飞艇游戏彩票

飞艇游戏彩票飞艇游戏彩票

飞艇游戏彩票

The Marine Corps is based on the number 3. It was one of the first things they taught you in basic training. Made things easy to understand. Three marines made a fire team, three fire teams made a squad, three squads made a platoon, three platoons made a company, three companies made a battalion, and three battalions made a regiment. On paper, anyway. By the time they invaded Iraq, their regiment had been combined with elements from other units, including the Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, Firing Battalions of the Eleventh Marines, the Second and Third Assault Amphibian Battalions, Company B from the First Combat Engineer Battalion, and the Combat Service Support Battalion 115. Massive. Prepared for anything. Nearly six thousand personnel in total. As Thibault walked beneath a sky beginning to change colors with the onset of dusk, he thought back to that night, technically his first combat in hostile territory. His regiment, the First, Fifth, became the first unit to cross into Iraq with the intention of seizing the Rumaylah oil fields. Everyone remembered that Saddam Hussein had set most of the wells in Kuwait on fire as he'd retreated in the First Gulf War, and no one wanted the same thing to happen again. Long story short, the First, Fifth, among others, got there in time. Only seven wells were burning by the time the area was secured. From there Thibault's squad was ordered north to Baghdad to help to secure the capital city. The First, Fifth was the most decorated marine regiment in the corps and thus was chosen to lead the deepest assault' into enemy territory in the history of the corps. His first tour in Iraq lasted a little more than four months. Five years after the fact, most of the specifics about that first tour had blurred. He had done his job and eventually was sent back to Pendleton. He didn't talk about it. He tried not to think about it. Except for this: Ricky Martinez and Bill Kincaid, the other two men in Thibault's fire team, were part of a story he'd never forget. Take any three people, stick them together, and they're going to have differences. No surprise there. And on the surface, they were different. Ricky grew up in a small apartment in Midland, Texas, and was a former baseball player and weight-lifting fanatic who'd played in the Minnesota Twins farm system before enlisting; Bill, who played the trumpet in his high school marching band, was from upstate New York and had been raised on a dairy farm with five sisters. Ricky liked blondes, Bill liked brunettes; Ricky chewed tobacco, and Bill smoked; Ricky liked rap music, Bill favored country-western. No big deal. They trained together, they ate together, they slept together. They debated sports and politics. They shot the breeze like brothers and played practical jokes on each other. Bill would wake with one eyebrow shaved off; Ricky would wake the next night with both of them gone. Thibault learned to wake at the slightest sound and somehow kept both eyebrows intact. They laughed about it for months. Drunk one night, they got matching tattoos, each proclaiming their fidelity to the corps. After so much time together, they got to the point where they could anticipate what the others would do. Each of them in turn had saved Thibault's life, or at least kept him from serious harm. Bill grabbed the back of Thibault's flak jacket just as Thibault was poised to move into the open; moments later, a sniper wounded two men nearby. The second time, a distracted Thibault was almost struck by a speeding Humvee driven by a fellow marine; that time, it was Ricky who grabbed his arm to stop him. Even in war, people die in auto accidents. Look at Patton. After securing the oil fields, they had arrived at the outskirts of Baghdad with the rest of their company. The city had not fallen yet. They were part of a convoy, three men among hundreds, tightening their grip on the city. Aside from the roar of Allied vehicle engines, all was quiet as they entered the outlying neighborhoods. When gunfire was heard from a graveled road oft" the main thoroughfare, Thibault's squad was ordered to check it out. They evaluated the scene. Two- and three-story buildings sandwiched together on either side of the potholed road. A lone dog eating garbage. The smoking ruins of a car a hundred meters away. They waited. Saw nothing. Waited some more. Heard nothing. Finally, Thibault, Ricky, and Bill were ordered to cross the street. They did so, moving quickly, reaching safety. From there, the squad proceeded up the street, into the unknown. When the sound of gunfire rang out again that day, it wasn't a single shot. It was the death rattle of dozens and then hundreds of bullets from automatic weapons trapping them in a circle of gunfire. Thibault, Ricky, and Bill, along with the rest of the squad across the street, found themselves pinned in doorways with few places to hide. The firefight didn't last long, people said later. It was long enough. The blizzard of fire cascaded from windows above them. Thibault and his squad instinctively raised their weapons and fired, then fired again. Across the street, two of their men were wounded, but reinforcements arrived quickly. A tank rolled in, fast-moving infantry in the rear. The air vibrated as the muzzle flashed and the upper stories of a building collapsed, dust and glass filling the air. Everywhere Thibault heard the sounds of screaming, saw civilians fleeing the buildings into the streets. The fusillade continued; the stray dog was shot and sent tumbling. Civilians fell forward as they were shot in the back, bleeding and crying out. A third marine was injured in the lower leg. Thibault, Ricky, and Bill were still unable to move, imprisoned by the steady fire chipping at the walls next to them, at their feet. Still, the three of them continued to fire. The air vibrated with a roar, and the upper floors of another building collapsed. The tank, rolling forward, was getting close now. All at once, enemy gunfire started coming from two directions, not just one. Bill glanced at him; he glanced at Ricky. They knew what they had to do. It was time to move; if they stayed, they would die. Thibault rose first. In that instant, all went suddenly white, then turned black. In Hampton, more than five years later, Thibault couldn't recall the specifics, other than the feeling that he'd been tossed into a washing machine. He was sent tumbling into the street with the explosion, his ears ringing. His friend Victor quickly reached his side; so did a naval corpsman. The tank continued to fire, and little by little, the street was brought under control. He learned all this after the fact, just as he learned that the explosion had been caused by an RPG, a rocket-propelled grenade. Later, an officer would tell Thibault that it had most likely been meant for the tank; it missed the turret by inches. Instead, as if fated to find them, it flew toward Thibault, Ricky, and Bill. Thibault was loaded into a Humvee and evacuated from the scene, unconscious. Miraculously, his wounds had been minor, and within three days he would be back with his squad. Ricky and Bill would not; each was later buried with full military honors. Ricky was a week away from his twenty-second birthday. Bill was twenty years old. They were neither the first casualties of the war nor the last. The war went on. Thibault forced himself not to think about them much. It seemed callous, but in war the mind shuts down about things like that. It hurt to think about their deaths, to reflect on their absence, so he didn't. Nor did most of the squad. Instead, he did his job. He focused on the fact that he was still alive. He focused on keeping others safe. But today he felt the pinpricks of memory, and loss, and he didn't bury them. They were with him as he walked the quiet streets of town, making for the outskirts on the far side. Following the directions he'd received from the front desk at the motel, he headed east on Route 54, walking on the grassy shoulder, staying well off the road. He'd learned in his travels never to trust drivers. Zeus trailed behind, panting heavily. He stopped and gave Zeus some water, the last in the bottle. Businesses lined either side of the highway. A mattress shop, a place that did auto body repairs, a nursery, a Quick'N-Go that sold gas and stale food in plastic wrappers, and two ramshackle farmhouses that seemed out of place, as if the modern world had sprouted up around them. Which was exactly what had happened, he assumed. He wondered how long the owners would hold out or why anyone would want to live in a home that fronted a highway and was sandwiched between businesses. Cars roared past in both directions. Clouds began to roll in, gray and puffy. He smelled rain before the first drop hit him, and within a few steps it was pouring. It lasted fifteen minutes, drenching him, but the heavy clouds kept moving toward the coast until only a haze remained. Zeus shook the water from his coat. Birdsong resumed from the trees while mist rose from the moist earth. Eventually, he reached the fairgrounds. It was deserted. Nothing fancy, he thought, examining the layout. Just the basics. Parking on a dirt-gravel lot on the left; a couple of ancient barns on the far right; a wide grassy field for carnival rides separating the two, all lined with a chain-link fence. He didn't need to jump the fence, nor did he need to look at the picture. He'd seen it a thousand times. He moved forward, orienting himself, and eventually he spotted the ticket booth. Behind it was an arched opening where a banner could be strung. When he arrived at the arch, he turned toward the northern horizon, framing the ticket booth and centering the arch in his vision, just as it had appeared in the photograph. This was the angle, he thought; this was where the picture had been taken. The structure of the marines was based on threes. Three men to a fire team, three fire teams to a squad, three squads to a platoon. He served three tours in Iraq. Checking his watch, he noted that he'd been in Hampton for three hours, and straight ahead, right where they should have been, were three evergreen trees clustered together. Thibault walked back to the highway, knowing he was closer to finding her. He wasn't there yet, but he soon would be. She'd been here. He knew that now. What he needed now was a name. On his walk across the country, he'd had a lot of time to think, and he'd decided there were three ways to go about it. First, he could try to find a local veterans association and ask if any locals had served in Iraq. That might lead him to someone who might recognize her. Second, he could go to the local high school and see if it had copies of yearbooks from ten to fifteen years ago. He could look through the photographs one by one. Or third, he could show the photograph and ask around. All had their drawbacks, none were guaranteed. As for the veterans association, he hadn't found one listed in the phone book. Strike one. Because it was still summer vacation, he doubted if the high school would be open; even if it was, it might be difficult to gain access to the library's yearbooks. Strike two—for now, anyway. Which meant that his best bet was to ask around and see if anyone recognized her. Who to ask, though? He knew from the almanac that nine thousand people lived in Hampton, North Carolina. Another thirteen thousand people lived in Hampton County. Way too many. The most efficient strategy was to limit his search to the likeliest pool of candidates. Again, he started with what he knew. She appeared to be in her early twenties when the photograph had been taken, which meant she was in her late twenties now. Possibly early thirties. She was obviously attractive. Further, in a town this size, assuming an equal distribution among age brackets, that meant there were roughly 2,750 kids from newborns up to ten years of age, 2,750 from eleven to twenty, and 5,500 people in their twenties and thirties, her age bracket. Roughly. Of those, he assumed half were males and half were females. Females would tend to be more suspicious about his intentions, especially if they actually knew her. He was a stranger. Strangers were dangerous. He doubted they would reveal much. Men might, depending on how he framed the question. In his experience, nearly all males noticed attractive females in their age bracket, especially if they were single men. How many men in her current age group were single? He guessed about thirty percent. Might be right, might be wrong, but he'd go with it. Say 900 or so. Of those, he figured eighty percent had been living here back then. Just a guess, but Hampton struck him as a town that people were more likely to emigrate from, as opposed to immigrate to. That brought the number down to 720. He could further cut that in half if he concentrated on single men aged twenty-five to thirty-five, instead of twenty to forty. That brought it down to 360. He figured a good chunk of those men either knew her or knew of her five years ago. Maybe they'd gone to high school with her or maybe not—he knew there was one in town—but they would know her if she was single. Of course, it was possible she wasn't single— women in small southern towns probably married young, after all— but he would work with this set of assumptions first. The words on the back of the photograph— "Keep Safe! E"—didn't strike him as romantic enough to have been given to a boyfriend or fiancé. No "Love you," no "I'll miss you." Just an initial. A friend. Down from 22,000 to 360 in less than ten minutes. Not bad And definitely good enough to get started. Assuming, of course She lived here when the photograph had been taken. Assuming she hadn't been visiting. He knew it was another big assumption. But he had to start someplace, and he knew she'd been here once. He would learn the truth one way or the other and move on from there. Where did single men hang out? Single men who could be drawn into conversation? I met her a couple of years ago and she told me to call her if I got back into town, but I lost her name and number... Bars. Pool halls. In a town this size, he doubted whether there were more than three or four places where locals hung out Bars and pool halls had the advantage of alcohol, and it was Saturday night. They'd be filled. He figured he'd have his answer, one way or the other, within the next twelve hours. He glanced at Zeus. "Seems like you're going to be on your own tonight. I could bring you, but I'd have to leave you outside and I don't know how long I'll be." Zeus continued walking, his head down, tongue out. Tired and hot. Zeus didn't care. "I'll put the air conditioner on, okay?"Clayton stared at the house in disbelief, his knuckles white on the steering wheel. He blinked repeatedly to clear his vision, but he still saw the same things: Beth's car in the driveway, the couple kissing on the couch, Thigh-bolt leading her to the bedroom. Beth and Thigh-bolt together. With every passing minute, he felt stronger waves of anger cresting and crashing inside him. His perfect plans, all of them, up in smoke. And Thigh-bolt would forever have him over a barrel. He pressed his lips together in a tight line. He was tempted to storm in on them, but then there was the damn dog. Again. It had been hard enough already, following them through his binoculars from his car without being noticed. Thigh-bolt. The dog. Beth… He banged the steering wheel. How could this have happened? Hadn't Beth heard what he'd said? Didn't she understand how much danger she was in? Didn't she care about Ben? No way was that psycho going to be part of his son's life. Not a chance. Not on his life. He should have expected this. He should have known how stupid Beth would be.She might be pushing thirty, but she had the intelligence of a child. He should have known that she'd see in Thigh-bolt whatever she wanted to see and ignore the obvious. It would come to an end, though. Sooner rather than later He'd make her see the light, no matter what it took.Thibault watched as Victor cast his line into the cool Minnesota water. It was a cloudless Saturday morning. The air was still, the lake mirroring the pristine skies. They had set out on the lake early, wanting to fish before it became crowded with Jet Skis and speedboats. It was their last day of vacation; tomorrow, both were scheduled to fly out. For their final evening, they planned to eat at a local steak house they'd heard was the best in town. "I think you'll be able to find this woman," Victor announced without preamble. Thibault was reeling in his own line. "Who?" "The woman in the photo who brings you luck." Thibault squinted at his friend. "What are you talking about?" "When you look for her. I think you'll be able to find her." Thibault inspected his hook carefully and cast again. "I'm not going to look for her." "So you say now. But you will." Thibault shook his head. "No, I won't. And even if I wanted too, there's no way I could." "you'll find a way." Victor sounded smug in his certainty. Thibault stared at his friend. "Why are we even talking about this?" "Because," Victor pronounced, "it's not over yet." "Believe me, it's over." "I know you think so. But it isn't." Thibault had learned long ago that once Victor started on a topic, he would continue to expound on it until he was satisfied he'd made his point. Because it wasn't the way Thibault wanted to spend their last day, he figured he might as well get it over with once and for all. "Okay," he said, sighing. "Why isn't it over?" Victor shrugged. "Because there is no balance." "No balance," Thibault repeated, his tone flat. "Yes," Victor said. "Exactly. You see?" "No." Victor groaned at Thibault's denseness. "Say someone comes to put a roof on your house. The man works hard, and at the end, he is paid. Only then is it over. But in this case, with the photograph, it is as if the roof has been put on, but the owner has not paid. Until payment is made, everything is out of balance." "Are you saying that I owe this woman something?" Thibault's voice was skeptical. "Yes. The photo kept you safe and brought you luck. But until payment is made, it is not over." Thibault reached for a soda in the cooler. He handed one to Victor. "You do realize you sound insane." Victor accepted the can with a nod. "To some, maybe. But eventually, you will look for her. There is a greater purpose to all this. It is your destiny." "My destiny." "Yes." "What does that mean?" "I don't know. But you will know it when you get there." Thibault stayed quiet, wishing Victor had never brought up the subject. In the silence, Victor studied his friend. "Maybe," he speculated, "you're meant to be together." "I'm not in love with her, Victor." "No?" "No," he said. "And yet," Victor observed, "you think about her often." to this, Thibault said nothing, for there was nothing he could say. On Saturday morning, Thibault arrived early and went straight to work at the kennels, feeding, cleaning, and training as usual. While he worked, Ben played with Zeus until Elizabeth called him inside to get ready to go. She waved from her spot on the porch, but even from a distance, he could see she was distracted. She had gone back inside by the time he took the dogs out; he usually walked them in groups of three, with Zeus trailing behind him. Away from the house, he would let the dogs off the leash, but they tended to follow behind him no matter what direction he headed. He liked to vary the route he took; the variety kept the dogs from wandering too far away. Like people, dogs got bored if they did the same thing every day. Usually, the walks lasted about thirty minutes per group. After the third group, he noticed that Elizabeth's car was gone, and he assumed she'd gone to drop Ben off at his father's. He didn't like Ben's father, mostly because Ben and Elizabeth didn't. The guy sounded like a piece of work, but it wasn't his place to do much more than listen when she talked about him. He didn't bow enough to offer any advice, and even if he did, she wasn't asking for any. In any event, it wasn't his business. But what was his business, then? Why was he here? Despite himself, his thoughts drifted back to his conversation with Victor, and he knew he was here because of what Victor had said to him that morning at the lake. And, of course, because of what happened later. He forced the memory away. He wasn't going to go there. Not again. Calling to the dogs, Thibault turned and made for the kennels. After putting the dogs away, he went to explore the storage shed, When he turned on die light in the shed, he stared at the walls and shelves in amazement. Elizabeth's grandfather didn't have just a few tools—the place resembled a cluttered hardware store. He wandered inside, scanning the racks and sorting through the Snap-on tool cabinets and piles of items on the workbench. He eventually picked out a socket wrench set, a couple of adjustable and Allen wrenches, and a jack and carried them out to the truck. As Elizabeth had promised, the keys were under the mat. Thibault drove down the driveway, heading for the auto supply store he vaguely remembered seeing near downtown. The parts were in stock—replacement pads, C-clamp, and some high-temp grease—and he was back at the house in less than half an hour. He put the jack in place and raised the car, then removed the first wheel. He retracted the piston with the C-clamp, removed the old pad, checked the rotors for damage, and reinstalled a new pad before replacing the wheel and repeating the process with the other wheels. He was finishing the third brake pad when he heard Elizabeth pull up, rolling to a stop next to the old truck. He glanced over his shoulder just as she got out, realizing she'd been gone for hours. "How's it going?" she asked. "Just about done." "Really?" She sounded amazed. "It's just brake pads. It's not a big deal." "I'm sure that's the same thing a surgeon would say. It's just an appendix." "You want to learn?" Thibault asked, staring up at her figure silhouetted against the sky. "How long does it take?" "Not long." He shrugged. "Ten minutes?" "Really?" she repeated. "Okay. Just let me get the groceries inside." "Need help?" "No, it's just a couple of bags." He slipped the third wheel back on and finished tightening the lug nuts before moving to the final wheel. He loosened the nuts just as Elizabeth reached his side. When she squatted beside him, he could smell a hint of the coconut lotion she'd applied earlier that morning. "First, you take the wheel off…he began, and methodically walked her through the process, making sure she understood each step. When he lowered the jack and started to collect the tools, she shook her head. "That seemed almost too easy. I think even I could do it." "Probably." "Then why do they charge so much?" "I don't know." "I'm in the wrong line of work," she said, rising and gathering her hair into a loose ponytail. "But thank you for taking care of it. I've wanted those fixed for a while now." "No problem." "Are you hungry? I picked up some fresh turkey for sandwiches. And some pickles." "That sounds delicious," he said. They had lunch on the back porch, overlooking the garden. Elizabeth still seemed distracted, but they chatted a little about what it was like to grow up in a small southern town, where everyone knew everything about everybody else. Some of the stories were amusing, but Thibault admitted that he preferred a more anonymous existence. "Why am I not surprised?" she asked. Afterward, Thibault went back to work while Elizabeth spent the afternoon cleaning the house. Unlike her grandfather, Thibault was able to pry open the office window that had been painted shut, though it turned out to be more difficult than fixing the brakes. Nor was it easy to open or close afterward, no matter how much sanding he did to smooth it. Then, he painted the trim. After that, it was a normal workday. By the time he finished up his duties at the kennel, it was coming up on five, and though he could have easily left for the day, he didn't. Instead, he began work on the files again, wanting to get a head start on what he knew would be a long day tomorrow. He settled in for the next couple of hours, making what he thought was headway— who could tell, though?—and didn't hear Elizabeth approach. Instead, he noticed Zeus get to his feet and start toward the door. "I'm surprised you're still here," she said from the doorway. "I saw the light on and thought you'd forgotten to turn it off." "I wouldn't forget." She pointed to the stacks of files on the desk. "I can't tell you how glad I am that you're doing that. Nana tried to talk me into organizing the files this summer, but I was extremely adept at put' ting her off." "Lucky me," he drawled. "No, lucky me. I almost feel guilty about it." "I'd almost believe you, except for that smirk. Have you heard from Ben or Nana?" "Both," she said. "Nana's great, Ben is miserable. Not that he said as much. I could hear it in his voice." "I'm sorry," he said, meaning it. She offered a tense shrug before reaching for the door handle. She rotated it in both directions, seemingly interested in the mechanism. Finally, she let out a sigh. "Do you want to help me make some ice cream?" "Excuse me?" He set down the file he'd been labeling. "I love homemade ice cream. There's nothing better when it's hot, but it's no fun to make if you can't share it with someone." "I don't know if I've ever had homemade ice cream…" "Then you don't know what you're missing. You in?" Her childlike enthusiasm was contagious. "Yeah, okay," he agreed. "That sounds fun." "Let me run to the store and get what we need. I'll be back in a few minutes." "Wouldn't it be easier just to buy some ice cream?" Her eyes shone with delight. "But it's not the same. You'll see. I'll be back in a few minutes, okay?" She was as good as her word. Thibault just had time to straighten up the desk and check on the dogs one last time before he heard her coming up the drive on her way back from the store. He met her as she was getting out of the car. "Would you mind bringing in the bag of crushed ice?" she asked. "It's in the backseat." He followed her into the kitchen with the bag of ice, and she motioned to the freezer as she set a quart of half-and-half on the counter. "Can you get the ice-cream maker? It's in the pantry. Top shelf on the left." Thibault emerged from the pantry with a crank-handled icecream maker that looked to be at least fifty years old. "Is this the one?" "Yeah, that's it." "Does it still work?" he wondered aloud. "Perfectly. Amazing, isn't it? Nana got that as a gift for her wedding, but we still use it all the time. It makes delicious ice cream." He brought it over to the counter and stood beside her. "What can I do?" "If you agree to crank, I'll do the mixing." "Fair enough," he said. She dug out an electric mixer and a bowl, along with a measuring cup. From the spice cabinet, she chose sugar, flour, and vanilla extract. She added three cups of sugar and a cup of flour to the bowl and mixed it by hand, then put the bowl on the mixer. Next, she beat in three eggs, all the half-and-half, and three teaspoons of vanilla extract before turning on the mixer. Finally, she splashed in a bit of milk and poured the entire mixture into the cream can, put the can in the ice-cream maker, and surrounded it with crushed ice and rock salt. "We're ready," she announced, handing it to him. She picked up the rest of the ice and the rock salt. "To the porch we go. You have to make it on the porch, or it isn't the same." "Ah,"h e said. She took a seat beside him on the porch steps, sitting fraction' ally closer than she had the day before. Wedging the can between his feet, Thibault began to rotate the crank, surprised at how easily it turned. "Thanks for doing this," she said. "I really need the ice cream. It's been one of those days." "Yeah?" She turned toward him, a sly smile playing on her lips. "You're very good at that." "What?" "Saying, 'Yeah?' when someone makes a comment. It's just enough to make someone keep talking without being too personal or prying." "Yeah?" She giggled. "Yeah," she mimicked. "But most people would have said something like, 'What happened?' Or, 'Why?'" "All right. What happened? Why was it one of those days?" She gave a disgusted snort. "Oh, it's just that Ben was really grumpy this morning while he was packing, and I ended up snap-ping at him to hurry up because he was taking so long. His dad usually doesn't like it when he's late, but today? Well, today, it was as if he'd forgotten that Ben was even coming. I must have knocked on the door for a couple of minutes before he eventually opened it, and I could tell he'd just gotten out of bed. Had I known he was sleeping in, I wouldn't have been so hard on Ben, and I still feel guilty about it. And, of course, as I'm pulling away, see Ben already hauling out the garbage because dear old Dad was too lazy to do it. And then, of course, I spent the whole day cleaning, which wasn't so bad the first couple of hours. But by the end, I really needed ice cream." "Doesn't sound like a relaxing Saturday." "It wasn't," she muttered, and he could tell she was debating whether to say more. There was something more, something else bothering her, and she drew a long breath before sighing. "It's my brother's birthday today," she said, the faintest tremor in her voice. "That's where I went today, after dropping Ben off. I brought flowers to the cemetery." Thibault felt a thickness in his throat as he remembered the photograph on the mantel. Though he'd suspected that her brother had been killed, it was the first time that either Nana or Elizabeth had confirmed it. He immediately understood why she hadn't wanted to be alone tonight. "I'm sorry," he said, meaning it. "So am I," she said. "You would have liked him. Everyone liked him." "I'm sure." She twisted her hands in her lap. "It slipped Nana's mind. Of course, she remembered this afternoon and called to tell me how sorry she was that she couldn't be here. She was practically in tears, but I told her it was okay. That it wasn't a big deal." "It is a big deal. He was your brother and you miss him." A wistful smile flickered across her face, then faded away. "You remind me of him," she offered, her voice soft "Not so much in your appearance, but in your mannerisms. I noticed that the first time you walked in the office to apply for the job. It's like you two were stamped out of the same mold. I guess it's a marine thing, huh?" "Maybe," he said. "I've met all types." "I'll bet." She paused, drawing her knees to her chest and wrapping her arms around them. "Did you like it? Being in the marines?" "Sometimes." "But not all the time?" "No." "Drake loved it. Loved everything about it, in fact." Though she seemed mesmerized by the movement of the crank, Thibault could tell she was lost in her memories. "I remember when the invasion began. With Camp Lejeune less than an hour away, it was big news. I was scared for him, especially when I heard talk about chemical weapons and suicide stands, but do you want to know what he was worried about? Before the invasion, I mean?" "What?" "A picture. A dumb old photograph. Can you believe that?" The unexpected words made Thibault's heart suddenly hammer in his chest, but he forced himself to appear calm. "He took this picture of me when we first arrived at the fair that year," she said, going on. "It was the last weekend we spent together before he joined, and after we made the usual rounds, we just kind of wandered off to be alone. I remember sitting with him near this giant pine tree and talking for hours as we watched the Ferris wheel. It was one of the big ones, all lit up, and we could hear kids oohing and aahing as it went round and round under this perfect summer sky. We talked about our mom and dad, and we wondered what they would have been like or whether they'd have gray hair or whether we would have stayed in Hampton or moved away, and I remember looking up at the sky. All of a sudden, this shooting star went by, and all I could think was that they were listening to us somehow." She paused, lost in the memory, before going on. "He had the picture laminated and kept it with him all through basic training. After he got to Iraq, he e-mailed me and told me that he'd lost it, and asked if I could send him another one. It seemed kind of crazy to me, but I wasn't there, and I didn't know what he was going through, so I said I'd send another one. But I didn't get around to sending it right away. Don't ask me why. It was like I had some sort of mental block against doing it. I mean, I'd put the disk Into my purse, but every time I was near the drugstore, I'd just forget to get the photograph developed. And before I knew it, the invasion had started. I finally got around to sending it, but the letter was eventually returned to me unopened. Drake died in the first week of the invasion." She stared at him over the tops of her knees. "Five days. That was how long he lasted. And I never got him the one thing he wanted from me. You know how that makes me feel?" Thibault felt sick to his stomach. "I don't know what to say." "There's nothing you can say," she said. "It's just one of those terrible, impossibly sad things. And now … today, I kept thinking that he's just slipping away. Nana didn't remember, Ben didn't remember. At least with Ben, I can sort of understand it. He wasn't even five when Drake was killed, and you know how memories are at that age. Only a little bit sticks. But Drake was so good with him because he actually enjoyed being around him." She shrugged. "Kind of like you." Thibault wished she hadn't said it. He didn't belong here____ "I didn't want to hire you," she continued, oblivious to Thibault's turmoil. "Did you know that?" "Yes." "But not because you walked here from Colorado. That was part of it, but it was mainly because you'd been in the marines." He nodded, and in the silence she reached for the ice-cream maker. "It probably needs some more ice," she said. She opened the lid, added more ice, and then handed it back to him. "Why are you here?" she finally asked. Though he knew what she really meant, he pretended he didn't. "Because you asked me to stay." "I mean, why are you here in Hampton? And I want the truth this time." He grasped for the right explanation. "It seemed like a nice place, and so far, it has been." He could tell by her expression that she knew there was more, and she waited. When he didn't add anything else, she frowned. "It has something to do with your time in Iraq, doesn't it? His silence gave him away. "How long were you there?" she asked. He shifted in his seat, not wanting to talk about it but knowing he had no choice. "Which time?" "How many times did you go?" "Three." "Did you see a lot of combat?" "Yes." "But you made it out." Yes. Her lips tightened, and she suddenly looked on the verge of tears. "Why you and not my brother?" He turned the crank four times before answering with what he knew was a lie. "I don't know." When Elizabeth got up to get bowls and spoons for the ice cream, Thibault fought the urge to call Zeus and simply leave, right then, before he changed his mind, and go back home to Colorado. He couldn't stop thinking about the photograph in his pocket, the photograph that Drake had lost. Thibault had found it, Drake had died, and now he was here, in the home where Drake had been raised, spending time with the sister he'd left behind. On the surface, it was all so improbable, but as he fought the sudden dryness in his mouth, he concentrated on those things he knew to be true. The photograph was simply that: a picture of Elizabeth that her brother had taken. There were no such things as lucky charms. Thibault had survived his time in Iraq, but so had the vast majority of marines who'd been posted there. So, in fact, had most of his platoon, including Victor. But some marines had died, Drake among them, and though it was tragic, it had nothing to do with the photograph. It was war. As for him, he was here because he'd made a decision to search for the woman in the picture. It had nothing to do with destiny or magic. But he'd! searched because of Victor… He blinked and reminded himself that he didn't believe anything Victor had told him. What Victor believed was just superstition. It couldn't be true. At least not all of it. Zeus seemed to sense his struggle and lifted his head to stare. With his ears raised, he gave a soft whine and wandered up the stairs to lick Thibault's hand. Thibault raised Zeus's head, and the dog nuzzled his face. "What am I doing here?" Thibault whispered. "Why did I come?" As he waited for an answer that would never come, he heard the screen door slam behind him. "Are you talking to yourself or to your dog?" Elizabeth asked. "Both," he said. She sat next to him and handed him his spoon. "What were you saying?" "Nothing important," he said. He motioned for Zeus to lie down, and the dog squished himself onto the step in an attempt to remain close to both of them. Elizabeth opened the ice-cream maker and scooped some ice cream into each of the bowls. "I hope you like it," she said, handing him a bowl. She dipped her spoon in and had a taste before turning toward him, her expression earnest. "I want to apologize," she said. "For what?" "For what I said before … When I asked why you made it and my brother didn't." "It's a fair question." He nodded, uncomfortable under her scrutiny. "No, it isn't," she said. "And it was wrong to ask you. So I'm sorry." "It's okay," he said. She ate another spoonful, hesitating before going on. "Do you remember when I told you that I didn't want to hire you because you were in the marines?" He nodded. "It's not what you probably think. It wasn't because you reminded me of Drake. It's because of the way Drake died." She tapped her spoon against the bowl. "Drake was killed by friendly fire." Thibault turned away as she went on. "Of course, I didn't know that at first. We kept getting the runaround. 'The investigation is continuing' or 'We're looking into the matter,* things like that. It took months to find out how he was killed, and even then, we never really learned who was responsible." She groped for the right words. "It just… didn't seem right, you know? I mean, I know it was an accident, I know whoever did it didn't mean to kill him, but if something like that happened here in the States, someone would be charged with manslaughter. But if it happens in Iraq, no one wants the truth to come out. And it never will." "Why are you telling me this?" Thibault said, his voice quiet. "Because," she said, "that's the real reason I didn't want to hire you. After I found out what happened, it seemed like every time I saw a marine, I'd be asking myself, Was he the one who killed Drake? Or is he covering up for someone who killed him? I knew it wasn't fair, I knew it was wrong, but I couldn't help it. And after a while, the anger I felt just sort of became part of me, like it was the only way I knew how to handle the grief. I didn't like who I'd become, but I was stuck in this horrible cycle of questions and blame. And then, out of the blue, you walked into the office and applied for a job. And Nana, even though she knew exactly how I was feeling—maybe because of the way I was feeling—decided to hire you." She set her bowl aside. "That's why I didn't have much to say to you the first couple of weeks. I didn't know what I could say. I figured I wouldn't have to say anything, since more than likely you'd quit within a few days like everyone else. But you didn't. Instead, you work hard and stay late, you're wonderful to Nana and my son … and all of a sudden, you're not so much a marine as you are just a man." She paused as if lost in thought, then finally nudged him with her knee. "And not only that, you're a man who allows emotional women to ramble on without telling them to stop." He nudged her back to show her it was okay. "It's Drake's birthday." "Yes, it is." She raised her bowl. "To my little brother, Drake," she said. Thibault tapped his bowl against hers. "To Drake," he echoed. Zeus whined and stared up at them anxiously. Despite the tension, she reached out and ruffled his fur. "You don't need a toast. This is Drake's moment." He tilted his head in puzzlement, and she laughed. "Blah, blah, blah. He doesn't understand a word I'm saying." "True, but he can tell you were upset. That's why he stayed close." "He's really amazing. I don't think I've ever seen a dog so intuitive and well trained. Nana said the same thing, and believe me, that's saying a lot." "Thanks," he said. "Good bloodlines." "Okay," she said. "Your turn to talk. You pretty much know everything there is to know about me." "What do you want to know?" She picked up her bowl and spooned more ice cream into her mouth before asking, "Have you ever been in love?" When he raised his eyebrows at the nonchalant way she'd said it, she waved him off. "Don't even think I'm being too personal. Not after everything I've told you. 'Fess up." "Once," he admitted. "Recently?" "No. Years ago. When I was in college." "What was she like?" He seemed to search for the right word. "Earthy," he offered. She said nothing, but her expression told him she wanted more. "Okay," he continued. "She was a women's studies major, and she favored Birkenstocks and peasant skirts. She despised makeup. She wrote opinions for the student newspaper and championed the causes of pretty much every sociological group in the world except white males and the rich. Oh, and she was a vegetarian, too." She studied him. "For some reason, I can't see you with someone like that." "Neither could I. And neither could she. Not in the long run, anyway. But for a while, it was surprisingly easy to overlook out obvious differences. And we did." "How long did it last?" "A little more than a year." "Do you ever hear from her anymore?" He shook his head. "Never." "And that's it?" "Aside from a couple of high school crushes, that's it. But bear in mind that the last five years haven't exactly been conducive to starting new relationships." "No, I don't suppose so." Zeus got up and stared down the drive, his ears twitching. Alert. It took a moment, but Thibault heard the faint sound of a car engine, and in the distance, a broad, dispersed light flashed in the trees before it began to narrow. Someone pulling up the drive. Elizabeth frowned in confusion before a sedan slowly rounded the corner and came toward the house. Even though the lights from the porch didn't illuminate the drive, Thibault recognized the car and sat up straighter. It was either the sheriff or one of his deputies. Elizabeth recognized it as well. "This can't be good," she muttered. "What do you think they want?" She stood from her spot on the porch. "It's not a they. It's a him. My ex-husband." She started down the steps and motioned toward him. "Just wait here. I'll handle this." Thibault motioned for Zeus to sit and stay as the car pulled to a stop beside Elizabeth's car at the far end of the house. Through the bushes, he saw the passenger door open and watched as Ben got out, dragging his backpack behind him. He started toward his mother, keeping his head down. When the driver's-side door opened, Deputy Keith Clayton stepped out. Zeus let out a low growl, alert and ready, waiting for Thibault's command to go after the guy. Elizabeth glanced at Zeus in surprise until Ben stepped into the light. Thibault noticed the absence of Ben's glasses and the black-and’ blue bruises around Ben's eye at the same moment Elizabeth did. "What happened!" she cried, hurrying toward her son. She squatted to get a better look. "What did you do?" "It's nothing," Clayton responded, approaching them. "It's just a bruise." Ben turned away, not wanting her to see. "What about his glasses?" Elizabeth said, still trying to make sense of it. "Did you hit him?" "No, I didn't hit him. Christ! I wouldn't hit him. Who do you think I am?" Elizabeth didn't seem to hear him and focused her attention on her son. "Are you all right? Oh, that looks bad! What happened, sweetie? Are your glasses broken?" She knew he wouldn't say anything until after Clayton left. Tilting his face up to hers, she could see the vessels had burst in his eye, leaving it bloody. "How hard did you throw it?" she demanded, her expression horrified. "Not too hard. And it's just a bruise. His eye is fine, and we managed to tape his glasses back together." "It's more than a bruise!" Elizabeth's voice rose, barely controlled. "Stop acting like this is my fault!" Clayton barked. "It is your fault!" "He's the one who missed it! We were just playing catch. It was an accident, for God's sake! Wasn't it, Ben? We were having fun, right?" Ben stared at the ground. "Yeah," he mumbled. "Tell her what happened. Tell her it wasn't my fault. Go ahead." Ben shifted from one foot to the other. "We were playing catch. I missed the ball and it hit me in the eye." He held up his glasses, crudely taped at the bridge and the top of one lens with duct tape. "Dad fixed my glasses." Clayton held up his palms. "See? No big deal. Happens all the time. It's part of the game." "When did this happen?" Elizabeth demanded. "A few hours ago." "And you didn't call me?" "No. I took him to the emergency room." "The emergency room?" "Where else was I supposed to take him? I knew I couldn't bring him back here without having him checked out, so I did. I did what any responsible parent would do, just like you did when he fell off the swing and broke his arm. And if you remember, I didn't get all crazy on you, just like I don't get crazy about you letting him play in the tree house. The thing is a death trap." She seemed too shocked to speak, and he shook his head in disgust. "Anyway, he wanted to go home." "Okay," she said, still struggling with her words. A muscle clenched and unclenched in her jaw. She waved Clayton off. "Whatever. Just go. I'll take it from here." With her arm around Ben, she started to lead him away, and it was in that instant that Clayton spotted Thibault sitting on the porch, staring directly at him. Clayton's eyes widened before they flashed in anger. He started for the porch. "What are you doing here?" he demanded. Thibault simply stared at him without moving. Zeus's growls grew more ominous. "What's he doing here, Beth?" "Just go, Keith. We'll talk about this tomorrow." She turned away. "Don't walk away from me," he spat, reaching for her arm. "I'm just asking you a question." At that moment, Zeus snarled and his rear legs began to quiver. For the first time, Clayton seemed to notice the dog, his teeth bared, the fur on his back standing straight up. "If I were you, I'd let go of her arm," Thibault said. His voice was flat and calm, more a suggestion than an order. "Right now." Clayton, eyeing the dog, let go immediately. As Elizabeth and Ben hurried to the porch, Clayton glared at Thibault. Zeus took a single step forward, continuing to snarl. "I think you'd better go," Thibault said, his voice quiet. Clayton debated for an instant, then took a step backward and turned away. Thibault heard him cursing under his breath as he stalked back to the car, opened the door, and slammed it shut behind him. Thibault reached out to pet Zeus. "Good boy," he whispered. Clayton backed out of his spot, made a sloppy three-point turn, and took off up the drive, spewing gravel. His taillights receded from view, and only then did the fur on Zeus's back finally lower. His tail wagged as Ben approached. "Hi, Zeus," Ben said. Zeus glanced at Thibault for permission. "It's okay," Thibault said, releasing him. Zeus pranced toward Ben as if to say, I'm so happy you're home! He nosed at Ben, who started to pet him. -You missed me, huh?" Ben said, sounding pleased. "I missed “Here, sweetie," Elizabeth urged, moving him forward again. "Let's go inside and put some ice on your eye. And I Want to see it in the light" ' As they opened the screen door, Thibault stood. "Hey, Thibault," Ben said, waving. "Hi, Ben." "Can I play with Zeus tomorrow?" Tf it's okay with your mom, it's okay with me." Thibault could tell by looking at Elizabeth that she wanted to be alone with her son. "I should probably go," he said, rising from his spot. "It's getting late, and I've got an early morning." "Thanks," she said. "I appreciate it. And sorry for all this." "There's nothing to be sorry for." He walked a ways down the drive, then turned toward the house. He could just make out movement behind the curtains of the living room window. Staring at the shadows of the two figures in the window, he felt for the first time that he was finally beginning to understand the reason he'd come.Maybe she'd misjudged him, Beth admitted. At least as far as work went, anyway. In the last three weeks, Logan Thibault had been the perfect employee. Better than that, even. Not only hadn't he missed a day, but he arrived early so he could feed the dogs-something Nana had always done until her stroke—and stayed late to sweep the floors of the office. Once, she'd even seen him cleaning the windows with Windex and crumpled newspaper. The kennels were as clean as they'd ever been, the training yard was mowed every other afternoon, and he'd even started to reorganize the customer files. It got to the point that Beth felt guilty when she handed him his first paycheck. She knew that the paycheck was barely enough to live on. But when she'd handed the check to him, he'd simply smiled and said, "Thanks. This is great." It was all she could do to muster a subdued, "You're welcome." Other than that, they hadn't seen much of each other. They were in the third week of school, and Beth was still getting back into the flow of teaching again, which necessitated long hours in her small home office, updating lesson plans and correcting homework. Ben, on the other hand, raced out of the car as soon as he got home to play with Zeus. From what Beth observed from the window, Ben seemed to view the dog as his new best buddy, and the dog seemed to feel the same way. As soon as their car rolled up the drive, the dog would start nosing around for a stick, and he'd greet Ben with it when the car door swung open. Ben would scramble out, and as she walked up the porch steps, she'd hear Ben laughing as they raced across the yard. Logan—the name seemed to fit him better than Thibault, despite what he'd said at the creek—watched them as well, a slight smile playing across his face, before he turned back to whatever he was doing. Despite herself, she liked his smile and the ease with which it surfaced when he was with Ben or Nana. She knew that sometimes war had a way of crawling into a soldier's psyche, making it hard to readapt to the civilian world, but he showed no sign of any posttraumatic stress disorder. He seemed almost normal—aside from walking across the country, that is—which suggested that he might never have been overseas. Nana swore that she hadn't asked him about it yet. Which was odd in and of itself, considering Nana, but that was another story. Still, he seemed to be fitting into their little family business better than she'd imagined possible. A couple of days earlier, just as Logan was finishing up work for the day, she'd heard Ben race through the house to his bedroom, only to clatter out the front door again. When she peeked out the window, she realized that Ben had retrieved his baseball from his room to play catch with Logan in the yard. She watched them throw the baseball back and forth, Zeus doing his best to chase down the missed balls before Ben could get to them. If only her ex had been there to see how happily Ben played when he was not being pressured or criticized. She wasn't surprised that Logan and Nana were getting along, but the frequency with which Nana brought him up after he'd left for the night, and the glowing nature of her comments, took her aback. "You'd like him," she'd say, or, "I wonder if he knew Drake," which was her way of hinting that Beth should make an effort to get to know him. Nana had even begun to allow him to train the dogs, which was something she'd never allowed another employee to do. Every now and then, she'd mention something interesting about his past—that he'd slept beside a family of armadillos in north Texas, for instance, or that he'd once dreamed of working for the Koobi Fora Research Project in Kenya, investigating the origin of man. When she mentioned such things, there was no denying her fascination with Logan and what made him tick. Best of all, things around the kennel were beginning to calm down. After a long, hectic summer, their days had settled into a rhythm of sorts, which explained why Beth was eyeing Nana with apprehension over the dinner table at Nana's news. "What do you mean you're going to visit your sister?" Nana added a pat of butter to the bowl of shrimp and grits before her. "I haven't had a chance to visit my sister since the incident, and I want to see how she's doing. She's older than I am, you know. And now that you're teaching and Ben is at school, I can't think of a better time to go." "Who's going to take care of the kennel?" "Thibault. He's got it down to a science by now, even the training part of this. He said he'd be more than happy to work some additional hours. And he also said he'd drive me to Greensboro, so you don't have to worry about that, either. We've got it all worked out. He even volunteered to start straightening up the files for me." She speared a shrimp and chewed vigorously. "Can he drive?" Beth inquired. "He says he can." "But he doesn't have a license." "He said he'd get one at the DMV. That's why he left early. I called Frank, and he said he'd be glad to work him in for the driving test today." "He doesn't have a car—" "He's using my truck." "How did he get there?" "He drove." "But he doesn't have a license!" "I thought I already explained that." Nana looked at her as if she'd suddenly become slow-witted. "What about the choir? You're just getting back into it." "It's fine. I already told the music director I'd be visiting my sister, and she says there's no problem. In fact, she thinks it's a good idea. Of course, I've been with the choir a lot longer than she has, so she couldn't exactly say no." Beth shook her head, trying to stay on subject. "When did you start planning all this? The visit, I mean?" Nana took another bite and pretended to consider. "When she called and asked me, of course." "When did she call you?" Beth pressed. "This morning." "This morning?" From the corner of her eye, Beth noticed Ben following the interchange like a spectator at a tennis match. She shot him a warning look before returning her attention to Nana. "Are you sure this is a good idea?" "It's like candy on a battleship," Nana said with an air of finality. "What does that mean?" "It means," Nana said, "that I'm going to see my sister. She said she's bored and that she misses me. She asked me to come, and so I agreed to go. It's as simple as that." "How long do you intend to be gone?" Beth suppressed a rising sense of panic. "I'm guessing about a week." "A week?" Nana glanced at Ben. "I think your mom has caterpillars in her ears, She keeps repeating everything I say like she can't hear me." Ben giggled and popped a shrimp into his mouth. Beth stared at them both. Sometimes, she thought, dinner with these two was no better than eating with the second graders in the cafeteria. "What about your medicine?" she asked. Nana added some more shrimp and grits to her bowl. "I'll bring it. I can take my pills there just as easy as I can take them here." "What if something happens to you?" "I'd probably be better off there, don't you think?" "How can you say that?" "Now that school has started, you and Ben are gone most of the day and I'm alone in the house. There's no way Thibault would even know if I was in trouble. But when I'm in Greensboro, I'll be with my sister. And believe it or not, she has a phone and everything. She stopped using smoke signals last year." Ben giggled again but knew enough not to say anything. Instead, he grinned at the contents of his bowl. "But you haven't left the kennel since Grandpa died—" "Exactly," Nana cut her off. "But…" Nana reached across the table to pat Beth's hand. "Now, I know you're worried that you won't have my sparkling wit to keep you company for a while, but it'll give you a chance to get to know Thibault. He'll be here this weekend, too, to help you out with the kennel." "This weekend? When are you leaving?" "Tomorrow," she said. "Tomorrow?" Beth's voice came out as a squeak. Nana winked at Ben. "See what I mean? Caterpillars." After cleaning up the dinner dishes, Beth wandered to the front porch for a few solitary minutes. She knew Nana's mind was made up, and she knew she'd overreacted. Stroke or not, Nana could take care of herself, and Aunt Mimi would be thrilled to see her. Aunt Mimi had trouble walking to the kitchen these days, and it might very well be the last chance Nana had to spend a week with her. But the exchange troubled her. It wasn't the trip itself that bothered her, but what their little struggle at the dinner table signaled— the beginning of a new role for her in coming years, one she didn't feel altogether ready for. It was easy to play parent to Ben. Her role and responsibilities were clear-cut' there. But playing parent to Nana? Nana had always been so full of life, so full of energy, that until a few months ago it had been inconceivable to Beth that Nana would ever slow down. And she was doing well, really well, especially considering the stroke. But what was going to happen the next time Nana wanted to do something that Beth honestly believed wasn't in her best interest? Something simple… like driving at night, for instance? Nana couldn't see as well as she used to, and what was going to happen in a few years when Nana insisted that she wanted to drive to the grocery store after work? She knew that in the end, she'd handle these situations when the time came. But she dreaded it. It had been hard enough to keep Nana in check this summer, and that was when her physical problems were obvious even to Nana. What was going to happen when Nana didn't want to admit to them? Her thoughts were interrupted by the sight of Nana's truck slowly rolling up the drive and coming to a stop near the back entrance to the kennel. Logan got out and went around to the bed of the truck. She watched him sling a fifty-pound bag of dog food over his shoulder and head inside. When he emerged, Zeus was trotting beside him, nosing at his hand; Beth figured that he must have kept Zeus inside the office while he'd been in town. It took him a few more minutes to unload the rest of the dog food, and when he was done, he started toward the house. By then, dusk had begun to fall. The faint echo of thunder sounded in the distance, and Beth could hear the crickets beginning their evening song. She suspected the storm would hold off; with the exception of a couple of scattered showers, it had been miserably dry all summer. But the air, carried from the ocean, was scented with pine and salt, and she flashed on memories from a beach long ago. She could remember seeing spider crabs scuttling before beams from the flashlights that she and Drake and Grandpa were holding; her mom's face illuminated by the glow of the small bonfire her dad had started; the sight of Nana's marshmallow catching fire as they toasted them for smores. It was one of the few memories she had of her parents, and she wasn't even sure how much of it was real. Because she'd been so young, she suspected that Nana's memories had become fused with her own. Nana had told her the story of that night countless times, perhaps because it was the last time they'd all been together. Beth's parents had died in an auto accident only a few days later. "Are you all right?" Distracted by her memories, Beth hadn't noticed that Logan had reached the porch. In the fading light, his features seemed softer than she remembered. "Yeah, I'm fine." She straightened up and smoothed her blouse. "I was just thinking." "I have the keys to the truck," he said, his voice quiet. "I wanted to drop them off before I went home." When he held them out, she knew she could simply thank him and say good night, but—maybe because she was still upset that Nana had made her decision to leave without talking to her about it first, or maybe because she wanted to make her own decision about Logan—she took the keys and deliberately held his gaze. "Thanks," she said. "Long day for you, huh?" If he was surprised by her invitation to talk, he didn't show it. "It wasn't too bad. And I got a lot done." "Like regaining the ability to drive legally?" He offered a lazy smile. "Among other things." "Did the brakes give you any problems?" "Not once I got used to the grinding." Beth grinned at the thought. "I'll bet the examiner loved that." "I'm sure he did. I could tell by the wincing." She laughed, and for a moment, neither of them said anything. On the horizon, lightning flashed. It took some time before the thunder sounded, and she knew the storm was still a few miles off. In the silence, she noticed Logan was looking at her with that peculiar deja vu expression again. He seemed to realize it and quickly turned away. Beth followed his gaze and saw that Zeus had wandered toward the trees. The dog stood at attention, staring at Logan as if to ask, Do you want to go for a walk? Emphasizing his point, Zeus barked and Logan shook his head. "Hold your horses," he called out. He turned back toward Beth. "He's been cooped up for a while and he wants to wander." "Isn't he doing that now?" "No, I mean he wants me to wander with him. He won't let me out of his sight." "Ever?" "He can't help it. He's a shepherd and he thinks I'm his flock." Beth raised his eyebrow. "Small flock." "Yeah, but it's growing. He's really taken to Ben and Nana." "Not me?" She pretended to look wounded. Logan shrugged. "You haven't thrown a stick for him." "That's all it takes?" "He's a cheap date." She laughed again. Somehow she hadn't expected him to have a sense of humor. Surprising her, he motioned over his shoulder. "Would you like to walk with us? For Zeus, it's almost as good as throwing a stick." "Oh, it is, huh?" she parried, stalling. "I don't make the rules. I just know what they are. And I'd hate for you to feel left out." She hesitated briefly before accepting that he was just trying to be friendly. She glanced over her shoulder. "I should probably let Nana and Ben know I'm going." "You can, but we won't be gone long. Zeus just wants to go to the creek and splash around for a few minutes before we go home. Otherwise, he gets hot." He rocked on his heels, hands in his pockets. "You ready?" "Yeah, let's go." They stepped off the porch and headed down the gravel path. Zeus trotted ahead of them, checking every now and then to make sure they were following. They walked side by side, but with enough distance to ensure they didn't touch accidentally. "Nana told me you're a teacher?" Logan inquired. Beth nodded. "Second grade." "How's your class this year?" "It seems like a good group of kids. So far, anyway. And I've already had seven mothers sign up to volunteer, which is always a good sign." Moving past the kennel, they approached the small trail that led to the creek. The sun had dipped below the trees, casting the trail in shadow. As they walked, thunder boomed again. "How long have you been teaching?" "Three years." "Do you enjoy it?" "Most of the time. I work with a lot of great people, so that makes it easier." "But?" She didn't seem to understand his question. He pushed his hands into his pockets and went on. "There's always a 'but' when it comes to jobs. Like, I love my job and my colleagues are first-rate, but… a couple of them like to dress up like superheroes on the weekend and I can't help but wonder if they're nuts." She laughed. "No, they really are great. And I do love teaching. It's just that every now and then there's a student who comes from a challenging family background, and you know there's nothing you can do for them. It's enough to break your heart sometimes." She walked a few steps in silence. "How about you, though? Do you like working here?" "Yeah, I do." He sounded sincere. "But?" He shook his head. "No buts." "That's not fair. I told you." "Yes, but you weren't talking to the boss's granddaughter. And speaking of my boss, do you have any idea what time we'll be leaving tomorrow?" "She didn't tell you?" "No. I figured I'd ask when I dropped off the keys." "She didn't say, but I'm sure she'll want you to train and exercise the dogs before you leave so the dogs won't get antsy." They'd come within sight of the creek, and Zeus plunged ahead into the water, splashing and barking. Logan and Beth watched him frolic before Logan motioned toward the low branch. Beth took a seat and he joined her, carefully preserving the space between them. "How far is Greensboro from here?" he asked. "Five hours, there and back. It's mainly on the interstate." "Do you have any idea when she'll be coming home?" Beth shrugged. "She told me a week." "Oh…" Logan seemed to digest this. All worked out, my foot, Beth thought. Logan was more in the dark than she was. "I'm getting the impression Nana didn't tell you much about this." "Just that she was going and I was driving, so I'd better get my license. Oh, and that I'd be working this weekend." "That figures. Listen, about that… I can handle things this weekend if you have things to do—" "It's no problem," Logan said. "I don't have anything planned. And there are some things I haven't had a chance to get to yet. Just some little things that need to be fixed." "Like installing an air conditioner in the kennel officer' "I was thinking more along the lines of painting the door trim and seeing what I can do to get the office window to open." "The one that's painted shut? Good luck. My grandpa tried to fix it for years. He once worked a whole day on it with a razor blade and ended up wearing Band-Aids for a week. It still wouldn't open." "You're not filling me with confidence here," Logan said. "Just trying to warn you. And it's funny because it was my grandpa who painted it shut in the first place, and he had a whole storage shed full of just about every tool you could imagine. He was one of those guys who thought he could fix anything, but it never quite worked out as well as he'd planned. He was more of a visionary than a nuts-and-bolts kind of guy. Have you seen Ben's tree house and the bridge?" "From a distance," Logan admitted. "A case in point. It took Grandpa most of one summer to build it, and whenever Ben goes there now, I cringe. How it's lasted this long without blowing over I have no idea. It scares me, but Ben loves to go there, especially when he's upset or nervous about something. He calls it his hideout. He goes there a lot." When she paused, he could see her concern, but it lasted only an instant before she came back to him. "Anyway, Grandpa was a prize. All heart and soul, and he gave us the most idyllic childhood you could imagine." "Us?" "My brother and me." She gazed toward the tree, the leaves silver in the moonlight. "Did Nana tell you what happened to my parents?" He nodded. "Briefly. I'm sorry." She waited, wondering if he'd add anything else, but he didn't. "What was it like?" she asked. "Walking across the country?" Logan took his time answering. "It was… peaceful. Just being able to go where I wanted, when I wanted, with no rush to get there." "You make it sound therapeutic." "It was, I suppose." A sad smile flickered across his face, then was gone. "In a way." As he said it, the fading light reflected in his eyes, making them seem as if they were changing color incrementally. "Did you find what you were looking for?" she asked, her expression serious. Logan paused. "Yeah, actually I did." "And?" "I don't know yet." She evaluated his answer, unsure what to make of it. "Now don't take this the wrong way, but for some reason, I don't see you staying in one place for very long." "Is that because I walked from Colorado?" "That has a lot to do with it." He laughed, and for the first time, Beth was conscious of how long it had been since she'd had a conversation like this. It felt easy and unforced. With Adam, the conversation had been stiff, as though both had been trying too hard. She still wasn't sure how she felt about Logan, but it seemed right that they were finally on friendly terms. She cleared her throat. "Now, about tomorrow. I'm thinking that maybe the two of you should take my car, and I'll use the truck to go to school. I'm a little worried about the truck's brakes." "I have to admit I wondered about that, too. But I'm pretty sure I can fix it. Not by tomorrow, but on the weekend." "You can repair cars, too?" "Yes. But brakes aren't hard. They need some new pads, but I think the rotors are probably okay." "Is there anything you can't do?" Beth asked, only half feigning amazement. "Yes." She laughed. "That's good. But okay, I'll talk to Nana and I'm sure she'll be fine with using my car. I don't trust those brakes at highway speed. And I'll make sure to check on the dogs when I finish up at school, okay? I'm sure Nana didn't mention that to you either. But I will." He nodded just as Zeus padded out. He shook off, then moved closer to sniff at Beth before licking her hands. "He likes me." "He's probably just tasting you." "Funny," she said. It was the type of thing Drake would have said, and she was struck by the sudden desire to be alone once again. She stood. "I should probably be heading back. I'm sure they're wondering where I am." Logan noticed the clouds had continued to thicken. "Yeah, me too. I want to get home before it starts pouring. The storm seems to be getting closer." "Do you want a ride?" "Thank you, but no, that's okay. I like to walk." "Gee, I never would have known," she said with a faint smile. They retraced their steps to the house, and when they reached the gravel drive, Beth pulled a hand out of her jeans pocket and gave a small wave. "Thanks for the walk, Logan." She expected him to correct her the way he had with Ben—to tell her again he was called Thibault—but he didn't. Instead, he raised his chin slightly and grinned. "You too, Elizabeth." She knew the storm wouldn't last long, though they desperately needed the rain. It had been a hot, dry summer, and it seemed like the heat would never break. As she sat listening to the last drops of rain falling on the tin roof, she found herself thinking about her brother. Before Drake left, he'd told her that the sound of rain on their roof was the sound he would miss most of all. She wondered if he often dreamed of these North Carolina summer storms in the dry land where he ended up. The thought made her feel hollow and sad all over again. Nana was in her room packing for her trip, as excited as she'd been in years. Ben, on the other hand, was becoming more and more subdued, which meant he was thinking about the fact that he'd have to spend a big chunk of the weekend with his father. Which also meant she'd have a weekend alone at home, her first solo weekend in a long, long time. Except for Logan. She could understand why both Nana and Ben had been drawn to him. He possessed a quiet confidence that seemed rare these days. It was only after she got back Co the house that she realized she'd learned little about him that he hadn't already told her during their initial interview. She wondered whether he'd always been so private or if it stemmed from his time in Iraq, He'd been there, she'd decided. No, he hadn't said as much, but she'd seen something in his expression when she'd mentioned her parents—his simple response hinted at a familiarity with tragedy and an acceptance of it as an unavoidable aspect of life. She didn't know whether that made her feel better or worse about him. Like Drake, he was a marine. But Logan was here, and Drake was gone, and for that reason as well as more complicated ones, she wasn't sure that she could ever look at Logan with fairness in her heart. Gazing up at the stars that had emerged between the storm clouds, she felt the loss of Drake like a newly reopened wound. After their parents had died, they had been inseparable, even sleeping in the same bed for a year. He was only a year younger than her, and she distinctly remembered walking to school with him on the first day of kindergarten. To stop his tears, she had promised that he'd make lots of friends and that she'd wait by the swing set to walk him home. Unlike many siblings, they had never been rivals. She was his biggest cheerleader, and he was her unwavering supporter. Throughout high school, she went to every football, basketball, and baseball game he played and tutored him when he needed it. For his part, he was the only one who remained unfazed by her dizzying teenage mood swings. The only disagreement they'd ever had concerned Keith, but unlike Nana, Drake kept his feelings largely to himself. But she knew how he felt, and when she and Keith separated, it was Drake she turned to for support as she tried to find her footing as a newly single mother. And it was Drake, she knew, who kept Keith from pounding on her door late at night in the months immediately afterward. Drake had been the one person she'd ever known that Keith was afraid to cross. By that point, he'd matured. Not only had he been an excellent athlete in virtually every sport, but he'd taken up boxing when he was twelve. By eighteen, he'd won the Golden Gloves in North Carolina three times, and he sparred regularly with troops stationed at Fort Bragg and Camp Lejeune. It was the hours he spent with them that first made Drake consider enlisting. He'd never been a great student, and he lasted only a year at a community college before deciding it wasn't for him. She'd been the only one he'd talked to about enlisting. She had been proud of his decision to serve his country, her heart bursting with love and admiration the first time she saw him outfitted in his dress blues. Though she had been scared when he was posted to Kuwait and, later, Iraq, she couldn't help but believe that he was going to make it. But Drake Green never did make it home. She could barely recall the days immediately after she'd learned that her brother had died, and she didn't like to think of them now. His death had left her with an emptiness that she knew would never fill completely. But time had lessened the pain. In the immediacy of his loss, she never would have believed it possible, but she couldn't deny that when she thought of Drake these days, it was usually the happier times she remembered. Even when she visited the cemetery to talk to him, she no longer experienced the agony those visits once aroused. Nowadays, her sadness felt less visceral than her anger. But it felt real right now, in the wake of the realization that she—like Nana and Ben—was drawn to Thibault, too, if only because she felt an ease with him that she hadn't known with anyone since losing Drake. And there was this: Only Drake had ever called her by her given name. Neither her parents nor Nana, no Grandpa, nor any of her friends growing up had ever called her anything but Beth. Keith hadn't either; to be honest, she wasn't sure he even knew her real name. Only Drake had called her Elizabeth, and only when they were alone. It was their secret, a secret meant for just the two of them, and she'd never been able to imagine how it would sound coming from someone else. But, somehow, Logan made it sound just right.Sunday. After church, it was supposed to be a day of rest, when she could recover and recharge for the coming week. The day she was supposed to spend with her family, cooking stew in the kitchen and taking relaxing walks along the river. Maybe even cuddle up with a good book while she sipped a glass of wine, or soak in a warm bubble bath. What she didn't want to do was spend the day scooping dog poop off the grassy area where the dogs trained, or clean the kennels, or train twelve dogs one right after the next, or sit in a sweltering office waiting for people to come pick up the family pets that were relaxing in cool, air-conditioned kennels. Which, of course, was exactly what she'd been doing since she'd gotten back from church earlier that morning. Two dogs had already been picked up, but four more were scheduled for pickup sometime today. Nana had been kind enough to lay out the files for her before she retreated to the house to watch the game. The Atlanta Braves were playing the Mets, and not only did Nana love the Atlanta Braves with a feverish passion that struck Beth as rediculous, but she loved any and all memorabilia associated with the team. Which explained, of course, the Atlanta Braves coffee cups stacked near the snack counter, the Atlanta Braves pennants on the walls, the Atlanta Braves desk-calendar, and the Atlanta Braves lamp near the window. Even with the door open, the air in the office was stifling. It was one of those hot, humid summer days great for swimming in the river but unfit for anything else. Her shirt was soaked with perspiration, and because she was wearing shorts, her legs kept sticking to the vinyl chair she sat in. Every time she moved her legs, she was rewarded with a sort of sticky sound, like peeling tape from a cardboard box, which was just plain gross. While Nana considered it imperative to keep the dogs cool, she'd never bothered to add cooling ducts that led to the office. "If you're hot, just prop the door to the kennels open," she'd always said, ignoring the fact that while she didn't mind the endless barking, most normal people did. And today there were a couple of little yappers in there: a pair of Jack Russell terriers that hadn't stopped barking since Beth had arrived. Beth assumed they'd barked nearly all night, since most of the other dogs seemed grumpy as well. Every minute or so, other dogs joined in an angry chorus, the sounds rising in pitch and intensity, as if every dog's sole desire was to voice its displeasure more loudly than the next. Which meant there wasn't a chance on earth that she was going to open the door to cool off the office. She toyed with the idea of going up to the house to fetch another glass of ice water, but she had the funny feeling that as soon as she left the office, the owners who'd dropped off their cocker spaniel for obedience training would show up. They'd called half an hour ago, telling her that they were on their way—"We'll be there in ten minutes!"—and they were the kind of people who would be upset if their cocker spaniel had to sit in a kennel for a minute longer than she had to, especially after spending two weeks away from home. But were they here yet? Of course not. It would have been so much easier if Ben were around. She'd seen him in church that morning with his father, and he'd looked as glum as she'd expected. As always, it hadn't been a lot of fun for him. He'd called before going to bed last night and told her that Keith had spent a good chunk of the evening sitting alone on die porch outside while Ben cleaned the kitchen. What, she wondered, was that about? Why couldn't he just enjoy the fact that his son was there? Or simply sit and talk with him? Ben was just about the easiest kid to get along with, and she wasn't saying that because she was biased. Well, okay, she admitted, maybe she was a little biased, but as a teacher, she'd spent time with lots of different kids and she knew what she was talking about. Ben was smart. Ben had a zany sense of humor. Ben was naturally kind. Ben was polite. Ben was great, and it made her crazy to realize that Keith was too dumb to see it. She really wished she were inside the house doing… some' thing. Anything. Even doing laundry was more exciting than sitting out here. Out here, she had way too much time to think. Not only about Ben, but about Nana, too. And about whether she would teach this year. And even the sad state of her love life, which never failed to depress her. It would be wonderful, she thought, to meet someone special, someone to laugh with, some-one who would love Ben as much as she did. Or even to meet a man with whom she could go to dinner and a movie. A normal man, like someone who remembered to put his napkin in his lap in a restaurant and opened a door for her now and then. That wasn't so unreasonable, was it? She hadn't been lying to Melody when she'd said her choices in town were slim, and she'd be the first to admit that she was picky, but aside from the short time with Adam, she'd spent every other weekend at home this past year. Forty-nine out of fifty-two weekends. She wasn't that picky, that's for sure. The simple fact was that Adam had been the only one who'd asked her out, and for a reason she still didn't understand, he'd suddenly stopped calling. Which pretty much summed up the story of her dating life the last few years. But no big deal, right? She'd survived without a relationship this long, and she'd soldier on. Besides, most of the time it didn't bother her. If it hadn't been such a miserably hot day, she doubted it would bother her now. Which meant she definitely had to cool off. Otherwise she'd probably start thinking about the past, and she definitely didn't want to go there. Fingering her empty glass, she decided to get that ice water. And while she was at it, a small towel to sit on. As she rose from her seat, she peeked down the empty gravel drive, then she scribbled a note saying she'd be back in ten minutes and tacked it to the front door of the office. Outside, the sun pressed down hard, driving her toward the shade offered by the ancient magnolia and guiding her to the gravel path that led toward the house she'd grown up in. Built around 1920, it resembled a broad, low-country farmhouse, banded by a large porch and sporting carved molding in the eaves. The backyard, hidden from the kennel and office by towering hedges, was shaded by giant oaks and graced with a series of decks that made eating outside a pleasure. The place must have been magnificent long ago, but like so many rural homes around Hampton, time and the elements had conspired against it. These days the porch sagged, the floors squeaked, and when the wind was strong enough, papers would blow off the counters even when the windows were closed. Inside, it was pretty much the same story: great bones, but the place needed modern updates, especially in the kitchen and bathrooms. Nana knew it and mentioned doing something about it every now and then, but they were projects that always got put on the back burner. Besides, Beth had to admit that the place still had unique appeal. Not only the backyard—which was truly an oasis—but inside as well. For years, Nana had frequented antiques shops, and she favored anything French from the nineteenth century. She also spent good chunks of her weekends at garage sales, rummaging through old paintings. She had a knack for paintings in general and had developed some good friendships with a number of gallery owners throughout the South. The paintings hung on nearly every wall in the house. On a lark, Beth had once Googled a couple of the artists' names and learned that other works by those artists hung in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and the Huntington Library in San Marino, California When she mentioned what she'd learned, Nana had winked and said, "It's like sipping champagne, ain't it?" Nana's nutty turns of phrase often disguised her razor sharp instincts. After reaching the front porch and opening the door, Beth was hit by a blast of cool air so refreshing that she stood in the doorway, savoring the feeling. "Close the door," Nana called over her shoulder. "You're letting the air out." She turned in her chair, giving Beth the onceover. "You look hot." "I am hot." "I take it that the office feels like a furnace today." "Ya think?" "I think you should have opened the door to the kennel like I told you. But that's just me. Well, come on in and cool off for a while." Beth motioned to the set. "How're the Braves doing?" "Like a bunch of carrots." "Is that good or bad?" "Can carrots play baseball?" "I guess not." "Then you have your answer." Beth smiled as she walked to the kitchen. Nana always got a little edgy when the Braves were losing. From inside the freezer she drew out an ice tray and cracked out a few cubes. After dropping them into a glass, she filled it and took a long, satisfying drink. Realizing she was hungry as well, she chose a banana from the fruit bowl and went back to the living room. She propped herself on the armrest of the couch, feeling the sweat evaporate in the cold draft, half watching Nana and half watching the game. Part of her wanted to ask how many touchdowns had been scored, but she knew Nana wouldn't appreciate the humor. Not if the Braves were playing like a bunch of carrots, anyway. Glancing at the clock, she exhaled, knowing she had to get back to the office. "It was nice visiting with you, Nana." "You too, sweetie. Try not to get too hot." "I'll do my best." Beth retraced her steps to the kennel office, noting with disappointment the absence of cars in the parking lot, which meant the owners still hadn't showed up. There was, however, a man walking up the drive, a German shepherd by his side. Dust spirals were rising in the dirt behind him, and the dog's head drooped, his tongue hanging out. She wondered why they were outside on a day like this. Even animals preferred to stay indoors. Thinking back, she realized it was the first time she could ever remember someone walking his dog to the kennel. Not only that, but whoever it was hadn't called for an appointment. People dropping off their pets always called for an appointment. Figuring they'd reach the office at about the same time, she waved a greeting and was surprised when the man paused to stare at her. The dog did the same, his ears rising, and her first thought was that he looked a lot like Oliver, the German shepherd Nana had brought to the house when Beth was thirteen. He had the same black-and-tan markings, the same tilt of his head, the same intimidating stance in the presence of strangers. Not that she'd ever been afraid of Oliver. He'd been more Drake's dog during the day, but Oliver had always slept beside her bed at night, finding comfort in her presence. Brought up short by memories of Drake and Oliver, she didn't realize at first that the man still hadn't moved. Nor had he said anything. Odd. Maybe he'd expected Nana. Because his face was in shadow, she couldn't tell one way or the other, but no matter. Once she reached the door, she took down the note and propped the door open, figuring he'd come to the office when he was ready. She walked around the counter and saw the vinyl chair, realizing she'd forgotten the towel. Figured. Thinking she'd get the paperwork ready for the stranger to drop off his dog, she grabbed a sheet from the file cabinet and attached it to the clipboard. She rummaged through the desk for a pen and set both on the counter just as the stranger and his dog walked in. He smiled, and when their eyes met, it was one of the few times in her life that she felt at a complete loss for words. It had less to do with the fact that he was staring than with the may he was staring. As crazy as it sounded, he was looking at her as though he recognized her. But she'd never seen him before; she was sure of that. She would have remembered him, if only because he reminded her of Drake in the way he seemed to dominate the room. Like Drake, he was probably close to six feet and lean, with wiry arms and broad shoulders. There was a rugged edge to his appearance, underscored by his sun-bleached jeans and T-shirt. But that's where the similarities ended. While Drake's eyes were brown and rimmed with hazel, the stranger's were blue; where Drake had always kept his hair short, the stranger's hair was longer, almost wild looking. She noted that despite having walked here, he seemed to be sweating less than she was. She felt suddenly self-conscious and turned away just as the stranger took a step toward the counter. From the corner of her eye, she watched him raise his palm slightly in the dog's direction. She'd seen Nana do that a thousand times, and the dog, attuned to every subtle move, stayed in place. The dog was already well trained, which probably meant he was here for boarding. "Your dog is beautiful," she said, sliding the clipboard toward him. The sound of her own voice broke the awkward silence. "I had a German shepherd once. What's his name?" "This is Zeus. And thank you." "Hello, Zeus." Zeus's head tilted to the side. "I'm just going to need you to sign in," she said. "And if you have a copy of the vet's records, that would be great. Or the contact information." "Excuse me?" "The vet's records. You're here to board Zeus, right?" "No," he said. He motioned over his shoulder. "Actually, I saw the sign in the window. I'm looking for work, and I was wondering if you still had anything available." "Oh." She hadn't expected that and tried to reorient herself. He shrugged. "I know I probably should have called first, but I was out this way anyway. I figured I'd just swing by in person to see if you had an application. If you want me to come back tomorrow, I will." "No, it's not that. I'm just surprised. People usually don't come by on Sundays to apply for a job." Actually, they didn't come by on other days, either, but she left that part out. "I've got an application on file here somewhere," she said, turning toward the cabinet behind her. "Just give me a second to grab it." She pulled out the bottom drawer and began rummaging through the files. "What's your name?" "Logan Thibault." "Is that French?" "On my father's side." "I haven't seen you around here before." "I'm new in town." "Gotcha." She fished out the application. "Okay, here it is." She set it in front of him on the counter along with a pen. As he printed his name, she noted a certain roughness to his skin, making her think that he spent a lot of time in the sun. At the second line of the form, he paused and looked up, their eyes meeting for the second time. She felt her neck flush slightly and tried to hide it by adjusting her shirt. "I'm not sure what I should put for an address. Like I said, I just got to town and I'm staying at the Holiday Motor Court. I could also use my mom's mailing address in Colorado. Which would you prefer?" "Colorado?" "Yeah, I know. Kind of far from here." "What brought you to Hampton?" You, he thought. I came to find you. "It seems like a nice town, and I figured I'd give it a try." "No family here?" "None." "Oh," she said. Handsome or not, his story didn't sit right, and she heard mental alarm bells starting to go off. There was something else, too, something gnawing at the back of her mind, and it took her a few seconds to realize what it was. When she did, she took a small step back from the counter, creating a bit more space between them. "If you just got to town, how did you know the kennel was hiring? I didn't run an ad in the paper this week." "I saw the sign." "When?" She squinted at him. "I saw you walking up, and there was no way you could have seen the sign until you got to the front of the office." "I saw it earlier today. We were walking along the road, and Zeus heard dogs barking. He took off this way, and when I went to find him, I noticed the sign. No one was around, so I figured I'd come back later to see if that had changed." The story was plausible, but she sensed that he was either lying or leaving something out. And if he had been here before, what did that mean? That he'd been scoping out the place? He seemed to notice her unease and set the pen aside. From inside his pocket he pulled out his passport and flipped it open. When he slid it toward her, she glanced at the photo, then up at him. His name, she saw, was legitimate, though it didn't silence the alarm bells. No one passed through Hampton and decided to stay here on a whim. Charlotte, yes. Raleigh, of course. Greensboro, absolutely. But Hampton? Not a chance. "I see," she said, suddenly wanting to end this conversation. "Just go ahead and put your mailing address on it. And your work experience. After that, all I need is a number where I can reach you and I'll be in touch." His gaze was steady on hers. "But you're not going to call." He was sharp, she thought. And direct. Which meant she would be, too. "No." He nodded. "Okay. I probably wouldn't call me based on what you've heard so far, either. But before you jump to conclusions, can I add something else?" "Go ahead." Her tone made it plain that she didn't believe anything he said would matter. "Yes, I'm temporarily staying at the motel, but I do intend to find a place to live around here. I will also find a job here." His gaze did not waver. "Now about me. I graduated from the University of Colorado in 2002 with a degree in anthropology. After that, I joined the marines, and I received an honorable discharge two years ago. I've never been arrested or charged with any crime, I've never taken drugs, and I've never been fired for incompetence. I'm willing to take a drug test, and if you think it necessary, you can have a background check run to confirm everything I said. Or if it's easiest, you can call my former commanding officer, and he'll verify everything I've said. And even though the law doesn't require me to answer a question of this type, I'm not on medication of any kind. In other words, I'm not schizophrenic or bipolar or manic. I'm just a guy who needs a job. And I did see the sign earlier." She hadn't known what she'd expected him to say, but he'd certainly caught her off guard. "I see," she said again, focusing on the fact that he'd been in the military. "Is it still a waste of time for me to fill out the application" "J haven't decided yet." She felt intuitively that he was telling the truth this time, but she was equally certain there was more to the story than he was revealing. She gnawed the inside of her cheek. She needed to hire someone. Which was more important— knowing what he was hiding or finding a new employee? He stood before her erect and calm, and his posture spoke of easy confidence. Military bearing, she observed with a frown. "Why do you want to work here?" The words sounded suspicious even to her. "With a degree, you could probably get a better job somewhere else in town." He motioned toward Zeus. "I like dogs." "It doesn't pay much." "I don't need much." "The days can be long." "I figured they would be." "Have you ever worked in a kennel before?" "No." "I see." He smiled. "You say that a lot." "Yes, I do," she said. Note to self: Stop saying it. "And you're sure you don't know anyone in town?" "No." "You just arrived in Hampton and decided to stay." "Yes." 'Where's your car?" "I don't have one." "How did you get here?" "I walked." She blinked, uncomprehending. "Are you telling me that you walked all the way from Colorado?" "Yes." "You don't think that's odd?" "I suppose it depends on the reason." "What's your reason?" "I like to walk." "I see." She couldn't think of anything else-to say. She reached for the pen, stalling. "I take it you're not married," she said. "No." "Kids?" "None. It's just me and Zeus. But my mom still lives in Colorado" She pushed a sweaty lock of hair back from her forehead, equal parts flustered and bemused. "I still don't get it. You walk across the country, you get to Hampton, you say you like the place, and now you want to work here?" "Yes." "There's nothing else you want to add?" "No." She opened her mouth to say something, then changed her mind. "Excuse me for a minute. I have to talk to someone." Beth could handle a lot of things, but this was beyond her. As much as she tried, she couldn't quite grasp everything he'd told her. On some level, it made sense, but on the whole, it just seemed… off. If the guy was telling the truth, he was strange; if he was lying, he picked strange lies. Either way, it was weird. Which was why, of course, she wanted to talk to Nana. If anyone could figure him out, Nana could. Unfortunately, as she approached the house, she realized the game wasn't over yet. She could hear the announcers debating whether it was right for the Mets to bring in a relief pitcher or something along those lines. When she opened the door, she was surprised to find Nana's seat empty. "Nana?" Nana poked her head out from the kitchen. "In here. I was just getting ready to pour myself a glass of lemonade. Would you like some? I can do it one-handed." "Actually, I need to talk to you. Do you have a minute? I know the game is still on …" She waved the thought away. "Oh, I'm done with that. Go ahead and turn it off. The Braves can't win, and the last thing I want to do is listen to their excuses. I hate excuses. There's no reason they should have lost, and they know it. What's going on?" Beth walked into the kitchen and leaned against the counter as Nana poured the lemonade from the pitcher. "Are you hungry?" Nana inquired. "I can make you a quick sandwich." "I just had a banana." "That's not enough. You're as skinny as a golf club." From your mouth to God's ears, Beth thought. "Maybe later. Someone came in to apply for the job. He's here now." "You mean the cute one with the German shepherd? I figured that's what he was doing. How is he? Tell me that it's always been his dream to clean cages." "You saw him?" "Of course." "How did you know he was applying for the job?" "Why else would you want to talk to me?" Beth shook her head. Nana was always a step ahead of her. "Anyway, I think you should talk to him. I don't quite know what to make of him." "Does his hair have anything to do with it?" '"What?" "His hair. It kind of makes him look like Tarzan, don't you think?" "I really didn't notice." "Sure you did, sweetie. You can't lie to me. What's the problem?" Quickly, Beth gave her a rundown of the interview. When she was finished, Nana sat in silence. "He walked from Colorado?" "That's what he says." "And you believe him?" "That part?" She hesitated. "Yeah, I think he's telling the truth about that." "That's a long walk." "I know." "How many miles is that?" "I don't know. A lot." "That's kind of strange, don't you think?" "Yes," she said. "And there's something else, too." "What?" "He was a marine." Nana sighed. "Why don't you wait here. I'll go talk to him." For the next ten minutes, Beth watched them from behind the living room window curtains. Nana hadn't stayed in the office to conduct the interview; instead, she'd led them to the wooden bench in the shade of the magnolia tree. Zeus was dozing at their feet, his ear flicking every now and then, shooing away the occasional fly. Beth couldn't make out what either of them was saying, but occasionally she saw Nana frown, which seemed to suggest the interview wasn't going well. In the end, Logan Thibault and Zeus walked back up the gravel drive toward the main road, while Nana watched them with a concerned expression on her face. Beth thought Nana would make her way back to the house, but instead she began walking toward the office. It was then that Beth noticed a blue Volvo station wagon rolling up the drive. The cocker spaniel. She'd completely forgotten about the pickup, but it seemed obvious that Nana was going to handle it. Beth used the time to cool herself with a cold washcloth and drink another glass of ice water. From the kitchen, she heard the front door squeak open as Nana came back inside. "How'd it go?" "It went fine." "What did you think?" "It Was… interesting. He's intelligent and polite, but you're right. He's definitely hiding something." "So where does that leave us? Should I put another ad in the fan paper: "Let's see how he works out first." Beth wasn't sure she had heard Nana right. "Are you saying you're going to hire him?" "No, I'm saying I did hire him. He starts Wednesday at eight." "Why'd you do that?" "I trust him." She gave a sad smile, as if she knew exactly what Beth was thinking. "Even if he was a marine."As night fell, Beth stood on the back deck, watching Logan concentrate on the chess board in front of him, thinking, I like him. The thought, when it struck her, felt at once surprising and natural. Ben and Logan were on their second game of chess, and Logan was taking his time on his next move. Ben had handily won the first game, and she could read the surprise in Logan's expression. He took it well, even asking Ben what he'd done wrong. They'd reset the board to an earlier position, and Ben showed Logan the series of errors he had made, first with his rook and queen and then, finally, with his knight. "Well, I'll be," Logan had said. He'd smiled at Ben. "Good job." She didn't want to even imagine how Keith would have reacted had he lost. In fact, she didn't have to imagine it. They'd played once a couple of years ago, and when Ben won, Keith had literally flipped the board over before storming out of the room. A few minutes later, while Ben was still gathering the pieces from behind the furniture, Keith came back into the room. Instead of apologizing, he declared that chess was a waste of time and that Ben would be better off doing something important, like studying for his classes at school or going to the batting cage, since "he hit about as well as a blind man." She really wanted to strangle the man sometimes. With Logan, though, things were different. Beth could see that Logan was in trouble again. She couldn't tell by looking at the board—the intricacies that separated the good from the great players were beyond her—but whenever Ben studied his opponent rather than his pieces, she knew the end was coming, even if Logan didn't seem to realize it. What she loved most about the scene was that despite the concentration the game required, Logan and Ben still managed to… talk. About school and Ben's teachers and what Zeus had been like when he was a puppy, and because Logan seemed genuinely interested, Ben revealed a few things that surprised her—that one of the other boys in his class had taken his lunch a couple of times and that Ben had a crush on a girl named Cici. Logan didn't deliver advice; instead he asked Ben what he thought he should do. Based on her experience with men, most assumed that when you talked to them about a problem or dilemma, they were expected to offer an opinion, even when all you wanted was for them to listen. Logan's natural reticence actually seemed to give Ben room to express himself. It was clear that Logan was comfortable with who he was. He wasn't trying to impress Ben or impress her by showing her how well he could get along with Ben. Though she'd dated infrequently over the years, she'd found that most suitors either pretended Ben didn't exist and said only a few words to him or went overboard in the way they talked to him, trying to prove how wonderful they were by being overly friendly with her son. From an early age, Ben had seen through both types almost immediately. So had she, and that was usually enough for her to end things. Well, when they weren't ending the relationship with her, that is. It was obvious that Ben liked spending time with Logan, and even better, she got the sense that Logan liked spending time with Ben. In the silence, Logan continued to stare at the board, his finger resting momentarily on his knight before moving it to his pawn. Ben's eyebrows rose ever so slightly. She didn't know whether Ben thought the move Logan was considering was a good one or a bad one, but Logan went ahead and moved the pawn forward. Ben made his next move almost immediately, something she recognized as a bad sign for Logan. A few minutes later, Logan seemed to realize that no matter what move he made, there was no way for his king to escape. He shook his head. "You got me." "Yeah," Ben confirmed, "I did." "I thought I was playing better." "You were," Ben said. "Until?" "Until you made your second move." Logan laughed. "Chess humor?" "We've got lots of jokes like that," Ben said, obviously proud. He motioned to the yard. "Is it dark enough?" "Yeah, I think so. You ready to play, Zeus?" Zeus's ears pricked up and he cocked his head. When Logan and Ben stood, Zeus scrambled to his feet. "You coming, Mom?" Beth rose from her chair. "I'm right behind you." They wended their way in the darkness to the front of the house. Beth paused by the front steps. "Maybe I should get a flashlight." "That's cheating!" Ben complained. "Not for the dog. For you. So you don't get lost." "He won't get lost," Logan assured her. "Zeus will find him." "Easy to say when it's not your son." "I'll be fine," Ben added. She looked from Ben to Logan before shaking her head. She wasn't entirely comfortable, but Logan didn't seem worried at all "Okay," she said, sighing. "I want one for me, then. Is that okay?" "Okay," Ben agreed. "What do I do?" "Hide," Logan said. "And I'll send Zeus to find you." "Anywhere I want?" "Why don't you hide out that way?" Logan said, pointing toward a wooded area west of the creek, on the opposite side of the driveway from the kennel. "I don't want you accidentally slipping into the creek. And besides, your scent will be fresh out that way. Remember, you two were playing out this way before dinner. Now once he finds you, just follow him out, okay? That way you won't get lost." Ben peered toward the woods. "Okay. How do I know he won't watch?" "I'll put him inside and count to a hundred before I let him out. "And you won't let him peek ?" "Promise." Logan focused his attention on Zeus. "Come," he said. He went to the door and opened it before pausing. "Is it okay if I let him in?" Beth nodded. "It's fine." Logan motioned for Zeus to go in and lie down, then closed the door. "Okay, you're ready." Ben started to jog toward the woods as Logan began to count out loud. In midstride, Ben called over his shoulder, "Count slower!" His figure gradually merged into the darkness, and even before reaching the woods, he'd vanished from sight. Beth crossed her arms. "I must say that I don't have a good feeling about this." "Why not?" "My son hiding in the woods at night? Gee, I wonder." "He'll be fine. Zeus will find him in two or three minutes. At the most." "You have an inordinate amount of faith in your dog." Logan smiled, and for a moment they stood on the porch, taking in the evening. The air, warm and humid but no longer hot, smelled like the land itself: a mixture of oak and pine and earth, an odor that never failed to remind Beth that even though the world was constantly changing, this particular place always seemed to stay the same. She was aware that Logan had been observing her all night, trying hard not to stare, and she knew she'd been doing the same with him. She realized she liked the way Logan's intent made her feel. She was pleased he found her attractive but liked that his attraction didn't possess any of the urgency or naked desire she often felt when men stared at her. Instead, he seemed content simply to stand beside her, and for whatever reason, it was exactly what she needed. "I'm glad you stayed for dinner," she offered, not knowing what else to say. "Ben's having a great time." "I'm glad, too." "You were so good with him in there. Playing chess, I mean." "It's not hard." "You wouldn't think so, right?" He hesitated. "Are we talking about your ex again?" "Am I that obvious?" She leaned against a post. "You're right, though. I am talking about my ex. The putz." He leaned against the post on the opposite side of the stairs, facing her. "And?" "And I just wish things could be different." He hesitated, and she knew he was wondering whether or not to say anything more. In the end, he said nothing. "You wouldn't like him," she volunteered. "In fact, I don't think he'd like you, either." "No?" "No. And consider yourself lucky. You're not missing anything." He looked at her steadily, not saying anything. Remembering the way she had shut him down earlier, she supposed. She brushed away a few strands of hair that had fallen into her eyes, wondering whether to go on. "Do you want to hear about it?" "Only if you want to tell me," he offered. She felt her thoughts drifting from the present to the past and sighed. "It's the oldest story in the book … I was a nerdy high school senior, he was a couple of years older than me, but we'd gone to the same church for as long as I can remember, so I knew exactly who he was. We started going out a few months before I graduated. His family is well-off, and he'd always dated the most popular girls, and I guess I just got caught up in the fantasy of it all. I overlooked some obvious problems, made excuses for others, and the next thing you know, I found out I was pregnant. All of a sudden, my life just… changed, you know? I wasn't going to go to college that fall, I had no idea how to even be a mother, let alone a single mother; I couldn't imagine how I was going to pull it all off. The last thing in the world I expected was for him to propose. But for whatever reason, he did, and I said yes, and even though I wanted to believe that it was all going to work out and did my best to convince Nana that I knew what I was doing, I think both of us knew it was a mistake before the ink was dry on the marriage certificate. We had virtually nothing in common. Anyway, we argued pretty much constantly, and ended up separating soon after Ben was born. And then, I was really lost." Logan brought his hands together. "But it didn't stop you." "Stop me from what?" "From eventually going to college and becoming a teacher. And figuring out how to be a single mother." He grinned, "And somehow pulling it off." She gave him a grateful smile. "With Nana's help." "Whatever it takes." He crossed one leg over the other, seeming to study her before he smirked. "Nerdy, huh?" "In high school? Oh yeah. I was definitely nerdy." "I find that hard to believe." "Believe what you want." "So how did college work?" "With Ben, you mean? It wasn't easy. But I already had some AP credits, which gave me a bit of a head start, and then I took classes at the community college while Ben was still in diapers. I took classes only two or three days a week while Nana took care of Ben, and I'd come home and study when I wasn't being Mom. Same thing when I transferred to UNC Wilmington, which was close enough to go to school and make it back here at night. It took me six years to get my degree and certificate, but I didn't want to take advantage of Nana, and I didn't want to give my ex any reason to get full Custody. And back then, he might have tried for it, just because he could." "He sounds like a charmer." She grimaced. "You have no idea." "You want me to beat him up?" She laughed. "That's funny. There might have been a time when I would have taken you up on that, but not anymore. He's just… immature. He thinks every woman he meets is crazy for him, gets angry at little things, and blames other people when things go wrong. Thirty One going on sixteen, if you know what I mean." From the side, she could sense Logan watching her. "But enough about him. Tell me something about you." "Like what?" "Anything. I don't know. Why did you major in anthropology?" He considered the question. "Personality, I guess." "What does that mean?" "I knew I didn't want to major in anything practical like business or engineering, and toward the end of my freshman year, I started talking to other liberal arts majors. The most interesting ones I met were anthropology majors. I wanted to be interesting." "You're kidding." "I'm not. That's why I took the first introductory classes, at least. After that, I realized that anthropology is a great blend of history and supposition and mystery, all of which appealed to me. I was hooked." "How about frat parties?" "Not my thing." "Football games?" "No." "Did you ever think you missed out on what college was sup' posed to be?" "No." "Me neither," she agreed. "Not once I had Ben, anyway." He nodded, then gestured toward the woods. "Um… do you think we should have Zeus find Ben now?" "Oh, my gosh!" she cried, her tone slightly panicked. "Yes. He can find him, right? How long has it been?" "Not long. Five minutes, maybe. Let me get Zeus. And don't worry. It won't take long." Logan went to the door and opened it. Zeus trotted out, tail wagging, then wandered down the stairs. He immediately lifted a leg by the side of the porch, then trotted back up the stairs to Logan. "Where's Ben?" Logan asked. Zeus's ears rose. Logan pointed in the direction Ben had gone. "Find Ben." Zeus turned and started trotting in wide arcs, nose to the ground. Within seconds, he'd picked up the trail and he vanished into the darkness. "Should we follow him?" Beth asked. "Do you want to?" "Yes." "Then let's go." They'd barely reached the first of the trees when she heard Zeus emit a playful bark. Right after that, Ben's voice sounded in a squeal of delight. When she turned toward Logan, he shrugged. "You weren't lying, were you?" she asked. "What was that? Two minutes?" "It wasn't hard for him. I knew Ben wouldn't be too far away." "What's the longest he's ever tracked something?" "He followed a deer trail for, I don't know, eight miles or so? Something like that, anyway. He could have gone on, too, but it ended at someone's fence. That was in Tennessee." "Why did you track the deer?" "Practice. He's a smart dog. He likes to learn, and he likes to use his skills." At that moment, Zeus came padding out from the trees, Ben a step behind him. "Which is why this is just as much fun for him as it is for Ben." "That was amazing!" Ben called out. "He just walked right up to me. I wasn't making a sound!" "You want to do it again?" Logan asked. "Can I?" Ben pleaded. "If it's okay with your mom." Ben turned to his mother, and she raised her hands. "Go ahead." "Okay, put him inside again. And I'm really going to hide this time," Ben declared. "You got it," Logan said. The second time Ben hid, Zeus found him in a tree. The third time, with Ben retracing his steps in an attempt to throw him off, Zeus found him a quarter mile away, in his tree house by the creek. Beth wasn't thrilled with this final choice; the unstable bridge and platform always seemed far more dangerous at night, but by then, Ben was getting tired and ready to call it quits anyway. Logan followed them back to the house. After saying good night to an exhausted Ben, he turned to Beth and cleared his throat. "I want to thank you for a great evening, but I should probably be heading home," he said. Despite the fact that it was close to ten o'clock, part of her didn't want him to go just yet. "Do you need a ride?" she offered. "Ben will be asleep in a couple of minutes, and I'd be glad to bring you home." "I appreciate the offer, but we'll be fine. I like to walk." "I know. I don't know much about you, but I do know that." She smiled. "I'll see you tomorrow, right?" "I'll be here at seven." "I can feed the dogs if you'd rather come in a bit later." "It's no problem. And besides, I'd like to see Ben before he leaves. And I'm sure Zeus will, too. Poor guy probably won't know what to do without Ben chasing him." "All right, then…" She hugged her arms, suddenly disappointed at the thought of Logan's departure. "Would it be okay if I borrowed the truck tomorrow? I need to ran into town to get a few things to fix the brakes. If not, I can walk." She smiled. "Yeah, I know. But it's not a problem. I have to drop Ben off and run some errands, but if I don't see you, I'll just put the keys under the mat on the driver's side." "Fine," he said. He looked directly at her. "Good night, Elizabeth." "Good night, Logan." Once he was gone, Beth checked on Ben and gave him another kiss on the cheek before going to her room. She replayed the evening as she undressed, musing on the mystery of Logan Thibault. He was different from any man she'd ever met, she thought, and then immediately chided herself for being so obvious. Of course he was different, she told herself. He was new to her. She'd never spent much time with him before. Even so, she reasoned she was mature enough to recognize the truth when she saw it. Logan was different. Lord knows Keith wasn't anything like him. Nor, in fact, was anyone else she'd dated since the divorce. Most of those men had been fairly easy to read; no matter how polite and charming or rough and unrefined they might be, everything they did seemed like transparent efforts at getting her into bed. "Man crap," as Nana described it. And Nana, she knew, wasn't wrong. But with Logan … well, that was the thing. She had no idea what he wanted from her. She knew he found her attractive, and he seemed to enjoy her company. But after that, she had absolutely no idea what his intentions might be, since he seemed to enjoy Ben's company as well. In a way, she thought, he treated her like a number of the married men she knew: You're pretty and you're interesting, but I'm already taken. It occurred to her, though, that maybe he was taken. Maybe he had a girlfriend back in Colorado, or maybe he'd just broken up with the love of his life and was still getting over it. Thinking back, she realized that even though he'd described the things he'd seen and done on his journey across the country, she still had no idea why he'd gone on the walk in the first place or why he'd decided to end his trek in Hampton. His history wasn't so much mysterious as hidden, which was strange. If she'd learned one thing about men, it was that they liked to talk about themselves: their jobs, their hobbies, past accomplishments, their motivations. Logan did none of those things. Puzzling. She shook her head, thinking she was probably reading too much into it. It wasn't as if they'd gone out on a date, after all. It was more like a friendly get-together—tacos, chess, and conversation. A family event. She put on pajamas and picked up a magazine from her bedside table. She absently flipped through the pages before turning out the light. But when she closed her eyes, she kept visualizing the way the corners of his mouth would turn up slightly whenever she said something he found humorous or the way his eyebrows knit together when he concentrated on a task. For a long time, she tossed and turned, unable to sleep, wondering if maybe, just maybe, Logan was awake and thinking of her, too. 飞艇游戏彩票 Chapter 28 BethChapter 32 BethSunday was the hottest day of the summer yet, with high humidity and temperatures in the triple digits. Lakes had begun to go dry in the Piedmont, the citizens of Raleigh were rationing their water, and in the eastern part of the state, crops had begun to wither under the never-ending heat. In the past three weeks, the forests had become a tinderbox, waiting to be ignited by a carelessly tossed cigarette or bolt of lightning, both of which seemed inevitable. The only question was when and where exactly the fire would start. Unless they were in their kennels, the dogs were miserable, and even Logan had been feeling the effects of the heat. He shortened the training sessions by five minutes each, and when he walked the dogs, his destination was always the creek, where they could wade into the water and cool off. Zeus had been in and out of the water at least a dozen times, and though Ben tried to start a game of fetch as soon as he got back from church, Zeus showed only halfhearted interest. Instead, Ben set up a floor fan on the front porch of the house angling the breeze toward Zeus, and sat beside the dog while he read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, one of the few books by Ag-Christie that he had yet to finish. He stopped briefly to visit with Logan in a desultory fashion before going back to his book. It was the kind of lazy Sunday afternoon Beth typically enjoyed, except that every time she saw the bruise on Ben's face and his crudely repaired glasses, she felt a flash of anger at what Keith had done. She'd have to take Ben to the optician on Monday to get his glasses repaired. Despite what he'd said, Keith had thrown the ball way too hard, and she wondered what kind of a father would do that to a ten-year-old. The Keith Clayton kind, obviously. It was one thing to have made a mistake by marrying him, it was another thing to have that mistake endlessly compounded for the rest of her life. Ben's relationship with his father seemed to be getting worse, not better. Granted, Ben needed an adult male figure in his life, and Keith was his father, but… She shook her head. Part of her wanted to take Ben and simply move away. Relocate to another part of the country and start over. It was easy to fantasize that if she simply had the guts to do it, her troubles would be over. But that wasn't reality. She had the guts; it was everything else that made the scenario impossible. Even if Nana was healthy enough to handle things on her own— and she wasn't—Keith would find her no matter where she went. Cramps would insist on it, and the courts, including Judge Clayton, would intervene. Most likely, in her absence, Keith would be awarded sole custody. Keith's uncle would make sure of it; that had been the implied threat since the divorce, a threat she had to take seriously in this county. Maybe she would have a shot on appeal, but how long would that take? Twelve months? Eighteen months? She wasn't going to risk losing Ben for even that long. And the last thing she wanted was for Ben to have to spend more time with Keith. The truth was, Keith didn't want full custody any more than she wanted him to have it, and over the years, they'd worked out an unspoken solution: Keith would have Ben as infrequently as possible, but enough to keep Gramps happy. It wasn't fair for either of them to use Ben like a pawn, but what else could she do? She didn't want to risk losing him. Keith would do what he had to do to keep the money flowing, and Gramps wanted Ben around. People liked to imagine they were free to choose their own lives, but Beth had learned that choice was sometimes illusory. At least in Hampton, anyway, where the Claytons pretty much ran everything. Gramps was always polite when they bumped into him at the church, and though he'd wanted to buy Nana's land for years, he hadn't made things difficult for them. So far. But in the world of black and white, there was no question that the Clayton family, Gramps included, were masters of the gray, and they used their power when it suited them. Each and every one of them had grown up with the idea that they were special—anointed, even— which was why she'd been surprised at how easily Keith had left her house last night. She was glad that Logan and Zeus had been there. Logan had handled the situation perfectly, and she appreciated the fact that he hadn't hung around afterward. He'd known she wanted to be alone with Ben and had accepted that as easily as he'd dismissed Keith. In all things, Logan was calm and steadfast, she reflected. When she talked about Drake, he didn't turn the conversation to himself or how it made him feel, nor did he offer advice. It was one of the reasons she trusted him and had ended up telling him so much about herself. She'd been a little out of sorts because of Drake's birthday, but in truth, she had known exactly what she was doing. She'd been the one to ask him to stay in the first place, and she supposed that deep down, she'd wanted to share those parts of herself with him. "Hey, Mom?" Beth turned toward Ben. His eye still looked terrible, but she pretended she didn't notice. "What's up, sweetie?" "Do we have any garbage bags? And straws?" "Of course we do. Why?" "Thibault said he'd show me how to make a kite and that we could fly it when it was done." "That sounds like fun." "He said he used to make them when he was a kid and that they fly great." She smiled. "Is that all you need? Garbage bags and straws?" "I already found the fishing line. And the duct tape. They were in Grandpa's garage." From across the yard, she saw Logan heading toward them. Ben noticed him at the same time. "Hey, Thibault?" he shouted. "Are you ready to build the kite?" "I was coming to ask if you were ready," Logan called back. "Almost. I just have to get the straws and the garbage bags." Logan waved in acknowledgment. As he drew nearer, Beth noted the shape of his shoulders, the tight cinch of his waist. It wasn't the first time she'd noticed his body, but today it felt almost as if she were… staring. She turned away, laying a hand on Ben's shoulder, feeling suddenly ridiculous. "The garbage bags are under the sink, and the straws are in the pantry by the cookies. Do you want to get them or should I?" "I'll get them," he said. Then, to Logan: "I'll be back in a second." Logan reached the steps just as Ben disappeared inside. "Making a kite?" she asked, both surprised and impressed. "He said he was bored." "Do you really know how?" "It's not as hard as it sounds. You want to help us?" "No," she said. Up close, she noticed the way his sweat made the T-shirt cling to his chest, and she quickly averted her gaze. "I'll let you two do that. It's more of a guy project. But I'll bring the lemonade. And afterwards, if you're hungry, you're welcome to stay. Nothing fancy—Ben was in the mood for some hot dogs and macaroni and cheese." Logan nodded. "I'd like that." Ben came back out the door, bags in one hand and straws in the other. His face, despite the bruises and cockeyed glasses, was animated. "Got 'em!" he said. "You ready?" Logan continued to hold Beth's gaze longer than necessary, and Beth felt her neck flush before she turned away. Logan smiled at Ben. "Whenever you are." Beth found herself studying Logan as he worked on the kite with Ben. They were sitting at the picnic table near the large oak tree with Zeus at their feet, and the wind would occasionally carry the sound of their voices—Logan telling Ben what to do next or Ben asking if something had been done correctly. It was clear they were enjoying their little project; Ben was chattering away, making the occasional mistake, which Logan would then patiently correct with extra tape. How long had it been since she'd blushed when a man stared at her? She wondered how much of her newfound self-consciousness had to do with the fact that Nana was away. For the last couple of nights, it had almost felt like she was really on her own for the first time in her life. After all, she'd moved from Nana's home to Keith's and back to Nana's and had been there ever since. And although she enjoyed Nana's company and liked the stability, it wasn't exactly how she'd imagined her adult life would turn out. She'd once dreamed of having her own place, but the timing had never seemed right. After Keith, she'd needed Nana's help with Ben; when Ben was old enough, both her brother and her grandfather had died, and Beth had needed Nana's support as much as Nana needed Beth's. And then? Just when she was thinking she was finally ready to find a home of her own, Nana had a stroke, and there wasn't a chance she was going to leave the woman who'd raised her. But in this moment, she had an unexpected picture of what her life would have been like under a different set of circumstances. Now, as the starlings above her moved from tree to tree, she sat on the porch of an otherwise empty house, witnessing the kind of scene that made her believe that all could be right with the world. Even from a distance, she could see Ben concentrating while Logan showed him how to put the final touches on the kite. Every now and then, Logan would lean forward and offer direction, his demeanor patient and steady, but he let Ben have most of the fun. That he seemed to be simply working on the project, rectifying Ben's mistakes without frustration or anger, made her feel a burst of gratitude and affection toward him. She was still marveling at the novelty of it all when she saw them move to the center of the yard. Logan held the kite above his head, and Ben unwound the fishing line. As Ben started to run, Logan followed, allowing the kite to catch the wind before letting go. Logan stopped and gazed skyward as the kite began to soar above them, and when he clapped his hands at Ben's obvious joy, she was struck by the simple truth that sometimes the most ordinary things could be made extraordinary, simply by doing them with the right people. Nana called that night to say that she needed to be picked up the following Friday, and in her absence, Logan joined Beth and Ben for dinner every night. Most of the time, Ben was the one who pleaded with Logan to stay, but by Wednesday, it had become obvious to Beth that Logan was not only pleased to spend time with them, but more than happy to let Ben continue to orchestrate things. Perhaps, she found herself wondering occasionally, Logan was as inexperienced at intimacy as she was. After dinner, they usually went for a walk. Ben and Zeus would race ahead on the path that led to the creek, while she and Logan followed; once, they headed toward town to visit the banks of the South River, where they sat beneath the bridge that spanned it. Sometimes they talked around the edges of things—whether anything interesting had happened at work or Logan's progress in reorganizing the files; at other times it seemed he was content to walk beside her without saying much. Because Logan was so comfortable with silence, she felt surprisingly comfortable as well. But something was happening between them, and she knew it. She was drawn to him. At school, with her class of second graders milling around her, she'd occasionally find herself wondering what he was doing at that very minute. She gradually acknowledged that she looked forward to coming home because it meant that she would see him. On Thursday evening, they all piled into Nana's truck and drove into town for pizza. Zeus rode in the truck bed, head hanging over the side and his ears blown back. Odd as it seemed, Beth had the strange feeling that this was almost a date, albeit one with a ten-year-old chaperone. Luigi's Pizza was located on one of the quiet cross streets downtown, sandwiched between an antiques store and a law firm. With scuffed brick floors, picnic tables, and paneled walls, the place had a cozy familiarity, partly because Luigi hadn't updated the decor since Beth was a little girl. In the rear of the restaurant, the video games Luigi offered dated from the early 1980s: Ms. Pac-Man, Millipede, and Asteroids. The games were as popular now as they'd been back then, probably owing to the lack of any video arcades in town. Beth loved this place. Luigi and his wife, Maria, both in their sixties, not only worked seven days a week, but lived in an apartment above the restaurant. With no children of their own, they were surrogate parents to pretty much every teenager in town, and they embraced everyone with a kind of unconditional acceptance that kept the place packed. Tonight, it was crowded with the usual mix of people: families with children, a couple of men who were dressed like they'd just finished work at the law office next door, a few elderly couples, and clusters of teenagers here and there. Maria beamed when she saw Beth and Ben enter. She was short and round, with dark hair and a genuinely warm smile. She walked toward them, reaching for menus on the way. "Hello, Beth. Hello, Ben." As she passed the kitchen, she ducked her head in for an instant. "Luigi! Come out here. Beth and Ben are here!" It was something she did every time Beth visited, and though Beth was sure she welcomed everyone with equal warmth, it still made her feel special. Luigi bustled out of the kitchen. As usual, the apron he wore was coated in flour and was stretched tight across his ample girth. Since he still made the pizzas and the restaurant was always busy, he didn't have time to do much more than wave. "It's good to see you!" he cried. "Thank you for coming!" Maria laid an affectionate hand on Ben's shoulder. "You're getting so tall, Ben! You're a young man now. And you're as lovely as springtime, Beth." "Thanks, Maria," Beth said. "How are you?" "The same. Always busy. And you? You're still teaching, yes?" "Still teaching," she confirmed. A moment later, Maria's expression turned serious, and Beth could predict her next question. In small towns, nothing was secret. "And how is Nana?" "Getting better. She's up and around now." "Yes, I heard she's visiting her sister." "How did you know that?" Beth couldn't hide her surprise, "Who knows." She shrugged. "People talk, I hear." For the first time, Maria seemed to notice Logan. "And who is this?" "This is my friend Logan Thibault," Beth said, willing herself not to blush. "You are new? I haven't seen you before." Maria's eyes swept him up and down in frank curiosity. "I just moved to town." "Well, you're with two of my favorite customers." She waved them forward. "Come. I'll get you a place in one of the booths." Maria led the way and set the menus on the table as they slid into their seats. "Sweet teas all around?" "That would be great, Maria," Beth agreed. As soon as Maria hurried toward the kitchen, she faced Logan. "She makes the best sweet tea around. I hope you don't mind." "Sounds good to me." "Can I have some quarters?" Ben asked. "I want to play some videogames." "I figured you would," Beth said, reaching into her handbag. "I grabbed some from the change jar before we left. Have fun," she said. "And don't leave with any strangers." "I'm ten years old," he said, sounding exasperated. "Not five." She watched Ben head toward the games, amused at his response. Sometimes he sounded as if he were in high school. "This place has lots of character," Logan commented. "The food is fantastic, too. They do Chicago-style deep-dish pizzas that are out of this world. What do you like on your pizza? He scratched his chin. "Mmm… lots of garlic, extra anchovies." Her nose wrinkled. "Really?" "Just kidding. Get whatever you order normally. I'm not particular." "Ben likes pepperoni." "Then make it pepperoni." She eyed him playfully. "Did anyone ever tell you that you're pretty easygoing?" "Not lately," he said. "But then again, I didn't have many people to talk to while I was walking." "Did you get lonely?" "Not with Zeus. He's a good listener." "But he can't contribute to the conversation." "No. But he didn't whine about the walk, either. Most people would have." "I wouldn't have whined." Beth tossed a length of hair over her shoulder. Logan said nothing. "I'm serious," she protested. "I easily could have walked across the country." Logan said nothing. "Okay, you're right. I might have whined once or twice." He laughed before surveying the restaurant. "How many people do you know in here?" Glancing around, she considered it. "I've seen most of them around town over the years, but those I actually know? Maybe thirty people." He estimated it to be well more than half the patrons. "What's that like?" "You mean where everyone knows everything? I guess it depends on how many big mistakes you make, since that's what most people end up talking about. Affairs, lost jobs, drug or alcohol abuse, auto accidents. But if you're like me, on the other hand, someone as pure as the wind-driven snow, it's not so hard." He grinned. "It must be nice being you." "Oh, it is. Trust me. Let's just say you're lucky to be sitting at my table." "Of that," he said, "I have no doubt." Maria dropped off the drinks. As she was leaving, she raised her eyebrows just enough to let Beth know she liked Logan's appearance and expected to find out later what, if anything, was going on between them. Beth took a gulp of her tea, as did Logan. "What do you think?" "It's definitely sweet," Logan said. "But it's tasty." Beth nodded before wiping the condensation from the outside of her glass with a paper napkin. She crumpled it and set it aside. "How long are you going to stay in Hampton?" she asked. "What do you mean?" "You're not from here, you have a college degree, you're working in a job that most people would hate, and getting paid very little for it. I think my question is fair." "I don't plan on quitting," he said. "That's not what I asked. I asked how long you were going to stay in Hampton. Honestly." Her voice brooked no evasions, and it was easy for Logan to imagine her bringing order to an unruly classroom. "Honestly? I don't know. And I say that because I've learned over the past five years never to take anything for granted'' "That may be true, but again, it doesn't really answer the question." He seemed to register the disappointment in her voice and struggled with his response. "How about this?" he finally said. "So far, I like it here. I like my job, I think Nana's terrific, I enjoy spending time with Ben, and right now, I have no intention of leaving Hampton any time in the foreseeable future. Does that answer your question?" She felt a jolt of anticipation at his words and the way his gaze roamed over her face as he spoke. She leaned forward as well. "I noticed you left out something important in that list of things you like." "I did?" "Yeah. Me." She studied his face for a reaction, her lips up-turned in a teasing grin. "Maybe I forgot," he said, responding with the faintest of smiles. "I don't think so." "I'm shy?" "Try again." He shook his head. "I'm out of suggestions." She winked at him. "I'll give you a chance to think about it and maybe come up with something. Then we can talk about it again later." "Fair enough. When?" She wrapped her hands around her glass, feeling strangely nervous at what she was about to say next. "Are you free on Saturday night?" If he was surprised by the question, she couldn't tell. "Saturday night it is." He lifted his glass of iced tea and took a long drink, never taking his eyes off her. Neither one noticed Ben walk back to the table. "Did you order the pizza yet?" Lying in bed that night, Beth stared at the ceiling and asked her-self, What on earth was I thinking? There were so many reasons to avoid what she had done. She didn't really know much about him or his past. He was still hiding the reason he'd come to Hampton, which meant not only that he didn't trust her, but that she didn't completely trust him either. Not only that, but he worked at the kennel—for Nana and within sight of her home. What would happen if it didn't work out? What if he had… expectations she wasn't willing to meet? Would he show up on Monday? Would Nana be on her own? Would she have to quit her job as a teacher and go back to helping Nana with the kennel? There were lots of potential problems with all of this, and the more she thought about it, the more she was convinced she had made a terrible mistake. And yet… she was tired of being alone. She loved Ben and she loved Nana, but spending time with Logan over the past few days had reminded her of what she was missing. She liked the walks they took after dinner, she liked the way he looked at her, and she especially liked the way he was with Ben. Moreover, she found it ridiculously easy to imagine a life with Logan. She knew she hadn't really known him long enough to make that kind of judgment, but she couldn't deny her intuition. Could he be the One? She wouldn't go that far. They hadn't even been on a date yet. It was easy to idealize someone you barely knew. Sitting up, she plumped her pillow a few times and then lay back down. Well, they'd go out once and see what happened next. She had hopes, she couldn't deny that, but that's where it ended. She liked him but certainly didn't love him. Not yet, anyway.Chapter 22 Thibault Late Saturday evening, after Elizabeth had left, Thibault found Victor sitting in his living room, still dressed in the shorts and cabana-style shirt he'd been wearing on the day he died. The sight of him stopped Thibault in his tracks. All he could do was stare. It wasn't possible, nor was it really happening. Thibault knew that Victor was gone, buried in a small plot near Bakersfield. He knew Zeus would have reacted had anyone real been in the house, but Zeus simply wandered to his water bowl. In the silence, Victor smiled. "There is more," he said, his voice a hoarse promise. When Thibault blinked, Victor was gone, and it was obvious he'd never been there at all. It was the third time Thibault had seen Victor since he had passed away. The first time had been at the funeral, when Thibault had rounded a corner near the back of the church and seen Victor staring at him from the end of the hallway. "It's not your fault," Victor had said before dissolving away. Thibault's throat had closed up, forcing him to rush to catch his breath. The second appearance occurred three weeks before he set out on his walk. That time, it had happened in the grocery store, as Thibault was rummaging through his wallet, trying to figure out how much beer he could purchase. He'd been drinking heavily in those days, and as he counted the bills, he saw an image from the corner of his eye. Victor shook his head but said nothing. He didn't have to. Thibault knew that he was being told that it was time to end the drinking. Now, this. Thibault didn't believe in ghosts, and he knew that the image of Victor hadn't been real. There was no specter haunting him, no visits from beyond, no restless spirit with a message to deliver. Victor was a figment of his imagination, and Thibault knew that his subconscious had conjured up the image. After all, Victor had been the one person Thibault had always listened to. He knew the boating accident had been just that: an accident. The kids who'd been driving the boat had been traumatized, and their horror at what had happened was genuine. As for the drinking, he'd known deep down that the booze was doing more harm than good. Somehow, though, it was easier to listen to Victor. The last thing he'd expected was to see his friend once more. He considered Victor's words—there is more—and wondered whether they related to his conversation with Elizabeth. Somehow he didn't think so, but he couldn't figure it out, and it nagged at him. He suspected that the harder he pressed himself for an answer, the less likely it was that the answer would come. The subconscious was funny like that. He wandered to the small kitchen to pour himself a glass of milk, put some food in the bowl for Zeus, and went to his room. Lying in bed, he brooded on the things he'd told Elizabeth. He'd thought long and hard about saying anything at all. He wasn't even certain what he'd hoped to accomplish by doing so, other than to open her eyes to the possibility that Keith Clayton might just be controlling her life in ways she couldn't imagine. Which was exactly what the man was doing. Thibault had become sure of it when he'd first noticed the break-in. Of course, it could have been anyone—someone wanting to make a quick buck grabbing items that could be sold in pawnshops—but the way it had been done suggested otherwise. It was too neat. Nothing had been strewn about. Nothing was even out of place. Nearly everything had, however, been adjusted. The blanket on the bed was the first giveaway. There was a tiny ridge in the blanket, caused by someone who didn't know how to tuck in the covers military fashion—something few, if anyone, would have noticed. He noticed. The clothes in his drawers showed similar disturbances: a rumple here, a sleeve folded the wrong way there. Not only had someone entered the home while he'd been at work, but he'd searched the house thoroughly. But why? Thibault had nothing of value to steal. A quick peek through the windows beforehand made it plain there was nothing valuable in the place. Not only was the living room devoid of electronics, but the second bedroom stood completely empty, and the room where he slept contained only a bed, end table, and lamp. Aside from dishes and utensils and an ancient electric can opener on the counter, the kitchen was empty, too. The pantry contained dog food, a loaf of bread, and a jar of peanut butter. But someone had taken the time to search the house anyway from top to bottom, including under his mattress. Someone had diligently gone through his drawers and cleaned up afterward. No outrage at finding nothing of value. No evident frustration that the break-in had been a waste. Instead, the burglar had attempted to cover his tracks. Whoever had broken in had come to the house not to steal, but to look for something. Something specific. It hadn't taken long to figure out what it was and who had been responsible. Keith Clayton wanted his camera. Or, more likely, he wanted the disk. Probably because the photographs on the disk could get him in trouble. No great leap of logic, considering what Clayton had been doing the first time they'd bumped into each other. All right, so Clayton wanted to cover his tracks. But there was still more to this than met the eye. And it had to do with Elizabeth. It didn't make sense that she hadn't had any relationships in the past ten years. But it did jibe with something he'd heard while standing around the pool table, showing her picture to the group of locals. What had one of them said? It had taken a while to recall the exact words, and he wished he had paid more attention to the comment. He'd been so focused on learning Elizabeth's name, he'd ignored it at the time—a mistake. In hindsight, there was something menacing about the comment's implication. … let's just say she doesn't date. Her ex wouldn't like it, and trust me, you don't want to mess with him. He reviewed what he knew about Keith Clayton. Part of a powerful family. A bully. Quick to anger. In a position to abuse his power. Someone who thought he deserved whatever he wanted whenever he wanted it? Thibault couldn't be certain about the last one, but it all fit the picture. Clayton didn't want Elizabeth to see other men. Elizabeth hadn't had any meaningful relationships in years. Elizabeth occasionally wondered why but hadn't even considered the possible connection between her ex-husband and failed relationships. To Thibault, it seemed entirely plausible that Clayton was manipulating people and events and—at least in one way— still controlling her life. For Clayton to know that Elizabeth was dating someone in the past meant that Clayton had been watching over her for years. Just as he was watching over her now. It wasn't hard to imagine how Clayton had ended her previous relationships, but so far, he'd kept his distance when it came to Thibault and Elizabeth. So far, Thibault hadn't seen him spying from afar, hadn't noticed anything out of the ordinary. Instead, Clayton had broken into his house in search of the disk when he knew Thibault would be at work. Getting his ducks in a row? Probably. But the question was, to what end? To run Thibault out of town, at the very least. Still, Thibault couldn't shake the feeling that this wouldn't be the end. As Victor had said, there is more. He'd wanted to share with Elizabeth what he knew about her ex, but he couldn't come right out and tell her about the comment he'd overheard at the pool hall. That would mean telling her about the photograph, and he couldn't do that yet. Instead, he wanted to point her in the right direction, hoping she would begin to make the connections herself. Together, once they both knew the extent to which Clayton was willing to sabotage her relationships, they would be able to handle whatever he chose to do. They loved each other. They would know what to expect. It would all work out. Was this the reason he'd come? To fall in love with Elizabeth and make a life together? Was this his destiny? For some reason, it didn't feel right. Victor's words seemed to confirm that. There was another reason that he'd come here. Falling in love with Elizabeth may have been part of it. But that wasn't all. Something else was coming. There is more. Thibault slept the rest of the night without waking, just as he had since arriving in North Carolina. A military thing—or, more accurately, a combat thing, something he'd learned out of necessity. Tired soldiers made mistakes. His father had said that. Every officer he'd ever known had said that. His wartime experience confirmed the truth of their statements. He'd learned to sleep when it was time to sleep, no matter how chaotic things were, trusting he'd be better for it the following day. Aside from the brief period after Victor's death, sleep had never been a problem. He liked sleep, and he liked the way his thoughts seemed to coalesce while he was dreaming. On Sunday, when he woke, he found himself visualizing a wheel with spokes extending from the center. He wasn't sure why, but a few minutes later, when he was walking Zeus outside, he was suddenly struck by the notion that Elizabeth wasn’t the center of the wheel, as he’d unconsciously assumed. Instead, he realized, everything that had happened since he’d arrived in Hampton seemed to revolve around Keith Clayton. Clayton, after all, had been the first person he’d met in town. He’d taken Clayton’s camera. Clayton and Elizabeth had been married. Clayton was Ben’s father. Clayton had sabotaged Elizabeth’s relationships. Clayton had seen them spending an evening together on the night he’d brought Ben home with the black eye, in other words, he’d been the first to know about them. Clayton had broken into his house. Clayton - not Elizabeth - was the reason he’d come to Hampton. In the distance, thunder sounded, low and ominous. There was a storm on the way, and the heaviness in the air portended a big one. Aside from what Elizabeth had told him about Clayton, he realized he knew very little about Elizabeth's former husband. As the first drops began to tall, Thibault went back inside. Later, he would visit the library. He had a little research ahead of him if he hoped to get a better feel for Hampton and the role the Claytons played in it.After kissing Elizabeth good-bye at the door, Thibault collapsed on the sofa, feeling both drained and relieved. He reveled in the knowledge that Elizabeth had forgiven him. That she'd tried to understand and make sense of the convoluted journey he'd taken ro get here seemed nothing short of miraculous. She accepted him, warts and all—something he'd never thought possible. Before she left, she'd invited him for dinner, and though he'd readily agreed, he planned to rest up before he went. He somehow doubted that he'd have the energy for conversation otherwise. Before his nap, he knew he needed to take Zeus out, at least for a little while. He went to the back porch and retrieved his rain suit. Zeus followed him outside, watching him with interest. "Yeah, we're going out," he said. "Just let me get dressed first." Zeus barked and leapt with excitement, like a prancing deer. He raced to the door and back to Thibault again. "I'm going as fast as I can. Relax." Zeus continued to circle and prance around him. "Relax," he said again. Zeus fixed him with a beseeching gaze before reluctantly sitting. Thibault donned the rain suit and a pair of boots, then pushed open the screen door. Zeus bounded out into the rain, immediately sinking into the muddy ground. Unlike Nana's place, his property occupied a slight rise; the water collected a quarter mile away. Up ahead, Zeus veered toward the forest, then back to the open area again, then circled around to the graveled driveway, running and bounding in sheer joy. Thibault smiled, thinking, I know exactly how you feel. They spent a few minutes outside, wandering in the storm. The sky had turned charcoal, heavy with rain-burdened clouds. The wind had picked up again, and Thibault could feel the water stinging his face as it blew sideways. It didn't matter; for the first time in years, he felt truly free. At the base of the driveway, he noted that Elizabeth's tire tracks had nearly washed away. In a few more minutes, the rain would smooth them away completely. Something snagged his attention, though, and he tried to make sense of what he was seeing. His first thought was that the tires that had left the tracks seemed too wide. He walked over for a closer look, reasoning that the set of tracks she'd left going out had probably overlapped the set coming in. It was only when he stood at the edge of the drive that he realized he'd been mistaken. There were two sets of tracks, both leading in and out. Two vehicles. At first, it didn't make sense. His mind began to click quickly as the puzzle pieces slid into place. Someone else had been here. That didn't make sense, unless… He glanced toward the path that led through the forest to the kennel. At that moment, the wind and rain unleashed in full fury, and he squinted before his breath caught in his throat. All at once he took off at a nan, making sure to pace himself. His mind raced as he ran, calculating how long it would take to get there. He hoped he would make it in time.Chapter 26 BethClayton didn't want to believe it, but there was Gramps actually complimenting Thigh-bolt after church. Shaking his hand, acting like he was some sort of hero while Ben stared up at Thigh-bolt with big puppy-dog eyes. It was all he could do to make it through brunch without cracking open a beer, and since dropping Ben at his mother's, he'd already gone through four. He was pretty sure he'd finish off the twelve-pack before turning in. In the past two weeks, he'd had a lot of beer. He knew he was overdoing it, but it was the only thing that kept him from dwelling on the latest run-in with Thigh-bolt. Behind him, the phone rang. Again. Fourth time in the last couple of hours, but he wasn't in the mood to answer it. Okay, he admitted it. He had underestimated the guy. Thigh-bolt had been one step ahead of him from the very beginning. He used to think Ben knew how to press his buttons; this guy dropped bombs. No, Clayton thought suddenly, he didn't drop bombs. He directed cruise missiles with pinpoint accuracy, all geared toward the destruction of Clayton's life. Even worse, Clayton hadn't seen it corning. Not once. It was beyond frustrating, especially since the situation seemed to be getting worse. Now, Thigh-bolt was telling him what to do. Ordering him around, like he was some flunkie on payroll, and for the life of him, Clayton couldn't figure a way out. He wanted to believe that Thigh-bolt had been bluffing about videotaping the break-in. He had to be bluffing—no one was that smart. He had to be. But what if he wasn't? Clayton went to the refrigerator and opened another beer, knowing he couldn't risk it. Who knew what the guy was planning next? He took a long pull, praying for the numbing effect to kick in soon. This should have been easier to handle. He was a deputy sheriff, and the guy was new in town. Clayton should have had the power all along, but instead he found himself sitting in a messy kitchen because he hadn't wanted to ask Ben to clean it for fear the kid would tell Thigh-bolt, which just might spell the end of Clayton's life as he knew it. What did the guy have against him? That's what Clayton wanted to know. Clayton wasn't the one causing problems, Thigh-bolt was the one making things difficult—and to rub salt in the wound, the guy was sleeping with Beth as well. He took another drink, wondering how his life could have turned to crap so quickly. Sunk in misery, he barely registered the sound of someone knocking at the front door. He pushed back from the table and stumbled through the living room. When he opened the door, he saw Tony standing on the porch, looking like a drowned rat. As if everything else weren't bad enough, the worm was here. Tony took a slight step back. "Whoa, dude. You okay ? You smell like you've been drinking." "What do you want, Tony?" He wasn't in the mood for this. "I've been trying to call you, but you didn't pick up." "Get to the point." "I haven't seen you around much lately." "I've been busy. And I'm busy now, so go away." He started to close the door, and Tony raised his hand. "Wait! I have something to tell you," he whined. "It's important." "What is it?" "Do you remember when I called you? I don't know, it must have been a couple of months ago?" "No." "You remember. I called you from Decker's about this guy showing Beth's picture around?" "And?" "That's what I wanted to tell you." He pushed a clump of greasy hair out of his eyes. "I saw him again today. And I saw him talking to Beth." "What are you talking about?" "After church. He was talking to Beth and your grandfather. He was the dude on the piano today." Despite the buzz, Clayton felt his head begin to clear. It came back to him vaguely at first, then sharper. That was the weekend Thigh-bolt had taken the camera and disk. "You sure?" "Yeah, I'm sure. I'd remember that dude anywhere." "He had Beth's picture?" "I already told you that. I saw it. I just thought it was weird, you know? And then I see them together today? I thought you'd want to know." Clayton processed Tony's news. "I want you to tell me everything you can remember about the picture." Tony the worm had a surprisingly good memory, and it didn't take long for Clayton to get the full story. That the picture was a few years old and had been taken at the fair. That Thigh-bolt didn't know her name. That Thigh-bolt was looking for her. After Tony left, Clayton continued to ponder what he'd learned. No way had Thigh-bolt been here five years ago and forgotten her name- So where did he get the picture? Had he walked across £e country to find her? And if so, what did that mean' That he'd stalked her? He wasn't sure yet, but something wasn't right. And Beth, naive as usual, had allowed him not only into her bed, but into Ben's life as well. He frowned. He didn't like it. He didn't like it at all and he was pretty sure Beth wouldn't like it, either.On Wednesday, Beth stared out her classroom window at lunchtime. She had never seen anything like it—hurricanes and nor'easters had nothing on the series of storms that had recently pounded Hampton County as well as every county from Raleigh to the coast. The problem was that unlike most tropical storms, these weren't passing quickly out to sea. Instead, they had lingered day after thunderous day, bringing nearly every river in the eastern part of the state to flood levels. Small towns along the Pamlico, Neuse, and Cape Fear rivers were already knee-deep in water, and Hampton was getting close. Another day or two of rain would mean that most of the businesses downtown would be reachable only by canoe. The county had already decided to close the schools for the rest of the week, since the school buses could no longer make their routes and only a little more than half the teachers had been able to make it in. Ben, of course, was thrilled by the idea of staying home and playing in the puddles with Zeus, but Beth was a little more leery. Both the newspapers and the local news had reported that while the South River had already risen to dangerous levels, it was going to get far worse before it got better as the creeks and tributaries fed the rise. The two creeks that surrounded the kennel, usually a quarter mile away, could now be seen from the windows of the house, and Logan was even keeping Zeus away because of the debris washed out with the deluge. Being trapped indoors was hard on the kids, which was one of the reasons she'd stayed in her classroom. After lunch, they'd return to their classrooms, where in theory they'd happily color or draw or read quietly in lieu of playing kick ball or basketball or tag outside. In reality, kids needed to get their energy out, and she knew it. For years, she'd been asking that on days like this, they simply fold up the cafeteria lunch tables and allow the kids to run or play for twenty minutes, so they could concentrate when they returned to class after lunch. Not a chance, she was told, because of regulatory issues, liability issues, janitorial union issues, and health and safety issues. When asked what that meant, she was given a long explanation, but to her, it all came down to French fries. As in, We shouldn't allow kids to slip on French fries, or, If they do slip on French fries, the school district will get sued, or, The janitors would have to renegotiate their contract if they didn't clean the French fries from the cafeteria at the time they were scheduled to do so, and finally, If someone slipped on a French fry that had fallen on the floor, the children might be exposed to harmful pathogens. Welcome to the world of lawyers, she thought. Lawyers, after all, didn't have to teach the kids after keeping them cooped up inside the classroom all day with no recess. Usually, she would have retreated to the teacher's lounge for lunch, but with so little time to set up the classroom for activities, she'd decided to stay and get things ready. In the corner, she was setting up a beanbag-tossing game—stored in the closet for just such emergencies—when she noted movement from the doorway. She turned that way, and it took her an instant to register who it was. The shoulders of his uniform were wet, and a few water droplets dripped from the belt where he stored his gun. In his hand was a manila file. "Hi, Beth," he said. His voice was quiet, "Do you have a minute?" She stood. "What is it, Keith?" "I came to apologize," he said. He clasped his hands in front of him, the picture of contrition. "I know you don't have a lot of time, but I wanted to talk to you when you were alone. I took a chance that you'd be here, but if it's not a good time, maybe we could set up another time that's better for you." She glanced at the clock. "I've got five minutes," she said. Keith stepped into the classroom and started to close the door. Midway, he paused, seeking her permission. She nodded, wanting to get whatever he had to say over with. He moved toward her, stopping at a respectful distance. "Like I said, I came here to tell you I was sorry." "About what?" "About the rumors you heard," he said. "I wasn't completely truthful with you." She crossed her arms. "In other words, you lied," she stated. "Yes." "You lied to my face." "Yes." "About what?" "You asked if I ever ran off some of the guys you've dated in the past. I don't think I did, but I didn't tell you that I did talk to some of them." "You talked to them." "Yes." She did her best to keep her anger in check. "And … what? You're sorry you did it, or sorry you lied?" "Both. I'm sorry I did it, I'm sorry I lied. I shouldn't have done those things." He paused. "I know we haven't had the greatest relationship since the divorce, and I also know that you think marrying me was a mistake. You're right about that. We weren't meant to be married, and I accept that. But between the two of us—and i'll be honest, you've had a lot more to do with this than me—we have a great son. You might not think I'm the best father in the world, but I've never once regretted having Ben, or having Ben live with you most of the time. He's a great kid, and you've done a great job with him." She wasn't sure what to say. In the silence, he went on. "But I still worry, and I always have. Like I told you, I worry about who comes into Ben's life, whether it be friends, or acquaintances, or even people that you might introduce to him. I know that's not fair and that you probably consider it an intrusion into your personal life, but that's the way I am. And to be honest, I don't know if I'm ever going to change." "So you're saying that you'll keep following me forever?" "No," he said quickly. "I won't do it again. I was just explaining why I did it before. And trust me—I didn't threaten those guys or try to intimidate them. I talked to them. I explained that Ben meant a lot to me and that being his father was the most important thing in my life. You may not always agree with the way I parent him, but if you think back a couple of years, it wasn't always like this. He used to enjoy coming over to my place. Now he doesn't. But I haven't changed. He's changed. Not in a bad way—growing up is normal, and that's all he's been doing. And maybe I need to realize and accept the tact that he's getting older." She said nothing. As Keith watched her, he drew a long breath. "I also told those men that I didn't want you to get hurt. I know that might sound like I was being possessive, but I wasn't. I said it like a brother would have said it. Like Drake would have said it. As in, if you like her, if you respect her, just make sure you treat her that way. That's all I said to them." He shrugged. "I don't know. Maybe some of them took it the wrong way because I'm a deputy or because of my last name, but I can't help those things. Believe me, the last thing I want is for you to be unhappy. It might not have worked out between us, but you're the mother of my son and you always will be." Keith's gaze fell as he shuffled his feet. "You have every reason to be angry with me-I was wrong." "Yes, you were." Beth remained where she stood, arms crossed. "Like I said, I'm sorry and it's never going to happen again." She didn't respond right away. "Okay," she finally said. "I'm going to hold you to that." He flashed a quick, almost defeated smile. "Fair enough." "Is that it?" She bent to retrieve three beanbags from the closet floor. "Actually, I also wanted to talk to you about Logan Thibault. There's something you should know about him." She held up her hands to stop him. "Don't even go there." He wasn't dissuaded. Instead, he took a step forward, kneading the brim of his hat. "I'm not going to talk to him unless you want me to talk to him. I want to make that clear. Believe me, Beth. This is serious. I wouldn't be here if it wasn't. I'm here because I care about you." His chutzpah nearly took her breath away. "Do you honestly expect me to believe you have my best interests at heart after admitting that you've been spying on me for years? And that you were responsible for ruining any chance I had of finding a relationship?" "This has nothing to do with those things." "Let me guess … you think he's using drugs, right?" "I have no idea. But I should warn you that he hasn't been honest with you." "You have no idea whether he's been honest with me. Now get out. I don't want to talk to you, I don't want to hear what you have to say—" "Then ask him yourself," Clayton interrupted. "Ask him whether he came to Hampton to find you." "I'm done," she declared, moving toward the door so much as touch me on the way out, I'm going to scream for help." She walked past him, and as she was about to cross the threshold, Keith sighed audibly. "Ask him about the photograph," he said. His comment brought her to a halt. "What?" Keith's expression was as serious as she'd ever seen it, "The photograph he got from Drake."Of all the places in all the world, he had to find the guy at Beth's place. What were the odds on that? Pretty damn small, that's for sure. He hated that guy. No, scratch that. He wanted to destroy the guy. Not only because of the whole stealing-the-camera-and-flattening-his-tires thing, though that was definitely worthy of a little time locked in the jail alongside a couple of violent meth-amphetamine addicts. And it wasn't because Thigh-bolt had him over a barrel with the camera disk. It was because the guy, the same guy who'd played him once, had made him look like a quivering jellyfish in front of Beth. If I were you, I'd let go of her arm had been bad enough. But after that? Oh, that's where the guy went seriously wrong. Right now. … I think you'd better go… All spoken in that serious, steady, don't-piss-me-off tone of voice that Clayton himself used °n criminals. And he'd actually done it, slinking away like some stray dog with his tail between his legs, which made the whole thing worse. Normally, he wouldn't have put up with that for a second, even with Beth and Ben around. No one gave him orders and got away with it, and he would have made it perfectly clear that the guy had just made the biggest mistake of his life. But he couldn't! That was the thing. He couldn't. Not with Cujo around, eyeballing his crotch like it was an appetizer at the Sunday buffet. In the dark, the thing actually looked like a rabid wolf, and all he could do was remember the stories Kenny Moore told him about Panther. What the hell was he doing with Beth, anyway? How did that come about? It was like some sort of evil cosmic plan to ruin what had been for the most part a pretty crappy day—starting with mopey, moody Ben showing up at noon and complaining straight off about having to take out the garbage. He was a patient guy, but he was tired of the kid's attitude. Real tired of it, which was why he hadn't let Ben stop at just the garbage. He'd had the kid clean the kitchen and the bathrooms, too, thinking it would show him how the real world worked, where having a halfway decent attitude actually mattered. Power of positive thinking and all that. And besides, everyone knew that while mamas did the spoiling, dads were supposed to teach kids that nothing in life was free, right? And the kid did real well with the cleaning, like he always did, so for Clayton the whole thing was over and done with. It was time for a break, so he took Ben outside to play catch. What kid wouldn't want to play catch with his dad on a beautiful Saturday afternoon? Ben. That's who. I'm tired. It's realty hot, Dad. Do we have to? One stupid complaint after the other until they finally get outside, and then the kid shuts up tighter than a clam and won't say a thing. Worse, no matter how many times Clayton told him to watch the damn ball, the kid kept missing it because he wasn't even trying. Doing it on purpose, no doubt. But would he run to the ball after he missed it? Of course not. Not his kid. His kid is too busy sulking about the unfairness of it all while playing catch like a blind man. In the end, it pissed him off. He was trying to have a good time with his son, but his son was working against him, and yeah, okay, maybe he did throw the ball a little hard that last time. But what happened next wasn't his fault. If the kid had been paying attention, the ball wouldn't have ricocheted off his glove and Ben wouldn't have ended up screaming like a baby, like he was dying or something. Like he was the only kid in the history of the world to get a shiner playing ball. But all that was beside the point. The kid got hurt. It wasn't serious, and the bruises would be gone in a couple of weeks. In a year, Ben would either forget it completely or brag to his friends about the time he got a shiner playing ball. Beth, on the other hand, would never forget. She'd carry that grudge around inside her for a long, long time, even if it had been mote Ben's fault than his. She didn't understand the simple fact that all boys remembered their sports injuries with pride. He'd known Beth would overreact tonight, but he didn't necessarily blame her for it. That's what mothers did, and Clayton had been prepared for that. He thought he'd handled the whole thing pretty well, right up until the end, when he'd seen the guy with the dog sitting on the porch like he owned the place. Logan Thigh-bolt. He remembered the name right off, of course. He'd searched for the guy for a few days without luck and had pretty much put it behind him when he figured the guy had left town. No way some dude and his dog couldn't be noticed, right? Which was why he'd eventually stopped asking folks whether they'd seen him. Stupid. But what to do now? What was he going to do about this … new turn of events? He'd deal with Logan Thigh-bolt, that much was certain, and he wasn't about to be caught off guard again. Which meant that before he did anything, he needed information. Where the guy lived, where the guy worked, where he liked to hang out. Where he could find the guy alone. Harder than it sounded, especially with the dog. He had the funny feeling Thigh-bolt and the dog were seldom, if ever, separated. But he'd figure out what to do about that, too. Obviously, he needed to know what was going on with Beth and Thigh-bolt. He hadn't heard about her seeing anyone since Adam the dork. It was hard to believe that Beth could be seeing Thigh-bolt, considering the fact that he always heard what Beth was up to. Frankly, he couldn't imagine what she'd see in some-one like Thigh-bolt in the first place. She'd gone to college; the last thing she wanted in her life was some drifter who rolled into town. The guy didn't even have a car. But Thigh-bolt had been with her on a Saturday night, and that obviously counted for something. Somewhere, something didn't make sense. He pondered it, wondering if the guy worked there… Either way, he'd figure it out, and when he did, he'd deal with it, and Mr. Logan Thigh-bolt would find himself hating the day he'd ever showed up in Clayton's town. Chapter 23 BethChapter 24 ClaytonAs fate would have it, Nana was in the kennel office when Keith stormed into the house and closed the door behind him, acting as if he owned the place. Even from the kitchen, Beth could see the veins on his neck protruding. His hands balled into fists when his eyes locked on hers. When he marched through the living room, Beth felt some' thing give way inside her; fear filled its place. Never once had she seen him like this, and she backed away, following the angles of the cabinets. Keith surprised her by stopping at the entrance to the kitchen. He smiled, but his expression was off somehow, a grotesque and demented caricature of what it was supposed to be. "Sorry for barging in like this," he said with exaggerated courtesy, "but we need to talk." "What are you doing here? You can't just walk in here—" "Cooking dinner, huh?" he said. "I remember when you used to cook dinner for me." "Get out, Keith," she said, her voice hoarse. "I'm not going anywhere," he said, looking at her as if she didn't know what she was talking about. He motioned toward the chair. "Why don't you sit down?" "I don't want to sit down," she whispered, hating how frightened she sounded. "I want you to leave." "That's not going to happen," he said. He smiled again, but It was no better than his first attempt. There was a vacancy in his gaze she'd never seen before. She felt her heartbeat speed up. "Would you get me a beer, please?" he asked. "It's been a long day at the office, if you know what I mean." She swallowed, afraid to look away. "I don't have any more." He nodded, glancing around the kitchen before fixing his gaze on her again. He pointed. "I see one right there, by the stove. There's got to be another one somewhere. You mind if I check the fridge?" He didn't wait for an answer. He walked to the fridge and opened it before reaching for the bottom shelf. He came out with a bottle. "Found one," he crowed. He looked at her as he opened it. "Guess you were mistaken, huh?" He took a long pull and winked. She forced herself to stay calm. "What do you want, Keith?" "Oh, you know. Just wanted to catch up. See if there's anything I should know." "Know about what?" she asked, her stomach clenching. "About Thigh-bolt," he said. She ignored the mangling of the name. "I don't know what you're talking about." He took another drink, swishing the beer in his mouth as he nodded. He swallowed, the sound loud. "Driving over here, that's what I thought you might say," he said, sounding almost conversational. "But I know you better than you think I do." He gestured at her with his beer bottle. "There was a time there when I wasn't sure I knew you at all, but that's changed in the past few years. Raising a son together really bonds a couple, don't you think?" She didn't respond. "That's why I'm here, you know. Because of Ben. Because I want the best for him, and right now, I'm not sure you're thinking all that clearly about things." He stepped toward her and took another long pull of his beer. The bottle was already nearly empty. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand before going on. "See, I've been thinking that you and I haven't always had the best relationship. That's not good for Ben. He needs to know that we still get along. That we're still close friends. Don't you think that's an important lesson to teach him? That even if your parents get divorced, they can still be friends?" She didn't like the sound of his rambling monologue, but she was afraid to cut him off. This was a different Keith Clayton… a dangerous one. "I think it's important," he continued. He took another step toward her. "In fact, I can't think of anything more important." "Just stay back," she said. "I don't think so," he scolded her. "You haven't been thinking all that clearly in the last couple of days." As he neared, she slid farther down the bank of counters, trying to keep him in front of her. "Don't come any closer. I'm warning you." He kept closing the distance, staring at her with those vacant eyes. "See what I mean? You're acting like you think I'm going to hurt you. I'd never, ever hurt you. You should know that about me." "You're crazy." "No, I'm not. A little angry, maybe, but not crazy." When he smiled again, the vacancy in his eyes vanished and her stomach did a flip-flop. He went on. "Do you know that even after all you've put me through, I still think you're beautiful?" She didn't like where this was going. Not at all. By then, she'd reached the corner, with no place left to go. "Just leave, okay! Ben's upstairs and Nana will be back in a minute—" "All I want is a kiss. Is that such a big deal?" She wasn't sure she'd heard him right. "A kiss?" she parroted. "For now," he said. "That's all. Just for old times' sake. Then I'll go. I'll walk right out of here. I promise." "I'm not going to kiss you," she said, stunned. By then, he was standing before her. "You will," he said. "And you'll do more, later. But for now, a kiss is fine." She arched her back, trying to keep away. "Please, Keith. I don't want this. I don't want to kiss you." 'You'll get over it," he said. When he leaned in, she turned away. He took hold of her upper arms. As he moved his lips toward her ear, Beth could feel her heart begin to hammer. "You're hurting me!" she gasped. "Here's the thing, Beth," he whispered. She could feel the warmth of his breath on her neck. "If you don't want to kiss me, that's fine. I'll accept that. But I've decided that I want to be a little more than friends." "Get out!" she hissed, and with a laugh, Keith let her go. "Sure," he said. He took a step back. "No problem. I'll leave. But I should let you know what's going to happen if we don't work something out." "Just leave!" she shouted. "I think we should go on a… date every now and then. And I'm not going to take no for an answer." The way he said "date" made her skin crawl. Beth couldn't believe what she was hearing. "After all, I warned you about Thigh-bolt," he added, "but where were you today? At his place." He shook his head. "That was a big mistake. You see, it's pretty easy for me to make a case that he stalked you and that he's obsessive. Both of those things make him dangerous, but you're obviously ignoring it. And that makes it dangerous for Ben to be forced to live with you." His expression was neutral. Beth was paralyzed by his words. "I'd hate to have to go to the courts and tell them what you're doing, but I will. And I'm sure they'll grant me full Custody this time.” "You wouldn't," she whispered. "I will Unless." His obvious enjoyment as he spoke made it, much more horrifying. He paused, letting it sink in, before speaking like a professor again. "Let me make sure you understand. First, you tell Thigh-bolt that you never want to see him again. Then you ask him to leave town. And after that, we'll go out. For old times' sake. It's either that, or Ben's going to live with me." "I'm not going to live with you!" a small voice shouted from the kitchen doorway. Beth looked past Keith to see Ben, his expression horrified. Ben started to back away. "I'm not going to do it!" Ben turned and ran, slamming the front door behind htm as he raced into the storm.The Marine Corps is based on the number 3. It was one of the first things they taught you in basic training. Made things easy to understand. Three marines made a fire team, three fire teams made a squad, three squads made a platoon, three platoons made a company, three companies made a battalion, and three battalions made a regiment. On paper, anyway. By the time they invaded Iraq, their regiment had been combined with elements from other units, including the Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, Firing Battalions of the Eleventh Marines, the Second and Third Assault Amphibian Battalions, Company B from the First Combat Engineer Battalion, and the Combat Service Support Battalion 115. Massive. Prepared for anything. Nearly six thousand personnel in total. As Thibault walked beneath a sky beginning to change colors with the onset of dusk, he thought back to that night, technically his first combat in hostile territory. His regiment, the First, Fifth, became the first unit to cross into Iraq with the intention of seizing the Rumaylah oil fields. Everyone remembered that Saddam Hussein had set most of the wells in Kuwait on fire as he'd retreated in the First Gulf War, and no one wanted the same thing to happen again. Long story short, the First, Fifth, among others, got there in time. Only seven wells were burning by the time the area was secured. From there Thibault's squad was ordered north to Baghdad to help to secure the capital city. The First, Fifth was the most decorated marine regiment in the corps and thus was chosen to lead the deepest assault' into enemy territory in the history of the corps. His first tour in Iraq lasted a little more than four months. Five years after the fact, most of the specifics about that first tour had blurred. He had done his job and eventually was sent back to Pendleton. He didn't talk about it. He tried not to think about it. Except for this: Ricky Martinez and Bill Kincaid, the other two men in Thibault's fire team, were part of a story he'd never forget. Take any three people, stick them together, and they're going to have differences. No surprise there. And on the surface, they were different. Ricky grew up in a small apartment in Midland, Texas, and was a former baseball player and weight-lifting fanatic who'd played in the Minnesota Twins farm system before enlisting; Bill, who played the trumpet in his high school marching band, was from upstate New York and had been raised on a dairy farm with five sisters. Ricky liked blondes, Bill liked brunettes; Ricky chewed tobacco, and Bill smoked; Ricky liked rap music, Bill favored country-western. No big deal. They trained together, they ate together, they slept together. They debated sports and politics. They shot the breeze like brothers and played practical jokes on each other. Bill would wake with one eyebrow shaved off; Ricky would wake the next night with both of them gone. Thibault learned to wake at the slightest sound and somehow kept both eyebrows intact. They laughed about it for months. Drunk one night, they got matching tattoos, each proclaiming their fidelity to the corps. After so much time together, they got to the point where they could anticipate what the others would do. Each of them in turn had saved Thibault's life, or at least kept him from serious harm. Bill grabbed the back of Thibault's flak jacket just as Thibault was poised to move into the open; moments later, a sniper wounded two men nearby. The second time, a distracted Thibault was almost struck by a speeding Humvee driven by a fellow marine; that time, it was Ricky who grabbed his arm to stop him. Even in war, people die in auto accidents. Look at Patton. After securing the oil fields, they had arrived at the outskirts of Baghdad with the rest of their company. The city had not fallen yet. They were part of a convoy, three men among hundreds, tightening their grip on the city. Aside from the roar of Allied vehicle engines, all was quiet as they entered the outlying neighborhoods. When gunfire was heard from a graveled road oft" the main thoroughfare, Thibault's squad was ordered to check it out. They evaluated the scene. Two- and three-story buildings sandwiched together on either side of the potholed road. A lone dog eating garbage. The smoking ruins of a car a hundred meters away. They waited. Saw nothing. Waited some more. Heard nothing. Finally, Thibault, Ricky, and Bill were ordered to cross the street. They did so, moving quickly, reaching safety. From there, the squad proceeded up the street, into the unknown. When the sound of gunfire rang out again that day, it wasn't a single shot. It was the death rattle of dozens and then hundreds of bullets from automatic weapons trapping them in a circle of gunfire. Thibault, Ricky, and Bill, along with the rest of the squad across the street, found themselves pinned in doorways with few places to hide. The firefight didn't last long, people said later. It was long enough. The blizzard of fire cascaded from windows above them. Thibault and his squad instinctively raised their weapons and fired, then fired again. Across the street, two of their men were wounded, but reinforcements arrived quickly. A tank rolled in, fast-moving infantry in the rear. The air vibrated as the muzzle flashed and the upper stories of a building collapsed, dust and glass filling the air. Everywhere Thibault heard the sounds of screaming, saw civilians fleeing the buildings into the streets. The fusillade continued; the stray dog was shot and sent tumbling. Civilians fell forward as they were shot in the back, bleeding and crying out. A third marine was injured in the lower leg. Thibault, Ricky, and Bill were still unable to move, imprisoned by the steady fire chipping at the walls next to them, at their feet. Still, the three of them continued to fire. The air vibrated with a roar, and the upper floors of another building collapsed. The tank, rolling forward, was getting close now. All at once, enemy gunfire started coming from two directions, not just one. Bill glanced at him; he glanced at Ricky. They knew what they had to do. It was time to move; if they stayed, they would die. Thibault rose first. In that instant, all went suddenly white, then turned black. In Hampton, more than five years later, Thibault couldn't recall the specifics, other than the feeling that he'd been tossed into a washing machine. He was sent tumbling into the street with the explosion, his ears ringing. His friend Victor quickly reached his side; so did a naval corpsman. The tank continued to fire, and little by little, the street was brought under control. He learned all this after the fact, just as he learned that the explosion had been caused by an RPG, a rocket-propelled grenade. Later, an officer would tell Thibault that it had most likely been meant for the tank; it missed the turret by inches. Instead, as if fated to find them, it flew toward Thibault, Ricky, and Bill. Thibault was loaded into a Humvee and evacuated from the scene, unconscious. Miraculously, his wounds had been minor, and within three days he would be back with his squad. Ricky and Bill would not; each was later buried with full military honors. Ricky was a week away from his twenty-second birthday. Bill was twenty years old. They were neither the first casualties of the war nor the last. The war went on. Thibault forced himself not to think about them much. It seemed callous, but in war the mind shuts down about things like that. It hurt to think about their deaths, to reflect on their absence, so he didn't. Nor did most of the squad. Instead, he did his job. He focused on the fact that he was still alive. He focused on keeping others safe. But today he felt the pinpricks of memory, and loss, and he didn't bury them. They were with him as he walked the quiet streets of town, making for the outskirts on the far side. Following the directions he'd received from the front desk at the motel, he headed east on Route 54, walking on the grassy shoulder, staying well off the road. He'd learned in his travels never to trust drivers. Zeus trailed behind, panting heavily. He stopped and gave Zeus some water, the last in the bottle. Businesses lined either side of the highway. A mattress shop, a place that did auto body repairs, a nursery, a Quick'N-Go that sold gas and stale food in plastic wrappers, and two ramshackle farmhouses that seemed out of place, as if the modern world had sprouted up around them. Which was exactly what had happened, he assumed. He wondered how long the owners would hold out or why anyone would want to live in a home that fronted a highway and was sandwiched between businesses. Cars roared past in both directions. Clouds began to roll in, gray and puffy. He smelled rain before the first drop hit him, and within a few steps it was pouring. It lasted fifteen minutes, drenching him, but the heavy clouds kept moving toward the coast until only a haze remained. Zeus shook the water from his coat. Birdsong resumed from the trees while mist rose from the moist earth. Eventually, he reached the fairgrounds. It was deserted. Nothing fancy, he thought, examining the layout. Just the basics. Parking on a dirt-gravel lot on the left; a couple of ancient barns on the far right; a wide grassy field for carnival rides separating the two, all lined with a chain-link fence. He didn't need to jump the fence, nor did he need to look at the picture. He'd seen it a thousand times. He moved forward, orienting himself, and eventually he spotted the ticket booth. Behind it was an arched opening where a banner could be strung. When he arrived at the arch, he turned toward the northern horizon, framing the ticket booth and centering the arch in his vision, just as it had appeared in the photograph. This was the angle, he thought; this was where the picture had been taken. The structure of the marines was based on threes. Three men to a fire team, three fire teams to a squad, three squads to a platoon. He served three tours in Iraq. Checking his watch, he noted that he'd been in Hampton for three hours, and straight ahead, right where they should have been, were three evergreen trees clustered together. Thibault walked back to the highway, knowing he was closer to finding her. He wasn't there yet, but he soon would be. She'd been here. He knew that now. What he needed now was a name. On his walk across the country, he'd had a lot of time to think, and he'd decided there were three ways to go about it. First, he could try to find a local veterans association and ask if any locals had served in Iraq. That might lead him to someone who might recognize her. Second, he could go to the local high school and see if it had copies of yearbooks from ten to fifteen years ago. He could look through the photographs one by one. Or third, he could show the photograph and ask around. All had their drawbacks, none were guaranteed. As for the veterans association, he hadn't found one listed in the phone book. Strike one. Because it was still summer vacation, he doubted if the high school would be open; even if it was, it might be difficult to gain access to the library's yearbooks. Strike two—for now, anyway. Which meant that his best bet was to ask around and see if anyone recognized her. Who to ask, though? He knew from the almanac that nine thousand people lived in Hampton, North Carolina. Another thirteen thousand people lived in Hampton County. Way too many. The most efficient strategy was to limit his search to the likeliest pool of candidates. Again, he started with what he knew. She appeared to be in her early twenties when the photograph had been taken, which meant she was in her late twenties now. Possibly early thirties. She was obviously attractive. Further, in a town this size, assuming an equal distribution among age brackets, that meant there were roughly 2,750 kids from newborns up to ten years of age, 2,750 from eleven to twenty, and 5,500 people in their twenties and thirties, her age bracket. Roughly. Of those, he assumed half were males and half were females. Females would tend to be more suspicious about his intentions, especially if they actually knew her. He was a stranger. Strangers were dangerous. He doubted they would reveal much. Men might, depending on how he framed the question. In his experience, nearly all males noticed attractive females in their age bracket, especially if they were single men. How many men in her current age group were single? He guessed about thirty percent. Might be right, might be wrong, but he'd go with it. Say 900 or so. Of those, he figured eighty percent had been living here back then. Just a guess, but Hampton struck him as a town that people were more likely to emigrate from, as opposed to immigrate to. That brought the number down to 720. He could further cut that in half if he concentrated on single men aged twenty-five to thirty-five, instead of twenty to forty. That brought it down to 360. He figured a good chunk of those men either knew her or knew of her five years ago. Maybe they'd gone to high school with her or maybe not—he knew there was one in town—but they would know her if she was single. Of course, it was possible she wasn't single— women in small southern towns probably married young, after all— but he would work with this set of assumptions first. The words on the back of the photograph— "Keep Safe! E"—didn't strike him as romantic enough to have been given to a boyfriend or fiancé. No "Love you," no "I'll miss you." Just an initial. A friend. Down from 22,000 to 360 in less than ten minutes. Not bad And definitely good enough to get started. Assuming, of course She lived here when the photograph had been taken. Assuming she hadn't been visiting. He knew it was another big assumption. But he had to start someplace, and he knew she'd been here once. He would learn the truth one way or the other and move on from there. Where did single men hang out? Single men who could be drawn into conversation? I met her a couple of years ago and she told me to call her if I got back into town, but I lost her name and number... Bars. Pool halls. In a town this size, he doubted whether there were more than three or four places where locals hung out Bars and pool halls had the advantage of alcohol, and it was Saturday night. They'd be filled. He figured he'd have his answer, one way or the other, within the next twelve hours. He glanced at Zeus. "Seems like you're going to be on your own tonight. I could bring you, but I'd have to leave you outside and I don't know how long I'll be." Zeus continued walking, his head down, tongue out. Tired and hot. Zeus didn't care. "I'll put the air conditioner on, okay?"The Marine Corps is based on the number 3. It was one of the first things they taught you in basic training. Made things easy to understand. Three marines made a fire team, three fire teams made a squad, three squads made a platoon, three platoons made a company, three companies made a battalion, and three battalions made a regiment. On paper, anyway. By the time they invaded Iraq, their regiment had been combined with elements from other units, including the Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, Firing Battalions of the Eleventh Marines, the Second and Third Assault Amphibian Battalions, Company B from the First Combat Engineer Battalion, and the Combat Service Support Battalion 115. Massive. Prepared for anything. Nearly six thousand personnel in total. As Thibault walked beneath a sky beginning to change colors with the onset of dusk, he thought back to that night, technically his first combat in hostile territory. His regiment, the First, Fifth, became the first unit to cross into Iraq with the intention of seizing the Rumaylah oil fields. Everyone remembered that Saddam Hussein had set most of the wells in Kuwait on fire as he'd retreated in the First Gulf War, and no one wanted the same thing to happen again. Long story short, the First, Fifth, among others, got there in time. Only seven wells were burning by the time the area was secured. From there Thibault's squad was ordered north to Baghdad to help to secure the capital city. The First, Fifth was the most decorated marine regiment in the corps and thus was chosen to lead the deepest assault' into enemy territory in the history of the corps. His first tour in Iraq lasted a little more than four months. Five years after the fact, most of the specifics about that first tour had blurred. He had done his job and eventually was sent back to Pendleton. He didn't talk about it. He tried not to think about it. Except for this: Ricky Martinez and Bill Kincaid, the other two men in Thibault's fire team, were part of a story he'd never forget. Take any three people, stick them together, and they're going to have differences. No surprise there. And on the surface, they were different. Ricky grew up in a small apartment in Midland, Texas, and was a former baseball player and weight-lifting fanatic who'd played in the Minnesota Twins farm system before enlisting; Bill, who played the trumpet in his high school marching band, was from upstate New York and had been raised on a dairy farm with five sisters. Ricky liked blondes, Bill liked brunettes; Ricky chewed tobacco, and Bill smoked; Ricky liked rap music, Bill favored country-western. No big deal. They trained together, they ate together, they slept together. They debated sports and politics. They shot the breeze like brothers and played practical jokes on each other. Bill would wake with one eyebrow shaved off; Ricky would wake the next night with both of them gone. Thibault learned to wake at the slightest sound and somehow kept both eyebrows intact. They laughed about it for months. Drunk one night, they got matching tattoos, each proclaiming their fidelity to the corps. After so much time together, they got to the point where they could anticipate what the others would do. Each of them in turn had saved Thibault's life, or at least kept him from serious harm. Bill grabbed the back of Thibault's flak jacket just as Thibault was poised to move into the open; moments later, a sniper wounded two men nearby. The second time, a distracted Thibault was almost struck by a speeding Humvee driven by a fellow marine; that time, it was Ricky who grabbed his arm to stop him. Even in war, people die in auto accidents. Look at Patton. After securing the oil fields, they had arrived at the outskirts of Baghdad with the rest of their company. The city had not fallen yet. They were part of a convoy, three men among hundreds, tightening their grip on the city. Aside from the roar of Allied vehicle engines, all was quiet as they entered the outlying neighborhoods. When gunfire was heard from a graveled road oft" the main thoroughfare, Thibault's squad was ordered to check it out. They evaluated the scene. Two- and three-story buildings sandwiched together on either side of the potholed road. A lone dog eating garbage. The smoking ruins of a car a hundred meters away. They waited. Saw nothing. Waited some more. Heard nothing. Finally, Thibault, Ricky, and Bill were ordered to cross the street. They did so, moving quickly, reaching safety. From there, the squad proceeded up the street, into the unknown. When the sound of gunfire rang out again that day, it wasn't a single shot. It was the death rattle of dozens and then hundreds of bullets from automatic weapons trapping them in a circle of gunfire. Thibault, Ricky, and Bill, along with the rest of the squad across the street, found themselves pinned in doorways with few places to hide. The firefight didn't last long, people said later. It was long enough. The blizzard of fire cascaded from windows above them. Thibault and his squad instinctively raised their weapons and fired, then fired again. Across the street, two of their men were wounded, but reinforcements arrived quickly. A tank rolled in, fast-moving infantry in the rear. The air vibrated as the muzzle flashed and the upper stories of a building collapsed, dust and glass filling the air. Everywhere Thibault heard the sounds of screaming, saw civilians fleeing the buildings into the streets. The fusillade continued; the stray dog was shot and sent tumbling. Civilians fell forward as they were shot in the back, bleeding and crying out. A third marine was injured in the lower leg. Thibault, Ricky, and Bill were still unable to move, imprisoned by the steady fire chipping at the walls next to them, at their feet. Still, the three of them continued to fire. The air vibrated with a roar, and the upper floors of another building collapsed. The tank, rolling forward, was getting close now. All at once, enemy gunfire started coming from two directions, not just one. Bill glanced at him; he glanced at Ricky. They knew what they had to do. It was time to move; if they stayed, they would die. Thibault rose first. In that instant, all went suddenly white, then turned black. In Hampton, more than five years later, Thibault couldn't recall the specifics, other than the feeling that he'd been tossed into a washing machine. He was sent tumbling into the street with the explosion, his ears ringing. His friend Victor quickly reached his side; so did a naval corpsman. The tank continued to fire, and little by little, the street was brought under control. He learned all this after the fact, just as he learned that the explosion had been caused by an RPG, a rocket-propelled grenade. Later, an officer would tell Thibault that it had most likely been meant for the tank; it missed the turret by inches. Instead, as if fated to find them, it flew toward Thibault, Ricky, and Bill. Thibault was loaded into a Humvee and evacuated from the scene, unconscious. Miraculously, his wounds had been minor, and within three days he would be back with his squad. Ricky and Bill would not; each was later buried with full military honors. Ricky was a week away from his twenty-second birthday. Bill was twenty years old. They were neither the first casualties of the war nor the last. The war went on. Thibault forced himself not to think about them much. It seemed callous, but in war the mind shuts down about things like that. It hurt to think about their deaths, to reflect on their absence, so he didn't. Nor did most of the squad. Instead, he did his job. He focused on the fact that he was still alive. He focused on keeping others safe. But today he felt the pinpricks of memory, and loss, and he didn't bury them. They were with him as he walked the quiet streets of town, making for the outskirts on the far side. Following the directions he'd received from the front desk at the motel, he headed east on Route 54, walking on the grassy shoulder, staying well off the road. He'd learned in his travels never to trust drivers. Zeus trailed behind, panting heavily. He stopped and gave Zeus some water, the last in the bottle. Businesses lined either side of the highway. A mattress shop, a place that did auto body repairs, a nursery, a Quick'N-Go that sold gas and stale food in plastic wrappers, and two ramshackle farmhouses that seemed out of place, as if the modern world had sprouted up around them. Which was exactly what had happened, he assumed. He wondered how long the owners would hold out or why anyone would want to live in a home that fronted a highway and was sandwiched between businesses. Cars roared past in both directions. Clouds began to roll in, gray and puffy. He smelled rain before the first drop hit him, and within a few steps it was pouring. It lasted fifteen minutes, drenching him, but the heavy clouds kept moving toward the coast until only a haze remained. Zeus shook the water from his coat. Birdsong resumed from the trees while mist rose from the moist earth. Eventually, he reached the fairgrounds. It was deserted. Nothing fancy, he thought, examining the layout. Just the basics. Parking on a dirt-gravel lot on the left; a couple of ancient barns on the far right; a wide grassy field for carnival rides separating the two, all lined with a chain-link fence. He didn't need to jump the fence, nor did he need to look at the picture. He'd seen it a thousand times. He moved forward, orienting himself, and eventually he spotted the ticket booth. Behind it was an arched opening where a banner could be strung. When he arrived at the arch, he turned toward the northern horizon, framing the ticket booth and centering the arch in his vision, just as it had appeared in the photograph. This was the angle, he thought; this was where the picture had been taken. The structure of the marines was based on threes. Three men to a fire team, three fire teams to a squad, three squads to a platoon. He served three tours in Iraq. Checking his watch, he noted that he'd been in Hampton for three hours, and straight ahead, right where they should have been, were three evergreen trees clustered together. Thibault walked back to the highway, knowing he was closer to finding her. He wasn't there yet, but he soon would be. She'd been here. He knew that now. What he needed now was a name. On his walk across the country, he'd had a lot of time to think, and he'd decided there were three ways to go about it. First, he could try to find a local veterans association and ask if any locals had served in Iraq. That might lead him to someone who might recognize her. Second, he could go to the local high school and see if it had copies of yearbooks from ten to fifteen years ago. He could look through the photographs one by one. Or third, he could show the photograph and ask around. All had their drawbacks, none were guaranteed. As for the veterans association, he hadn't found one listed in the phone book. Strike one. Because it was still summer vacation, he doubted if the high school would be open; even if it was, it might be difficult to gain access to the library's yearbooks. Strike two—for now, anyway. Which meant that his best bet was to ask around and see if anyone recognized her. Who to ask, though? He knew from the almanac that nine thousand people lived in Hampton, North Carolina. Another thirteen thousand people lived in Hampton County. Way too many. The most efficient strategy was to limit his search to the likeliest pool of candidates. Again, he started with what he knew. She appeared to be in her early twenties when the photograph had been taken, which meant she was in her late twenties now. Possibly early thirties. She was obviously attractive. Further, in a town this size, assuming an equal distribution among age brackets, that meant there were roughly 2,750 kids from newborns up to ten years of age, 2,750 from eleven to twenty, and 5,500 people in their twenties and thirties, her age bracket. Roughly. Of those, he assumed half were males and half were females. Females would tend to be more suspicious about his intentions, especially if they actually knew her. He was a stranger. Strangers were dangerous. He doubted they would reveal much. Men might, depending on how he framed the question. In his experience, nearly all males noticed attractive females in their age bracket, especially if they were single men. How many men in her current age group were single? He guessed about thirty percent. Might be right, might be wrong, but he'd go with it. Say 900 or so. Of those, he figured eighty percent had been living here back then. Just a guess, but Hampton struck him as a town that people were more likely to emigrate from, as opposed to immigrate to. That brought the number down to 720. He could further cut that in half if he concentrated on single men aged twenty-five to thirty-five, instead of twenty to forty. That brought it down to 360. He figured a good chunk of those men either knew her or knew of her five years ago. Maybe they'd gone to high school with her or maybe not—he knew there was one in town—but they would know her if she was single. Of course, it was possible she wasn't single— women in small southern towns probably married young, after all— but he would work with this set of assumptions first. The words on the back of the photograph— "Keep Safe! E"—didn't strike him as romantic enough to have been given to a boyfriend or fiancé. No "Love you," no "I'll miss you." Just an initial. A friend. Down from 22,000 to 360 in less than ten minutes. Not bad And definitely good enough to get started. Assuming, of course She lived here when the photograph had been taken. Assuming she hadn't been visiting. He knew it was another big assumption. But he had to start someplace, and he knew she'd been here once. He would learn the truth one way or the other and move on from there. Where did single men hang out? Single men who could be drawn into conversation? I met her a couple of years ago and she told me to call her if I got back into town, but I lost her name and number... Bars. Pool halls. In a town this size, he doubted whether there were more than three or four places where locals hung out Bars and pool halls had the advantage of alcohol, and it was Saturday night. They'd be filled. He figured he'd have his answer, one way or the other, within the next twelve hours. He glanced at Zeus. "Seems like you're going to be on your own tonight. I could bring you, but I'd have to leave you outside and I don't know how long I'll be." Zeus continued walking, his head down, tongue out. Tired and hot. Zeus didn't care. "I'll put the air conditioner on, okay?" So that's it, huh?" Despite the canopy offered by the trees, Thibault was drenched by the time he and Ben reached the tree house. Water poured from the raincoat he was wearing, and his new pants were soaked below the knees. Inside his boots, his socks squished unpleasantly. Ben, on the other hand, was bundled from head to toe in a hooded rain suit; on his feet, he wore Nana's rubber boots. Aside from his face, Thibault doubted he even noticed the rain. "This is how we reach it. It's awesome, isn't it?" Ben motioned to an oak tree on the near side of the creek. A series of nailed two-by-fours climbed the side of the trunk. "All we have to do is climb the tree ladder here so we can cross the bridge." Thibault noticed with apprehension that the creek had already swollen to twice its normal size, and the water was moving fast. Turning his attention to the small bridge, he saw that it was composed of three parts: A fraying rope bridge led from the oak tree on the near side toward a central landing station in the center of the creek that was supported by a four listing pillars; this landing was connected by another rope bridge section to the platform on the tree house. Thibault noticed the debris deposited around the pillars by the rushing waters. Though he hadn't previously inspected the bridge, he suspected that the relentless storms and rapid flow of water had weakened the landing's support. Before he could say anything, Ben had already scaled the tree ladder to the bridge. Ben grinned at him from above. "C'mon! What are you waiting for!" Thibault raised his arm to shield his face from the rain, feeling a sudden sense of dread. "I'm not sure this is a good idea—" "Chicken!" Ben taunted. He started across, the bridge swaying from side to side as he ran. "Wait!" Thibault shouted to no effect. By then, Ben had already reached the central landing. Thibault climbed the tree ladder and stepped cautiously onto the rope bridge. The waterlogged boards sagged under his weight. As soon as Ben saw him coming, he scrambled up the last section to the tree house. Thibault's breath caught in his throat as Ben hopped up on the tree house's platform. It bowed under Ben's weight but held steady. Ben turned around, his grin wide. "Come on back!" Thibault shouted. "I don't think the bridge will hold me." "It'll hold. My grandpa built it!" "Please, Ben?" "Chicken!" Ben taunted again. It was obvious that Ben considered the whole thing a game. Thibault took another look at the bridge, concluding that if he moved slowly, it might be safe. Ben had run—lots of torque and impact pressure. Would it hold the weight of Thibault's body? With his first step, the boards, drenched and ancient, sagged under his weight. Dry rot, no doubt. Thibault's mind flashed on the photograph in his pocket. The creek swirled and spun, a torrent beneath his feet. No time to lose. He walked slowly and reached the central landing, then started up the last suspended section of the rope bridge. Noting the rickety platform, he doubted it would support their combined weight simultaneously. In his pocket, the photograph felt as if it were on fire. "I'll meet you inside," Thibault said, trying to sound offhand. "You don't have to wait in the rain for an old man like me." Thankfully, Ben laughed and ducked into the tree house. Thibault breathed a sigh of relief as he made the shaky rise to the platform. He took a large, quick step to avoid the platform and stumbled into the tree house. 'This is where I keep my Pokemon cards," Ben said, ignoring his entrance and motioning to the tin boxes' in the corner. "I've got a Charizard card. And a Mewtwo." Thibault wiped the rain from his face as he collected himself and sat on the floor. "That's great," he said, puddles from his rain gear collecting around him. He took in the tiny room. Toys lay heaped in the corners, and a cutout window exposed much of the interior to the elements, soaking the unsanded planks. The only piece of furniture was a single beanbag chair in the corner. This is my hideout," Ben said, collapsing into the chair. "Yeah?" "I come here when I get mad. Like when kids at school are mean." Thibault leaned back against the wall, shaking the water from his sleeves. "What do they do?" "Stuff. You know." He shrugged. "Teasing me about how I play basketball or kick ball or why I have to wear glasses." "That must be hard." "It doesn't bother me." Ben didn't seem to notice his obvious contradiction, and Thibault went on. "What do you like most about being here?" "The quiet," said Ben. "When I'm here, no one asks me questions or asks me to do stuff. I can sit here and think." Thibault nodded. "Makes sense." Through the window, he could see the rising wind beginning to drive the rain sideways. The storm was getting worse. "What do you think about?" he asked. Ben shrugged. "Like growing up and stuff. Getting older." He paused. "I wish I was bigger." "Why?" "There's this kid in my class who always picks on me. He's mean. Yesterday, he pushed me down in the cafeteria." The tree house rocked in a gust of wind. Again, the photo seemed to burn, and Thibault absently found his hand wandering to his pocket. He didn't understand the compulsion, but before he realized what he was doing, he pulled out the photo. Outside, the wind continued to howl and he could hear branches slapping against the structure. With every passing minute, he knew, the rain was engorging the creek. All at once, an image arose of the tree house platform collapsing, with Ben trapped in the raging water beneath it. "I want to give you something," Thibault said, the words out before he'd even consciously thought them. "I think it'll take care of your problem." "What is it?" Thibault swallowed. "It's a picture of your mom." Ben took the photo and looked at it, his expression curious. "What do I do with it?" Thibault leaned forward and tapped the corner of the photo. "Just carry it with you. My friend Victor called it a lucky charm. He said it's what kept me safe in Iraq." "For real?" That was the question, wasn't it? After a long moment, Thibault nodded. "I promise." "Cool." "Will you do me a favor?" Thibault asked. "What?" "Will you keep this between the two of us? And promise to keep it with you?" Ben considered it. "Can I fold it?" "I don’t think it matters." Ben thought about it. "Sure," he finally said, folding it over and slipping into his pocket. "Thanks." It was the first time in over five years that the photo had ever been farther from him than the distance to the shower or the sink, and the sense of loss disoriented him. Somehow, Thibault hadn't expected to feel its absence so acutely. As he watched Ben cross the bridge and he caught sight of the raging creek, the feeling only intensified. When Ben waved to him from the other side of the creek and began to descend the tree ladder, Thibault reluctantly stepped onto the platform, before moving onto the bridge as fast as he could. He felt exposed as he crossed the bridge step by step, ignoring the certainty that the bridge would plunge into the creek, ignoring the fact that he no longer carried the photo. When he reached the oak tree on the other side, he breathed a shaky sigh of relief. Still, as he climbed down, he felt a nagging premonition that whatever he had come here for still wasn't over—and was, in fact, only beginning.Thibault didn't want to return to Iraq, but once more, in February 2005, the First, Fifth was called up. This time, the regiment was sent to Ramadi, the capital of Al Anbar province and the southwest point of what was commonly referred to as "the triangle of death." Thibault was there for seven months. Car bombs and IEDs—improvised explosive devices—were common. Simple devices but scary: usually a mortar shell with a fuse triggered by a cellular phone call. Still, the first time Thibault was riding in a Humvee that hit one, he knew the news could have been worse. "I'm glad I heard the bomb," Victor had said afterward. By then, Victor and Thibault nearly always patrolled together. "It means I'm still alive." "You and me both," Thibault had answered. But I'd rather not hit one again." "You and me both." But bombs weren't easy to avoid. On patrol the following day, hit another one. A week after that, their Humvee was struck by a car bomb—but Thibault and Victor weren't unusual in that regard. Humvees were hit by one or the other on almost every Patrol. Most of the marines in the platoon could honestly claim that they'd survived two or three bombs before they went back to Pendleton. A couple had survived four or five. Their sergeant had survived six. It was just that kind of place, and nearly everyone had heard the story of Tony Stevens, a marine from the Twenty-fourth MED—Marine Expeditionary Unit—who'd survived nine bombs. One of the major newspapers had written an article about him entitled "The Luckiest Marine." His was a record no one wanted to break. Thibault broke it. By the time he left Ramadi, he'd survived eleven explosions. But there was the one explosion he'd missed that continued to haunt him. It would have been explosion number eight. Victor was with him. Same old story with a much worse ending. They were in a convoy of four Humvees, patrolling one of the city's major thoroughfares. An RPG struck the Humvee in front, with fortunately little damage, but enough to bring the convoy to a temporary halt. Rusted and decaying cars lined both sides of the road. Shots broke out. Thibault jumped from the second Humvee in the convoy line to get a better line of sight. Victor followed him. They reached cover and readied their weapons. Twenty seconds later, a car bomb went off, knocking them clear and destroying the Humvee they'd been in only moments before. Three marines were killed; Victor was knocked unconscious. Thibault hauled him back to the convoy, and aftet collecting the dead, the convoy returned to the safe zone. It was around that time that Thibault began to hear whispers. He noticed that the othet marines in his platoon began to act differently around him, as if they believed Thibault were somehow immune to the rules of war. That others might die, but he would not. Worse than that, his fellow marines seemed to suspect that while Thibault was especially lucky, those who patrolled with him were especially unlucky. It wasn't always overt, but he couldn't deny the change in his platoon members' attitude toward him. He was in Ramadi for two more months after those three marines died. The last few bombs he survived only intensified the whispers. Other marines began to avoid him. Only Victor seemed to treat him the same. Toward the end of their tour in Ramadi, while on duty guarding a gas station, he noticed Victor's hands shaking as he lit a cigarette. Above them, the night sky glittered with stars. "You okay?" he asked. "I'm ready to go home," Victor said. "I've done my part." "You're not going to reup next year?" He took a long drag from his cigarette. "My mother wants me home, and my brother has offered me a job. In roofing. Do you think I can build roofs?" "Yeah, I think you can. You'll be a great roofer." "My girl, Maria, is waiting for me. I've known her since I was fourteen." "I know. You've told me about her." "I'm going to marry her." "You told me that, too." "I want you to come to the wedding." In the glow of Victor's cigarette, he saw the ghost of a smile. "I wouldn't miss it." Victor took a long drag and they stood in silence, considering a future that seemed impossibly distant. "What about you?" Victor said, his words coming out with a puff" of smoke. "You going to reup?" Thibault shook his head. "No. I'm done." "What are you going to do when you get out?" "I don't know. Do nothing for a while, maybe go fishing in Minnesota. Someplace cool and green, where I can just sit in a boat and relax." Victor sighed. "That sounds nice." "You want to come?" "Yes." "Then I'll call you when I plan the trip," Thibault promised. He could hear the smile in Victor's voice. "I'll be there." Victor cleared his throat. "Do you want to know something?" "Only if you want to tell me." "Do you remember the firefight? The one where Jackson and the others died when the Humvee blew up?" Thibault picked up a small pebble and tossed it into the dark-ness. "Yeah." "You saved my life. "No, I didn't. I just hauled you back." 'Thibault, I followed you. When you jumped from the Humvee. I was going to stay, but when I saw you go, I knew I had no choice." "What are you talking ab—?" "The picture," Victor interrupted. "I know you carry it with you. I followed your luck and it saved me." At first, Thibault didn't understand, but when he finally figured out what Victor was saying, he shook his head in disbelief. "It's just a picture, Victor." "It's luck," Victor insisted, bringing his face close to Thibault's. "And you're the lucky one. And when you are finished with your tour, I think you should go find this woman in the picture. Your story with her is not finished." "No—" "It saved me." "It didn't save the others. Too many others." Everyone knew that the First, Fifth had suffered more casualties in Iraq than any other regiment in the Marine Corps. "Because it protects you. And when I jumped from the Humvee, I believed it would save me, too, in the same way you believe it will always save you." "No, I don't," Thibault began. "Then why, my friend, do you still carry it with you?" *** It was Friday, his third day working at the kennel, and though Thibault had shed most traces of his former life, he was always aware of the photograph in his pocket. Just as he always thought about everything Victor had said to him that day. He was walking a mastiff on a shady trail, out of sight of the office but still on the property. The dog was enormous, at least the size of a Great Dane, and had a tendency to lick Thibault's hand every ten seconds. Friendly. He'd already mastered the simple routines of the job: feeding and exercising the dogs, cleaning the cages, scheduling appointments. Not hard. He was fairly certain that Nana was considering allowing him to help train the dogs as well. The day before, she'd asked him to watch her work with one of the dogs, and it reminded him of his work with Zeus: clear, short, simple commands, visual cues, firm guidance with the leash, and plenty of praise. When she finished, she told him to walk beside her as she brought the dog back to the kennel. "Do you think you could handle something like that?" she asked. "Yes." She peeked over her shoulder at Zeus, who was trailing behind them. "Is it the same way you trained Zeus?" "Pretty much." When Nana had interviewed him, Thibault had made two requests. First, he asked that he be allowed to bring Zeus to work with him. Thibault had explained that after spending nearly all their time together, Zeus wouldn't react well to long daily separations. Thankfully, Nana had understood. "I worked with shepherds for a long time, so I know what you're talking about," she'd said. "As long as he doesn't become a bother, it's fine with me." Zeus wasn't a bother. Thibault learned early on not to bring Zeus into the kennels when he was feeding or cleaning, since Zeus's presence made some of the other dogs nervous, But other than that, he fit right in. Zeus followed along as Thibault exercised the dogs or cleaned the training yard, and he lay on the porch near the doorway when Thibault was doing paperwork. When clients came in, Zeus always went on alert, as he'd been trained to do. It was enough to make most clients stop in their tracks, but a quick, "It's okay," was enough to keep him still. Thibault's second request to Nana was that he be allowed to start work on Wednesday so he'd have time to get settled. She'd agreed to that as well. On Sunday, on the way home after leaving the kennel, he'd picked up a newspaper and searched the classifieds for a place to rent. It wasn't hard to pare the list; there were only four homes listed, and he was immediately able to eliminate two of the larger ones since he didn't need that much room. Ironically, the remaining two choices were on opposite ends of town. The first house he found was in an older subdivision just off the downtown area and within sight of the South River. Good condition. Nice neighborhood. But not for him. Houses were sandwiched too close together. The second house, though, would work out fine. It was located at the end of a dirt road about two miles from work, on a rural lot that bordered the national forest. Conveniently, he could cut through the forest to get to the kennel. It didn't shorten his commute much, but it would allow Zeus to roam. The place was one-story, southern rustic, and at least a hundred years old, but kept in relatively good repair. After rubbing the dirt from the windows, he peeked inside. It needed some work, but not the kind that would prevent him from moving in. The kitchen was definitely old-school, and there was a wood-burning stove in the corner, one that probably pro-vided the house's only heat. The wide-plank pine flooring was scuffed and stained, and the cabinets had probably been around since the place was built, but these things seemed to add to the house's character rather than detract from it. Even better, it seemed to be furnished with the basics: couch and end tables, lamps, even a bed. Thibault called the number on the sigh, and a couple of hours later, he heard the owner drive up. They made the requisite small talk, and it turned out the guy had spent twenty years in the army, the last seven at Fort Bragg. The place had belonged to his father, he'd explained, who'd passed away two months earlier. That was good, Thibault knew; homes were like cars in that if they weren't used regularly, they began to decay at an accelerating rate. It meant this one was probably still okay. The deposit and rent seemed a bit high to him, but Thibault needed a place quickly. He paid two months' rent and the deposit in advance. The expression on the guy's face told him that the last thing he'd expected was to receive that much cash. Thibault slept at the house Monday night, spreading his sleeping bag on top of the mattress; on Tuesday, he trekked into town to order a new mattress from a place that agreed to deliver it that evening, then picked up supplies as well. When he returned, his backpack was filled with sheets and towels and cleaning supplies. It took another two trips to town to stock the refrigerator and get some plates, glasses, and utensils, along with a fifty-pound bag of food for Zeus. By the end of the day, he wished for the first time since he'd left Colorado that he had a car. But he was settled in, and that was enough. He was ready to go to work. Since starting at the kennel on Wednesday, he'd spent most of his time with Nana, learning the ins and outs of the place. He hadn't seen much of Beth, or Elizabeth, as he liked to think of her; in the mornings, she drove off dressed for work and didn't return until late afternoon. Nana mentioned something about teacher meetings, which made sense, since school would be starting up next week. Aside from an occasional greeting, the only time they'd actually spoken was when she'd pulled him aside on his first day and asked him to look after Nana. He knew what she meant. It was obvious that Nana had suffered a stroke. Their morning training sessions left her breathing harder than seemed warranted, and on her way back to the house, her limp was more pronounced. It made him nervous. He liked Nana. She had a unique turn of phrase. It amused him, and he wondered how much of it was an act. Eccentric or not, she was intelligent—no doubt about that. He often got the sense she was evaluating him, even in the course of normal conversations. She had opinions about everything, and she wasn't afraid to share them. Nor did she hesitate to tell him about herself. In the past few days, he'd learned quite a bit about her. She'd told him about her husband and the kennel, the training she'd done in the past, some of the places she'd visited. She also asked about him, and he dutifully answered her questions about his family and upbringing. Strangely, however, she never asked about his military service or if he'd served in Iraq, which struck him as unusual. But he didn't volunteer the information, because he didn't really want to talk about it either. The way Nana studiously avoided the topic—and the four-year hole in his life—suggested that she understood his reticence. And maybe even that his time in Iraq had something to do with the reason he was here. Smart lady. Officially, he was supposed to work from eight until five. Unofficially, he showed up at seven and usually worked till seven. He didn't like to leave knowing there was still more to do. Conveniently, it also gave Elizabeth the chance to see him when she got home from work. Proximity bred familiarity, and familiarity bred comfort. And whenever he saw her, he was reminded that he'd come here because of her. After that, his reasons for being here were somewhat vague, even to him. Yes, he'd come, but why? What did he want from her? Would he ever tell her the truth? Where was all this leading? On his trek from Colorado, whenever he'd pondered these questions, he'd simply assumed that he'd know the answers if and when he found the woman in the picture. But now that he'd found her, he was no closer to the truth than he'd been when he'd left. In the meantime, he'd learned some things about her. That she had a son, for instance. That was a bit of a surprise—he'd never considered the possibility. Ben was his name. Seemed like a nice kid, from what little he could tell. Nana mentioned that he played ehess and read a lot, but that was about it. Thibault noticed that since he'd started work, Ben had been watching him from behind the curtains or peeking in Thibault's direction when he spent time with Nana. But Ben kept his distance. He wondered if that was his choice or his mother's. Probably his mother's. He knew he hadn't made a good first impression on her. The way he froze when he first saw her didn't help. He'd known she was attractive, but the faded photo didn't capture the warmth of her smile or the serious way she studied him, as if searching for hidden flaws. Lost in thought, he reached the main training area behind the office. The mastiff was panting hard, and Thibault led him toward the kennel. He told Zeus to sit and stay, then put the mastiff back in his cage. He filled the water bowl, along with a few others that seemed low, and retrieved from the office the simple lunch he'd packed earlier. Then he headed for the creek. He liked to eat there. The brackish water and shady oak with its low-slung branches draped with Spanish moss lent a prehistoric feeling to the place that he and Zeus both enjoyed. Through the trees and at the edge of his vision, he noted a tree house and wood-planked rope bridge that appeared to have been constructed with scraps, something thrown together by someone not completely sure what they were doing. As usual, Zeus stood in the water up to his haunches, cooling off before ducking his head underwater and barking. Crazy dog. "What's he doing?" a voice asked. Thibault turned and saw Ben standing at the edge of the clearing. "No idea." He shrugged. "Barking at fish, I guess." He pushed up his glasses. "Does he do that a lot?" "Every time he's out here." "It's strange," the boy remarked. "I know." Zeus took note of Ben's presence, making sure no threat was evident, then stuck his head under the water and barked again. Ben stayed at the edge of the clearing. Unsure what to say next, Thibault took another bite of his sandwich. "I saw you come out here yesterday," Ben said. "Yeah?" "I followed you." "I guess you did." "My tree house is over there," he said. He pointed. "It's my secret hideout." "It's a good thing to have," Thibault said. He motioned to the branch beside him. "You want to sit down?" "I can't get too close." "No?" "My mom says you're a stranger." "It's a good idea to listen to your mom." Ben seemed satisfied with Thibault's response but uncertain about what to do next. He turned from Thibault to Zeus, debating, before deciding to take a seat on a toppled tree near where he'd been standing, preserving the distance between them. "Are you going to work here?" he asked. "I am working here." "No. I mean are you going to quit?" "I don't plan to." He raised an eyebrow. "Why?" "Because the last two guys quit. They didn't like cleaning up the poop." "Not everyone does." "Does it bother you?" "Not really." "I don't like the way it smells." Ben made a face. "Most people don't. I just try to ignore it." Ben pushed his glasses up on his nose again. "Where'd you get the name Zeus?" Thibault couldn't hide a smile. He'd forgotten how curious kids could be. "That was his name when I got him." "Why didn't you change it to something you wanted?" "I don't know. Didn't think about it, I guess." "We had a German shepherd. His name was Oliver." "Yeah?" "He died." "I'm sorry." "It's okay," Ben assured him. "He was old." Thibault finished his sandwich, stuffed the plastic wrap back in the bag, and opened the bag of nuts he'd packed. He noticed Ben staring at him and gestured toward the bag. "You want some almonds?" Ben shook his head. "I'm not supposed to accept food from strangers." "Okay. How old are you?" "Ten. How old are you?" "Twenty-eight." "You look older." "So do you." Ben smiled at that. "My name's Ben." "Nice to meet you, Ben. I'm Logan Thibault." "Did you really walk here from Colorado?" Thibault squinted at him. "Who told you that?" "I heard Mom talking to Nana. They said that most normal people would have drove." "They're right." "Did your legs get tired?" "At first they did. But after a while, I got used to all the walking. So did Zeus. Actually, I think he liked the walk. There was always something new to see, and he got to chase a zillion squirrels." Ben shuffled his feet back and forth, his. expression serious. "Can Zeus fetch?" "Like a champ. But only for a few throws. He gets bored after that. Why? Do you want to throw a stick for him?" "Can I?" Thibault cupped his mouth and called for Zeus to come; the dog came bounding out of the water, paused a few feet away, and shook the water from his coat. He focused on Thibault. "Get a stick." Zeus immediately put his nose to the ground, sifting through myriad fallen branches. In the end, he chose a small stick and trotted toward Thibault. Thibault shook his head. "Bigger," he said, and Zeus stared at him with what resembled disappointment before turning away. He dropped the stick and resumed searching. "He gets excited when he plays, and if the stick is too small, he'll snap it in half," Thibault explained. "He does it every time." Ben nodded, looking solemn. Zeus returned with a larger stick and brought it to Thibault. Thibault broke off a few of the remaining twigs, making it a bit smoother, then gave it back to Zeus. "Take it to Ben." Zeus didn't understand the command and tilted his head, ears pricked. Thibault pointed toward Ben. "Ben," he said. "Stick." Zeus trotted toward Ben, stick in his mouth, then dropped it at Ben's feet. He sniffed Ben, took a step closer, and allowed Ben to pet him. "He knows my name?" "Now he does." "Forever?" "Probably. Now that he's smelled you." "How could he learn it so fast?" "He just does. He's used to learning things quickly." Zeus sidled closer and licked Ben's face, then retreated, his gaze flickering from Ben to the stick and back again. Thibault pointed to the stick. "He wants you to throw it. That's his way of asking." Ben grabbed the stick and seemed to debate his next move. "Can I throw it in the water?" "He'd love that." Ben heaved it into the slow-moving creek. Zeus bounded into the water and began to paddle. He retrieved the stick, stopped a few feet from Ben to shake off, then got close and dropped the stick again. "I trained him to shake off before he gets too close. I don't like getting wet," Thibault said. "That's cool." Thibault smiled as Ben threw the stick again. "What else can he do?" Ben asked over his shoulder. "Lots of things. Like … he's great at playing hide-and-go-seek. If you hide, he'll find you." "Can we do that sometime?" "Anytime you want." "Awesome. Is he an attack dog, too?" "Yes. But mostly he's friendly." Finishing the rest of his lunch, Thibault watched as Ben continued to throw the stick. On the last throw, while Zeus retrieved it, he didn't trot toward Ben. Instead, he walked off to the side and lay down. Holding one paw over the stick, he began to gnaw. "That means he's done," Thibault said. "You've got a good arm, by the way. Do you play baseball?" "Last year. But I don't know if I'll play this year. I want to learn how to play the violin." "I played the violin as a kid," Thibault remarked. "Really?" Ben's face registered surprise. "Piano, too. Eight years." Off to the side, Zeus raised his head from the stick, becoming alert. A moment later, Thibault heard the sound of someone coming up the path as Elizabeth's voice floated through the trees. "Ben?" "Over here, Mom!" Ben shouted. Thibault raised his palm toward Zeus. "It's okay." "There you are," she said, stepping into view. "What are you doing out here?" Her friendly expression froze as soon as she spotted Thibault, and he could plainly read the question in her eyes: Why is my son in the woods with a man I barely know? Thibault felt no need to defend himself. He'd done nothing wrong. Instead, he nodded a greeting. "Hey." "Hi," she said, her tone cautious. By that time, Ben was already running toward her. "You should see what his dog can do, Mom! He's supersmart. Even smarter than Oliver was." "That's great." She put an arm around him. "You ready to come inside? I have lunch on the table." "He knows me and everything…" "Who?" "The dog. Zeus. He knows my name." She turned her gaze to Thibault. "Does he?" Thibault nodded. "Yeah." "Well… good." "Guess what? He played the violin." "Zeus?" "No, Mom. Mr. Thibault did. As a kid. He played the violin." "Really?" She seemed startled by that. Thibault nodded. "My mom was kind of a music fanatic. She wanted me to master Shostakovich, but I wasn't that gifted. I could play a decent Mendelssohn, though." Her smile was forced. "I see." Despite her apparent discomfort, Thibault laughed. "What?" she asked, obviously remembering their earlier encounter as well. "Nothing." "What's wrong, Mom?" "Nothing," she said. "It's just that you should have told me where you were going." "I come out here all the time." "I know," she said, "but next time, let me know, okay?" So I can keep an eye on you, she didn't say. So I know you're safe. Again, Thibault understood the message, even if Ben didn't. "I should probably head back to the office," he said, rising from the branch. He collected the remains of his lunch. "I want to check the mastiff's water. He was hot, and I'm sure he finished his bowl. See you later, Ben. You too." He turned. "Zeus! Let's go." Zeus sprang from his spot and went to Thibault's side; a moment later, they stood at the head of the footpath. "Bye, Mr. Thibault," Ben called. Thibault turned around, walking backward. "Nice talking to you, Ben. And by the way, it's not Mr. Thibault. Just Thibault." With that, he turned back around, feeling the weight of Elizabeth's gaze on him until he vanished from sight.Late Saturday evening, after Elizabeth had left, Thibault found Victor sitting in his living room, still dressed in the shorts and cabana-style shirt he'd been wearing on the day he died. The sight of him stopped Thibault in his tracks. All he could do was stare. It wasn't possible, nor was it really happening. Thibault knew that Victor was gone, buried in a small plot near Bakersfield. He knew Zeus would have reacted had anyone real been in the house, but Zeus simply wandered to his water bowl. In the silence, Victor smiled. "There is more," he said, his voice a hoarse promise. When Thibault blinked, Victor was gone, and it was obvious he'd never been there at all. It was the third time Thibault had seen Victor since he had passed away. The first time had been at the funeral, when Thibault had rounded a corner near the back of the church and seen Victor staring at him from the end of the hallway. "It's not your fault," Victor had said before dissolving away. Thibault's throat had closed up, forcing him to rush to catch his breath. The second appearance occurred three weeks before he set out on his walk. That time, it had happened in the grocery store, as Thibault was rummaging through his wallet, trying to figure out how much beer he could purchase. He'd been drinking heavily in those days, and as he counted the bills, he saw an image from the corner of his eye. Victor shook his head but said nothing. He didn't have to. Thibault knew that he was being told that it was time to end the drinking. Now, this. Thibault didn't believe in ghosts, and he knew that the image of Victor hadn't been real. There was no specter haunting him, no visits from beyond, no restless spirit with a message to deliver. Victor was a figment of his imagination, and Thibault knew that his subconscious had conjured up the image. After all, Victor had been the one person Thibault had always listened to. He knew the boating accident had been just that: an accident. The kids who'd been driving the boat had been traumatized, and their horror at what had happened was genuine. As for the drinking, he'd known deep down that the booze was doing more harm than good. Somehow, though, it was easier to listen to Victor. The last thing he'd expected was to see his friend once more. He considered Victor's words—there is more—and wondered whether they related to his conversation with Elizabeth. Somehow he didn't think so, but he couldn't figure it out, and it nagged at him. He suspected that the harder he pressed himself for an answer, the less likely it was that the answer would come. The subconscious was funny like that. He wandered to the small kitchen to pour himself a glass of milk, put some food in the bowl for Zeus, and went to his room. Lying in bed, he brooded on the things he'd told Elizabeth. He'd thought long and hard about saying anything at all. He wasn't even certain what he'd hoped to accomplish by doing so, other than to open her eyes to the possibility that Keith Clayton might just be controlling her life in ways she couldn't imagine. Which was exactly what the man was doing. Thibault had become sure of it when he'd first noticed the break-in. Of course, it could have been anyone—someone wanting to make a quick buck grabbing items that could be sold in pawnshops—but the way it had been done suggested otherwise. It was too neat. Nothing had been strewn about. Nothing was even out of place. Nearly everything had, however, been adjusted. The blanket on the bed was the first giveaway. There was a tiny ridge in the blanket, caused by someone who didn't know how to tuck in the covers military fashion—something few, if anyone, would have noticed. He noticed. The clothes in his drawers showed similar disturbances: a rumple here, a sleeve folded the wrong way there. Not only had someone entered the home while he'd been at work, but he'd searched the house thoroughly. But why? Thibault had nothing of value to steal. A quick peek through the windows beforehand made it plain there was nothing valuable in the place. Not only was the living room devoid of electronics, but the second bedroom stood completely empty, and the room where he slept contained only a bed, end table, and lamp. Aside from dishes and utensils and an ancient electric can opener on the counter, the kitchen was empty, too. The pantry contained dog food, a loaf of bread, and a jar of peanut butter. But someone had taken the time to search the house anyway from top to bottom, including under his mattress. Someone had diligently gone through his drawers and cleaned up afterward. No outrage at finding nothing of value. No evident frustration that the break-in had been a waste. Instead, the burglar had attempted to cover his tracks. Whoever had broken in had come to the house not to steal, but to look for something. Something specific. It hadn't taken long to figure out what it was and who had been responsible. Keith Clayton wanted his camera. Or, more likely, he wanted the disk. Probably because the photographs on the disk could get him in trouble. No great leap of logic, considering what Clayton had been doing the first time they'd bumped into each other. All right, so Clayton wanted to cover his tracks. But there was still more to this than met the eye. And it had to do with Elizabeth. It didn't make sense that she hadn't had any relationships in the past ten years. But it did jibe with something he'd heard while standing around the pool table, showing her picture to the group of locals. What had one of them said? It had taken a while to recall the exact words, and he wished he had paid more attention to the comment. He'd been so focused on learning Elizabeth's name, he'd ignored it at the time—a mistake. In hindsight, there was something menacing about the comment's implication. … let's just say she doesn't date. Her ex wouldn't like it, and trust me, you don't want to mess with him. He reviewed what he knew about Keith Clayton. Part of a powerful family. A bully. Quick to anger. In a position to abuse his power. Someone who thought he deserved whatever he wanted whenever he wanted it? Thibault couldn't be certain about the last one, but it all fit the picture. Clayton didn't want Elizabeth to see other men. Elizabeth hadn't had any meaningful relationships in years. Elizabeth occasionally wondered why but hadn't even considered the possible connection between her ex-husband and failed relationships. To Thibault, it seemed entirely plausible that Clayton was manipulating people and events and—at least in one way— still controlling her life. For Clayton to know that Elizabeth was dating someone in the past meant that Clayton had been watching over her for years. Just as he was watching over her now. It wasn't hard to imagine how Clayton had ended her previous relationships, but so far, he'd kept his distance when it came to Thibault and Elizabeth. So far, Thibault hadn't seen him spying from afar, hadn't noticed anything out of the ordinary. Instead, Clayton had broken into his house in search of the disk when he knew Thibault would be at work. Getting his ducks in a row? Probably. But the question was, to what end? To run Thibault out of town, at the very least. Still, Thibault couldn't shake the feeling that this wouldn't be the end. As Victor had said, there is more. He'd wanted to share with Elizabeth what he knew about her ex, but he couldn't come right out and tell her about the comment he'd overheard at the pool hall. That would mean telling her about the photograph, and he couldn't do that yet. Instead, he wanted to point her in the right direction, hoping she would begin to make the connections herself. Together, once they both knew the extent to which Clayton was willing to sabotage her relationships, they would be able to handle whatever he chose to do. They loved each other. They would know what to expect. It would all work out. Was this the reason he'd come? To fall in love with Elizabeth and make a life together? Was this his destiny? For some reason, it didn't feel right. Victor's words seemed to confirm that. There was another reason that he'd come here. Falling in love with Elizabeth may have been part of it. But that wasn't all. Something else was coming. There is more. Thibault slept the rest of the night without waking, just as he had since arriving in North Carolina. A military thing—or, more accurately, a combat thing, something he'd learned out of necessity. Tired soldiers made mistakes. His father had said that. Every officer he'd ever known had said that. His wartime experience confirmed the truth of their statements. He'd learned to sleep when it was time to sleep, no matter how chaotic things were, trusting he'd be better for it the following day. Aside from the brief period after Victor's death, sleep had never been a problem. He liked sleep, and he liked the way his thoughts seemed to coalesce while he was dreaming. On Sunday, when he woke, he found himself visualizing a wheel with spokes extending from the center. He wasn't sure why, but a few minutes later, when he was walking Zeus outside, he was suddenly struck by the notion that Elizabeth wasn’t the center of the wheel, as he’d unconsciously assumed. Instead, he realized, everything that had happened since he’d arrived in Hampton seemed to revolve around Keith Clayton. Clayton, after all, had been the first person he’d met in town. He’d taken Clayton’s camera. Clayton and Elizabeth had been married. Clayton was Ben’s father. Clayton had sabotaged Elizabeth’s relationships. Clayton had seen them spending an evening together on the night he’d brought Ben home with the black eye, in other words, he’d been the first to know about them. Clayton had broken into his house. Clayton - not Elizabeth - was the reason he’d come to Hampton. In the distance, thunder sounded, low and ominous. There was a storm on the way, and the heaviness in the air portended a big one. Aside from what Elizabeth had told him about Clayton, he realized he knew very little about Elizabeth's former husband. As the first drops began to tall, Thibault went back inside. Later, he would visit the library. He had a little research ahead of him if he hoped to get a better feel for Hampton and the role the Claytons played in it.Beth didn't sleep well and woke up exhausted. The storm had hit in full fury last night, bringing heavy wind and massive amounts or rain, dwarfing the previous deluge. The day before, she couldn't have imagined the water getting any deeper, but when she looked out the window, the office looked like an isolated island in the midst of the ocean. Last night, she'd pulled her car onto a spit of higher land near the magnolia tree; good thing, she realized now. It, too, was its own little island, while the water nearly reached the high floorboards of Nana's truck. The truck had always managed well in floods, but it was a good thing that the brakes had been fixed. Otherwise they would have been stranded. Last night, she'd taken it into town to buy a gallon of milk and a few other basic necessities, but the trip had been pointless. Everything was closed, and the only other vehicles that she'd seen on the road were utility trucks and SUVs driven by the sheriffs department. Half the town was without power, but so far their house was unaffected. If there was one bright spot, it was that TV and radio reports predicted the last of the storms would roll through today; tomorrow, hopefully, the water would begin to recede. She sat in the porch swing outside while Nana and Ben we playing gin rummy at the kitchen table. It was the one game in which they were equally matched, and it kept Ben from getting bored. Later, she figured she'd let him splash around in the front yard while she went to check on the dogs. She'd probably give up any attempt to keep him dry and simply let him wear his swimsuit; when she'd gone out earlier in the morning to feed the dogs, her raincoat had been useless. Listening to the sound of the rain drumming steadily on the roof, she found her thoughts drifting to Drake. She wished for the thousandth time that she could talk to him and wondered what he would have said about the photograph. Had he, too, believed in its power? Drake had never been particularly superstitious, but her heart lurched every time she recalled his inexplicable panic at the loss of the photo. Nana was right. She didn't know what Drake had experienced over there, and she didn't know what Logan had, either. As informed as she tried to be, none of it felt real to her. She wondered about the stress they felt, thousands of miles from home, wearing flak jackets, living among people who spoke a foreign language, trying to stay alive. Was it impossible to believe that anyone would latch on to something he believed would keep him safe? No, she decided. It was no different from carrying a St. Christopher medal or a rabbit's foot. It didn't matter that there was nothing logical about it—logic didn't matter. Nor did an absolute belief in magic powers. If it made someone feel safer, it simply did. But tracking her down? Stalking her? That's where her understanding broke down. As skeptical as she was about Keith's intentions—or even his attempt to appear genuinely concerned for her well-being —she had to admit that the situation made her feel acutely vulnerable. What had Logan said ? Something about owing her? For his life, she assumed, but how? She shook her head, drained by the thoughts chasing endlessly through her mind. She looked up when she heard the door creak open. "Hey, Mom?" "Yeah, sweetie." Ben came over and took a seat beside her. "Where's Thibault? I haven't seen him yet." "He's not coming in," she said. "Because of the storm?" She hadn't told him yet, nor was she ready to. "He had some things to do," she improvised. "Okay," Ben said. He looked out into the yard. "You can't even see the grass anymore." "I know. But the rain's supposed to stop soon." "Has it ever been like this before? When you were little?" "A couple of times. But always with a hurricane." He nodded before pushing his glasses up. She ran a hand through his hair. "I heard Logan gave you something." "I'm not supposed to talk about it," he said, his voice serious. "It's a secret." "You can tell your mom. I'm good at keeping secrets." "Nice try," he teased. "I'm not falling for that one." She smiled and leaned back, pushing the swing into motion with her feet. "That's okay. I already know about the picture." Ben looked over at her, wondering how much she knew. "You know," she went on, "for protection?" His shoulders slumped. "He told you?" "Of course." "Oh," he said, his disappointment evident. "He told me to keep it between the two of us." "Do you have it? I'd like to see it if you do." Ben hesitated before reaching into his pocket. He pulled out a folded snapshot and handed it over. Beth opened the photo and stared, feeling a surge of memories overtake her: her last weekend with Drake and the conversation they'd had, the sight of the ferris wheel, the shooting star. Did he say anything else when he gave it to you?" Handing the photo back to him. "Aside from it being a secret I mean." "He said his friend Victor called it a lucky charm kept him safe in Iraq." She felt her pulse pick up tempo, and she brought her face close to Ben's. "Did you say Victor called it a lucky charm?" "Uh-huh." Ben nodded. "That's what he said " "Are you sure?" "Of course I'm sure." Beth stared at her son, feeling at war with herself.Chapter 17 Clayton 飞艇游戏彩票 As night fell, Beth stood on the back deck, watching Logan concentrate on the chess board in front of him, thinking, I like him. The thought, when it struck her, felt at once surprising and natural. Ben and Logan were on their second game of chess, and Logan was taking his time on his next move. Ben had handily won the first game, and she could read the surprise in Logan's expression. He took it well, even asking Ben what he'd done wrong. They'd reset the board to an earlier position, and Ben showed Logan the series of errors he had made, first with his rook and queen and then, finally, with his knight. "Well, I'll be," Logan had said. He'd smiled at Ben. "Good job." She didn't want to even imagine how Keith would have reacted had he lost. In fact, she didn't have to imagine it. They'd played once a couple of years ago, and when Ben won, Keith had literally flipped the board over before storming out of the room. A few minutes later, while Ben was still gathering the pieces from behind the furniture, Keith came back into the room. Instead of apologizing, he declared that chess was a waste of time and that Ben would be better off doing something important, like studying for his classes at school or going to the batting cage, since "he hit about as well as a blind man." She really wanted to strangle the man sometimes. With Logan, though, things were different. Beth could see that Logan was in trouble again. She couldn't tell by looking at the board—the intricacies that separated the good from the great players were beyond her—but whenever Ben studied his opponent rather than his pieces, she knew the end was coming, even if Logan didn't seem to realize it. What she loved most about the scene was that despite the concentration the game required, Logan and Ben still managed to… talk. About school and Ben's teachers and what Zeus had been like when he was a puppy, and because Logan seemed genuinely interested, Ben revealed a few things that surprised her—that one of the other boys in his class had taken his lunch a couple of times and that Ben had a crush on a girl named Cici. Logan didn't deliver advice; instead he asked Ben what he thought he should do. Based on her experience with men, most assumed that when you talked to them about a problem or dilemma, they were expected to offer an opinion, even when all you wanted was for them to listen. Logan's natural reticence actually seemed to give Ben room to express himself. It was clear that Logan was comfortable with who he was. He wasn't trying to impress Ben or impress her by showing her how well he could get along with Ben. Though she'd dated infrequently over the years, she'd found that most suitors either pretended Ben didn't exist and said only a few words to him or went overboard in the way they talked to him, trying to prove how wonderful they were by being overly friendly with her son. From an early age, Ben had seen through both types almost immediately. So had she, and that was usually enough for her to end things. Well, when they weren't ending the relationship with her, that is. It was obvious that Ben liked spending time with Logan, and even better, she got the sense that Logan liked spending time with Ben. In the silence, Logan continued to stare at the board, his finger resting momentarily on his knight before moving it to his pawn. Ben's eyebrows rose ever so slightly. She didn't know whether Ben thought the move Logan was considering was a good one or a bad one, but Logan went ahead and moved the pawn forward. Ben made his next move almost immediately, something she recognized as a bad sign for Logan. A few minutes later, Logan seemed to realize that no matter what move he made, there was no way for his king to escape. He shook his head. "You got me." "Yeah," Ben confirmed, "I did." "I thought I was playing better." "You were," Ben said. "Until?" "Until you made your second move." Logan laughed. "Chess humor?" "We've got lots of jokes like that," Ben said, obviously proud. He motioned to the yard. "Is it dark enough?" "Yeah, I think so. You ready to play, Zeus?" Zeus's ears pricked up and he cocked his head. When Logan and Ben stood, Zeus scrambled to his feet. "You coming, Mom?" Beth rose from her chair. "I'm right behind you." They wended their way in the darkness to the front of the house. Beth paused by the front steps. "Maybe I should get a flashlight." "That's cheating!" Ben complained. "Not for the dog. For you. So you don't get lost." "He won't get lost," Logan assured her. "Zeus will find him." "Easy to say when it's not your son." "I'll be fine," Ben added. She looked from Ben to Logan before shaking her head. She wasn't entirely comfortable, but Logan didn't seem worried at all "Okay," she said, sighing. "I want one for me, then. Is that okay?" "Okay," Ben agreed. "What do I do?" "Hide," Logan said. "And I'll send Zeus to find you." "Anywhere I want?" "Why don't you hide out that way?" Logan said, pointing toward a wooded area west of the creek, on the opposite side of the driveway from the kennel. "I don't want you accidentally slipping into the creek. And besides, your scent will be fresh out that way. Remember, you two were playing out this way before dinner. Now once he finds you, just follow him out, okay? That way you won't get lost." Ben peered toward the woods. "Okay. How do I know he won't watch?" "I'll put him inside and count to a hundred before I let him out. "And you won't let him peek ?" "Promise." Logan focused his attention on Zeus. "Come," he said. He went to the door and opened it before pausing. "Is it okay if I let him in?" Beth nodded. "It's fine." Logan motioned for Zeus to go in and lie down, then closed the door. "Okay, you're ready." Ben started to jog toward the woods as Logan began to count out loud. In midstride, Ben called over his shoulder, "Count slower!" His figure gradually merged into the darkness, and even before reaching the woods, he'd vanished from sight. Beth crossed her arms. "I must say that I don't have a good feeling about this." "Why not?" "My son hiding in the woods at night? Gee, I wonder." "He'll be fine. Zeus will find him in two or three minutes. At the most." "You have an inordinate amount of faith in your dog." Logan smiled, and for a moment they stood on the porch, taking in the evening. The air, warm and humid but no longer hot, smelled like the land itself: a mixture of oak and pine and earth, an odor that never failed to remind Beth that even though the world was constantly changing, this particular place always seemed to stay the same. She was aware that Logan had been observing her all night, trying hard not to stare, and she knew she'd been doing the same with him. She realized she liked the way Logan's intent made her feel. She was pleased he found her attractive but liked that his attraction didn't possess any of the urgency or naked desire she often felt when men stared at her. Instead, he seemed content simply to stand beside her, and for whatever reason, it was exactly what she needed. "I'm glad you stayed for dinner," she offered, not knowing what else to say. "Ben's having a great time." "I'm glad, too." "You were so good with him in there. Playing chess, I mean." "It's not hard." "You wouldn't think so, right?" He hesitated. "Are we talking about your ex again?" "Am I that obvious?" She leaned against a post. "You're right, though. I am talking about my ex. The putz." He leaned against the post on the opposite side of the stairs, facing her. "And?" "And I just wish things could be different." He hesitated, and she knew he was wondering whether or not to say anything more. In the end, he said nothing. "You wouldn't like him," she volunteered. "In fact, I don't think he'd like you, either." "No?" "No. And consider yourself lucky. You're not missing anything." He looked at her steadily, not saying anything. Remembering the way she had shut him down earlier, she supposed. She brushed away a few strands of hair that had fallen into her eyes, wondering whether to go on. "Do you want to hear about it?" "Only if you want to tell me," he offered. She felt her thoughts drifting from the present to the past and sighed. "It's the oldest story in the book … I was a nerdy high school senior, he was a couple of years older than me, but we'd gone to the same church for as long as I can remember, so I knew exactly who he was. We started going out a few months before I graduated. His family is well-off, and he'd always dated the most popular girls, and I guess I just got caught up in the fantasy of it all. I overlooked some obvious problems, made excuses for others, and the next thing you know, I found out I was pregnant. All of a sudden, my life just… changed, you know? I wasn't going to go to college that fall, I had no idea how to even be a mother, let alone a single mother; I couldn't imagine how I was going to pull it all off. The last thing in the world I expected was for him to propose. But for whatever reason, he did, and I said yes, and even though I wanted to believe that it was all going to work out and did my best to convince Nana that I knew what I was doing, I think both of us knew it was a mistake before the ink was dry on the marriage certificate. We had virtually nothing in common. Anyway, we argued pretty much constantly, and ended up separating soon after Ben was born. And then, I was really lost." Logan brought his hands together. "But it didn't stop you." "Stop me from what?" "From eventually going to college and becoming a teacher. And figuring out how to be a single mother." He grinned, "And somehow pulling it off." She gave him a grateful smile. "With Nana's help." "Whatever it takes." He crossed one leg over the other, seeming to study her before he smirked. "Nerdy, huh?" "In high school? Oh yeah. I was definitely nerdy." "I find that hard to believe." "Believe what you want." "So how did college work?" "With Ben, you mean? It wasn't easy. But I already had some AP credits, which gave me a bit of a head start, and then I took classes at the community college while Ben was still in diapers. I took classes only two or three days a week while Nana took care of Ben, and I'd come home and study when I wasn't being Mom. Same thing when I transferred to UNC Wilmington, which was close enough to go to school and make it back here at night. It took me six years to get my degree and certificate, but I didn't want to take advantage of Nana, and I didn't want to give my ex any reason to get full Custody. And back then, he might have tried for it, just because he could." "He sounds like a charmer." She grimaced. "You have no idea." "You want me to beat him up?" She laughed. "That's funny. There might have been a time when I would have taken you up on that, but not anymore. He's just… immature. He thinks every woman he meets is crazy for him, gets angry at little things, and blames other people when things go wrong. Thirty One going on sixteen, if you know what I mean." From the side, she could sense Logan watching her. "But enough about him. Tell me something about you." "Like what?" "Anything. I don't know. Why did you major in anthropology?" He considered the question. "Personality, I guess." "What does that mean?" "I knew I didn't want to major in anything practical like business or engineering, and toward the end of my freshman year, I started talking to other liberal arts majors. The most interesting ones I met were anthropology majors. I wanted to be interesting." "You're kidding." "I'm not. That's why I took the first introductory classes, at least. After that, I realized that anthropology is a great blend of history and supposition and mystery, all of which appealed to me. I was hooked." "How about frat parties?" "Not my thing." "Football games?" "No." "Did you ever think you missed out on what college was sup' posed to be?" "No." "Me neither," she agreed. "Not once I had Ben, anyway." He nodded, then gestured toward the woods. "Um… do you think we should have Zeus find Ben now?" "Oh, my gosh!" she cried, her tone slightly panicked. "Yes. He can find him, right? How long has it been?" "Not long. Five minutes, maybe. Let me get Zeus. And don't worry. It won't take long." Logan went to the door and opened it. Zeus trotted out, tail wagging, then wandered down the stairs. He immediately lifted a leg by the side of the porch, then trotted back up the stairs to Logan. "Where's Ben?" Logan asked. Zeus's ears rose. Logan pointed in the direction Ben had gone. "Find Ben." Zeus turned and started trotting in wide arcs, nose to the ground. Within seconds, he'd picked up the trail and he vanished into the darkness. "Should we follow him?" Beth asked. "Do you want to?" "Yes." "Then let's go." They'd barely reached the first of the trees when she heard Zeus emit a playful bark. Right after that, Ben's voice sounded in a squeal of delight. When she turned toward Logan, he shrugged. "You weren't lying, were you?" she asked. "What was that? Two minutes?" "It wasn't hard for him. I knew Ben wouldn't be too far away." "What's the longest he's ever tracked something?" "He followed a deer trail for, I don't know, eight miles or so? Something like that, anyway. He could have gone on, too, but it ended at someone's fence. That was in Tennessee." "Why did you track the deer?" "Practice. He's a smart dog. He likes to learn, and he likes to use his skills." At that moment, Zeus came padding out from the trees, Ben a step behind him. "Which is why this is just as much fun for him as it is for Ben." "That was amazing!" Ben called out. "He just walked right up to me. I wasn't making a sound!" "You want to do it again?" Logan asked. "Can I?" Ben pleaded. "If it's okay with your mom." Ben turned to his mother, and she raised her hands. "Go ahead." "Okay, put him inside again. And I'm really going to hide this time," Ben declared. "You got it," Logan said. The second time Ben hid, Zeus found him in a tree. The third time, with Ben retracing his steps in an attempt to throw him off, Zeus found him a quarter mile away, in his tree house by the creek. Beth wasn't thrilled with this final choice; the unstable bridge and platform always seemed far more dangerous at night, but by then, Ben was getting tired and ready to call it quits anyway. Logan followed them back to the house. After saying good night to an exhausted Ben, he turned to Beth and cleared his throat. "I want to thank you for a great evening, but I should probably be heading home," he said. Despite the fact that it was close to ten o'clock, part of her didn't want him to go just yet. "Do you need a ride?" she offered. "Ben will be asleep in a couple of minutes, and I'd be glad to bring you home." "I appreciate the offer, but we'll be fine. I like to walk." "I know. I don't know much about you, but I do know that." She smiled. "I'll see you tomorrow, right?" "I'll be here at seven." "I can feed the dogs if you'd rather come in a bit later." "It's no problem. And besides, I'd like to see Ben before he leaves. And I'm sure Zeus will, too. Poor guy probably won't know what to do without Ben chasing him." "All right, then…" She hugged her arms, suddenly disappointed at the thought of Logan's departure. "Would it be okay if I borrowed the truck tomorrow? I need to ran into town to get a few things to fix the brakes. If not, I can walk." She smiled. "Yeah, I know. But it's not a problem. I have to drop Ben off and run some errands, but if I don't see you, I'll just put the keys under the mat on the driver's side." "Fine," he said. He looked directly at her. "Good night, Elizabeth." "Good night, Logan." Once he was gone, Beth checked on Ben and gave him another kiss on the cheek before going to her room. She replayed the evening as she undressed, musing on the mystery of Logan Thibault. He was different from any man she'd ever met, she thought, and then immediately chided herself for being so obvious. Of course he was different, she told herself. He was new to her. She'd never spent much time with him before. Even so, she reasoned she was mature enough to recognize the truth when she saw it. Logan was different. Lord knows Keith wasn't anything like him. Nor, in fact, was anyone else she'd dated since the divorce. Most of those men had been fairly easy to read; no matter how polite and charming or rough and unrefined they might be, everything they did seemed like transparent efforts at getting her into bed. "Man crap," as Nana described it. And Nana, she knew, wasn't wrong. But with Logan … well, that was the thing. She had no idea what he wanted from her. She knew he found her attractive, and he seemed to enjoy her company. But after that, she had absolutely no idea what his intentions might be, since he seemed to enjoy Ben's company as well. In a way, she thought, he treated her like a number of the married men she knew: You're pretty and you're interesting, but I'm already taken. It occurred to her, though, that maybe he was taken. Maybe he had a girlfriend back in Colorado, or maybe he'd just broken up with the love of his life and was still getting over it. Thinking back, she realized that even though he'd described the things he'd seen and done on his journey across the country, she still had no idea why he'd gone on the walk in the first place or why he'd decided to end his trek in Hampton. His history wasn't so much mysterious as hidden, which was strange. If she'd learned one thing about men, it was that they liked to talk about themselves: their jobs, their hobbies, past accomplishments, their motivations. Logan did none of those things. Puzzling. She shook her head, thinking she was probably reading too much into it. It wasn't as if they'd gone out on a date, after all. It was more like a friendly get-together—tacos, chess, and conversation. A family event. She put on pajamas and picked up a magazine from her bedside table. She absently flipped through the pages before turning out the light. But when she closed her eyes, she kept visualizing the way the corners of his mouth would turn up slightly whenever she said something he found humorous or the way his eyebrows knit together when he concentrated on a task. For a long time, she tossed and turned, unable to sleep, wondering if maybe, just maybe, Logan was awake and thinking of her, too.Chapter 25 ThibaultSunday. After church, it was supposed to be a day of rest, when she could recover and recharge for the coming week. The day she was supposed to spend with her family, cooking stew in the kitchen and taking relaxing walks along the river. Maybe even cuddle up with a good book while she sipped a glass of wine, or soak in a warm bubble bath. What she didn't want to do was spend the day scooping dog poop off the grassy area where the dogs trained, or clean the kennels, or train twelve dogs one right after the next, or sit in a sweltering office waiting for people to come pick up the family pets that were relaxing in cool, air-conditioned kennels. Which, of course, was exactly what she'd been doing since she'd gotten back from church earlier that morning. Two dogs had already been picked up, but four more were scheduled for pickup sometime today. Nana had been kind enough to lay out the files for her before she retreated to the house to watch the game. The Atlanta Braves were playing the Mets, and not only did Nana love the Atlanta Braves with a feverish passion that struck Beth as rediculous, but she loved any and all memorabilia associated with the team. Which explained, of course, the Atlanta Braves coffee cups stacked near the snack counter, the Atlanta Braves pennants on the walls, the Atlanta Braves desk-calendar, and the Atlanta Braves lamp near the window. Even with the door open, the air in the office was stifling. It was one of those hot, humid summer days great for swimming in the river but unfit for anything else. Her shirt was soaked with perspiration, and because she was wearing shorts, her legs kept sticking to the vinyl chair she sat in. Every time she moved her legs, she was rewarded with a sort of sticky sound, like peeling tape from a cardboard box, which was just plain gross. While Nana considered it imperative to keep the dogs cool, she'd never bothered to add cooling ducts that led to the office. "If you're hot, just prop the door to the kennels open," she'd always said, ignoring the fact that while she didn't mind the endless barking, most normal people did. And today there were a couple of little yappers in there: a pair of Jack Russell terriers that hadn't stopped barking since Beth had arrived. Beth assumed they'd barked nearly all night, since most of the other dogs seemed grumpy as well. Every minute or so, other dogs joined in an angry chorus, the sounds rising in pitch and intensity, as if every dog's sole desire was to voice its displeasure more loudly than the next. Which meant there wasn't a chance on earth that she was going to open the door to cool off the office. She toyed with the idea of going up to the house to fetch another glass of ice water, but she had the funny feeling that as soon as she left the office, the owners who'd dropped off their cocker spaniel for obedience training would show up. They'd called half an hour ago, telling her that they were on their way—"We'll be there in ten minutes!"—and they were the kind of people who would be upset if their cocker spaniel had to sit in a kennel for a minute longer than she had to, especially after spending two weeks away from home. But were they here yet? Of course not. It would have been so much easier if Ben were around. She'd seen him in church that morning with his father, and he'd looked as glum as she'd expected. As always, it hadn't been a lot of fun for him. He'd called before going to bed last night and told her that Keith had spent a good chunk of the evening sitting alone on die porch outside while Ben cleaned the kitchen. What, she wondered, was that about? Why couldn't he just enjoy the fact that his son was there? Or simply sit and talk with him? Ben was just about the easiest kid to get along with, and she wasn't saying that because she was biased. Well, okay, she admitted, maybe she was a little biased, but as a teacher, she'd spent time with lots of different kids and she knew what she was talking about. Ben was smart. Ben had a zany sense of humor. Ben was naturally kind. Ben was polite. Ben was great, and it made her crazy to realize that Keith was too dumb to see it. She really wished she were inside the house doing… some' thing. Anything. Even doing laundry was more exciting than sitting out here. Out here, she had way too much time to think. Not only about Ben, but about Nana, too. And about whether she would teach this year. And even the sad state of her love life, which never failed to depress her. It would be wonderful, she thought, to meet someone special, someone to laugh with, some-one who would love Ben as much as she did. Or even to meet a man with whom she could go to dinner and a movie. A normal man, like someone who remembered to put his napkin in his lap in a restaurant and opened a door for her now and then. That wasn't so unreasonable, was it? She hadn't been lying to Melody when she'd said her choices in town were slim, and she'd be the first to admit that she was picky, but aside from the short time with Adam, she'd spent every other weekend at home this past year. Forty-nine out of fifty-two weekends. She wasn't that picky, that's for sure. The simple fact was that Adam had been the only one who'd asked her out, and for a reason she still didn't understand, he'd suddenly stopped calling. Which pretty much summed up the story of her dating life the last few years. But no big deal, right? She'd survived without a relationship this long, and she'd soldier on. Besides, most of the time it didn't bother her. If it hadn't been such a miserably hot day, she doubted it would bother her now. Which meant she definitely had to cool off. Otherwise she'd probably start thinking about the past, and she definitely didn't want to go there. Fingering her empty glass, she decided to get that ice water. And while she was at it, a small towel to sit on. As she rose from her seat, she peeked down the empty gravel drive, then she scribbled a note saying she'd be back in ten minutes and tacked it to the front door of the office. Outside, the sun pressed down hard, driving her toward the shade offered by the ancient magnolia and guiding her to the gravel path that led toward the house she'd grown up in. Built around 1920, it resembled a broad, low-country farmhouse, banded by a large porch and sporting carved molding in the eaves. The backyard, hidden from the kennel and office by towering hedges, was shaded by giant oaks and graced with a series of decks that made eating outside a pleasure. The place must have been magnificent long ago, but like so many rural homes around Hampton, time and the elements had conspired against it. These days the porch sagged, the floors squeaked, and when the wind was strong enough, papers would blow off the counters even when the windows were closed. Inside, it was pretty much the same story: great bones, but the place needed modern updates, especially in the kitchen and bathrooms. Nana knew it and mentioned doing something about it every now and then, but they were projects that always got put on the back burner. Besides, Beth had to admit that the place still had unique appeal. Not only the backyard—which was truly an oasis—but inside as well. For years, Nana had frequented antiques shops, and she favored anything French from the nineteenth century. She also spent good chunks of her weekends at garage sales, rummaging through old paintings. She had a knack for paintings in general and had developed some good friendships with a number of gallery owners throughout the South. The paintings hung on nearly every wall in the house. On a lark, Beth had once Googled a couple of the artists' names and learned that other works by those artists hung in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and the Huntington Library in San Marino, California When she mentioned what she'd learned, Nana had winked and said, "It's like sipping champagne, ain't it?" Nana's nutty turns of phrase often disguised her razor sharp instincts. After reaching the front porch and opening the door, Beth was hit by a blast of cool air so refreshing that she stood in the doorway, savoring the feeling. "Close the door," Nana called over her shoulder. "You're letting the air out." She turned in her chair, giving Beth the onceover. "You look hot." "I am hot." "I take it that the office feels like a furnace today." "Ya think?" "I think you should have opened the door to the kennel like I told you. But that's just me. Well, come on in and cool off for a while." Beth motioned to the set. "How're the Braves doing?" "Like a bunch of carrots." "Is that good or bad?" "Can carrots play baseball?" "I guess not." "Then you have your answer." Beth smiled as she walked to the kitchen. Nana always got a little edgy when the Braves were losing. From inside the freezer she drew out an ice tray and cracked out a few cubes. After dropping them into a glass, she filled it and took a long, satisfying drink. Realizing she was hungry as well, she chose a banana from the fruit bowl and went back to the living room. She propped herself on the armrest of the couch, feeling the sweat evaporate in the cold draft, half watching Nana and half watching the game. Part of her wanted to ask how many touchdowns had been scored, but she knew Nana wouldn't appreciate the humor. Not if the Braves were playing like a bunch of carrots, anyway. Glancing at the clock, she exhaled, knowing she had to get back to the office. "It was nice visiting with you, Nana." "You too, sweetie. Try not to get too hot." "I'll do my best." Beth retraced her steps to the kennel office, noting with disappointment the absence of cars in the parking lot, which meant the owners still hadn't showed up. There was, however, a man walking up the drive, a German shepherd by his side. Dust spirals were rising in the dirt behind him, and the dog's head drooped, his tongue hanging out. She wondered why they were outside on a day like this. Even animals preferred to stay indoors. Thinking back, she realized it was the first time she could ever remember someone walking his dog to the kennel. Not only that, but whoever it was hadn't called for an appointment. People dropping off their pets always called for an appointment. Figuring they'd reach the office at about the same time, she waved a greeting and was surprised when the man paused to stare at her. The dog did the same, his ears rising, and her first thought was that he looked a lot like Oliver, the German shepherd Nana had brought to the house when Beth was thirteen. He had the same black-and-tan markings, the same tilt of his head, the same intimidating stance in the presence of strangers. Not that she'd ever been afraid of Oliver. He'd been more Drake's dog during the day, but Oliver had always slept beside her bed at night, finding comfort in her presence. Brought up short by memories of Drake and Oliver, she didn't realize at first that the man still hadn't moved. Nor had he said anything. Odd. Maybe he'd expected Nana. Because his face was in shadow, she couldn't tell one way or the other, but no matter. Once she reached the door, she took down the note and propped the door open, figuring he'd come to the office when he was ready. She walked around the counter and saw the vinyl chair, realizing she'd forgotten the towel. Figured. Thinking she'd get the paperwork ready for the stranger to drop off his dog, she grabbed a sheet from the file cabinet and attached it to the clipboard. She rummaged through the desk for a pen and set both on the counter just as the stranger and his dog walked in. He smiled, and when their eyes met, it was one of the few times in her life that she felt at a complete loss for words. It had less to do with the fact that he was staring than with the may he was staring. As crazy as it sounded, he was looking at her as though he recognized her. But she'd never seen him before; she was sure of that. She would have remembered him, if only because he reminded her of Drake in the way he seemed to dominate the room. Like Drake, he was probably close to six feet and lean, with wiry arms and broad shoulders. There was a rugged edge to his appearance, underscored by his sun-bleached jeans and T-shirt. But that's where the similarities ended. While Drake's eyes were brown and rimmed with hazel, the stranger's were blue; where Drake had always kept his hair short, the stranger's hair was longer, almost wild looking. She noted that despite having walked here, he seemed to be sweating less than she was. She felt suddenly self-conscious and turned away just as the stranger took a step toward the counter. From the corner of her eye, she watched him raise his palm slightly in the dog's direction. She'd seen Nana do that a thousand times, and the dog, attuned to every subtle move, stayed in place. The dog was already well trained, which probably meant he was here for boarding. "Your dog is beautiful," she said, sliding the clipboard toward him. The sound of her own voice broke the awkward silence. "I had a German shepherd once. What's his name?" "This is Zeus. And thank you." "Hello, Zeus." Zeus's head tilted to the side. "I'm just going to need you to sign in," she said. "And if you have a copy of the vet's records, that would be great. Or the contact information." "Excuse me?" "The vet's records. You're here to board Zeus, right?" "No," he said. He motioned over his shoulder. "Actually, I saw the sign in the window. I'm looking for work, and I was wondering if you still had anything available." "Oh." She hadn't expected that and tried to reorient herself. He shrugged. "I know I probably should have called first, but I was out this way anyway. I figured I'd just swing by in person to see if you had an application. If you want me to come back tomorrow, I will." "No, it's not that. I'm just surprised. People usually don't come by on Sundays to apply for a job." Actually, they didn't come by on other days, either, but she left that part out. "I've got an application on file here somewhere," she said, turning toward the cabinet behind her. "Just give me a second to grab it." She pulled out the bottom drawer and began rummaging through the files. "What's your name?" "Logan Thibault." "Is that French?" "On my father's side." "I haven't seen you around here before." "I'm new in town." "Gotcha." She fished out the application. "Okay, here it is." She set it in front of him on the counter along with a pen. As he printed his name, she noted a certain roughness to his skin, making her think that he spent a lot of time in the sun. At the second line of the form, he paused and looked up, their eyes meeting for the second time. She felt her neck flush slightly and tried to hide it by adjusting her shirt. "I'm not sure what I should put for an address. Like I said, I just got to town and I'm staying at the Holiday Motor Court. I could also use my mom's mailing address in Colorado. Which would you prefer?" "Colorado?" "Yeah, I know. Kind of far from here." "What brought you to Hampton?" You, he thought. I came to find you. "It seems like a nice town, and I figured I'd give it a try." "No family here?" "None." "Oh," she said. Handsome or not, his story didn't sit right, and she heard mental alarm bells starting to go off. There was something else, too, something gnawing at the back of her mind, and it took her a few seconds to realize what it was. When she did, she took a small step back from the counter, creating a bit more space between them. "If you just got to town, how did you know the kennel was hiring? I didn't run an ad in the paper this week." "I saw the sign." "When?" She squinted at him. "I saw you walking up, and there was no way you could have seen the sign until you got to the front of the office." "I saw it earlier today. We were walking along the road, and Zeus heard dogs barking. He took off this way, and when I went to find him, I noticed the sign. No one was around, so I figured I'd come back later to see if that had changed." The story was plausible, but she sensed that he was either lying or leaving something out. And if he had been here before, what did that mean? That he'd been scoping out the place? He seemed to notice her unease and set the pen aside. From inside his pocket he pulled out his passport and flipped it open. When he slid it toward her, she glanced at the photo, then up at him. His name, she saw, was legitimate, though it didn't silence the alarm bells. No one passed through Hampton and decided to stay here on a whim. Charlotte, yes. Raleigh, of course. Greensboro, absolutely. But Hampton? Not a chance. "I see," she said, suddenly wanting to end this conversation. "Just go ahead and put your mailing address on it. And your work experience. After that, all I need is a number where I can reach you and I'll be in touch." His gaze was steady on hers. "But you're not going to call." He was sharp, she thought. And direct. Which meant she would be, too. "No." He nodded. "Okay. I probably wouldn't call me based on what you've heard so far, either. But before you jump to conclusions, can I add something else?" "Go ahead." Her tone made it plain that she didn't believe anything he said would matter. "Yes, I'm temporarily staying at the motel, but I do intend to find a place to live around here. I will also find a job here." His gaze did not waver. "Now about me. I graduated from the University of Colorado in 2002 with a degree in anthropology. After that, I joined the marines, and I received an honorable discharge two years ago. I've never been arrested or charged with any crime, I've never taken drugs, and I've never been fired for incompetence. I'm willing to take a drug test, and if you think it necessary, you can have a background check run to confirm everything I said. Or if it's easiest, you can call my former commanding officer, and he'll verify everything I've said. And even though the law doesn't require me to answer a question of this type, I'm not on medication of any kind. In other words, I'm not schizophrenic or bipolar or manic. I'm just a guy who needs a job. And I did see the sign earlier." She hadn't known what she'd expected him to say, but he'd certainly caught her off guard. "I see," she said again, focusing on the fact that he'd been in the military. "Is it still a waste of time for me to fill out the application" "J haven't decided yet." She felt intuitively that he was telling the truth this time, but she was equally certain there was more to the story than he was revealing. She gnawed the inside of her cheek. She needed to hire someone. Which was more important— knowing what he was hiding or finding a new employee? He stood before her erect and calm, and his posture spoke of easy confidence. Military bearing, she observed with a frown. "Why do you want to work here?" The words sounded suspicious even to her. "With a degree, you could probably get a better job somewhere else in town." He motioned toward Zeus. "I like dogs." "It doesn't pay much." "I don't need much." "The days can be long." "I figured they would be." "Have you ever worked in a kennel before?" "No." "I see." He smiled. "You say that a lot." "Yes, I do," she said. Note to self: Stop saying it. "And you're sure you don't know anyone in town?" "No." "You just arrived in Hampton and decided to stay." "Yes." 'Where's your car?" "I don't have one." "How did you get here?" "I walked." She blinked, uncomprehending. "Are you telling me that you walked all the way from Colorado?" "Yes." "You don't think that's odd?" "I suppose it depends on the reason." "What's your reason?" "I like to walk." "I see." She couldn't think of anything else-to say. She reached for the pen, stalling. "I take it you're not married," she said. "No." "Kids?" "None. It's just me and Zeus. But my mom still lives in Colorado" She pushed a sweaty lock of hair back from her forehead, equal parts flustered and bemused. "I still don't get it. You walk across the country, you get to Hampton, you say you like the place, and now you want to work here?" "Yes." "There's nothing else you want to add?" "No." She opened her mouth to say something, then changed her mind. "Excuse me for a minute. I have to talk to someone." Beth could handle a lot of things, but this was beyond her. As much as she tried, she couldn't quite grasp everything he'd told her. On some level, it made sense, but on the whole, it just seemed… off. If the guy was telling the truth, he was strange; if he was lying, he picked strange lies. Either way, it was weird. Which was why, of course, she wanted to talk to Nana. If anyone could figure him out, Nana could. Unfortunately, as she approached the house, she realized the game wasn't over yet. She could hear the announcers debating whether it was right for the Mets to bring in a relief pitcher or something along those lines. When she opened the door, she was surprised to find Nana's seat empty. "Nana?" Nana poked her head out from the kitchen. "In here. I was just getting ready to pour myself a glass of lemonade. Would you like some? I can do it one-handed." "Actually, I need to talk to you. Do you have a minute? I know the game is still on …" She waved the thought away. "Oh, I'm done with that. Go ahead and turn it off. The Braves can't win, and the last thing I want to do is listen to their excuses. I hate excuses. There's no reason they should have lost, and they know it. What's going on?" Beth walked into the kitchen and leaned against the counter as Nana poured the lemonade from the pitcher. "Are you hungry?" Nana inquired. "I can make you a quick sandwich." "I just had a banana." "That's not enough. You're as skinny as a golf club." From your mouth to God's ears, Beth thought. "Maybe later. Someone came in to apply for the job. He's here now." "You mean the cute one with the German shepherd? I figured that's what he was doing. How is he? Tell me that it's always been his dream to clean cages." "You saw him?" "Of course." "How did you know he was applying for the job?" "Why else would you want to talk to me?" Beth shook her head. Nana was always a step ahead of her. "Anyway, I think you should talk to him. I don't quite know what to make of him." "Does his hair have anything to do with it?" '"What?" "His hair. It kind of makes him look like Tarzan, don't you think?" "I really didn't notice." "Sure you did, sweetie. You can't lie to me. What's the problem?" Quickly, Beth gave her a rundown of the interview. When she was finished, Nana sat in silence. "He walked from Colorado?" "That's what he says." "And you believe him?" "That part?" She hesitated. "Yeah, I think he's telling the truth about that." "That's a long walk." "I know." "How many miles is that?" "I don't know. A lot." "That's kind of strange, don't you think?" "Yes," she said. "And there's something else, too." "What?" "He was a marine." Nana sighed. "Why don't you wait here. I'll go talk to him." For the next ten minutes, Beth watched them from behind the living room window curtains. Nana hadn't stayed in the office to conduct the interview; instead, she'd led them to the wooden bench in the shade of the magnolia tree. Zeus was dozing at their feet, his ear flicking every now and then, shooing away the occasional fly. Beth couldn't make out what either of them was saying, but occasionally she saw Nana frown, which seemed to suggest the interview wasn't going well. In the end, Logan Thibault and Zeus walked back up the gravel drive toward the main road, while Nana watched them with a concerned expression on her face. Beth thought Nana would make her way back to the house, but instead she began walking toward the office. It was then that Beth noticed a blue Volvo station wagon rolling up the drive. The cocker spaniel. She'd completely forgotten about the pickup, but it seemed obvious that Nana was going to handle it. Beth used the time to cool herself with a cold washcloth and drink another glass of ice water. From the kitchen, she heard the front door squeak open as Nana came back inside. "How'd it go?" "It went fine." "What did you think?" "It Was… interesting. He's intelligent and polite, but you're right. He's definitely hiding something." "So where does that leave us? Should I put another ad in the fan paper: "Let's see how he works out first." Beth wasn't sure she had heard Nana right. "Are you saying you're going to hire him?" "No, I'm saying I did hire him. He starts Wednesday at eight." "Why'd you do that?" "I trust him." She gave a sad smile, as if she knew exactly what Beth was thinking. "Even if he was a marine."Keith Clayton stared at Beth as she left the house, knowing exactly what had happened inside. The more he thought about it, the more he wanted to follow her and give her a little talking-to as soon as she got back home. Explain the situation in a way she'd understand, so she would realize that this sort of thing just wasn't acceptable. Like with a slap or two, not enough to hurt, but enough for her to know he meant business. Not that it would do any good. And not that he'd really do it. He'd never slapped Beth. He wasn't that kind of guy. What in the royal hell was going on? Could any of this possibly get any worse? First, it turns out the guy works at the kennel. Next, they spend a few days having dinner at her place, trading the kinds of drippy stares you saw in crappy Hollywood movies. And then—and here was the kicker—they go out to that dance joint for losers, and afterward, even though he couldn't see past the drapes, he had no doubt that she started putting out like a harlot. Probably on the couch. Probably because she'd had too much to drink. He remembered those days. Give the woman a few glasses of wine and keep filling it when she wasn't looking, or spike her beers with a bit of vodka, listen for when her words started to slur, and then end up having some seriously great sex right there in the living room. Booze was great for that. Get her sloppy drunk, and the woman not only couldn't say no, but became a tiger in the sack. As he'd staked out the house, he'd had no trouble imagining what her body looked like as she took her clothes off. If he hadn't been so damn angry, it might have excited him, knowing she was in there, getting it on, getting all hot and sweaty. But the point was this: She wasn't exactly acting like a mother, was she. He knew how it went. Once she started having sex with guys she dated, it would become normal and accepted. Once it became normal and accepted, she'd do the same on other dates. Simple as that. One guy would lead to two, which would lead to four or five or ten or twenty, and the last thing he wanted was for her to start leading a parade of guys through Ben's life who'd wink at him on their way out the door as if to say, Your mom sure is one hot lady. He wasn't going to let that happen. Beth was dumb in the way most women were dumb, which was why he'd been watching out for her all these years. And it had worked out just fine, until Thigh-bolt rolled into town. The guy was a walking nightmare. Like his sole intent was to ruin Clayton's life. Well, that wasn't going to happen, either, was it? He'd learned quite a bit about Thigh-bolt in the last week. Not only that he worked at the kennel—what were the odds on that, by the way?—but that he lived in a ramshackle dump near the forest. And after making a few official-sounding calls to law enforcement in Colorado, professional courtesy did the rest. He learned that Thigh-bolt had graduated from the University of Colorado. And that he'd been a marine, served in Iraq, and received a couple of commendations. But most interesting, that a couple of guys in his platoon spoke about him as though he'd made some sort of deal with the devil to stay alive. He wondered what Beth would think of that. He didn't believe it. He'd met enough marines to know most of them were as smart as rocks. But something fishy was definitely going on with the guy if his fellow marines didn't quite trust him. And why walk across the country and stop here? The guy knew no one in town, and from the sound of things, he'd never been here before. Something fishy about that, too. More than that, he couldn't escape the feeling that the answer was staring him in the face, but he couldn't figure it out. He would. He always did. Clayton continued to stare at the house, thinking it was time he finally dealt with the guy. Not now, though. Not tonight. Not with the dog around. Next week, maybe. When Thigh-bolt was at work. See, that was the difference between him and other people. Most people lived their lives like criminals: act first, worry about the consequences later. Not Keith Clayton. He thought things through beforehand. He planned. He anticipated. Which was the main reason he'd done nothing so far, even when he'd seen the two of them pull up tonight, even though he knew what was going on in the house, even as he'd watched Beth walk back outside, her face flushed and hair all wild. In the end, he knew, this was about power, and right now, Thigh-bolt had the power. Because of the disk. The disk with photos that might cut off the flow of money to Clayton. But power was nothing if it wasn't used. And Thigh-bolt hadn't used it. Which meant that Thigh-bolt either didn't realize what he had, or had gotten rid of the disk, or was the kind of guy who generally minded his own business. Or maybe all three. Clayton had to make sure. First things first, so to speak. Which meant he had to look for the disk. If the guy still had it, he'd find it and destroy it. Power would shift back to Clayton, and Thigh-bolt would get what was coming to him. And if Thigh-bolt had gotten rid of the disk soon after finding it? Even better. He'd handle Thigh-bolt, and things would start getting back to normal with him and Beth. That was the most important thing. Damn, she'd looked good walking out of that house. There Was something hot and sexy about seeing her and knowing what she'd done, even if it had been with Thigh-bolt. It had been a long time since she'd had a man, and she seemed… different. More than that, he knew that after tonight, she'd surely be ready for more That friends with benefits thing was looking better all the time.She could barely see through the windshield, but this time it had less to do with the rain than her inability to concentrate. After Keith had left, she kept blinking in confusion as she stated at the file, trying to make sense of the things her ex had told her. Logan had Drake's photograph… Logan had become obsessed with her… Logan had decided to seek her out… Logan had hunted her down. She found it hard to breathe, and it had been all she could do to go to the office and tell the principal that she had to go home. The principal had taken one look at her face and agreed, offering to cover her class the rest of the afternoon. Nana would pick up Ben after school, Beth informed him. On the drive home, her mind flashed from one image to the next a kaleidoscope of sight and sound and smell. She tried to convince herself that Keith was lying, grasping for a way to rationalize his news. It was possible, especially considering the way he'd lied in the past, and yet… Keith had been serious. More professional than personal, and J told her something she could easily check. He knew she u d ask Logan about it… he wanted her to ask Logan… which meant.. She squeezed the wheel, possessed by a feverish need to talk to Logan. He would clear this up. He had to be able to clear this up. Water from the river now stretched across the road, but in her preoccupied state, she didn't realize it until she plowed into the water. She jerked forward as the car almost came to a stop. The river flowed around her, and she thought the water would stall the engine, but the car continued to roll forward into ever deeper water, before finally emerging in a shallower patch. By the time Beth reached the house, she wasn't even sure what to feel, other than confused. One instant she felt angry and betrayed and manipulated; in the next, she was able to convince herself that it couldn't be true, that Keith had lied to her again. As she came up the drive, she found herself scanning the rain swept grounds for Logan. Up ahead, through low-hanging mist, she could see lights on in the house. She considered going in to talk to Nana, longing for Nana's clarity and common sense to straighten everything out. But when she saw the lights on in the office and noted the propped-open door, she felt something catch in her throat. She turned the wheel in the direction of the office, telling herself that Logan didn't have the picture, that the whole thing had been a mistake. She bounced through muddy puddles, the rain coming so hard now that the wipers couldn't keep up. On the office porch, she saw Zeus lying near the door, his head raised. She pulled to a stop out front and ran for the porch, rain stinging her face. Zeus approached her, nosing at her hand. She ignored him as she walked inside, expecting to find Logan at the desk. He wasn't there. The door that led from the office to the kennel stood open. She steeled herself, pausing in the middle of the office, as shadows moved in the darkened corridor. She waited as Logan emerged into the light. "Hey, Elizabeth," he said. "I didn't expect to see you …" He trailed off. "What happened?" Staring at him, she felt her emotions threaten to boil over. Her mouth suddenly felt papery dry, and she didn't know how to start or what to say. Logan said nothing, sensing her volatile state. She closed her eyes, feeling on the verge of tears, then drew a careful breath. "Why did you come to Hampton?" she finally asked. "I want the truth this time." He didn't move. "I told you the truth," he said. "Did you tell me everything?" He hesitated for a fraction of a second before answering. "I've never lied to you," he said, his voice quiet. "That's not what I asked!" she snapped. "I asked if you've been hiding anything!" He appraised her carefully. "Where's this coming from?" "That doesn't matter!" This time, she heard the anger in her tone. "I just want to know why you came to Hampton!" "I told you—" "Do you have a picture of me?" Logan said nothing. "Answer the question!" She took a step toward him, biting out the words. "Do you have a picture of me?" She wasn't sure how she expected him to react, but other than a soft exhale, he didn't flinch. "Yes," he said. "The one I gave Drake?" "Yes," he said again. With his answer, she felt her whole world begin to topple like a row of dominoes. All at once, everything made sense—the way he'd stared at her when they first met, the reason he was willing to work for such a low wage, why he'd befriended Nana and Ben, and all his talk about destiny… He had the photo. He'd come to Hampton to find her. He'd tracked her down like prey. All at once, it was difficult to breathe. "Oh, my God." "It's not what you think——" He stretched his hand toward her, and she absently watched it draw closer before she finally realized what was happening. With a start, she reeled back, desperate to put more space between them. All of it had been a lie… "Don't touch me!" "Elizabeth…" "My name is Beth!" She stared at him as if he were a stranger until he lowered his arm. His voice was a whisper when he tried again. "I can explain—-" "Explain what?" she demanded. "That you stole the picture from my brother? That you walked across the country to find me? That you fell in love with an image…" "It wasn't like that," he said, shaking his head. She didn't hear him. All she could do was stare at him, wondering if anything he'd said was true. "You stalked me …" she said, almost as if talking to herself. "You lied to me. You used me." "You don't understand…" "Understand? You want me to understand" "I didn't steal the photo," he said. His voice remained steady and even. "I found the photo in Kuwait, and I posted it on a bulletin board where I thought it would be claimed. But no one ever claimed it." "And so… you took it back?" She shook her head in disbelief. "Why? Because you had some sick and twisted idea about me?" "No," he said, his voice rising for the first time. The sound startled her, slowing her thoughts, if only for an instant. "I came here because I owed you." "You owed me?" She blinked. "What does that even mean?" "The photo… it saved me." Though she heard him plainly, she couldn't comprehend the words. She waited for more, and in the steady silence that followed, she realized she found them… chilling somehow. The hairs on her arms prickled, and she took another step back. "Who are you?" she hissed. "What do you want from me?" "I don't want anything. And you know who I am." "No, I don't! I don't know anything about you!" "Let me explain …" "Then explain why if this was all so pure and true that you didn't tell me about the photograph when you first came here!" she shouted, her voice echoing in the room. In her mind's eye, she saw Drake and all the details of the night the photo was taken. She pointed a finger at him. "Why didn't you say, 'I found this in Iraq and I figured you might want it back'? Why didn't you tell me when we were talking about Drake ?" "I don't know…" "It wasn't your photo to keep! Don't you get that? It wasn't meant for you! It was for my brother, not for you! It was his and you had no right to keep it from me!" Logan's voice was almost a whisper. "I didn't mean to hurt you." Her eyes bored into him, piercing him with the force of her rage. "This whole thing is a sham, isn't it? You found this photo and came up with some… twisted fantasy in which you could play the starring role. You played me from the moment we met! You took your time to find out what you could do to make it seem like you were the perfect guy for me. And you thought that because you were obsessed with me, you could trick me into falling in love with you." She saw Logan flinch at her words, and she went on. "You planned all this from the very beginning! It's sick and it's wrong and I can't believe I fell for it." He rocked back slightly on his heels, stunned by her words. "I admit that I wanted to meet you," he said, "but you're wrong about the reason. I didn't come here to trick you into falling in love with me. I know it sounds crazy, but I came to believe that the photograph kept me safe from harm and that… I owed you somehow, even if I didn't know what that meant or what would come of it. But I didn't plan anything after I got here. I took the job, and then I fell in love with you." Her expression didn't soften as he spoke. Instead, she slowly began to shake her head. "Can you even hear what you're saying?" "I knew you wouldn't believe it. That's why I didn't tell you—" "Don't try to justify your lies! You got caught up in some sick fantasy and you won't even admit it." "Stop calling it that!" he shouted back. "You're the one who's not listening. You're not even trying to understand what I'm saying!" "Why should I try to understand? You've been lying to me since the beginning. You've been using me since the beginning." "I haven't used you," he said, forcing his back straight, regaining his composure. "And I didn't lie about the photo. I just didn't tell you about it because I didn't know how to tell you in a way that wouldn't make you think I was crazy." She raised her hands. "Don't even think of blaming this on me. You're the one who lied! You're the one who kept secrets! I told you everything! I gave my heart to you! I let my son become attached to you!" she shouted. As she went on, her voice broke and she could feel the tears beginning to form. "I went to bed with you because I thought you were someone I could trust. But now I know that I can't. Can you imagine how that makes me feel? To know this whole thing was some sort of charade?" His voice was soft. "Please, Elizabeth … Beth .;. just listen." "I don't want to listen! I've already been lied to enough." "Don't be like this." "You want me to listen?" she screamed. "Listen to what? That you obsessed over a picture and came to find me because you believe it kept you safe? That's insane, and the most disturbing thing is, you don't even recognize that your explanation only makes you sound psychotic!" He stared at her, and she saw his jaw clench shut. She felt a shudder run through her. She was done with this. Done with him. "I want it back," she gritted out. "I want the photo that I gave to Drake." When he didn't respond, she reached over to the window ledge and grabbed a small flower pot. She threw it at him, shouting, "Where is it? I want it!" Logan ducked as the pot whizzed overhead and crashed into the wall behind him. For the first time, Zeus barked in confusion. "It's not yours!" she shouted. Logan stood straight again. "I don't have it." "Where is it?" she demanded Logan paused before answering. "I gave it to Ben," he admitted. Her eyes narrowed. "Get out." Logan paused before finally moving toward the door. Beth stepped away, keeping her distance from him. Zeus swiveled his gaze from Logan to Beth and back again before padding slowly after Logan. At the door, Logan stopped and turned toward her. "I swear on my life I didn't come here to fall in love with you, or try to make you fall in love with me. But I did." She stared at him. "I told you to go and I meant it." With that, he turned and strode out into the storm. Chapter 11 ThibaultClayton sat behind the wheel of the car, feeling pretty damn pleased with himself. He'd had to do some quick thinking, but it went tar better than he'd thought it would, especially considering the way the conversation had begun. Someone had ratted him out, and as he drove, he tried to figure out who it might have been. Generally, there was no such thing as a secret in small towns, but this one was as dose as you could get. The only ones who knew were the few men he'd had the little talk with and, of course, himself. He figured it could have been one of them, but somehow he doubted it. They were worms, each and every one of them, and each and every one of them had moved on. There was no reason for them to have said anything. Even Adam the dork had found a new girlfriend, which made it unlikely he'd start talking now either. Then again, it might simply have been a rumor. It was possible *at someone had suspicions about what he'd been up to, just by connecting the dots. Beautiful woman getting dumped over and over for no apparent reason… and, thinking back, he might have mentioned something to Moore or even Tony about Beth that someone might have overheard—but he'd never been dumb or drunk enough to be specific. He knew the problems that could cause with his dad, especially since usually he'd had to rely on law enforcement threats. But someone had said something to Beth. He didn't put much stock in the fact that Beth had said a female friend had told her. She could easily have changed that little detail to throw him off. It could have been a man or a woman; what he was more certain about was the fact that she'd learned the detail recently. Knowing her as he did, he knew there wasn't a chance she could have kept something like that bottled up for long. That's where things got confusing. He'd picked up Ben on Saturday morning; she'd said nothing then. By her own admission, she'd been at the beach on Saturday with Thigh-bolt. On Sunday, he'd seen her in church, but she was home by late afternoon. So who had told her? And when? It could have been Nana, he thought. The woman had always been a thorn in his side. Gramps', too. For the last four or five years, he'd been trying to get Nana to sell the land so he could develop it. Not only did it have a beautiful riverfront, but the creeks were valuable, too. People who moved down from the North loved waterfront property. Gramps generally took her rejections in stride; for whatever reason, he liked Nana. Probably because they went to the same church, something that didn't seem to matter when it came to Nana's opinion of her former son-in-law, who went to the same church as well. Still, this seemed like the kind of trouble Thigh-bolt would start. But how on earth would he know? They'd seen each other only twice, and there wasn't a chance that Thigh-bolt could have deduced the truth from those two meetings. But what about the break-in? Clayton thought about it before rejecting his idea. He'd been in and out in twenty minutes, and he hadn't even had to jimmy the lock, since the guy hadn't bothered to lock the front door. And nothing had been missing, so why would Thigh-bolt even have suspected someone had been inside in the first place? And even if he'd guessed chat someone had been in the house, why would he draw the connection to Clayton? He couldn't answer those questions to his satisfaction, but the theory that Thigh-bolt had had something to do with this little wrinkle seemed to fit. He'd had nothing but problems since Thigh-bolt had arrived. So he figured Thigh-bolt was high on his list of folks who probably should have minded their own business. Which gave him one more reason to finally fix the guy. He wasn't going to get too caught up with that now, though. He was still feeling pretty good about how he'd salvaged the conversation with Beth. It could have been a fiasco. The last thing on earth he'd expected when she'd called him over was for her to ask him about his involvement in her previous relationships. But he'd handled it well. Not only was he able to muster a plausible denial, but he'd also made her think twice about Thigh-bolt. He could tell by her expression that he'd brought up a number of issues she hadn't considered about Thigh-bolt… and best of all, he'd convinced her that it was all in Ben's best interest. Who knows? Maybe she'd end up dumping him, and Thigh-bolt would leave town. Wouldn't that be something? Yet another of Beth's relationship problems would be solved, and Thigh-bolt would be out of the picture. He drove slowly, savoring the taste of victory. He wondered whether he should head out for a celebratory beer but decided against it. It wasn't as if he could talk about what happened. Talking was what might have gotten him into trouble in the first place. After turning onto his street, he cruised past a number of large, well-maintained homes, each sitting on half an acre. He lived at the end of the cul-de-sac; his neighbors were a doctor and lawyer. He hadn't done too badly, if he did say so himself. It was only when he turned in the driveway that he noticed someone standing on the sidewalk in front of the house. When he slowed, he saw the dog poised beside him and he slammed on the brakes, blinking in disbelief. He jammed the car into park. Despite the rain, he stepped out of the car and headed directly for Thigh-bolt. When Zeus snarled and began to creep forward, Clayton stopped short. Thigh-bolt raised a hand and the dog froze. "What the hell are you doing here?" he shouted, making his voice heard over the rain. "Waiting for you," Thigh-bolt replied. "I think it's time we had a talk." "Why the hell would I want to talk to you?" he spat out. "I think you know." Clayton didn't like the sound of that, but he wasn't about to be intimidated by the guy. Not now. Not ever. "What I know is that you're loitering. In this county, that's a crime." "You won't arrest me." Part of him considered doing just that. "Don't be so sure." Thigh-bolt continued to stare at him as if daring him to prove it. Clayton wanted to wipe that expression off Thigh-bolt's face with his fist. But ever present Cujo was there. "What do you want?" "Like I said, it's time for us to talk." His tone was even and steady. "I've got nothing to say to you," Clayton fumed. He shook his head. "I'm going inside. If you're still out here when I reach the porch, I'll have you arrested for threatening a deputy with a lethal weapon." He turned and started up the walk, toward the door. "You didn't find the disk," Thigh-bolt called out. Clayton stopped and turned around. "What?" "The disk," Thigh-bolt repeated. "That's what you were looking for when you broke into my house. When you went through my drawers, looked under the mattress, checked the cabinets." "I didn't break into your house." He squinted at Thigh-bolt. "Yes," he said, "you did. Last Monday, when I was at work." "Prove it," he barked. "I already have all the proof I need. The motion detector I had set up in the fireplace turned on the video recorder. It was hidden in the fireplace. I figured you might try to find the disk one day and you'd never think to look there." Clayton felt his stomach lurch as he tried to figure out whether Thigh-bolt was bluffing. Maybe he was or maybe he wasn't; he couldn't tell. "You’re lying." "Then walk away. I'll be happy to walk the videotape over to the newspaper and sheriffs department right now." "What do you want?" "I told you, I thought it was time we had a little talk." "About what?" "About what a dirt-bag you are." He let the words roll out lazily. "Taking dirty pictures of coeds? What would your grandfather think of that? I wonder what would happen if he somehow found out about it, or what the newspaper might say. Or what your dad—who I believe is the county sheriff—would think about his son bteaking into my house." Clayton felt his stomach give another nasty twist. There was noway the guy could know these things … but he did. "What do you want?" Despite his best effort, he knew his tone had risen a notch when he said it. Thigh-bolt continued to stand before him, his gaze steady. Clayton swore the man never so much as blinked. "I want you to be a better person," he said. "I don't know what you're talking about." "Three things. Let's start with this: Stay out of Elizabeth's business." Clayton blinked. "Who's Elizabeth?" "Your ex-wife." "You mean Beth?" "You've been running her dates off ever since you've been divorced. You know it and I know it. And now she knows it, too It's not going to happen again. Ever. Are we clear?" Clayton didn't respond. "Number two—stay out of my business. That means my house, my job, my life. Got it?" Clayton stayed silent. "And number three. This is very important." He raised a palm outward, as if taking an imaginary oath. "If you take your anger at me out on Ben, you'll have to answer to me." Clayton felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise. "Is that a threat?" "No," Thigh-bolt said, "it's the truth. Do those three things, and you'll have no trouble from me. No one will know what you've done." Clayton clenched his jaw. In the silence, Thigh-bolt moved toward him. Zeus stayed in place, his frustration evident at being forced to stay behind. Thigh-bolt stepped closer until they were face-to-face. His voice remained as calm as it had been all along. "Know this; You've never met someone like me before. You don't want me as an enemy." With that, Thigh-bolt turned away and started down the sidewalk. Zeus continued to stare at Clayton until he heard the command to come. Then he trotted toward Thigh-bolt, leaving Clayton standing in the rain, wondering how everything that had been so perfect could have suddenly gone so wrong.Chapter 12 BethChapter 34 ClaytonChapter 17 ClaytonChapter 35 Thibault In the fall of 2007, a year after getting out of the Marine Corps, Thibault arranged to meet Victor in Minnesota, a place neither of them had ever been. For both of them, it couldn't have come at a better time. Victor had been married for six months, and Thibault had stood beside him as best man. That had been the only time they'd seen each other since they'd been discharged. When Thibault had called to suggest the trip, he'd suspected that time alone was exactly what Victor needed. On the first day, as they sat in a small rowboat on the lake, it was Victor who broke the silence. "Have you been having nightmares?" his friend asked. Thibault shook his head. "No. Have you?" "Yes," Victor said. The air was typically crisp for autumn, and a light morning mist floated just above the water. But the sky was cloudless, and Thibault knew the temperature would rise, making for a gorgeous afternoon. "The same as before?" Thibault asked. "Worse," he said. He reeled in his line and cast again. "I see dead people." He gave a wry half-smile, fatigue written into the lines of his face. "Like in that movie with Bruce Willis? The Sixth Sense?" Thibault nodded. "Kind of like that." He paused, somber now. "In my dreams, I relive everything we went through, except there are changes. In most of them, I get shot, and I scream for help, but no one comes, and I realize everyone else has been shot as well. And I can feel myself dying little by little." He rubbed his eyes before going on. "As hard as that is, it's worse when I see them during the day—the ones who died, I mean. I'll be at the store, and I'll see them all, standing there blocking the aisle. Or they're on the ground bleeding as medics work on them. But they never make a sound. All they do is stare at me, like it's my fault they were wounded, or my fault that they're dying. And then I blink and take a deep breath and they’re gone." He stopped. "It makes me think I'm going crazy." "Have you talked to anyone about it?" Thibault asked. "No one. Except for my wife, I mean, but when I say those things to her, she gets frightened and starts to cry. So I don't talk to her about it anymore." Thibault said nothing. "She's pregnant, you know," Victor went on. Thibault smiled, grasping at this ray of hope. "Congratulations." "Thank you. It's a boy. I'm going to name him Logan." Thibault sat up straight and nodded at Victor. "I'm honored." "It frightens me sometimes—the thought of having a son. I'm worried I won't be a good father." He stared out over the water. "You'll be a great dad," Thibault assured him. "Maybe." Thibault waited. "I have no patience anymore. So many things make me angry. Little things, things that shouldn't mean anything, but for some reason they do. And even though I try to push the anger back down, it sometimes comes out anyway. It hasn't caused me any problems yet, but I wonder how long I can keep pushing it down before it gets away from me." He adjusted the line with his fishing rod. This happens to you, too?" "Sometimes," Thibault admitted. "But not too often?" "No." "I didn't think so. I forgot that things are different for you. Because of the picture, I mean." Thibault shook his head. "That's not true. It hasn't been easy for me, either. I can't walk down the street without looking over my shoulder or scanning the windows above to make sure no one has a gun pointed at me. And half the time, it's like I don't remember how to have an ordinary conversation with people. I can't relate to most of their concerns. Who works where and how much they earn, or what's on television, or who's dating who. I feel like asking, Who cares?" "You never were any good at making small talk," Victor snorted. "Thanks." "But as for looking over your shoulder, that's normal. I do that, too." "Yeah?" "But so far, no guns." Thibault laughed under his breath. "Good thing, huh?" Then, because he wanted to change the subject, he asked, "How do you like roofing?" "It's hot in the summer." "Like Iraq?" "No. Nothing is hot like Iraq. But hot enough." He smiled. "I got a promotion. I'm a crew leader now." "Good for you. How's Maria?" "Getting bigger, but she's happy. And she is my life. I am so lucky to have married her." He shook his head in wonder. "I'm glad." "There is nothing like love. You should try it." Thibault shrugged. "Maybe one day." Elizabeth. He'd seen something cross her face when he'd called her Elizabeth, some emotion he couldn't identify. The name captured her essence far more than plain and simple "Beth." There was an elegance to it that matched the graceful way she moved, and though he hadn't planned on calling her that, the syllables had rolled off his tongue as if he'd had no choice. . On his walk back home, he found himself replaying their conversation and recalling how natural it felt to sit beside her. She was more relaxed than he'd imagined, but he could sense that, like Nana, she wasn't sure what to think of him. Later, as he lay in bed at night staring at the ceiling, he wondered what she thought of him. On Friday morning, Thibault made sure everything was taken care of before driving Nana to Greensboro in Elizabeth's car. Zeus rode in the backseat with his head out the window for most of the trip, his ears blown back, intrigued by the ever changing smells and scenery. Thibault hadn't expected Nana to allow Zeus to ride along, but she'd waved the dog into the car. "Beth won't care. And besides, my case will fit in the trunk." The drive back to Hampton seemed to go faster, and when he pulled in he was pleased to see Ben near the house, tossing a ball into the air. Zeus bounded toward him expectantly, and Ben sent the ball flying. Zeus zoomed after it, his ears back, tongue hanging out. As Thibault approached, he saw Elizabeth walk out onto the front porch and realized with sudden certainty that she was one of the most beautiful women he'd ever seen. Dressed in a summer blouse and shorts that revealed her shapely legs, she gave a friendly wave when she spotted them, and it was all he could do not to stare. "Hey, Thibault!" Ben called from the yard. He was chasing after Zeus, who pranced with the ball in his mouth, proud of his ability to stay just a couple of steps ahead of Ben no matter how fast the boy ran. "Hey, Ben! How was school?" "Boring!" he shouted. "How was work?" "Exciting!" Ben kept running. "Yeah, right!" Since Ben had started school, they'd shared pretty much the same exchange every day. Thibault shook his head in amusement just as Elizabeth stepped down from the porch. "Hi, Logan." "Hello, Elizabeth." She leaned against the railing, a slight smile on her face. "How was the drive?" "Not too bad." "Must have been strange, though." "How so?" "When was the last time you drove for five hours?" He scratched at the back of his neck. "I don't know. It's been a long time." "Nana said you were kind of fidgety as you drove, like you couldn't get comfortable." She motioned over her shoulder. "I just hung up the phone with her. She's already called twice." "Bored?" "No, the first time she called to talk to Ben. To see how school went." "And?" "He told her it was boring." "At least he's consistent." "Sure, but I wish he would say something different. Like, 'I learned a lot and have so much fun doing it.'" She smiled. "Every mother's dream, right?" "I'll take your word for it." "Are you thirsty?" she asked. "Nana left some lemonade in a pitcher. She made it before she left this morning." "I'd love some. But I should probably check on the dogs' water first." "Already done." She turned and went to the door. She held it open for him. "Come on in. I'll be just a minute, okay?" He went up the steps, paused to wipe his feet, and stepped inside. Taking in the room, he noted the antique furniture and original paintings that hung on the wall. Like a country parlor, he thought, which wasn't what he had pictured. "Your home is lovely," he called out. "Thank you." Her head poked out from the kitchen. "Haven't you seen it before?" "No." "I just assumed you had. Feel free to take a look around." She vanished from view, and Thibault wandered around the room, noting the collection of Hummers displayed on the shelves of the dining room hutch. He smiled. He'd always liked those things. On the mantel, he spotted a collection of photographs and moved to study them. Two or three were of Ben, including one in which he was missing a couple of his front teeth. Beside them was a nice shot of Elizabeth in a cap and gown, standing beside her grandparents, and a portrait of Nana and her husband. In the comer, he noted a portrait of a young marine in dress blues, standing at ease. The young marine who'd lost the photo in Iraq? "That's Drake," she said from behind him. "My brother." Thibault turned. "Younger or older?" "A year younger." She handed him the glass of lemonade without further comment, and Thibault sensed that the subject was closed. She took a step toward the front door. "Let's go sit on the porch. I've been inside all day, and besides, I want to keep an eye on Ben. He has a tendency to wander." Elizabeth took a seat on the steps out front. The sun drilled down through the clouds, but the shade from the porch stretched to cover them. Elizabeth tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. "Sorry. This is the best I can do. I've been trying to talk Nana into getting a porch swing, but she says it's too country." In the distance, Ben and Zeus were running through the grass, Ben laughing as he tried to grab for the stick in Zeus's mouth. Elizabeth smiled. "I'm glad to see him getting his energy out. He had his first violin lesson today, so he didn't have a chance after school." "Did he enjoy it?" "He liked it. Or at least he said he did." She turned toward him. "Did you like it when you were a kid?" "Most of the time. Until I got older, anyway." "Let me guess. Then you got interested in girls and sports?" "Don't forget cars." "Typical," she groaned. "But normal. I'm just excited because it was his choice. He's always been interested in music, and his teacher is a gem. She's got all the patience in the world." "That's good. And it'll be good for him." She pretended to scrutinize him. "I don't know why, but I see you as more of an electric guitar player than someone who played the violin." "Because I walked from Colorado?" "Don't forget your hair." "I had a buzz cut for years." "And then your clippers went on strike, right?" "Something like that." She smiled and reached for her glass. In the silence that followed, Thibault took in the view. Across the yard, a flock of starlings broke from the trees, moving in unison before settling again on the opposite side. Puffy clouds drifted past, changing shape as they moved in the afternoon breeze, and he could sense Elizabeth watching him. "You don't feel the need to talk all the time, do you," she said. He smiled. "No." "Most people don't know how to appreciate silence. They can't help talking." "I talk. I just want to have something to say first." "You're going to have a tough time in Hampton. Most people around here either talk about their family, their neighbors, the weather, or the championship prospects of the high school football team." "Yeah?" "It gets boring." He nodded. "I can see that." He took another drink, finishing his glass, "So how does the football team look this year?" She laughed. "Exactly." She reached for his glass. "Would you like more?" "No, I'm fine. Thank you. Very refreshing." She set his glass beside hers. "Homemade. Nana squeezed the lemons herself." He nodded. "I noticed she has a forearm like Popeye." She circled the rim of her glass with her finger, secretly admitting to herself that she liked his wit. "So I guess it'll be just you and me this weekend." "What about Ben?" "He's going to see his father tomorrow. He goes every other weekend." "Yeah?" She sighed. "But he doesn't want to go. He never wants to go." Thibault nodded, studying Ben from a distance. "Nothing to say?" she prodded. "I'm not sure what I should say." "But if you would have said something…" "I would have said that Ben probably has a good reason." "And I would have said you're right." "You two don't get along?" Thibault asked carefully. "Actually, we get along okay. Not great, mind you. But okay. It's Ben and his dad who don't get along. My ex has problems with Ben," she said. "I think he wanted a different kind of kid." "Why do you let Ben go, then?" His gaze focused on her with surprising intensity. "Because I don't have a choice." "There's always a choice." "Not in this case there isn't." She leaned off to the side, plucking a marigold from beside the stairs. "The dad has joint custody, and if I tried to fight him on it, let's just say the courts would probably rule in his favor. If anything, Ben would probably have to go even more than he does now." "That doesn't sound fair." "It isn't. But for now, there's not much else I can do but tell Ben to try to make the best of it." "I get the sense there's a lot more to the story." She laughed. "You have no idea." 'Want to talk about it?" "Not really." Whatever urge Thibault might have had to press further was contained by the sight of Ben walking toward the porch. He was drenched in sweat, his face red. His glasses were slightly crooked. Zeus trailed behind, panting hard. "Hey, Mom!" "Hi, sweetie. Did you have a good time?" Zeus lapped at Thibault's hand before collapsing at his feet. "Zeus is great! Did you see us playing keep*away?" "Of course," she said, drawing Ben close. She ran a hand through his hair. "You look hot. You should drink some water." "I will. Are Thibault and Zeus staying for dinner?" "We haven't talked about it." Ben pushed his glasses up on his nose, oblivious to the fact that they were cockeyed. "We're having tacos," he announced to Thibault. "They're awesome. Mom makes her own salsa and everything." I'm sure they are," Thibault said, his tone neutral. "We'll talk about it, okay?" She brushed the grass from his shirt. "Now go on. Get some water. And don't forget to wash up." "I want to play hide-and-go-seek with Zeus," Ben whined. "Thibault said I could." "Like I said, we'll talk about it," Elizabeth said. "Can Zeus come inside with me? He's thirsty, too." "Let's leave him out here, okay? We'll get him some water. What happened to your glasses?" Ignoring Ben's protests, she slid them off. "It'll only take a second." She bent the frame, examined her handiwork, and bent them once more before handing them back to him. "Try them now." Ben's eyes darted toward Thibault as he put them on; Thibault pretended not to notice. Instead, he petted Zeus as the dog lay quietly next to him. Elizabeth leaned back to get a better view. "Perfect," she said. "Okay," Ben conceded. He headed up the steps, pulled open the screen door, and let it close with a loud bang. When he was gone, Elizabeth turned to Thibault. "I embarrassed him." "That's what mothers do." "Thanks," she said, not hiding the sarcasm. "Now what's this about Zeus and hide-and-go-seek?" "Oh, I told him about it when we were down at the creek. He was asking what Zeus could do and I mentioned it. But we don't have to do it tonight." "No, that's fine," she said, reaching for her glass of lemonade. She rattled the ice cubes, debating, before finally turning toward him. "Would you like to stay for dinner?" He met her eyes. "Yeah," he said, "I'd like that very much." "It's only tacos," she qualified. "J heard. And thank you. Tacos sound like a treat." He smiled and stood. "But for now, let me get this guy some water. And he's probably hungry, too. Would you mind if" I got him some food from the kennel.?" "Of course not. There's plenty. Someone just unloaded a bunch of bags yesterday." "Who could that have been?" "I don't know. Some long-haired drifter, I think." "I thought he was a college-educated veteran." "Same thing." Picking up the glasses, she rose as well. "I'm going to make sure Ben washed up. He tends to forget to do that. See you in a few minutes." At the kennel, Thibault filled Zeus's bowls with water and food, then took a seat on one of the empty cages, waiting. Zeus took his time, drinking a bit, then nibbling at a few bites of his food, peering occasionally over at Thibault as if to ask, Why are you watching me? Thibault said nothing; he knew that any comment would slow Zeus down even more. Instead, he checked the other kennels even though Elizabeth had said she'd already done so, making sure none of the other dogs were low on water. They weren't. Nor did they stir much. Good. He turned out the lights in the office and locked the door before returning to the house. Zeus trailed behind him, his nose to the ground. At the door, he motioned for Zeus to lie down and stay, then pulled open the screen door. "Hello?" "Come on in. I'm in the kitchen." Thibault stepped inside and made his way to the kitchen. Elizabeth had put on an apron and was standing at the stove, browning ground beef. On the counter beside her was an open bottle of Michelob Light. "Where's Ben?" Thibault asked. "He's in the shower. He should be down in a couple of minutes." She added some packaged taco seasoning and water to the beef, then rinsed her hands. After drying them on the front of her apron, she reached for her beer. "Would you like one? I always have a beer on taco night." I'd love one." She pulled a beer from the refrigerator and handed it to him. "It's light. It's all I have." "Thank you." He leaned against the counter and took in the kitchen. In some ways, it reminded him of the one in the house he'd rented. Cabinets original with the house, stainless-steel sink, older appliances, and a small dining room set pushed beneath a window, but all in slightly better condition, with women's touches here and there. Flowers in a vase, a bowl of fruit, window treatments. Homey. From the refrigerator, Elizabeth pulled out some lettuce and tomatoes, along with a block of cheddar cheese, and put them on the counter. She followed that with green peppers and onions, moved the whole lot to the butcher block, then pulled out a knife and cheese grater from a counter drawer. She started slicing and dicing the onion, her movements quick and fluid. "Need a hand?" She shot him a skeptical look. "Don't tell me that in addition to training dogs, fixing cars, and being a musician, you're an expert chef" "I wouldn't go that far. But I know my way around the kitchen. I make dinner every night." "Oh yeah? What did you have last night?" "Turkey sandwich on wheat. With a pickle." "And the night before?" "Turkey sandwich on wheat. No pickle." She giggled. "What was the last hot meal you cooked?" He pretended to rack his brains. "Uh… beans and franks. On Monday." She feigned amazement. "J stand corrected. How are you at grating cheese.?" "In that, I would consider myself an expert." "Okay," she said. "There's a bowl in the cupboard over there, beneath the blender. And you don't need to do the whole block. Ben usually has two tacos, and I have only one. Anything more would be for you." Thibault set his beer on the counter and retrieved the bowl from the cupboard. Then he moved to the sink to wash his hands and unwrap the block of cheese. He snuck glances at Elizabeth as he worked. Finished with the onion, she'd already moved on to the green pepper. The tomato came next. The knife danced steadily, the movements precise. "You do that so quickly." She answered without breaking the rhythm of her movements. "There was a while there when I dreamed of opening my own restaurant." "When was that.?" "When I was fifteen. For my birthday, I even asked for the Ginsu knife." "You mean the one that used to be advertised on late-night television? Where the guy on the commercial uses it to cut through a tin can?" She nodded. "That's the one." "Did you get it?" "It's the knife I'm using now." He smiled. "I've never known anyone who actually admitted to buying one." "Now you do," she said. She stole a quick look at him. "I had this dream about opening this great place in Charleston or Savannah and having my own cookbooks and television show. Crazy, I know. But anyway, I spent the summer practicing my dicing. I'd dice everything I could, as fast as I could, until I was as fast as the guy on the commercial. There were Tupperware bowls filled with zucchini and carrots and squash that I'd picked from the garden. It drove Nana crazy, since it meant we had to have summer stew just about every single day." "What's summer stew?" "Anything mixed together that can be served over noodles or rice." He smiled as he shifted a pile of grated cheese to the side. "Then what happened?" "Summer ended, and we ran out of vegetables." "Ah," he said, wondering how someone could look so pretty in an apron. "Okay," she said, pulling another pot from under the stove, "let me whip up the salsa." She poured in a large can of tomato sauce, then added the onions and peppers and a dash of Tabasco, along with salt and pepper. She stirred them together and set the heat on medium. "Your own recipe?" "Nana's. Ben doesn't like things too spicy, so this is what she came up with." Finished with the cheese, Thibault rewrapped it. "What else?" "Not much. I just have to shred some lettuce and that's it. Oh, and heat up the shells in the oven. I'll let the meat and the salsa simmer for a bit." "How about I do the shells?" She handed him a cookie sheet and turned on the oven. "Just spread the shells out a little. Three for us, and however many you want for you. But don't put them in yet. We still have a few minutes. Ben likes the shells fresh out of the oven." Thibault did as she requested, and she finished with the lettuce at about the same time. She put three plates on the counter. Picking up her beer again, she motioned toward the door. "Come out back. I want to show you something." Thibault followed her out, then stopped short as he took in the view from the covered deck. Enclosed by a hedge lay a series of cobblestone paths that wove among several circular brick planters, each with its own dogwood tree; in the center of the yard, serving as a focal point, was a three-tiered fountain that fed a large koi pond. "Wow," he murmured. "This is gorgeous." "And you never knew it was here, right? It is pretty spectacular, but you should see it in the spring. Every year, Nana and I plant a few thousand tulips, daffodils, and lilies, and they start blooming right after the azaleas and dogwoods. From March through July, this garden is one of the most beautiful places on earth. And over there? Behind that lower hedge?" She pointed toward the right. "That's the home of our illustrious vegetable and herb garden." "Nana never mentioned she gardened." "She wouldn't. It was something she and Grandpa shared, kind of like their little secret. Because the kennel is right there, they wanted to make this a kind of oasis where they could escape the business, the dogs, the owners… even their employees. Of course, Drake and I, and then Ben and I, pitched in, but for the most part, it was theirs. It was the one project at which Grandpa really excelled. After he died, Nana decided to keep it up in his memory." "It's incredible," he said. It is, isn't it? It wasn't so great when we were kids. Unless we were planting bulbs, we weren't allowed to play back here. All our birthday parties were on the lawn out front that separates the house from the kennel. Which meant that for two days beforehand, we'd have to scoop up all the poop so no one would accidentally step in it." "I can see how that would be a party stopper— "Hey!" a voice rang out from the kitchen. "Where are you guys?" Elizabeth turned at the sound of Ben's voice. "Out here, sweetie. I'm showing Mr. Thibault the backyard." Ben stepped outside, dressed in a black T-shirt and camouflage pants. "Where's Zeus? I'm ready for him to find me." "Let's eat first. We'll do that after dinner." "Mom…" "It'll be better when it's dark anyway," Thibault interjected. "That way you can really hide. It'll be more fun for Zeus, too." "What do you want to do until then?" "Your Nana said you played chess." Ben looked skeptical. "You know how to play chess?" "Maybe not as good as you, but I know how to play." "Okay." He scratched at his arm. "Hey, where did you say Zeus was?" "On the porch out front." "Can I go play with him?" "You'll have to set the table first," Elizabeth instructed him. "And you'll only have a couple of minutes. Dinner's almost ready." "Okay," he said, turning around. "Thanks." As he raced off, she leaned around Thibault and cupped her mouth with her hands. "Don't forget the table!" Ben skidded to a halt. He opened a drawer and grabbed three forks, then threw them onto the table like a dealer in Vegas, followed by the plates Elizabeth had set aside earlier. In all, it took him less than ten seconds—and the table showed it—before he vanished from view. When he was gone, Elizabeth shook her head. "Until Zeus got here, Ben used to be a quiet, easygoing child after school. He used to read and study, and now all he wants to do is chase your dog." Thibault made a guilty face. "Sorry." "Don't be. Believe me, I like a little … calmness as much as the next mother, but it's nice to see him so excited." "Why don't you get him his own dog?" "I will. In time. Once I see how things go with Nana." She took a sip of beer and nodded toward the house. "Let's go check on dinner. I think the oven's probably ready." Back inside, Elizabeth slipped the cookie sheet into the oven and stirred the meat and salsa before ladling both into bowls. As she brought them to the table along with a stack of paper napkins, Thibault straightened the silverware and plates and grabbed the cheese, lettuce, and tomatoes. When Elizabeth set her beer on the table, Thibault was struck again by her natural beauty. "Do you want to call Ben, or should I ?" He forced himself to turn away. "I'll call Ben," he said. Ben was sitting on the front porch, stroking a panting Zeus from his forehead to his tail in one long stroke. "You tired him out," Thibault observed. "I run pretty fast," Ben agreed. "You ready to eat? Dinner's on the table." Ben got up, and Zeus raised his head. "Stay here," Thibault said. Zeus's ears flattened as if he were being punished. But he laid his head back down as Ben and Thibault entered the house. Elizabeth was already seated at the table. As soon as Ben and Thibault sat down, Ben immediately started loading his taco with the seasoned ground beef. "I want to hear more about your walk across the country," Elizabeth said. "Yeah, me too," Ben said, spooning on salsa. Thibault reached for his napkin and spread it on his lap. "What would you like to know?" She nourished her napkin. "Why don't you start at the beginning?" For a moment, Thibault considered the truth: that it began with a photograph in the Kuwaiti desert. But he couldn't tell them about that. Instead, he started by describing a cold Match morning, when he'd slung his backpack over his arm and started down the shoulder of the road. He told them about the things he saw—for Ben's sake, he made sure to describe all the wildlife he'd encountered—and talked about some of the more colorful people he'd encountered. Elizabeth seemed to realize that he wasn't accustomed to talking so much about himself, so she prompted him by asking him questions whenever he seemed to be running out of things to say. From there, she asked him a bit more about college and was amused when Ben learned that the man sitting at the table actually dug up real life skeletons. Ben asked a few questions of his own: Do you have any brothers or sisters? No. Did you play sports? Yeah, but I was average, not great. What's your favorite football team? The Denver Broncos, of course. As Ben and Thibault chatted, Elizabeth followed their exchange with amusement and interest. As the evening wore on, the sunlight slanting through the window shifted and waned, dimming the kitchen. They finished eating, and after excusing himself, Ben rejoined Zeus on the porch. Thibault helped Elizabeth clean up the table, wrapping the leftovers and stacking plates and silverware in the dishwasher. Breaking her own rule, Elizabeth opened a second beer and offered another to Thibault before they escaped the heat of the kitchen and went outside. On the porch, the air felt noticeably cooler, and a breeze made the leaves on the trees dance. Ben and Zeus were playing again, and Ben's laughter hung suspended in the air. Elizabeth leaned on the railing, watching her son, and Thibault had to force himself not to stare in her direction. Neither of them felt the need to speak, and Thibault took a long, slow pull of his beer, wondering where on earth all of this was going.Beth didn't sleep well and woke up exhausted. The storm had hit in full fury last night, bringing heavy wind and massive amounts or rain, dwarfing the previous deluge. The day before, she couldn't have imagined the water getting any deeper, but when she looked out the window, the office looked like an isolated island in the midst of the ocean. Last night, she'd pulled her car onto a spit of higher land near the magnolia tree; good thing, she realized now. It, too, was its own little island, while the water nearly reached the high floorboards of Nana's truck. The truck had always managed well in floods, but it was a good thing that the brakes had been fixed. Otherwise they would have been stranded. Last night, she'd taken it into town to buy a gallon of milk and a few other basic necessities, but the trip had been pointless. Everything was closed, and the only other vehicles that she'd seen on the road were utility trucks and SUVs driven by the sheriffs department. Half the town was without power, but so far their house was unaffected. If there was one bright spot, it was that TV and radio reports predicted the last of the storms would roll through today; tomorrow, hopefully, the water would begin to recede. She sat in the porch swing outside while Nana and Ben we playing gin rummy at the kitchen table. It was the one game in which they were equally matched, and it kept Ben from getting bored. Later, she figured she'd let him splash around in the front yard while she went to check on the dogs. She'd probably give up any attempt to keep him dry and simply let him wear his swimsuit; when she'd gone out earlier in the morning to feed the dogs, her raincoat had been useless. Listening to the sound of the rain drumming steadily on the roof, she found her thoughts drifting to Drake. She wished for the thousandth time that she could talk to him and wondered what he would have said about the photograph. Had he, too, believed in its power? Drake had never been particularly superstitious, but her heart lurched every time she recalled his inexplicable panic at the loss of the photo. Nana was right. She didn't know what Drake had experienced over there, and she didn't know what Logan had, either. As informed as she tried to be, none of it felt real to her. She wondered about the stress they felt, thousands of miles from home, wearing flak jackets, living among people who spoke a foreign language, trying to stay alive. Was it impossible to believe that anyone would latch on to something he believed would keep him safe? No, she decided. It was no different from carrying a St. Christopher medal or a rabbit's foot. It didn't matter that there was nothing logical about it—logic didn't matter. Nor did an absolute belief in magic powers. If it made someone feel safer, it simply did. But tracking her down? Stalking her? That's where her understanding broke down. As skeptical as she was about Keith's intentions—or even his attempt to appear genuinely concerned for her well-being —she had to admit that the situation made her feel acutely vulnerable. What had Logan said ? Something about owing her? For his life, she assumed, but how? She shook her head, drained by the thoughts chasing endlessly through her mind. She looked up when she heard the door creak open. "Hey, Mom?" "Yeah, sweetie." Ben came over and took a seat beside her. "Where's Thibault? I haven't seen him yet." "He's not coming in," she said. "Because of the storm?" She hadn't told him yet, nor was she ready to. "He had some things to do," she improvised. "Okay," Ben said. He looked out into the yard. "You can't even see the grass anymore." "I know. But the rain's supposed to stop soon." "Has it ever been like this before? When you were little?" "A couple of times. But always with a hurricane." He nodded before pushing his glasses up. She ran a hand through his hair. "I heard Logan gave you something." "I'm not supposed to talk about it," he said, his voice serious. "It's a secret." "You can tell your mom. I'm good at keeping secrets." "Nice try," he teased. "I'm not falling for that one." She smiled and leaned back, pushing the swing into motion with her feet. "That's okay. I already know about the picture." Ben looked over at her, wondering how much she knew. "You know," she went on, "for protection?" His shoulders slumped. "He told you?" "Of course." "Oh," he said, his disappointment evident. "He told me to keep it between the two of us." "Do you have it? I'd like to see it if you do." Ben hesitated before reaching into his pocket. He pulled out a folded snapshot and handed it over. Beth opened the photo and stared, feeling a surge of memories overtake her: her last weekend with Drake and the conversation they'd had, the sight of the ferris wheel, the shooting star. Did he say anything else when he gave it to you?" Handing the photo back to him. "Aside from it being a secret I mean." "He said his friend Victor called it a lucky charm kept him safe in Iraq." She felt her pulse pick up tempo, and she brought her face close to Ben's. "Did you say Victor called it a lucky charm?" "Uh-huh." Ben nodded. "That's what he said " "Are you sure?" "Of course I'm sure." Beth stared at her son, feeling at war with herself.Chapter 14 ClaytonChapter 26 BethIn the fall of 2007, a year after getting out of the Marine Corps, Thibault arranged to meet Victor in Minnesota, a place neither of them had ever been. For both of them, it couldn't have come at a better time. Victor had been married for six months, and Thibault had stood beside him as best man. That had been the only time they'd seen each other since they'd been discharged. When Thibault had called to suggest the trip, he'd suspected that time alone was exactly what Victor needed. On the first day, as they sat in a small rowboat on the lake, it was Victor who broke the silence. "Have you been having nightmares?" his friend asked. Thibault shook his head. "No. Have you?" "Yes," Victor said. The air was typically crisp for autumn, and a light morning mist floated just above the water. But the sky was cloudless, and Thibault knew the temperature would rise, making for a gorgeous afternoon. "The same as before?" Thibault asked. "Worse," he said. He reeled in his line and cast again. "I see dead people." He gave a wry half-smile, fatigue written into the lines of his face. "Like in that movie with Bruce Willis? The Sixth Sense?" Thibault nodded. "Kind of like that." He paused, somber now. "In my dreams, I relive everything we went through, except there are changes. In most of them, I get shot, and I scream for help, but no one comes, and I realize everyone else has been shot as well. And I can feel myself dying little by little." He rubbed his eyes before going on. "As hard as that is, it's worse when I see them during the day—the ones who died, I mean. I'll be at the store, and I'll see them all, standing there blocking the aisle. Or they're on the ground bleeding as medics work on them. But they never make a sound. All they do is stare at me, like it's my fault they were wounded, or my fault that they're dying. And then I blink and take a deep breath and they’re gone." He stopped. "It makes me think I'm going crazy." "Have you talked to anyone about it?" Thibault asked. "No one. Except for my wife, I mean, but when I say those things to her, she gets frightened and starts to cry. So I don't talk to her about it anymore." Thibault said nothing. "She's pregnant, you know," Victor went on. Thibault smiled, grasping at this ray of hope. "Congratulations." "Thank you. It's a boy. I'm going to name him Logan." Thibault sat up straight and nodded at Victor. "I'm honored." "It frightens me sometimes—the thought of having a son. I'm worried I won't be a good father." He stared out over the water. "You'll be a great dad," Thibault assured him. "Maybe." Thibault waited. "I have no patience anymore. So many things make me angry. Little things, things that shouldn't mean anything, but for some reason they do. And even though I try to push the anger back down, it sometimes comes out anyway. It hasn't caused me any problems yet, but I wonder how long I can keep pushing it down before it gets away from me." He adjusted the line with his fishing rod. This happens to you, too?" "Sometimes," Thibault admitted. "But not too often?" "No." "I didn't think so. I forgot that things are different for you. Because of the picture, I mean." Thibault shook his head. "That's not true. It hasn't been easy for me, either. I can't walk down the street without looking over my shoulder or scanning the windows above to make sure no one has a gun pointed at me. And half the time, it's like I don't remember how to have an ordinary conversation with people. I can't relate to most of their concerns. Who works where and how much they earn, or what's on television, or who's dating who. I feel like asking, Who cares?" "You never were any good at making small talk," Victor snorted. "Thanks." "But as for looking over your shoulder, that's normal. I do that, too." "Yeah?" "But so far, no guns." Thibault laughed under his breath. "Good thing, huh?" Then, because he wanted to change the subject, he asked, "How do you like roofing?" "It's hot in the summer." "Like Iraq?" "No. Nothing is hot like Iraq. But hot enough." He smiled. "I got a promotion. I'm a crew leader now." "Good for you. How's Maria?" "Getting bigger, but she's happy. And she is my life. I am so lucky to have married her." He shook his head in wonder. "I'm glad." "There is nothing like love. You should try it." Thibault shrugged. "Maybe one day." Elizabeth. He'd seen something cross her face when he'd called her Elizabeth, some emotion he couldn't identify. The name captured her essence far more than plain and simple "Beth." There was an elegance to it that matched the graceful way she moved, and though he hadn't planned on calling her that, the syllables had rolled off his tongue as if he'd had no choice. . On his walk back home, he found himself replaying their conversation and recalling how natural it felt to sit beside her. She was more relaxed than he'd imagined, but he could sense that, like Nana, she wasn't sure what to think of him. Later, as he lay in bed at night staring at the ceiling, he wondered what she thought of him. On Friday morning, Thibault made sure everything was taken care of before driving Nana to Greensboro in Elizabeth's car. Zeus rode in the backseat with his head out the window for most of the trip, his ears blown back, intrigued by the ever changing smells and scenery. Thibault hadn't expected Nana to allow Zeus to ride along, but she'd waved the dog into the car. "Beth won't care. And besides, my case will fit in the trunk." The drive back to Hampton seemed to go faster, and when he pulled in he was pleased to see Ben near the house, tossing a ball into the air. Zeus bounded toward him expectantly, and Ben sent the ball flying. Zeus zoomed after it, his ears back, tongue hanging out. As Thibault approached, he saw Elizabeth walk out onto the front porch and realized with sudden certainty that she was one of the most beautiful women he'd ever seen. Dressed in a summer blouse and shorts that revealed her shapely legs, she gave a friendly wave when she spotted them, and it was all he could do not to stare. "Hey, Thibault!" Ben called from the yard. He was chasing after Zeus, who pranced with the ball in his mouth, proud of his ability to stay just a couple of steps ahead of Ben no matter how fast the boy ran. "Hey, Ben! How was school?" "Boring!" he shouted. "How was work?" "Exciting!" Ben kept running. "Yeah, right!" Since Ben had started school, they'd shared pretty much the same exchange every day. Thibault shook his head in amusement just as Elizabeth stepped down from the porch. "Hi, Logan." "Hello, Elizabeth." She leaned against the railing, a slight smile on her face. "How was the drive?" "Not too bad." "Must have been strange, though." "How so?" "When was the last time you drove for five hours?" He scratched at the back of his neck. "I don't know. It's been a long time." "Nana said you were kind of fidgety as you drove, like you couldn't get comfortable." She motioned over her shoulder. "I just hung up the phone with her. She's already called twice." "Bored?" "No, the first time she called to talk to Ben. To see how school went." "And?" "He told her it was boring." "At least he's consistent." "Sure, but I wish he would say something different. Like, 'I learned a lot and have so much fun doing it.'" She smiled. "Every mother's dream, right?" "I'll take your word for it." "Are you thirsty?" she asked. "Nana left some lemonade in a pitcher. She made it before she left this morning." "I'd love some. But I should probably check on the dogs' water first." "Already done." She turned and went to the door. She held it open for him. "Come on in. I'll be just a minute, okay?" He went up the steps, paused to wipe his feet, and stepped inside. Taking in the room, he noted the antique furniture and original paintings that hung on the wall. Like a country parlor, he thought, which wasn't what he had pictured. "Your home is lovely," he called out. "Thank you." Her head poked out from the kitchen. "Haven't you seen it before?" "No." "I just assumed you had. Feel free to take a look around." She vanished from view, and Thibault wandered around the room, noting the collection of Hummers displayed on the shelves of the dining room hutch. He smiled. He'd always liked those things. On the mantel, he spotted a collection of photographs and moved to study them. Two or three were of Ben, including one in which he was missing a couple of his front teeth. Beside them was a nice shot of Elizabeth in a cap and gown, standing beside her grandparents, and a portrait of Nana and her husband. In the comer, he noted a portrait of a young marine in dress blues, standing at ease. The young marine who'd lost the photo in Iraq? "That's Drake," she said from behind him. "My brother." Thibault turned. "Younger or older?" "A year younger." She handed him the glass of lemonade without further comment, and Thibault sensed that the subject was closed. She took a step toward the front door. "Let's go sit on the porch. I've been inside all day, and besides, I want to keep an eye on Ben. He has a tendency to wander." Elizabeth took a seat on the steps out front. The sun drilled down through the clouds, but the shade from the porch stretched to cover them. Elizabeth tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. "Sorry. This is the best I can do. I've been trying to talk Nana into getting a porch swing, but she says it's too country." In the distance, Ben and Zeus were running through the grass, Ben laughing as he tried to grab for the stick in Zeus's mouth. Elizabeth smiled. "I'm glad to see him getting his energy out. He had his first violin lesson today, so he didn't have a chance after school." "Did he enjoy it?" "He liked it. Or at least he said he did." She turned toward him. "Did you like it when you were a kid?" "Most of the time. Until I got older, anyway." "Let me guess. Then you got interested in girls and sports?" "Don't forget cars." "Typical," she groaned. "But normal. I'm just excited because it was his choice. He's always been interested in music, and his teacher is a gem. She's got all the patience in the world." "That's good. And it'll be good for him." She pretended to scrutinize him. "I don't know why, but I see you as more of an electric guitar player than someone who played the violin." "Because I walked from Colorado?" "Don't forget your hair." "I had a buzz cut for years." "And then your clippers went on strike, right?" "Something like that." She smiled and reached for her glass. In the silence that followed, Thibault took in the view. Across the yard, a flock of starlings broke from the trees, moving in unison before settling again on the opposite side. Puffy clouds drifted past, changing shape as they moved in the afternoon breeze, and he could sense Elizabeth watching him. "You don't feel the need to talk all the time, do you," she said. He smiled. "No." "Most people don't know how to appreciate silence. They can't help talking." "I talk. I just want to have something to say first." "You're going to have a tough time in Hampton. Most people around here either talk about their family, their neighbors, the weather, or the championship prospects of the high school football team." "Yeah?" "It gets boring." He nodded. "I can see that." He took another drink, finishing his glass, "So how does the football team look this year?" She laughed. "Exactly." She reached for his glass. "Would you like more?" "No, I'm fine. Thank you. Very refreshing." She set his glass beside hers. "Homemade. Nana squeezed the lemons herself." He nodded. "I noticed she has a forearm like Popeye." She circled the rim of her glass with her finger, secretly admitting to herself that she liked his wit. "So I guess it'll be just you and me this weekend." "What about Ben?" "He's going to see his father tomorrow. He goes every other weekend." "Yeah?" She sighed. "But he doesn't want to go. He never wants to go." Thibault nodded, studying Ben from a distance. "Nothing to say?" she prodded. "I'm not sure what I should say." "But if you would have said something…" "I would have said that Ben probably has a good reason." "And I would have said you're right." "You two don't get along?" Thibault asked carefully. "Actually, we get along okay. Not great, mind you. But okay. It's Ben and his dad who don't get along. My ex has problems with Ben," she said. "I think he wanted a different kind of kid." "Why do you let Ben go, then?" His gaze focused on her with surprising intensity. "Because I don't have a choice." "There's always a choice." "Not in this case there isn't." She leaned off to the side, plucking a marigold from beside the stairs. "The dad has joint custody, and if I tried to fight him on it, let's just say the courts would probably rule in his favor. If anything, Ben would probably have to go even more than he does now." "That doesn't sound fair." "It isn't. But for now, there's not much else I can do but tell Ben to try to make the best of it." "I get the sense there's a lot more to the story." She laughed. "You have no idea." 'Want to talk about it?" "Not really." Whatever urge Thibault might have had to press further was contained by the sight of Ben walking toward the porch. He was drenched in sweat, his face red. His glasses were slightly crooked. Zeus trailed behind, panting hard. "Hey, Mom!" "Hi, sweetie. Did you have a good time?" Zeus lapped at Thibault's hand before collapsing at his feet. "Zeus is great! Did you see us playing keep*away?" "Of course," she said, drawing Ben close. She ran a hand through his hair. "You look hot. You should drink some water." "I will. Are Thibault and Zeus staying for dinner?" "We haven't talked about it." Ben pushed his glasses up on his nose, oblivious to the fact that they were cockeyed. "We're having tacos," he announced to Thibault. "They're awesome. Mom makes her own salsa and everything." I'm sure they are," Thibault said, his tone neutral. "We'll talk about it, okay?" She brushed the grass from his shirt. "Now go on. Get some water. And don't forget to wash up." "I want to play hide-and-go-seek with Zeus," Ben whined. "Thibault said I could." "Like I said, we'll talk about it," Elizabeth said. "Can Zeus come inside with me? He's thirsty, too." "Let's leave him out here, okay? We'll get him some water. What happened to your glasses?" Ignoring Ben's protests, she slid them off. "It'll only take a second." She bent the frame, examined her handiwork, and bent them once more before handing them back to him. "Try them now." Ben's eyes darted toward Thibault as he put them on; Thibault pretended not to notice. Instead, he petted Zeus as the dog lay quietly next to him. Elizabeth leaned back to get a better view. "Perfect," she said. "Okay," Ben conceded. He headed up the steps, pulled open the screen door, and let it close with a loud bang. When he was gone, Elizabeth turned to Thibault. "I embarrassed him." "That's what mothers do." "Thanks," she said, not hiding the sarcasm. "Now what's this about Zeus and hide-and-go-seek?" "Oh, I told him about it when we were down at the creek. He was asking what Zeus could do and I mentioned it. But we don't have to do it tonight." "No, that's fine," she said, reaching for her glass of lemonade. She rattled the ice cubes, debating, before finally turning toward him. "Would you like to stay for dinner?" He met her eyes. "Yeah," he said, "I'd like that very much." "It's only tacos," she qualified. "J heard. And thank you. Tacos sound like a treat." He smiled and stood. "But for now, let me get this guy some water. And he's probably hungry, too. Would you mind if" I got him some food from the kennel.?" "Of course not. There's plenty. Someone just unloaded a bunch of bags yesterday." "Who could that have been?" "I don't know. Some long-haired drifter, I think." "I thought he was a college-educated veteran." "Same thing." Picking up the glasses, she rose as well. "I'm going to make sure Ben washed up. He tends to forget to do that. See you in a few minutes." At the kennel, Thibault filled Zeus's bowls with water and food, then took a seat on one of the empty cages, waiting. Zeus took his time, drinking a bit, then nibbling at a few bites of his food, peering occasionally over at Thibault as if to ask, Why are you watching me? Thibault said nothing; he knew that any comment would slow Zeus down even more. Instead, he checked the other kennels even though Elizabeth had said she'd already done so, making sure none of the other dogs were low on water. They weren't. Nor did they stir much. Good. He turned out the lights in the office and locked the door before returning to the house. Zeus trailed behind him, his nose to the ground. At the door, he motioned for Zeus to lie down and stay, then pulled open the screen door. "Hello?" "Come on in. I'm in the kitchen." Thibault stepped inside and made his way to the kitchen. Elizabeth had put on an apron and was standing at the stove, browning ground beef. On the counter beside her was an open bottle of Michelob Light. "Where's Ben?" Thibault asked. "He's in the shower. He should be down in a couple of minutes." She added some packaged taco seasoning and water to the beef, then rinsed her hands. After drying them on the front of her apron, she reached for her beer. "Would you like one? I always have a beer on taco night." I'd love one." She pulled a beer from the refrigerator and handed it to him. "It's light. It's all I have." "Thank you." He leaned against the counter and took in the kitchen. In some ways, it reminded him of the one in the house he'd rented. Cabinets original with the house, stainless-steel sink, older appliances, and a small dining room set pushed beneath a window, but all in slightly better condition, with women's touches here and there. Flowers in a vase, a bowl of fruit, window treatments. Homey. From the refrigerator, Elizabeth pulled out some lettuce and tomatoes, along with a block of cheddar cheese, and put them on the counter. She followed that with green peppers and onions, moved the whole lot to the butcher block, then pulled out a knife and cheese grater from a counter drawer. She started slicing and dicing the onion, her movements quick and fluid. "Need a hand?" She shot him a skeptical look. "Don't tell me that in addition to training dogs, fixing cars, and being a musician, you're an expert chef" "I wouldn't go that far. But I know my way around the kitchen. I make dinner every night." "Oh yeah? What did you have last night?" "Turkey sandwich on wheat. With a pickle." "And the night before?" "Turkey sandwich on wheat. No pickle." She giggled. "What was the last hot meal you cooked?" He pretended to rack his brains. "Uh… beans and franks. On Monday." She feigned amazement. "J stand corrected. How are you at grating cheese.?" "In that, I would consider myself an expert." "Okay," she said. "There's a bowl in the cupboard over there, beneath the blender. And you don't need to do the whole block. Ben usually has two tacos, and I have only one. Anything more would be for you." Thibault set his beer on the counter and retrieved the bowl from the cupboard. Then he moved to the sink to wash his hands and unwrap the block of cheese. He snuck glances at Elizabeth as he worked. Finished with the onion, she'd already moved on to the green pepper. The tomato came next. The knife danced steadily, the movements precise. "You do that so quickly." She answered without breaking the rhythm of her movements. "There was a while there when I dreamed of opening my own restaurant." "When was that.?" "When I was fifteen. For my birthday, I even asked for the Ginsu knife." "You mean the one that used to be advertised on late-night television? Where the guy on the commercial uses it to cut through a tin can?" She nodded. "That's the one." "Did you get it?" "It's the knife I'm using now." He smiled. "I've never known anyone who actually admitted to buying one." "Now you do," she said. She stole a quick look at him. "I had this dream about opening this great place in Charleston or Savannah and having my own cookbooks and television show. Crazy, I know. But anyway, I spent the summer practicing my dicing. I'd dice everything I could, as fast as I could, until I was as fast as the guy on the commercial. There were Tupperware bowls filled with zucchini and carrots and squash that I'd picked from the garden. It drove Nana crazy, since it meant we had to have summer stew just about every single day." "What's summer stew?" "Anything mixed together that can be served over noodles or rice." He smiled as he shifted a pile of grated cheese to the side. "Then what happened?" "Summer ended, and we ran out of vegetables." "Ah," he said, wondering how someone could look so pretty in an apron. "Okay," she said, pulling another pot from under the stove, "let me whip up the salsa." She poured in a large can of tomato sauce, then added the onions and peppers and a dash of Tabasco, along with salt and pepper. She stirred them together and set the heat on medium. "Your own recipe?" "Nana's. Ben doesn't like things too spicy, so this is what she came up with." Finished with the cheese, Thibault rewrapped it. "What else?" "Not much. I just have to shred some lettuce and that's it. Oh, and heat up the shells in the oven. I'll let the meat and the salsa simmer for a bit." "How about I do the shells?" She handed him a cookie sheet and turned on the oven. "Just spread the shells out a little. Three for us, and however many you want for you. But don't put them in yet. We still have a few minutes. Ben likes the shells fresh out of the oven." Thibault did as she requested, and she finished with the lettuce at about the same time. She put three plates on the counter. Picking up her beer again, she motioned toward the door. "Come out back. I want to show you something." Thibault followed her out, then stopped short as he took in the view from the covered deck. Enclosed by a hedge lay a series of cobblestone paths that wove among several circular brick planters, each with its own dogwood tree; in the center of the yard, serving as a focal point, was a three-tiered fountain that fed a large koi pond. "Wow," he murmured. "This is gorgeous." "And you never knew it was here, right? It is pretty spectacular, but you should see it in the spring. Every year, Nana and I plant a few thousand tulips, daffodils, and lilies, and they start blooming right after the azaleas and dogwoods. From March through July, this garden is one of the most beautiful places on earth. And over there? Behind that lower hedge?" She pointed toward the right. "That's the home of our illustrious vegetable and herb garden." "Nana never mentioned she gardened." "She wouldn't. It was something she and Grandpa shared, kind of like their little secret. Because the kennel is right there, they wanted to make this a kind of oasis where they could escape the business, the dogs, the owners… even their employees. Of course, Drake and I, and then Ben and I, pitched in, but for the most part, it was theirs. It was the one project at which Grandpa really excelled. After he died, Nana decided to keep it up in his memory." "It's incredible," he said. It is, isn't it? It wasn't so great when we were kids. Unless we were planting bulbs, we weren't allowed to play back here. All our birthday parties were on the lawn out front that separates the house from the kennel. Which meant that for two days beforehand, we'd have to scoop up all the poop so no one would accidentally step in it." "I can see how that would be a party stopper— "Hey!" a voice rang out from the kitchen. "Where are you guys?" Elizabeth turned at the sound of Ben's voice. "Out here, sweetie. I'm showing Mr. Thibault the backyard." Ben stepped outside, dressed in a black T-shirt and camouflage pants. "Where's Zeus? I'm ready for him to find me." "Let's eat first. We'll do that after dinner." "Mom…" "It'll be better when it's dark anyway," Thibault interjected. "That way you can really hide. It'll be more fun for Zeus, too." "What do you want to do until then?" "Your Nana said you played chess." Ben looked skeptical. "You know how to play chess?" "Maybe not as good as you, but I know how to play." "Okay." He scratched at his arm. "Hey, where did you say Zeus was?" "On the porch out front." "Can I go play with him?" "You'll have to set the table first," Elizabeth instructed him. "And you'll only have a couple of minutes. Dinner's almost ready." "Okay," he said, turning around. "Thanks." As he raced off, she leaned around Thibault and cupped her mouth with her hands. "Don't forget the table!" Ben skidded to a halt. He opened a drawer and grabbed three forks, then threw them onto the table like a dealer in Vegas, followed by the plates Elizabeth had set aside earlier. In all, it took him less than ten seconds—and the table showed it—before he vanished from view. When he was gone, Elizabeth shook her head. "Until Zeus got here, Ben used to be a quiet, easygoing child after school. He used to read and study, and now all he wants to do is chase your dog." Thibault made a guilty face. "Sorry." "Don't be. Believe me, I like a little … calmness as much as the next mother, but it's nice to see him so excited." "Why don't you get him his own dog?" "I will. In time. Once I see how things go with Nana." She took a sip of beer and nodded toward the house. "Let's go check on dinner. I think the oven's probably ready." Back inside, Elizabeth slipped the cookie sheet into the oven and stirred the meat and salsa before ladling both into bowls. As she brought them to the table along with a stack of paper napkins, Thibault straightened the silverware and plates and grabbed the cheese, lettuce, and tomatoes. When Elizabeth set her beer on the table, Thibault was struck again by her natural beauty. "Do you want to call Ben, or should I ?" He forced himself to turn away. "I'll call Ben," he said. Ben was sitting on the front porch, stroking a panting Zeus from his forehead to his tail in one long stroke. "You tired him out," Thibault observed. "I run pretty fast," Ben agreed. "You ready to eat? Dinner's on the table." Ben got up, and Zeus raised his head. "Stay here," Thibault said. Zeus's ears flattened as if he were being punished. But he laid his head back down as Ben and Thibault entered the house. Elizabeth was already seated at the table. As soon as Ben and Thibault sat down, Ben immediately started loading his taco with the seasoned ground beef. "I want to hear more about your walk across the country," Elizabeth said. "Yeah, me too," Ben said, spooning on salsa. Thibault reached for his napkin and spread it on his lap. "What would you like to know?" She nourished her napkin. "Why don't you start at the beginning?" For a moment, Thibault considered the truth: that it began with a photograph in the Kuwaiti desert. But he couldn't tell them about that. Instead, he started by describing a cold Match morning, when he'd slung his backpack over his arm and started down the shoulder of the road. He told them about the things he saw—for Ben's sake, he made sure to describe all the wildlife he'd encountered—and talked about some of the more colorful people he'd encountered. Elizabeth seemed to realize that he wasn't accustomed to talking so much about himself, so she prompted him by asking him questions whenever he seemed to be running out of things to say. From there, she asked him a bit more about college and was amused when Ben learned that the man sitting at the table actually dug up real life skeletons. Ben asked a few questions of his own: Do you have any brothers or sisters? No. Did you play sports? Yeah, but I was average, not great. What's your favorite football team? The Denver Broncos, of course. As Ben and Thibault chatted, Elizabeth followed their exchange with amusement and interest. As the evening wore on, the sunlight slanting through the window shifted and waned, dimming the kitchen. They finished eating, and after excusing himself, Ben rejoined Zeus on the porch. Thibault helped Elizabeth clean up the table, wrapping the leftovers and stacking plates and silverware in the dishwasher. Breaking her own rule, Elizabeth opened a second beer and offered another to Thibault before they escaped the heat of the kitchen and went outside. On the porch, the air felt noticeably cooler, and a breeze made the leaves on the trees dance. Ben and Zeus were playing again, and Ben's laughter hung suspended in the air. Elizabeth leaned on the railing, watching her son, and Thibault had to force himself not to stare in her direction. Neither of them felt the need to speak, and Thibault took a long, slow pull of his beer, wondering where on earth all of this was going.Chapter 32 Beth Beth tried to force her way past Clayton, but he reached for her arm again. "We're not done yet," he growled. He wasn't going to let her leave without making sure she understood. "He ran outside!" "He'll be fine. I want to make sure you're clear on how things are going to go with us." Beth didn't hesitate, slapping him across the face with her free hand, and he recoiled. When he let go, she pushed him backward with all her might, sensing that he was still off balance. "Get the hell out!" she screamed. As soon as he steadied his feet, she slammed him in the chest again. "I am so sick of you and your family telling me what I can and can't do, and I'm not going to put up with it anymore!" "Too bad," he shot back, the words coming naturally. "You don't have a choice. I'm not going to let Ben anywhere near that friend of yours." Instead of answering, as if tired of listening to him, she pushed away and strode past him. Where are you going?" he demanded. "We're not finished." Pounded through the living room. "I'm going to find Ben." "It's just rain!" "It's flooding, in case you haven't noticed." He watched her run out onto the porch, expecting her to find Ben there, but for some reason, she looked both ways and vanished from view. Lightning flashed, thunder echoing a moment later. Close. Too close. Clayton moved to the door and noticed that.she'd headed to the far edge and was scanning the yard. Just then, he saw Nana approaching with an umbrella. "Have you seen Ben?" Beth suddenly called out. "No," Nana answered, looking confused, rain pouring around her. "I just got here. What's going on?" She stopped short at the sight of Clayton. "What's he doing here?" she demanded. "He didn't go past you?" Beth asked, suddenly jogging toward the steps. "It's no big deal," Clayton said, knowing he had to finish things with Beth. "He'll be back…" Beth stopped suddenly and faced him. All at once, Clayton noticed her anger had been replaced by something close to terror. The noise of the storm seemed to be suddenly very far away. "What is it?" he asked. "The tree house …" It took only a moment to process the words, and then Clayton felt his chest constrict. A moment later, they were both charging for the woods.Chapter 13 ThibaultChapter 6 ThibaultChapter 2 ThibaultChapter 34 ClaytonChapter 19 Thibault 飞艇游戏彩票 Chapter 27 ClaytonClayton didn't want to believe it, but there was Gramps actually complimenting Thigh-bolt after church. Shaking his hand, acting like he was some sort of hero while Ben stared up at Thigh-bolt with big puppy-dog eyes. It was all he could do to make it through brunch without cracking open a beer, and since dropping Ben at his mother's, he'd already gone through four. He was pretty sure he'd finish off the twelve-pack before turning in. In the past two weeks, he'd had a lot of beer. He knew he was overdoing it, but it was the only thing that kept him from dwelling on the latest run-in with Thigh-bolt. Behind him, the phone rang. Again. Fourth time in the last couple of hours, but he wasn't in the mood to answer it. Okay, he admitted it. He had underestimated the guy. Thigh-bolt had been one step ahead of him from the very beginning. He used to think Ben knew how to press his buttons; this guy dropped bombs. No, Clayton thought suddenly, he didn't drop bombs. He directed cruise missiles with pinpoint accuracy, all geared toward the destruction of Clayton's life. Even worse, Clayton hadn't seen it corning. Not once. It was beyond frustrating, especially since the situation seemed to be getting worse. Now, Thigh-bolt was telling him what to do. Ordering him around, like he was some flunkie on payroll, and for the life of him, Clayton couldn't figure a way out. He wanted to believe that Thigh-bolt had been bluffing about videotaping the break-in. He had to be bluffing—no one was that smart. He had to be. But what if he wasn't? Clayton went to the refrigerator and opened another beer, knowing he couldn't risk it. Who knew what the guy was planning next? He took a long pull, praying for the numbing effect to kick in soon. This should have been easier to handle. He was a deputy sheriff, and the guy was new in town. Clayton should have had the power all along, but instead he found himself sitting in a messy kitchen because he hadn't wanted to ask Ben to clean it for fear the kid would tell Thigh-bolt, which just might spell the end of Clayton's life as he knew it. What did the guy have against him? That's what Clayton wanted to know. Clayton wasn't the one causing problems, Thigh-bolt was the one making things difficult—and to rub salt in the wound, the guy was sleeping with Beth as well. He took another drink, wondering how his life could have turned to crap so quickly. Sunk in misery, he barely registered the sound of someone knocking at the front door. He pushed back from the table and stumbled through the living room. When he opened the door, he saw Tony standing on the porch, looking like a drowned rat. As if everything else weren't bad enough, the worm was here. Tony took a slight step back. "Whoa, dude. You okay ? You smell like you've been drinking." "What do you want, Tony?" He wasn't in the mood for this. "I've been trying to call you, but you didn't pick up." "Get to the point." "I haven't seen you around much lately." "I've been busy. And I'm busy now, so go away." He started to close the door, and Tony raised his hand. "Wait! I have something to tell you," he whined. "It's important." "What is it?" "Do you remember when I called you? I don't know, it must have been a couple of months ago?" "No." "You remember. I called you from Decker's about this guy showing Beth's picture around?" "And?" "That's what I wanted to tell you." He pushed a clump of greasy hair out of his eyes. "I saw him again today. And I saw him talking to Beth." "What are you talking about?" "After church. He was talking to Beth and your grandfather. He was the dude on the piano today." Despite the buzz, Clayton felt his head begin to clear. It came back to him vaguely at first, then sharper. That was the weekend Thigh-bolt had taken the camera and disk. "You sure?" "Yeah, I'm sure. I'd remember that dude anywhere." "He had Beth's picture?" "I already told you that. I saw it. I just thought it was weird, you know? And then I see them together today? I thought you'd want to know." Clayton processed Tony's news. "I want you to tell me everything you can remember about the picture." Tony the worm had a surprisingly good memory, and it didn't take long for Clayton to get the full story. That the picture was a few years old and had been taken at the fair. That Thigh-bolt didn't know her name. That Thigh-bolt was looking for her. After Tony left, Clayton continued to ponder what he'd learned. No way had Thigh-bolt been here five years ago and forgotten her name- So where did he get the picture? Had he walked across £e country to find her? And if so, what did that mean' That he'd stalked her? He wasn't sure yet, but something wasn't right. And Beth, naive as usual, had allowed him not only into her bed, but into Ben's life as well. He frowned. He didn't like it. He didn't like it at all and he was pretty sure Beth wouldn't like it, either.Chapter 20 BethThe Marine Corps is based on the number 3. It was one of the first things they taught you in basic training. Made things easy to understand. Three marines made a fire team, three fire teams made a squad, three squads made a platoon, three platoons made a company, three companies made a battalion, and three battalions made a regiment. On paper, anyway. By the time they invaded Iraq, their regiment had been combined with elements from other units, including the Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, Firing Battalions of the Eleventh Marines, the Second and Third Assault Amphibian Battalions, Company B from the First Combat Engineer Battalion, and the Combat Service Support Battalion 115. Massive. Prepared for anything. Nearly six thousand personnel in total. As Thibault walked beneath a sky beginning to change colors with the onset of dusk, he thought back to that night, technically his first combat in hostile territory. His regiment, the First, Fifth, became the first unit to cross into Iraq with the intention of seizing the Rumaylah oil fields. Everyone remembered that Saddam Hussein had set most of the wells in Kuwait on fire as he'd retreated in the First Gulf War, and no one wanted the same thing to happen again. Long story short, the First, Fifth, among others, got there in time. Only seven wells were burning by the time the area was secured. From there Thibault's squad was ordered north to Baghdad to help to secure the capital city. The First, Fifth was the most decorated marine regiment in the corps and thus was chosen to lead the deepest assault' into enemy territory in the history of the corps. His first tour in Iraq lasted a little more than four months. Five years after the fact, most of the specifics about that first tour had blurred. He had done his job and eventually was sent back to Pendleton. He didn't talk about it. He tried not to think about it. Except for this: Ricky Martinez and Bill Kincaid, the other two men in Thibault's fire team, were part of a story he'd never forget. Take any three people, stick them together, and they're going to have differences. No surprise there. And on the surface, they were different. Ricky grew up in a small apartment in Midland, Texas, and was a former baseball player and weight-lifting fanatic who'd played in the Minnesota Twins farm system before enlisting; Bill, who played the trumpet in his high school marching band, was from upstate New York and had been raised on a dairy farm with five sisters. Ricky liked blondes, Bill liked brunettes; Ricky chewed tobacco, and Bill smoked; Ricky liked rap music, Bill favored country-western. No big deal. They trained together, they ate together, they slept together. They debated sports and politics. They shot the breeze like brothers and played practical jokes on each other. Bill would wake with one eyebrow shaved off; Ricky would wake the next night with both of them gone. Thibault learned to wake at the slightest sound and somehow kept both eyebrows intact. They laughed about it for months. Drunk one night, they got matching tattoos, each proclaiming their fidelity to the corps. After so much time together, they got to the point where they could anticipate what the others would do. Each of them in turn had saved Thibault's life, or at least kept him from serious harm. Bill grabbed the back of Thibault's flak jacket just as Thibault was poised to move into the open; moments later, a sniper wounded two men nearby. The second time, a distracted Thibault was almost struck by a speeding Humvee driven by a fellow marine; that time, it was Ricky who grabbed his arm to stop him. Even in war, people die in auto accidents. Look at Patton. After securing the oil fields, they had arrived at the outskirts of Baghdad with the rest of their company. The city had not fallen yet. They were part of a convoy, three men among hundreds, tightening their grip on the city. Aside from the roar of Allied vehicle engines, all was quiet as they entered the outlying neighborhoods. When gunfire was heard from a graveled road oft" the main thoroughfare, Thibault's squad was ordered to check it out. They evaluated the scene. Two- and three-story buildings sandwiched together on either side of the potholed road. A lone dog eating garbage. The smoking ruins of a car a hundred meters away. They waited. Saw nothing. Waited some more. Heard nothing. Finally, Thibault, Ricky, and Bill were ordered to cross the street. They did so, moving quickly, reaching safety. From there, the squad proceeded up the street, into the unknown. When the sound of gunfire rang out again that day, it wasn't a single shot. It was the death rattle of dozens and then hundreds of bullets from automatic weapons trapping them in a circle of gunfire. Thibault, Ricky, and Bill, along with the rest of the squad across the street, found themselves pinned in doorways with few places to hide. The firefight didn't last long, people said later. It was long enough. The blizzard of fire cascaded from windows above them. Thibault and his squad instinctively raised their weapons and fired, then fired again. Across the street, two of their men were wounded, but reinforcements arrived quickly. A tank rolled in, fast-moving infantry in the rear. The air vibrated as the muzzle flashed and the upper stories of a building collapsed, dust and glass filling the air. Everywhere Thibault heard the sounds of screaming, saw civilians fleeing the buildings into the streets. The fusillade continued; the stray dog was shot and sent tumbling. Civilians fell forward as they were shot in the back, bleeding and crying out. A third marine was injured in the lower leg. Thibault, Ricky, and Bill were still unable to move, imprisoned by the steady fire chipping at the walls next to them, at their feet. Still, the three of them continued to fire. The air vibrated with a roar, and the upper floors of another building collapsed. The tank, rolling forward, was getting close now. All at once, enemy gunfire started coming from two directions, not just one. Bill glanced at him; he glanced at Ricky. They knew what they had to do. It was time to move; if they stayed, they would die. Thibault rose first. In that instant, all went suddenly white, then turned black. In Hampton, more than five years later, Thibault couldn't recall the specifics, other than the feeling that he'd been tossed into a washing machine. He was sent tumbling into the street with the explosion, his ears ringing. His friend Victor quickly reached his side; so did a naval corpsman. The tank continued to fire, and little by little, the street was brought under control. He learned all this after the fact, just as he learned that the explosion had been caused by an RPG, a rocket-propelled grenade. Later, an officer would tell Thibault that it had most likely been meant for the tank; it missed the turret by inches. Instead, as if fated to find them, it flew toward Thibault, Ricky, and Bill. Thibault was loaded into a Humvee and evacuated from the scene, unconscious. Miraculously, his wounds had been minor, and within three days he would be back with his squad. Ricky and Bill would not; each was later buried with full military honors. Ricky was a week away from his twenty-second birthday. Bill was twenty years old. They were neither the first casualties of the war nor the last. The war went on. Thibault forced himself not to think about them much. It seemed callous, but in war the mind shuts down about things like that. It hurt to think about their deaths, to reflect on their absence, so he didn't. Nor did most of the squad. Instead, he did his job. He focused on the fact that he was still alive. He focused on keeping others safe. But today he felt the pinpricks of memory, and loss, and he didn't bury them. They were with him as he walked the quiet streets of town, making for the outskirts on the far side. Following the directions he'd received from the front desk at the motel, he headed east on Route 54, walking on the grassy shoulder, staying well off the road. He'd learned in his travels never to trust drivers. Zeus trailed behind, panting heavily. He stopped and gave Zeus some water, the last in the bottle. Businesses lined either side of the highway. A mattress shop, a place that did auto body repairs, a nursery, a Quick'N-Go that sold gas and stale food in plastic wrappers, and two ramshackle farmhouses that seemed out of place, as if the modern world had sprouted up around them. Which was exactly what had happened, he assumed. He wondered how long the owners would hold out or why anyone would want to live in a home that fronted a highway and was sandwiched between businesses. Cars roared past in both directions. Clouds began to roll in, gray and puffy. He smelled rain before the first drop hit him, and within a few steps it was pouring. It lasted fifteen minutes, drenching him, but the heavy clouds kept moving toward the coast until only a haze remained. Zeus shook the water from his coat. Birdsong resumed from the trees while mist rose from the moist earth. Eventually, he reached the fairgrounds. It was deserted. Nothing fancy, he thought, examining the layout. Just the basics. Parking on a dirt-gravel lot on the left; a couple of ancient barns on the far right; a wide grassy field for carnival rides separating the two, all lined with a chain-link fence. He didn't need to jump the fence, nor did he need to look at the picture. He'd seen it a thousand times. He moved forward, orienting himself, and eventually he spotted the ticket booth. Behind it was an arched opening where a banner could be strung. When he arrived at the arch, he turned toward the northern horizon, framing the ticket booth and centering the arch in his vision, just as it had appeared in the photograph. This was the angle, he thought; this was where the picture had been taken. The structure of the marines was based on threes. Three men to a fire team, three fire teams to a squad, three squads to a platoon. He served three tours in Iraq. Checking his watch, he noted that he'd been in Hampton for three hours, and straight ahead, right where they should have been, were three evergreen trees clustered together. Thibault walked back to the highway, knowing he was closer to finding her. He wasn't there yet, but he soon would be. She'd been here. He knew that now. What he needed now was a name. On his walk across the country, he'd had a lot of time to think, and he'd decided there were three ways to go about it. First, he could try to find a local veterans association and ask if any locals had served in Iraq. That might lead him to someone who might recognize her. Second, he could go to the local high school and see if it had copies of yearbooks from ten to fifteen years ago. He could look through the photographs one by one. Or third, he could show the photograph and ask around. All had their drawbacks, none were guaranteed. As for the veterans association, he hadn't found one listed in the phone book. Strike one. Because it was still summer vacation, he doubted if the high school would be open; even if it was, it might be difficult to gain access to the library's yearbooks. Strike two—for now, anyway. Which meant that his best bet was to ask around and see if anyone recognized her. Who to ask, though? He knew from the almanac that nine thousand people lived in Hampton, North Carolina. Another thirteen thousand people lived in Hampton County. Way too many. The most efficient strategy was to limit his search to the likeliest pool of candidates. Again, he started with what he knew. She appeared to be in her early twenties when the photograph had been taken, which meant she was in her late twenties now. Possibly early thirties. She was obviously attractive. Further, in a town this size, assuming an equal distribution among age brackets, that meant there were roughly 2,750 kids from newborns up to ten years of age, 2,750 from eleven to twenty, and 5,500 people in their twenties and thirties, her age bracket. Roughly. Of those, he assumed half were males and half were females. Females would tend to be more suspicious about his intentions, especially if they actually knew her. He was a stranger. Strangers were dangerous. He doubted they would reveal much. Men might, depending on how he framed the question. In his experience, nearly all males noticed attractive females in their age bracket, especially if they were single men. How many men in her current age group were single? He guessed about thirty percent. Might be right, might be wrong, but he'd go with it. Say 900 or so. Of those, he figured eighty percent had been living here back then. Just a guess, but Hampton struck him as a town that people were more likely to emigrate from, as opposed to immigrate to. That brought the number down to 720. He could further cut that in half if he concentrated on single men aged twenty-five to thirty-five, instead of twenty to forty. That brought it down to 360. He figured a good chunk of those men either knew her or knew of her five years ago. Maybe they'd gone to high school with her or maybe not—he knew there was one in town—but they would know her if she was single. Of course, it was possible she wasn't single— women in small southern towns probably married young, after all— but he would work with this set of assumptions first. The words on the back of the photograph— "Keep Safe! E"—didn't strike him as romantic enough to have been given to a boyfriend or fiancé. No "Love you," no "I'll miss you." Just an initial. A friend. Down from 22,000 to 360 in less than ten minutes. Not bad And definitely good enough to get started. Assuming, of course She lived here when the photograph had been taken. Assuming she hadn't been visiting. He knew it was another big assumption. But he had to start someplace, and he knew she'd been here once. He would learn the truth one way or the other and move on from there. Where did single men hang out? Single men who could be drawn into conversation? I met her a couple of years ago and she told me to call her if I got back into town, but I lost her name and number... Bars. Pool halls. In a town this size, he doubted whether there were more than three or four places where locals hung out Bars and pool halls had the advantage of alcohol, and it was Saturday night. They'd be filled. He figured he'd have his answer, one way or the other, within the next twelve hours. He glanced at Zeus. "Seems like you're going to be on your own tonight. I could bring you, but I'd have to leave you outside and I don't know how long I'll be." Zeus continued walking, his head down, tongue out. Tired and hot. Zeus didn't care. "I'll put the air conditioner on, okay?"Chapter 32 Beth Chapter 17 ClaytonChapter 15 BethChapter 22 ThibaultClayton tried and failed to negotiate the lake that had formed in front of Beth's house, his boots disappearing into the mud. He stifled the urge to issue a string of profanities. He could see the windows open near the front door, and he knew that Nana would hear him. Despite her age, the woman had the hearing of an owl, and the last thing he wanted to do was make a poor impression. The woman already disliked him enough. He climbed the steps and knocked on the door. He thought he heard someone moving inside, saw Beth's face in the window, and finally watched as the door swung open. "Keith? What are you doing here?" "I was worried," he said. "I wanted to make sure everything was okay." "It's fine," she said. "Is he still here? Do you want me to talk to him?" "No. He's gone. I don't know where he is." Clayton shuffled his feet, trying to look contrite, i'm sorry about this, and I hate that I had to be the one to tell you. I know you really liked him." Beth nodded, her lips pursed… "I also wanted to tell you not to be so hard on yourself. Like I mentioned earlier, people like that… they've learned to hide it. They're sociopaths, and there's no way you could have known." Beth crossed her arms. "I don't want to talk about it." Clayton held up his hands, knowing he'd pushed too hard, knowing he had to backtrack. "I figured. And you're right. It's not my place, especially given the crappy way I've treated you in the past." He tucked his thumb into his belt and forced a smile. "I just wanted to make sure you were doing okay." "I'm fine. And thanks." Clayton turned to leave, then stopped. "I want you to know that from what Ben said, Thibault seemed like a nice guy." She looked up in surprise. "I just wanted to tell you that, because had it been different— had anything happened to Ben— Thibault would have regretted the day he was born. I would die before I let anything happen to our son. And I know you feel the same way. That's why you're such a great mom. In a life where I've made a ton of mistakes, one of the best things I've done is to let you raise him." She nodded, trying to stop the tears, and turned away. When she swiped at her eyes, Clayton took a step toward her. "Hey," he said, his voice soft. "I know you don't want to hear this now, but trust me, you did the right thing. And in time, you're going to find someone, and I'm sure he's going to be the best guy ever. You deserve that." Her breath hiccuped, and Clayton reached out for her. Instinctively, she leaned into him. "It's okay," he whispered, and for a long moment, they stood on the porch, their bodies close together as he held her. Clayton didn't stay long. There was no need, he thought: He'd accomplished what he'd set out to do. Beth now saw him as the kind, caring, and compassionate friend, someone who'd atoned for his sins. The hug was just the icing on the cake—nothing he'd planned, but a nice conclusion to their encounter. He wouldn't press her. That would be a mistake. She needed some time to get over Thigh-bolt. Even if he was a sociopath, even if the guy left town, feelings aren't turned on and off like a switch. But they would pass as surely as the rain would continue to fell. Next step: to make sure that Thigh-bolt was on his way back to Colorado. And then? Be the nice guy. Maybe invite Beth over while he and Ben were doing something, ask her to stay for a barbecue. Keep it casual at first, so she didn't suspect anything, and then suggest doing something with Ben on another night of the week. It was essential that he keep the whole thing far from Nana's prying eyes, which meant staying away from here. Though he knew Beth wouldn't be thinking straight for at least a few weeks, Nana would be, and the last thing he wanted was for Nana to get in Beth's ear about what he was likely up to. After that, as they got used to each other again, maybe they'd have a few beers together while Ben was sacked out, sort of a spur-of-the-moment thing. Maybe spike her beer with a bit of vodka so she couldn't drive home. Then offer to let her sleep in the bed while he took the couch. Be the perfect gentleman, but keep the beer flowing. Talk about the old times—the good ones— and let her cry about Thigh-bolt. Let the emotions flow and slip a comforting arm around her. He smiled as he started the car, pretty sure he knew what would happen after that.Clayton knew by her expression that he had her attention but wasn't sure she understood the implications. "He has a photograph of you," he went on, "and when he first got to town, he flashed it around Decker's Pool Hall. Tony was there that night and he saw it. Actually, he called me right away because he thought the guy's story sounded weird, but I didn't think much of it. Last weekend, though, Tony came by to tell me that he recognized Thibault when he was playing the piano at church." Beth could only stare at him. "I don't know if Drake gave it to him, or if he took it from Drake. But I figure that's the only thing that makes sense. Both Drake and Thibault were in the marines, and according to Tony, the picture was an older one, taken a few years ago." He hesitated. "I know that what I told you about the way I behaved might make it seem like I'm trying to run him off, but I'm not going to talk to him. I do think that you should, however, and I'm not saying this because I'm your ex-husband. I'm saying this as a deputy sheriff." Beth wanted to walk away but couldn't seem to find the will to move. Think about it. He had a picture of you, and based only on that, he walked across the country to find you. I don't know why, but I can make a pretty good guess. He was obsessed with you even though you'd never met, like someone who gets obsessed with movie stars. And what did he do? He hunted you down, but seeing you from afar—or simply meeting you—wasn't enough. Instead, he had to become part of your life. That's what dangerous stalkers do, Beth." His tone was calm and professional, which only intensified the dread she'd begun to feel. "By your expression, I know that all of this is news to you. You're wondering if I'm telling the truth or if I'm lying, and my track record isn't perfect. But, please, for Ben's sake—for your own sake—ask him about it. I can be there if you want me to be there, or I could even send another deputy if you'd prefer that. Or you can call someone else—your friend Melody. I just want you to understand how serious this is. How… creepy and weird this is. This is scary stuff, and I can't impress on you enough how important it is that you take it seriously, too." His mouth was set in a straight line as he set the file on a child's desk beside him. "This is some general information on Logan Thibault. I didn't have time to dig too deep, and I can get in big trouble for even letting you see this, but since I don't know what else he hasn't told you…" He trailed off before looking up at her again. "Think about what I told you. And be careful, okay?"That evening, Keith Clayton lay on the bed smoking a cigarette, kind of glad that Nikki was in the shower. He liked the way she looked after a shower, with her hair wet and wild. The image kept him from dwelling on the fact that he would rather she grab her things and go on home. It was the fourth time in the last five days that she'd spent the night. She was a cashier at the Quick Stop where he bought his Doritos, and for the last month or so, he'd been wondering whether or not to ask her out. Her teeth weren't so great and her skin was kind of pockmarked, but her body was killer, which was more than enough, considering he needed a bit of stress reduction. Seeing Beth last Sunday night while she was dropping Ben off had done it. Wearing shorts and a tank top, she'd stepped out onto the porch and waved at Ben, flashing this kind of Farrah Fawcett smile. Even if it was directed at Ben, it drove home the fact that she was getting better-looking with every passing year. Had he known that would happen, he might not have consented to the divorce. As it was, he'd left the place thinking about how pretty she was and ended up in bed with Nikki a few hours later. The thing was, he didn't want to get back together with Beth. There wasn't a chance of that happening. She was way too pushy, for one thing, and she had a tendency to argue when he made a decision she didn't like. He'd learned those things a long time ago, and he was reminded of it every time he saw her. Right after the divorce, the last thing he'd wanted to do was think about her, and for a long while, he hadn't. He'd lived his life, had a great time with lots of different girls, and pretty much figured he'd never look back. Aside from the kid, of course. Still, sometime around when Ben turned three or four, he started to hear whispers about her beginning to date, and it bugged him. It was one thing for him to date… but it was an entirely different situation altogether if she dated. The last thing he wanted was for some other guy to step in and pretend he was Ben's daddy. Beyond that, he realized he didn't like the thought of some other man in bed with Beth. It just didn't sit right with him. He knew men and knew what they wanted, and Beth was pretty much naive about that stuff, if only because he'd been her first. Most likely he, Keith Clayton, was the only man she'd ever been with, and that was good, since it kept her priorities straight. She was raising their son, and even if Ben was a bit of a pansy, Beth was doing a good job with him. Besides, she was a good person, and the last thing she deserved was for some guy to break her heart. She'd always need him to watch out for her. But the other night… He wondered if she'd dressed in that skimpy outfit in anticipation of him coming over. Wouldn't that have been something? A couple of months back, she'd even invited him inside while Ben was gathering his things. Granted, it was raining buckets and Nana had scowled at him the whole time, but Beth had been downright pleasant and sort of set him to thinking that he might have underestimated her. She had needs; everyone had needs. And what would be the harm if he helped satisfy hers every now and then? It wasn't as if he'd never seen her naked before, and they did have a kid together. What did they call it these days? Friends with benefits? He could imagine enjoying something like that with Beth. As long as she didn't talk too much or saddle him with a bunch of expectations. Snubbing out his cigarette, he wondered how he might propose something like that to her. Unlike him, he knew, she'd been alone for a long, long time. Guys came sniffing around from time to time, but he knew how to deal with them. He remembered the little talk he'd had with Adam a couple of months back. The one who wore a blazer over a T-shirt, like he was some stud from Hollywood. Stud or not, he was pasty white when Clayton had approached the window after gulling him over on his way home from his third date with Beth. Clayton knew they'd shared a bottle of wine at dinner—he'd watched them from across the street—and when Clayton gave him a sobriety test with the inhaler he'd rigged for just such instances, the guy's skin went from pasty to chalk white. "Had one too many, huh?" Clayton asked, responding with the .requisite doubtful expression when the guy swore up and down that he'd had only a single glass. When he slipped on the cuffs, he thought the guy was either going to faint or wet his pants, which almost made him laugh out loud. But he didn't. Instead, he filled out the paperwork, slowly, before giving him the talk—the one he delivered to anyone Beth seemed interested in. That they'd been married once and had a kid together, and how important it was to understand that he had a duty to keep them safe. And that the last thing Beth needed in her life was someone to distract her from raising their son or to get involved with someone who might just be using her. Just because they were divorced didn't mean he'd stopped caring. The guy got the message, of course. They all did. Not only because of Clayton's family and connections, but because Clayton offered to lose the inhaler and the paperwork if the guy promised to leave her alone for a while and remembered to keep their conversation to himself. Because if she found out about their little talk, that wouldn't be good. Might cause problems with the kid, you see? And he didn't take kindly to anyone who caused problems with his kid. The next day, of course, he'd been sitting in his parked squad car when Adam got off work. The guy went white at the sight of Clayton fiddling with the inhaler. Clayton knew he'd gotten the message before driving off, and the next time he saw Adam, he was with some redheaded secretary who worked in the same accounting office he did. Which meant, of course, that Clayton had been right: The guy had never planned to see Beth for the long term. He was just some loser hoping for a quick roll in the sack. Well, it wouldn't be with Beth. Beth would throw a hissy fit if she found out what he'd been doing, but fortunately, he hadn't had to do it all that often. Just every now and then, and things were working out fine. More than fine, actually. Even the whole coed picture-taking fiasco had turned out okay. Neither the camera nor the disk had surfaced at either the sheriff's department or the newspaper since last weekend. He hadn't had a chance to look for that hippie loser on Monday morning because of some papers that had to be served out in the county, but he found out the guy had been staying at the Holiday Motor Court. Unfortunately—or fortunately, he supposed—the guy had checked out, and he hadn't been seen since. Which most likely meant he was long gone by now. All in all, things were good. Real good. He especially liked the brainstorm he'd had about Beth— the friends with benefits thing. Wouldn't that be something? He clasped his hands behind his head and lay back on the pillows just as Nikki stepped out of the bathroom wrapped in her towel, with steam trailing behind her. He smiled. "Come here, Beth." She froze. "My name is Nikki." "I know that. But I want to call you Beth tonight." "What are you talking about?" His eyes flashed. "Just shut up and come here, would you?" After a moment's hesitation, Nikki took a reluctant step forward.