After a few months, most became numb to everything except the hyper-alert, gut-churning fear that each day, each hour, each patrol, each step onward might be their last. Catherine Daye didn’t. Not after a few months, not after many months, not after two and a half tours.
Midway through her third tour, she still felt the sting of the sand against her sun-scorched skin and the beads of sweat that dripped from the sodden strands of her short brown hair. She scanned the buildings ahead, square and bland like the desert surrounding them. Her gut twisted and soured. Something felt very wrong. A few vehicles were parked near structures, and clothes flapped like flags from lines suspended along slanted poles. But she had a clear view of the community well, and the women weren’t there. They were always there, waiting for the medical services and food supplies her patrol brought each month.
She and her patrol approached cautiously, sliding their backs along the walls, murmuring reports into wireless com units.
“I don’t like this,” she said.
“Second that, Sarge.” The nasal, edgy voice of Private Tom Michaels sounded in her earbud.
Staff Sergeant Jeff “Hammer” Booker, their patrol leader, issued hand signals for them to advance into the village center and begin clearing houses. They moved in silent pairs, reporting in at each location.
“First on the right is empty. Looks like they left in a hurry. Food’s left out, half-eaten.” Corporal Bo Ever’s soft drawl was calm.
Booker growled an answer. “Chalk it and move to the next.” She and Booker had toured together before and were both up for promotion from sergeant to staff sergeant at the same time. But Catherine had asked her colonel to delay her upgrade so they wouldn’t be split up and given separate patrols to lead. She’d had a nauseating premonition she wouldn’t come back from a third tour if she and Booker weren’t able to watch each other’s back. So he was leading this patrol, while she took the rear command.
Others in the group checked in with similar reports—Roman, Stormy, Hulk, Bluegrass. They all were christened with nicknames when they arrived. Even Catherine. Sort of. She was the Cat Woman. Clever, stealthy, and deadly when she needed to be.
She ducked in and out between the buildings, checking the village’s perimeter. Nothing but empty desert. Appearances could be deceiving, she learned on her first tour. The enemy could rise out of the sand like deadly scorpions before your brain registered why the desert was swarming with them.
She half listened to the check-ins as she crept to the doorway of a one-room adobe house. A chalk mark told her it’d been cleared, but her gut didn’t agree.
“Cat? You copy?”
Catherine touched her ear com to key the mike. “I copy.”
“Village is clear. How’s our backside?”
“Just scratching an itchy spot, Hammer.” She tapped her ear com, switching to a private channel. She never used his nickname on the com. It was a signal.
“Yeah. I feel it, too. Where are you?” He’d also switched.
“I’m rechecking building three on the left. I’ll be done by the time you guys group up.”
“Three minutes. I want to get out of here,” Booker said quietly.
“Three minutes,” she repeated, switching back to the main channel.
She hesitated in the doorway. Don’t go in there. Don’t go in there.Her chest grew tight, so tight. She sucked in short, rapid breaths. Ignoring her rising panic, she edged inside.
Catherine scanned the floor for trip wires or signs of an IED, then surveyed the twelve-by-twelve room. Sleeping mats were rolled and neatly stacked against one wall. A cooking area took up another wall. Dishes of half-eaten food filled the surface of a low, square table in the middle of the room.
Three minutes. In and out. Chickens pecked at the dirt near a door at the rear of the room, left open to reveal a small awning-shaded yard. The birds wouldn’t be that close if the enemy was waiting just outside the door. She glanced over her shoulder and began to back out of the hut when a small noise sounded from some blankets thrown in one corner. Don’t look. Don’t look.Her gaze was drawn to the messy pile that didn’t fit with the tidiness of the rest of the room. Sweat dripped from her chin, trickled down her neck. Her breath wheezed in her throat. She extended a telescoping baton, then used it to lift the blankets while she stood off to the side.
The terrified eyes of a frail, elderly woman stared at the automatic rifle Catherine pointed at her, and Catherine immediately swung it away. “I’m not going to hurt you.” That’s not right. Tell her to get up and out. What were the right words? She could speak passable Pashto, but that whining noise was making it hard to think. Her heart began to pound like a bass drum in her ears. Still that whine pierced her brain.
“Incoming!” Booker barked.
A long blade sprouted between the old woman’s breasts, and she opened her mouth with a strangled gasp. Catherine dropped to her knees and yanked the woman forward. The aim of the Taliban fighter hiding behind the woman was off, but he pumped an armor-piercing bullet into Catherine’s shoulder a split second before she fired two neat shots into his forehead. She cried out against the fire in her flesh, but the sound was lost as a mortar tore through the wall to her left and her ear com exploded with barked commands.
Barking snatched Autumn Swan from a deep, comalike sleep to hyperalert in 0.05. She jumped from her bed and raced out of her bedroom.
Autumn squinted against the sunrise spearing through the mostly glass balcony doors of her airy Decatur, Georgia, apartment, then snatched up dark sunglasses from the sofa table, slapped them on, and danced over to the laptop on the dining-room table that had begun to rap about someone letting dogs out. She paused just long enough to tap the keyboard and confirm what her barking-dog notification indicated.
“Yes, yes, yes.” Autumn stretched her arms toward the ceiling and wiggled her fingers in celebration. Her new client’s website had hit its business plan’s unique-visitors, thirty-day target in only ten days. “Am I good or what?” It wasn’t really a question, but she answered it for herself anyway. “I’m good. So good. So good,” she chanted, hopping around in a weird, all-her-own dance. Self-affirmation is a good thing, right?
She danced into the kitchen to share the love with her Starbucks espresso machine, then stopped her finger inches from the power button. Nah. She needed to be around people this morning…so she could brag a little. Why brew and froth when someone else could do it for you? She grabbed her phone, snapped a photo of her Starbucks mug, and sent it with a simple meet-me-in-forty-five text. A shower to make herself presentable after only three hours of sleep, then she’d pop in for a triple espresso and an ego boost. She could grab something sweet while she was there, too. When her mind flashed on the new dark-haired barista, a graduate student at Emory, she scolded herself. “To nibble. I meant to eat…ugh. I sound like such a guy,” she said. “Cinnamon roll. I’ll get one of those delish cinnamon rolls to go with my triple shot.”
It wasn’t really necessary to explain everything to herself, since she knew what she meant. But she’d grown up an only child and discovered early that she was the best conversationalist she knew. Well, at least when nobody else was around. Okay. That didn’t sound right. But her brain worked lightning fast when she was alone or interacting through the screen of the internet. Nobody could hold a candle to her on any social-media platform. She was a blaze of quips, comebacks, and pearls of wisdom. Put her in a group or, heaven forbid, one-on-one with a real person, and she was instantly struck dumb. She’d sought therapy and mostly overcome that tendency when she realized the world would never experience her marketing genius if she couldn’t talk to clients. But it worked only in business situations. She still stuttered her way through personal conversations and was most comfortable behind the façade of the internet.
Autumn loved her home. She had lucked into a promotion that offered a five-year lease on this gorgeous second-floor, one-bedroom luxury apartment with an open floor plan, lots of windows, and French doors leading out to a balcony that overlooked a park. Her décor was shades of white and yellow with small splashes of green. Plus, she was only five minutes from downtown Decatur, the business district of the Atlanta metro area gayborhood. It paid to see and be seen in the restaurants and coffee shops there. Especially since it was where the local lesbian population was concentrated. Her mind drifted again to the barista. Hmm. She strutted into the bathroom and flashed a huge smile at the mirror behind the sink. If she hurried, maybe she could ride this wave of confidence long enough to flirt her way to a date.
Catherine curled forward, eyes squinted tight as though that could shut out the pain. She gasped, one breath, two, and opened her eyes to darkness. The pain was subsiding as quickly as it came. Not dark. Dim light. The tendrils of her night terror still pumped her heart double-time, but Booker’s sharp commands changed to dog barks. She wasn’t in Afghanistan. She was in her farmhouse.
Frantic barking and the loud thump of something against her front door filtered through her open bedroom door from the living room.
She looked at the clock and scowled. Five fifteen. “What the hell?”
The sound of claws scrabbling against her freshly re-varnished oak door forced her fogged mind and sluggish body into gear.
“Okay, okay.” Catherine tossed off the quilt. “Geez. It’s supposed to be warming up some by now.” She stepped into her jeans and zipped into a thick hoodie. Toenails were clicking a circuitous route on the wood planks of the broad porch, stopping each time they passed the door to jump against it. It had to be Elvis, but why didn’t he go around to the pet door at the back of the house? Oh, right. It was still blocked, something she did to keep out varmints when she was away or Elvis was staying next door.
Something felt off. Just like the village. His urgency threatened to throw her back into the desert flashback she’d just escaped. More likely, he’d sensed her flashback and come to rescue her from it. He’d done it before—huddling close, bringing her back, and grounding her in the present. She didn’t know how he did it, but he was somehow a magic elixir.
She opened the front door, and Elvis nearly knocked her down. She’d never seen him so frantic, so insistent as he planted his front paws on her hips, only to jump back to the ground and race down the steps, barking. She stared dumbly at him. “What’s wrong, Elvis?”
If dogs could roll their eyes, Catherine was sure he would have. Instead, he returned to her, slammed his front feet against her hips again, then whirled and ran back into the yard and barked for her to follow. Only this time, he didn’t stop. He ducked under the split-rail fence and raced across a newly plowed field to the line of trees that separated Catherine’s farm from the house where her neighbor Becki and her eleven-year-old daughter, Gabe, lived.
Catherine stared after him in disbelief. “Elvis.” Her shout frosted in the air, and faint barking drifted over the strange stillness. It could take another thirty to sixty minutes for the sun to crest the mountain to their east, but the night sky was already fading to gray. Another sharp bark drew her attention back to the line of trees where Elvis had disappeared. An ominous chill ran from the back of her neck down her arms, pebbling her flesh.
Catherine turned to step into her short barn boots resting in the muck tray just inside the door, but before she could, her cell phone began to ring, and she ran for the bedroom instead. Nerves still drawn taut from her flashback, she swore. “Damn it. Who in blue blazes is calling this early?” Sliding to a stop in her wool socks, Catherine snatched her phone on the third ring.
“Cat. You gotta…something’s wrong with Mama. She fell down…I can’t get her to talk.” Gabriella’s words were choked and desperate. “I don’t know what to do. You gotta come.”
“I’m on my way, Gabe. Did you call 911?” Catherine hurried back to the door, slipped on her boots while she talked, then grabbed her truck keys. Unlike Elvis, she wasn’t going to traipse through dark fields and woods.
“They’re here. Elvis is barking at ’em.”
Catherine climbed into her Ford pickup and slapped the phone onto its magnetic dock to free her hands, changing it to speaker. “Go get Elvis and show them where your mom is so they can help her.” The truck bounced and swayed as she raced down the long packed-clay drive without regard to the potholes the cold and snowy winter had left.
“Don’t hang up.”
Catherine clenched her jaw against the panic in Gabriella’s voice, the same fear she’d heard in the boy soldiers’ dying pleas for her to stay with them while they took their last breaths. “I won’t, Gabe. I’ll listen while you talk to them.”
She slammed to a stop and jumped out to open the gate exiting her property, drove through it, then jumped out again to close it. Cursing her procrastination about installing an automatic gate wouldn’t help now. She stomped on the accelerator. All she could hear was muffled conversation on Gabe’s end, but she could see the flash of the ambulance lights reflecting like strobes off the trees across the road from Becki and Gabe’s house.
“No, no. I won’t.” Gabe’s frantic shouts rang out over the phone’s speaker.
Catherine whipped her truck into Becki’s drive and slid to a stop next to the ambulance. The front door stood open, and Elvis ran out to meet her, still barking furiously. Catherine’s feet had barely touched the porch when he dashed back inside, and she followed.
Elvis stopped at the mouth of the hallway that led to the bedrooms, loud banging now punctuating his barks. Gabe was trying to kick in the closed door of her mother’s bedroom. She put her hand on his head. “Elvis, quiet.” A few long strides and she wrapped her arms around Gabe. “It’s okay. I’m here.”
“They won’t let me in there with Mama.” Gabriella struggled out of Catherine’s embrace, kicked the door again, and yelled. “She’s MY mother.”
Catherine wrapped her arms around Gabe again, but this time she lifted the girl off her feet to hold her back. “Don’t do that. You’re going to hurt your foot.” She could hear the urgent exchange between two paramedics and the information they were transmitting to the hospital as they went through resuscitation protocol. Her heart sank. Oh, Becki. Catherine would rather return to the desert than face what was surely coming. But she’d made a promise.
“You promised.” Jay scowled at Autumn over his iced blonde cappuccino. “I already told Evan you’d do it.”
His indignation broadcast across the coffee shop, and she shot him a brief, but stern, glare. God. Men could be so loud. “That was before I picked up this new client. Since his online orders have tripled each of the three weeks I’ve been working his accounts, he’s sent me four referrals who want the same package. Evan’s yourboyfriend. I’m sure you can think of a way to make it up to him.” Autumn opened an email and smiled. Her thumbnails clicked against the screen of her phone as she confirmed an appointment with this fifth referral and hit Send with a flourish. “I just don’t have time to do pro bono marketing for this summer’s Pride festival and parade. Paying clients are filling up my calendar. At this rate, I’ll have enough work to hire extra help—a finance person or graphic artist. Even a secretary would help. Holy crap. I need to rent real office space.” Her eyes never left the screen as she talked because she was busy turning down a sixth request for her services. That guy was notorious for requesting a lot of work but never paying up.
“This is a networking opportunity, Autumn. A lot of connected people are involved in making this series of events happen. People who own businesses. People you should get to know.”
“Not really, Jay. Most are college students or other nonprofit people who also need free help.” Autumn finally looked up after a long silence met her reply and was surprised by the disappointment in Jay’s clear blue eyes. His expression was always easy to read. “What? You know I’m right. The people with influence and deep pockets will be at the annual HRC gala next month. We will definitely be at that event, networking our butts off. Those are the people who’ll make us a success.”
Jay sighed and dropped his gaze to his cappuccino, swirling the ice around with his straw. The silence between them stretched from one minute to five, then ten. He stirred and looked everywhere but at her while she answered several more emails and texts. Finally, he broke the silence. “You know I love you, Autumn.”
She looked up from her phone. He’d better not be warming up to retell his “you sound like my mother explaining why I had to play tennis at the country club instead of at the park with my friends” story.
“I can’t even put into words how grateful I’ll always be for what you’ve taught me these past two years. Seeing how you built this company from the beginning has been more valuable than anything I’ve learned in college.”
This conversation was taking a weird turn. Her brain hit rewind. No, no. no. “When I was mumbling about hiring extra help, I didn’t mean I was changing our game plan. I meant it when I said I’d make you an associate the minute you graduate. That’s only a few months away. I’ll still need a full associate who can do everything I do.”
He sucked in a breath and straightened his shoulders, then raised his eyes to meet hers. “That’s what I’m trying to say, hon. We’re coming up to our proverbial fork in the road. I understand why money is your measure of your success. Really, I do. But I feel a different calling.”
What? She blinked at him. Surely she’d heard wrong. “You…you’re going into the ministry?”
His hands flew to his mouth, and his eyes widened. They stared at each other for what seemed like…well, the lifespan of a viral tweet. Then Jay let out a cough that rolled into a hysterical cackle and grew in volume until he was gripping his sides. Before Autumn realized it, she was laughing, too, and they were both wiping tears and struggling not to fall from their chairs. People at other tables stared. Finally, they recovered their composure.
“I so wish I’d thought to video your face when you asked that,” Jay said, wiping his eyes again. “Evan would piss himself laughing.” He took a big swallow of his cappuccino, his expression then turning serious. “I want to work for a nonprofit.” He held up his hands to forestall any protest when she opened her mouth to speak. “I know I’ll never have a fat bank account working in that field, but there are other ways to measure wealth. And, yes, I did grow up in a house with two parents, a stay-at-home mom, big house in the suburbs, and everything. But when I came out to my parents, I became an outcast in that perfect home. I want to help those kids. I also want to help other kids—ones who age out of foster care and have no idea how to set goals, maintain a household budget, get student loans, and do other things to find their success in life.”
Autumn sat back in her chair and crossed her arms over her chest. “Well, that certainly makes me sound like Scrooge counting his money while you go out and save all the Tiny Tims of the world.”
Jay half stood to pull her crossed arms apart and take both her hands in his. “You are not a Scrooge.” His voice was low, his eyes soft. “You just need to feel financially stable, secure enough that you’ll never be that girl who everybody laughed at for wearing a sweater the most popular girl at school had donated to the thrift shop.”
Her face heated at the memory.
Although she’d started her business as she was finishing her master’s thesis at Emory several years ago, and he was just now finishing the last semester of his undergraduate degree, they were the same age. Autumn was an overachiever, while Jay had lost a year hiding in New York City from his conservative upper-middle-class family until he turned eighteen.
She’d told Jay about the sweater incident—her high school low point—after he’d confessed that he’d tricked a few times in New York when he was desperate for money. They were different but basically the same. They both carried baggage from their childhoods. That bond made this upcoming separation feel like a betrayal.
“So, you’re still going to leave me high and dry? Right when I’m swamped with new clients?”
He shook his head but didn’t release her hands. “Absolutely not. I’ll stay to help you find and train a suitable replacement. In fact, I have a lead on somebody super fantastic, but I don’t want to share yet because it’s just a tip. She’s in an uncomfortable job situation and might be looking to relocate to Atlanta.”
Autumn frowned. “That sounds like dyke drama. I don’t want to hire someone who’s running from a crazy ex-girlfriend.”
“I promise that’s not it. Evan’s family has been friends with hers for generations. He said it’s a disagreement on how to run the family business, and Rachel is ready to sell her shares and take her skills elsewhere.”
Okay. She’d prepared for this eventuality. She had a budget plan and money tucked away, all waiting for this big moment when she stepped up from a home enterprise to a real office and expansion of her business.
Yes, sir. Autumn always had a plan. Her parents had never planned anything. “Let’s just see where the wind blows us,” her dad always said. But once her parents had rolled and shared that after-breakfast marijuana joint, the wind had never seemed to blow them much past the front porch. Autumn vowed that would never happen to her. No sir.
She slung her purse over her shoulder and gathered the trash from her breakfast, never taking her eyes from her phone. It vibrated with a call coming in on her business line, but she let it go to voice mail for now. “What classes do you have today?”
He rose and gathered his trash, took hers, and threw it all in the receptacle by the door as they headed down the sidewalk to the Marta station. “This is my short day. I have exercise class, then independent project, which simply means the class credit I’ll get for working with you if you ever fill out the paperwork.”
“On my to-do list.” She dug in her bag for her Marta pass, but Jay reached around her, pulled it from her back pocket, and handed it to her. She frowned. “Exercise class? You can go to the Y another time.”
“Okay, so Emory calls it physical education. Doesn’t matter what you call it. I hate it. That’s why I put it off until my last year. If I don’t go, I won’t pass, and I won’t graduate at the end of the semester.”
“Come on, then.” Autumn joined the crowd boarding the train that had stopped and spit out a gob of passengers. “You go get physical, then come right back so we can get to work.”
Jay turned to her, putting his hands together in a prayerful gesture and furrowing his brow in his version of pleading puppy eyes.
She gave him a dismissive wave, then smiled. “Yes. You can clean up at my place so you don’t have to shower with a bunch of straight guys who think it’s fun to try to pee on each other’s feet.”
He pretended to shiver in revulsion.
She grabbed his shoulders and turned serious for a moment. “Don’t stop for food, and don’t stop for coffee. Come straight to my place. This is AA Swan Inc.’s chance to break out of the pack, Jay. Over the next couple of weeks, nothing will be more important than work.”
Gabe went limp and began to cry as Catherine carried her out to the living room and sat on the worn, comfortable sofa. She cradled the lanky girl in her lap, her head against her shoulder like she was a small child. Elvis hopped up next to them to lay his furry head in Gabe’s lap. She needed to distract Gabe while the medics worked. “Can you tell me what happened?” She pulled a soft, worn bandana from her jacket pocket and pressed it into Gabe’s hands. It likely had a bit of machinery grease and sweat on it, but she knew Gabe, who was often Catherine’s shadow around the farm, wouldn’t notice.
“I woke up and had to pee. But when I was walking to the bathroom, Mama’s door was open, and I saw her on the floor.” Gabe, her hazel eyes red and watery, pulled back to look up at Catherine. “Her eyes were open, but it was like she didn’t see me. I called 9-1-1, like she always said to do in an emergency, and then I called you.” Gabe clutched at Catherine’s jacket. “She’s going to be all right, isn’t she? She has to, Cat.” Her face contorted, and her slender chest heaved in a choked sob. “She can’t leave me. I don’t have anybody else.”
Catherine hugged Gabe to her and held on tight. “You listen to me, kiddo. You’ve got me and Elvis. We’re here with you, aren’t we?”
Gabe picked at a healing scrape on her knee, just below the hem of the soft cotton gym shorts she paired with a baggy T-shirt to serve as pajamas. “Yeah, but—” Elvis licked Gabe’s hand, then the scrape she was worrying. Gabe’s lips pressed into a thin line, and her eyes again filled with tears. Her throat worked as her fingers dug into his unruly fur, and he stopped his ministrations to half crawl into her lap. When Gabe began to comb her fingers through his fur, Catherine had to fight back her own tears. How many nights had Elvis offered her the same comfort when relentless nightmares had nearly driven her to thoughts of suicide?
Catherine pressed her cheek to Gabe’s short black curls and stroked her back. “I know, kiddo. You love us, but we’re not your mama. I’d be worried if you didn’t feel that way.”
“I’m scared, Cat.” Gabe’s voice was small.
“Me, too, Gabe. That’s why we have to stick together and stay close to Elvis. He’s brave enough for both of us.”
Tires sounded on the gravel drive out front at the same time Elvis lifted his head and stared at the hallway entrance. Gabe’s head swung around to follow the dog’s gaze, but Catherine tightened her grip. She didn’t hear a gurney racing down the hall—not a good sign—so she wasn’t letting Gabe bolt back there until she knew the lay of the land.
Footsteps shuffled across the porch, and two men let themselves in the front door. Sheriff Ed Cofy took off his hat.
“Down,” she said to Elvis, shooing him off the sofa before rising and helping Gabe stand next to her. She acknowledged them with a nod. “Ed. Doc Simmons.”
Ted Simmons was an emergency doctor. He was also the county coroner. She figured the two had let themselves in because the guys in the bedroom with Becki had summoned him. Ted nodded but didn’t speak before heading down the hallway. Gabe tensed, her head swiveling between the two men. Catherine circled an arm around her shoulders to hug Gabe close against her side. Elvis pressed against Gabe’s other side, and she buried her hand in his fur.
“Hey, Cat.” Sheriff Ed Cofy’s pleasant baritone seemed to soften the tension a small bit. A fellow soldier, Ed had become a friend and mentor to Catherine after she began to report to the nearby U.S. Army Reserve unit to finish out her retirement. His help tonight, however, was for Gabe, not Catherine. “Well, Miss Gabriella Swan. You’re growing up into something, that’s for sure. You’re what? Ten now?”
Gabe glanced at the hallway, not fooled by his effort at distraction. Regardless, her mother had raised her to be polite to adults. “Eleven. I’ll be twelve in June.”
He nodded and smiled. “That’s right. I should know that since I was the one who drove your mom, lights and sirens blasting, to the hospital to have you.”
Gabe didn’t return his smile. Catherine knew she’d heard the story many times.
He paused, his expression apologetic as they held Gabe’s unreadable one for a few long seconds. “Are you okay, Gabe?”
She lowered her eyes. “I don’t know.”
Catherine nearly jumped out of her skin, and Gabe flinched at the sound of Doc Simmons clearing his throat. They all looked to the hallway where he paused before walking into the room. “Let’s sit down to talk about what’s happened tonight,” he said.
No, no, no. Catherine was suddenly a woman standing at the door staring at two soldiers in dress uniforms. One soldier was talking. “Ms. Daye, the secretary of the army has asked that I express his deep regret to inform you that your neighbor, Becki Swan, has died of…”
Gentle but firm pressure on her shoulder broke her paralysis, and Ed’s steady brown eyes grounded her in the present. She sat on the sofa and pulled Gabe down beside her. Elvis hopped up to join them and pressed shoulder to shoulder with Gabe. They all looked at Doc Simmons expectantly.
“Gabriella, I’m so very sorry to tell you this, but your mother had an…well, her brain started bleeding and was damaged too much to fix. When the brain stops working, other parts do, too.”
Gabe frowned and her expression darkened. Although Gabe was a child, she had an unusually high IQ, and underestimating her intelligence was one of her hot buttons. So Catherine stepped in.
“Gabe. You know the headaches and vision problems your mama’s been having? She found out they were symptoms caused by a brain tumor. Your mom was going to tell you as soon as her doctor got the final tests back and set a surgery date—tomorrow or the next day. But it sounds like the tumor might have caused an aneurysm that burst and bled into her brain.”
Becki had just told her about the diagnosis yesterday, insisting that she had time to make some arrangements before the surgery. Catherine’s gut had told her something different…like at the village. It was no wonder she’d been drawn back to the desert, to that last patrol. It’d been nearly two years since she’d had a flashback that detailed, that real.
Gabe glared at Doc Simmons. “Why didn’t you say it was an aneurysm? I know what that is.”
He cleared his throat. “My apologies. When the paramedics arrived, her left pupil was completely dilated, and her heart wasn’t beating. They still ran through the complete protocol for resuscitation but were unable to restart her heart.”
Gabe’s slender frame went still, then began to tremble against Catherine’s side. “No,” Gabe whispered.
Autumn snapped her laptop into the docking station.
Advertise for an administrative assistant Jay can train as soon as possible. Draw up a list of requirements for office space and have Jay line up a Realtor. Put out feelers in the network of social media marketing specialists for an associate since Jay wasn’t sticking around.
She emailed a few friends in the business and several professors she knew kept in touch with former students to help circulate word of her openings. Her phone began to ring just as she hit Send for the final time. She glanced at her phone. Her private line, not her business line, was ringing, but she didn’t recognize the number calling her.
“Hello. This is Sheriff Ed Cofy of Elijah County. I’m trying to reach Ms. Autumn Annise Swan.”
Autumn’s mind shuffled through a million possible reasons a sheriff from Elijah would be calling her. A millisecond produced the only logical explanation—her parents were visiting where her dad grew up and had been busted for carrying drugs. She opened a browser and googled office space available in Decatur. Her mind functioned best when required to multitask.
“Is this Ms. Swan?” Sheriff Coby asked when she didn’t immediately respond.
Autumn sighed. “Yes. This is Autumn Swan. Are you calling about my parents?” She couldn’t deal with them right now. Her business was exploding with new clients. She clicked on the first of the items her search had brought up. Nope. Those new buildings with residential space above the floors with retail and office space had to be more expensive. She was looking for something cheaper.
“No, ma’am. I’m calling about your cousin, Becki Swan.”
“A…Becki?” Autumn’s mind raced through memories of her favorite cousin who had lived with Grandma Swan. Where Autumn had spent countless summers until she graduated early and left home for college. “Is Becki in some kind of trouble, Sheriff?” Why else would a sheriff be calling?
“I’m very sorry to have to give you this news, but your cousin Becki passed away last night. She listed you as her next of kin.”
Autumn was so stunned, her mind blanked. “Me?” No. This had to be a mistake. Yes. A mistake. Think. Think. “But…wait…yes. Becki had a brother. Gabe. Um, Gabriel Swan.”
“Did you know Gabe well, Ms. Swan?”
“Not really. He was older. I think he was two years older than Becki, six years older than me. I met him once. He was about to go off to boot camp. That’s when Becki came to live with Grandma Swan. Because he didn’t want to leave her with their parents. They’re kind of…well, trashy. Becki talked about him a lot, though.”
“He was killed during his second tour in Afghanistan.”
“Oh.” A series of rapping noises in Jay’s familiar pattern was a welcome interruption. “Can you hold just a second, Sheriff?” She hurried to the door and let Jay inside, pointed to the phone, pinched her nose to indicate his pungent smell, and pointed toward the bathroom facilities. He dropped his gym bag, then raised his arm and used a handful of mail to fan more odiferous man sweat her way. Finally, he handed her the mail and followed her direction. She slapped at him with the mail, then checked it for any nasty sweat droplets. “Sorry. I had to let my assistant in. We’re swamped with work today.”
“I understand. I’ve blindsided you with this news. Becki has known about her condition for several weeks and promised she was going to contact you.”
“It sounds like you were friends.” She absently set the mail on the table and began to separate personal bills from business mail.
“Yes, ma’am. We were.”
She paused, realizing that sorting the mail wouldn’t organize what was ahead for her. “I’m sorry. I’m just stunned and at a loss for what I need to do.”
“That’s why I asked her lawyer to let me call you. He knows the legal aspects of her will, but Becki and I talked a lot over the past few weeks. She asked me to try and help you and Catherine understand some things.”
“Her neighbor. I can explain everything—well, maybe not everything, but a lot—when you get here. What I can tell you now is that Becki had already made and paid for her own funeral arrangements. You don’t have to worry about that. The when and where is up to you as her next of kin.”
“I…I need to digest all this and reschedule some appointments.” Damn, damn. Would her clients wait until she returned, or would they jump to the next social-media marketer who showed results? God. What kind of person had she become, worrying about business appointments when the cousin who’d been like a big sister to her had died? “Can I let you know when I plan to arrive?”
“Sure. When you call, I’ll tell Becki’s lawyer so he can hold some time open to discuss her will and distribution of her assets.”
She wrote his number on an envelope at the top of the unsorted heap of mail, then picked it up to fan herself. Her brain must be overheating. She ended the call, then realized the sun had inched upward and was glaring through the balcony doors so hot she thought the envelope in her hand would combust. She looked at the number she’d scribbled at the bottom, but her eyes were drawn to her address written in neat cursive, then to the return address in the corner. Becki Swan. She threw the letter down, halfway across the table, and stared at it. The back of her neck tingled as the short hairs there rose and chill bumps raced down her arms. It was like she was speaking to Autumn from beyond.
Autumn screamed and jumped up so fast, her chair slammed back into Jay’s crotch, and he doubled over.
He groaned and clutched himself with both hands. “Jesus. I think you just cut John Henry in half.”
“For real? I’m having a major crisis here, and you’re worried about”—she gestured toward his hips—“about your weenie?” She stomped over to the kitchen area and yanked open the cabinet that held her rarely served hard liquor.
Jay hovered behind her, apparently cured by his curiosity. “What are you doing?”
She began pulling bottles down from the shelf. Okay, the liquor was technically hard, but probably not by some standards. She sorted through peppermint schnapps, cherry vodka, apple Crown Royal, butterscotch schnapps, peach brandy, orange brandy, and, finally, tequila. “José. Just the guy I was looking for.”
Jay backed up when she took her tequila to a different cabinet and grabbed a shot glass proclaiming Girls Want to Have Fun in pink. She filled the small glass and knocked back the tequila in one gulp. Autumn closed her eyes and sucked in a breath as the alcohol burned its way down her throat and swelled her sinuses. When she opened her eyes, Jay was staring at her, his hands on his hips.
“Obviously, something has happened while I was at exercise class, or maybe while I was making myself fresh again. And if you don’t spill right now what has you hanging with José in the middle of the day, I’m going out to have a mocha latte and tell that cute barista you’re crushing on her.”
Autumn squinted at him in what she hoped was her meanest glare, then pulled a second shot glass down for him. She took her bottle of tequila and shot glass back to the dining table. Jay made an impatient noise and grabbed the glass she’d left on the counter. She waited while he went back to the liquor cabinet to retrieve the apple-flavored Crown Royal. He never drank tequila, but he’d also never told her what happened in Key West that turned him against it.
Jay settled across from her, filled his glass, and held it up. Autumn silently refilled hers, then clinked it against his before they both downed their shots in a ritual that had preceded many of their serious talks.
Autumn jerked her head to the side and clenched her teeth at the liquor’s bite, then sucked in a breath to enhance its burn. She opened her mouth, but only a wheeze came out, so she coughed to loosen her vocal cords. “I’ve booked meetings with four potential new clients next week, and I have a fifth who wants to get back with me on a day and time,” she said.
Jay nodded. “That’s good. Do you want me to start working up backgrounds on them?”
“That would be great, because I’m going to need a lot of help on these.”
Jay hunched over the table to clasp her forearm. “Is that what this is about? You’re getting cold feet. Autumn, you are the most talented marketer I know. In fact, you’re the only one I know who stays up almost twenty-four seven, scheduling tweets and posts, and mining data to get the most page views for your clients.”
“Are you kidding? This Superwoman of Social Media does not get cold feet.” She tried to muster a smile but was probably failing miserably. “It’s just…well…something else has come up.”
Jay’s expression hardened, and he sat back in his chair, his comforting hand sliding away from her arm. “You’re too busy to keep your promise to Evan and the Pride committee, but not too busy for ‘something else that’s come up’?” He folded his arms over his chest and mimicked her voice. “This is AA Swan Inc.’s chance to break out from the pack. During the next few weeks, nothing is more important than work.” His impersonation complete, he poured himself another shot of apple Crown. “Or maybe you really meant to say that nothing is more important than you.”
Autumn couldn’t look at him. She had let him and Evan down after making a promise, just like she’d let Becki down by never returning her letters or phone calls.
When she didn’t reply, Jay slammed back the shot he’d poured and thumped the glass down on the table. “My asshole of a father used to say there were no acceptable excuses in life but death and taxes. Since I open your mail every day, I know you aren’t being audited by the IRS. That leaves—”
“Becki died. My cousin. The one who was like a sister to me.” Autumn was surprised when her throat tightened and her eyes filled as she looked up.
Jay’s hand went to his mouth. “Oh, Autumn. I’m such an ass.” He slid from his chair and knelt by hers, taking her hand. “I’m so sorry, sweetie.”
When Jay rose and held out his arms, the scared child she hadn’t realized still hid inside stepped into his embrace and sobbed into the soft fabric of his T-shirt. Jay didn’t offer trite words of comfort. He held her close, stroked her back, and let her cry.
Her cloudburst of emotion seemed to blow over after a few minutes, and Autumn dried her cheeks on Jay’s shirt. “Sorry,” she said, ridiculously laughing at the horrified expression on his face as she pulled up his shirttail and used it to wipe her nose. “Take it off and I’ll throw it in the washer.” She held it away from his body as he pulled it over his head. “Go get your stinky gym stuff and throw it in, too.” She opened the folding doors that hid the alcove containing her washer and dryer, started the washer, and tossed in the snotty T-shirt. She left the lid up for Jay, switched on the espresso machine, and gathered the liquor to return to the cabinet.
She was washing the glasses they’d used when Jay rested his hand on her shoulder. “Stop. I know this is how you normally cope with problems, but this is not about work. This is about family, and you have to deal with it.” He took the shot glasses from Autumn after she rinsed them, placed them on a dish towel to dry, and led her back to the table. They sat, and he waited.
“Elijah County. That’s where she lives…lived. The sheriff, who apparently was also Becki’s friend, called. She listed me as her next of kin.”
“So, you have to make the funeral arrangements? Do you know if she had life insurance? I’ve heard funerals can be pretty expensive.”
“No. The sheriff said she’d made the arrangements and paid for them already. She wanted to be cremated. I just have to set the time and place for the memorial service.”
“Then there’s no rush, right?”
“Wrong. There are other things that need to be decided…taken care of. I have to be present at the reading of Becki’s will and probably have to assume responsibility for some of her assets. She inherited our grandmother’s house and property.” Autumn shifted and stared at the envelope in the middle of the table. “The sheriff said Becki knew she was ill, and he thought she’d gotten in touch with me before now.”
Jay followed her gaze. “That letter. It’s from her?”
His eyes darted between her and the letter. “That’s so…I don’t know…weird.” Jay sounded like one of those YouTube ghost hunters speaking in a hushed tone, and he stared at the letter as if it might levitate. “Are you going to read it?” He scanned the room, then dropped his voice to a whisper. “She might be here, waiting to see your reaction.” He visibly shuddered. “I think I felt a chill. They say a room gets cold when a ghost is near.”
Enough. “You’re sitting right under the air-conditioning vent.” She stretched over the table to snag the letter. “Of course I’m going to read it.” Her bravado, however, wavered once it was in her hands. She ran her fingertip over her name, the letters flowing like brushstrokes. Becki had always wanted to be an artist, and Autumn wondered if she’d fulfilled that dream.
Jay held out her letter opener. She sat again and took it. She slid it into place, then stopped. She chewed her bottom lip. She was about to open a door she’d closed almost ten years ago. What else could she do? She willed her hands to stop trembling. Just rip the Band-Aid off quick. She braced herself for the guilt she feared would pour out and drown her, then slit the envelope open in one quick stroke.
Catherine froze as a sharp pain shot from her shoulder up the right side of her neck. She carefully opened her left eye against the bright sunlight thankfully muted by a coating of winter grime on the window opposite her bed. Her right eyelids seemed to be stuck together and took a half second longer to part. She rubbed with her fingers to remove the tiny crusts of sleep clinging to her lashes and the corner of her eye, then stopped when her mother’s voice popped into her head. Don’t rub your eyes, Catherine, or you’ll have wrinkles when you get older.
“Fuck. Everybody gets wrinkles.” She tried to suck back the words, though softly muttered, as soon as they left her mouth. She released the breath she was holding when Gabe’s lanky five-foot body didn’t stir. No wonder Catherine’s neck was stiff. Gabe’s back was pressed against Catherine’s left side, her head resting on Catherine’s shoulder, and Elvis was snugged against Gabe’s front, effectively pinning Catherine’s arm between them.
Day was dawning by the time they’d climbed out of the truck at Catherine’s house. They put Gabe’s duffel in the room where she always slept when she stayed overnight at Catherine’s—which was any time Becki needed to be out of town or Catherine and Gabe planned a sunrise fishing expedition. But Gabe’s composure had broken, and she had thrown herself into Catherine’s arms and sobbed when Catherine had suggested she climb into the bed for a few hours of sleep. Catherine had carried her into the master bedroom, taken both their shoes off, and lay on top of the covers. When Gabe quieted, Elvis followed Catherine’s silent signals to drag over the fluffy sherpa blanket folded in her reading chair. She tucked it around them both, and Elvis jumped onto the bed to complete a protective cocoon around Gabe.
Catherine rotated her head and right shoulder to loosen her neck, then slowly, carefully slipped her left arm free while she substituted a pillow for her shoulder. Elvis opened his eyes, and the end of his tail thumped lightly against the bed. She glanced at the clock on the bedside table, surprised to see that she’d slept for three dreamless hours.
She looked down into his intelligent eyes. An old soul gazed back at her. Maybe she was crazy for thinking that, but there’d always been something extraordinary about him. She held her finger to her lips, and he sighed, then closed his eyes as she carefully crawled off the bed. She paused at the door. Even as Gabe slept, her young face was tight with tension. Her mouth curved downward in an uncertain pout, and her brow drew together and twitched every few seconds.
The ever-present ball of self-doubt grew larger in Catherine’s stomach. More than five years out of the army, and she still couldn’t manage her own trauma. How in the world would she be able to face Gabe’s?
Autumn and Jay stared for a few seconds at the neatly folded letter that dropped onto the table before Autumn picked it up and unfolded the pages.
How do I begin?
I guess I should say first that, though we are cousins, I have always loved you like the sister my parents never gave me. I understood, more than you knew, why you withdrew from our summers together. While you thought you needed to harden yourself to go out into the world, Grandma and I wished every day that you’d chosen instead to let us be your safe harbor. We always loved you, and who you would come to love didn’t change that fact. Yes. I think we knew before you did that women would be the ones to hold your heart.
I feel that I failed you because you never trusted that I’d keep your deepest secret safe. Now I have to ask that you not fail me in what I’m about to entrust to you—the one thing I treasure most in my life.
I’ve been diagnosed with a brain tumor and scheduled for surgery in three weeks, but it’s risky. If I survive, I might not be competent to make legal decisions. I won’t go into detail now, but I need to know someone will protect me and mine from my parents if I’m incapacitated or worse. You are the one person who would understand, the only person I trust to protect my substantial assets and nurture my most significant accomplishment.
My phone number hasn’t changed. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org. If you don’t call or email, I’m going to show up on your doorstep and refuse to leave until you talk to me. You know how stubborn I can be. (I’m smiling.)
I love you.
Autumn laid the letter on the table, gently smoothing the creases.
“Hey, AA, you okay?” Jay’s familiar jovial quip was soft and his tone solemn.
She shook her head, sniffing back a sob as she handed the letter to him. Another week, and Becki might have been knocking at her door, pulling her into her arms. God, she regretted every summer, every day, every hour she’d wasted by wallowing in her unfounded fear of rejection.
Jay finished scanning the letter. “Wow.”
Autumn stood and began to pace. “God damn me. I never gave Grandma Swan or Becki a chance.” She threw up her hands in exasperation and turned to pace in the other direction. “I just assumed they’d be horrified that I was gay. So I walked out of their lives.” She stopped, closed her eyes, and wiped tears from her cheeks. “Becki didn’t fail me, Jay. I failed her.”
Jay stood, his expression stern. “And now?”
Now? Becki was gone. The sheriff had said she’d already made her own funeral arrangements. She could ask him to let the neighbor friend arrange a memorial service for Becki’s friends in the community, then contact the lawyer to handle any other legal matters in probating the estate. She could keep her past in the past and focus on making AA Swan Inc. a big dog in the social-media marketing business. She wouldn’t have to go back to where she and Becki had played barefoot in the fields, shared Grandma Swan’s brownies and glasses of cold milk on the back steps. She wouldn’t be tempted to sit in the front-porch rocking chairs to stare at the endless stars winking at her from a midnight-blue sky.
She met Jay’s eyes and stared down the challenge they held. “I won’t fail her now.”
He nodded and retrieved his laptop from his backpack. “Then let’s see if we can reschedule some of these appointments or turn some of them into teleconferences.”
Autumn killed the engine of her new Oxford edition Mini-Cooper and stared at the farmhouse. Her ears throbbed with the echoes of Kendrick Lamar’s rap in the almost startling quiet. When had she become so conditioned to constant city noise that silence made her uncomfortable? Had she changed that much? She scanned the yard and house. Even though Grandma Swan was gone, some part of her wouldn’t have been surprised to see Grandma push open the screen door, wiping her hands on a dish towel while she checked out who had come to visit. Some things were unchanged, but a lot had evolved and updated with the times.
Grandma’s dirt drive, which had become a muddy playground after a summer storm, was covered with crushed gravel now. White board fencing had replaced the barbed wire strung between rusting metal posts to separate the house and yard from the surrounding fields and pastures. Instead of the plain, white asbestos-shingle siding she remembered on the house, she saw warm, medium-blue vinyl siding with white trim and blue-black shutters. Flower beds and baskets hung from the frame of the long front porch, a riot of colorful blooms. She smiled and teared at the same time. Becki’s warm, inviting personality was everywhere.
Autumn jogged up the steps, but no one responded when she knocked on the door. She tried the doorknob and found it locked. Damn. She really had to pee. Becki and Grandma never locked the house. Back door. Maybe it wasn’t locked or someone was in the backyard. She turned and spotted a familiar figure. Could it be? One of his ears was broken off, and she remembered his little vest as red, not purple. But it appeared to be the same ceramic monkey that held Grandma’s spare house key. She dashed over and turned him bottom up, extracted a tarnished brass key from his butt, and hurried back to the door.
“An-n-nd, I’m in.” Her celebration was short—a millisecond, actually—because her bladder GPS registered the close proximity of relief and issued a fresh, more urgent warning. She dashed down the hall to the bathroom and sighed in relief as her body said good-bye to two Big Gulps of sweet tea and a venti hazelnut mocha coconut-milk macchiato from Starbucks. Well, maybe not all of that. This was the third time she’d made a potty stop in the last three hours of the six-hour drive.
She surveyed the bathroom as she washed her hands—bright-yellow walls and new faux-antique fixtures. The pedestal sink looked new, but the claw-foot tub was the same, except for the showerhead that rose from the tub faucet and anchored a bright daffodil-accented, waterproof curtain that circled the tub. Becki must have done well for herself. These upgrades weren’t cheap.
Becki. Even the cheery surroundings didn’t stop the suffocating gloom that settled on Autumn’s shoulders. Why hadn’t she called? Autumn would have come. She would have tried to help. Wouldn’t she? Autumn tucked that doubt away. She couldn’t deal with her guilt or examine whether her drive for success had evolved into simple self-absorption right now.
She emerged from the bathroom and walked tentatively through the house. “Hello? Anybody home? Hello?” She opened the back door and, instead of the small six-by-six concrete porch, found a wide deck outfitted with patio furniture and both gas and charcoal grills. At the end of the large, neat yard stood the old red barn, its paint fresh, but the structure just as she remembered.
A willowy figure in cut-off overalls and a tank top, face shaded by a wide-brimmed straw hat, stood in the barn’s open doorway and waved, then began walking toward her. It couldn’t be. Autumn struggled to breathe, suddenly swimming in a whirlpool of nauseating dizziness. She held on to the door with one hand and clutched the door’s frame with the other. “Becki?”
“Who are you?”
Autumn startled, then turned toward the challenge that came from a young girl standing behind her. “I, uh…” She pointed to the barn, but the figure was gone. “I thought I saw…maybe—” She couldn’t say it. The girl, whose gaze was boring a hole between Autumn’s eyes, would think she was crazy. Becki was gone. She shook her head to reset her brain. “You asked me a question?”
“Who are you? How did you get in the house? I locked it up last night.”
A dog barked in the distance as Autumn considered her answer. “I’m Autumn. Autumn Swan. Becki is…was my cousin. I got the key out of the monkey’s butt to let myself in.” It wasn’t literally in the monkey’s butt, but she and Autumn had liked to say that. It made them giggle. This girl didn’t laugh. Didn’t even smile. Autumn cleared her throat. “It was an emergency. I had a long drive and had to pee really bad.”
The barks were louder and drew closer, and then the scramble of paws and thud of boots on the front porch drew her attention. A broad-shouldered woman of average height wearing jeans, work boots, and a faded red Henley followed a medium-sized brown dog through the front door. The dog went directly to sit next to the girl, his soulful eyes watching Autumn. The woman pulled a battered brown fedora from her head and eyed her, too.
“I’m Catherine Daye, Becki’s neighbor. I’m kinda looking after the place until—” She waved her hat in a helpless gesture. “Until things are settled.” She cocked her head, her expression turning curious. “I guess I’m not doing a very good job if I left the house open. I thought Gabe locked up last night. I should have checked myself.”
“I locked it.” The girl, apparently named Gabe, frowned at Autumn. “She got the key out of the monkey’s butt.”
To her dismay, Autumn was unable to stop the laugh that rolled up from her belly and exploded from her lips. She slapped a hand over her mouth. Gabe glowered as though she wanted to skewer Autumn. “Sorry. I’m so sorry. It’s just that Becki and I always found that so funny. Anytime one of us was upset or gloomy, the other would just say ‘monkey butt’ and we’d end up holding our sides, laughing.”
Gabe’s face was stone. “She’s not here. She’s dead.” Her voice was flat, but not emotionless. Each word was edged with sharp anger meant to cut. Gabe flinched when Catherine rested a hand on her slim shoulder.
“Gabe, you and Elvis go feed the chickens and collect the eggs. Miss Franny’s getting some of the ladies together to bake cakes and cookies for the memorial, and I promised to take all the eggs we could spare to her house tomorrow. Then, and I know it’s early, see if you can get them in the coop so we don’t have to come back later.”
Gabe shrugged off Catherine’s hand and stomped past Autumn to the back door. Elvis looked to Catherine, who flicked her hand toward Gabe, and then he followed. When he passed Autumn, he stopped, gave her a long look, then licked her hand once before continuing and pushing the screened door open to catch up with Gabe.
Catherine cleared her throat again. “I’m sorry. Gabe is normally a well-mannered kid, but this has thrown her hard.”
“It’s okay.” Autumn rubbed her forehead. She felt like she’d fallen off the monster caffeine wave she’d been riding, tossed and tumbled, then spat out onto the beach drained of her last bit of energy. She really needed a nap, but she should check in with Jay first. They had so much to do, so much to reschedule. Her irritation ratcheted up a notch with each task that came to mind, and Catherine’s frank appraisal of her was just about the last straw. The last thing she needed was a butch farmer looking to donate some sack time to keep the city girl happy. Everybody knows city girls are sexually fluid and hop from bed to bed like they shop for groceries. Butch on aisle four. Two-for-one on aisle eight. And bi-friendly couple available on aisle twelve.
“You’re Becki’s cousin, aren’t you?” Catherine asked.
Autumn bit back the slap-down she was about to throw out, realizing her mistake just in time. Catherine hadn’t arrived yet when she’d introduced herself to Gabe. “I’m sorry. The trip was long. I did introduce myself to…to Gabe before you got here—” She stuck out her hand. “Yes. I’m Autumn Swan, Becki’s younger cousin.”
Catherine’s hand was large, her knuckles slightly red and chapped. “Nice to finally meet you. Becki talked about you a lot.”
“Good things, I hope.” Autumn tried to smile to lighten the tension, but she didn’t feel very convincing. “I guess that’s how you knew not to shoot me for breaking and entering.”
Catherine shook her head and pointed to a bookcase against the wall in the front room. “Actually, I recognized you.” She walked over to take a framed photograph from the middle shelf and turned it for Autumn to see.
Tears blurred Autumn’s vision when she realized the picture was of her and Becki, arms slung over each other’s shoulders and grinning at Grandma, who was the photographer. She took it from Catherine and let the memories flow. It was Autumn’s last summer at the farm, and in a sudden spurt of growth, she was nearly as tall as Becki. Not that either of them was tall. Five feet six was almost considered short these days.
“Whoa.” Catherine’s hand that cupped Autumn’s elbow was rough with calluses, but her grip was strong.
Autumn realized she’d started to sway, so she let Catherine lead her to the worn sofa draped in a colorful quilt. She was too tired to be embarrassed by the tears that dripped from her chin onto the glass protecting the photograph, but she accepted the tissue Catherine pressed into her hand and wiped the glass clean before dabbing her eyes and nose. She traced Becki’s face with her finger. “Grandma was our safe haven every summer. I didn’t want to be around while my parents harvested their annual crop of marijuana, and Becki’s parents were just redneck trash. The summer she was twelve, she told Grandma she would sleep under her bed when her father’s friends came over to party because they scared her when they got drunk. She never went back home after that summer. I don’t know how Grandma got custody of her, but she did.” She wiped her eyes again to clear her vision. “She was more like a big sister than a cousin. That shirt she’s wearing was my favorite. I never considered her clothes hand-me-downs. I wanted to be just like her.”
“When was the last time you saw her?”
Autumn swallowed past the lump that seemed stuck in her throat. “At Grandma’s funeral, but we didn’t get a chance to talk.” She huffed. “Both our parents showed up—hers like vultures hoping to pick over Grandma’s assets—and got into a loud argument at the graveside. I left without going to the visitation afterward. I’d already received papers about a trust Grandma bequeathed me. She left a similar trust to Becki, as well as the farm. I was fine with that and didn’t have any reason to stick around for the ‘flower children versus the rednecks’ show.” Damn it. She was starting to cry again. “I should have stayed and helped Becki run them off.”
Catherine shook her head and smiled. “I wasn’t living here then, but Becki told me the whole story. She had Sheriff Cofy throw her parents in jail on domestic-violence charges, so they had to stay there overnight. They were furious your parents weren’t jailed as well, but more than happy to get the hell out of Dodge the next morning.”
Autumn needed to take care of things here and get back to Decatur. She clutched the picture to her chest and straightened to look around. She felt like she was waking from a dream, and everything she needed to do came pouring back like the rude morning sun. “I need to check in with my assistant and let the lawyer know I’m here so he can set up a time to meet about the will.”
“Gaylord said he tried to get in touch with you earlier today, but cell signals can be spotty when you drive through the mountains. He wants to read the will at eight tomorrow morning,” Catherine said. “He’s hoping that’ll work for you, because he has to be in court in the next county after lunch. And a few other people are invited, so he had to work around their schedules, too.”
Autumn’s sinuses were swollen from crying, and her head was starting to pound. “How many people are we talking about?” Had her cousin become a millionaire in the past ten years and nobody told her?
Catherine smiled and shrugged. “Gaylord said it was complicated.”
“Okay.” She massaged her throbbing temple, then stood and returned the picture to the bookcase, tracing her finger over Becki’s image one more time. “I need to head out. The only decent hotel Jay could book for me is thirty minutes away.”
“You can stay here.”
Autumn turned toward the soft voice. Gabe stood behind the island that separated the kitchen and the living room, studying her sneakers and nervously flicking the tag on Elvis’s collar back and forth as he leaned against her leg. A look of bashful regret had mysteriously replaced her defiance. How long had she been standing there?
“It’s okay,” Autumn said. “I don’t want to impose.”
“Nobody else here,” Gabe said, lifting her eyes to meet and hold Autumn’s.
Autumn looked to Catherine, who shrugged. “It’s Gabe’s call.”
“Bacon and eggs in the fridge.” Gabe’s moment of shyness was gone as quickly as it appeared. Gabe-in-charge strode past them. “Bread should still be fresh enough for toast. I’ll put out some clean sheets and towels for you.” She disappeared down the hallway, but Elvis stayed, his eyes fixed on Autumn.
“I really appreciate it,” Autumn said to Catherine. “But I need high-speed internet to complete some work I had to reschedule to drive up here.” She barely had a cell signal here.
“Password to the internet is taped to the bottom of the coffee table.” Gabe’s voice carried down the hall and into the living room. “It’s not exactly Google fiber, but it’s the highest speed the cable company offers.”
Autumn moved closer to Catherine and lowered her voice. “Are you sure this is okay? I mean, it still feels like Grandma’s house to me, but I don’t want to upset anyone by staying here.”
Gabe reappeared before Catherine could answer. “Really. It’s okay. You can use the bedroom on the left,” Gabe said.
“Thank you, then. I think I will.” The decision to not have to get back in the car seemed to release a wave of fatigue her caffeine high had been holding back. Maybe she’d take something for her stuffy, pounding head and lie down for thirty minutes. She functioned very well on little sleep as long as she could squeeze in a power nap.
Gabe slid her hands into the pockets of her shorts and cast a glance at Catherine before facing Autumn. “I’m sorry for being rude earlier.”
“Thank you, but I understand.” Autumn waved her hand to dismiss the incident. “We’re all a little on edge, I’m sure.” She just wanted the air cleared so they would leave, and she could take some aspirin and close her eyes. But who was this girl? She’d assumed that she was Catherine’s charge—adopted or fostered because she looked nothing like Catherine. Obviously biracial, Gabe had a smooth, attractive, medium-brown complexion that wasn’t a shade you’d get from tanning, and her dark hair was a riot of short, tight, corkscrew curls. It was a startling contrast to her hazel eyes, which were a swirl of green and brown rather than pale and grayish. She’d be very pretty if she would smile. Her high cheekbones, full lips, and the lines of the profile were high model quality despite her boyish mannerisms.
What stumped Autumn, though, was that Gabe was acting like she was in charge of Becki’s house. Autumn was Becki’s next of kin, and Catherine was her adult neighbor. Gabe was just a child, but Catherine had deferred to her. Autumn stifled a yawn. She was too tired to think about all this now and needed to get her suitcase and laptop from the car. She looked up to find Gabe watching her.
Gabe’s expression was thoughtful as their eyes met and held. What was going on inside that girl’s head? What more did she have to say or ask of Autumn? Gabe blinked, then looked down to tap Elvis on his head. “Did you forget something?”
Elvis jumped to his feet, his claws scrabbling on the hardwood floors in his race to one of the bedrooms. A few seconds later, he returned triumphant, a twelve-inch rawhide bone in his mouth.
“I guess we’re ready, then,” Catherine said, as if she saw nothing remarkable about the dog’s behavior. She started for the door, then looked back. “Oh, yeah. You can ride with us in the morning, if you like.”
Autumn hesitated. “I might need to run other errands afterward. But if you don’t mind stopping by, I’d like to follow you in. I’m afraid to trust my phone’s GPS since cell service is iffy around here.”
“Sure. Not a problem. We’ll be by at seven forty.” Catherine waved as she walked out.
“Don’t be late,” Gabe added, turning to follow. “She has this thing about being on time. You’ll mess up her whole day if you aren’t waiting when we drive up.”
Autumn watched through the front windows. Catherine swatted Gabe on the back of her head, then rested her arm across Gabe’s shoulders. Gabe didn’t seem to mind the playful tap, because she wrapped her arm around Catherine’s waist and skipped once to match her stride to Catherine’s longer one. Elvis, his bone still in his mouth, looked back over his shoulder at her, then followed them. Catherine lowered the tailgate of the battered truck for Elvis to jump onto, but he seemed to consider it a moment before taking off into the woods. Catherine shrugged, closed the tailgate, and climbed into the truck. They turned onto the highway in the same direction Elvis had gone.
Weird. Becki had strange neighbors.