Megan Randall dusted aside the fallen leaves and twigs scattered across the gravestone, detritus of the storm that had blown through northeastern Alabama overnight. She never put flowers on her husband's grave, not even on decoration day. Soft had never been his style. Vince had been tough as old leather, strong as steel. She'd loved that part of him since she was sixteen. She wouldn't dishonor it after death.
Of course, he'd hate to know she visited his grave daily, like a ritual, but he'd just have to forgive her.
"No tornadoes this time." She traced the curves and lines of his name etched in the glossy granite. "A limb from the hickory tree in the backyard fell on my tomatoes, though. Ticked me off."
The only answer was a light breeze rustling the trees nearby and the soft snuffling sound of Patton investigating the grass behind her. He tugged impatiently on the leash, a signal to move along before he did something they'd both regret on one of the nearby graves.
She led the mutt out of the small graveyard, sparing a quick look behind her as they moved back onto the country road. Vince could have qualified for burial with honors at Arlington, but he'd made her promise that if he died in battle, she'd lay him to rest right here in Chickasaw County. He was an Alabama boy, born and bred.
Patton pulled to a halt, his normally floppy ears peaked and his furry body rigidly at attention. He gazed into the woods ahead, a low whine emerging from his throat. Not a warning, exactly, but it made the hair on the back of Megan's neck prickle.
She peered into the gloom, unable to see any movement within the thick vegetation. A squirrel, she thought. Or a rabbit. Nothing more threatening than that.
But the hair on the back of her neck continued to rise.
Though not a fearful person, Megan wasn't foolish. Her house was only a mile up the road, but Patton's soft whines convinced her to circle back around the cemetery toward her sister's house and the safety of numbers. It was Saturday morning, so Isabel and Ben would probably be home. And if they weren't, Megan had a key to let herself into the house.
To her surprise, however, Patton pulled against the leash as she tried to bring him around in the opposite direction.
"Come on, Patton—let's go! Heel!" She gave a sharp tug, and the big dog finally came to heel as she'd trained him to do. He trotted beside her as she jogged toward her sister's house, his furry head turning now and then toward the direction from which they'd come.
She found Isabel and Ben in the front yard of the sprawling farmhouse, piling up limbs the storm had knocked from one of their old oaks. Patton tugged on the leash, eager to go to Isabel, one of his favorite people.
Megan's sister looked up at his happy bark and grinned. "Patty McPatton!" she called as Megan reached down and released the dog from his leash. The mutt raced to Isabel, his back end dancing as she bent to greet him.
Ben kept his distance—Patton was still deciding if he liked the new person taking up his beloved Isabel's attention—and smiled at Megan as she approached. "One of these days, that tree's going to come crashing down on the house. I keep telling Isabel we need to top it off, but I think it'd break her heart."
"What brings y'all here?" Isabel asked, still scratching Patton's ears while the dog panted.
Not wanting to admit she'd been spooked by a whining dog, Megan shrugged. "Just out for a run and thought we'd come by."
"Have you eaten yet?" Isabel asked. "Ben and I are about to drive to town for breakfast, as soon as we wash up. Want to join us? We can drop off Patton on the way."
Megan was sure the last thing the newlyweds needed was a third wheel for their breakfast date. "I've eaten," she lied. "But Patton and I will take a ride back to the house, if you're offering."
"Sure thing," Ben agreed. "Be right back."
"We'll be out here." Megan settled on the porch swing to wait, gazing toward the woods that lined the other side of the road. She still felt a low level sense of alarm, as if someone lurked in the deep woods, just out of her sight.
Someone watching her.
At her knee, Patton whined again, his tail thumping a steady cadence on the porch floor. Ears alert, he peered into the woods across the road.
Her heartbeat quickened. "What do you see, boy?"
The front door screen opened with a creak, making her jump. Isabel and Ben emerged, hand in hand. Megan tamped down a twinge of envy and greeted them with a smile.
"Sure you don't want to go to breakfast with us?" Ben asked. "You're more than welcome."
"I figure you two have at least three more months of matrimonial bliss before you'll really notice anyone else in the room with you, so I'll pass," she answered with genuine affection. Isabel and Ben had reunited only a month ago, after her sister had spent six months believing the man she secretly loved had been killed in a bomb explosion. She'd been given a second chance at love and grabbed it with both hands.
Megan would never get that chance. She'd seen her husband's body with her own eyes, still and lifeless in his dress blues. She'd said her goodbyes alone by his casket at the tiny church where he'd been baptized as a teenager. At least the kill shot had been through the heart, giving her the chance for an open casket and a final goodbye. She knew plenty of military widows who hadn't been afforded that.
It was a comfort, however small.
Patton piled into the backseat of Ben's Jeep Cherokee with Megan, snuggling close to her. He'd been here in the States with her for four years, since just before Vince's death, but he still got nervous in cars.
"How's he doing?" Isabel asked, meeting Megan's gaze in the rearview mirror.
"He's fine—aren't you, boy?" She gave the dog a hug and he leaned his muscular, furry body into hers. Tears stung her eyes but she fought them back.
He had been Vince's dog originally, a stray he and the other men in his squad had found wandering around their forward base in Ralijah, Kaziristan. He'd been a puppy, orphaned, perhaps, or just abandoned by his wandering mother. Young enough to tame easily under the affectionate care of his adopted family of soldiers, Patton had become the camp mascot. But after a scary near-miss with one of the unit's armored vehicles, Vince had arranged for the puppy to be shipped home to Megan.
She'd been happy for the companion and made fast friends with the German Shepherd mix puppy. They'd both waited patiently for three long months for Vince's return.
They hadn't expected he'd come home in a flag-draped box, she thought, her gaze drawn to her husband's gravesite as they passed the cemetery on the way to her house.
Ben and Isabel let her out at the front gate of her small bungalow, a river stone and clapboard house nestled in a wooded area near the base of Gossamer Mountain. A mile to the south, Gossamer Lake sparkled through the trees, reminding her that May was almost halfway over and she still hadn't been bluegill fishing with her cousin Hannah as promised.
She'd broken a lot of promises over the past four years.
"Come on, Patton, let's go inside." She unlocked the front door and waited for the dog to enter. But Patton lingered in the front yard, sniffing the monkey grass growing at the edge of the fence near the gate.
He looked up at her briefly, panted happily, then resumed his investigation of the fence edge.
With a sigh, she entered the house alone, knowing he'd scratch at the door soon enough. Despite being a refugee from a very rugged land, he'd grown to appreciate the creature comforts of America, like central air-conditioning to ward off the humid heat of an Alabama summer and the dog food bowl that magically filled whenever he was hungry.
She wondered if he was still waiting for Vince to come home. Did he wonder why the big, tough soldier who saved him from a life of hardship had never shown up again?
Her eyes burned again. She rubbed her fingers against the sting until she regained control.
Today was May fourteenth. Seven years and a week ago, she'd married Vince Randall in the same little church where she'd laid him to rest. He was supposed to have come home in time to celebrate their third wedding anniversary.
Things hadn't worked out that way.
Evan Pike parked the rented Ford Taurus on a narrow dirt turnabout just off Culpepper Road, pulling into the soft grass so that the car wouldn't easily be seen by passing vehicles. He didn't intend to hide his presence in Chickasaw County forever, but until he'd decided the best approach, he was inclined to keep a low profile.
Megan Randall lived a quarter mile down the road, in a single-story bungalow set back from the road behind a large chain-link fence. He knew this much because he'd already made a pass by the place earlier, not long after she and the dog had left for their morning walk. He'd looked around, just to get a feel for the kind of woman she might be.
The house itself had revealed little. Neat but not militant about it. Her life seemed simple and uncluttered. Plain house. Plain yard.
Only the woman herself was anything but plain, with her shock of wavy red hair and sleek, athletic body. He'd seen a photo of her once, tucked in Sergeant Randall's belongings after his death. More cute than pretty, with fair skin sprinkled with freckles and mysterious gray eyes.
The picture had done her no justice.
He'd caught up with her in person, unintentionally, a couple of miles down the road at a small cemetery next to a tiny stone church. Sergeant Randall's resting place, he'd guessed. He'd parked the rental car out of sight and went on foot through the woods across the road, keeping a careful distance as he watched the widow crouch at a grave and dust off a small marker.
The dog—Patton—had nearly seen him. He'd frozen in alarm as the dog started whining, a familiar sound he'd almost forgotten over the distance of four years.
When the woman and the dog had headed up the road, he'd kept pace through the canopy of trees that hugged Old Maybridge Road as far as the eye could see.
After she'd stopped to speak with a man and woman in front of an old two-story farmhouse, Evan had lingered only a few minutes before retreating to where he'd left the car. Megan Randall had seemed intent to stay a while, giving him one more chance to take a look around her bungalow before she returned.
What he was looking for, he wasn't sure. An approach? A way to get through to her despite her obvious desire to keep her distance from anything reminding her of her husband's death?
She'd refused his initial request to meet with her. Blocked his subsequent calls. He'd even tried reaching her through Cooper Security, where she worked, only to learn she'd already warned her coworkers to refuse his calls.
A wise man would give up and go home. But nobody had accused Evan of being wise.
Not recently, anyway.
He had already reached the edge of her property when he saw movement inside the chain-link fence. Patton was snuffling a path along the long monkey grass planted at the edge of the fence. His head came up suddenly, his long nose sniffing the breeze. A low whine carried in the warm spring air, and Evan realized the dog had caught his scent.
He started to back away, but Patton caught sight of him and started barking a joyous greeting.
Seconds later, the front door opened and Megan Randall appeared in the opening, her hair released from the ponytail she'd worn while jogging. It spilled in russet waves over her shoulders, glistening in the morning sunlight. In her right hand she held a phone. In the left, a shotgun.
Evan's breath hitched as she caught sight of him, her gray eyes widening with surprise.
This might be his only chance to talk to her. All she could do was tell him to get lost, right?
Or shoot you.
He forced the words from his throat. "Mrs. Randall?"
Megan strode down the porch steps and stopped halfway to the gate. Her gaze slid from him to Patton, who stood on his back legs now, his front paws resting on the fence. His whole body wagged with joy, and Evan felt a powerful pull in the center of his chest, drawing him toward the animal.
"He's not friendly to strangers," Megan warned, but he heard doubt in her voice, as the dog's behavior was anything but threatening. "Neither am I," she added more confidently.
That he could believe.
Ignoring the tingle of danger at the back of his neck, Evan reached over the fence and rubbed the dog's jaw, allowing Patton to lick his hand. "Hey, Patton. You're looking good, fellow! All grown up into a big, bad hound dog."
"Who are you?" Her voice was low and hard.
He met her gaze. "Evan Pike."
Her eyes iced over. "I told you I didn't want to talk to you about my husband."
He held his ground, despite the fierce anger in her expression. "I wouldn't be here if I didn't think what I have to tell you is something you need to know."
"I'm armed and you're trespassing. I don't know what you know about the laws here in Alabama, but they tend to be sympathetic to people protecting their property."
He arched an eyebrow. "You plan to shoot me? Really?"
"Are you sure I won't?" Like her husband, she had a hard-edged Southern drawl that reminded him of the place he'd once called home. He'd left Cumberland behind ages ago, but memories lingered, good and bad.
It had taken a couple of years back in Washington to regain his neutral inflections after two years in Kaziristan surrounded by a bunch of Southern boys in the army unit where he'd acted as a liaison to an Assistant Secretary of Defense, tasked with monitoring rules of engagement compliance after a politically embarrassing incident. He had to fight against lapsing into his native accent now as he spoke. "I need ten minutes of your time. If, when I'm finished, you want me to leave, I'll go and not bother you again."
"I want you to go now."
"What are you afraid of, Mrs. Randall?" he countered. "You think I'm going to tell you something about your husband that you don't want to hear? I'm not."
Not yet, anyway.
"Funny. That's not what Vince thought."