Grace Montgomery pulled to the side of the narrow country
road and stared at the rambling farmhouse in which she'd
grown up. Even in the heavy, blanketlike darkness of a
Mississippi summer night, with only half a moon grinning
eerily overhead, she could see that her older brother kept
the place in good repair.
But that was all sleight of hand, wasn't it? Things
weren't really what they seemed. They never had been.
That was the problem#nbsp;β#nbsp;why she'd promised
herself she wouldn't come back here.
The yellow light gleaming in an upstairs bedroom winked out.
Clay was going to bed, probably at the same time as he did
every night. Grace couldn't understand how he could live
alone out here. How he could eat, sleep and work the
farm#nbsp;β#nbsp;only forty paces away from where they'd
hidden their stepfather's body.
The warning chime signaling that she'd left her keys in
the ignition sounded as she got out of her small BMW. She
hadn't planned to venture onto the property. But now
that she was here, she had to see for herself that even
after so many years there was nothing to give them away.
Her cotton skirt swayed gently against her calves as she
walked down the long drive. There was no wind, no sound
except the cicadas and frogs, and the crunch of her sandals
on gravel. If she'd forgotten anything, it was the quiet
in this part of the state and how brightly the stars could
shine away from the city.
She pictured herself as a young girl, sleeping on the front
lawn with her younger sister, Molly, and her older
stepsister, Madeline. Those were special times, when
they'd talked and laughed and gazed up at the black
velvet sky to find all those twinkling stars staring right
back at them like a silent promise of good things to come.
They'd all been so innocent then. When Madeline was
around, Grace had had nothing to fear. But Madeline
couldn't stick by Grace's side every minute. She
hadn't even realized she should. She still didn't
know what it was like for Grace back then. She'd been at
a friend's house the night everything went wrong.
Despite the humidity, Grace shivered as she came upon the
barn. Set off to the right, it lurked among the weeping
willows and poplars. She hated everything associated with
the old building. It was there she'd cleaned out the
stall of the horse her stepfather wouldn't let anyone
but him ride. It was there she'd gathered the eggs and
fought with the mean rooster who used to fly at her in an
attempt to gouge out her eyes. It was there, in the front
corner of the building, that the reverend had kept a small
office where he retired to write his Sunday
sermons#nbsp;β#nbsp;and to delve into that locked file drawer.
The smell of moist earth and magnolias brought it all back
too vividly, causing her to break out in a cold sweat.
Curving her fingernails into her palms to remind herself
that she was no longer a powerless girl, she immediately
steered her thoughts away from the reverend's office.
She'd promised herself she'd forget.
But she certainly hadn't forgotten yet. Despite her best
efforts, she couldn't help wondering if that stifling
room was still untouched. Except for what the reverend had
kept in his file drawer, the office had been left intact, as
if he might someday reappear and want to use it. Her mother
had insisted they'd be foolish to change anything.
She'd drilled it into all of them, except Madeline of
course, that they must continue to refer to the reverend in
the present tense. Folks in town were already suspicious enough.
Stillwater's residents had long memories, but eighteen
years had passed since the reverend's sudden
disappearance. Surely after so much time Clay could
dismantle that damn office....
A deep voice came suddenly out of the dark. "Get the
hell off my property or I'll shoot."
Grace whirled to see a man at least six foot four inches
tall, so solidly built he could have been made of stone,
standing only a few feet away. It was her brother, and he
had a rifle trained on her.
For the briefest of moments, Grace wished he'd shoot.
But then she laughed. Clay was as vigilant as ever. Not that
she was really surprised. He'd always been The Guardian.
"What?Ya'll don't know your own sister
anymore?" she said and stepped out of the building's
"Grace?" The barrel of the hunting rifle dove toward
the ground and he twitched as though tempted to gather her
in a hug. Grace felt a similar response, but made no move
toward him. Their relationship was too...complicated.
"God, Grace. It's been thirteen years since you
left. I barely recognize you. You could've gotten
yourself shot," he added gruffly.
She said nothing about that brief cowardly impulse: One
bullet could end it all.
"Really?" she murmured. "I would've
recognized you anywhere." Maybe it was because she
thought of him so often. Besides, he hadn't changed
much. He still had the same thick black
hair#nbsp;β#nbsp;even darker than
Grace's#nbsp;β#nbsp;that swirled up off his forehead.
The light, enigmatic eyes that looked so much like her own.
That same determined set to his prominent jaw. He'd put
on a few more pounds of muscle mass, maybe, which made her
feel small at five-five and a hundred and twenty pounds. But
his bulkier size was the only difference.
"I expected you to be asleep," she said.
"Saw your car pull up out front."
"Wouldn't want to let just anyone go creeping around
If he heard the taunt in her voice, he didn't respond to
it. Except to glance furtively toward the copse of trees
that served as a marker for their stepfather's grave.
After a stilted silence, he said, "Living in Jackson
must agree with you. You look good."
She'd been doing quite well in the city. Until George E.
Dunagan, Attorney-at-Law, had asked her to marry him. When,
for the third time, she couldn't say yes, even though
they both knew she wanted to, he'd finally broken off
the relationship. He'd told her he didn't want to
hear from her until she'd seen a therapist and resolved
the issues of her childhood.
She'd tried visiting a therapist#nbsp;β#nbsp;but
counseling hadn't helped. There were too many realities
she didn't want to examine. Others she wanted to
share but couldn't, not with a therapist or anyone else,
including George. Although George had recently relented and
started calling her again, Grace's problems still stood
She hoped that wouldn't be true for much longer. Either
she'd overcome the past or the past would overcome her.
She couldn't know how it would all end. She could only
promise herself that she wouldn't return to her life in
Jackson until she'd come to terms with what had happened
"I keep busy," she said.
"Mom tells me you graduated first in your class at
Six years ago... She gave him an indifferent smile. He
sounded impressed. But what she achieved never satisfied her
for long. "Amazing what you can do when you apply
"How'd you get into a school like that?"
She'd left town two days after graduating from
Still-water High, worked as a waitress at a greasy spoon in
Jackson in order to scrape by, and spent every available
minute#nbsp;β#nbsp;for two years#nbsp;β#nbsp;studying for
the entrance exams. When she wound up with an almost perfect
score, no one seemed to care too much about her high school
GPA. She managed to get into the University of Iowa, and
after that she'd been accepted at Georgetown.
But she didn't see any point in discussing the details
with Clay. She didn't look back on her college days,
when she'd slept only three or four hours a night, with
any pride or nostalgia. While everyone else juggled
school and a normal social life, she'd kept to
herself and tolerated nothing less than academic excellence.
She'd been trying to make up for the past, trying to
prove that she was more than everyone thought. But after
graduating from law school and working as an assistant
district attorney for the past five years, she'd finally
realized that running away wasn't the solution. She
still couldn't move on with her personal life.
"I got lucky," she said simply.
He glanced at the house. "Wanna come in?" Hearing
the hope in those words, she studied the deep porch where
they used to sit on the steps and listen to their mother
read scripture. The reverend had demanded they study the
Bible for an hour each day. But it hadn't been a bad
experience. Holding a glass of lemonade, Grace would feel
the oppressive heat of a summer's day cool slightly as
evening approached. She'd hear the lilt of her
mother's voice as the boards beneath the old rocking
chair creaked and the lightning bugs danced near the porch
light. She'd always enjoyed it#nbsp;β#nbsp;until the
reverend came home.
"No, I#nbsp;β#nbsp;I'd better be going." She
started edging away. Seeing Clay, knowing he was still on
guard, was enough. She couldn't face any more memories
"How long will you be in town?"
She paused when he spoke. "I don't know."
He scowled, and she thought he looked rather harsh for such
a handsome man. Evidently, carrying the family's dark
secret was taking its toll on him, too. "What brings you
back after all this time?" he asked.
She narrowed her eyes in challenge. "Sometimes I feel
like doing the right thing and telling everyone what
"How do you know it's the right thing?" he asked
"Because I've spent the past five years championing
the truth and making people take responsibility for their
"Are you sure you always get the right guy, Grace? And
that he gets the appropriate punishment?"
"We have to trust the system, Clay. Without it, our
whole society falls apart."
"Who deserves to pay for what happened here?" The
man who was buried in the ground. But Clay already knew
that, so she didn't respond.
"Why haven't you come forward before?" he asked.
"For the same reason you're still guarding this
place with that gun," she admitted.
He studied her for several seconds. "Sounds like you
have a tough decision to make."
"I guess I do."
"Aren't you going to try and talk me out of it?"
she asked with a bitter laugh.
"Sorry," he said. "You have to make your own
choice." She hated his answer and nearly told him so.
She wanted a fight, something tangible to rail against,
someone to blame. Leave it to Clay to sidestep her so
easily. But he changed the subject before she could say
"Did you quit your job?" he asked.
"No, I'm on vacation." She hadn't missed a
single day of work in five years. The state owed her two
months, and she'd taken a leave of absence beyond that.
"You picked an interesting place to spend your
"You're here, aren't you?"
"I have good reason."
She'd expected him to resent her for leaving, like their
mother did, but she sensed that he was glad she'd
escaped. He wanted her to stay away, to go and live her life
and forget about him, Stillwater, everything.
His generosity made her feel even worse#nbsp;β#nbsp;for
wanting the same thing. "You could leave if you really
wanted to," she pointed out, although she knew that in
his mind it wasn't really true.
His mouth was a straight, resolute slash in his face.
"I've made my decision."
"You're a stubborn son of a bitch," she said.
"You'll probably live your whole life out here."
"Where're you staying?" he asked instead of
"I rented Evonne's place."
"Then you already know about her."
Grace steeled herself against the ache in her chest.
"Molly called me when she died."
"Molly was here for the funeral."
"Molly comes here for a lot of things," she said,
bristling even though there was no censure in his voice. She
wanted to act the way Molly did, to come and go as she
pleased, to behave as if she was just like anyone else. But
she couldn't cope with all the contradictions.
"Anyway, I was right in the middle of a very important
trial." Which was true, but Grace hadn't made the
slightest attempt to get away. Three months ago, she'd
been too entrenched in the belief that she'd
never come back. For anything. Except maybe her own
mother's funeral#nbsp;β#nbsp;and even that was questionable.
"I know Evonne meant a great deal to you," he said.
"She was a good woman."