At the sight of her grandparents’ old farmhouse, with its wide front porch and empty rocking chairs, Becki Graw blinked back bittersweet tears. All her life she’d longed to live in Serenity’s beautiful countryside, but not like this. She stopped at the roadside mailbox and grabbed the mail—a single letter addressed to her. No return address.
That’s strange. Who would know to write to her here? She slid her thumb under the flap and pulled out the single typewritten page.
You don’t belong here.
Her heart jolted at the cold, black words. Who—?
She crushed the note in her fist. Sarah. Becki floored the gas and veered into the driveway, then punched her sister’s number on her cell phone.
Sarah answered on the first ring.
“You’ve sunk to new lows,” Becki fumed.
“I warned you I’d go to the lawyer if you didn’t agree to sell and split everything fifty-fifty. You should’ve listened to me.”
Becki ground to a stop in front of the white two-story willed to her by Gran and Gramps. It wasn’t as if they hadn’t left her sister anything. She’d gotten most of the liquid assets, not to mention all the financial help when her husband was in law school. Even if Becki sold the house, Sarah probably wouldn’t come out that much further ahead.
While Becki would lose the only place that had ever felt like home.
She looked at the darkened windows and empty porch and swallowed a rush of grief. “I’m talking about the note.”
“What note? I didn’t send any note.”
“Right. Because people are lining up to scare me out of here.”
To think she’d once idolized her beautiful older sister. No more. At twenty-seven, Becki could finally see Sarah for who she really was—a spoiled trophy wife as materialistic and money-grubbing as her flashy lawyer husband. “Gran and Gramps wanted this house to stay in the family, and I’m here to stay whether you like it or not.” Becki punched the power button and jumped from her packed-to-the-roof car.
Inhaling the sweet scent of summer in Ontario’s farm country, she shoved Sarah’s threats from her mind and turned to the home she loved so dearly.
If only the carbon monoxide detector had worked the way it was supposed to, Gran and Gramps would be bustling outside to wrap her in their arms this very moment.
Becki scrunched her eyes closed as memories flooded her mind. Swinging from the barn loft into a pile of hay. Fishing in the creek with Gramps. Collecting fragrant bouquets of bouncing bets for Gran. Her summers here had been her happiest. More than once she’d begged to be allowed to live here always.
But not like this—not without them. She pressed her arm against the ache in her chest.
The sun dipped behind the trees with a splash of brilliant reds and purples as if Gramps himself was painting a Welcome Home banner across the sky.
I can do this. I want to do this.
Let Sarah call her crazy for quitting her admin job and giving up the lease on her apartment. So what if she’d never find a husband in the boonies? Maybe she didn’t want one. If Sarah’s and Mom’s unhappy marriage experiences were anything to go by, she was better off single.
Besides, Sarah didn’t really care whether Becki found a husband or a decent job in Serenity. All she cared about was squeezing more inheritance out of their grandparents’ estate.
Indignant-sounding meows drifted from the weathered hipped-roof barn behind the house.
Kittens! Memories of laughter-filled afternoons playing with each summer’s new litter propelled her feet toward the barn. The light was fading fast, but from the way Mama Cat carried on, Becki would have no trouble finding them.
The meowing stopped.
She hurried past the enormous sliding door and pushed through the regular door next to it.
A flight of barn swallows swooped out a hole in the roof.
She paused while her eyes adjusted to the dim light slanting through the gaps in the weathered boards.
A yowl sounded from the back of the barn, but instead of a cat, her gaze lit on Gramps’s 1913 Cadillac. Oh, wow! How could she have forgotten about Gramps’s antique in here?
She drew in a deep breath. Now it was hers, along with everything else at the farm.
Sadness gripped her. Riding in the old car wouldn’t be the same without Gramps at the wheel. She just wanted her grandparents back.
She picked her way around the farm implements, her gaze tracking to the car every few seconds. How she’d loved riding with Gran and Gramps, all dressed up in old-fashioned clothes, to the church’s anniversary-Sunday celebration.
Becki danced her fingers over the hood and marveled at how little dust coated it even after all these weeks. Gramps had always taken such pride in keeping it polished.
A soft mew whispered from the shadows.
Grateful for the distraction, Becki rounded the car. “Here, kitty.”
A thunk sounded behind her.
Heart pounding, she whirled on her heel.
A puff of dust floated up from around a block of wood on the floor.
She peered up at the hayloft, thinking a cat must have knocked it down. The dust and smell of moldy hay scratched her lungs.
Movement flashed in her peripheral vision. Something big. Much bigger than a cat.
She ducked behind an upturned wheelbarrow and squinted into the shadows. “Hello.” She took a deep breath, forced her voice louder. “Anyone there?”
A faint echo taunted her.
She strained to listen for movement, but she couldn’t hear anything over the roar of blood pulsing past her ears. She edged around the wheelbarrow and scanned the other direction.
Something shuffled behind her.
She spun toward the sound. “Who’s there?”
A figure lunged out of the shadows, swinging a hunk of wood.
She thrust up her arms.
The wood glanced off and slammed into the side of her head.
White light exploded in her vision. She dropped to her knees, tasting blood. The ground rushed toward her.
Swishing whispered past her ears as blackness swallowed her.
Becki gripped her pounding head. What happened?
She opened one eye. The sight of a strange, shadowy room jerked her fully awake. Unfamiliar smells assaulted her. Dirt. And…
She froze. Now she remembered. Gramps’s barn. Someone had hit her.
She lifted her head a few inches and waited for the ringing in her ears to subside. She rolled onto her back and peered up at the loft. Was that where he’d been hiding?
Out of nowhere a beam of light flashed over the hood of the car.
She swallowed a scream.
The beam jigged across the barn wall, casting ghoulish shadows.
Hide. She had to hide. Pain rocketed through her head the instant she tried to rise. Gritting her teeth, she dragged herself away from the car—the first place he’d look. Only…why’d he leave, then come back?
She shrank behind an old tractor tire. The reason couldn’t be good.
“Bec? You in here?” Joshua Rayne called into his neighbor’s barn.
A gasp came from somewhere in the shadows.
He rushed forward. “Bec?”
Josh jerked his flashlight beam toward the tentative response. Bec sat huddled behind a tractor tire, her face chalky white.
Lowering the beam, he hurried to her. “What happened? Why are you hiding back here?”
“You scared me.”
His heart kicked at the crack in her voice. “I’m sorry.” He clasped her hand. Her fingers were far more delicate than those of the freckled tomboy she’d been the last time he’d found her hiding in this barn. He tugged her to her feet. “I saw the barn door open and—”
She swayed and clutched her head.
“What’s wrong?” He directed his flashlight beam toward her face.
Shielding her eyes, she leaned back against the tractor tire with a moan and soothed her swollen lower lip with the tip of her tongue. “Someone hit me.”
“Hit you?” Apparently that car he’d seen hightail it out of the farmer’s lane a minute ago hadn’t been just a couple of teens looking for a place to park as he’d supposed. He scanned her head for signs of trauma. “Are you okay?”
She pushed his light away. “I will be when you get that out of my eyes.”
Josh redirected his flashlight to the floor.
A four-foot length of timber lay on the ground a few feet away.
“Did you see who hit you?”
“I just saw a shadowy figure.”
“Tall? Short? Fat? Skinny?”
“I don’t know.” Bec clutched her head again. “Your average-sized shadow.”
He needed to get her inside and check her over properly. Irritability could be a sign of a concussion. He quickly swept his flashlight in widening circles. “Why’d you come in here in the dark?”
“I heard cats meowing and hoped to find kittens.”
Of course. Same old Becki.
She stepped past him and stroked the hood of her grandfather’s old Cadillac. “Then I saw Gramps’s car.”
At the emotion in her voice, Josh’s breath hitched. Her grandfather had had a way of making troubles seem not so bad. The hours he and Josh had spent together tinkering on the “old gal” had been a lifeline after his mother had up and left Serenity without so much as a backward glance. But he couldn’t help Josh through this loss.
Josh forced his mind back to the present, to his police training. “Did you hear or see anything that could help us identify who hit you?”
She started to shake her head, then winced.
Josh resisted the urge to wrap an arm around her shoulder and instead directed his flashlight at the items a thief might have been after. Nothing appeared to be missing, but he couldn’t be sure until daylight.
Misty twined herself around his legs, purring. He lifted her into his arms and scratched her chin. “I guess you’re looking for your supper, huh?” He turned to Bec, remembering how much she’d adored the cats as a kid. “I’ve been feeding them since your grandparents…” He lowered Misty to the ground and let the explanation trail off rather than dredge up her loss. He pointed his flashlight at a box beneath the car. “The kittens are under there.”
Her delighted squeal tugged a grin to his lips—his first since finding her grandparents’ lifeless bodies.
He tugged the box out from under the car.
Bec sat cross-legged on the floor and gathered the kittens into her arms.
Josh chuckled. She hadn’t changed a bit. For all her tomboy ways, she was still a soft touch. He gave Misty fresh food and water and then looked around as best he could without leaving Bec in total darkness. If only the barn had overhead lighting, he might find some clue to who she’d surprised. Most likely kids out for a lark. He hadn’t recognized the car he’d spotted as belonging to any of their usual troublemakers. He wished he’d gotten the license plate number.
Josh let his gaze settle back on Bec. Seeing her delight in the wiggling kittens, he could almost feel the years strip away to when they were both kids and life was carefree.
She winced, her forehead creasing.
“Hey, we’d better get you inside. Take a look at that bump. You might need to see a doctor.”
A frown curved her lips, but she returned the kittens to the box and pushed it back under the car, which told him more than words would how lousy she felt. When she was a kid, not even promises of chocolate cake and ice cream had been incentive enough to drag her away from the squirming fur balls.
He didn’t miss the way she braced her hand on the car fender to pull herself up, either. He moved to her side and, lighting the floor ahead of them, guided her with a light touch to the small of her back. “Do you feel nauseous?”
“A little. But I haven’t eaten since lunch.”
Outside the barn, he steered her toward his place. “Did you lose consciousness after you were hit?”
“I’m not sure. I think, maybe. Everything went black for a second or two.”
“You probably have a concussion. I can do a few tests to see if you should go to the hospital.”
She walked a little taller. “I’m fine really. I just need a couple of painkillers. All the doctor’s going to do is tell me to go home and take it easy.”
She squinted up at him, then at the tree line that separated their properties and abruptly stopped. “Hey, where are you taking me?”
“To my house. You said you hadn’t eaten, right?”
“You don’t have to feed me.”
“You’re in no condition to cook. Besides, it’ll be nice to have someone to eat with.” Life had been too quiet around here since her grandparents’ deaths.
“I don’t want to put you out,” she protested.
He nudged her forward. “It’s no imposition.”
She wavered a moment but soon started walking again. “Gramps told me you took over your parents’ place after your dad died. Did you still tinker with Gramps on the old car?”
“Yup. Went with them on one of those organized tours they were always taking, too. Saw some cool places most tourists don’t get to see.”
“I wish I could’ve gone on one. Gramps said he’d take me when I turned thirteen, but that’s when Mom left Dad, and I never got to come back for any more summers.”
He steered her around his truck in the driveway. “Yeah, come to think of it, life got pretty quiet around here without you girls.”
She swatted him.
He let out an oomph and clutched his gut.
He smiled to himself and mentally ticked off two of his concussion tests. Nothing wrong with Bec’s memory or her aim.
He led her to the side of the house and pulled out his key. “Feel like a steak?”
“You’re kidding? You still prefer a burger to steak?”
He pushed open the door, flicked on the light and motioned her in ahead of him. “What a cheap date. Guys must love you.”
She squirmed past him into the kitchen, then hesitated, her gaze flagging about, pausing briefly on his Home Is Where the Heart Is plaque, then stealing his way. She looked more uneasy than a suspect in custody.
But unlike with his suspects, he felt strangely sad seeing her this way. “Have a seat at the table while I light the barbecue.” He returned a moment later to find her nuzzling his three-legged pooch.
She spluttered at its exuberant kisses and wiped off the slobber with the back of her hand. “What’s his name?”
“I should have guessed. He moves amazingly quick for having only three legs.”
Josh filled Tripod’s dish, and the pooch demonstrated just how quick. “While the barbecue heats up, let’s take a look at this bump of yours.”
She finger-combed her hair as if only just realizing how messy it was.
He resisted the urge to tease. Her honey-brown corkscrew curls had always poked out every which way and been peppered with hay or leaves or twigs, depending on where she’d last played.
Dropping her hand, she fidgeted under his perusal. “That bad, huh?”
“I didn’t say anything.”
She rolled her eyes. “You didn’t have to.”
He didn’t bother to hide his grin. “Show me where you got hit.”
She leaned forward and pointed to the back of her head.
He palpated the area. Her hair was incredibly soft and smelled faintly like citrus. “That’s some goose egg.” He reached into his catchall drawer and pulled out a penlight. “Look at me.”
Her shimmering brown eyes turned to him, framed by the longest lashes he’d ever seen. Natural, too.
Her head tilted. “You planning to do something with that light?”
“Patience,” he muttered at being caught staring. He flicked the penlight on and flashed it across each eye. “They look good. Equal and reactive.”
“Why, thank you, Josh,” she drawled, batting those long lashes. “That’s the most romantic thing a man’s ever said about my eyes.”
“What?” He blinked, glimpsed her smirk and gave her a nudge. “You’re cute, Bec.” He tossed the penlight back into the drawer. “Now, stand up, arms out from your sides, and touch each hand to your nose.”
She stood and obeyed his directions effortlessly.
“Okay, take a seat.” He opened the cupboard next to the sink and grabbed a glass and the bottle of painkillers. He tipped two from the bottle, filled the glass with water and handed them to Bec. “Take these, and, if you want, you can lie down on the sofa until supper’s ready.”
She planted her palms on the table and pushed to her feet. “I can’t let you cook alone,” she protested, then immediately clutched the side of her head.
“As stubborn as ever, I see.” He scooped her into his arms and gently lowered her onto the sofa. “Rest. That’s an order.”
He turned on his heel and did his best to ignore the scent that lingered on his shirt, as it had after their embrace at the funeral home. “I’ll get those burgers grilling.”
She didn’t argue, which worried him. She’d always been a tough kid. Unless she’d changed dramatically in the past fifteen years, whoever had walloped the back of her head had done a serious number on her. Maybe he should ask his sister to come by after her shift at the hospital and check Bec over. It’d be easier than convincing Bec to go there.
He texted Anne a request to stop by and then pulled out the fixings for a decent supper. Sliced potatoes and onions. Peppers, carrots and zucchini for grilling. He dug through the freezer and unburied a couple of burgers that looked more like frozen hockey pucks. Forget it. She could learn to appreciate the good stuff. He tossed the burgers back into the freezer and pulled out a couple of filet mignons.
An hour later, he’d just set the last dish on the table when she meandered to the doorway, rubbing her eyes.
“Dinner is served.” He pulled out a chair and waited for her to take a seat. To humor her, he’d put her steak on a hamburger bun and brought out the mustard and ketchup. If she noticed the ruse, she didn’t comment.
He took the seat opposite her. “How do you feel now?”
“Hungry. This smells amazing.”
He opted to let her non-answer go. For now. His sister would be there soon enough. He reached across the table and clasped Bec’s hand.
Her eyes widened.
“Let’s pray,” he said quickly, not sure what to make of her reaction. He bowed his head. “Lord, we pray for your healing touch on Bec, and that you’d comfort her in her grief. Thank you for giving her a safe journey here and for this food and time together. Amen.” When Josh lifted his gaze, she was still staring at him, moisture pooling in her eyes.
“No one’s prayed for me like that since…Gran and Gramps. I…guess I’d forgotten how nice it felt.”
His throat tightened. She’d still have them if only…He gave her hand a warm squeeze. “Let’s eat.”
They ate in silence for a few minutes; then Bec set down her “burger” and reached for her fork. “What happened to the huge trailer Gramps usually kept the car in?”
“That’s over at Pete’s Garage. Your grandfather had some trouble with the car during the last tour he and your Gran took, so while we worked on finding the problem, he sent in the trailer to have the bearings repacked. I can give Pete a call. Ask him to bring it by.”
“I’m just amazed how clean the car stayed sitting out like that. There wasn’t a bird dropping on it.”
A steak morsel lodged in Josh’s throat. He coughed, swallowed hard. “You mean you didn’t pull off the canvas cover?”
He set down his knife and fork. He’d just assumed…He clenched his fist. A rookie mistake. After the front-page article the newspaper had run last week about the Graws, every would-be thief in three counties would’ve pegged the whole place as easy pickings until the new owner arrived. But if her assailant had come for the car…
“Are you telling me that Gramps didn’t leave it uncovered?”
Josh surged to his feet and paced to the window that overlooked the rear of the Graw property. Her arrival wouldn’t deter a car thief. He’d have to keep a close watch on the place.
And pray this guy didn’t return when Bec was home alone.
Becki shrank into the corner of Josh’s couch as he debated with his nurse sister whether she needed to see a doctor.
Even dressed in faded jeans and a black T-shirt, his furrowed brow radiating concern, he exuded a powerful presence. Not to mention he’d grown more handsome than ever. His dark hair no longer curled at his temple the way she remembered, but the trimmed look and broader shoulders reflected a strength and integrity that had clearly deepened in the past fifteen years.
How cruel could God be to let Joshua Rayne find her cowering in the barn like she was still a twelve-year-old kid?
The kid who’d had a hopeless crush on him—a sixteen-year-old boy who’d had eyes only for her gorgeous older sister.
Not that she’d ever admit to having a crush. Bad enough that she’d tumbled into his arms at the funeral.
Never mind that she’d been a wreck, and that when Josh had reached for her hand in the reception line, she’d known, without stopping to think, that he understood her sorrow.
She hugged a sofa pillow to her chest. He hadn’t hesitated a second before wrapping her in his arms, which should’ve been her first clue that he was still playing the protective big brother. At the time, she’d barely registered his whispered reassurances. The grief had been too raw. But now…
She pushed the pillow away. She did not want him thinking she was a helpless female who couldn’t take care of herself.
“Can you recite the months of the year in reverse order for me?” his sister asked.
Becki did, then turned back to Josh. “See. I’m fine.”
“Concussions can suddenly take a turn for the worse,” he argued, holding out his hand for her car keys. “Can’t they, Anne?”
“She’s agreed to stay already!” Anne snatched up Becki’s car keys and slapped them into Josh’s hand. “Go get her suitcase so we can finish the tests in peace.” Her eyes were twinkling when she turned back to Becki. “Just humor him for me, okay? I’m getting a free oil change out of the deal.”
“No way! He bribed you to stay the night?”