秒速飞艇图解

秒速飞艇图解秒速飞艇图解

秒速飞艇图解

Chapter 22 ThibaultChapter 33 ThibaultChapter 20 BethLate 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.Chapter 25 ThibaultKeith 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. 秒速飞艇图解 Chapter 18 BethLate 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.On Saturday evening Thibault waited on the couch, wondering if he was doing the right thing. In another place and time, he wouldn't have thought twice about it. He was attracted to Elizabeth, certainly. He liked her openness and intelligence, and together with her playful sense of humor, and of course her looks, he couldn't imagine how she'd remained single as long as she had. But it wasn't another place and time, and nothing was normal about any of this. He'd carried her picture for more than five years. He'd searched the country for her. He'd come to Hampton and taken a job that kept him close to her. He'd befriended her grandmother, her son, and then her. Now, they were minutes away from their first date. He'd come for a reason. He'd accepted that as soon as he'd left Colorado. He'd accepted that Victor had been right. He still wasn't sure, however, that meeting her—becoming close to her— was it. Nor was he sure that it wasn't. The only thing he knew for sure was that he'd been looking forward to their evening together. The day before, he'd thought about it consistently on the drive to pick up Nana. For the first half hour on the way back to Hampton, Nana had chattered on about everything from politics to her sister's health before turning toward him with a knowing smirk. "So you're going to go out with the boss's granddaughter, huh?" Thibault shifted on the seat. "She told you." "Of course she told me. But even if she hadn't, I knew it was coming. Two young, attractive, and lonely single people? I knew it would happen as soon as I hired you." Thibault said nothing, and when Nana spoke again, her voice was tinged with melancholy. "She's as sweet as sugared watermelon," she said. "I worry about her sometimes." "I know," Thibault said. That had been the extent of their conversation, but it told him that he had Nana's blessing, something he knew was important given Nana's place in Elizabeth's life. Now, with evening beginning to settle in, he could see Elizabeth's car coming up the drive, the front end bouncing slightly in the potholes. She hadn't told him anything about where they were going, other than to dress casually. He stepped out onto the porch as she pulled to a stop in front of the house. Zeus followed him, his curiosity alerted. When Elizabeth got out and stepped into the dim light of the porch, all he could do was stare. Like him, she was wearing jeans, but the creamy blouse she wore accentuated the sun-browned tint of her skin. Her honey-colored hair swept the neckline of her sleeveless blouse, and he noted that she was wearing a trace of mascara. She looked both familiar and tantalizingly foreign. Zeus padded down the steps, tail wagging and whining, and went to her side. "Hey, Zeus. Did you miss me? It's only been a day." She stroked his back, and Zeus whined plaintively before licking at her hands. "Now that was a greeting," she said, looking up at him. "How are you? Am I late?" He tried to sound nonchalant. "I'm fine," he said. "And you're right on time. I'm glad you made it." "Did you think I wouldn't?" "This place is kind of hard to find." "Not if you've lived here your whole life." She motioned toward the house. "So this is home?" "This is it." "It's nice," she said, taking it in. "Is it what you expected?" "Pretty much. Solid. Efficient. Kind of hidden." He acknowledged her double entendre with a smile, then turned to Zeus and commanded him to stay on the porch. He walked down the steps to join her. "Will he be okay outside?" "He'll be fine. He won't move." "But we'll be gone for hours." "I know." "Amazing." "It seems that way. But dogs don't have much sense of time. In a minute, he won't remember anything other than the fact that he's supposed to stay. But he won't know why." "How did you learn so much about dogs and training?" Elizabeth asked, curious. "Mainly books." "You read?" He sounded amused. "Yes. Surprised?" "I am. It's hard to tote books when you're walking across the country." "Not if you don't keep them when you finish." They reached the car, and when Thibault started toward the driver's side to open the door for her, she shook her head. "I might have asked you out, but I'm going to make you drive." "And here I thought I was going out with a liberated woman," he protested. "I am a liberated woman. But you'll drive. And pick up the check." He laughed as he walked her back around to the other side. Once he was settled behind the wheel, she peeked toward the porch. Zeus seemed confused about what was happening, and she heard him whining again. "He sounds sad." "He probably is. We're seldom apart." "Mean man," she scolded him. He smiled at her playful tone as he slipped the car into reverse. "Should I head downtown?" "Nope," she said. "We're getting out of town tonight. Just go to the main highway and head toward the coast. We're not going to the beach, but there's a good place on the way. I'll let you know when we're getting close to the next turn." Thibault did as she said, driving quiet roads in the deepening twilight. They reached the highway in a few minutes, and as the car picked up speed, the trees on either side began to blur. Shadows stretched across the road, darkening the car's interior. "So tell me about Zeus," she said. "What do you want to know?" "Whatever you want to tell me. Something I wouldn't know." He could have said, I bought him because a woman in a photograph owned a German shepherd, but he didn't. Instead he said, "I bought Zeus in Germany. I flew out there and picked him from the litter myself." "Really?" He nodded. "The shepherd in Germany is like the bald eagle in America. It's a symbol of national pride, and breeders take their work very seriously. I wanted a dog with strong, working bloodlines, and if that's what you want, you'll usually find the best dogs in Germany. Zeus comes from a long line of Schutzhund competitors and champions." "What's that?'" "In Schutzhund, the dogs ate tested not only in obedience, but in tracking and protection. And the competition is intense. Usually it lasts two days, and as a rule, the winners tend to be the most intelligent and trainable dogs of all. And since Zeus comes from a long line of competitors and champions, he's been bred for both those things." "And you did all the training," she said, sounding impressed. "Since he was six months old. When we walked from Colorado, I worked with him every day." "He's an incredible animal. You could always give him to Ben, you know. He'd probably love it." Thibault said nothing. She noticed his expression and slid closer to him. "I was kidding. I wouldn't take your dog from you." Thibault felt the continuing warmth of her body radiate down his side. "If you don't mind my asking, how did Ben react when you told him you were going out with me tonight?" he asked. "He was fine with it. He and Nana were already planning to watch videos. They'd talked on the phone about having a movie night earlier in the week. Made a date and everything." "Do they do that a lot?" "They used to do it all the time, but this is the first time since she had her stroke. I know Ben was really excited about it. Nana makes popcorn and usually lets him stay up extra late." "Unlike his mom, of course." "Of course." She smiled. "What did you end up doing today?" "Catching up around the house. Cleaning, laundry, shopping, that kind of thing." She raised an eyebrow. "I'm impressed. You're a real domestic animal. Can you bounce a quarter on your bedspread after you make it?" "Of course." "You'll have to teach Ben how to do that." "If you'd like." Outside, the first stars were beginning to emerge, and the car's headlights swept the curves of the road. "Where exactly are we going?" Thibault asked. "Do you like crabs?" "Love 'em." "That's a good start. How about shag dancing?" "I don't even know what that is." "Well, let's just say you're going to have to learn quick." Forty minutes later, Thibault pulled to a stop in front of a place that looked to have once been a warehouse. Elizabeth had directed him to the industrial section of downtown Wilmington, and they had parked in front of a three-story structure with aged wide-plank siding. There was little to differentiate it from the neighboring buildings other than the nearly hundred cars parked in the lot and a small wooden walkway that led around the building, stringed with inexpensive strands of white Christmas tree lights. "What's this place called?" "Shagging for Crabs." "Original. But I'm having a hard time visualizing this as a major tourist attraction." "It's not—it's strictly for locals. One of my friends from college told me about it, and I've always wanted to go." "You've never been here?" "No," she said. "But I've heard it's a lot of fun." With that, she headed up the creaking walkway. Straight ahead, the river sparkled, as if lit from below. The sound of music from inside grew steadily louder. When they opened the door, the music broke over them like a wave, and the smell of crabs and butter filled the air. Thibault paused to take it all in. The massive building's interior was crude and unadorned. The front half was jammed with dozens of picnic tables covered with red-and-white plastic tablecloths that appeared stapled to the wood. Tables were packed and rowdy, and Thibault saw waitresses unloading buckets of crabs onto tables everywhere. Small pitchers of melted butter sat in the center, with smaller bowls in front of diners. Everyone wore plastic bibs, cracking crabs from the communal buckets and eating with their fingers. Beer seemed to be the drink of choice. Directly ahead of them, on the side that bordered the river, was a long bar—if it could be called that. It seemed to be nothing more than discarded driftwood stacked atop wooden barrels. People milled around three deep. On the opposite side of the building was what seemed to be the kitchen. What caught his eye mostly was the stage located at the far end of the building, where Thibault saw a band playing "My Girl" by the Temptations. At least a hundred people were dancing in front of the stage, following the prescribed steps of a dance he wasn't familiar with. "Wow," he shouted over the din. A thin, fortyish woman with red hair and an apron approached them. "Hey there," she drawled. "Food or dancing?" "Both," Elizabeth answered. "First names?" They glanced at each other. "Elizabeth …" he said. "And Logan," she finished. The woman jotted down their names on a pad of paper. "Now, last question. Fun or family?" Elizabeth looked lost. "Excuse me?" The woman snapped her gum. "You haven't been here before, have you?" "No." "It's like this. You're going to have to share a table. That's how it works here. Everyone shares. Now, you can either request fun, which means you want a table with a lot of energy, or you can ask for family, which is usually a little quieter. Now, I can't guarantee how your table is, of course. I just ask the question. So, what's it be? Family or fun?" Elizabeth and Thibault faced each other again and came to the same conclusion. "Fun," they said in unison. They ended up at a table with six students from UNC Wilmington. The waitress introduced them as Matt, Sarah, Tim, Allison, Megan, and Steve, and the students each raised their bottles in turn and announced in unison: "Hey, Elizabeth! Hey, Logan! We have crabs!" Thibault stifled a laugh at the play on words—crab was slang for something undescribable picked up during sexual encounters, which was obviously the point—but was flummoxed when he saw them staring at him expectantly. The waitress whispered, "You're supposed to say, 'We want crabs, especially if we can get them with you.'" This time he did laugh, along with Elizabeth, before saying the words, playing along with the ritual everyone observed here. They sat opposite each other. Elizabeth ended up sitting next to Steve, who didn't hide the fact that he found her extremely attractive, while Thibault sat next to Megan, who showed no interest in him whatsoever because she was far more interested in Matt A plump, harried waitress rushed by, barely pausing to call out, "More crabs?" "You can give me crabs anytime," the students replied in chorus. All around them, Thibault heard the same response over and over. The alternative response, which he also heard, was, "I can't believe you gave me crabs!" which seemed to signify that no more were needed. It reminded him of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, where regulars knew ail the official responses and newcomers learned them on the fly. The food was first-rate. The menu featured only a single item, prepared a single way, and every bucket came with extra napkins and bibs. Crab pieces were tossed into the center of the table—a tradition—and every now and then, teenagers in aprons came by to scoop them up. As promised, the students were boisterous. A running string of jokes, plenty of harmless interest in Elizabeth, and two beers each, which added to the raucous spirit. After dinner, Thibault and Elizabeth went to the restroom to wash up. When she came back out, she looped her arm through his. "You ready to shag?" she asked suggestively. "I'm not sure. How do you do it?" "Learning to shag dance is like learning to be from the South. It's learning to relax while you hear the ocean and feel the music." "I take it you've done it before." "Once or twice," she said with false modesty. "And you're going to teach me?" "I'll be your partner. But the lesson starts at nine." "The lesson?" "Every Saturday night. That's why it's so crowded. They offer a lesson for beginners while the regulars take a break, and we'll do what they tell us. It starts at nine." "What time is it?" She glanced at her watch. "It's time for you to learn to shag." Elizabeth was a much better dancer than she'd suggested, which thankfully made him better on the dance floor, too. But the best part of dancing with her was the almost electrical charge he felt whenever they touched and the smell of her when he twirled her out of his arms, a mixture of heat and perfume. Her hair grew wild in the humid air, and her skin glowed with perspiration, making her seem natural and untamed. Every now and then, she'd gaze at him as she spun away, her lips parted in a knowing smile, as if she knew exactly the effect she was having on him. When the band decided to take a break, his first instinct was to leave the floor with the rest of the crowd, but Elizabeth stopped him when the recorded strains of "Unforgettable" by Nat King Cole began to waft through the speakers. She looked up at him then, and he knew what he had to do. Without speaking, he slipped one arm behind her back and reached for her hand, then tucked it into position. He held her gaze as he pulled her close, and ever so slowly, they began to move to the music, turning in slow circles. Thibault was barely conscious of other couples joining the dance floor around them. As the music played in the background, Elizabeth leaned into him so close that he could feel each of her slow, languid breaths. He closed his eyes as she put her head on his shoulder, and in that instant, nothing else mattered. Not the song, not the place, not the other couples around him. Only this, only her. He gave himself over to the feel of her body as it pressed against him, and they moved slowly in small circles on the sawdust-strewn floor, lost in a world that felt as though it had been created for just the two of them. As they drove home on darkened roads, Thibault held her hand and felt her thumb tracking slowly over his skin in the quiet of the car. When he pulled into his driveway a little before eleven, Zeus was still lying on the porch and raised his head as Thibault turned off the ignition. He turned to face her. "I had a wonderful time tonight," he murmured. He expected her to say the same, but she surprised him with her response. "Aren't you going to invite me in?" she suggested. "Yes," he said simply. Zeus sat up as Thibault opened Elizabeth's door and stood as Elizabeth got out. His tail started to wag. "Hey, Zeus," Elizabeth called out. "Come," Thibault commanded, and the dog bounded from the porch and ran toward them. He circled them both, his cries sounding like squeaks. His mouth hung half-open in a grin as he preened for their attention. "He missed us," she said, bending lower. "Didn't you, big boy?" As she bent lower, Zeus licked her face. Straightening up, she wrinkled her nose before wiping her face. "That was gross." "Not for him," Thibault said. He motioned toward the house. "You ready? I have to warn you not to expect too much." "Do you have a beer in the fridge?" "Yes." "Then don't worry about it." They made their way up the steps of the house. Thibault opened the door and flipped the switch: A single floor lamp cast a dim glow over an easy chair near the window. In the center of the room stood a coffee table decorated only with a pair of candles; a medium-size couch faced it. Both the couch and the easy chair were covered in matching navy blue slipcovers, and behind them, a bookshelf housed a small collection of books. An empty magazine rack along with another floor lamp completed the minimalist furnishings. Still, it was clean. Thibault had made sure of that earlier in the day. The pine floors had been mopped, the windows washed, the room dusted. He disliked clutter and despised dirt. The endless dust in Iraq had only reinforced his neatnik tendencies. Elizabeth took in the scene before walking into the living room. "I like it," she said. "Where did you get the furniture?" "It came with the place," he said. "Which explains the slipcovers." "Exactly." "No television?" "No." "No radio?" "No." 'what do you do when you're here?" "Sleep." "And?" "Read." "Novels?" "No," he said, then changed his mind. "Actually, a couple. But mostly biographies and histories." "No anthropology texts?" "I have a book by Richard Leakey," he said. "But I don't like a lot of the heavy postmodernist anthropology books that seem to dominate the field these days, and in any case those kinds of books aren't easy to come by in Hampton." She circled the furniture, running her finger along the slipcovers. "What did he write about?" "Who? Leakey?" She smiled. "Yeah. Leakey." He pursed his lips, organizing his thoughts. "Traditional anthropology is primarily interested in five areas: when man first began to evolve, when he started to walk upright, why there were so many hominid species, why and how those species evolved, and what all of that means for the evolutionary history of modem man. Leakey's book mainly talked about the last four, with a special emphasis on how toolmaking and weapons influenced the evolution of Homo sapiens." She couldn't hide her amusement, but he could tell she was impressed. "How about that beer?" she asked. "I'll be back in a minute," he said. "Make yourself comfortable." He returned with two bottles and a box of matches. Elizabeth was seated in the middle of the couch; he handed her one of the bottles and took a seat beside her, dropping the matches on the table. She immediately picked up the matches and struck one, watching as the small flame flickered to life. In a fluid motion, she held it to the wicks, lighting both candles, then extinguished the match. "I hope you don't mind. I love the smell of candles." "Not at all." He rose from the couch to turn off the lamp, the room now dimly lit by the warm glow of the candles. He sat closer to her when he returned to the couch, watching as she stared at the flame, her face half in shadow. He took a sip of his beer, wondering what she was thinking. "Do you know how long it's been since I've been alone in a candlelit room with a man?" she said, turning her face to his. "No," he said. "It's a trick question. The answer is never." She seemed amazed by the idea herself. "Isn't that odd? I've been married, I have a child, I've dated, and never once has this happened before." She hesitated. "And if you want to know the truth, this is the first time I've been alone with a man at his place since my divorce." Her expression was almost sheepish. "Tell me something," she said, her face inches from his. "Would you have asked me inside if I hadn't invited myself?" she asked. "Answer honestly. I'll know if you're lying." He rotated the bottle in his hands. "I'm not sure." "Why not?" she pressed. "What is it about me—" "It has nothing to do with you," he interrupted. "It has more to do with Nana and what she might think." "Because she's your boss?" "Because she's your grandmother. Because I respect her. But mostly, because I respect you. I had a wonderful time tonight. In the past five years, I can't think of a better time I've had with anybody." "And you still wouldn't have invited me in." Elizabeth seemed baffled. "I didn't say that. I said I'm not sure." "Which means no." "Which means I was trying to figure out a way of asking you in without offending you, but you beat me to the punch. But if what you're really asking is whether I wanted to invite you in, the answer is, yes, I did." He touched his knee to hers. "Where's all this coming from?" "Let's just say I haven't had a lot of luck in the dating world." He knew enough to stay silent, but when he lifted his arm, he felt her lean into him. "It didn't bother me at first," she finally said. "I mean, I was so busy with Ben and school, I didn't pay much attention to it. But later, when it kept happening, I began to wonder. I began to wonder about me. And I'd ask myself all these crazy questions. Was I doing something wrong? Was I not paying enough attention? Did I smell funny?" She tried to smile, but she couldn't fully mask the undercurrent of sadness and doubt. "Like I said, crazy stuff. Because every now and then, I'd meet a guy and think that we were getting along great, and suddenly I'd stop hearing from him. Not only did he stop calling, but if I happened to bump into him sometime later, he always acted like I had the plague. I didn't understand it. I still don't. And it bothered me. It hurt me. With time, it got harder and harder to keep blaming the guys, and I eventually came to the conclusion that there was something wrong with me. That maybe I was simply meant to live my life alone." "There's nothing wrong with you," he said, giving her arm a reassuring squeeze. "Give me a chance. I'm sure you'll find something." Thibault could hear the wound beneath the jest. "No," he said. "I don't think I will." "You're sweet." "I'm honest." She smiled as she took a sip from her beer. "Most of the time." "You don't think I'm honest?" She shrugged. "Like I said. Most of the time." "What's that supposed to mean?" She put the bottle of beer on the table and gathered her thoughts. "I think you're a terrific guy. You're smart, you work hard, you're kind, and you're great with Ben. I know that, or at least I think I do, because that's what I see. But it's what you don't say that makes me wonder about you. I tell myself that I know you, and then when I think about it, I realize that I don't. What were you like in college? I don't know. What happened after that? I don't know. I know you went to Iraq and I know that you walked here from Colorado, but I don't know why. When I ask, you just say that 'Hampton seems like a nice place.' You're an intelligent college graduate, but you're content to work for minimum wage. When I ask why, you say that you like dogs." She ran a hand through her hair. "The thing is, I get the sense that you're telling me the truth. You're just not telling all of it. And the part you're leaving out is the part that would help me understand who you are." Listening to her, Thibault tried not to think about everything else he hadn't told her. He knew he couldn't tell her everything; he would never tell her everything. There was no way she would understand, and yet… he wanted her to know who he really was. More than anything, he realized that he wanted her to accept him. "I don't talk about Iraq because I don't like to remember my time there." he said She shook her head. "You don't have to tell me if you'd rather not… "I want to," he said, his voice quiet. "I know you read the papers, so you probably have this image in your mind of what it's like. But it's not like what you imagine, and there's not really any way I could make it real to you. It's something you had to have experienced yourself. I mean, most of the time it wasn't nearly as bad as you probably think it was. A lot of the time—most of the time—it was okay. Easier for me than for others, since I didn't have a wife or kids. I had friends, I had routines. Most of the time, I went through the motions. But some of the time, it was bad. Really bad. Bad enough to make me want to forget I'd ever been there at all." She was quiet before drawing a long breath. "And you're here in Hampton because of what happened in Iraq?" He picked at the label on his bottle of beer, slowing peeling away the corner and scratching the glass with his fingernail. "In a way," he said. She sensed his hesitation and laid a hand on his forearm. Its warmth seemed to release something inside him. "Victor was my best friend in Iraq," Thibault began. **He was with me through all three tours. Our unit suffered a lot of casualties, and by the end, I was ready to put my time there behind me. And I succeeded, for the most part, but for Victor, it wasn't so easy. He couldn't stop thinking about it. After we were out, we went our separate ways, trying to get on with life. He went home to California, I went back to Colorado, but we still needed each other, you know? Talked on the phone, sent e-mails in which both of us pre* tended we were doing just fine with the fact that while we'd spent the last four years trying every day to avoid being killed, people back home were acting as if the world was ending if they lost a parking spot or got the wrong latte at Starbucks. Anyway, we ended up reuniting for a fishing trip in Minnesota—" He broke off, not wanting to remember what happened but knowing he had to. He took a long pull on his beer and set the bottle on the table. "This was last fall, and I… I was just so happy to see him again. We didn't talk about our time in Iraq, but we didn't have to. Just spending a few days with someone else who knew what we'd been through was enough for the both of us. Victor, by then, was doing okay. Not great, but okay. He was married with a kid on the way, and I remember thinking that even though he was still having nightmares and the occasional flashback, he was going to be all right." He looked at her with an emotion she couldn't name. "On our last day, we went fishing early in the morning. It was just the two of us in this little rowboat, and when we rowed out, the lake was as still as glass, like we were the first people ever to disturb the water. I remember watching a hawk fly over the lake while its mirror image glided directly beneath it, thinking I'd never seen anything more beautiful." He shook his head at the memory. "We planned on finishing up before the lake got too crowded; then we were going to head into town later and have some beers and steaks. A little celebration to end our trip. But time just sort of got away from us and we ended up staying on the lake too long." He started to knead his forehead, trying to keep his composure. "I'd seen the boat earlier. I don't know why I noticed that one among all the others. Maybe my time in Iraq had something to do with it, but I remembered thinking to myself to keep an eye out for them. It was strange, though. It wasn't as if they were doing anything different than any of the other boaters out there. Just some teenagers having fun: waterskiing, tubing. There were six of them on the boat—three boys and three girls—and you could tell they were out there for a last hurrah on the water while it was still warm enough to do so." When he continued, his voice was hoarse. "I heard it coming," he said, "and I knew we were in trouble even before I saw it. There's a particular sound that an engine makes when it turns in your direction at full speed. It's like the noise begins to trail behind the engine by a millisecond that the brain can pick up only subconsciously, and I knew we were in trouble. I barely had time to turn my head before I saw the bow coming at us at thirty miles an hour." He pressed his fingertips together. "By then, Victor had realized what was happening, and I can still remember his expression—it was this horrible mixture of fear and surprise—the exact same thing I'd seen on faces of my friends in Iraq right before they died." He exhaled slowly. "The boat sliced right through ours. It hit Victor head-on and killed him instantly. One minute we were talking about how happy he was that he'd married his wife, and in the next instant, my best friend—the best friend I'd ever had— was dead." Elizabeth put her hand on his knee and squeezed it. Her face had grown pale. "I'm so sorry…" He didn't seem to hear her. "It's just not fair, you know? To live through three tours in Iraq, to survive some of the things we had… only to be killed on a fishing trip.? It didn't make sense. After that, I don't know, I was pretty messed up. Not physically. But mentally, it's like I went down a deep hole for a long time. I just gave up. I couldn't eat, I couldn't sleep more than a few hours a night, and there were times when I couldn't stop crying. Victor had confessed to me that he was haunted by visions of dead soldiers, and after his death, I became haunted, too. All of a sudden, the war was front and center again. Every time I tried to go to sleep, I'd see Victor or scenes from the firefights we'd lived through and I'd start shaking all over. The only thing that kept me from going completely crazy was Zeus." He stopped to look at Elizabeth. Despite his memories, he was struck by the beauty of her face and the dark gold curtain of her hair. Her face registered her compassion. "I don't know what to say. "I don't either." He shrugged. "I still don't." "You know it wasn't your fault, right?" "Yeah," he muttered "But that's not where the story ends." He put his hand on hers, knowing he'd come too far with his story to stop. "Victor liked to talk about destiny," he finally said. "He was a big believer in all sorts of things like that, and on our last day together, he said that I would know my destiny when I found it. I couldn't get that thought out of my mind even while I was struggling. I kept hearing him say it over and over, and little by little, I slowly came to the realization that while I wasn't sure where to find it, I knew I wouldn't find it in Colorado. Eventually, I packed my backpack and just started to walk. My mom thought I'd lost my mind. But with every step I took down the road, I began to feel like I was becoming whole again. Like the journey was what I needed to heal. And by the time I got to Hampton, I knew I didn't need to walk any further. This was the place I was meant to go." "So you stayed." "Yeah." "And your destiny?" He didn't respond. He'd told her as much of the truth as he could, and he didn't want to lie to her. He stared at her hand beneath his, and all at once, everything about this felt wrong. He knew he should end it before it went any further. Get up from the couch and walk her back to the car. Say good night and leave Hampton before the sun came up tomorrow. But he couldn't say the words; he couldn't make himself get up from the couch. Something else had taken hold of him, and he turned toward her with dawning amazement. He'd walked halfway across the country in search of a woman he knew only in a photograph and ended up slowly but surely falling in love with this real, vulnerable, beautiful woman who made him feel alive in a way he hadn't been since the war. He didn't fully understand it, but he'd never been more certain of anything in his life. What he saw in her expression was enough to tell him that she was feeling exactly the same way, and he gently pulled her toward him. As his face drew near to hers, he could feel her heated breaths as he brushed his lips against hers once and then twice before finally meeting them for good. Burying his hands in her hair, he kissed her with everything he had, everything he wanted to be. He heard a soft murmur of contentment as he slid his arms around her. He opened his mouth slightly and felt her tongue against his, and all at once, he knew that she was right for him, what was happening was the right thing for both of them. He kissed her cheek and her neck, nibbling softly, then kissed her lips again. They stood from the couch, still entwined, and he led her quietly to the bedroom. They took their time making love. Thibault moved above her, wanting it to last forever, while whispering his love for her. He felt her body quiver with pleasure again and again. Afterward, she remained curled beneath his arm, her body coiled in contentment. They talked and laughed and nuzzled, and after making love a second time, he lay beside her, staring into her eyes before running a gentle finger along her cheek. He felt the words rise up inside him, words he had never imagined himself saying to anyone. "I love you Elizabeth," he whispered, knowing they were true in every way. She reached for his fingers before kissing them one by one. "I love you, too, Logan."Chapter 27 ClaytonThibault 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. Chapter 34 ClaytonIt was nine o'clock on Saturday night, and he was stuck at home babysitting. Great. Just great. How else could a day like today end, though? First, one of the girls almost catches him taking pictures, then the department's camera gets stolen, and then Logan Thigh-bolt flattens his tires. Worse, he'd had to explain both the loss of the camera and the tires to his dad, Mr. County Sheriff. Predictably, his dad was spit' ting mad and somehow didn't buy the story he'd concocted. Instead he just kept peppering him with questions. By the end, Clayton had wanted to pop the old man. Dad might be a bigwig to a lot of the folks around here, but the man had no business talking to him like he was an idiot. But Clayton had kept to his story—he'd thought he'd seen someone, gone to investigate, and somehow run over a couple of nails. And the camera? Don't ask him. He had no idea if it had even been in the cruiser in the first place. Not great, he knew, but good enough. "That looks more like a hole made by a buck-knife," said his dad, bending down, examining the tires. "I told you it was nails." "There's no construction out there." "I don't know how it happened, either! I'm just telling you what happened." "Where are they?" "How the hell should I know? I pitched them in the woods." The old man wasn't convinced, but Clayton knew enough to stick to his story. Always stick to the story. It was when you started backtracking that people got in trouble. Interrogation 101. Eventually the old man left, and Clayton put on the spares and drove to the garage, where they patched the original tires. By then a couple of hours had passed, and he was late for an appointment with one Mr. Logan Thigh-bolt. Nobody, but nobody, messed with Keith Clayton, especially not some hippie drifter who thought he could put one over on him. He spent the rest of the afternoon driving the streets of Arden, asking whether anyone had seen him. Dude like that was impossible to miss if only because of Cujo by his side. His search yielded zippo, which only infuriated him further, since he realized that it meant Thigh-bolt had lied to his face and Clayton hadn't picked up on it. But he'd find the guy. Without a doubt he'd find the guy, if only because of the camera. Or, more accurately, the pictures. Especially the other pictures. Last thing he wanted was for Thigh-bolt to stroll into the sheriffs department and drop that baby on the counter—or even worse, head straight to the newspaper. Of the two, the department would be the lesser of two evils, since his dad could keep a lid on it. While his dad would blow a gasket and most likely put him on some crap detail for the next few weeks, he'd keep it quiet. His dad wasn't good for much, but he was good for things like that. But the newspaper… now that was a different story. Sure, Gramps would pull some strings and do his best to keep it quiet there, too, but there was no way that sort of information could be kept in check. It was just too juicy, and the news would spread like wildfire through this town, with or without an article. Clay-ton was already regarded as the black sheep of the family, and the last thing he needed was another reason for Gramps to come down on him. Gramps had a way of dwelling on the negative. Even now, years later, Gramps was still bent that he and Beth had divorced, not that it was even his business. And at family gatherings, he could usually be counted on to bring up the fact that Clayton hadn't gone to college. With his grades, Clayton could easily have handled it, but he simply couldn't imagine spending another four years in the classroom, so he'd joined his father at the sheriffs department. That was enough to placate Gramps. It seemed like he'd spent half his life placating Gramps. But he had no choice in the matter. Even though he didn't particularly like Gramps—Gramps was a devout Southern Baptist who went to church every Sunday and thought that drinking and dancing were sins, which always struck Clayton as ridiculous—he knew what Gramps expected of him, and let's just say that taking nudie pictures of coeds was not on the "to do" list. Nor were some of the other photos on the disk, especially of him and a few other ladies in compromising positions. That sort of thing would definitely lead to serious disappointment, and Gramps wasn't very patient with those who disappointed him, even if they were family. Especially if they were family. Claytons had lived in Hampton County since 1753; in many ways, they were Hampton County. Family members included judges, lawyers, doctors, and landowners; even the mayor had married into the family, but everyone knew Gramps was the one who sat at the head of the table. Gramps ruled the place like an old-fashioned Mafia don, and most people in town sang his praises and went on and on about what a quality man he was. Gramps liked to believe it was because he supported everything from the library to the theater to the local elementary school, but Clayton knew the real reason was that Gramps owned pretty much every commercial building in the downtown area, as well as the lumberyard, both marinas, three automobile dealerships, three storage complexes, the only apartment complex in town, and vast tracts of farmland. All of it made for an immensely wealthy—and powerful—family, and since Clayton got most of his money from the family trusts, the last thing he needed was some stranger in town making trouble for him. Thank God he'd had Ben in the short time he'd been with Beth. Gramps had this weird thing about lineage, and since Ben had been named after Gramps—a pretty slick idea, if he did say so himself—Gramps adored him. Most of the time, Clayton had the sense that Gramps liked Ben, his great-grandson, a lot more than he liked his grandson. Oh, Clayton knew Ben was a good kid. It wasn't just Gramps— everyone said so. And he did love the kid, even if he was a pain in the ass sometimes. From his perch on the front porch, he looked through the window and saw that Ben had finished with the kitchen and was back on the couch. He knew he should join him inside, but he wasn't ready just yet. He didn't want to fly off the handle or say something he'd regret. He'd been working at being better about things like that; a couple of months back, Gramps had had a little talk with him about how important it was to be a steady influence. Peckerhead. What he should have done was talk to Ben about doing what his dad asked when he asked, Clayton thought. Would have done a lot more good. The kid had already pissed him off once tonight, but instead of exploding, he'd remembered Gramps and pressed his lips together before stalking outside. Seemed like he was always getting pissed off at Ben these days. But it wasn't his fault; he honestly tried to get along with the kid! And they'd started out okay. Talked about school, had some burgers, tuned in to SportsCenter on ESPN. All good. But then, honor of horrors, he'd asked Ben to clean the kitchen. Like that was too much to ask, right? Clayton hadn't had the chance to get to it for the last few days, and he knew the kid would do a good job. So Ben promised he'd clean it, but instead of doing it, he'd just sat there. And sat. And the clock ticked by. And then he'd sat some more. So Clayton had asked again—he was sure he'd said it nicely—and though he couldn't be certain, he was pretty sure that Ben had rolled his eyes as he'd finally trudged off. That was all it took. He hated when Ben rolled his eyes at him, and Ben knew he hated it. It was like the kid knew exactly which buttons to push, and he spent all his spare time trying to figure out new buttons to hit the next time he saw him. Hence, Clayton had found himself on the porch. Behaviors like that were his mom's doing; of that, Clayton had no doubt. She was one hell of a good-looking lady, but she didn't know the first thing about turning a young boy into a man. He had nothing against the kid getting good grades, but he couldn't play soccer this year because he wanted to play the violin? What kind of crap was that? Violin? Might as well start dressing the boy in pink and teaching him to ride sidesaddle. Clayton did his best to keep that sort of pansy stuff in check, but the fact was, he had the kid only a day and a half every other weekend. Not his fault the kid swung a bat like a girl. Kid was too busy playing chess. And just so everyone was clear, there was no way on God's green earth that he'd be caught dead at a violin recital. Violin recital. Good Lord. What was this world coming to? His thoughts circled back to Thigh-bolt again, and though he wanted to believe the guy had simply left the county, he knew better. The guy was walking, and there was no way he could reach the far side of the county by nightfall. And what else? Something had been gnawing at him most of the day, and it wasn't until he'd come to cool off on the porch that he'd figured it out. If Thigh-bolt had been telling the truth about living in Colorado—and granted, he might not have been, but let's say he was—it meant he'd been traveling from west to east. And the next town east? Not Arden. That's for sure. That was southwest from where they'd met. Instead, heading east would have brought the guy to good old Hampton. Right here, his hometown. Which meant, of course, the guy might be less than fifteen minutes from where he was sitting now. But where Was Clayton? Out searching for the guy? No, he was babysitting.' He squinted through the window again at his son. He was reading on the couch, which was the only thing the kid ever seemed to want to do. Oh yeah, except for the violin. He shook his head, wondering if the kid had gotten any of his genes at all. Not likely. He was a mama's boy through and through. Beth's son. Beth… Yeah, the marriage didn't work. But there was still something between them. There always would be. She may have been preachy and opinionated, but he'd always watch out for her, not only because of Ben, but because she was surely the best-looking woman he'd ever slept with. Great-looking back then and somehow even better-looking now. Even better-looking than the coeds he'd seen today. Weird. Like she had reached an age that suited her perfectly and somehow stopped aging after that. He knew it wouldn't last. Gravity would take its toll, but still, he couldn't stop thinking about having a quick roll in the sack with her. One for old times' sake, and to help him … unwind. He supposed he could call Angie. Or Kate, for that matter. One was twenty and worked in the pet store; the other was a year older and cleaned toilets at the Stratford Inn. They both had nice little figures and were always dynamite when it came time for a little bit of… unwinding. He knew Ben wouldn't care if he brought one of them over, but even so, he'd probably have to talk to them first. They'd been pretty angry at him the last time he'd seen either of them. He'd have to apologize and turn on the charm, and he wasn't sure he was up to listening to them smack their chewing gum and chatter away about what they'd seen on MTV or read in the National Enquirer. Sometimes they were too much work. So that was out. Searching for Thigh-bolt tonight was out. Looking for Thigh-bolt tomorrow was out, too, since Gramps wanted everyone over for brunch after church. Still, Thigh-bolt was walking, and with the dog and the backpack, it meant catching a ride was unlikely. How far could he get by tomorrow afternoon ? Twenty miles? Thirty at the most? No more than that, which meant he was still in the vicinity. He'd make some calls to a couple of other departments in the surrounding counties,, ask them to keep an eye out. There weren't that many roads leading out of the county, and he figured that if he spent a few hours making phone calls to some of the businesses along those routes, someone would spot the guy. When that happened, he'd be on his way. Thigh-bolt never should have messed with Keith Clayton. Lost in thought, Clayton barely heard the front door squeak open. "Hey, Dad?" "Yeah?" "Someone's on the phone." "Who is it?" "Tony." "Of course it is." He rose from his seat, wondering what Tony wanted. Talk about a loser. Scrawny and pimpled, he was one of those hangers-on who sat near the deputies, trying to worm his way into pretending he was one of them. He was probably wondering where Clayton was and what he was doing later because he didn't want to be left out. Lame. He finished his beer on the way in and tossed it in the can, listening to it rattle. He grabbed the receiver from the counter. "Yeah?" In the background, he could hear the distorted chords of a country-western song playing on a jukebox and the dull roar of loud conversation. He wondered where the loser was calling from. "Hey, I'm at Decker's Pool Hall, and there's this strange dude here that I think you should know about." His antenna went up. "Does he have a dog with him? Backpack? Kind of scruffy, like he's been out in the woods for a while?" "No." "You sure ?" "Yeah, I'm sure. He's shooting pool in the back. But listen. I wanted to tell you he's got a picture of your ex-wife." Caught off guard, Clayton tried to sound nonchalant. "So?" he said. "I just thought you'd want to know." "Why would I give a holy crap about that?" "I don't know." "Of course you don't. Holler." He hung up the phone, thinking the guy must have potato salad where his brains should be, and ran an appraising gaze over the kitchen. Clean as could be. Kid did a great job, as usual. He almost shouted that out from where he stood, but instead, as he caught sight of Ben, he couldn't help but notice again how small his son was. Granted, a big chunk of that might be genetics, early or late growth spurts, and all that, but another part came from general health. It was common sense. Eat right, exercise, get plenty of rest. The basics; things everyone's mother told their kids. And mothers were right. If you didn't eat enough, you couldn't grow. If you didn't exercise enough, your muscles stagnated. And when do you think a person grew? Night. When the body regenerated. When people dreamed. He often wondered whether Ben got enough sleep at his mom's. Clayton knew Ben ate—he'd finished his burger and fries—and he knew the kid was active, so maybe lack of sleep was keeping him small. Kid didn't want to end up short, did he? Of course not. And besides, Clayton wanted a bit of alone time. Wanted to fantasize about what he was going to do to Thigh-bolt the next time he saw him. He cleared his throat. "Hey, Ben. It's getting kind of late, don't you think?"Chapter 27 ClaytonI really like him, Nana," said Beth. Standing in the bathroom, she was doing her best with the curling iron, though she suspected that in the rain, all would be for naught. After a brief respite the day before, the first of the two tropical storms that were expected had entered the area. "I think it's time you start being honest with me. You don't just like him. You think he's the One." "I'm not that obvious," Beth said, not wanting to believe it. "Yes, you are. You might as well be sitting on the front porch picking petals off a daisy." Beth grinned. "Believe it or not, I actually understood that metaphor." Nana waved her off. "Accidents happen. The point is, I know you like him. The question is, does he like you?" "Yes, Nana." "Have you asked what that means?" "I know what it means." "Just making sure," she said. She glanced in the mirror and adjusted her hair. "Because I like him, too." She drove with Nana toward Logan's house, worried that her wipers couldn't keep up with the rain. Seemingly endless storms had swelled the river; though the water didn't quite reach the street, it was almost lapping at its edges. A few more daysofthis, j -she thought, and roads would begin closing. Businesses closest to the river would soon be stacking sandbags to prevent water from ruining low-lying merchandise. "I wonder if anyone is going to make it to the church today," Beth remarked. "I can barely see beyond my window." "A little rain won't keep people away from the Lord," Nana intoned. "It's more than a little rain. Have you seen the river?" "I saw it. It's definitely angry." "If it gets any higher, we might not be able to make it into town." "It'll all work out," she declared. Beth glanced across at her. "You're in a good mood today." "Aren't you? Since you stayed out all night?" "Nana," Beth protested. "I'm not judging. Just mentioning. You're an adult and it's your life." Beth had long grown used to her grandmother's pronouncements. "I appreciate that." "So it's going well? Even with your ex trying to cause trouble?" "I think so." "Do you think he's a keeper?" "I think it's a little early to even consider something like that. We're still getting to know each other." Nana leaned forward and wiped at the condensation on the window. Though the moisture disappeared momentarily, fingerprint smudges remained. "I knew right away that your grandfather was the One." "He told me that the two of you dated for six months before he proposed." "We did. But that doesn't mean I wouldn't have said yes earlier. I knew within a few days that he was the one for me. I know how crazy that sounds. But being with him was like toast and butter from the very beginning.'' Her smile was gende, her eyes half-c losed, as she remembered. "I was sitting with him in the park. It must have been the second or third time we'd ever been alone, and we were talking about birds when a young boy, obviously from out in the county, wandered up to listen. His face was dirty, he didn't have shoes, and his clothes, as ragged as they were, didn't even fit him. Your grandfather winked at him before going on, as if to tell the boy he was welcome to stay, and the boy kind of smiled. It touched me to think that he didn't pass judgment based on the way the boy looked." She paused. "Your grandfather kept on talking. He must have known the name of every kind of bird in this part of the state. He'd tell us whether they migrated and where they nested, and the sound of their calls. After a while, this young boy sat right down and just stared as your grandfather made everything sound… well, enchanting. And it wasn't just the young boy. I felt it, too. Your grandfather had this soothing, lullaby like voice, and while he talked, I got the sense that he was the kind of person who couldn't hold anger for more than a few minutes, because it just wasn't in him. It could never grow into resentment or bitterness, and I knew then that he was the kind of man who would be married forever. And I decided then and there that I should be the one to marry him." Despite her familiarity with Nana's stories, Beth was moved. "That's a wonderful story." "He was a wonderful man. And when a man is that special, you know it sooner than you think possible. You recognize it instinctively, and you're certain that no matter what happens, there will never be another one like him." By that point, Beth had reached Logan's graveled drive, and as she turned in and approached the house, bouncing and splashing through the mud, she caught sight of him standing on the porch, dressed in what seemed to be a new sport jacket and a pair of freshly pressed chinos. When hp waved, she couldn't suppress an ear-to-ear smile. The service began and ended with music. Nana's solo was greeted with hearty applause, and the pastor singled out both Logan and Nana, thanking Logan for fiUing in at the last minute and Nana for demonstrating the wonder of God's grace in the face of a challenge. The sermon was informative, interesting, and delivered with the humble recognition that God's mysterious works aren't always understood; Beth felt that their gifted pastor was one of the reasons membership in the church continued to grow. From her seat in the upper balcony, she could easily see both Nana and Logan. Whenever Ben was with his father for the weekend, she liked to sit in the same spot, so Ben would know where to find her. Usually, he caught her eye two or three times during the service; today, he turned around constantly, sharing his awe at the fact that he was friends with someone so accomplished. But Beth kept her distance from her ex. Not because of what she'd recently learned about him— though that was reason enough—but because it made things easier on Ben. Despite Keith's lascivious impulses, in church he behaved as though he viewed her presence as a dangerously disruptive force that might somehow upset his clan. Gramps sat in the center of the first row, with the family fanning out on either side and in the row behind him. From her spot, she could see him read along with the Bible passages, take notes, and listen intently to everything the pastor said. He sang every word to every hymn. Out of the entire family, Beth liked him the best—he'd always been fair with her and unfailingly polite, unlike most of the others. After church, if they happened to bump into each other, he always remarked that she was looking well and thanked her for the admirable job she was doing with Ben. There was honesty in the way he spoke to her, but there was a line in the sand as well: She understood that she wasn't to rock the boat. He knew she was a far better parent than Keith and that Ben was turning into a fine young man because of her, but that knowledge didn't override the fact that Ben was, and always would be, a Clayton. Still, she liked him—despite everything, despite Keith, despite the line in the sand. Ben liked him, too, and half the time she got the sense that Gramps demanded Keith show up with Ben to spare Ben from having to be alone with his father for the entire weekend. All of those realities were far from her mind as she watched Logan play the piano. She hadn't known what to expect. How many people took lessons? How many people claimed to be able to play well? It didn't take long to realize Logan was exceptionally skilled, far above the level she'd expected. His fingers moved effortlessly and fluidly over the keys; he didn't even seem to read the music in front of him. Instead, as Nana sang, he focused his attention on her while keeping perfect rhythm and pace, mote interested in her performance than his own. As he continued to play, she couldn't help thinking about the story that Nana had recounted in the car. Tuning out the service, she found herself recalling easy conversations with Logan, the feel of his solid embrace, his natural way with Ben. Admittedly, there was a lot she still didn't know about him, but she did know this: He completed her in a way that she'd never thought possible. Knowledge isn't everything, she told herself, and she knew then that, in Nana's words, he was the toast to her butter. After the service, Beth stood in the background, amused by the thought that Logan was being treated like a rock star. Okay, a rock star with fans who collected Social Security checks, but as far as she could tell, he seemed both flattered and flustered by the unexpected attention. She caught him looking at her, silently pleading for her to rescue him. Instead, she simply shrugged and smiled. She didn't want to intrude. When the pastor came up to thank him a second time for filling in, he suggested that Logan might want to consider playing even after Abigail's wrist was healed. "I'm sure we'd be able to work something out," the pastor urged. She was most surprised when Gramps, with Ben at his side, made his way over to Logan as well. Like Moses parting the Red Sea, Gramps didn't have to wait amid the throng to offer his compliments. In the distance, Beth saw Keith, his expression a mixture of anger and disgust. "Fine job, young man," Gramps said, offering his hand. "You play as if you've been blessed." She could see from Logan's expression that he recognized the man, though she had no idea how. He shook Gramps's hand. "Thank you, sir." "He works at the kennel with Nana," Ben piped up. "And I think him and Mom are dating." At that, a stillness fell over the throng of admirers, punctuated by a few uncomfortable coughs. Gramps stared at Logan, though she couldn't read his reaction. "Is that right?" he said. "Yes, sir," Logan answered. Gramps said nothing. "He was in the marines, too," Ben offered, oblivious to the social currents eddying around him. When Gramps seemed surprised, Logan nodded. "I served with the First, Fifth out of Pendleton, sir." After a pregnant pause, Gramps nodded. "Then thank you for your service to our country as well. You did a marvelous job today." "Thank you, sir," he said again. * * * "You were so polite," Beth observed when they were back home She'd said nothing about what had gone on until Nana was om of earshot. Outside, the lawn was beginning to resemble a lake and still the rain continued to fall. They'd picked up Zeus on the way back, and he lay nestled at their feet. "Why wouldn't I be?" She made a face. "You know why." "He's not your ex." He shrugged. "I doubt he has any idea what your ex is doing. Why? Do you think I should have clocked him?" "Absolutely not." "I didn't think so. But I did happen to see your ex while I was talking to the grandfather. He looked as though he'd just swallowed a worm." "You noticed that, too? I thought it was kind of funny." "He's not going to be happy." "Then he can join the club," she said. "After what he did, he deserves to eat a worm." Logan nodded, and she snuggled up to him. He lifted his arm and pulled her close. "You looked mighty handsome up there while you were playing." "Yeah?" "I know I shouldn't have been thinking that since I was at church, but I couldn't help it. You should wear a sport jacket more often." "I don't have the kind of job that requires one." "Maybe you have the kind of girlfriend who does." He pretended to be puzzled. "I have a girlfriend?" She nudged him playfully before looking up at him. She kissed him on the cheek. "Thanks for coming to Hampton. And deciding to stay." He smiled. "I didn't have a choice." Two hours later, right before dinner, Beth saw Keith's car plow through puddles on his way up the drive. Ben scrambled out of the cat. Keith already had the car in reverse and was pulling away before Ben reached the porch steps. "Hey, Mom! Hey, Thibault!" Logan waved as Beth stood up. "Hey, sweetie," Beth said. She gave him a hug. "Did you have a good time?" "I didn't have to clean the kitchen. Or take out the trash." "Good," she said. "And you know what?" "What?" Ben shook the water from his raincoat. "I think I want to learn how to play the piano." Beth smiled, thinking, Why am I not surprised. "Hey, Thibault?" Logan raised his chin. "Yeah?" "Do you want to see my tree house?" Beth cut in. "Honey… with the storm and all, I'm not sure that's a good idea." "It's fine. Grandpa built it. And I was there just a couple of days ago." "The water's probably higher." "Please? We won't stay long. And Thibault will be with me the whole time." Against her better judgment, Beth agreed.Clayton 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.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. Freshly showered, Beth was standing in her bedroom in an oversize T-shirt when Nana peeked her head in. "Do you want to talk about it?" Nana said. She jerked her thumb toward the window. "The school called to tell me you were on your way home. The principal seemed a little worried about you, and later I saw you pull up to the office. I figured the two of you were having a spat." "It's more than a spat, Nana," Beth said, her tone weary. "That I gathered from the fact that he left. And that you stayed on the porch so long afterwards." Beth nodded. "Was it about Ben? He didn't hurt him, did he? Or you?" "No, nothing like that," Beth said. "Good. Because that's the one thing that can't be fixed." "I'm not sure this can, either." Nana stared out the window before heaving a great sigh. "I take it I'll have to feed the dogs tonight, huh?" Beth shot her a look of annoyance. "Thanks for being so understanding" "Kitty cats and maple trees," she said with a wave of her hand. Beth thought about it before finally grunting in frustration. "What does that mean?" "It means nothing, but for a second there, you were too exasperated to feel sorry for yourself." "You don't understand…" "Try me," she said. Beth looked up. "He stalked me, Nana. For five years, and then he trekked across the country to search for me. He was obsessed." Nana was uncharacteristically silent. "Why don't you start from the beginning," she suggested, taking a seat on Beth's bed. Beth wasn't sure she wanted to talk about it, but she figured it was better to get it over with. She began by recounting Keith's visit to her classroom, and over the next twenty minutes, she told Nana about her abrupt departure from school, her agonizing un-certainty, and ended with her confrontation with Logan. When she finished, Nana folded her hands together in her lap. "So Thibault admitted he had the picture? And—in your words—babbled about it being a lucky charm and claimed that he came here because he felt that he owed you something?" Beth nodded. "Pretty much." "What did he mean by it being a lucky charm?" "I don't know." "You didn't ask?" "I didn't care, Nana. The whole thing is … creepy and weird. Who would do something like that?" Nana's eyebrows knit together. "I'll admit it sounds strange, but I think I would have wanted to know why he believed it was a lucky charm." "Why does that matter?" "Because you weren't there," she emphasized. "You didn't go through the things he did. Maybe he was telling the truth." Beth winced. "The picture isn't a lucky charm. That's crazy." "Maybe," Nana responded, "but I've been around long enough to know that strange things happen in war. Soldiers come to believe all sorts of things, and if they think something keeps the safe, what's the harm?" Beth exhaled. "It's one thing to believe it. It's entirely different to become obsessed with a photograph and stalk the subject." ' Nana put a hand on Beth's knee. "Everyone acts crazy at times." "Not like this," Beth insisted. There's something scary about this." - Nana was quiet before letting out a sigh.' You might be right." She shrugged; Beth studied Nana's face, suddenly overcome with exhaustion. "Will you do me a favor?" "What is it?" "Will you call the principal and ask him to bring Ben home after school? I don't want you driving in this weather, but I'm not really up to doing it myself."As 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.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."Clayton 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 15 BethDespite the rain, Thibault couldn't imagine going back to his house. He wanted to be outside; it didn't feel right to be warm and dry. He wanted to purge himself of what he had done, of all the lies he had told. She'd been right: He hadn't been honest with her. Despite the hurt he felt at some of the things she'd said and her unwillingness to listen, she had been justified in feeling betrayed. But how to explain? He didn't fully understand why he'd come, even when he tried to put it into words. He could see why she interpreted his actions as those of an obsessed madman. And, yes, he was obsessed, just not in the way she imagined. He should have told her about the photograph as soon as he'd arrived, and he struggled to remember why he hadn't done so. Odds were, she would have been surprised and asked a few questions, but it would have ended at that. He suspected that Nana would have hired him anyway, and then none of this would have happened. More than anything, he wanted to turn around and go back to her. He wanted to explain, to tell his whole story from the beginning. He wouldn't, though. She needed time alone-or at least time from him- Time to recover and maybe, just maybe, understand that the Thibault she'd come to care for was the only Thibault there was. He wondered whether time alone would bring forgiveness. Thibault sank in the mud; he noted as a car passed slowly that the water reached its axles. Up ahead, he saw the river stretching across the road. He decided to cut through the woods. Perhaps this would be the last time he would make this walk. Perhaps it t was time to return to Colorado. Thibault moved forward. The autumn foliage, still hanging on provided partial cover from the rain, and as he walked deeper into the woods, he felt the distance between them grow with each step he took.Chapter 17 ClaytonChapter 14 Clayton 秒速飞艇图解 Chapter 38 ThibaultChapter 19 ThibaultChapter 22 ThibaultChapter 37 ClaytonShe 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. Thibault loaded his backpack with the few provisions he had in the house. The wind was gusting and the rain still coming down hard, but he'd walked through worse weather before. Still, he couldn't seem to summon the energy he needed to walk out the door. It had been one thing to walk here; it was different to walk away. He was different. He'd left Colorado feeling more alone than he'd ever felt before; here, his life seemed full and complete. Or it had until yesterday. Zeus was finally settled in the corner. He'd spent most of the day pacing, restless because Thibault hadn't taken him for his walk. Every time Thibault got up to get a glass of water, Zeus scrambled to his feet, anxious to know if it was time to go. It was midafternoon, but the cloudy, rainy sky made it darker. The storm continued to lash the house, but he sensed it was in its dying stages; like a recently caught fish flopping on the dock, it wasn't going to go quietly. He spent most of the day trying not to think about what ha happened or how it all could have been avoided: that was a fools game. He had messed it up, simple as that, and the past couldnt be undone. He'd always tried to live his life without dwelling on things that couldn't be undone, but this was different. He wasn't sure he'd ever get over it. At the same time, he couldn't shake the feeling that it wasn't yet over, that something remained unfinished. Was it simply closure that he was missing? No, it was more than that; his wartime experience had taught him to trust his instincts, even though he'd never been sure where they'd come from. Inasmuch as he knew he should leave Hampton, if only to get as far away from Keith Clayton as possible—he was under no illusions that Clayton would forgive and forget—he couldn't bring himself to walk out the door. Clayton was the center of the wheel. Clayton—and Ben and Elizabeth—was the reason he had come. He just couldn't figure out why or what he was supposed to do. In the corner, Zeus rose to his feet and headed toward the window. Thibault turned toward him just as he heard a knock at the door. Instinctively he tensed, but when Zeus peeked through the glass, his tail started to wag. When Thibault opened the door, he saw Elizabeth standing before him. He froze. For a moment, they simply stared at each other. "Hi, Logan," she finally said. "Hello, Elizabeth." A tentative smile, so quick as to be almost nonexistent, flashed across her features. He wondered whether he'd imagined it. "May I come in?" Thibault stepped aside, studying her as she removed her slicker, her blond hair spilling out of the hood. She held it out uncertainly until Thibault took it from her. He hung it on the front door knob before facing her. "I'm glad you came," he said. She nodded. Zeus nosed her hand, and she stroked him behind the ears before turning her attention to Thibault again. "Can we talk?" she said. "If you'd like." He motioned to the couch, and Elizabeth took a seat on one end. He took a seat on the other. "Why did you give the photo to Ben?" she asked without preamble. Thibault studied the far wall, trying to figure out how to explain himself without making things even worse. Where to begin? "Tell me in ten words or less," she suggested, sensing his reticence. "Then we'll go from there." Thibault massaged his forehead with one hand before sighing, his eyes moving toward her. "Because I thought it would keep him safe." "Safe?" "Out at the tree house. The storm has weakened the whole structure, including the bridge. He shouldn't go there again. It's on the verge of collapse." Her gaze was intense and unblinking. "Why didn't you keep it?" "Because I felt like he needed it more than me." "Because it would keep him safe." Thibault nodded. "Yes." She fiddled with the couch cover before turning toward him again. "So you honestly believe what you said? About the photo being a lucky charm?" Zeus walked toward him and lay at his feet. "Maybe," Thibault said. She leaned forward. "Why don't you tell me the whole story?" Thibault gazed at the floor, resting his elbows on his knees, and began, hesitantly, to tell her the whole saga of the photograph. He started with the poker games in Kuwait, then moved on to the RPG that knocked him unconscious and the firefight in Fallujah. He detailed the car bombs and the IEDs he'd survived in Ramadi, including the one in which Victor claimed that the photograph had saved both their lives. He talked about the reaction of his fellow marines and the legacy of their distrust. He paused before meeting her eyes. "But even after all that, I still didn't believe it. But Victor did. He always had. He believed in that kind of stuff, and I humored him because it was important to him. But I never believed it, at least not consciously." He clasped his hands together, his voice becoming softer. "On our last weekend together, Victor told me that I owed a debt to the woman in the photo because the photo had kept me safe—that otherwise, there was no balance. It was my destiny to find her, he said. A few minutes later, Victor was dead, but I escaped unharmed. Even then, I didn't believe it. But then, I began to see his ghost." In a halting voice, he told her about those encounters, reluctant to meet her gaze for fear of seeing utter disbelief there. In the end, he shook his head and sighed. "After that, the rest is just like I told you. I was messed up, so I took off. Yes, I went to find you, but not because I'd been obsessed with you. Not because I loved you or wanted you to love me. I did it because Victor said it was my destiny, and I kept seeing his ghost. I didn't know what to expect when I got here. And then, somewhere along the way, it became a challenge—whether I could find you, how long it would take me. When I finally arrived at the kennel and saw the 'Help Wanted' sign, I guess I thought that would be a way to repay the debt. Applying for the job felt like the right thing to do. Just like when Ben and I were in the tree house; giving the photo to him felt like the right thing to do. But I'm not sure I could explain those things even if I tried." "You gave Ben the photo to keep him safe," Elizabeth repeated. "As crazy as it sounds? Yes." She digested this in silence. Then: "Why didn't you tell me from the beginning?" "I should have," he said. "The only thing I can think is that I carried the photo with me for five years, and I didn't want to give it up until I understood its purpose." "Do you think you understand it now?" He leaned over to pet Zeus before answering. He looked directly at her. "I'm not sure. What I can say is that what happened between us, everything that happened, didn't start when I found the photo. It started when I walked into the kennel. That was when you first became real to me, and the more I got to know you, the more real I felt. Happier and alive in a way I hadn't felt in a long, long time. Like you and I were meant to be." "Your destiny?" She lifted an eyebrow. "No … not like that. It has nothing to do with the photo, or the journey here, or anything Victor said. It's just that I've never met anyone like you before, and I'm certain I never will again. I love you, Elizabeth… and more than that, I like you. I enjoy spending time with you." She scrutinized him, her expression unreadable. When she spoke, her voice was matter-of-fact. "You realize that it's still a crazy story that makes you sound like an obsessive nut job." "I know," Thibault agreed. "Believe me, I feel like a freak even to myself." "What if I told you to leave Hampton and never contact me again?" Elizabeth probed. "Then I'd leave, and you'd never hear from me again." The comment hung in the air, pregnant with meaning. She shifted on the couch, turning away in apparent disgust before swiveling her face back toward him. "You wouldn't even call? After all we've been through?" she sniffed. "I can't believe that." Relief swept through him when he realized she was teasing. He exhaled, unaware that he had been holding his breath, and grinned. "If that's what it took for you to believe I'm not a psycho." "I think that's pathetic. A guy should at least call." He scooted imperceptibly closer on the couch. "I'll keep that in mind." "You do realize that you're not going to be able to tell this story if you intend to live around here." He slid even closer, noticeably this time. "I can live with that." "And if you expect a raise just because you're dating the boss's granddaughter, you can forget that, too." "I'll make do." "I don't know how. You don't even have a car." By then he had sidled up next to her, and she'd turned back to h hair just brushing his shoulder. He leaned in and kissed him: herneck. "I'll figure something out," he whispered, before pressing his lips to hers. They kissed on the couch for a long time. When he finally carried her to the bedroom, they made love, their bodies together as one. Their exchange was passionate and angry and forgiving, as raw and tender as their emotions. Afterward, Thibault lay on his side, gazing at Elizabeth. He brushed her cheek with his finger, and she kissed it. "I guess you can stay," she whispered.Thibault loaded his backpack with the few provisions he had in the house. The wind was gusting and the rain still coming down hard, but he'd walked through worse weather before. Still, he couldn't seem to summon the energy he needed to walk out the door. It had been one thing to walk here; it was different to walk away. He was different. He'd left Colorado feeling more alone than he'd ever felt before; here, his life seemed full and complete. Or it had until yesterday. Zeus was finally settled in the corner. He'd spent most of the day pacing, restless because Thibault hadn't taken him for his walk. Every time Thibault got up to get a glass of water, Zeus scrambled to his feet, anxious to know if it was time to go. It was midafternoon, but the cloudy, rainy sky made it darker. The storm continued to lash the house, but he sensed it was in its dying stages; like a recently caught fish flopping on the dock, it wasn't going to go quietly. He spent most of the day trying not to think about what ha happened or how it all could have been avoided: that was a fools game. He had messed it up, simple as that, and the past couldnt be undone. He'd always tried to live his life without dwelling on things that couldn't be undone, but this was different. He wasn't sure he'd ever get over it. At the same time, he couldn't shake the feeling that it wasn't yet over, that something remained unfinished. Was it simply closure that he was missing? No, it was more than that; his wartime experience had taught him to trust his instincts, even though he'd never been sure where they'd come from. Inasmuch as he knew he should leave Hampton, if only to get as far away from Keith Clayton as possible—he was under no illusions that Clayton would forgive and forget—he couldn't bring himself to walk out the door. Clayton was the center of the wheel. Clayton—and Ben and Elizabeth—was the reason he had come. He just couldn't figure out why or what he was supposed to do. In the corner, Zeus rose to his feet and headed toward the window. Thibault turned toward him just as he heard a knock at the door. Instinctively he tensed, but when Zeus peeked through the glass, his tail started to wag. When Thibault opened the door, he saw Elizabeth standing before him. He froze. For a moment, they simply stared at each other. "Hi, Logan," she finally said. "Hello, Elizabeth." A tentative smile, so quick as to be almost nonexistent, flashed across her features. He wondered whether he'd imagined it. "May I come in?" Thibault stepped aside, studying her as she removed her slicker, her blond hair spilling out of the hood. She held it out uncertainly until Thibault took it from her. He hung it on the front door knob before facing her. "I'm glad you came," he said. She nodded. Zeus nosed her hand, and she stroked him behind the ears before turning her attention to Thibault again. "Can we talk?" she said. "If you'd like." He motioned to the couch, and Elizabeth took a seat on one end. He took a seat on the other. "Why did you give the photo to Ben?" she asked without preamble. Thibault studied the far wall, trying to figure out how to explain himself without making things even worse. Where to begin? "Tell me in ten words or less," she suggested, sensing his reticence. "Then we'll go from there." Thibault massaged his forehead with one hand before sighing, his eyes moving toward her. "Because I thought it would keep him safe." "Safe?" "Out at the tree house. The storm has weakened the whole structure, including the bridge. He shouldn't go there again. It's on the verge of collapse." Her gaze was intense and unblinking. "Why didn't you keep it?" "Because I felt like he needed it more than me." "Because it would keep him safe." Thibault nodded. "Yes." She fiddled with the couch cover before turning toward him again. "So you honestly believe what you said? About the photo being a lucky charm?" Zeus walked toward him and lay at his feet. "Maybe," Thibault said. She leaned forward. "Why don't you tell me the whole story?" Thibault gazed at the floor, resting his elbows on his knees, and began, hesitantly, to tell her the whole saga of the photograph. He started with the poker games in Kuwait, then moved on to the RPG that knocked him unconscious and the firefight in Fallujah. He detailed the car bombs and the IEDs he'd survived in Ramadi, including the one in which Victor claimed that the photograph had saved both their lives. He talked about the reaction of his fellow marines and the legacy of their distrust. He paused before meeting her eyes. "But even after all that, I still didn't believe it. But Victor did. He always had. He believed in that kind of stuff, and I humored him because it was important to him. But I never believed it, at least not consciously." He clasped his hands together, his voice becoming softer. "On our last weekend together, Victor told me that I owed a debt to the woman in the photo because the photo had kept me safe—that otherwise, there was no balance. It was my destiny to find her, he said. A few minutes later, Victor was dead, but I escaped unharmed. Even then, I didn't believe it. But then, I began to see his ghost." In a halting voice, he told her about those encounters, reluctant to meet her gaze for fear of seeing utter disbelief there. In the end, he shook his head and sighed. "After that, the rest is just like I told you. I was messed up, so I took off. Yes, I went to find you, but not because I'd been obsessed with you. Not because I loved you or wanted you to love me. I did it because Victor said it was my destiny, and I kept seeing his ghost. I didn't know what to expect when I got here. And then, somewhere along the way, it became a challenge—whether I could find you, how long it would take me. When I finally arrived at the kennel and saw the 'Help Wanted' sign, I guess I thought that would be a way to repay the debt. Applying for the job felt like the right thing to do. Just like when Ben and I were in the tree house; giving the photo to him felt like the right thing to do. But I'm not sure I could explain those things even if I tried." "You gave Ben the photo to keep him safe," Elizabeth repeated. "As crazy as it sounds? Yes." She digested this in silence. Then: "Why didn't you tell me from the beginning?" "I should have," he said. "The only thing I can think is that I carried the photo with me for five years, and I didn't want to give it up until I understood its purpose." "Do you think you understand it now?" He leaned over to pet Zeus before answering. He looked directly at her. "I'm not sure. What I can say is that what happened between us, everything that happened, didn't start when I found the photo. It started when I walked into the kennel. That was when you first became real to me, and the more I got to know you, the more real I felt. Happier and alive in a way I hadn't felt in a long, long time. Like you and I were meant to be." "Your destiny?" She lifted an eyebrow. "No … not like that. It has nothing to do with the photo, or the journey here, or anything Victor said. It's just that I've never met anyone like you before, and I'm certain I never will again. I love you, Elizabeth… and more than that, I like you. I enjoy spending time with you." She scrutinized him, her expression unreadable. When she spoke, her voice was matter-of-fact. "You realize that it's still a crazy story that makes you sound like an obsessive nut job." "I know," Thibault agreed. "Believe me, I feel like a freak even to myself." "What if I told you to leave Hampton and never contact me again?" Elizabeth probed. "Then I'd leave, and you'd never hear from me again." The comment hung in the air, pregnant with meaning. She shifted on the couch, turning away in apparent disgust before swiveling her face back toward him. "You wouldn't even call? After all we've been through?" she sniffed. "I can't believe that." Relief swept through him when he realized she was teasing. He exhaled, unaware that he had been holding his breath, and grinned. "If that's what it took for you to believe I'm not a psycho." "I think that's pathetic. A guy should at least call." He scooted imperceptibly closer on the couch. "I'll keep that in mind." "You do realize that you're not going to be able to tell this story if you intend to live around here." He slid even closer, noticeably this time. "I can live with that." "And if you expect a raise just because you're dating the boss's granddaughter, you can forget that, too." "I'll make do." "I don't know how. You don't even have a car." By then he had sidled up next to her, and she'd turned back to h hair just brushing his shoulder. He leaned in and kissed him: herneck. "I'll figure something out," he whispered, before pressing his lips to hers. They kissed on the couch for a long time. When he finally carried her to the bedroom, they made love, their bodies together as one. Their exchange was passionate and angry and forgiving, as raw and tender as their emotions. Afterward, Thibault lay on his side, gazing at Elizabeth. He brushed her cheek with his finger, and she kissed it. "I guess you can stay," she whispered.Chapter 16 ThibaultChapter 28 BethClayton 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?"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 6 ThibaultChapter 2 ThibaultOn Saturday evening Thibault waited on the couch, wondering if he was doing the right thing. In another place and time, he wouldn't have thought twice about it. He was attracted to Elizabeth, certainly. He liked her openness and intelligence, and together with her playful sense of humor, and of course her looks, he couldn't imagine how she'd remained single as long as she had. But it wasn't another place and time, and nothing was normal about any of this. He'd carried her picture for more than five years. He'd searched the country for her. He'd come to Hampton and taken a job that kept him close to her. He'd befriended her grandmother, her son, and then her. Now, they were minutes away from their first date. He'd come for a reason. He'd accepted that as soon as he'd left Colorado. He'd accepted that Victor had been right. He still wasn't sure, however, that meeting her—becoming close to her— was it. Nor was he sure that it wasn't. The only thing he knew for sure was that he'd been looking forward to their evening together. The day before, he'd thought about it consistently on the drive to pick up Nana. For the first half hour on the way back to Hampton, Nana had chattered on about everything from politics to her sister's health before turning toward him with a knowing smirk. "So you're going to go out with the boss's granddaughter, huh?" Thibault shifted on the seat. "She told you." "Of course she told me. But even if she hadn't, I knew it was coming. Two young, attractive, and lonely single people? I knew it would happen as soon as I hired you." Thibault said nothing, and when Nana spoke again, her voice was tinged with melancholy. "She's as sweet as sugared watermelon," she said. "I worry about her sometimes." "I know," Thibault said. That had been the extent of their conversation, but it told him that he had Nana's blessing, something he knew was important given Nana's place in Elizabeth's life. Now, with evening beginning to settle in, he could see Elizabeth's car coming up the drive, the front end bouncing slightly in the potholes. She hadn't told him anything about where they were going, other than to dress casually. He stepped out onto the porch as she pulled to a stop in front of the house. Zeus followed him, his curiosity alerted. When Elizabeth got out and stepped into the dim light of the porch, all he could do was stare. Like him, she was wearing jeans, but the creamy blouse she wore accentuated the sun-browned tint of her skin. Her honey-colored hair swept the neckline of her sleeveless blouse, and he noted that she was wearing a trace of mascara. She looked both familiar and tantalizingly foreign. Zeus padded down the steps, tail wagging and whining, and went to her side. "Hey, Zeus. Did you miss me? It's only been a day." She stroked his back, and Zeus whined plaintively before licking at her hands. "Now that was a greeting," she said, looking up at him. "How are you? Am I late?" He tried to sound nonchalant. "I'm fine," he said. "And you're right on time. I'm glad you made it." "Did you think I wouldn't?" "This place is kind of hard to find." "Not if you've lived here your whole life." She motioned toward the house. "So this is home?" "This is it." "It's nice," she said, taking it in. "Is it what you expected?" "Pretty much. Solid. Efficient. Kind of hidden." He acknowledged her double entendre with a smile, then turned to Zeus and commanded him to stay on the porch. He walked down the steps to join her. "Will he be okay outside?" "He'll be fine. He won't move." "But we'll be gone for hours." "I know." "Amazing." "It seems that way. But dogs don't have much sense of time. In a minute, he won't remember anything other than the fact that he's supposed to stay. But he won't know why." "How did you learn so much about dogs and training?" Elizabeth asked, curious. "Mainly books." "You read?" He sounded amused. "Yes. Surprised?" "I am. It's hard to tote books when you're walking across the country." "Not if you don't keep them when you finish." They reached the car, and when Thibault started toward the driver's side to open the door for her, she shook her head. "I might have asked you out, but I'm going to make you drive." "And here I thought I was going out with a liberated woman," he protested. "I am a liberated woman. But you'll drive. And pick up the check." He laughed as he walked her back around to the other side. Once he was settled behind the wheel, she peeked toward the porch. Zeus seemed confused about what was happening, and she heard him whining again. "He sounds sad." "He probably is. We're seldom apart." "Mean man," she scolded him. He smiled at her playful tone as he slipped the car into reverse. "Should I head downtown?" "Nope," she said. "We're getting out of town tonight. Just go to the main highway and head toward the coast. We're not going to the beach, but there's a good place on the way. I'll let you know when we're getting close to the next turn." Thibault did as she said, driving quiet roads in the deepening twilight. They reached the highway in a few minutes, and as the car picked up speed, the trees on either side began to blur. Shadows stretched across the road, darkening the car's interior. "So tell me about Zeus," she said. "What do you want to know?" "Whatever you want to tell me. Something I wouldn't know." He could have said, I bought him because a woman in a photograph owned a German shepherd, but he didn't. Instead he said, "I bought Zeus in Germany. I flew out there and picked him from the litter myself." "Really?" He nodded. "The shepherd in Germany is like the bald eagle in America. It's a symbol of national pride, and breeders take their work very seriously. I wanted a dog with strong, working bloodlines, and if that's what you want, you'll usually find the best dogs in Germany. Zeus comes from a long line of Schutzhund competitors and champions." "What's that?'" "In Schutzhund, the dogs ate tested not only in obedience, but in tracking and protection. And the competition is intense. Usually it lasts two days, and as a rule, the winners tend to be the most intelligent and trainable dogs of all. And since Zeus comes from a long line of competitors and champions, he's been bred for both those things." "And you did all the training," she said, sounding impressed. "Since he was six months old. When we walked from Colorado, I worked with him every day." "He's an incredible animal. You could always give him to Ben, you know. He'd probably love it." Thibault said nothing. She noticed his expression and slid closer to him. "I was kidding. I wouldn't take your dog from you." Thibault felt the continuing warmth of her body radiate down his side. "If you don't mind my asking, how did Ben react when you told him you were going out with me tonight?" he asked. "He was fine with it. He and Nana were already planning to watch videos. They'd talked on the phone about having a movie night earlier in the week. Made a date and everything." "Do they do that a lot?" "They used to do it all the time, but this is the first time since she had her stroke. I know Ben was really excited about it. Nana makes popcorn and usually lets him stay up extra late." "Unlike his mom, of course." "Of course." She smiled. "What did you end up doing today?" "Catching up around the house. Cleaning, laundry, shopping, that kind of thing." She raised an eyebrow. "I'm impressed. You're a real domestic animal. Can you bounce a quarter on your bedspread after you make it?" "Of course." "You'll have to teach Ben how to do that." "If you'd like." Outside, the first stars were beginning to emerge, and the car's headlights swept the curves of the road. "Where exactly are we going?" Thibault asked. "Do you like crabs?" "Love 'em." "That's a good start. How about shag dancing?" "I don't even know what that is." "Well, let's just say you're going to have to learn quick." Forty minutes later, Thibault pulled to a stop in front of a place that looked to have once been a warehouse. Elizabeth had directed him to the industrial section of downtown Wilmington, and they had parked in front of a three-story structure with aged wide-plank siding. There was little to differentiate it from the neighboring buildings other than the nearly hundred cars parked in the lot and a small wooden walkway that led around the building, stringed with inexpensive strands of white Christmas tree lights. "What's this place called?" "Shagging for Crabs." "Original. But I'm having a hard time visualizing this as a major tourist attraction." "It's not—it's strictly for locals. One of my friends from college told me about it, and I've always wanted to go." "You've never been here?" "No," she said. "But I've heard it's a lot of fun." With that, she headed up the creaking walkway. Straight ahead, the river sparkled, as if lit from below. The sound of music from inside grew steadily louder. When they opened the door, the music broke over them like a wave, and the smell of crabs and butter filled the air. Thibault paused to take it all in. The massive building's interior was crude and unadorned. The front half was jammed with dozens of picnic tables covered with red-and-white plastic tablecloths that appeared stapled to the wood. Tables were packed and rowdy, and Thibault saw waitresses unloading buckets of crabs onto tables everywhere. Small pitchers of melted butter sat in the center, with smaller bowls in front of diners. Everyone wore plastic bibs, cracking crabs from the communal buckets and eating with their fingers. Beer seemed to be the drink of choice. Directly ahead of them, on the side that bordered the river, was a long bar—if it could be called that. It seemed to be nothing more than discarded driftwood stacked atop wooden barrels. People milled around three deep. On the opposite side of the building was what seemed to be the kitchen. What caught his eye mostly was the stage located at the far end of the building, where Thibault saw a band playing "My Girl" by the Temptations. At least a hundred people were dancing in front of the stage, following the prescribed steps of a dance he wasn't familiar with. "Wow," he shouted over the din. A thin, fortyish woman with red hair and an apron approached them. "Hey there," she drawled. "Food or dancing?" "Both," Elizabeth answered. "First names?" They glanced at each other. "Elizabeth …" he said. "And Logan," she finished. The woman jotted down their names on a pad of paper. "Now, last question. Fun or family?" Elizabeth looked lost. "Excuse me?" The woman snapped her gum. "You haven't been here before, have you?" "No." "It's like this. You're going to have to share a table. That's how it works here. Everyone shares. Now, you can either request fun, which means you want a table with a lot of energy, or you can ask for family, which is usually a little quieter. Now, I can't guarantee how your table is, of course. I just ask the question. So, what's it be? Family or fun?" Elizabeth and Thibault faced each other again and came to the same conclusion. "Fun," they said in unison. They ended up at a table with six students from UNC Wilmington. The waitress introduced them as Matt, Sarah, Tim, Allison, Megan, and Steve, and the students each raised their bottles in turn and announced in unison: "Hey, Elizabeth! Hey, Logan! We have crabs!" Thibault stifled a laugh at the play on words—crab was slang for something undescribable picked up during sexual encounters, which was obviously the point—but was flummoxed when he saw them staring at him expectantly. The waitress whispered, "You're supposed to say, 'We want crabs, especially if we can get them with you.'" This time he did laugh, along with Elizabeth, before saying the words, playing along with the ritual everyone observed here. They sat opposite each other. Elizabeth ended up sitting next to Steve, who didn't hide the fact that he found her extremely attractive, while Thibault sat next to Megan, who showed no interest in him whatsoever because she was far more interested in Matt A plump, harried waitress rushed by, barely pausing to call out, "More crabs?" "You can give me crabs anytime," the students replied in chorus. All around them, Thibault heard the same response over and over. The alternative response, which he also heard, was, "I can't believe you gave me crabs!" which seemed to signify that no more were needed. It reminded him of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, where regulars knew ail the official responses and newcomers learned them on the fly. The food was first-rate. The menu featured only a single item, prepared a single way, and every bucket came with extra napkins and bibs. Crab pieces were tossed into the center of the table—a tradition—and every now and then, teenagers in aprons came by to scoop them up. As promised, the students were boisterous. A running string of jokes, plenty of harmless interest in Elizabeth, and two beers each, which added to the raucous spirit. After dinner, Thibault and Elizabeth went to the restroom to wash up. When she came back out, she looped her arm through his. "You ready to shag?" she asked suggestively. "I'm not sure. How do you do it?" "Learning to shag dance is like learning to be from the South. It's learning to relax while you hear the ocean and feel the music." "I take it you've done it before." "Once or twice," she said with false modesty. "And you're going to teach me?" "I'll be your partner. But the lesson starts at nine." "The lesson?" "Every Saturday night. That's why it's so crowded. They offer a lesson for beginners while the regulars take a break, and we'll do what they tell us. It starts at nine." "What time is it?" She glanced at her watch. "It's time for you to learn to shag." Elizabeth was a much better dancer than she'd suggested, which thankfully made him better on the dance floor, too. But the best part of dancing with her was the almost electrical charge he felt whenever they touched and the smell of her when he twirled her out of his arms, a mixture of heat and perfume. Her hair grew wild in the humid air, and her skin glowed with perspiration, making her seem natural and untamed. Every now and then, she'd gaze at him as she spun away, her lips parted in a knowing smile, as if she knew exactly the effect she was having on him. When the band decided to take a break, his first instinct was to leave the floor with the rest of the crowd, but Elizabeth stopped him when the recorded strains of "Unforgettable" by Nat King Cole began to waft through the speakers. She looked up at him then, and he knew what he had to do. Without speaking, he slipped one arm behind her back and reached for her hand, then tucked it into position. He held her gaze as he pulled her close, and ever so slowly, they began to move to the music, turning in slow circles. Thibault was barely conscious of other couples joining the dance floor around them. As the music played in the background, Elizabeth leaned into him so close that he could feel each of her slow, languid breaths. He closed his eyes as she put her head on his shoulder, and in that instant, nothing else mattered. Not the song, not the place, not the other couples around him. Only this, only her. He gave himself over to the feel of her body as it pressed against him, and they moved slowly in small circles on the sawdust-strewn floor, lost in a world that felt as though it had been created for just the two of them. As they drove home on darkened roads, Thibault held her hand and felt her thumb tracking slowly over his skin in the quiet of the car. When he pulled into his driveway a little before eleven, Zeus was still lying on the porch and raised his head as Thibault turned off the ignition. He turned to face her. "I had a wonderful time tonight," he murmured. He expected her to say the same, but she surprised him with her response. "Aren't you going to invite me in?" she suggested. "Yes," he said simply. Zeus sat up as Thibault opened Elizabeth's door and stood as Elizabeth got out. His tail started to wag. "Hey, Zeus," Elizabeth called out. "Come," Thibault commanded, and the dog bounded from the porch and ran toward them. He circled them both, his cries sounding like squeaks. His mouth hung half-open in a grin as he preened for their attention. "He missed us," she said, bending lower. "Didn't you, big boy?" As she bent lower, Zeus licked her face. Straightening up, she wrinkled her nose before wiping her face. "That was gross." "Not for him," Thibault said. He motioned toward the house. "You ready? I have to warn you not to expect too much." "Do you have a beer in the fridge?" "Yes." "Then don't worry about it." They made their way up the steps of the house. Thibault opened the door and flipped the switch: A single floor lamp cast a dim glow over an easy chair near the window. In the center of the room stood a coffee table decorated only with a pair of candles; a medium-size couch faced it. Both the couch and the easy chair were covered in matching navy blue slipcovers, and behind them, a bookshelf housed a small collection of books. An empty magazine rack along with another floor lamp completed the minimalist furnishings. Still, it was clean. Thibault had made sure of that earlier in the day. The pine floors had been mopped, the windows washed, the room dusted. He disliked clutter and despised dirt. The endless dust in Iraq had only reinforced his neatnik tendencies. Elizabeth took in the scene before walking into the living room. "I like it," she said. "Where did you get the furniture?" "It came with the place," he said. "Which explains the slipcovers." "Exactly." "No television?" "No." "No radio?" "No." 'what do you do when you're here?" "Sleep." "And?" "Read." "Novels?" "No," he said, then changed his mind. "Actually, a couple. But mostly biographies and histories." "No anthropology texts?" "I have a book by Richard Leakey," he said. "But I don't like a lot of the heavy postmodernist anthropology books that seem to dominate the field these days, and in any case those kinds of books aren't easy to come by in Hampton." She circled the furniture, running her finger along the slipcovers. "What did he write about?" "Who? Leakey?" She smiled. "Yeah. Leakey." He pursed his lips, organizing his thoughts. "Traditional anthropology is primarily interested in five areas: when man first began to evolve, when he started to walk upright, why there were so many hominid species, why and how those species evolved, and what all of that means for the evolutionary history of modem man. Leakey's book mainly talked about the last four, with a special emphasis on how toolmaking and weapons influenced the evolution of Homo sapiens." She couldn't hide her amusement, but he could tell she was impressed. "How about that beer?" she asked. "I'll be back in a minute," he said. "Make yourself comfortable." He returned with two bottles and a box of matches. Elizabeth was seated in the middle of the couch; he handed her one of the bottles and took a seat beside her, dropping the matches on the table. She immediately picked up the matches and struck one, watching as the small flame flickered to life. In a fluid motion, she held it to the wicks, lighting both candles, then extinguished the match. "I hope you don't mind. I love the smell of candles." "Not at all." He rose from the couch to turn off the lamp, the room now dimly lit by the warm glow of the candles. He sat closer to her when he returned to the couch, watching as she stared at the flame, her face half in shadow. He took a sip of his beer, wondering what she was thinking. "Do you know how long it's been since I've been alone in a candlelit room with a man?" she said, turning her face to his. "No," he said. "It's a trick question. The answer is never." She seemed amazed by the idea herself. "Isn't that odd? I've been married, I have a child, I've dated, and never once has this happened before." She hesitated. "And if you want to know the truth, this is the first time I've been alone with a man at his place since my divorce." Her expression was almost sheepish. "Tell me something," she said, her face inches from his. "Would you have asked me inside if I hadn't invited myself?" she asked. "Answer honestly. I'll know if you're lying." He rotated the bottle in his hands. "I'm not sure." "Why not?" she pressed. "What is it about me—" "It has nothing to do with you," he interrupted. "It has more to do with Nana and what she might think." "Because she's your boss?" "Because she's your grandmother. Because I respect her. But mostly, because I respect you. I had a wonderful time tonight. In the past five years, I can't think of a better time I've had with anybody." "And you still wouldn't have invited me in." Elizabeth seemed baffled. "I didn't say that. I said I'm not sure." "Which means no." "Which means I was trying to figure out a way of asking you in without offending you, but you beat me to the punch. But if what you're really asking is whether I wanted to invite you in, the answer is, yes, I did." He touched his knee to hers. "Where's all this coming from?" "Let's just say I haven't had a lot of luck in the dating world." He knew enough to stay silent, but when he lifted his arm, he felt her lean into him. "It didn't bother me at first," she finally said. "I mean, I was so busy with Ben and school, I didn't pay much attention to it. But later, when it kept happening, I began to wonder. I began to wonder about me. And I'd ask myself all these crazy questions. Was I doing something wrong? Was I not paying enough attention? Did I smell funny?" She tried to smile, but she couldn't fully mask the undercurrent of sadness and doubt. "Like I said, crazy stuff. Because every now and then, I'd meet a guy and think that we were getting along great, and suddenly I'd stop hearing from him. Not only did he stop calling, but if I happened to bump into him sometime later, he always acted like I had the plague. I didn't understand it. I still don't. And it bothered me. It hurt me. With time, it got harder and harder to keep blaming the guys, and I eventually came to the conclusion that there was something wrong with me. That maybe I was simply meant to live my life alone." "There's nothing wrong with you," he said, giving her arm a reassuring squeeze. "Give me a chance. I'm sure you'll find something." Thibault could hear the wound beneath the jest. "No," he said. "I don't think I will." "You're sweet." "I'm honest." She smiled as she took a sip from her beer. "Most of the time." "You don't think I'm honest?" She shrugged. "Like I said. Most of the time." "What's that supposed to mean?" She put the bottle of beer on the table and gathered her thoughts. "I think you're a terrific guy. You're smart, you work hard, you're kind, and you're great with Ben. I know that, or at least I think I do, because that's what I see. But it's what you don't say that makes me wonder about you. I tell myself that I know you, and then when I think about it, I realize that I don't. What were you like in college? I don't know. What happened after that? I don't know. I know you went to Iraq and I know that you walked here from Colorado, but I don't know why. When I ask, you just say that 'Hampton seems like a nice place.' You're an intelligent college graduate, but you're content to work for minimum wage. When I ask why, you say that you like dogs." She ran a hand through her hair. "The thing is, I get the sense that you're telling me the truth. You're just not telling all of it. And the part you're leaving out is the part that would help me understand who you are." Listening to her, Thibault tried not to think about everything else he hadn't told her. He knew he couldn't tell her everything; he would never tell her everything. There was no way she would understand, and yet… he wanted her to know who he really was. More than anything, he realized that he wanted her to accept him. "I don't talk about Iraq because I don't like to remember my time there." he said She shook her head. "You don't have to tell me if you'd rather not… "I want to," he said, his voice quiet. "I know you read the papers, so you probably have this image in your mind of what it's like. But it's not like what you imagine, and there's not really any way I could make it real to you. It's something you had to have experienced yourself. I mean, most of the time it wasn't nearly as bad as you probably think it was. A lot of the time—most of the time—it was okay. Easier for me than for others, since I didn't have a wife or kids. I had friends, I had routines. Most of the time, I went through the motions. But some of the time, it was bad. Really bad. Bad enough to make me want to forget I'd ever been there at all." She was quiet before drawing a long breath. "And you're here in Hampton because of what happened in Iraq?" He picked at the label on his bottle of beer, slowing peeling away the corner and scratching the glass with his fingernail. "In a way," he said. She sensed his hesitation and laid a hand on his forearm. Its warmth seemed to release something inside him. "Victor was my best friend in Iraq," Thibault began. **He was with me through all three tours. Our unit suffered a lot of casualties, and by the end, I was ready to put my time there behind me. And I succeeded, for the most part, but for Victor, it wasn't so easy. He couldn't stop thinking about it. After we were out, we went our separate ways, trying to get on with life. He went home to California, I went back to Colorado, but we still needed each other, you know? Talked on the phone, sent e-mails in which both of us pre* tended we were doing just fine with the fact that while we'd spent the last four years trying every day to avoid being killed, people back home were acting as if the world was ending if they lost a parking spot or got the wrong latte at Starbucks. Anyway, we ended up reuniting for a fishing trip in Minnesota—" He broke off, not wanting to remember what happened but knowing he had to. He took a long pull on his beer and set the bottle on the table. "This was last fall, and I… I was just so happy to see him again. We didn't talk about our time in Iraq, but we didn't have to. Just spending a few days with someone else who knew what we'd been through was enough for the both of us. Victor, by then, was doing okay. Not great, but okay. He was married with a kid on the way, and I remember thinking that even though he was still having nightmares and the occasional flashback, he was going to be all right." He looked at her with an emotion she couldn't name. "On our last day, we went fishing early in the morning. It was just the two of us in this little rowboat, and when we rowed out, the lake was as still as glass, like we were the first people ever to disturb the water. I remember watching a hawk fly over the lake while its mirror image glided directly beneath it, thinking I'd never seen anything more beautiful." He shook his head at the memory. "We planned on finishing up before the lake got too crowded; then we were going to head into town later and have some beers and steaks. A little celebration to end our trip. But time just sort of got away from us and we ended up staying on the lake too long." He started to knead his forehead, trying to keep his composure. "I'd seen the boat earlier. I don't know why I noticed that one among all the others. Maybe my time in Iraq had something to do with it, but I remembered thinking to myself to keep an eye out for them. It was strange, though. It wasn't as if they were doing anything different than any of the other boaters out there. Just some teenagers having fun: waterskiing, tubing. There were six of them on the boat—three boys and three girls—and you could tell they were out there for a last hurrah on the water while it was still warm enough to do so." When he continued, his voice was hoarse. "I heard it coming," he said, "and I knew we were in trouble even before I saw it. There's a particular sound that an engine makes when it turns in your direction at full speed. It's like the noise begins to trail behind the engine by a millisecond that the brain can pick up only subconsciously, and I knew we were in trouble. I barely had time to turn my head before I saw the bow coming at us at thirty miles an hour." He pressed his fingertips together. "By then, Victor had realized what was happening, and I can still remember his expression—it was this horrible mixture of fear and surprise—the exact same thing I'd seen on faces of my friends in Iraq right before they died." He exhaled slowly. "The boat sliced right through ours. It hit Victor head-on and killed him instantly. One minute we were talking about how happy he was that he'd married his wife, and in the next instant, my best friend—the best friend I'd ever had— was dead." Elizabeth put her hand on his knee and squeezed it. Her face had grown pale. "I'm so sorry…" He didn't seem to hear her. "It's just not fair, you know? To live through three tours in Iraq, to survive some of the things we had… only to be killed on a fishing trip.? It didn't make sense. After that, I don't know, I was pretty messed up. Not physically. But mentally, it's like I went down a deep hole for a long time. I just gave up. I couldn't eat, I couldn't sleep more than a few hours a night, and there were times when I couldn't stop crying. Victor had confessed to me that he was haunted by visions of dead soldiers, and after his death, I became haunted, too. All of a sudden, the war was front and center again. Every time I tried to go to sleep, I'd see Victor or scenes from the firefights we'd lived through and I'd start shaking all over. The only thing that kept me from going completely crazy was Zeus." He stopped to look at Elizabeth. Despite his memories, he was struck by the beauty of her face and the dark gold curtain of her hair. Her face registered her compassion. "I don't know what to say. "I don't either." He shrugged. "I still don't." "You know it wasn't your fault, right?" "Yeah," he muttered "But that's not where the story ends." He put his hand on hers, knowing he'd come too far with his story to stop. "Victor liked to talk about destiny," he finally said. "He was a big believer in all sorts of things like that, and on our last day together, he said that I would know my destiny when I found it. I couldn't get that thought out of my mind even while I was struggling. I kept hearing him say it over and over, and little by little, I slowly came to the realization that while I wasn't sure where to find it, I knew I wouldn't find it in Colorado. Eventually, I packed my backpack and just started to walk. My mom thought I'd lost my mind. But with every step I took down the road, I began to feel like I was becoming whole again. Like the journey was what I needed to heal. And by the time I got to Hampton, I knew I didn't need to walk any further. This was the place I was meant to go." "So you stayed." "Yeah." "And your destiny?" He didn't respond. He'd told her as much of the truth as he could, and he didn't want to lie to her. He stared at her hand beneath his, and all at once, everything about this felt wrong. He knew he should end it before it went any further. Get up from the couch and walk her back to the car. Say good night and leave Hampton before the sun came up tomorrow. But he couldn't say the words; he couldn't make himself get up from the couch. Something else had taken hold of him, and he turned toward her with dawning amazement. He'd walked halfway across the country in search of a woman he knew only in a photograph and ended up slowly but surely falling in love with this real, vulnerable, beautiful woman who made him feel alive in a way he hadn't been since the war. He didn't fully understand it, but he'd never been more certain of anything in his life. What he saw in her expression was enough to tell him that she was feeling exactly the same way, and he gently pulled her toward him. As his face drew near to hers, he could feel her heated breaths as he brushed his lips against hers once and then twice before finally meeting them for good. Burying his hands in her hair, he kissed her with everything he had, everything he wanted to be. He heard a soft murmur of contentment as he slid his arms around her. He opened his mouth slightly and felt her tongue against his, and all at once, he knew that she was right for him, what was happening was the right thing for both of them. He kissed her cheek and her neck, nibbling softly, then kissed her lips again. They stood from the couch, still entwined, and he led her quietly to the bedroom. They took their time making love. Thibault moved above her, wanting it to last forever, while whispering his love for her. He felt her body quiver with pleasure again and again. Afterward, she remained curled beneath his arm, her body coiled in contentment. They talked and laughed and nuzzled, and after making love a second time, he lay beside her, staring into her eyes before running a gentle finger along her cheek. He felt the words rise up inside him, words he had never imagined himself saying to anyone. "I love you Elizabeth," he whispered, knowing they were true in every way. She reached for his fingers before kissing them one by one. "I love you, too, Logan."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.On his way home from the pool hall, Thibault remembered his second tour in Iraq. It went like this: Fallujah, spring 2004. The First, Fifth, among other units, was ordered in to pacify the escalating violence since the fall of Baghdad the year before. Civilians knew what to expect and began to flee the city, choking the highways. Maybe a third of the city evacuated within a day. Air strikes were called in, then the marines. They moved block by block, house by house, room by room, in some of the most intense fighting since the opening days of the invasion. In three days, they controlled a quarter of the city, but the growing number of civilian deaths prompted a cease-fire. A decision was made to abandon the operation, and most of the forces withdrew, including Thibault's company. But not all of his company withdrew. On the second day of operations, at the southern, industrial end of town, Thibault and his platoon were ordered to investigate a building rumored to hold a cache of weapons. The particular building hadn't been pinpointed however; it could be any one of a dozen dilapidated structures clustered near an abandoned gas station, forming a rough semicircle. Thibault and his platoon moved in, toward the buildings, giving the gas station a wide berth. Half went right, half went left. All was quiet, and then it wasn't. The gas station suddenly exploded. Flames leapt toward the sky, the explosion knocking half of the men to the ground, shattering eardrums. Thibault was dazed; his peripheral vision had gone black, and everything else was blurry. All at once, a hail of fire poured from the windows and rooftops above them and from behind the burned-out remains of automobiles in the streets. Thibault found himself on the ground beside Victor. Two of the others in his platoon, Matt and Kevin—Mad Dog and K-Man, respectively—were with them, and the training of the corps kicked in. The brotherhood kicked in. Despite the onslaught, despite his fear, despite an almost certain death, Victor reached for his rifle and rose to one knee, zeroing in on the enemy. He fired, then fired again, his movements calm and focused, steady. Mad Dog reached for his rifle and did the same. One by one they rose; one by one fire teams were formed. Fire. Cover. Move. Except they couldn't move. There was no place to go. One marine toppled, then another. Then a third and a fourth. By the time reinforcements arrived, it was almost too late. Mad Dog had been shot in the femoral artery; despite having a tourniquet, he'd bled to death within minutes. Kevin was shot in the head and died instantly. Ten others were wounded. Only a few emerged unscathed: Thibault and Victor were among them. In the pool hall, one of the young men he'd spoken with reminded him of Mad Dog. They could have been brothers—same height and weight, same hair, same manner of speaking—and there had been an instant there where he'd wondered whether they were brothers before telling himself that it simply wasn't possible. He'd known the chance he was taking with his plan. In small towns, strangers are always suspect, and toward the end of the evening, he'd seen the skinny guy with bad skin make a call from the pay phone near the bathroom, eyeing Thibault nervously as he did so. He'd been jumpy before the call as well, and Thibault assumed the call had been either to the woman in the photograph or to someone close to her. Those suspicions were confirmed when Thibault had left. Predictably, the man had followed him to the door to see which way he was walking, which was why Thibault had headed in the opposite direction before doubling back. When he'd arrived at the run-down pool hall, he'd bypassed the bar and made straight for the pool tables. He quickly identified the guys in the appropriate age group, most of whom seemed to be single. He asked to join in and put up with the requisite grumbling. Made nice, bought a few rounds of beers while losing a few games at pool, and sure enough, they began to loosen up. Casually, he asked about the social life in town. He missed the necessary shots. He congratulated them when they made a shot. Eventually, they started asking about him. Where was he from? What was he doing here? He hemmed and hawed, mumbling something about a girl, and changed the subject. He fed their curiosity. He bought more beers, and when they asked again, he reluctantly shared his story: that he'd gone to the fair with a friend a few years back and met a girl. They'd hit it off. He went on and on about how great she was and how she'd told him to look her up if he ever came to town again. And he wanted to, but damned if he could remember her name. You don't remember her name? they asked. No, he answered. I've never been good with names. I got hit in the head with a baseball when I was a kid, and my memory doesn't work so good. He shrugged, knowing they would laugh, and they did. I got a photo, though, he added, making it sound like an afterthought. Do you have it with you? Yeah. I think I do. He rummaged through his pockets and pulled out the photo. The men gathered around. A moment later, one of them began shaking his head. You're out of luck, he said. She's off-limits. She's married! No, but 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. Thibault swallowed. Who is she? Beth Green, they said. She's a teacher at Hampton Elementary and lives With her grandma in the house at Sunshine Kennels Beth Green. Or, more accurately, Thibault thought, Elizabeth Green. E. It was while they were talking that Thibault realized one of the people he'd shown the picture to had slipped away. I guess I'm out of luck, then, Thibault said, taking back the photo. He stayed for another half hour to cover his tracks. He made more small talk. He watched the stranger with the bad skin make the phone call and saw the disappointment in his reaction. Like a kid who got in trouble for tattling. Good. Still, Thibault had the feeling he'd see the stranger again. He bought more beers and lost more games, glancing occasionally at the door to see if anyone arrived. No one did. In time, he held up his hands and said he was out of money. He was going to hit the road. It had cost him a little more than a hundred dollars. They assured him he was welcome to join them anytime. He barely heard them. Instead, all he could think was that he now had a name to go with the face, and that the next step was to meet her.I take it you had a good time," Nana drawled. It was Sunday morning, and Beth had just stumbled down to the kitchen table. Ben was still sleeping upstairs. "We did," she said, yawning. "And?" "And … nothing." "You got in kind of late, considering you did nothing." "It wasn't that late. See? I'm up bright and early." She poked her head into the refrigerator, then closed the door without removing anything. "That would be impossible if I got in too late. And why are you so curious?" "I just want to know if I'll still have an employee on Monday." Nana poured herself a cup of coffee and collapsed into a chair at the table. "I don't see why you wouldn't." "So it went well?" This time, Beth let the question hang for a moment as she remembered the evening. Stirring her coffee, she felt happier than she had in a long time. "Yeah," she offered. "It went well." * * * During the next few days, Beth spent as much time with Logan as she could, without making it seem too obvious to Ben. She wasn't sure why that felt important. It did seem consistent with the kind of advice family counselors would offer about the realities of dating when children were involved. But deep down, she knew that wasn't the entire reason. There was just something exciting about maintaining the pretense that nothing had changed between them; it gave the relationship an illicit feeling, almost like an affair. It didn't fool Nana, of course. Every now and then while Beth and Logan were engaged in keeping up their elaborate facade, Nana would mutter something nonsensical like "camels in the Sahara" or "it's like hair and slippers." Later, with Logan, Beth would try to make sense of her mutterings. The first seemed to imply they were meant to be together; the second took a little longer to figure out, and she was stumped until Logan shrugged and suggested, "Maybe it has something to do with 'Rapunzel' and 'Cinderella'?" Fairy tales. But good ones, with happily-ever-after endings. Nana being sweet without revealing herself as a softie. Those stolen moments when they were alone had an almost dreamlike intensity. Beth was hyperattuned to his every movement and gesture, tantalized by the quiet way he'd take her hand as they trailed behind Ben on their evening walks, then release it as soon as Ben rounded into view again. Logan had a sixth sense about how far away Ben had wandered—a skill developed, she guessed, in the military—and she was grateful that her desire to fly under the radar for now didn't bother him in the slightest. To her relief, Logan continued to treat Ben exactly as he had before. On Monday, he showed up with a small bow-and-arrow set he'd picked up at the sporting goods store. He and Ben spent an hour shooting at targets, time that was mainly used searching for wayward shots that ended up in prickly holly bushes or snagged in tree branches, leaving them both with scratches up to their elbows. After dinner, they ended up playing chess in the living room while she and Nana cleaned up the kitchen. As she dried the dishes, she concluded that if for no other reason, she could love Logan forever simply because of the way he treated her son. Despite maintaining a low profile, they still found excuses to be alone together. On Tuesday, when she got home from school, she noticed that with Nana's permission, he'd installed a porch swing so "we don't have to sit on the steps." While Ben was at his music lesson, she reveled in the slow, steady motion of the swing as she sat beside him. On Wednesday, she rode with him to town to pick up another load of dog food. Everyday activities, but simply being alone with him was enough. Sometimes when they were in the truck together, he'd put his arm around her and she'd lean into him, savoring how good it felt. She thought about him while she worked, imagining what he was doing or wondering what he and Nana were talking about. She pictured the way his shirt would tack against his skin with perspiration or his forearms would flex as he trained the dogs. On Thursday morning, as Logan and Zeus walked up the drive to begin work, she turned from the window in the kitchen. Nana was at the table, slowly working her way into her rubber boots, a challenge made more difficult by the weakness in her arm. Beth cleared her throat. "Is it okay if Logan takes the day off?" she asked. Nana didn't bother to hide the smirk on her face. "Why?" "I want to get away with him today. Just the two of us." "What about school?" She was already dressed, her own lunch packed. "I'm thinking about calling in sick." "Ah," Nana said. "I love him, Nana," she blurted. Nana shook her head, but her eyes glittered. "I was wondering when you'd just come right out and say it, instead of making me come up with those silly riddles." "Sorry." Nana stood and stomped a couple of times, making sure the boots were snug. A thin layer of dirt collected on the floor. "I suppose I could handle things today. Probably be good for me. I've been watching too much television anyway." Beth tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. "Thank you." "My pleasure. Just don't make a habit of it. He's the best employee we've ever had." They spent the afternoon wrapped in each other's arms, making love over and over, and when it was finally time for her to return home—she wanted to be around when Ben got home from school-she was certain that Logan loved her as much as she loved him and that he, too, was beginning to imagine spending the rest of their lives together. The only thing that marred her perfect happiness was the sense she had that something was bothering him. It wasn't her—she was sure of that. Nor was it the state of their relationship; the way he acted when they were together made that obvious. It was something else, something she couldn't put her finger on, but in thinking back, she realized she'd first noticed it on Tuesday afternoon, just after she'd gotten home with Ben. Ben, as usual, had darted from the car to play with Zeus, anxious to burn off energy before his music lesson. As she stood visiting with Nana in the kennel office, she spied Logan standing in the yard, his hands in his pockets, seemingly lost in concentration. Even in the truck, as he'd slipped his arm around her, she could tell he'd remained preoccupied. And tonight after his game of chess with Ben, he'd wandered out onto the porch alone. Beth joined him a few minutes later and took a seat beside him on the swing. "Is something bothering you?" she finally asked. He didn't answer right away. "I'm not sure," he said. "Are you upset with me?" He shook his head and smiled. "Not at all." "What's going on?" He hesitated. "I'm not sure," he said again. She stared at him from beneath her lashes. "Do you want to talk about it?" "Yeah," he said. "But not yet." On Saturday, with Ben at his father's, they drove to Sunset Beach near Wilmington. By that point, the summer crowds had disappeared, and aside from a few people strolling the beach, they had the place to them.' selves. The ocean, fed by the Gulf, was still warm enough to enjoy, and they waded knee-deep in the surf as Logan lobbed a tennis ball beyond the breakers. Zeus was having the time of his life, paddling furiously and occasionally barking as if trying to intimidate the ball into staying in one place. She'd packed a picnic along with some towels, and when Zeus grew tired, they retreated farther up the beach and settled down for lunch. Methodically, she pulled out the makings for sandwiches and cut up fresh fruit. As they ate, a shrimp trawler rode the horizon, and for a long time, Logan focused on it with the preoccupied gaze she'd noticed on and off for most of the week. "You're getting that look again," she finally said. "What look?" "Spill it," she said, ignoring his question. "What's bothering you? And no vague answers this time." "I'm fine," he said, turning to meet her gaze. "I know I've seemed a little off for the last few days, but I'm just trying to figure something out." "What, exactly?" "Why we're going out." Her heart skipped a beat. It wasn't what she'd expected to hear, and she could feel her expression freeze. "That came out wrong," he said, shaking his head quickly. "I didn't mean it the way you think. I was thinking more about why this opportunity even existed. It doesn't make sense." She frowned. "I'm still not following you." Zeus, who'd been lying beside them, lifted his head to watch a flock of seagulls that landed nearby. Beyond them, at the water's edge, were pipers darting about for tiny sand crabs. Logan studied them before going on. When he spoke, his voice was steady, like a professor elaborating on a subject he taught. "If you look at this from my perspective, this is what I see: an intelligent, charming, beautiful woman, not yet thirty, witty, and passionate. Also, when she wishes, extremely seductive." He gave her a knowing smile before continuing. "In other words, a catch, by pretty much anyone's definition." He paused. "Stop me if I'm making you uncomfortable." She reached over and tapped his knee. "You're doing just fine," she said. "Go on." He ran a restless hand through his hair. "That's what I've been trying to understand. I've been thinking about it the last few days." She tried without success to follow his train of thought. This time instead of tapping his knee, she squeezed it. "You need to learn to be more clear. I'm still not following you." For the first time since she'd known him, she saw a flash of impatience cross his features. Almost immediately it was gone, and she sensed somehow that it was directed more at himself than at her. "I'm saying that it doesn't make sense that you haven't had a relationship since your ex." He paused, as if searching for the right phrase. "Yes, you have a son, and for some men, that might make a relationship with you a nonstarter. But then, you don't generally hide the fact that you're a mother, and I assume most people in this small town know your situation. Am I right?" She hesitated. "Yes." "And the men who asked you out. They all knew you had a son in advance?" "Yes." He fixed her with a speculative expression. "Then where are they?" Zeus rotated his head into her lap. and she began to stroke him behind the ears, feeling her defensiveness rise, "What does it matter?" she asked. "And to be honest, I'm not sure I'm all that thrilled with these kinds of questions. What happened in the past is my business, and I can't undo it, and I'll be damned if you're going to sit here and question me about who I dated and when I dated them and what happened on those dates. I am who I am, and I'd think you of all people would understand that, Mr. I-walked-from-Colorado-but-don't-ask-me-why." He was quiet, and she knew he was reflecting on what she'd said. When he spoke again, his voice brimmed with unexpected tenderness. "I'm not saying this to make you angry. I'm saying this because I think you're the most remarkable woman I've ever met." Again, he paused before going on, making sure his words had penetrated. "The thing is, I'm pretty sure that almost every man would feel the same way I do. And since you have gone out with other men, especially in this small town where there are only so many available women in your age group, I'm sure they would have recognized the terrific person that you are. Okay, maybe some of them weren't your cup of tea, so you ended it. But what about the others? The ones you liked? There had to have been someone, somewhere along the line with whom you seemed to click." He scooped up a handful of sand and slowly spread his fingers, allowing the grains to slip through his fingers. "That's what I've been thinking about. Because it's just not plausible that you wouldn't have clicked with someone, and yet you told me yourself that you haven't had a lot of luck in the dating world." He wiped his hand on the towel. "Am I wrong so far?" She stared at him, wondering how he knew so much. "No," she said. "And you've wondered about it, haven't you?" "Sometimes," she confessed. "But don't you think you're reading way too much into this? Even if I were as perfect as you say, you have to remember that times have changed. There are probably thousands, if not tens of thousands, of women that you could describe in the same way." "Perhaps." He shrugged. "But you're not convinced." "No." His clear blue eyes held her in their unwavering scrutiny. "What? You think there's some sort of conspiracy?" Instead of answering directly, he reached for another handful of sand. "What can you tell me about your ex?" he asked. "Why does that matter?" "I'm curious as to how he feels about you dating." "I'm sure he doesn't care in the slightest. And I can't imagine why you think that even matters." He released the sand all at once. "Because," he said, his voice low. He turned toward her. "I'm pretty sure he was the one who broke into my house the other day." 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."Chapter 24 ClaytonChapter 9 ClaytonChapter 23 BethOn 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."Chapter 5 Clayton 秒速飞艇图解 The EndChapter 2 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.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.It was nine o'clock on Saturday night, and he was stuck at home babysitting. Great. Just great. How else could a day like today end, though? First, one of the girls almost catches him taking pictures, then the department's camera gets stolen, and then Logan Thigh-bolt flattens his tires. Worse, he'd had to explain both the loss of the camera and the tires to his dad, Mr. County Sheriff. Predictably, his dad was spit' ting mad and somehow didn't buy the story he'd concocted. Instead he just kept peppering him with questions. By the end, Clayton had wanted to pop the old man. Dad might be a bigwig to a lot of the folks around here, but the man had no business talking to him like he was an idiot. But Clayton had kept to his story—he'd thought he'd seen someone, gone to investigate, and somehow run over a couple of nails. And the camera? Don't ask him. He had no idea if it had even been in the cruiser in the first place. Not great, he knew, but good enough. "That looks more like a hole made by a buck-knife," said his dad, bending down, examining the tires. "I told you it was nails." "There's no construction out there." "I don't know how it happened, either! I'm just telling you what happened." "Where are they?" "How the hell should I know? I pitched them in the woods." The old man wasn't convinced, but Clayton knew enough to stick to his story. Always stick to the story. It was when you started backtracking that people got in trouble. Interrogation 101. Eventually the old man left, and Clayton put on the spares and drove to the garage, where they patched the original tires. By then a couple of hours had passed, and he was late for an appointment with one Mr. Logan Thigh-bolt. Nobody, but nobody, messed with Keith Clayton, especially not some hippie drifter who thought he could put one over on him. He spent the rest of the afternoon driving the streets of Arden, asking whether anyone had seen him. Dude like that was impossible to miss if only because of Cujo by his side. His search yielded zippo, which only infuriated him further, since he realized that it meant Thigh-bolt had lied to his face and Clayton hadn't picked up on it. But he'd find the guy. Without a doubt he'd find the guy, if only because of the camera. Or, more accurately, the pictures. Especially the other pictures. Last thing he wanted was for Thigh-bolt to stroll into the sheriffs department and drop that baby on the counter—or even worse, head straight to the newspaper. Of the two, the department would be the lesser of two evils, since his dad could keep a lid on it. While his dad would blow a gasket and most likely put him on some crap detail for the next few weeks, he'd keep it quiet. His dad wasn't good for much, but he was good for things like that. But the newspaper… now that was a different story. Sure, Gramps would pull some strings and do his best to keep it quiet there, too, but there was no way that sort of information could be kept in check. It was just too juicy, and the news would spread like wildfire through this town, with or without an article. Clay-ton was already regarded as the black sheep of the family, and the last thing he needed was another reason for Gramps to come down on him. Gramps had a way of dwelling on the negative. Even now, years later, Gramps was still bent that he and Beth had divorced, not that it was even his business. And at family gatherings, he could usually be counted on to bring up the fact that Clayton hadn't gone to college. With his grades, Clayton could easily have handled it, but he simply couldn't imagine spending another four years in the classroom, so he'd joined his father at the sheriffs department. That was enough to placate Gramps. It seemed like he'd spent half his life placating Gramps. But he had no choice in the matter. Even though he didn't particularly like Gramps—Gramps was a devout Southern Baptist who went to church every Sunday and thought that drinking and dancing were sins, which always struck Clayton as ridiculous—he knew what Gramps expected of him, and let's just say that taking nudie pictures of coeds was not on the "to do" list. Nor were some of the other photos on the disk, especially of him and a few other ladies in compromising positions. That sort of thing would definitely lead to serious disappointment, and Gramps wasn't very patient with those who disappointed him, even if they were family. Especially if they were family. Claytons had lived in Hampton County since 1753; in many ways, they were Hampton County. Family members included judges, lawyers, doctors, and landowners; even the mayor had married into the family, but everyone knew Gramps was the one who sat at the head of the table. Gramps ruled the place like an old-fashioned Mafia don, and most people in town sang his praises and went on and on about what a quality man he was. Gramps liked to believe it was because he supported everything from the library to the theater to the local elementary school, but Clayton knew the real reason was that Gramps owned pretty much every commercial building in the downtown area, as well as the lumberyard, both marinas, three automobile dealerships, three storage complexes, the only apartment complex in town, and vast tracts of farmland. All of it made for an immensely wealthy—and powerful—family, and since Clayton got most of his money from the family trusts, the last thing he needed was some stranger in town making trouble for him. Thank God he'd had Ben in the short time he'd been with Beth. Gramps had this weird thing about lineage, and since Ben had been named after Gramps—a pretty slick idea, if he did say so himself—Gramps adored him. Most of the time, Clayton had the sense that Gramps liked Ben, his great-grandson, a lot more than he liked his grandson. Oh, Clayton knew Ben was a good kid. It wasn't just Gramps— everyone said so. And he did love the kid, even if he was a pain in the ass sometimes. From his perch on the front porch, he looked through the window and saw that Ben had finished with the kitchen and was back on the couch. He knew he should join him inside, but he wasn't ready just yet. He didn't want to fly off the handle or say something he'd regret. He'd been working at being better about things like that; a couple of months back, Gramps had had a little talk with him about how important it was to be a steady influence. Peckerhead. What he should have done was talk to Ben about doing what his dad asked when he asked, Clayton thought. Would have done a lot more good. The kid had already pissed him off once tonight, but instead of exploding, he'd remembered Gramps and pressed his lips together before stalking outside. Seemed like he was always getting pissed off at Ben these days. But it wasn't his fault; he honestly tried to get along with the kid! And they'd started out okay. Talked about school, had some burgers, tuned in to SportsCenter on ESPN. All good. But then, honor of horrors, he'd asked Ben to clean the kitchen. Like that was too much to ask, right? Clayton hadn't had the chance to get to it for the last few days, and he knew the kid would do a good job. So Ben promised he'd clean it, but instead of doing it, he'd just sat there. And sat. And the clock ticked by. And then he'd sat some more. So Clayton had asked again—he was sure he'd said it nicely—and though he couldn't be certain, he was pretty sure that Ben had rolled his eyes as he'd finally trudged off. That was all it took. He hated when Ben rolled his eyes at him, and Ben knew he hated it. It was like the kid knew exactly which buttons to push, and he spent all his spare time trying to figure out new buttons to hit the next time he saw him. Hence, Clayton had found himself on the porch. Behaviors like that were his mom's doing; of that, Clayton had no doubt. She was one hell of a good-looking lady, but she didn't know the first thing about turning a young boy into a man. He had nothing against the kid getting good grades, but he couldn't play soccer this year because he wanted to play the violin? What kind of crap was that? Violin? Might as well start dressing the boy in pink and teaching him to ride sidesaddle. Clayton did his best to keep that sort of pansy stuff in check, but the fact was, he had the kid only a day and a half every other weekend. Not his fault the kid swung a bat like a girl. Kid was too busy playing chess. And just so everyone was clear, there was no way on God's green earth that he'd be caught dead at a violin recital. Violin recital. Good Lord. What was this world coming to? His thoughts circled back to Thigh-bolt again, and though he wanted to believe the guy had simply left the county, he knew better. The guy was walking, and there was no way he could reach the far side of the county by nightfall. And what else? Something had been gnawing at him most of the day, and it wasn't until he'd come to cool off on the porch that he'd figured it out. If Thigh-bolt had been telling the truth about living in Colorado—and granted, he might not have been, but let's say he was—it meant he'd been traveling from west to east. And the next town east? Not Arden. That's for sure. That was southwest from where they'd met. Instead, heading east would have brought the guy to good old Hampton. Right here, his hometown. Which meant, of course, the guy might be less than fifteen minutes from where he was sitting now. But where Was Clayton? Out searching for the guy? No, he was babysitting.' He squinted through the window again at his son. He was reading on the couch, which was the only thing the kid ever seemed to want to do. Oh yeah, except for the violin. He shook his head, wondering if the kid had gotten any of his genes at all. Not likely. He was a mama's boy through and through. Beth's son. Beth… Yeah, the marriage didn't work. But there was still something between them. There always would be. She may have been preachy and opinionated, but he'd always watch out for her, not only because of Ben, but because she was surely the best-looking woman he'd ever slept with. Great-looking back then and somehow even better-looking now. Even better-looking than the coeds he'd seen today. Weird. Like she had reached an age that suited her perfectly and somehow stopped aging after that. He knew it wouldn't last. Gravity would take its toll, but still, he couldn't stop thinking about having a quick roll in the sack with her. One for old times' sake, and to help him … unwind. He supposed he could call Angie. Or Kate, for that matter. One was twenty and worked in the pet store; the other was a year older and cleaned toilets at the Stratford Inn. They both had nice little figures and were always dynamite when it came time for a little bit of… unwinding. He knew Ben wouldn't care if he brought one of them over, but even so, he'd probably have to talk to them first. They'd been pretty angry at him the last time he'd seen either of them. He'd have to apologize and turn on the charm, and he wasn't sure he was up to listening to them smack their chewing gum and chatter away about what they'd seen on MTV or read in the National Enquirer. Sometimes they were too much work. So that was out. Searching for Thigh-bolt tonight was out. Looking for Thigh-bolt tomorrow was out, too, since Gramps wanted everyone over for brunch after church. Still, Thigh-bolt was walking, and with the dog and the backpack, it meant catching a ride was unlikely. How far could he get by tomorrow afternoon ? Twenty miles? Thirty at the most? No more than that, which meant he was still in the vicinity. He'd make some calls to a couple of other departments in the surrounding counties,, ask them to keep an eye out. There weren't that many roads leading out of the county, and he figured that if he spent a few hours making phone calls to some of the businesses along those routes, someone would spot the guy. When that happened, he'd be on his way. Thigh-bolt never should have messed with Keith Clayton. Lost in thought, Clayton barely heard the front door squeak open. "Hey, Dad?" "Yeah?" "Someone's on the phone." "Who is it?" "Tony." "Of course it is." He rose from his seat, wondering what Tony wanted. Talk about a loser. Scrawny and pimpled, he was one of those hangers-on who sat near the deputies, trying to worm his way into pretending he was one of them. He was probably wondering where Clayton was and what he was doing later because he didn't want to be left out. Lame. He finished his beer on the way in and tossed it in the can, listening to it rattle. He grabbed the receiver from the counter. "Yeah?" In the background, he could hear the distorted chords of a country-western song playing on a jukebox and the dull roar of loud conversation. He wondered where the loser was calling from. "Hey, I'm at Decker's Pool Hall, and there's this strange dude here that I think you should know about." His antenna went up. "Does he have a dog with him? Backpack? Kind of scruffy, like he's been out in the woods for a while?" "No." "You sure ?" "Yeah, I'm sure. He's shooting pool in the back. But listen. I wanted to tell you he's got a picture of your ex-wife." Caught off guard, Clayton tried to sound nonchalant. "So?" he said. "I just thought you'd want to know." "Why would I give a holy crap about that?" "I don't know." "Of course you don't. Holler." He hung up the phone, thinking the guy must have potato salad where his brains should be, and ran an appraising gaze over the kitchen. Clean as could be. Kid did a great job, as usual. He almost shouted that out from where he stood, but instead, as he caught sight of Ben, he couldn't help but notice again how small his son was. Granted, a big chunk of that might be genetics, early or late growth spurts, and all that, but another part came from general health. It was common sense. Eat right, exercise, get plenty of rest. The basics; things everyone's mother told their kids. And mothers were right. If you didn't eat enough, you couldn't grow. If you didn't exercise enough, your muscles stagnated. And when do you think a person grew? Night. When the body regenerated. When people dreamed. He often wondered whether Ben got enough sleep at his mom's. Clayton knew Ben ate—he'd finished his burger and fries—and he knew the kid was active, so maybe lack of sleep was keeping him small. Kid didn't want to end up short, did he? Of course not. And besides, Clayton wanted a bit of alone time. Wanted to fantasize about what he was going to do to Thigh-bolt the next time he saw him. He cleared his throat. "Hey, Ben. It's getting kind of late, don't you think?" Clayton 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.Chapter 27 ClaytonThat 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.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.Chapter 28 BethClayton 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.