Grace Montgomery pulled to the side of the narrow country road and stared at the rambling farmhouse in which she’d grown up. Even in the heavy, blanket-like darkness of a deep Mississippi summer night, with only half a moon grinning eerily overhead, she could see that her older brother kept the place in good repair.
But that was all sleight of hand, wasn’t it? Things weren’t really what they seemed.
They never had been. That was the problem–why she’d promised herself she’d never come back here.
The yellow light gleaming in an upstairs bedroom winked out. Clay was retiring, no doubt just as he did every night. Grace couldn’t understand how he could live alone out here. How he could eat, sleep, and work the farm–all only forty paces away from where they’d hidden their stepfather’s body.
The door of her small BMW creaked as she got out. She hadn’t planned to venture onto the property. But now that she was here, she had to see for herself that even after so many years there was nothing to give them away. Her cotton skirt swayed gently against her calves as she walked down the long drive. There was no wind, no sound except the cicadas and frogs, and the crunch of her sandals on gravel. If she’d forgotten anything it was the quiet in this part of the state and how brightly the stars could shine away from the city.
She pictured herself as a young girl, sleeping out on the front lawn with her younger sister Molly and her older stepsister Madeline. Those were good times, when they’d talked and laughed and gazed up at the black velvet sky to find all those twinkling stars staring right back at them like a silent promise of good things to come. They’d all been so innocent then. When Madeline was around, Grace had had nothing to fear. But Madeline couldn’t stick by Grace’s side every minute. She hadn’t even realized she should.
Despite the humidity, a chill rolled down Grace’s back as she came upon the barn. Set off to the right, it lurked among the weeping willows and poplars. She hated everything associated with the old building. It was there she’d cleaned out the stall of the horse her stepfather wouldn’t let anyone but himself ride. It was there she’d gathered the eggs and fought with the mean rooster who used to fuss and fly at her in an attempt to gouge out her eyes. It was there, in the front corner of the building, that the Reverend had kept a small office where he retired to write his Sunday sermons–and to delve into that locked file drawer.
The smell of moist earth and honeysuckle brought it all back too vividly, causing her to break out in a cold sweat. Curving her fingernails into her palms to remind herself that she was no longer a powerless girl, she immediately steered her thoughts away from the Reverend’s office. She’d promised herself she’d forget, eventually.
But she certainly hadn’t forgotten yet. Despite her best efforts, she couldn’t help wondering if that stifling room was still untouched. Except for what the Reverend had kept in his file drawer, the office had been left completely intact, as if he might someday reappear and want to use it. Her mother had insisted they’d be foolish to change anything. Irene had drilled it into all of them, except Madeline of course, that they must continue to refer to the Reverend in the present tense. Folks in town were already suspicious enough.
Stillwater’s residents had long memories, but eighteen years had passed since the Reverend’s sudden disappearance. Surely after so long Clay could dismantle that damn office…
A deep voice suddenly issued out of the dark. “Get the hell off my property, or I’ll carry you off in a body bag.”
Grace whirled to see a man at least 6′ 4″ tall, so solidly built he could have been made of stone, standing only a few feet away. It was her brother, and he had a rifle trained on her.
For the briefest of moments, Grace wished he’d shoot.
But then she laughed. Evidently, Clay was as vigilant as ever. Not that she was really surprised. He’d always been The Guardian.
“What? Ya’ll don’t know your own sister anymore?” she said and stepped out of the long shadow of the building.
“Grace?” The barrel of the hunting rifle dove toward the ground and he twitched as though tempted to gather her in a hug. Grace felt a similar response, but made no move toward him. Their relationship was too…complicated.
“God, Grace. It’s been thirteen years since you left. I barely know you. You could’ve gotten yourself shot,” he added gruffly.
She said nothing about the errant, cowardly thought that had briefly crystallized: One bullet could end it all.
“Really?” she said. “I would’ve recognized you anywhere.” Maybe it was because she thought of him so often. Regardless, he hadn’t changed much. He still had the same thick black hair–even darker than Grace’s own–that swirled up off his forehead. The light, enigmatic eyes that looked so much like hers. That same determined set to his prominent jaw. He’d put on a few more pounds of muscle mass, maybe, which made her feel particularly small at 5′ 5″, 120 pounds. But his bulkier size was the only difference.
“I expected you to be in bed,” she said.
“Saw your car pull up out front.”
“Wouldn’t want to let just anyone go creeping around out here.”
If he heard the taunt in her voice, he didn’t respond to it. Except to glance furtively toward the copse of trees another twenty yards or so away that served as a marker for their stepfather’s grave.
After a stilted silence, he said, “Jackson must agree with you. You look good.”
She’d been doing quite well in the city. Until George E. Dunagan, Attorney at Law, had asked her to marry him. When, for the third time, she couldn’t say yes even though they both knew she wanted to, he’d finally broken things off completely. He’d told her that he didn’t want to hear from her until she saw a therapist and resolved the issues of her childhood.
She’d tried visiting a therapist–but counseling did her little good. There were too many realities she didn’t want to examine. Others she wanted to share but couldn’t, not with a therapist or anyone else, including George. Although George had recently started calling her again, Grace’s issues still stood between them.
Hopefully that wouldn’t be true for much longer. Either she’d overcome the past or the past would overcome her. She couldn’t be sure how it all would end. She could only promise herself she wouldn’t return to her life in Jackson until she could come to terms with what’d happened in Stillwater.
“I keep busy,” she said.
“Mom tells me you graduated first in your class at Georgetown.”
Six years ago… She gave him an indifferent smile. He’d said it as though he was impressed. But what she achieved never satisfied her for long. “Amazing what you can do when you really apply yourself, huh?”
“How’d you get into a school like that?”
She’d left town two days after graduating from Stillwater High, worked as a waitress at a greasy spoon in order to scrape by, and spent every available minute–for two years–studying for the entrance exams. When she wound up with an almost perfect score, no one seemed to care too much about her high school GPA. She managed to get into the University of Iowa, and from there she worked her way into Georgetown.
But she didn’t see any point in going over the details with Clay. She didn’t look back on her college days, when she’d slept only three or four hours a night, with any type of pride or nostalgia. While everyone else juggled school and a normal social life, she’d kept to herself and accepted nothing less than academic excellence.
She’d been trying to make up for the past, trying to prove that she was more than everyone thought. But after graduating from law school and working as an assistant district attorney for the past five years, she’d finally realized that running away wasn’t working. She still couldn’t move on with her personal life.
“I got lucky,” she said simply.
He glanced at the house. “Wanna come in?”
Hearing the hope in those words, she considered the deep porch where they used to sit on the steps and listen to their mother read scripture. The Reverend had demanded they study the Bible for at least an hour each day. But it hadn’t been a bad experience. While holding a glass of lemonade, Grace would feel the oppressive heat of a long summer’s day cool slightly as evening approached. She’d hear the lilt of her mother’s voice droning on as the boards beneath the old rocking chair creaked and the fireflies danced near the porch light. She’d always enjoyed it–until the Reverend came home.
“No, I-I’d better be going.” She started edging away. Seeing Clay, knowing he was still on his guard, was enough. She’d face no more memories tonight.
“How long will you be in town?”
She paused when he spoke. “I don’t know.”
He scowled, and she thought he looked rather harsh for being so handsome. Evidently, carrying the family’s dark secret was taking its toll on him, too. “What brings you back after so long?” he asked.
She lifted her chin and narrowed her eyes in challenge. “Sometimes I want to do the right thing and tell everyone what happened here.”
“How do you know it’s the right thing?” he asked softly.
“Because I’ve spent the past five years of my life championing the truth and making people take responsibility for their actions.”
“Are you sure you always get the right guy, Grace? And that he gets the appropriate punishment?”
“We have to trust the system, Clay. Without it, our whole society falls apart.”
“Who deserves to pay for what happened here?”
The man who was buried in the ground. But Clay already knew that, so she didn’t respond.
“Why haven’t you come forward before?” he asked.
“For the same reason you’re still guarding this place with that gun,” she admitted.
He studied her for several long seconds. “Sounds like you have a tough decision to make.”
“I guess I do.”
“Aren’t you going to try and talk me out of it?” she asked with a bitter laugh.
“Sorry,” he said. “You have to make your own choice.”
She hated his answer and nearly told him so. She wanted a fight, someone tangible to rail against, to blame. Leave it to Clay to sidestep her so easily. But he changed the subject before she could say anything.
“Did you quit your job?” he asked.
“No, I’m on vacation.” She hadn’t missed a single day of work in the past five years. The state owed her two months, and she’d taken a leave of absence beyond that.
“You picked an interesting place to spend your vacation.”
“You’re here, aren’t you?”
“I have good reason.”
He was glad she’d escaped, she realized. She’d expected him to resent her for leaving, like their mother did, but it was just the opposite. He wanted her to stay away, to go and live her life and forget about him, Stillwater, everything.
His generosity made her feel even worse–for wanting the same thing. “You could leave if you really wanted to,” she pointed out, even though she knew, in his mind, that wasn’t really true.
His mouth made a straight, resolute slash in his face. “I’ve already made my decision.”
“You’re a stubborn son of a bitch,” she said. “You’ll probably spend your whole life out here.”
“Where’re you staying?” he asked instead of responding.
“I rented Evonne’s place.”
“Then you already know about her.”
Grace steeled herself against the ache in her chest. “Molly called me when it happened.”
“Molly was here for the funeral.”
“Molly comes here for a lot of things,” she said, bristling even though there was no censure in his voice. She wanted do as Molly did, to come and go as she pleased, to behave as if she was just like anyone else. But she couldn’t manage all the contradictions. “Anyway, I was right in the middle of a very important trial.” Which was true, but Grace hadn’t even attempted to get away. Three months ago, she’d been too entrenched in the belief that she’d never come back. For anything. Except maybe her own mother’s funeral–and even that was questionable.
“I know Evonne meant a great deal to you,” he said. “She was a good woman.”
A childless widow with sable-colored skin and eyes that saw the good in almost everyone, Evonne Walker had been sixty-five when Grace left. Even in bad weather, she used to sit beneath the awning in her front yard there on Main Street at the corner of Apple Blossom, selling handmade soaps and lotions and, depending on the season, produce from her garden, eggs from her chickens, bottled pickles, peaches and tomatoes, sweet potato pies and brownies.
Evonne had been an oddity in Stillwater for three reasons. There’d never been any love lost between her and the Reverend, she’d always minded her own business, and she’d been kind to Grace.
“She mailed me all the recipes, you know,” Grace said. The package that had arrived from an attorney’s office about a week after the funeral is what had finally convinced Grace to come back. That, and George’s insistence that she deal with whatever it was that was causing her to have reservations about their marriage. Although she and George were speaking again, he hadn’t withdrawn his three-month ultimatum. He said he didn’t want to spend the rest of his life waiting for something he was beginning to think would never happen.
Clay shifted the gun to his other arm as though he felt awkward holding it while in her sight. “Folks around here think those recipes went with her to the grave.”
“No.” They’d been a final, parting gift–the only package Grace had ever received from Evonne and the last she’d ever get.
“She probably chose you because you helped her so much when you were a teenager,” he said.
Grace thought it was because Evonne had an inkling of what had gone on at the farm, knew without ever being told.
Grief mingled with the guilt, regret and confusion Grace already felt, causing a lump to swell in her throat that made it difficult to speak. “Nothing’s easy, is it Clay?” she managed to say.
“Nothing’s easy,” he admitted.
She took a step down the drive. “It’s late. I’d better go.”
“Wait.” His warm hand curled around her wrist for a brief moment. Then he let go as if he feared she might take exception to his touch. “I’m sorry, Grace. You know that, don’t you?”
She couldn’t stand the tortured expression on his face. She preferred to imagine him as indifferent, didn’t want to know he was suffering as much as she was. She couldn’t bear that, too.
“I know,” she said softly and slipped away.