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Rebel Ridge, Kentucky
The sweet, soulful voice of a blues singer spilled out into the room from Meg Lewis's radio, sharing a message of unrequited love as old as time.
I can't make you love me
Meg looked up from the fabric she'd been cutting and caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror on the other side of the table. Just for a moment she saw herself as a stranger might: tall, mid-thirties with dark hair below her shoulders and a heart-shaped face with eyes as green as new grass.
She frowned and then returned to the cutting table.
The last thing on her mind was finding love. Her high school sweetheart had gone to prison for killing his dad, and when she took a chance on love again and married at nineteen, within two years her husband had killed a man over drugs and gone to prison for life. She wound up divorced at twenty-one and shamed in the eyes of the residents of Rebel Ridge by association alone.
Her saving grace had been a family who didn't believe in quitting. Her grandfather Walker, who was in his last days in a nursing home, gave her his house. Having a place to call her own and a family that always had her back saved her. They were fiercely protective of each other, and she was grateful every day for her brothers: Ryal, a master carpenter, James, who farmed and was the mail carrier on Rebel Ridge, and Quinn, an army vet and a Back Country Ranger in the Daniel Boone National Forest.
The only real skill she had was sewing, which was what she turned to in the dark days after her divorce. She went back to quilting during that self-imposed exile because it was a solitary task, and when she had finished the first quilt, in a way, she'd finished grieving for her failed marriage, as well.
Her father died a short while afterward, and her mother, Dolly, gave up their family home to Ryal, the oldest son, and moved in with Meg. They were together for the next fourteen-plus years, until just over a year ago, when Dolly remarried and moved out to her new husband's home. For the first time in her life, Meg Lewis was finally living alone.
These days the sad song's message had no place in Meg's world. She didn't have an unrequited love and wasn't looking for a new one, although there were times when the loneliness of living alone got to her. The song ended just as a gust of wind popped the screens on the outside of the house.
Though the window shades were down and the curtains drawn, she quickly glanced toward the window. For her own peace of mind, she had to make sure there was no one outside. She laid down the scissors and, without turning on more lights, went into a darker part of the house to look out, remembering the odd things that had been happening around the place.
The first time she'd noticed something was wrong was when she went to feed the chickens and the feed bucket was not in the shed where she'd left it. At first she'd blamed herself for being absentminded, but when she finally found it sitting outside near the water faucet, she was shocked. Because of the small pinholes in the bottom, she never carried water in that bucket.
The next incident happened days later, just before dawn, when she was awakened by thumping and banging outside her window. When she got up and looked out, she saw her milk cow grazing in the yard. She grabbed her bathrobe and a flashlight, slipped on a pair of tennis shoes and headed outside, muttering beneath her breath.
The cow looked up, recognized Meg's voice and then took another bite of the sweet green grass underneath the old tire swing.
"Daisy! Get!" Meg shouted.
The cow lowed softly before ceding to Meg's insistence and headed back toward the barnyard at a jog with Meg right behind her, yelling and waving the flashlight to get her through the gate.
The unsettling part for Meg was discovering the loop of rope used to fasten the gate had not broken as she'd assumed. The moment she saw the clean-cut ends, she remembered the bucket that had gone missing. She stared in disbelief, then, in sudden panic, swung her flashlight into the darkness, but she neither saw nor heard anything unusual.
Her hands were shaking as she pulled the belt from her bathrobe and used it to tie the gate shut, then hurried back toward the house. Once inside, she grabbed her daddy's rifle and a handful of shells and headed back out to the porch. She loaded the gun, then sat watch in the porch swing until the sun came up, wishing old Blue were still alive and lying at her feet.
Once she could see, she got dressed, made herself some breakfast, then went outside, still carrying the rifle, and began looking for tracks.
She found them coming out of the woods behind the barn and then going back the same way. From the size of the shoe print, it was hard to decide whether it was a teenager or a small man. She wanted to believe it was some stupid kid thinking how funny it would be to bug her since she now lived alone.
The problem was that there weren't any teenagers within five miles of her place, which shot a big hole in that theory. She didn't know of a one who would willingly trek through five miles of forest in the dark just to play a trick. Drive, yes. Walk, no.
Later, as she was doing the morning chores outside, she kept trying to decide what to do. Once she told her family, her brothers would raise hell until this was solved. She hated to disturb their lives over something that most likely didn't amount to anything, but, at the same time, she didn't like feeling uneasy in her own home. By the time she took the fresh milk into the house to strain up, she'd calmed down and convinced herself it was nothing to bother anyone about.
Still, when dark came she put the loaded rifle near the headboard of her bed, just in case. The next four nights came and went without incident, and she convinced herself that whatever had been going on was over.
Now she wasn't so sure. She hated that just the noise of the wind had rattled her sense of security. She looked out through all the windows but saw nothing that seemed to warrant concern.
The yard was as dark as the night sky. No moon. No stars. Just an occasional flash of distant lightninga promise of the storm to come. She paused to watch as a possum waddled up the steps and onto the porch, sniffing around the pots of plants and then checking beneath the porch swing before waddling back down the steps.
She smiled. The swing was her favorite site for a retreat from work, the place where she often drank her iced tea and ate a snack, which was usually a couple of her homemade cookies. The possum was obviously looking for cookie crumbs. After a final sweep of the yard, she felt confident that all was well and went back to the sewing room with an easier feeling, anxious to finish what she'd started before going to bed.
A few days ago she'd been digging through some old quilt patterns and found one called Storm at Sea that had belonged to her granny Foster. She'd never seen that pattern made into a quilt and was anxious to see what the top would look like once it was pieced together.
The fabrics she had chosen were washable cottonsa plain, bright white, two different shades of solid blues and three different shades of blue prints to give the wavelike imagery needed for the design. The feel of fabric in her hands was, for her, the equivalent of running her fingers through jewels.
She picked up a length of fabric with tiny navy blue flowers on a pale blue background and unfolded it, sliding it onto her cutting table, smoothing it out, folding it just so, methodically laying on the pieces of pattern.
Over the years her fascination with color and texture had garnered her a reputation as a craftswoman of some note, and now her name among quilters was synonymous with quality. But it had come after years at the task. She had four special orders finished and waiting to be shipped, and one still on the quilting frame.
The wind popped the screen again. She shuddered but made herself focus. She'd never been afraid to be alone and wasn't going to start now. After cutting out the last of the pieces for the new quilt top, she locked up the house, took a shower and crawled into bed.
Meg woke just after daybreak but lay in bed with her eyes still closed, thinking about the day ahead. She was considering the idea of rolling over and catching another hour of sleep when she heard a board creak. She'd lived in this house long enough to know that the only time that sound happened was when people walked just behind the kitchen table.
Someone was in the house!
Panic shot through her so fast she almost lost her breath as she threw back the covers and grabbed the rifle. She ran out into the hall in her nightgown and bare feet, carrying the rifle waist high and ready to fire. All of a sudden she heard the sound of breaking glass and then the back door slam.
Whoever it was had heard her coming and was making a run for it!
She ran down the hall, through the living room, into the kitchen, then out the back door as fast as her long legs would carry her. She caught a glimpse of movement at the edge of the tree line and fired, then leaped off the porch, firing as she ran, until the rifle was empty and her heart was hammering against her rib cage so hard she thought she was going to pass out.
The sound echoed within the quiet of the morning, sending the milk cow racing toward the pasture and the chickens flying about inside the coop.
"Run, you coward, run!" Meg screamed, and then stopped near the fence and began to shake.
It wasn't until the bottoms of her feet began to burn that she looked down past the hem of her nightgown and saw blood between her toes.
"Just what I need," she muttered, then gave the trees one last look and headed back to the house, limping from the pain.
As soon as she stepped up on the porch she saw that the lock on the back door had been jimmied. Once inside, she shoved a chair beneath the doorknob, then turned to scan the mess the intruder had left behind. The floor near the dining table was scattered with water, wildflowers and broken glass.
What the hell? He's breaking into my house to leave flowers? What's next
climbing into my bed?
She'd run right through the debris without feeling a thing, which said a lot for what a surge of adrenaline could do to a body. But this time there was no question of whether she would call for help. She hobbled across the floor with the rifle, leaving bloody footprints as she went. Her fingers were still trembling as she picked up the phone. Her mother and her new husband, Jake Doolen, were too far away to be of immediate help. James and Quinn would already have left for work. That left Ryal, who worked from home.
She made the call, then closed her eyes and took a deep breath, willing herself not to cry. But when she heard his voice, her best intentions were not enough.
"Ryal, it's me. I need you. Can you come over now?" Ryal heard the fear in her voice. "What happened, Meggie? Are you hurt?"
"Do you need to go to the hospital?"
"I don't know
"I'll be right there, honey. Hang on."
"One more thing," she said.
"What's that, Meggie?"
"Bring your gun."
She heard a swift intake of breath, and then there was a growl in his voice that made the hair rise on the back of her neck.
"What the hell happened to you?"
"I'll tell you when you get here," she said, and then hung up the phone.
Ryal's heart skipped a beat as he disconnected. "Beth!
His wife came out of the kitchen drying her hands. "Ryal, what on earth?"
"Something's happened to Meg. Get the baby and our first-aid kit."
"Oh, my God. Oh, no
should we call Dolly and Jake?"
"Not until I know what to tell them," he said, and started out of the room.
"Where are you going?" she asked.
"The last thing Meg said was to bring my gun."
Beth's face paled, but she spun into action. She filled the diaper bag with stuff she might need, grabbed their toddler, Sarah, who was still in her high chair, eating breakfast, and picked up the first-aid kit on the way out of the house.
Ryal took the baby out of Beth's arms and buckled her in the car seat as Beth tossed the other stuff onto the floorboard of their SUV. The baby was unhappy at being separated from her food and started to cry, stopping only when Beth handed her a cookie.
Ryal drove as fast as he dared. He couldn't imagine what the hell had happened, but he knew it was serious. Meg was the oldest of his siblings and not the kind of woman who panicked.
He glanced at Beth. She was tight-lipped and staring out the windshield. He knew she was remembering a time when she'd been in danger and on the run. His family had come through for her then, and they would come through for Meg now, whatever was going on.
"Do you want me to call Dolly now?" Beth asked.
"Let's find out what happened first, but call Quinn."
"What about James?"
"He's on his mail route, and his cell phone only works intermittently out there. We'll talk to him later."
"Got it," Beth said, and quickly put in a call to Quinn, hoping it would go through.
Moments later she heard him answer.
"This is Walker," he said shortly.
"Quinn, it's me, Beth. Hang on. Ryal needs to talk to you."
She handed the phone to Ryal and turned her attention to the baby in the back.
"Hey, Quinn, where are you right now?"
"Just leaving headquarters, why?"
"Meg called me a few minutes ago. She's hurt, and Beth and I are on the way there now. I don't know what happened, but she sounded rattled as hell, and you know how much it would take to make that happen."
"I'm in the truck. I'll meet you there."
one more thing," Ryal added.
"She told me to bring my gun."
He heard Quinn grunt, and then the line went dead in Ryal's ear. He tossed the phone into the console and accelerated as much as he dared. He had precious cargo riding with him, and on the narrow winding roads of Rebel Ridge, driving too fast could get them killed.
It seemed that the drive took forever, but it was actually less then fifteen minutes. He pulled into the driveway and braked hard only a few feet from the front porch.
"I'll get Sarah," Beth said. "You take the first-aid kit and the gun. We'll be right behind you."
He nodded. Moments later he was running across the yard. The front door was locked but, being family, he had a key. He quickly unlocked it, then left it ajar as he ran inside, calling Meg's name as he went.