From the top of the ridge, Grady Shields reined in the chestnut mare and watched an unfamiliar Jeep pull all the way up his driveway and park near the barn. He unsnapped his binoculars from the saddle bag and raised them to his eyes, corrected the focus, then smiled broadly when he recognized his unexpected visitor. He urged the horse down the path, but halfway to the bottom of the hill, he froze in the saddle, his smile fading slowly as he recalled the last time she’d come unannounced.
A knot in his stomach, he followed the path to the bottom of the hill and across to the paddock area next to the barn.
“Gray!” Mia shouted joyfully. As he swung down from the saddle, she jumped into his arms, startling the horse.
One hand managed to hold onto the spooked horse while the other hugged his sister, in spite of his anxiously pounding heart. If someone had died, would she be so happy?
“Don’t you look all Marlboro Man?” She teased. “You’ve gone totally cowboy.”
“Well, when in Rome...” He removed the wide-brimmed hat from his head and placed it on hers. It slid down onto her forehead.
“Wow, I almost forgot that you have such a view here.” She adjusted the hat and looked past him to the hills beyond. “And you have a horse!”
She stretched a hand out to stroke the animal’s neck.
“The view is mine, but the horse is not. I rent out the paddock area to some neighbors. The horse belongs to their son, who’s away at school for another two weeks, so Chance here and I keep each other company most afternoons. Right, girl?” He patted the horse affectionately, then asked cautiously, “So. Is everything all right at home? Everyone’s okay?”
“Everyone’s fine. Everything is better than fine.”
“Good.” He sighed his relief. “When I saw you, I wondered if maybe...at first I was afraid...”
He left the thought unfinished.
“Afraid? Why afraid?” Mia paused mid-sentence. “Oh. You’re thinking of when Dad died and Andy and I came to tell you?”
“This time the news is all good.” She held up her left hand and wiggled her ring finger. “Gray, I’m getting married.”
“You and the cop...?”
“Beck. You met him at Dad’s funeral.”
“I remember. He seemed like a nice enough guy.” He took her hand and turned it to him. “That’s a really pretty ring, Mia. Congratulations.”
“Thanks, Gray. He’s a great guy. The best.” Grady couldn’t help but see that her face glowed.
“You could have called me, you know. You didn’t have to make the trip all the way out here to tell me you were engaged.” He looped the horse’s reins over the fence, wondering what was coming next. “Not that I’m not happy to see you.”
“I needed to ask you something, and I wanted to ask you in person.”
“Uh-oh,” he teased. “When your little sister flies three-quarters of the way across the country to ask you something, you know it’s something big.”
“It is big.” Mia became very solemn. She followed him to the fence. “I want you to walk me down the aisle at my wedding, you and Andy. I want you both to give me away.”
He fell silent and unhooked the saddle’s girth.
“Mia, I...” He struggled with his words. How to explain...?
“I know,” she said softly. “I know you hate to come back. I know you hate to be away from here. I know that...”
“It’s not so much that I hate to go back, Mia. It’s because I’ve made a life for myself here.” He slid the saddle from the horse’s back and went past her through the open barn door.
Mia grabbed the horse’s reins and followed behind him, leading the mare.
“I know you feel guilty about Melissa. I know you feel that it’s your fault that she died,” Mia told him.
He swung the saddle onto a rail and took the horse from her and led it to a stall.
“We all know you stay here because...” She trailed behind him.
“Stop right there.” One hand on the stall door, he looked over his shoulder at her. “You only think you know.”
“Okay, then, explain it to me.”
“I put the blame for Missy’s death squarely where it belongs: on Brendan. I don’t feel guilty about her dying because I refuse to take on his guilt for him.”
“Well, if it’s not guilt that keeps you here,” she asked bluntly, “why do you stay here by yourself?”
“Like I said, I’ve made a life for myself here.”
“You have a life back with us. You could come back home.”
“Come back to do what?”
“The boss asks about you all the time. He’d love to have you back at the Bureau.”
Grady nodded. He’d heard from John Mancini numerous times. “I know. He’s been in touch.”
“What do you tell him?”
“I tell him that I’m probably done with the FBI. It just doesn’t mean what it used to mean, Mia. At least, not to me.” He turned back to the horse and guided her into her stall.
This was something else he couldn’t explain. The Bureau had been his life before Melissa’s murder, but her death was so closely connected to that job and the people there that he couldn’t just go back as if nothing had happened.
He walked past Mia to a deep sink just inside the door. He grabbed a bucket from under the sink and proceeded to fill it from the tap. When the bucket was filled, he returned to the stall and poured the water into the trough.
“What do you do here that you couldn’t do back home?” Mia had followed as far as the stall door. Without waiting for his answer, she went on. “How do you spend your time if you don’t work? You just sit around and watch TV at night?” She paused. “You do get television up here, right?”
“Cute. Since you ask, at night, I read. I watch movies. And yes, sometimes at night I do watch TV.” Amused by her assumptions, he tried to keep from smiling. “I do the same thing I’d do if I were any place else.”
“Except that here, you do it alone.”
“Solitude’s not all that bad.”
“Have you made any friends?”
“I’ve gotten to know some of the neighbors, sure. And a couple of people in town. I see folks. It’s not like I lock myself in the house all day, Mia.”
“Don’t you get lonely?” She persisted.
“Not so much. Like I said, I have things to do.” He removed the horse’s bridle and looped it over his shoulder.
He finished tending to the mare, so he came out of the stall and closed the half door. He walked out of the barn and toward the house, his sister quickening her steps to keep up. He went directly to the kitchen sink to wash his hands. When he finished, he reached for a towel.
He finished drying his hands, then draped the towel over the dish drainer on the counter. “When is your wedding?”
“It’s in three weeks.”
“I’ll be there.”
She hugged him from behind. “Thank you, Gray. Thank you so much. I can’t tell you how much this means to me, to have you and Andy there with me.”
“I couldn’t not be there for you, kiddo.” He smiled. He never would have let her down. “I’ll check the airlines, see when the flights are, and I’ll...”
“Oh, I already did all that.” Suddenly all business, Mia sat her bag on the kitchen table and opened it. “Here’s the itinerary and the schedule for the week.”
“The week?” He stared at her as if he hadn’t heard correctly. “It’s going to take a whole week for you to get married?”
“Well, sure. You’re going to need to be fitted for your tux.” Her eyes twinkled. “Oh, sure, the tux might be at odds with your new rugged wild west look, but hey, it’s my wedding. Maybe you could even shave.”
He laughed and fingered the week’s growth on his face. “Maybe I could.”
“Andy said you’re the same size, so he’ll order your tux for you but you’re still going to have to go into Annapolis — that’s where the men’s store is — and make sure the sleeves are right, that sort of thing. The guy in the store said you needed to do that by Monday at the latest in case they need to do any alterations. There’s a rehearsal and then a rehearsal dinner on Thursday evening instead of Friday because the minister already committed to something else on Friday night. Oh, and the bachelor party is actually going to be on Tuesday night, because Beck has to work most of that week and the weekend before, so...”
Grady glanced down at the schedule. There was something filled in for every day of the week before the wedding.
“What’s this on Friday night?” He pointed to the date.
“Oh, Andy said the two of you should do something, so you’re having a dinner for the wedding party and the immediate family.”
“Well, that’s nice of us.”
Mia laughed. “I guess if you wanted to bail on Andy, it would serve him right for not asking you first.”
“Nah, I’m happy to do it. I’m guessing Andy has made the arrangements, though?”
She nodded. “It’s going to be at Lola’s. That’s a really nice restaurant in St. Dennis.”
“I guess it’s too late to try to talk you into eloping.”
“No way, pal. I’ve waited forever for the right guy, and I’m going to have one hell of a gorgeous wedding to celebrate.”
“You sure, honey?” Grady asked. “You sure he’s the right guy?”
“There’s no doubt in my mind.” Mia looked up at him and even he could not miss the stars in her eyes. “He’s just...just the best guy I ever met. Andy agrees. I hope you think so, too, after you get to know him a little better.”
“If Andy approves, I’m sure I will, too.” He folded the paper she’d given him with the schedule and the flight information and placed it on the kitchen table. “I’ll be there for whatever whoop-de-do you have planned for the week. Just don’t expect me to hang around after the wedding.”
“Why not?” Mia took a seat on one of the two oak kitchen chairs and draped her bag over the back. “Why not visit with Andy and Dorsey for a few days? I know they’d love to have you.”
When he didn’t answer, she didn’t press, and he was grateful. Some things just were too hard to explain, like how you weren’t sure where you belonged, because your old life just didn’t fit anymore.
“It’s up to you, of course. I’m just so happy that you’re going to walk me down the aisle. Everyone will be happy to see you, Gray. We’ve all missed you.”
“I’ll be happy to see them, too.” He glanced at the clock that hung over the door leading in to the dining room. “Almost dinner time. We can go out for dinner, or I can cook.”
Her eyebrows raised almost to her hairline. “I’m sorry, would you repeat that last part? It sounded like you said you could cook.”
“That’s what I did say.”
Mia’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. “Who are you and what have you done with my brother?”
He laughed good-naturedly. “When you live alone, you learn how to cook, or you eat out every night. You might have noticed, if you drove through West Priest, that there is only one restaurant there.”
“Right. Sullivan’s. I saw it.”
“Did you stop in?”
She shook her head.
“Everything is hit or miss there. One day the soup might be great, but the sandwiches, not so much. Next day, might be the reverse. The guy who runs it has a problem with consistency in his kitchen. Their spotty menu aside, there’s the fact that when winter hits, it hits hard and fast. There are times when you can’t get into town for weeks. You have to keep supplies on hand and you need to know what to do with it.”
“So you learned how to cook.”
“It was that or starve. The first year I was here, I bought a freezer and a back-up generator to keep things going when the power goes out.”
“So what can you make?”
“I make a truly mean mac and cheese.”
He nodded. “Maybe better.”
“Let’s do it.”
Grady went to the refrigerator and took out a large brick of cheddar cheese. From a cabinet he took a large bowl, a grater, and finally, a glass baking pan.
“What can I do to help?”
“You can make a salad when it gets closer to dinner time. Meanwhile, how about a glass of wine or a beer?”
“I think I’d rather have something hot. Tea or coffee, whichever you have.”
He opened another cabinet and pointed to a shelf that held both. “Take your pick.”
“I think I’ll go with tea.” She rose and took down the box of tea. “Kettle?”
He shook his head. “I have a small pan you can boil water in.”
He handed her the pan and she filled it with water, then set it on the stove, while he began to grate cheese.
“Are you chilly?” he asked.
Mia nodded. “A little. It’s already warm back home, I didn’t stop to think that it would be so much cooler here.”
“We’ll stay cool for another month or so.” He looked up and grinned. “Summer’s a short season here.”
“I knew that. I just wasn’t thinking.”
“Let me get you a sweater.” He put the grater down into the bowl. “I’ll be right back.”
He returned in minutes carrying a pale yellow cardigan that obviously wasn’t his. He handed it to Mia. “Here you go.”
“Thanks.” She started to put her arm into the sleeve. “You still have Melissa’s things here in the house?”
Grady nodded. “I don’t know what to do with them. I can’t bring myself to just throw them away.”
“There must be something like Goodwill, or the Salvation Army, or a thrift store in the area.”
“There is. But I don’t know what to say.” He picked up the grater and resumed working on the block of cheese. “I mean, do I call and say, Hello, my wife was murdered a few years ago and I have all these clothes of hers that I was wondering if you’d want?”
“That’s pretty much it, yeah.” Mia finished putting on the sweater and buttoned it halfway up, then rolled up the sleeves.
“I’d forgotten how much taller Melissa was than me.”
Grady glanced over his shoulder and smiled. “You’re a peanut, next to her.”
An awkward silence followed. Finally, Grady said, “So tell me a little more about this cop who’s marrying my sister.”
“Chief of Police, remember?” She unwrapped a tea bag and asked, “Cups?”
“Next cabinet to where you’re standing.” He pointed. “Okay, so he’s chief of police. Tell me about him. What’s his background? What’s his family like?”
“Spoken like a true big brother.” She opened the cabinet and found a mug. “Okay, he’s two years older than I am. He’s former military and he...”
“Army. Special Forces.” The water had begun to boil and she turned it off.
Grady nodded without turning to look at her. He’d known more than a few Delta Force veterans. He wondered if he and Beck had any friends in common. “Keep going.”
“He was a cop someplace else before St. Dennis. Actually, his dad had been chief of police there and he’d recommended Beck for the job when he semi-retired.”
“They let him do that?” This time Grady did turn around. “They let this guy name his own son as his successor?”
“Hey, it’s a small town. His father, Hal, was — is — very highly regarded, and Beck was a good cop and had great references. He was the best candidate they had, and before you say I’m prejudiced, I heard that from someone who doesn’t particularly like Beck.”
“Well, I guess I can see it. Small town, he probably lived there all his life...”
“Uh-uh.” She shook her head. “Beck grew up around Chicago. When he was almost fourteen, his mother brought him to live with his father.” She paused to pour hot water into her mug. “I should preface that by saying that Hal didn’t know he had a son with Beck’s mother. She never told him. They’d fallen madly in love when she was just eighteen, but he’d gotten drafted and shipped off to Vietnam before she knew she was pregnant. She was engaged to someone else at the time, and her parents made her marry the guy she was engaged to. His mother went through with the wedding but the marriage didn’t work out.”
“How much of this are you making up as you go along?”
“None. I swear. From what I’ve heard, Beck was a very wild and uncontrollable kid from the time he was ten or twelve. Right about that time, his mom remarried. That’s when she took Beck to Hal and left him there.”
“Wait a minute. You mean, she just...”
Mia nodded. “Rang the doorbell, handed over Beck’s birth certificate, and told Hal he was going to have to take things from there because she couldn’t handle his son.”
“And she just left?”
Grady checked the water on the stove to see if it had reached the boiling point yet.
“Doesn’t sound as if he comes from a very stable background, Mia.”
“Sorry, pal, but this pot is not about to call that kettle black, if you get my drift. Not after Brendan.”
“You do have a point there.” Brendan had shattered any illusions anyone might have had about the Shields being a model family.
“Anyway, Hal took Beck in and really turned him around, though I did hear from some of the people in town that Beck was a bit of a hellion when he first arrived. But Hal hung tough.” She sipped her tea. “He’s an amazing man.”
“Hal or Beck?”
“Both of them.”
“And the mom?”
“I’ve never met her. Beck has no contact with her at all, though I think she’s tried to contact him from time to time. Birthday cards, stuff like that. And I think his sister hears from her occasionally.”
“He has a sister?”
“That’s the other part of the story. He never knew about her. Didn’t realize his mother was pregnant when she brought him to Hal, but he realizes now that she had to have been. A couple of years ago, Vanessa — that’s the sister, Vanessa Keaton — showed up in St. Dennis looking for Beck. She said her mother told her it was time she met her brother.”
“So mama’s a woman who likes to keep secrets.”
“Will we see her at the wedding?”
“Fat chance.” Mia snorted. “Beck doesn’t want anything to do with her. He never even refers to her as his mom, only by her first name, Maggie. According to Vanessa, Maggie is now on husband number whatever. She’s living on a sheep ranch out west here someplace.”
“The phone book is in that bottom drawer,” he pointed past her, “if you want to look her up, she if she’s listed. Maybe you’d want to call. Introduce yourself.”
“You are such a wise-ass.” Mia laughed. “I’d never do that behind his back. Besides, I don’t know her last name. And I think she’s in one of the Dakotas, not Montana.”
“But you are curious.” He dumped the contents into the pot of boiling water, then set the timer.
“Damn right.” She grinned.
“You sure this guy doesn’t have issues that you’re overlooking because you love him?”
“Positive. Beck is the most stable person I’ve ever known.” She smiled and added, “Like I said, more stable than some of the Shields have been for the past few years.”
“And on that note, I’ll go out to your car to get your things. I’m assuming you brought a suitcase or something?”
“There’s a canvas bag on the backseat of the car.”
“I’ll be right back. I want to check on Chance before I get too comfortable, so I’ll grab your bag while I’m out there.”
Mia tossed him the keys, and Grady went out through the back door. It had grown dark while they chatted, so he switched on the outside lights before crossing the yard to the barn. Once he assured himself that Chance was good for the night, he locked the barn door and retrieved Mia’s bag from the Jeep.
He paused half-way to the house and listened to the night sounds: an owl in the stand of pine trees at the far side of the property, the scurrying of something through the brush near his feet. He took a deep breath, savoring the clear air, and sensed a change coming that had nothing to do with the emergent spring. He wondered how many more nights like this there’d be, when he’d be here, with his memories, in this comfortable life he’d made.
“Maybe it’s time,” he said to the owl as it swept over his head. “Then again...maybe not...”
He hoisted the bag — what could she have packed for an overnight that could weigh this much? — and went back inside.
“What the hell is in this thing? I’ve backpacked for a week and all my gear — including my tent and food — didn’t weigh this much.”
“It’s my stuff. You know. Clothes and products and...”
“You know. Hair stuff and makeup and shower gel and...”
“Never mind.” He waved her off. “I’ll put it in the back room.”
“Great.” She laughed. “Thanks.”
He went down through the living room and down the hall to the last door on the right. Opening the door, he swung Mia’s bag onto the bed without turning on the light. The room was small and not very fancy, but it, like every other room, had been painted and refurnished after Melissa died. He’d hoped to get the smell of death out of the house, but sometimes he thought he could still detect a faint lingering whiff.
“The macaroni’s almost ready,” Mia told him when he returned to the kitchen. “There are only a few more minutes on the timer.”
He checked the pot and nodded.
“So how’s the new job?” He searched a cabinet for a large colander, found one and placed it in the sink.
“It’s all right. The guy I work for is a real tool, but other than that, it’s fine. Being a county detective isn’t so different from what I was doing with the Bureau. Well, without the travel, which I don’t miss at all. And without the great boss and the co-workers I loved like family. Other than that...it’s all pretty much the same.”
“And you’re adjusting to small town life okay?”
“I love living in a small town, and I love living on the Chesapeake. I’ve learned how to sail and how to catch crabs and how to back a boat into a slip. St. Dennis is charming, the people are friendly, and the seafood is amazing. I couldn’t be happier.”
“No small town drama?”
Mia laughed. “There’s always drama, but it’s a pretty closely knit community. Everyone knows everyone else and everyone else’s business and likes to discuss it. But in a good way, for the most part. Oh, there’s a few gossipy types, but you just sort of watch what you say to them. For the most part, the people in town have been wonderful to me. They’ve made me feel very welcome.”
She stepped back while he poured the boiling water from the pot into the colander. “I think even you would like it.”
“Gee, even me?” He leaned away from the steam.
“Yup. Even you.”
“I’ll try to keep an open mind.”
They continued to chat through dinner, but by dessert, the conversation had wound down and it was clear that Mia was falling asleep. Grady pointed her in the direction of her room and went back into the kitchen to finish cleaning up before turning in.
He’d had a few visitors since Mia’s last trip, the one she’d made with Andy, when they came to tell him about their father’s fatal heart attack. They’d only stayed the one night, the three of them having flown to Virginia the following morning to plan the funeral. That hadn’t had the feel of a visit, though. Mia coming here on her own, to ask him to walk with her at her wedding - this felt like a visit, which meant they’d share, at the very least, the next couple of meals. He hadn’t wanted to ask her how long she was staying — after all, she’d just arrived. He couldn’t help thinking how strange it had been to hear another voice in the house, one that wasn’t on the TV or a radio.
It wasn’t that he didn’t want Mia there. He was happy to see her and have her company all to himself for a few days, since it was so rare that he did. He just felt a little awkward. He’d never been good at small talk, but small talk wasn’t what you were supposed to make with your family. And this was Mia, his little sister. It had never been difficult to talk to her.
He finished in the kitchen and checked that the back door was locked. He turned off the lights as he made his way to his room, thinking that there had been few enough happy occasions for the Shields family over the past few years. Mia’s wedding would be a time to celebrate something positive and joyous. That she wanted him to play a special part in her big day, that she’d come all this way to ask him, warmed his heart. He’d never have turned her down, even if it did mean going back into his old world for a whole week. He’d manage. He’d do his part. He’d be social. But he suspected he’d be counting the hours until he’d board the plane and retreat again to this quiet place where even the ghosts had gone silent, and where the life he’d made was nothing like the one he’d left.