’t give her all the answers she wanted, and it was only gossip stirred by someone with a dislike for the subject, but Reece had a right to hear it. It was up to her what to do with it.
He gestured with his beer bottle to her iced tea. “Do you drink?”
“Is that on moral, religious or medical grounds?”
She shook her head. “My parents drank wine every evening and always celebrated special events with champagne. Grandmother liked wine with meals, too, while Grandfather drank good ol’ Kentucky bourbon. The evening glasses of wine stopped for Valerie after my dad died. I guess it reminded her too much of him, that it was something they’d shared. I tried booze a few times, as most kids do in their teens, but I never liked the taste of it.”
Jones watched a black Charger cruise past, then pull into the last parking space before River Road. Tommy Maricci got out, and Jones’s nerves tightened.
I’ll be in touch,
Maricci had told him. Was that his reason for stopping?
The detective walked up the sidewalk, giving them a polite nod as he climbed the steps and went inside. Through the open screen door, Jones saw him greet a pretty blonde with a kiss, then take a dark-haired child from her and give him a hug and a tickle. He was just meeting his wife for dinner. He had no news about Glen.
Jones breathed and refocused on Reece. “I ran into Mark again this afternoon. After we left the tire store.”
“Lucky you. Trying to bribe you to leave Copper Lake?”
“No. He, uh, mentioned your mother—how she suddenly came back that summer and took you away. He said it was unexpected. She blew in and blew out with you in tow.”
Her expression was thoughtful. “Did he say where she’d been?”
“He’d heard the same explanations you had. But, uh, his mother thought that your mother might have, uh, been…well, in rehab during that time.” There. He’d said it. It had been harder than telling a client he was looking at a six-figure overrun. But with Lori keeping a tight control on the budgets, major overruns were almost always the clients’ fault, and that was strictly business. He didn’t get emotionally attached to clients.
And he was getting emotionally attached to Reece.
Reece’s expression shifted—surprise? Understanding? Acceptance? “Rehab… That would explain…”
A lot. Why Valerie had given Reece’s care totally over to strangers. Why she’d stopped having those evening glasses of wine. Why she refused to discuss the subject with her daughter all these years later.
“Rehab,” she repeated. “She was so distraught about Daddy. You see families on TV, when a loved one dies, and they’re sad but composed, dry-eyed, coping. That was Grandmother. She was stoic, like a proper Howard, but not Valerie. She sobbed for days. She was so fragile. The doctor had to sedate her after the ashes-scattering service in Colorado, and she didn’t even get out of bed for a week after the memorial service here. She rarely came out of her room for more than a few minutes, and when she did, she was a mess. Rehab makes sense.” She nodded slowly as if confirming it to herself.
He reached for her hand, cold and stiff, and folded his fingers around it. “Which means she didn’t abandon you. Not intentionally.”
She didn’t say anything to that—just gazed into the distance—but her fingers tightened just a bit around his. Did hearing her aunt’s gossip offer any comfort? Or was abandonment abandonment, no matter what the reason?
She didn’t look as if she’d reached a decision on that when Gina brought their food. Squeezing his hand again, she murmured, “Thank you,” before sliding her fingers loose and unrolling the linen napkin next to her plate. She didn’t say anything else until they were halfway through their meal. “What kind of mother was your mom, other than fertile?”
“Fertility runs in the family. That’s why Big Dan taught us boys to never even go near a female without condoms at hand.” He took a bite of hamburger and chewed it while his mind wandered across the state line into South Carolina, to the big house just off Highway 25. They’d built the house when he was fourteen, but he’d never gotten to live in it. Tradition required a new house remain empty for a year before the family could move in, and by the end of that year, he’d been gone.
His mother had been proud of the fancy house, the new cars, the jewelry, of her husband and her children. She’d protected them fiercely, as fiercely as she’d protected the family traditions. He figured Big Dan would come closer to forgiving him than his mother ever would.
“She was a typical mother. She loved us even when we were getting on her last nerve. She wanted the same kind of life for us that she and our father had. We heard a lot of ‘Wait till your father gets home,’ but she was really the one who put the fear of God in us.”
“And yet you walked away from that. What did you want that you couldn’t get there?”
“Was it worth it?” She smiled faintly. “Life is meant to be lived with family. Not just parents and grandparents and stepparents, but siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles, the more, the merrier. You gave all that up. Was it worth it?”
“Yes.” He didn’t hesitate over the answer, nor was he embarrassed by it, though some part of him felt as if he should be when she’d wanted a family and been denied a real one for more than half her life.
“Freedom to do what?”
do,” he replied. Finished with his meal, he leaned back in the chair. The streetlights were buzzing, voices sounded through the windows and on the sidewalks, and music came from a restaurant across the street. If the night were ten degrees warmer—and the conversation more casual—it would be the most comfortable he’d been in a while.
“My family had certain expectations for me. They couldn’t accept that I wanted something more.”
Jones sighed. He’d told Detective Maricci the truth. He could tell Reece. Hell, she might not have a clue who or what the Travelers were—their reputation, their activities. But he could guarantee Miss Willa knew, as surely as Maricci had.
“My family is very insular. My brothers and I were raised to follow in our father’s and grandfathers’ footsteps. My sisters’ lives would be just like our mother’s and grandmothers’. We’d be in the same business, live in the same community, teach our children the same values.”
“Sounds like a religious cult,” she said cautiously.
He grinned. Not a cult, but a clan. A very close-knit, like-minded, strict-living clan. “No, just plain ol’ Catholics. I love my family. They’re not bad people. They’re just very set in their ways, and I wanted something different.”