The MacKade brothers were looking for trouble. They usually were. In the small town of Antietam, Maryland, it wasn’t always easy to find, but then, looking was half the fun.
When they piled into Jared’s secondhand Chevy, they’d squabbled over who would take the wheel. It was Jared’s car, and he was the eldest, but that didn’t carry much weight with his three brothers.
Rafe had wanted to drive. He’d had a need for speed, a thirst to zip along those dark, winding roads, with his foot hard on the gas and his foul and reckless mood chasing behind him. He thought perhaps he could out-distance it, or perhaps meet it head-on. If he met it, bloodied it, conquered it, he knew he would just keep driving until he was somewhere else.
They had buried their mother two weeks ago.
Perhaps because his dangerous mood showed so clearly in Rafe’s jade eyes and in the cold set of his mouth, he’d been outvoted. In the end, Devin had taken the wheel, with Jared riding shotgun. Rafe brooded in the back seat with his youngest brother, Shane, beside him.
They were a rough and dangerous group, the MacKade boys. All of them tall and rangy as wild stallions, with fists ready and often too eager to find a target. Their eyes, MacKade eyes, all varying shades of green, could carve a man into pieces at ten paces. When the dark mood was on them, a wise man stayed back eleven or more.
They settled on pool and beer, though Shane complained, as he was still shy of twenty-one and wouldn’t be served in Duff’s Tavern.
Still, the dim, smoke-choked bar suited them. The slam and crack of the balls had just enough of a violent edge, the gaze of the scrawny-shouldered Duff Dempsey was just uneasy enough. The wariness in the eyes of the other customers, gossiping over their beers, was just flattering enough.
Nobody doubted the MacKade boys were out for trouble. In the end, they found what they were looking for.
While a cigarette dangled from the corner of his mouth, Rafe squinted against the smoke and eyed his shot. He hadn’t bothered to shave in a couple of days, and the rough stubble mirrored his mood. With a solid smack, a follow-through smooth as silk, he banked the cue ball, kissed it off the seven and made his pocket.
“Good thing you’re lucky at something.” At the bar, Joe Dolin tipped back his beer. He was, as usual after sundown, mostly drunk, and mean with it. He’d once been the star of the high school football team, had competed with the MacKades for the favors of pretty young girls. Now, at barely twenty-one, his face had begun to bloat and his body to sag.
The black eye he’d given his young wife before leaving the house hadn’t really satisfied him.
Rafe chalked his cue and barely spared Joe a glance.
“Going to take more than hustling pool, MacKade, to keep that farm going, now that your mama’s gone.” Dangling his bottle from two fingers, Joe grinned. “Heard you’re going to have to start selling off for back taxes.”
“Heard wrong.” Coolly Rafe circled the table to calculate his next shot.
“Oh, I heard right. You MacKades’ve always been fools, and liars.”
Before Shane could leap forward, Rafe shot out his cue to block the way. “He’s talking to me,” he said quietly. He held his brother’s gaze another moment before he turned. “Isn’t that right, Joe? You’re talking to me?”
“I’m talking to any of you.” As he lifted his beer again, Joe’s gaze skimmed over the four of them. At twenty, Shane was tough from farm work, but still more boy than man. Then Devin, whose cool, thoughtful gaze revealed little. Over Jared, who was leaning negligently against the jukebox, waiting for the next move.
He looked back at Rafe. There was temper, hot and ready. Recklessness worn like a second skin. “But you’ll do. Always figured you for the biggest loser of the lot, Rafe.”
“That so?” Rafe crushed out his cigarette, lifted his own beer. He drank as they completed the ritual before battle, and customers shifted in their chairs to watch. “How’re things going at the factory, Joe?”
“Least I get a paycheck,” Joe shot back. “I got money in my pocket. Ain’t nobody going to take my house from over me.”
“Not as long as your wife keeps putting in twelve-hour shifts working tables to pay the rent.”
“Shut your mouth about my wife. I earn the money in my house. I don’t need no woman paying my way, like your mama had to do for your old man. Went through her inheritance like it was water, then up and died on her.”
“Yeah, he died on her.” Anger and guilt and grief welled up inside him. “But he never laid a hand on her. She never had to come into town hiding behind scarves and dark glasses, and saying how she took a fall. Only thing your mother ever fell over, Joe, was your father’s fist.”
Joe slammed his beer onto the bar, shattering the glass. “That’s a lie. I’m going to ram that lie down your throat.”
“He’s drunk, Rafe,” Jared murmured.
Those lethal green eyes sliced toward his brother. “So?”
“So there isn’t much point in breaking his face when he’s drunk.” Jared moved a shoulder. “He’s not worth it.”
But Rafe didn’t need a point. He just needed action. He lifted his cue, studied it, then laid it across the table. “You want to take me on, Joe?”
“Don’t you start in here.” Though he knew it was already too late, Duff jerked a thumb toward the wall phone. “You make any trouble in here, I’m calling the sheriff, and the lot of you can cool off in jail.”
“Keep your damn hand off the phone,” Rafe warned him. His eyes were hard enough to have the bartender backing off. “Outside,” he said simply.
“You and me.” Curling his fists, Joe stared at the MacKades. “I ain’t having your brothers jumping in on me while I whip your butt.”
“I don’t need any help with you.” To prove it, the moment they cleared the door Rafe pivoted to avoid Joe’s swing, rammed his fist into Joe’s face and felt the first satisfying spill of blood.
He couldn’t even have said why he was fighting. Joe meant less to him than the dust in the street. But it felt good. Even when Joe got past his guard and connected, it felt good. Fists and blood were the only clear solution. When he felt the satisfying crack of knuckles against bone, he could forget everything else.
Devin winced, then tucked his hands philosophically in his pockets when blood spurted from his brother’s mouth. “I give it five minutes.”
“Hell, Rafe’ll take him down in three.” Grinning, Shane watched the grunting opponents wrestle to the ground.
“You’re on. Come on, Rafe!” Shane shouted. “Whip his sorry butt!”
It took three minutes, plus thirty nasty seconds with Rafe straddling Joe and methodically pumping a fist into his face. Since Joe’s eyes had rolled up white and his arms were limp at his sides, Jared stepped forward to drag his brother away.
“He’s finished.” To decide the matter, Jared rammed Rafe up against the brick wall of the bar. “He’s finished,” he repeated. “Let it go.”
The vicious rage drained slowly, fading from Rafe’s eyes, uncurling his fists. Emptying him. “Let go, Jare. I’m not going to hit him again.”
Rafe looked to where Joe lay moaning, half-unconscious. Over his battered body, Devin counted out bills for Shane. “I should have factored in how drunk he was,” Devin commented. “If he’d been sober, it would’ve taken Rafe the five.”
“Rafe would never waste five full minutes on a punk like that.”
Jared shook his head. The arm that was restraining Rafe slipped companionably around Rafe’s shoulders. “Want another beer?”
“No.” He glanced toward the window of the bar, where most of the patrons had gathered to watch. Absently he swiped blood from his face. “Somebody better pick him up and haul him home,” he called out. “Let’s get out of here.”
When he settled in the car again, the aches and bruises began to make themselves known. With half an ear, he listened to Shane’s enthusiastic play-by-play of the bout and used Devin’s bandanna to mop more blood from his mouth.
He was going nowhere, he thought. Doing nothing. Being nothing. The only difference between him and Joe Dolin was that Joe was a drunk on top of it.
He hated the damn farm, the damn town, the damn trap he could feel himself sinking into with every day that passed.
Jared had his books and studies, Devin his odd and ponderous thoughts, Shane the land that seemed to delight him.
He had nothing.
On the edge of town, where the land began to climb and the trees to thicken, he saw a house. The old Barlow place. Dark, deserted and haunted, so it was said. It stood alone, unwanted, with a reputation that caused most of the townspeople to ignore it or eye it warily.
Just as they did Rafe MacKade.
“Hell, Rafe, you going to be sick?” Not concerned so much as apprehensive, Shane gripped his own door handle.
“No. Pull over, damn it, Jared.”
The minute the car stopped, Rafe was out and climbing the rocky slope. Brambles thick with thorns and summer growth tore at his jeans. He didn’t need to look behind or hear the curses and mutters to know that his brothers were following him.
He stood, looking up at three stories of local stone. Mined, he supposed, from the quarry a few miles out of town. Some of the windows were broken and boarded, and the double porches sagged like an old woman’s back. What had once been a lawn was overgrown with wild blackberries, thistles and witchgrass. A dead oak rose from it, gnarled and leafless.
But as the moon wheeled overhead and the breeze sang chants through the trees and tall grass, there was something compelling about the place. The way it stood two hundred years after its foundation had been laid. The way it continued to stand against time, weather and neglect. And most of all, he thought, the way it stood against the distrust and gossip of the town it overlooked.
“Going to look for ghosts, Rafe?” Shane stood beside him, eyes gleaming against the dark.
“Remember when we spent the night there, on a dare?” Absently Devin plucked a blade of grass, rolled it between his fingers. “Ten years ago, I guess it was. Jared snuck upstairs and started creaking doors. Shane wet his pants.”
“Hell I did.”
“Hell you didn’t.”
This incited the predictable shoving match, which the older brothers ignored.
“When are you leaving?” Jared said quietly. He’d known it, saw it now in the way Rafe looked at the house, into it, beyond it.
“Tonight. I’ve got to get away from here, Jare. Do something away from here. If I don’t, I’m going to be like Dolin. Maybe worse. Mom’s gone. She doesn’t need me anymore. Hell, she never needed anybody.”
“Got any idea where you’re going?”
“No. South, maybe. To start.” He couldn’t take his eyes off the house. He would have sworn it was watching him, judging him. Waiting. “I’ll send money when I can.”
Though he felt as though someone were wrenching off one of his limbs, Jared merely shrugged. “We’ll get by.”
“You have to finish law school. Mom wanted that.” Rafe glanced behind, to where the shoving match had progressed to wrestling in the weeds. “They’ll handle themselves okay once they figure out what they want.”
“Shane knows what he wants. The farm.”
“Yeah.” With a thin smile, Rafe took out a cigarette. “Go figure. Sell off some of the land, if you have to, but don’t let them take it. We have to keep what’s ours. Before it’s over, this town’s going to remember the MacKades meant something.”
Rafe’s smile widened. For the first time in weeks, the gnawing ache inside him eased. His brothers were sitting on the ground, covered with dirt and scratches and laughing like loons.
He was going to remember them that way, he promised himself, just that way. The MacKades, holding together on rocky ground no one wanted.
The bad boy was back. The town of Antietam was buzzing over it, passing fact, rumor and innuendo from one to another, the way the guests at a boardinghouse passed bowls of steaming stew.
It was a rich broth, spiced with scandal, sex and secrets. Rafe MacKade had come back after ten years.
Some said there would be trouble. Bound to be. Trouble hung around Rafe MacKade like a bell around a bull’s neck. Wasn’t it Rafe MacKade who’d decked the high school principal one spring morning and gotten himself expelled? Wasn’t it Rafe MacKade who’d wrecked his dead daddy’s Ford pickup before he was old enough to drive?
And surely it was Rafe MacKade who’d tossed a table—and that fool Manny Johnson—through the plate-glass window of Duff’s Tavern one hot summer night.
Now he’d come back, a-riding into town in some fancy sports car and parking, bold as you please, right in front of the sheriff’s office.
Of course, his brother Devin was sheriff now, had been for five years last November. But there’d been a time—and most remembered—when Rafe MacKade spent more than a night or two in one of the two cells in the back.
Oh, he was as handsome as ever—so the women said. With those devil’s good looks the MacKades were gifted—or cursed—with. If a female had breath in her body, she’d look twice, maybe even sigh over that long, wiry build, that loose-legged stride that seemed to dare anyone to get in the way.
Then there was that thick black hair, those eyes, as green and hard as the ones in that little Chinese statue in the window of the Past Times antique store. They did nothing to soften that tough, sharp-jawed face, with that little scar along the left eye. God knew where he’d gotten that.
But when he smiled, when he curved that beautiful mouth up and that little dimple winked at the corner, a woman’s heart was bound to flutter. That sentiment came directly from Sharilyn Fenniman who’d taken that smile, and his twenty dollars for gas, at the Gas and Go, just outside of town.
Before Rafe had his car in gear again, Sharilyn had been burning up the phone wires to announce the return.
“So Sharilyn called her mama, and Mrs. Metz got right on her horse and told Mrs. Hawbaker down at the general store that Rafe maybe plans to stay.”
As she spoke, Cassandra Dolin topped off Regan’s coffee. The way snow was spitting out of the January sky and clogging streets and sidewalks, there was little business at Ed’s Café that afternoon. Slowly Cassie straightened her back and tried to ignore the ache in her hip where it had struck the floor after Joe knocked her down.
“Why shouldn’t he?” Smiling, Regan Bishop loitered over her mulligan stew and coffee. “He was born here, wasn’t he?”
Even after three years as a resident and shopkeeper of Antietam, Regan still didn’t understand the town’s fascination with comings and goings. It appealed to and amused her, but she didn’t understand it.
“Well, yeah, but he’s been gone so long. Only came back for a day or so at a time, once or twice in ten whole years.” Cassie looked out the window, where the snow fell thin and constant. And wondered where he had gone, what he had seen, what he had done. Oh, she wondered what there was out there.
“You look tired, Cassie,” Regan murmured.
“Hmm? No, just daydreaming. This keeps up, they’re going to call school early. I told the kids to come straight here if they did, but…”
“Then that’s what they’ll do. They’re great kids.”
“They are.” When she smiled, some of the weariness lifted from her eyes.
“Why don’t you get a cup? Have some coffee with me?” A scan of the café showed Regan there was a customer in a back booth, dozing over his coffee, a couple at the counter chatting over the stew special. “You’re not exactly overrun with business.” Seeing Cassie hesitate, Regan pulled out her trump. “You could fill me in on this Rafe character.”
“Well.” Cassie nibbled on her lip. “Ed, I’m going to take a break, okay?”
At the call, a bony woman with a frizzed ball of red hair stuck her head out of the kitchen. Sparkling-framed glasses rested on her scrawny chest, above her bib apron. “You go ahead, honey.” Her low voice rasped from two packs of cigarettes a day. Her face was carefully painted from red lips to red eyebrows, and glowed from the heat of the stove. “Hey there, Regan. You’re fifteen minutes over your lunch hour.”
“I closed at noon,” Regan told her, well aware that her clocklike schedule amused Edwina Crump. “People aren’t looking for antiques in this kind of weather.”
“It’s been a hard winter.” Cassie brought a cup to the table and poured coffee for herself. “We’re not even through January, and the kids are already getting tired of sledding and making snowmen.” She sighed, careful not to wince when the bruise on her hip ached when she sat. She was twenty-seven, a year younger than Regan. She felt ancient.
After three years of friendship, Regan recognized the signs. “Are things bad, Cassie?” Keeping her voice low, she laid a hand over Cassie’s. “Did he hurt you again?”
“I’m fine.” But Cassie kept her eyes on her cup. Guilt, humiliation, fear, stung as much as a backhand slap. “I don’t want to talk about Joe.”
“Did you read the pamphlets I got you, about spousal abuse, the women’s shelter in Hagerstown?”
“I looked at them. Regan, I have two children. I have to think of them first.”
“Please.” Cassie lifted her gaze. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“All right.” Struggling to hold back the impatience, Regan squeezed her hand. “Tell me about bad boy MacKade.”
“Rafe.” Cassie’s face cleared. “I always had a soft spot for him. All of them. There wasn’t a girl in town who didn’t moon a few nights over the MacKade brothers.”
“I like Devin.” Regan sipped at her coffee. “He seems solid, a little mysterious at times, but dependable.”
“You can count on Devin,” Cassie agreed. “Nobody thought any of them would turn out, but Devin makes a fine sheriff. He’s fair. Jared has that fancy law practice in the city. And Shane, well, he’s rough around the edges, but he works that farm like two mules. When they were younger and they came barreling into town, mothers locked up their daughters, and men kept their backs to the wall.”
“Real upstanding citizens, huh?”
“They were young, and always seemed angry at something. Rafe most of all. The night he left town, Rafe and Joe got into it over something. Rafe broke Joe’s nose and knocked out a couple of his teeth.”
“Really?” Regan decided she might like this Rafe after all.
“He was always looking for a fight, Rafe was. Their father died when they were kids. I’d have been about ten,” she mused. “Then their mama passed on, right before Rafe left town. She’d been sick nearly a year. That’s how things at the farm got so bad around then. Most people thought the MacKades would have to sell out, but they held on.”
“Well, three of them did.”
“Mmm…” Cassie savored the coffee. It was so rare to have a moment just to sit. “They were barely more than boys. Jared would have been right about twenty-three, and Rafe’s just ten months behind him. Devin’s about four years older than me, and Shane’s a year behind him.”
“Sounds like Mrs. MacKade was a busy woman.”
“She was wonderful. Strong. She held everything together, no matter how bad it got. I always admired her.”
“Sometimes you need to be strong to let things go,” Regan murmured. She shook her head. She’d promised herself she wouldn’t push. “So, what do you think he’s come back for?”
“I don’t know. They say he’s rich now. Made a pile buying land and houses and selling them again. He’s supposed to have a company and everything. MacKade. That’s what he calls it. Just MacKade. My mother always said he’d end up dead or in jail, but…”
Her voice trailed off as she looked through the window. “Oh, my,” she murmured. “Sharilyn was right.”
“He looks better than ever.”
Curious, Regan turned her head just as the door jingled open. As black sheep went, she was forced to admit, this one was a prime specimen.