June & Wallace [MultiFormat]
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by Lynette Hall Hampton
Description: Newlyweds, June and Wallace Striker plan to settle down to a quiet and happy life, but a killer bent on revenge has other plans for them.
eBook Publisher: Wings ePress, Inc., 2011 2011
Wildside Press eBook Store Release Date: October 2011
1 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats [MultiFormat - What's this?]: eReader (PDB) [246 KB], ePub (EPUB) [224 KB], Rocket/REB1100 (RB) [188 KB], Portable Document Format (PDF) [736 KB], Palm Doc (PDB) [205 KB], Microsoft Reader (LIT) [295 KB], Franklin eBookMan (FUB) [222 KB], hiebook (KML) [562 KB], Sony Reader (LRF) [303 KB], iSilo (PDB) [170 KB], Mobipocket (PRC) [243 KB], Kindle Compatible (MOBI) [311 KB], OEBFF Format (IMP) [284 KB]
Reading time: 195-273 min.
At eleven o'clock on Thanksgiving morning, I was in the little room in the back of the church as nervous as an ant at a picnic trying to decide what to eat first. I kept thinking something would snatch this happiness away from me. It didn't take Mom long to calm me down.
"June, honey," she said. "You've known Wallace Striker all your life. There's nothing to be afraid of."
"I don't know, Mom," I wailed. "I had an awful dream about us breaking up last night. What if he leaves me standing at the altar? I have a sinking feeling this wedding is his way to get back at me for all the mean things I did to him in school. What if he doesn't really love me?"
"Don't talk like that, June March. Wallace loves you. He has always loved you. There is no way he wouldn't show up for the wedding." She chuckled. "Now speak of nervous. Think about him. You know how flustered he gets."
I smiled. I did know. But we'd been out of high school for seven years. Things can change in seven years. Heck, things can change in six months.
After all, when I broke my leg last May and came back to the March farm in the foot hills of the Blue Ridge Mountains to recuperate, I never dreamed I'd end up staying. At the time, I only wanted to get well and get back to my job with the detective agency in Greensboro. Then my no-good brother-in-law robbed a bank and ended up murdered and Wallace Striker, the sheriff of our tiny county, came back into my life. At first I found working with my school science partner as irritating as when we were trying to come up with a project in the fifth grade. Then he began to show signs of a maturity I never dreamed he possessed. How it happened and exactly when it happened, I'm not sure. But it wasn't long until I found being in his company was more important to me than anything. Then I found out another woman wanted him. I lost my cool and decided she couldn't have him. It turned out to be rather easy because as Mom said, he'd always loved me and later he told me this, too.
Now here we were getting married. I still couldn't believe it. Oh, he was handsome enough. Six foot three, a couple of hundred pounds, brown hair, deep green eyes and a physique in his uniform that turned many women's heads. But he was Wallace Striker, the guy I'd tortured for years.
A light tap on the door made me jump.
"They're waiting on you, Celia," Dad said to Mom.
"I'm coming." She kissed my cheek. "Love you."
"I love you, too, Mom."
Dad looked at me with approval. "I can't believe you're getting married, June."
"I know, Dad. I can't believe it either." I clutched his arm. "Please tell me Wallace is here. He didn't stand me up, did he?"
Dad chuckled. "June, Wallace is standing at the altar waiting for you.
We began lining up and I held tightly to Dad as I straightened my dress. My sister, April, was playing the piano. May was singing one of our favorite love songs, "I Couldn't Say No," and my maid-of-honor and youngest sister, Jan, whose real name is January, was waiting to lead me down the aisle.
Clinging to Dad's arm, I followed. I was wearing a simple off-white street length lace dress. I carried a bouquet of rust-colored mums and white roses.
I looked at the men. The best man was Ken Striker, Wallace's brother, who had flown in from Texas to watch his little brother get married, but as far as I was concerned the important man there was Wallace. He looked as handsome in his black suit and rust-colored tie as he always did in his sheriff's uniform. He was smiling at me and I knew everything was going to be all right, that is if he didn't say "no" when the preacher asked "Do you take this woman?"
We went through our vows and I almost breathed an audible sigh of relief when Wallace said "Yes," then everyone crowded around to offer congratulations and to snap pictures. We only invited family so it wasn't long until everyone was getting into cars and heading for Mom and Dad's farm for the traditional Calendar Clan Thanksgiving dinner.
Earlier, we decided this would be our reception. Of course, Mom, April and I had cooked and baked for days. We made quite a houseful: Mom and Dad, April and her four year old twins; my brother, August, his wife Teresa and their two boys; Jan and my younger brother October, known as Toby, in from college; May and her husband, Bert; Wallace's brother, Ken; Aunt Nadine and her son, Jackson and the preacher. But the meal and the festivities went on for a long time.
Mom and my sisters had baked a wedding cake to surprise us. We did the traditional feeding each other a piece of it. I learned later the family had taken bets as to whether I'd smash cake in Wallace's face. They said I'd lost some of my vinegar when I didn't.
Aunt Nadine and Jackson took their leave soon after we ate and the children were all settled down for games on the braided rug in the living room. Dad pulled out his fiddle; Toby, his guitar and April sat down at the piano. It wasn't long until we were singing and laughing and having a wonderful time.
Dark was settling in when Wallace took my hand and whispered, "I think it's time to go."
I nodded and we stood.
"I thought it was time you kids took off," Mom said with a twinkle in her eye. "I know you have to catch that plane in Raleigh."
"And don't you worry about a thing. We have Dingo here and we'll take good care of him. We'll go over about noon tomorrow and feed Buzzy. We don't want you worrying about your cats while you're gone," Dad said.
After promising to visit Ken and his family in Texas sometime soon and hugging everyone good-bye, we slipped out the door. Instead of heading to Raleigh, we turned toward Wallace's house.
"Well, Mrs. Striker," he said. "We just pulled off our first deceitful thing, didn't we?"
"Do you really think it's deceitful?" I took the hand he reached toward me.
"Not really. If they knew, I'm sure they'd understand why we wanted to spend our first night together in our house, not on an airplane."
"Our house. That sounds lovely, Wallace." I pulled his hand up to my lips and kissed it.
"Everything I have is yours, you know that, June."
"Same for me." I laughed. "Of course you're getting cheated. I'm bringing a contrary cat named Dingo, a few pieces of furniture, and the money I've saved to replace my seven-year-old compact car. Doesn't look like you're getting much of a bargain, does it?"
"I'm getting you. That's all I want or need."
When we got to the house, we pulled the car into the garage and Wallace stopped me at the door which leads into the pantry and then into our kitchen. He reached down and swooped me into his arms. "Might as well go with tradition," he said as he stepped inside. "I want to carry my bride over the threshold."
"Thank you," I said as he kissed me, then set me down. I flipped on the light as we went on into the kitchen.
"June, look at this," he said pointing out a bottle of wine in a silver cooler, two glasses and a note propped on the counter.
"What in the world?" I picked up the note.
I read it aloud: Here's something for you to enjoy on your wedding night. We've put a few snacks in the refrigerator in case you want something to eat. For breakfast, Mom has left the fixings also in the refrigerator. Love, April, May & Jan
"We didn't fool anyone, did we?" Wallace laughed.
"And we thought we were so smart." I leaned up and kissed him. "I think I'll go get comfortable while you open the wine."
"You do that. It won't take me long."
I went into our bedroom and stopped when I turned on the light. Our bed was turned back and there was a rose and a note lying on the pillow. At the foot of the bed was a beautiful lace gown. "Wallace," I called. "Come see what I've found."
In an instant he was beside me. "Somebody else has been here, haven't they?"
"Looks like it," I said and turned to him. "Why don't you read this note?"
He opened it and read: Dear children, May your first night together not be the only one you share with anticipation and love. Carry this love into the future and when you have gray in your hair and lines around your eyes, you will still feel the joy and excitement you feel tonight. Take it from two people who know this is possible. We love you. Mom and Dad
"Oh, how sweet," I whispered.
Wallace put his arm around me. "This is a wonderful surprise. It really makes me feel I'm a part of the family."
"I never doubted that you would be." I reached for the gown and held it up. "Isn't this lovely? It's old fashioned and sexy at the same time."
He put his arms around me, kissed my neck and mumbled, "Why don't you put that gown on and I'll go get the wine."
"I'll be waiting," I whispered back.
* * * *
I looked out the kitchen window and noticed that the Leland cypress trees which divided our land from Mrs. Goodman's property were beginning to bend. This told me sleet was freezing on the trees and I knew it was going to be a hard day for Wallace. I shivered, and the warm days of our honeymoon and thoughts about how much I really do love this husband of mine came to mind. Why else would I have boarded a plane with him three months ago and flown for forty days--well it seemed that long to me--from North Carolina to Hawaii? I do have to admit once we got there, the honeymoon was perfect. We strolled on the beautiful beaches, and when we toured a volcano, Wallace said he wasn't getting too close to the edge because he might get covered with strawberry jam. I gave him a playful bop on the head because I knew he was referring to the volcano we'd constructed in fifth grade for a science project. I'd rigged it so he would get covered with strawberry jam when it exploded.
We also went to a lovely luau, we ate pineapples from a field we visited, we wore leis, we toured everything people suggested to us and we took a ton of pictures. Most of all, we enjoyed being together and I must admit the best part of the whole trip for me was lying in his big strong arms at night and knowing I was safe and would be safe as long as he had breath to protect me. Then it was time to come home--which only took thirty days. It was a little faster flying back. But the good Lord knows now that my feet are once again on North Carolina soil, I don't ever intend to get on another airplane. No, not ever.
That is if I can control my husband. The idiot (and I use this expression with a lot of love) told me at breakfast he was wondering if we should think about going with Mt. Calvary Baptist Church's building team to Honduras this spring where they're helping build a new church. I don't think you can drive from Edison, North Carolina, which is located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, to Honduras. I told him I thought we should wait a year or two to consider something that drastic.
It's not that I have anything against the church going to foreign lands to help those who need it, but there are places we could help a little closer. Somewhere near enough to drive a car or at least take the church bus. Anywhere airplanes aren't involved.
He finally dropped the subject and went into the bathroom to take a shower and get ready for work.
I turned from the window and let my mind come back to the present on this icy February day. I also let out a sigh of relief because the subject of Honduras had been dropped, at least for the time being. I busied myself putting the dirty breakfast dishes in the dishwasher. As I bent over to fill the slot on the door with liquid soap Dingo came sauntering into the room. He stretched and twisted around my legs. I closed the dishwasher, then reached down and rubbed his long gray hair. He purred and I knew he was actually asking for something to eat. The shower turned off so I started the dishwasher and turned to the cat.
"Come on, boy," I said and headed for the laundry room which is connected to the mud room where our back door is located. Though we mostly come into the house from the side which leads into the garage, when Wallace has muddy boots, he comes in the back so he can deposit them there. The back door leads to a porch with four steps down to the yard. I crossed this small room to get to the laundry where I keep food for Dingo and Buzzy, Wallace's cat. We tried for a few weeks to make Buzzy an indoor cat, but he would have nothing to do with it. Wallace ended up making him a fleece-lined house and we put a cat door in the garage so he could come and go as he pleased. I've noticed he's staying in the garage more and more since the weather has turned so cold.
Dingo jumped in front of me and slid his body through his cat door into the laundry room. I had to wait until he wiggled his fat behind through the opening before I could open the big door and go inside. "I'll get you fed and then go feed Buzzy," I said. Though I know he ignores me, I talk to him anyway.
Just as I took the can of food from the cabinet beside the washer, I heard a loud knock on the door leading outside. I left the laundry room door open and went to glance out the glass panels on the top half of the back door. The blinds were closed and I couldn't see anything. I sat the cat food down and moved to open the blinds, wondering who would be at our back door so early and on such a bad day.
I screamed and jumped back in horror as I looked at a man's bloody face plastered against the glass.
I think the man was trying to tell me something, but I wasn't about to open the door. "Wallace," I screamed his name, hoping he could hear me all the way down the hall and into our bedroom. "Wallace, come here."
He must have heard my first scream because he appeared in the laundry area wearing the pants to his uniform and no shirt.
"Get back in the kitchen, June," he ordered.
Normally I argue with him when he tries to tell me what to do. This time I didn't. I reached down, grabbed Dingo then scurried back into the kitchen.
Wallace followed me, then went into the bedroom. In an instant he returned carrying his gun and his shirt. He went back into the mud room and closed the door to the kitchen.
I heard the outside door open and I held my breath.
In a minute, Wallace yelled for me to call nine-one-one. "Tell them there's a man at our back door and he's been shot."
I dialed the number. "Yes," I said when the emergency number was answered. "He just appeared at our back door...I don't know what happened. Please send an ambulance to Sheriff Wallace Striker's house. That's right, ma'am...Sheriff Striker. Yes, ma'am, I'll keep the line open..." I walked to the mud room door and pushed it open a crack.
Wallace had pulled the man inside and was working on him with the first aid kit we kept in the cabinet above the dryer. I noticed he was still without his shirt, but he'd thought and put on latex gloves. I was glad because the bleeding man was a stranger. At least he was to me.
"How is he, Wallace?" I asked.
"Pretty bad. He said something about somebody named Jay, but that's about all I got out of him before he passed out." He looked up at me. "Is the nine-one-one operator still on the phone?"
"Ma'am," I said into the receiver. "I'm going to put the sheriff on the line." Before she could answer, I handed Wallace the portable phone.
Into it he said, "This is Sheriff Striker. Are the emergency vehicles on the way? Good. No, he's still alive, but only barely. I've tried to stop the bleeding, but that's about all I can do."
There was the faint sound of sirens.
He looked up at me. "June, would you please show them where to come?"
Dingo was still in my arms so I stashed him in the hall bathroom and closed the door as I went toward the front of the house. By the time I opened the front door, the medics were coming up the steps. In a minute, a deputy's car pulled into the driveway and a tall, handsome, African-American deputy got out. I waited until he came to the door, where we exchanged hellos, then led him to the mud room.
Wallace was coming into the kitchen. He had his shirt on, but it was unbuttoned. "What happened, Sheriff?" the deputy asked.
"We don't know. I was getting ready to go to work and I assume my wife went in the laundry room to feed her cat." I nodded and he went on, "The next thing I heard was her screaming."
They both looked at me and I said, "I couldn't help it. He had his face pressed against the glass and he was really scary looking."
"I don't blame you, Mrs. Striker," the deputy said. "Something like that would scare anybody."
"Will you see if you can do anything out there, Charles? Check for an ID. I need to finish dressing."
Wallace motioned me to follow him into our bedroom. He pushed the door closed and put his arm around me. "You're shaking," he said. "Are you okay?"
"I'll be fine. It just frightened me."
"As soon as I can get everyone out of here, why don't you get dressed and maybe go over to your Mom's or April's?"
"I'll be fine here, Wallace. It was a shock to see him standing there." I didn't want to go to my parents' house or to April's either.
He kissed me on top of my head and then went into our bathroom. I watched as he washed his hands and checked to see if there was any blood on his clothes. There wasn't. He put on the rest of his uniform, including the bulletproof vest and gun.
"I'd better get out there and see what's going on. You don't have to come unless you want to," he said.
"I want to," I said and followed him. I guess my ex-PI experience had kicked in.
Charles stood by the kitchen sink. "They took him out the back door to the ambulance," he said. "He's in pretty bad shape and they didn't want to get any more blood in your house."
"That was thoughtful," I said.
"Did you find any identification?" Wallace asked.
"Nope. No wallet or anything. He was dressed shabbily and there's no vehicle around either. It looks like he came to your back door from that field over there." Charles indicated the garden area. "I guess we won't find out what happened until he wakes up, if he does."
Wallace nodded. "I don't think you've ever met my wife." When he shook his head, Wallace said, "This is June." To me he said, "And this is Charles Easton."
"Nice to meet you, Mrs. Striker. I think I went to school with your brother."
"Please call me June," I said and added, "You must mean Toby." That's the name everyone calls my younger brother, October.
"Thank you, ma'am. How's Toby doing?"
"As far as I know, he's doing well. When he was home for Christmas, he said he loved it at NC State." I glanced at Wallace. "Would you two like some coffee? It's an awfully cold morning out there."
Charles glanced at Wallace as if asking for permission. Wallace said, "Sure, we'll have a cup. While you make it, we'll take some pictures of the mess in the mud room, then we'll go outside and check around a bit."
After they went out, I put a full pot of coffee on to perk, then went into the bedroom to get dressed. I didn't want to be in my robe when they came back inside.
It didn't take long to put on my brown velour jogging suit and my leather tennis shoes. I brushed my hair again and decided I didn't need to freshen my make-up. It was holding up well. I had a habit of getting up, brushing my teeth and then putting on my make-up before having breakfast with my husband. He seemed to appreciate the effort. I don't mind doing it for him because he often beats me to the kitchen and cooks.
When I went back to the kitchen, the coffee was ready. I poured myself a cup and walked to the mud room. I expected to see a mess where they'd worked on the bleeding man, but it was freshly mopped and looked as if nothing had happened in there. Even the window in the door was clean. "Bless Wallace's heart," I said aloud.
The laundry room door was open. I spied the can of cat food and remembered Dingo. I let him out of the bathroom and brought him back to the laundry room to eat. He seemed to appreciate the food, but not the fact I'd closed him up. When he finished eating, he didn't linger in the kitchen with me as he usually does. He haughtily flipped his bushy tail up over his back and marched down the hall. I knew he was going to sprawl out on the foot of our bed and take a nap. He always did this when he was mad at me.
I chose to ignore him. I put a pan of pre-made sweet rolls in the oven, then went back to the laundry room. I got another can of cat food and went into the garage to feed Buzzy. He was eager to eat too.
When Wallace and Charles came back inside, I could tell they were cold. I put mugs of coffee on the table and took the sweet rolls out of the oven. They both smiled at me.
"It looks like somebody must have shoved the victim out of a vehicle in our garden area, June," Wallace said. "There were some spots of blood on the edge of the road. I suspect they thought he was dead, but undoubtedly he was disoriented and wandered around in the garden. We found some tracks where weeds were bent and there were spatters of blood here and there."
"Poor fellow. I hope he's going to be all right," I said.
"I know it scared you, June," Charles said as he glanced at Wallace to see if it was okay to use my first name. Wallace didn't indicate whether he approved or not, so Charles went on. "I guess it was probably a good thing you saw him. If he'd been out there much longer, I don't think he would've had a chance to make it."
"If it saved his life, I'm glad I went out there, too, even if it did scare the bejeebies out of me."
It began to sleet harder and the ice pellets sounded louder on the window above the sink. "I wonder if we're getting ready to have a bad ice storm," I said.
"I saw the weather last night," Charles said. "They warned there was a possibility of a storm which could last through today and into the night."
"I hope Mom and Dad have everything they need from the store," I said.
"Why don't you call her and see," Wallace suggested. "You might want to check with April too. I can go get anything they need."
I took the portable phone off the wall and went into the adjoining living room and called Mom. Yes, she had everything she needed. Yes, they had plenty of firewood for the fireplace if the power went off. Not to worry, they were not going anywhere. They were in for the day.
I then called April, my eldest sibling. Since the six of us are named after the month in which we were born, we were often referred to as the Calendar Clan while we were in school. The fact that we're all grown hasn't made a difference. The name still sticks.
"We're fine, June," April said when I reached her. "I went to the store yesterday and bought extra groceries. How about you?"
"We're good. Wallace cut firewood this weekend and I bought groceries a couple of days ago, so we're set."
"I'm praying the power doesn't go off. If it does, we'll have to go to Mom and Dad's since I don't have a fireplace."
"Maybe you should go on over there before it gets worse, April. There's no need to take a chance with the kids." I could see her soon-to-be five year old twins cold and fussy. "If it's too bad for you to drive, Wallace will be glad to come and take you."
"I'm not...Wait a minute, June. There's someone at the door."
Finally she came back. "It's Larry Smithers. He thinks we should go to Mom and Dad's, too. I've got to get the kids' things together. He's going to drive us over."
I hung up and smiled to myself as I went back into the kitchen. "I volunteered you to take April and the kids to Mom and Dad's, but you won't have to do it. It seems the Reverend Larry Smithers has taken it upon himself to look after them."
Wallace smiled. "I do believe there's a romance there." Glancing at Charles, he added, "June's sister is a widow and has two small children. We all hope she and the reverend will end up together."
Charles nodded. "I see."
"I walked to the counter. "Do you fellows want more coffee?"
"I think we'd better go," Wallace said. "There'll probably be a lot going on today. I imagine we'll have our hands full and we might as well get started."
"I wouldn't doubt that," Charles said as he stood. "Thanks for the coffee and the sweet rolls, June. They really hit the spot."
"No problem," I said. I took the thermos from under the sink where we kept it. "I'm going to fill this for you, Wallace. You might need something hot if you have to get out and mess with traffic."
"Thanks, honey, I appreciate it." He looked at Charles. "If you have a thermos, I'm sure there's enough coffee to share with you. June made a big pot."
"That'd be great and I do have a thermos in the car. I'll be right back."
Wallace lingered for a few minutes after Charles left with his thermos full. "I know you don't like me to tell you what to do, June, but please don't go out today. It's much too dangerous to be on the road."
I didn't tell him I'd always been afraid to drive on ice and had no intention of going anywhere. I simply said, "I won't go out. I promise."
"And if the power goes off, call me on my cell. I'll come home and start a fire and carry in some wood. I've put some on the back porch, but we may need more."
I nodded, knowing full well it would take more than the power going off for me to bother him on a day he'd be covered with work. I could start a fire just as well as he could, but of course, this was our first winter together and he didn't know that.
"I'll be fine, Wallace. You be careful and do me a favor. Please call me a couple of times today to let me know you're all right."
"I'll call." He smiled as he put his arms around me. "It sure is nice to have someone who cares about me."
"You know I care, you big lug. Now that we're finally together, I don't want anything to ever happen to you." I kissed him. "I want to be Mrs. Striker for a long time."
"How does forever sound?"
"It sounds wonderful."
"It does to me, too." He kissed me and before I could answer, he headed to his patrol car.
* * * *
By noon, the freezing rain turned to sleet. It was getting colder, too. I turned the furnace up a bit and went into the kitchen to check the pot of stew I was making. It was done, so I turned it down to stay hot. I'd already finished cooking some other things which I thought would help get us through the next day or so if the power did fail. I baked a cake and some peanut butter cookies because Wallace liked something sweet with his meals. I made potato salad and boiled some eggs to devil later. After finishing the cooking, I washed and dried some extra blankets and spread Wallace's double sleeping bag out in the laundry room to air. I brought some wood in to stack in the basket by the fireplace. I checked the batteries in the flashlights and the portable radio and I was looking for extra candles in the hall closet when the phone rang.
"Honey," Wallace said. "I'm cold and hungry. Would you happen to have something a man could come by and eat and get warmed up?"
"A stew is waiting for you," I said. "I'll have a bowl on the table when you get here."
"I knew there was a reason I chose my wife from the Calendar Clan."
"I hope it wasn't just my cooking."
"Absolutely not." He chuckled. "I'll see you in a few."
When Wallace arrived, I met him in the mud room. He looked cold and wet. "Let me take your coat. I'll hang it up while you take your boots off."
"It's a mess out there. We've had dozens of bump-ups and one serious accident." He followed me into the kitchen. "Boy, something smells good," he said as he washed his hands at the kitchen sink. "I can't wait to get something hot in me. I'm chilled to the bone, as they say."
The salads were already on the table and I brought two bowls of steaming stew. I put the biggest bowl in front of Wallace, though I knew he'd probably ask for seconds.
"It looks as good as it smells." He smiled and reached for my hand. He said a short blessing, then began to eat.
"You said there was one serious accident. Was it really bad?"
"We had to send a couple of people to the hospital, but I don't think the injuries were life threatening."
I didn't want to think about something bad happening on the road so I changed the subject. "Honey, I'm trying to prepare in case we have a power outage. I've been looking for some candles. Do you know if we have any other than the ones on the table?"
"Look in the closet in the guest room. I think I put some in there."
"Have you heard anything about the man who was at our door this morning?"
Wallace shook his head. "I called the hospital, but they said they were going to have him flown to the trauma center in Winston-Salem. His chances of making it are slim." He took a bite and said, "I'm going to get some people out here to look around as soon as we can spare them. Right now, the highway patrol, the Edison police and our department are all tied up with wrecks." He sighed. "I wish people would use their heads and stay in on days like today. There's no sense in taking a chance unless there's an emergency and you have to get out."
"I agree with you." I noticed his bowl was getting empty. "Do you want some more stew?"
"I'll get it." He stood and asked, "Do you want some while I'm up?"
"Thanks, but I think I have all I want."
He filled his bowl and sat back down. "You should've heard something I overheard in the office this morning."
"What was that?"
"Charles was talking about you to Allen Ledbetter."
"I remember Allen. He was one of your best friends in school."
"Still a good friend. Anyway, Charles was telling him how nice you were and how you looked after us this morning. Allen laughed and said he was shocked."
"Why would he be shocked?"
"He told Charles it almost blew his mind when he heard you and I had married. He said if a woman had ever been as mean to him as you were to me, the world would fall out of orbit before he'd marry her."
I made a face and Wallace laughed. "Let me finish. Allen went on to say it would probably make a difference, though, if the woman was as good looking as June March had always been. He said he could forgive a lot of past misdeeds to find a woman as pretty as you are in his bed every morning."
"That's kind of a back-handed compliment, but I like it." I took another bite of stew then said, "But it stings when everyone only remembers how mean I was to you in school."
"You weren't always mean. There were some good things, too."
"Yeah? Name one."
"All right. How about the time we were in forth or fifth grade and those ninth grade boys took the model army tank my dad had sent me? They kept throwing it over my head and laughing and pushing me to run from one to the other. After a while the biggest one threw my tank on the ground and shattered it. I wanted to cry, but I tried to fight the guy. I was big for my age, but he was bigger and stronger. He pushed me to the ground and put his foot on my chest holding me down."
"I do remember that."
"Do you recall what you did?" I shook my head and he went on. "You were playing with some girls, but when you saw what happened, you came running over and kicked him in the shins telling him he was a bully and he needed to pick on someone his own size. I think he started to hit you, but one of his buddies convinced him it wouldn't be cool to hit a girl."
I chuckled. "I'd forgotten about that."
"I figured you had. Of course, when the guys walked off you turned to me and told me I was an idiot for not playing ball with the boys. You also informed me I should stop messing with that old army tank and act normal." He took another bite and grinned. "That same afternoon, you came over to my house. You'd swiped the glue Toby used to make his car models and you spent all afternoon helping me glue my tank back together."
"Maybe I did have a few good instincts in me." I stood, leaned over and kissed his cheek. "I made you a cake today. Want a piece? I also made fresh coffee."
He took hold of my arm and pulled me against his side. "See what good instincts you have? You know I'm a sucker for cake and coffee, especially when you made them."
"You're so good to me, how can I resist cooking what you like?" I wiggled away from him and cut a small piece of cake for me and an extra big hunk for him. It was chocolate, his favorite.
He looked at the cake on the plate in front of him. "And after a couple of months of marriage, the feisty June March is still treating me like a king."
I thumped his arm. "Can't you remember anything? She's the feisty June Striker now."
He chuckled. "That she is." He reached out and touched my cheek. "It's still hard for me to believe she actually fell in love with me."
I wrinkled my nose at him. "Maybe she's just a sucker for a man in uniform. It could all be lust, you know."
"Lust is good, too."
I couldn't help laughing. "Finish your lunch before..." I let my voice trail off.
"Never mind. It can wait until tonight."
When Wallace went back to work, I cleaned up the kitchen then went into the guest room to look for the candles. We put the bedroom furniture I had when I moved back home in this room and used my spread and curtains. It turned out really nice. Before me, Wallace had been using the room for storage. He wanted to keep some of the boxes in the corner, but I finally convinced him to put them in the attic. He gave in because he knew his house had now become ours, but he did keep some things stored in the closet which he thought might be damaged in the attic. I gave in on this.
I found the candles where he'd said they'd be and turned to leave the room. A box under the bed caught my eye. I reached down and pulled it out. I didn't think I'd ever seen it before. It was heavy as I lifted it up on the dresser and took off the lid.
I suddenly had the feeling I'd fallen into the past. Sitting on the very top of the items in the box was the plastic army tank Wallace and I had crudely glued back together. I couldn't help it. I began to cry.
* * * *
The power went off sometime during the night. I know because I woke up at five-fifteen and my nose was cold. Wallace was gently snoring. I didn't move because I felt he needed his rest and I was afraid I'd wake him. When he finally got home last night, it was after ten. He was wet again, visibly chilled and hungry. He'd missed dinner and asked if he could have some of the hot stew. It took three bowls before he said he was beginning to feel warm. He took a hot shower and at eleven-thirty we climbed into bed, holding each other for warmth. I remember his feet were like ice and I wondered if they'd ever get warm again. I slid my foot close to his to see. They had warmed up.
The world was silent with the exception of falling limbs and twigs and the cracking of ice as a slight breeze would blow, sending slivers to the ground. I tried to be as still as I could because I knew if I woke Wallace, he'd insist on getting up and building a fire. I wondered if I could slip out of bed and get it built before he woke up.
I slid over to the side and he stirred, but didn't wake up. I waited a minute and slid closer to the edge and managed to get my feet on the floor. As quietly and as quickly as I could, I grabbed my fuzzy robe and slippers and left the room.
I went down the dark hall by feel and made it to the sofa in the living room without knocking anything over or making any noise. I'd left candles and matches on the coffee table and I felt around until my hand closed on them. I struck a match which made it easy to light a couple of candles. I moved to the fireplace and opened the damper. Wallace had warned me not to light the fire he'd laid unless I opened it. I remembered. I struck a match to the papers and kindling. In a minute it blazed up. I let it burn for a few minutes then laid a couple of the dry logs Wallace had pointed out on top of the blaze. It caught. In a short while, I had a roaring fire in the fireplace. I wouldn't go back to bed and leave it burning, so I sat in Wallace's oversized recliner and pulled the comforter I kept on the sofa around my neck.
It wasn't long until I heard him coming down the hall. "I woke up and you were gone," he said with a yawn. He glanced at the fireplace. "Nice job."
"Thank you." I smiled at him. "I tried to be quiet so you could sleep. I knew you needed it."
"Since Thanksgiving, I haven't been able to sleep very well without you in bed with me."
"That's nice of you to remember our wedding day." I got up.
"Problem is, I've got to remember Thanksgiving comes on a different date each year and it won't always be our anniversary."
I laughed and asked, "Want to snuggle?"
"That sounds like fun. I'll be right back." He went down the hall. In a minute, he returned with a couple of blankets and our pillows.
I put the fire screen across the front of the fireplace and he joined me in the big chair. "This is kind of nice," I said as he wrapped his arms around me.
"It's very nice."
We talked a little, dozed a little and just lay quietly part of the time. At seven-thirty we decided we'd try some of the coffee we'd put in the thermos the night before. "I'll get it," Wallace said.
"Let me," I said. "I know where I put everything we could fix to eat without electricity." I stood up and said, "Okay, we've got cereal and milk, boiled eggs, fruit and juice, oatmeal bars, and peanut butter and jelly on cold bread. What will it be?"
"How about a boiled egg, some juice and a piece of chocolate cake?"
"And I thought I ate funny."
The coffee had stayed fairly hot. I poured us each a cup. While Wallace ate his strange breakfast, I had a bowl of corn flakes. I topped it off by eating a peanut butter cookie with my coffee.
"Wallace, you don't have to go back out there this morning, do you?" I asked as he stood to put another log on the fire.
"Not for a while. I don't think there'll be much activity today. Most everyone is iced in."
"Good," I said. "I don't want you to risk your life for someone who doesn't have sense enough to stay inside on a day like this."
Before he could answer, his cell phone rang.
I knew our snuggling was over for the day when he said, "Where did it happen? I'll be there in a little while
"What was that about?"
"It seems our visitor yesterday wasn't the only one shot and thrown out of a car. A man just found a body in a field off Highway Sixteen."
* * * *
I spent most of the morning huddled in front of the fire. I read a little and called to check on Mom and Dad.
"We're doing fine, June. The power is off, but we have a fire going and the living-room is cozy. The kids are having a ball."
"I'm glad April got there. She would've had it rough without a fire at home."
"Yes, we're glad Larry brought her over."
We chatted for a little while then Mom ended the conversation as she does about every time, "I'll talk to you later, honey. Give Wallace our love."
I hung up and thought about the wonderful relationship Wallace had with my parents. I was glad because my family has always been a close one. It didn't take long for Wallace to fit right into the Calendar Clan. Of course, the fact that Wallace had no family of his own also helped him become one of us so quickly. His closest relative was his brother in Texas. Ken is twelve years older than Wallace and has a life and a family of his own. Though we did promise to visit him someday, we knew it would be a while before we saw him again.
I thought of Mom and Dad's cozy living room. They could shut all the doors and the fireplace would make the entire room feel warm and inviting.
Of course, I appreciated my fireplace, too, but our house was built differently. Our living room, dining area and kitchen were all one big room. Though I had closed all three bedroom doors, the only place really warm was directly in front of the fire.
At eleven thirty, Wallace called. I was in the middle of a romance novel.
"Have you had lunch, honey?" he asked.
"No, but if you'll come by, I'll put something together."
"I'm coming by, but don't fix anything."
"And why not?"
"I'm working with Allen today. We found a little restaurant open. It had a generator so they cooked. We're going to get a hot meal and we'll bring you one. Anything particular you want?"
"As long as it's hot, I really don't care. Will you bring some coffee?"
"I sure will."
I put another log on the fire, and looked around to make sure the house looked neat and in order. I know Wallace likes it neat, but my reason for making sure everything was in place wasn't him today. I hadn't seen Allen Ledbetter since high school and I wanted to make sure he was impressed with Wallace's house.
It was close to one o'clock when I heard the car pull in and stop in the back of the driveway. I knew Wallace would come in through the back door because of his wet boots so I went to the mud room and waited.
When he opened the door, he handed me a big white plastic bag with restaurant to-go boxes in it. He bent to take off his boots. Allen followed his lead.
"Hello, Allen," I said. "It's been a long time."
"It sure has. How are you, June?"
"I'm great." I sat the dinners on the counter and took the two thermos bottles he handed me. "I'll get this on the table for us."
"I'm impressed," Allen said as he came in and took a seat at the table. "You've put out plates and silverware and everything. I figured we'd eat out of the boxes."
I was surprised when Wallace leaned down and kissed me. "Hi," he said.
"Hi," I said back.
Allen just stared as if he couldn't believe what he was seeing.
Wallace said a quick blessing and we opened the boxes to transfer the food to our plates.
After I took my first bite, I said, "Oh, this is good. You guys cook well."
"I'm glad you like it," Wallace said. "I appreciate you adding to it, too."
"You haven't changed a bit since high school, June," Allen said. "You're still as slim and as pretty as always. Wallace is a lucky man."
"Thank you, Allen." I turned to my husband. "See what he said. You're a lucky man."
"I know that." Wallace winked at me. "You tell me often enough."
I playfully bopped him on the arm. "Seriously, Allen," I said. "I'm the lucky one. After all the mean things I did to Wallace in school, I'm surprised he took a chance on me."
Allen kind of blushed. "You were pretty rough on him at times."
"That's all in the past. She's mighty good to me now." Wallace turned to me and changed the subject. "How's your morning been?"
"Okay. I'm spent most of it on the sofa bundled in a blanket and reading. How about yours? Was the body they found identified?"
"No. It was just like the man we found in our yard. Shabbily dressed and no ID on him."
"That doesn't give you much to go on, does it?"
He shook his head and looked at Allen. "I don't remember if you know it or not, but June was a PI in Greensboro before she came back to Edison. She likes to keep her hands in cases like this one."
"Hey, that's neat. I'm surprised you left Greensboro."
"She might not have if she hadn't been shot during a drug raid. She came back here to recuperate. We might not be together today if that hadn't happened."
"Really?" He looked at me. "You must've been living an exciting life since high school."
"Not really." I changed the subject again. "What have you done since school, Allen? Are you married?"
"Yes, I'm married. Do you remember Gwyn Warrick? She was a year behind us in school." When I nodded, he went on. "We've been married for almost two years. She works at an insurance office in Wilkesboro. No kids yet."
I couldn't see Gwyn Warrick with Allen. He was kind of a playboy in school and if I remembered her correctly, Gwyn was a mousy young woman who wore horn-rimmed glasses and out-dated shirtwaist dresses. Of course I didn't say this to Allen. I asked, "Do you live around here?"
"Just off Sixteen. In fact, our house is where the body turned up today. It's going to freak Gwyn out when I tell her."
I wondered why she didn't already know, but I didn't ask. I turned back to Wallace. "Did you pick up any other clues about the victim?"
"We think it was related to our visitor. He'd been shot in the head and thrown from a vehicle. He must have still been alive, though, because he wandered into the field and died there. We're not sure if it was from the bullet wound or if he froze to death."
"They say it isn't such a bad way to go," Allen volunteered. "I think you just get numb and then go to sleep. Of course, you don't wake up."
I shuddered. "I still think it would be awful." I stood. "Would you like some more coffee?"
They both held out their cups. "Boy, this hot meal is good," Allen said. "We had to eat pork and beans last night 'cause Gwyn was too tired to cook, then the power went off and this morning we had cereal. What have you two been eating?"
"When she heard it was going to be bad weather, June cooked up some things we don't mind eating cold. Deviled eggs, fruit salad, some cookies and the best chocolate cake you've ever eaten."
"I wish Gwyn would think to do things like that. She didn't go to work today because of the weather." He shook his head. "Of course she doesn't have electricity to do any cooking."
I looked at Wallace. "Would you like a piece of cake for dessert?"
"Of course. Why do you think I was bragging about it?" He smiled.
I got up again and cut a piece for each of them. I warmed their coffee, too.
"Boy, Wallace," Allen said. "Your wife takes good care of you."
"Don't think I don't appreciate it."
"He takes good care of me, too." I sat down and reached over and touched Wallace's arm. "This big lug here saved my life last spring. If he hadn't come in and rescued me from Steve Middleton, I don't know what would've happened."
Allen said, "Yeah. I remember when Wallace solved that one. He did a good job."
We chatted about the arrest last summer, then Allen said, "I guess that's when the two of you got together."
"Pretty much," Wallace said. "We spent a lot of time together because June helped me solve the crime."
"I'm impressed." Allen grinned. "Maybe she can help us with this one."
"She might," Wallace said. "She has some good ideas sometimes."
We chatted about different things and at two o'clock Wallace and Allen left. I put some more wood on the fire and got back in my comfortable position on the sofa. I wasn't able to get back to my reading. I kept thinking about the two men who had been shot and wondering why someone was committing such hideous crimes. I also wondered why they'd chosen this awful weather in which to commit them.
* * * *
The sun came out in the afternoon and I knew the storm was over. But we still had to contend with the power outage and wait for the ice to melt off the roads and power lines. They'd already called off school for another day. Wallace came home about seven. Again he carried two to-go boxes from the restaurant. This time he'd brought country style steak, black eyed peas and rice with gravy. He had the thermos full of coffee. It was delicious, but we decided to keep half the coffee for morning.
After we ate, he went out to bring more wood from the shed in the back yard to the porch. I put our dirty plates in the dishwasher and threw the to-go boxes in the trash. As I took the trash to the back door, I noticed a light flicker in Mrs. Goodman's house which was not only separated from ours by the Leland cypress but also a good six or seven hundred yards. The light lasted only seconds, then it was gone.
I waited until Wallace got to the porch with an armful of wood, then said, "I don't know if it means anything, but I saw a light in Mrs. Goodman's house. Isn't she still in Florida with her daughter?"
"She's supposed to be. I ran into J.T. the other day and he said she was still gone." He looked in the direction of the house. "I don't see anything."
"It lasted only a few seconds. Then it went off."
"Maybe I'd better go over there and check." He started across the lawn.
"Wait a minute," I said. I opened the door to the laundry room and looked in the cabinet above the dryer. I took his gun from the top shelf where he puts it when he comes in the back door from work. "Take this," I said handing it to him.
"Let me have the big flashlight, too," he said.
I gave it to him. "Be careful."
I closed the door, went back into the kitchen and looked out the window, but it was too dark. I couldn't see a thing. I began to get cold, so I walked to the fireplace to warm up. After a few minutes, my legs warmed through the sweat suit I had on so I picked up a throw and put it around my shoulders. I walked back to the kitchen window and saw a light inside Mrs. Goodman's house. It was brighter than the first light and I figured it was Wallace's flashlight.
In a little while, I saw two figures come out the front door. They came across the yard and stopped at the patrol car. Wallace opened the back door and put the person in the back seat. He came to the door and stepped inside.
"I found a man camped out in the house. I don't think he has been there long because things looked in pretty good shape. I've arrested him and I've got to take him in. He's so highly intoxicated he's not making much sense. I don't think he knows how he got there."
"Oh, Wallace. Can't you call somebody to come pick him up?"
"I could, but I won't do that."
"I know," I sighed. "You don't want to drag your men out on a night like this either. Just be careful."
"I will." He leaned down and kissed me. "You lock up tight and I won't be gone long. I don't think any of his buddies are around, but you never know."
"I'll be fine. Just hurry back."
"I'll be back before you miss me. Keep the fire going."
"I will and I'll miss you, even if you're only gone a few minutes."
"That's what I like to hear. My woman wants me home with her."
"She sure does."
"I promise, when I get back, I won't go out again."
"Good. Do you want me to call J.T. and let him know someone was in his mother's house?" I made a face, but I couldn't help it.
"I know he's not one of your favorite people so I'll call him when I get to the station." Wallace winked at me.
"You know me too well. Thanks, honey."
"No problem." He chuckled. "Did I tell you J.T. told me he was seeing Sadie Middleton?"
"Heavens, no. As silly as Sadie is, I can't see her with J.T. She must want a man pretty bad." I frowned.
"Of course, after Steve I guess even J.T. is an improvement."
"I don't know if I agree with that or not. A guy in prison might have one up on Mr. Goodman."
"You sure don't cut him any slack, do you?" I didn't answer and he leaned down and kissed me again before he went out the door.
As I closed the door, I thought about my high school encounter with J.T. Goodman. Wallace was right about him not being one of my happy memories. Like most of the tenth grade girls, I had a crush on J.T. He was a senior and the captain of the football team. All the girls dreamed he'd ask them out one day. Me included. Then my day finally came. He met me in the hall and asked if I'd go to the movies with him. I was excited and couldn't wait to brag to my friends. My excitement didn't last long, though. His only intention was to introduce me to the facts of life. When he headed to one of the parking places instead of the movies, I caught on to his scheme. I told him to take me home, but he said I was acting like a baby. When he continued to try to get me in his arms, I knew I had to show him I meant what I had said. Thank goodness I was wearing high heels. I managed to get one off and I let him have it in his left eye with the sharp heel. I guess I was lucky he didn't lose his eye, but he did have to wear a patch on it for three weeks. Of course, wearing the stigma of being subdued by a sophomore was hard on him. He swore he'd get me back someday, but so far he hasn't. The incident kind of cemented my reputation, too, because after that, none of the seniors asked me out.
I couldn't help chuckling as I sat down on the sofa and stared into the fire. I'd run into J.T. a few times since graduation, but we never had more than a few words to say to each other. Though he sometimes still looked at me as if I were his worst enemy, he never mentioned our high school encounter. Neither did I.
After again wondering what Sadie saw in him, I soon pushed him out of my mind and began to think about who could have broken into his mother's house and why. I couldn't dream up a good reason, so it wasn't long until I dozed off. A little later, a noise on the front porch woke me. I knew Wallace had a key, so I didn't get up.
But he didn't use the key. He turned the doorknob and shook it. It hit me full force. Whoever this was, it wasn't Wallace. Because of the weather, he would come in the back door anyway. It was somebody trying to get in.
I jumped up and ran down the hall as quietly as I could. I knew Wallace kept another gun in the closet in our bedroom. I grabbed it and loaded it with the clip beside it. By the time I got to the living room, which was lit only by the fire, I could see the would-be intruder had broken a pane in the glass section of the door and was reaching inside to turn the latch.
"Get your hand away from there or I'll shoot," I yelled. "I have a gun and I know how to use it."
I heard a laugh as he turned the latch.
"I said, stop or I'll shoot!"
He laughed again and the door started to come open.
I didn't wait for him to get inside. I fired and a trickle of blood ran from his hand down the inside of my front door. He screamed.
At the same time a car pulled in the driveway.
I heard Wallace yell, "Get away from that door." He was running up the steps.
"I can't," the man cried. "A crazy woman just shot me. I can't move my hand."
"I can move it," I heard Wallace say as the hand disappeared from the broken glass. "Down on your knees."
I heard a scuffle on the porch and I opened the door. Wallace had the man face down on the porch floor with his knee in his back. He was turning on his shoulder radio. "I just caught a man trying to break into my house. Looks like he ran into a little resistance. You'd better send the medics."
"He wouldn't stop unlocking the door. I couldn't let him get inside," I babbled. "I felt I had to stop him."
"It's okay, June. You did the right thing."
"That crazy bi..."
Wallace pushed the man's face to the floor. "Don't say it."
The man shut up.
"What were you doing here?" Wallace demanded.
"I just wanted to get somewhere warm."
"So you break into someone's house to get warm."
"Yeah. Why not? I didn't think anyone was home. I wasn't going to hurt anybody. I just wanted to get warm. Man, my hand hurts. Let me get up."
"I told him to take his hand out or I'd shoot him. He didn't listen, so I shot his hand," I said.
"You knew someone was inside when she warned you, didn't you?" Wallace demanded.
"I didn't think she meant it. Lots of people say they have a gun when they don't, especially women. I didn't think she had one."
"You didn't think the sheriff's wife would have a gun and know how to use it?"
"I didn't know she was a sheriff's wife. Man, I'm hurtin' here. I need to get up. Can't you do somethin' for my hand?"
Wallace looked at me. "Will you bring the first aid kit out here?"
When I returned, Wallace had the man sitting in one of the rocking chairs on the porch. He put on the latex gloves and took a terry cloth from the kit and wrapped it around the man's hand. "That should hold you until the ambulance gets here."
"I don't need no ambulance. I just want to go."
"You're going, all right. First to the hospital and then straight to jail."
"Man, I don't want to go to no jail. How was I supposed to know this was the sheriff's house?"
"It doesn't matter whose house it is, you'd go to jail anyway. You were breaking in," Wallace said firmly.
"Oh, I hurt," he cried. "I'm going to sue you." He looked at me.
"Shut up. You don't talk to her." Wallace jerked his head back around. "What's your name?"
"Pudden and Tame, ask me again and I'll tell you the same."
"Let's see your license."
"I ain't got no license," he whimpered. "I tell you I'm hurtin' bad. You gotta do somethin' for me."
Before anything else was said, sirens sounded on the highway and blue lights were flashing when they pulled into our driveway.
Allen and Charles both got out of the patrol car. "What's going on, boss?" Allen asked.
"This fool was trying to break into my house. I got here just as June shot him."
Charles laughed. "You shot him, June?"
"I didn't kill him. I just shot him in the hand."
An ambulance came in the driveway and the medics ran to the porch. "What happened?" one of them asked.
"He's been shot in the hand," Wallace said. "I don't think it's very serious." He looked down at the man and added, "I don't think he'll lose it, anyway."
"Oh, it hurts," the man whined.
"Okay, June." Wallace turned to me. "Let's go inside and you can tell us what happened."
He and Allen came in. Charles stayed on the porch to guard the prisoner.
"I was dozing on the sofa when I heard someone come on the front porch. Thinking it was you, I sat there and waited. Then he began shaking the doorknob and I knew it wasn't you after all. I jumped up and ran to the bedroom to get the gun you keep in the closet. When I got back, he'd broken the window and was opening the lock. I told him to get his hand back outside or I'd shoot it. He just laughed and continued to turn the lock. I warned him again and he wouldn't stop. When I saw he had the door open and was coming inside, I shot his hand. Then you came running up on the porch and stopped him from coming in." I said it all at one time so I had to catch my breath.
"Well, Wallace, it all looks cut and dried to me. I don't think we'll have to take her in, do you?"
I shot Allen a look which Wallace says I use when I want to wilt flowers.
Wallace just chuckled and asked, "What did you do with the gun, honey?"
"It's on the coffee table. I laid it there when I heard you outside."
"Okay." He turned to Allen. "Get the camera and take some pictures of the door in case we need them."
Allen went out and Wallace turned to me, "I'll go find a board or something to cover up the broken pane. There's a lot of cold air coming in."
"I wouldn't have shot him if I'd known you were coming," I said.
"June, I'm glad you did. He's going to be all right. I looked at his hand. The bullet went through the fleshy part between his thumb and fore finger. I doubt it even broke a bone."
"Well, I'm glad I didn't hurt him any worse, but he shouldn't have kept coming in after I warned him."
"I know, honey, I know." He put his arms around me and I clung to him.
"Please don't tell me you have to go back to the office. I need you to stay with me."
"I won't go back. Allen can handle it. I need to put him in charge of this since family is involved."
Allan came back in and Wallace said to him, "I guess you heard what I just said. You're in charge of this situation."
"I'll take care of it."
"Thank you, Allen." Wallace was still holding me in his arms and I wasn't about to move.
It took another hour for everything to get straightened out, including washing the blood away, putting a piece of plywood across the broken panels and because the shot had destroyed the lock, nailing our front door shut. After finishing the job, Wallace told me since I'd mutilated the door so badly we'd have to get a new one and put on new locks.
Finally, everyone was gone and we were snuggled in Wallace's oversized sleeping bag in front of the fire. His gentle kisses had calmed my nerves and we made love. In the afterglow I felt safe lying in his arms. A little later, I knew Wallace had drifted off to sleep by his deep steady breathing. I lay next to him and thought about how lucky I was to have such a wonderful husband. No matter how long the ice storm lasted, things would turn out all right because I was with him.
In a little while, I felt something moving at my feet. Dingo, who'd been sleeping in one of the pull-up chairs in the corner, was making a bed on the bottom of the sleeping bag. I thought he must be adjusting to the new sleeping arrangements, too.
* * * *
The power came back on sometime during the night because when I woke up the fire had died to embers and it was warm in the living room. I turned to tell Wallace and saw he was already awake.
"Good morning," I said. "How long have you been awake?"
"Just a little while. I was lying here watching you sleep."
I laughed. "A pretty sight, isn't it?"
"A beautiful sight." He gave me a peck on the cheek, sat up and stretched. "How about a cup of good hot fresh-brewed coffee?"
"Sounds great. Do you mind making it while I go wash my face?"
"Not at all."
I went down the hall, opening all the doors as I went. It felt good to be back in a nice cozy house. I decided to take a quick shower while I was in the bathroom. By the time I came into the kitchen, Wallace had breakfast on the table: bacon, scrambled eggs, grits, juice and big mugs of steaming coffee. I was glad I'd taken extra time to put on my make-up, a pair of jeans and the red sweater Wallace liked.
We were half through breakfast when the phone rang.
Wallace laughed after saying hello and said, "I know, Brad, I'm beginning to wonder if I'm married to Annie Oakley. No. We're fine. She's right here...hold on." To me he said, "It's your dad."
"Girl, what in the world is going on at your house?"
"Hi, Dad," I said. "How did you know something happened here?"
"It was on the morning news. Said the sheriff's wife shot a man in the hand who was trying to break into the house."
"It was on the news?" I was surprised and looked at Wallace. "No, we haven't turned on the TV. We were just enjoying a hot breakfast."
"So you're really okay?"
"Yes. We're both fine."
"Tell me what happened."
"It was no big deal. I acted out of instinct." I told Dad what had happened, the way I told everyone else. I ended with, "That's all there was to it."
"I'm glad Wallace got there, but I'm proud of you, baby girl."
Every time Dad called me that, I had to smile because he called each of his four daughters, baby girl. "Thanks, Dad."
"Well, I'll let you get back to your breakfast. We just wanted to make sure you were all right."
"I'll talk to you later, Dad." I hung up the phone and turned to Wallace. "I wonder who told the news people about last night."
He shrugged. "Probably Allen. When they took the man to the hospital, I'm sure there were questions. There always are with gun shot wounds. He had to tell them what happened and it doesn't take long for word to get out." He drank some coffee and smiled at me. "You'd better be prepared. It wouldn't surprise me if reporters were to call for a statement from you today."
"Oh my. I don't want to talk to reporters."
"Be yourself and it'll be fine."
"That's easy for you to say. I know you're used to being questioned by them, but I'm not."
"You can handle it, baby." He stood. "Now, I better get ready for work."
Wallace was right about the reporters. By the time he'd left for work and I'd straightened the house, fed the cats and decided to change the sheets on our bed so they would be fresh, the telephone rang.
"Mrs. Striker," a cheery voice said. "I'm Jessica Bennett, a freelance reporter. Would you be willing to let me interview you for our local TV affiliate?"
I don't know why, but I said yes. Maybe it was because she sounded scared. And her eagerness reminded me of my sister, Jan.
She asked for directions to the house and I gave them to her. Then I added, "Please come to the back door because the front door won't open."
"I'll see you at two," she said and hung up.
It wasn't yet lunch time, but I stood at the kitchen sink munching on an apple. As I looked across the field toward Ms. Goodman's house, I thought about the man Wallace had arrested for breaking in. Then I thought about the man who had stumbled into our garden. I wondered if there was a connection.
I finished my apple and threw the core in the trash. Deciding I wanted to take a walk, I bundled up, slid my feet into boots and went out the back door. I found myself wandering toward the garden area. Wallace had said there were trampled weeds and splatters of blood where our visitor had stumbled around and I decided to look for other clues. Of course, with the ice melting and the ground getting wet and soggy, I couldn't find any traces of blood. Neither could I tell where he'd walked on weeds. I walked up and down the rows where Wallace had planted his corn last year, but still saw nothing.
I gave up and headed to the road, wondering if I could find the spot where the man had been thrown out of the car. Again, the melting ice was washing everything where it ran, including any blood. I gave up and headed back toward the house. I was almost to the back door when I saw something shiny beside the steps. It was almost hidden under a bent plant, and I nearly missed it. When I leaned down, I saw it was a small pocket knife. I started to pick it up, but changed my mind. Wallace wouldn't want me to touch it in case it was a clue instead of one he dropped.
I went into the house, got a plastic bag and put on a latex glove. I retrieved the knife and put it in the bag. As I went inside, I laid it on the shelf over the washer and took off my boots.
The phone rang inside and I hurried to hang up my coat and raced to answer it. "June, I heard about you on the news," Sadie Middleton blurted out as soon as I said hello. "Are you all right?"
Sadie was one of the last persons I wanted to talk to and for some reason since her husband had been sent to jail for killing my brother-in-law, she seemed determined I was going to be her best friend. "I'm fine, Sadie." I sat down in a kitchen chair and said, "I'm not sure why the thing was on the news. There was really nothing to it."
"I don't believe that. You were so brave. I'd never have the courage to do something like that."
"I wish it had never happened," I said. "If I'd known Wallace was on the way home, I wouldn't have pulled the trigger."
She was quiet a minute and I was hoping she was ready to hang up. I was racking my brain as to how I could end the conversation.
She caught me off guard when she asked, "June, you're really happy with Wallace Striker aren't you?"
"Of course," I said. "If I hadn't thought he was the man for me, I wouldn't have married him."
"Steve had me convinced Wallace was a bumbling county sheriff who would never be able to catch a criminal." She sighed. "I guess he was wrong."
"Yes, he was wrong."
"Can I tell you something, June?"
I wasn't interested in anything Sadie could tell me, but I knew I needed to be polite. "Of course."
"I have a boyfriend."
"Oh?" It surprised me that she was ready to admit to seeing someone. It had only been a few months since Steve was arrested. With three kids and all the junk that had been said, I wondered how she had time to start dating. I also wondered how the Middletons were handling this turn of events. Especially if it was true that she was seeing J.T. Goodman.
"I ran into him at the grocery store and we got to talking about old times. We went to school with the guy, though he's a little older than us." She giggled.
I knew she wanted me to ask who he was, but I didn't. I simply said, "Is that right?"
"Yes. It's J.T. Goodman. Remember him?"
I still couldn't believe even Sadie would be that desperate. I not only remembered him, he still gave me the creeps every time I thought about the night he tried to force himself on me in high school.
I didn't know what to say. Did I congratulate her or tell her I'd already heard she was seeing the man. I didn't really have to do either. I heard the beep of an incoming call. I thanked Sadie for calling and told her I needed to take it.
She hung up, but I could tell it was reluctantly.
I pushed the button on the phone and said, "Hello."
"Is this the gun-tooting mama who isn't afraid to face any outlaw out there?"
"Wallace, you idiot." I laughed. "I'm sure glad you're having a good laugh at my expense."
"I'm not the only one. The guys here are really giving me a hard time. They say I'd better tow the line or I might lose some body parts I don't want to lose."
I chuckled. "Well, they could be right."
He laughed out loud. "I actually called to tell you your victim is going to be fine. The bullet went through the fleshy part of his hand, just like I said."
"I'm glad about that. I certainly didn't want to really hurt anyone."
"Turns out he works part time at J.T.'s construction company and had heard that Mrs. Goodman had gone to Florida. He and his uncle decided to start breaking into houses and he thought Mrs. Goodman's would be an easy one to start with. By the time he got him to the jail, Allen said he'd confessed the whole plan." Wallace laughed again. "When he came to our door, he thought he was at Mrs. Goodman's house until you shot him. Since the car was gone and you hadn't turned on any lights, he got confused." He took a breath and went on, "Even in his stupor, the drunk in Mrs. Goodman's house found the right place. Allen found their old pick-up stuck in the mud in a field about half a mile away. The old man was driving and when he couldn't go any farther, he walked."
"How were they supposed to get away if their truck was stuck?" I asked.
"June, you're thinking logically. This pair wasn't capable of that. The older man was too drunk and the younger one only had getting stuff to sell on his mind. Neither had thought about getting away." He paused. "Hold on a minute." I knew he put his hand over the phone because the voices became muffled.
I didn't have to wait long and he was back on the line. "That was an update on the man in our back yard. He's still critical, but there is a possibility he might make it. We're still trying to identify him."
"I found something in the yard today which might help you. It was a pocket knife. It had fallen under the bush beside the back steps. I guess the ice had weighed the limb down and you didn't see it."
"What did you do with it?"
I smiled to myself. Wallace was trying in a tactful way to ask me if I'd touched it. I said, "No, I didn't pick it up with my bare hand. I put on a glove and put it in a plastic bag."
"It pays to be married to a smart sheriff. He's trained me well."
"I don't know about that. It's probably your PI training kicking in."
"Of course it could be that. If you want me to spy on somebody, I'm really good at surveillance since that's what I did most of the time."
He laughed and said, "Charles is in the area. I'll call him and send him by to pick up the knife sometime this afternoon."
"I'll be here."
"Thanks, darling. Love you."
"I love you too, Wallace. More than I can possibly make you understand."
"I think you're doing a pretty good job of making me feel loved. I'll see you tonight."
I hung up the phone and looked at my watch. I had just enough time to make a sandwich and get ready for my interview.
* * * *
At five minutes to two, there was a knock on my back door. I stood and smoothed down the light blue cashmere sweater I'd changed into. It complemented my navy slacks. I had added my Lapis bracelet and earrings which Wallace had designed for me by Lanie's Fine Things.
Jessica Bennett was as pretty, if not prettier, than she appeared on television. She was in her early twenties. Her dark hair framed her face in a way to bring out her dark brown eyes. She was dressed in a parka, a red knitted cap and scarf. Her fur-lined boots looked expensive.
A camera man followed her up the steps. He was older, and looked bored with his job. She introduced him as Ben Fuller.
I smiled at both of them and said, "I'm sorry to have to ask you come in the back, but my front door is nailed shut."
"Nailed shut?" Jessica looked puzzled.
"I'll tell you about it, but first, please let me take your coats." I hung their outer wear in the mud room. I noticed they both stooped to remove their boots. I told them I appreciated their thoughtfulness and led them to the living room.
"Would you like something to drink?" I asked. "I have coffee, tea, hot chocolate, soda."
"I sure could use a cup of coffee," Fuller said. "We've been out in the cold and it'd be a treat."
"I normally don't accept anything to eat or drink on an interview, but you got me when you said hot chocolate," Jessica said. "I can't turn that down."
"Find seats and I'll be right back." It wasn't long until I returned with a tray. Along with their drinks, I'd put a plate of the peanut butter cookies I'd made for the ice storm. It didn't take Ben long to grab one and take a sip of coffee. "Good coffee," he said.
"Thanks," I said.
"Do you mind if we get started?" Jessica asked.
I indicated I didn't and sat down on the sofa. Jessica sat in a pull up chair near me.
Fuller turned on the camera and Jessica said, "Good evening. I'm here in the home of Mrs. June Striker, the wife of Edison County sheriff, Wallace Striker. Mrs. Striker shot an intruder as he tried to come into her home last night." She turned to me and said, "Thank you for doing this interview with me, Mrs. Striker."
She started her questioning with, "Now, Mrs. Striker, would you please tell me what happened?"
I went through the story much the same way as I had for everyone else.
"In doing research for this interview," she said. "I found out you were a private investigator in Greensboro before coming to Edison. Is that true?"
"Actually, I was more of a PI trainee, Ms. Bennett. I had my temporary license and was working on getting my permanent license when I had an accident and came home to recuperate. I never went back to Greensboro."
"Do you still plan to seek your PI license?"
"I've thought about it, but I have no firm plans at this point."
"So with the training you've had, you know how to use a gun, is that right?"
"Yes. I've taken lessons and I've practiced on the firing range."
"I understand your husband was not at home at the time of the break-in, is this true?"
"Yes. He arrested a man breaking into a neighbor's house and had taken him in for questioning. I was alone."
"Do you recommend that women who are alone at night keep a gun, Mrs. Striker?"
"Not unless they have been trained on the use and safety of a firearm. A lot of accidents happen because people with no experience or training go out and buy guns."
"How do you recommend one get this training?"
"For the use of a firearm, there are commercial training areas and the fees are usually inexpensive."
"Do you recommend everyone do this?"
"If one owns a gun, they definitely need training to use it. They should also be responsible gun owners and keep the gun locked away from children."
"Absolutely." Jessica smiled. "What about the gun you used in the shooting? Was it locked up?"
"We're always careful about keeping our guns away from children." June changed the subject "When I saw the man was going to continue trying to get into the house, I eased out of the room and got the weapon. I would have never fired the gun if he hadn't got the door open and was coming inside."
"I think you said you warned him."
"I did. Twice. He didn't stop and when he got the door open, I aimed for his hand."
"You must be a good shot, Mrs. Striker. They tell us you did very little, if any, damage to the man's hand."
"Of course I'm glad he's going to be all right. I would never shoot anyone unless I felt it was absolutely necessary."
"You mentioned that your front door was nailed shut as we came in through the back door. Would you tell me about that?"
"The bullet did more damage to the door than anything else," I said. "When I fired, it shattered the lock and the side of the door. Of course we had to cover the broken pane and we decided since we couldn't lock the door, we'd nail it shut and replace the entire thing."
She motioned for Ben to take a picture of the door.
"As I said, your husband is Wallace Striker, the sheriff of Edison County. May I ask you what he had to say about the shooting?"
"He didn't say much of anything. He turned the case over to Deputy Allen Ledbetter so there would be no question about the investigation."
"Do you plan to press charges against the man for breaking into your home?"
"I leave that up to Deputy Ledbetter."
She was about to ask another question, but there was a sharp rap on the back door.
"Excuse me," I said.
"That's okay. We can stop the tape."
I went to the back door. Charles Easton was standing there. I could tell he was cold because he was shaking his arms and moving about.
"Come in, Charles. You look frozen." I stood aside and held the door open.
"I don't want to interrupt. Looks like the TV people are here."
"I think they're about through."
"Well, if you don't mind I'll come in for a bit. I've been directing traffic at a wreck on Four Twenty-One and I'm awfully cold."
"Take off your coat and I'll get you something hot to drink. Want coffee or hot chocolate?"
"Hot chocolate sounds great."
I poured him a mug and handed it to him as he came into the kitchen.
Jessica was watching him.
"This is Deputy Charles Easton," I said. "Jessica Bennett and Ben Fuller." I indicated the people in the living room.
"Ms. Bennett," Charles smiled at her and nodded to Ben. "I've seen you on TV. It's a real pleasure to meet you in person."
"Thank you for saying that. I don't get a lot of air time and it's flattering when someone recognizes me." As she looked at Charles, I could see the interest in her eyes.
Charles tore his eyes away from her and looked at me. "Wallace sent me to get something you found in the yard."
Jessica's eyebrow shot up. "Would it have anything to do with the shooting?"
"No," I said, hoping she wouldn't press the subject. "It was something my husband has been looking for."
"Oh." She lost interest. "Do you mind if we get back to the interview? I'd like to get this taped and edited in time for the eleven o'clock news."
I indicated the pull-up chair in the corner and said to Charles, "Have a seat over there and I'll be with you in a little while."
"Let's see, where were we?" Jessica looked at her notes. "Oh yes." She nodded to Fuller.
"Now, Mrs. Striker, in retrospect, would you fire the gun again."
"I have a problem with the word retrospect, Ms. Bennett," I said. "It muddies the issue. I will say, if the situation were exactly the same, yes I would fire the gun again. What I'd do under another circumstance, I don't know. I'd have to be in the situation to see."
"I understand," she said. "Is there anything you'd like to add to this interview?"
"I would tell people out there to be responsible with their firearms. If you have children, unload your guns and keep them locked up. If you have children coming to your home, do the same thing. To me, some of the saddest stories in the news are when a small child kills his brother or sister or friend because the parents or grandparents have carelessly left a loaded gun where a child can find it."
"That is well said, Mrs. Striker. Again, thank you for permitting us to come into your home and interview you."
"Thank you, Ms. Bennett. It was a pleasure meeting you."
"Likewise," she said with a smile.
Ben turned the camera off and sat it on the floor. He took another cookie. "These are good, Mrs. Striker. Thanks for serving them."
Again, Jessica said, "I really do appreciate you letting me interview you, Mrs. Striker. You were so easy to talk with."
"You're welcome, and please call me June."
"Now that we're not on camera, I will if you'll return the favor. I'm Jessica."
As the television crew began bundling up and getting ready to take their leave, Charles stood and put his cup in the sink. "Thanks, June. That hit the spot."
He came into the mud room area and started putting on his boots.
I couldn't help noticing how he kept eying Jessica. I glanced at her and saw she was looking back at him. I wondered if there was the possibility of a romance in the making. My mind began to wonder how I could get the two of them together again. Silently, I warned myself to stop playing matchmaker. Just because I was happy with my relationship with my man, didn't mean I had to try to force others to seek happiness.
I waited until Jessica and Ben were getting in their truck, then turned to the cabinet in the laundry room. I took out the plastic bag with the knife and handed it toward Charles. When he didn't reach for it, I looked at him. He was watching Jessica as the television truck backed out of the driveway.
"Nice looking woman, isn't she, Charles?"
He glanced around and laughed. "June, if I wasn't a black man, you'd see that you just made me blush."
"Sorry about that." I laughed. "But she really is a pretty lady."
"Probably has men worshipping at her feet. She'd never be interested in a lowly deputy like me."
"You never know, Charles. You never know." I closed the door as he went out and wondered again how I could get the two of them together without them suspecting I'd done so.
* * * *
The eleven o'clock news did run Jessica Bennett's interview with me. When we turned off the TV and snuggled down to go to sleep, Wallace said, "You did a good job. I'm proud of you."
"They didn't use every thing I said, but they ran more than I thought they would."
"Be prepared for calls tomorrow. You'd be surprised how impressed some people are going to be."
"I'm going to get out a little tomorrow so maybe I'll miss their calls."
"Where do you plan to go?"
"I thought if you could meet me at Lowe's sometime in the morning, we'd buy a front door. We can't keep sending people to the back when we have guests."
"I'll probably be able to do that." He yawned. "Then what?"
"I might drop in on Mom and Dad." I didn't add that before I went to see them I was going to call Jessica Bennett.
We talked a little more. I questioned him about Charles Easton. Thank goodness he simply answered me without asking why I wanted to know so much about one of his deputies. It wasn't long until both our voices grew slurry. I think we were still trying to talk when we fell asleep.
The next day, the forecast was for the temperature to reach a possible 45. I dressed in a pair of red wool slacks, white lightweight sweater and black blazer. Wallace met me at Lowe's at eleven. We chose a door with an oval full length glass in front and arranged for it to be installed the next day. I think the reason they agreed to do it so quickly was because Wallace had on his uniform, but he said they recognized me as the shooter and were afraid not to come. I have to admit that when we left the store, several people followed us out with their eyes.
He walked me to my car and I asked as I got into the driver's seat, "Do you have time for lunch?"
"I wish I did, but I promised Roberta I'd get back in time for her to go to the dentist at one. I'd planned on grabbing something and taking it back to the office because I have a lot of paperwork to do."
"Then, I'll see you tonight," I said as I smiled up at him and put my hand over his where he'd rested it on the open window. I wanted to reach up and throw my arms around his neck, but I realized we had to put on a professional face in public. Especially when he was in uniform.
His other hand covered mine. "I'll try to get home early. Maybe we could do a movie or something." He squeezed my hand. "Probably the something," he said and winked.
"The something sounds good to me," I whispered. "Don't you dare work late."
"With you waiting at home, how could I not come home early?" He squeezed my hand again. "We might get started on that something before dinner and a movie."
"I'll be waiting with bated breath."
"You do that." He winked at me again and headed to his patrol car.
I watched him pull out of the parking lot and thanked God I was the lucky woman he fell in love with. Before I started my car, I picked up my cell phone and dialed the branch office of the television station in town. I told the receptionist who I was and asked if I could speak to Jessica Bennett.
In a minute, a voice said, "This is Jessica Bennett."
"Hi, Jessica. June Striker here. I wanted to thank you for making me look so good on TV last night."
"Oh, June, you're more than welcome. They were buzzing around here after the story aired. People really liked it and they liked you. They even said since I now seemed to have an in with the sheriff's department, I might be assigned more crime stories."
"I'm only the sheriff's wife. I don't think that gives you much of an in, but I'm glad they liked the story." Without giving her time to comment, I added, "I'm in Wilkesboro. May I thank you for doing such a good job by taking you to lunch today?"
She hesitated only a moment. "I'd love to have lunch with you, but I'll do the buying. Where can I meet you?"
"How about Applebee's? And we'll go Dutch."
"That'll be great. Shall we say at twelve-thirty?"
"Fine. I'll probably go ahead and get a table. I'll see you there." I clicked off the phone. That was much easier than I thought it would be. Now I need to concentrate on the questions I want to ask her. Maybe by the time lunch is over, I'll know if it's possible to get her together with Charles. I began to form questions in my mind as I started my car. The clock on the dash said it was five to twelve. Good. That gives me plenty of time to think.
When Jessica walked in, she spied me in a booth beside the window. She waved and came over. "Hi, June, I'm happy to see you."
"I'm glad you could make it."
"It was nice of you to call. I'm like everyone else at work. I usually grab fast food and eat at my desk. It's always nice to get out."
We chatted about my buying a new front door, about the nice weather today and how well the interview was received. I then felt free enough to ask, "Tell me about yourself, Jessica. Are you married? Do you have kids? Where are you from?"
"Goodness, you sound like the interviewer." She laughed. "Let me see if I can answer your questions in order. I'm not married, therefore no kids. I was born in Philadelphia, moved to North Carolina when I was five. Grew up in Raleigh and went to college at Pembroke for a year then switched to Chapel Hill because of their great film school. I graduated two years ago and worked for a little while at a station in Greenville and then came here. That's about it, my life in a few sentences."
"How do you like it here?"
"I love this part of the state, but I do have one complaint."
"Not enough nice single African-American men." Jessica chuckled. "Not that I have anything against dating white men, but my father is of the old school. He still frowns on it. I know I'm a grown woman and can do what I want to do, but I love my daddy and want to please him when I can."
"I know what you mean. I like pleasing my daddy, too."
"So my statement still stands. Do you happen to know any nice single African-American men?"
That question made me smile. This was going to work out for two nice people. "Well, I know one very eligible African-American man and from what I can tell, he's also very nice."
"What did you think of Deputy Easton?"
"He was fine." She had a twinkle in her eyes. "You are sneaky, June Striker."
I put on an innocent face. "What do you mean?"
"The real reason you asked me to lunch was to play matchmaker, wasn't it?"
I drank some tea and smiled at her. "You caught me, but I really did want to thank you for the interview. I also thought your personality clicked with Charles. I figured if I was wrong and you weren't interested in him, we could still be friends."
"I'll tell you a secret," she said. "I've been racking my brain as to how I could call and ask you about Mr. Easton. He is single, isn't he?"
"Yes he is. He grew up in Statesville, went to college at Winston-Salem State and came here to pursue his career in law enforcement. He's single and twenty-five." These were the things Wallace told me last night. I then added one fact I knew on my own, "And he was quite taken with you."
"Boy, you do know how to get the right information, don't you?" She laughed.
"Wallace thinks I have a sixth sense about some things. I call it just plain old common sense and watching people's actions. Most important of all, I'm nosy. I saw how you two kept eying each other at the house."
She was quiet a minute. After eating a bite of her sandwich, she put it down and looked at me. "Now that you know we could be interested in each other, how do I go about seeing him again?"
"You leave that to me and keep Saturday night open. I'll get back in touch with you in a day or so."
* * * *
I got home in plenty of time to cook dinner. I decided Wallace needed a hearty meal since he'd bought fast food for lunch and I was more interested in the something he kept talking about than I was in going out to dinner. I set out the electric grill to cook pork chops, washed sweet potatoes to bake, chopped cabbage to fry and took a can of Mom's pickled beets from the pantry. The chocolate cake was about gone, so I made a cherry pie.
When Wallace arrived home, everything was about ready. He kissed me hello and said, "I thought I was taking you out for dinner."
"I decided I'd rather stay here with you."
"I'm glad." He took me in his arms and lifted me off the floor. "A long night home with you is the perfect ending to a day."
I kissed him. "I hope you'd not be disappointed."
He returned my kiss. "Not at all." He put me down and started toward the bedroom. "I'll be back in a minute."
By the time I put the food on the table, he returned. I knew he'd taken a shower because his hair was wet. He was wearing a long-sleeved knit shirt and jeans.
"Hey, this looks good. Sure makes up for the dry hamburger I had for lunch."
"I'm glad you appreciate my cooking." I smiled at him and sat down at my place to his right.
"I do, sweetheart. I appreciate it more than you know." He reached for my hand.
"That's good because I wanted to ask you something."
"Let's say our blessing and I'll tell you."
He said a short prayer and looked at me.
I took a deep breath. "Could we have Charles over to dinner Saturday night? And maybe Allen and Gwyn?"
He looked at me and wrinkled his brow. "Why in the world would you want to ask them to dinner?"
I started to make up some story, but changed my mind. I had resolved when we married that I wouldn't try to manipulate Wallace as I did when we were in school. I wanted to be honest with him. I said, "Jessica Bennett was interested in Charles and from the way he kept eying her yesterday, he was interested, too. I want to get the two of them together."
"Oh, June. Playing matchmaker can lead to trouble."
"I know, but this time both of them want to see more of each other."
"How do you know she's interested in Charles?"
"When you couldn't go to lunch with me today, I called her and she went. She told me she wanted to see him again."
"Looks to me like it's a done deal, but why include the Ledbetters?"
"I thought maybe if there was a group here, it would be more comfortable for Charles."
"I think he'd be completely happy with only the four of us. I'm not sure Allen and Gwyn have much of a marriage. Charles has heard him complaining about it, too."
I cocked my head. "I'm sorry they're not happy. I guess we'll ask the Ledbetters at another time."
"Good. Now let's forget other people's love life and enjoy this meal."
After dinner, I insisted Wallace go watch television while I cleaned up the kitchen. He protested, but finally took a seat in his recliner and turned on the television.
There wasn't much to do except put the dishes in the dishwasher and soon I came into the living room to join him. I started to sit on the couch.
"Don't you dare sit there," he said with a laugh. "How can we ever get around to that something we talked about at Lowe's today if you sit so far away?"
I smiled at him and took a seat on his lap. He laid the seat back and put both his arms around me. "That's better."
"This is better," I mumbled as I snuggled down in his arms. He began stroking my shoulders and kissing my neck. I was beginning to feel tingles, but his cell phone rang and interrupted.
He made a face and answered it, "Hello. When? Were there any witnesses? Give me directions. I'll be there in a little while." He hung up and looked down at me.
"I guess this ends our snuggling," I said.
"Afraid so. There's been another body tossed out of a car. This time someone got a glimpse of the truck as it drove away." I got up and he stood.
"Where did it happen?"
"In a field near Henry Thompson's house. You know, he's the deputy who works in the office most of the time."
"I've heard you talk about him." I followed Wallace down the hall.
He got his gun and his identification and started out the door.
A strange dark feeling hit me and I grabbed his arm. "Wallace, will you please do me a favor?"
"If I can, but I've got to go in a minute."
"I know, but please put on your bulletproof vest."
"Honey, I'll be fine. I don't need it."
"Maybe not, but please do it for me."
He looked as if he were going to argue, but instead shook his head. He removed his shirt and slipped into his vest. He then replaced his clothes. "That's for you," he said.
"Thank you." I didn't tell him, but the dark feeling left me. I knew things would be okay
At the back door, he put on his boots, slipped into his fleece-lined jacket and picked up his gloves. He leaned down and kissed me. "I'll be back as soon as I can. Keep the sheets warm for me and wear that sexy black nightgown I like so much."
"I can do that." I leaned up and kissed him.
He held me tightly for a minute, then slipped out the door.
I glanced at the clock. It was only eight o'clock. I wished it didn't get dark so early in winter. It always made me think it was later than it really was. I sat in Wallace's chair and tried to interest myself in television, but without him, it was useless.
At nine I got up and checked to make sure the back door was locked. I went into our bedroom and got ready for bed. I did put on the black nightgown Wallace liked and slipped between the covers. I started to turn on the television, but changed my mind.
I turned my thoughts to the man who had been shot and wondered why some maniac was on this rampage. And who were the men who were being shot? And why dump them...I sat up straight. It had dawned on me that each of the victims had been dumped near a law enforcement officer's home. Did this have some significance? Maybe it was someone who had been arrested and was getting revenge. No. It's more than that. It has to be someone who has a terrible grudge against the sheriff's department. Maybe they had sent a close family member to jail or maybe some officer had to shoot someone and a family member was blaming the entire department.
My mind raced and I conjured up all kinds of reasons for the shooter to be dumping the bodies close to a lawman's property. Why wasn't he killing his victims on the spot? Was he just a terrible shot or was he intentionally shooting them in a way that allowed them to wander around a while before dying? Does he realize he's taking a chance on one of them surviving long enough to tell an officer what happened? Sometime during my thinking, I must have dozed off because the next thing I knew Wallace was getting into bed with me. I turned over to greet him. "Hi," I said.
"What time is it?"
"It's almost midnight." He pulled me into his arms.
"You're cold." I put my arms around him. "What took so long? I thought you'd be back earlier."
"There was a little trouble, but we got it ironed out." He put his hand on my thigh and I jumped. He removed it quickly. "I'm sorry. I had on gloves most of the time, but I guess my hands got colder than I thought."
"That's okay. Here let me have them." I took his hands in mine and pulled them close to my chest. I began to rub them gently. "They'll be warm in a minute," I whispered.
"That feels good," he said. "By the way, thanks for wearing the gown."
"How do you know I have it on? It's dark in here."
"I saw you when I came in. The light was on."
"Oh, I see." I remembered something I knew he'd get a kick out of. "Wallace, have I ever told you what my Aunt Nadine said when I got this nightgown at my bridal shower?"
"Can't say as you have."
His hands were getting warmer and I was now holding them at the plunging neckline of the nightgown and against my breasts. "She said, and I quote, 'That sexy thing will sure look pretty lying on the foot of the bed on your honeymoon.'"
Wallace laughed out loud. "Your Aunt Nadine said that?"
"She did. Everyone in the room roared." I let go of his hands, "I think they're warm now."
"Thank you," he whispered and began to caress my body.
I was getting aroused, but I asked. "Do you want to tell me what happened tonight?"
"I'll tell you in the morning," he said as he began to slip the nightgown over my head. "Tonight I want to put this sexy nightgown on the foot of the bed where Aunt Nadine says it belongs."
* * * *
When I woke up the next morning, Wallace wasn't in the bed. I threw back the covers and shivered. I'd spent the night in his arms, naked. I grabbed my velvet green robe and wrapped it around me. After brushing my teeth, I took a quick shower, put on make-up and dressed in a teal jogging suit.
In the kitchen, Wallace was at the stove with his back to me. I went up behind him and slipped my arms around his waist. "Good morning, my husband."
"Good morning, honey." He cleared his throat. "Now, June, I don't want you to freak out when you see my face, but I ran into a little resistance last night."
"What?" I backed away from him so I could see him better. "Turn around." When he did, I gasped. He had a black eye and there was a bandage on the right side of his forehead just below the hairline. "Wallace, what happened?"
"It looks worse than it is." He tried to calm me. "I was on the way home when there was a call about a domestic disturbance. I was close so I told them I'd handle it. When I got there, the husband turned his anger from his wife to me. I didn't see the rock in his hand as I walked up to him. He hit my head with it before I subdued him and got him cuffed."
"Honey, why didn't you tell me last night?"
He reached out and put his arm around me. "Because if I had, it would've spoiled the mood. And I wasn't interested in anything spoiling my mood last night. I wanted to make love to my wife."
"Yes, but..." I poked him in the chest and he winced. "What happened there? Did he kick you or something?"
"Let's eat. Our eggs will get cold."
"Don't you try to change the subject, Wallace Striker! What else happened?"
He sighed and said, "The wife saw I was going to take the man to jail and she didn't like it. When I got him in the car and turned around, she fired a rifle and it hit my chest."
"Charles hadn't got to his turnoff and he was following me. He'd stopped when he saw me wrestling the man on the ground. As soon as she shot me, the woman threw the gun down so Charles arrested her instead of firing. We dragged them both to jail. He insisted I go by the hospital to have the wound on my head cleaned and bandaged. I did and everything was fine."
"Wallace, you could've been killed!"
"Not really. I had the vest on, remember? All I did was fall backward." He kind of wrinkled his forehead at me. "How did you know to make me put on the vest?"
"I don't know. It was just a feeling." I had a lump in my throat thinking of what could've happened if Wallace hadn't done as I asked.
He must have seen the terror in my eyes because he pulled me to him. "Thanks for asking me to wear it. You probably saved my life last night. There's one thing for sure. Whenever you voice them, I'm going to listen to your feelings from now on." He gave me a squeeze. "Now let's eat. I'm hungry."
I finally calmed down enough to sit down and nibble at my food. I couldn't quit thinking of what could've happened if things had been different.
"Wallace, please don't ever take chances like that. Don't go to these things by yourself. I know you always tell your men to take a partner. I want you to do the same."
"I promise to be more careful."
I knew he was only trying to placate me. "I mean it, Wallace. You're a married man now. You have to think of how devastated I'd be if anything happened to you." Another thought crossed my mind. "You turned off the bedroom light deliberately so I wouldn't see your wounds last night, didn't you?"
"Guilty," he whispered.
"Wallace, don't ever hide things like that from me. I'm your wife. I have a right to know."
"I agree. And I wasn't hiding it from you, June. I was only postponing it." He looked into my eyes and smiled. "Ever since we were in the parking lot at Lowe's yesterday morning, I'd been looking forward to coming home and making love to you. You've got to admit it might not have happened if you'd seen my face."
I dropped my head. "You're probably right."
After a pause he asked, "What did you do after I left last night?"
"I was a little restless so I went to bed early." I looked at him and added, "I did have a thought about the murders."
"What was that?"
I told him what I thought about someone wanting to get even with the sheriff's department.
"You may be on to something," he said. "I'll check the files and see if there have been any recent releases which might cause someone to do something like this." He reached over and touched my cheek. "That's my wife, the detective, on the job again."
"I've been thinking of continuing the process of getting my license, Wallace. What do you think?"
"What does it entail?"
"I have to work for 3,000 hours with a licensed investigator. I had almost completed my apprenticeship with the firm in Greensboro."
"You know I'm not going to tell you what to do. I learned better than to try to do that when we were in school. But I hope you can finish your training with a company in the area. I don't want my wife running off to Greensboro." His green eyes twinkled as he looked at me.
"No way. I'm not going where I can't sleep in your arms every night." I smiled at him. "Besides, who would look after you with me gone?"
"I'm glad you feel that way. It wouldn't be the same without you here to greet me every night."
"I intend to be here for you, but I need to do something, Wallace. I have a lot of time on my hands which could be put to some productive use."
"Then, why don't you check into it? See if you can find a firm in the area, or go back to school and study something you've always wanted to do. You know I'll support you in whatever you decide."
"I know you will, Wallace. That's what makes you so special." I stood and kissed the top of his head. "Want some more coffee?"
"Just a smidgen then I'd better get to work and see what's going on today." He took a deep breath. "Since nobody has called, maybe it's going to be a quiet day."
Neither of us knew how wrong he was.
* * * *
After I finished my morning chores, I decided to call Mom.
"I thought I might pop by and see you and Dad for a bit today, if you don't have anything planned," I said when she answered.
"Your Dad is going to the feed and seed store with John Middleton this afternoon, but I have nothing planned. Why don't you come and have lunch with us?"
"I'd like that," I said. "I'll be there about noon."
"It'll be ready."
When I walked into my parents' big old farm house at quarter to twelve, a multitude of food aromas greeted me. "Something smells wonderful," I said.
Dad turned from his recliner and folded his paper. "I'm sure your mom is stirring up something good." He smiled as I bent down and kissed his cheek.
"Anything interesting in the paper?"
"Same old stuff with the planning board. The town wants to add another police officer. The board says nope. Can't afford it. J.T. Goodman and his partner are trying to get some land over near Sandstone Creek rezoned so they can develop it into some of those cheap apartments and condos they build, and the board is split down the middle. Red Goddard wants to have a satellite hospital built here. That sort of thing."
I laughed as I tossed my coat on the back of the sofa and said, "Has Edison's planning board ever agreed on anything?"
"Not much." He changed the subject. "I did read something about the three bodies being found in fields around. You know anything about that?"
"Not much." I wondered if he knew one of the bodies turned up on our property. I didn't get a chance to ask because Mom came through the door and said lunch was ready.
She hugged me and said, "You're looking good, June. I believe marriage is agreeing with my daughter."
I chuckled. "It is, Mom. It really is." I spied the table. "My goodness, who else is coming? It looks like you've cooked for an army."
"I guess I did get carried away a little, but I decided to go ahead and cook supper while I was at it. April and the kids are coming tonight."
"I'm assuming Wallace is okay," Dad said as we took our chairs.
"He's fine," I muttered. I knew I probably should tell them what happened last night, but they worried too much already.
"Why don't you give him a call and see if he can stop by to eat with us?" Mom suggested.
I started to answer, but my cell phone rang. It was Wallace.
"Hi, honey," I said. "I'm at Mom and Dad's and believe it or not, we were talking about you."
"I hope it was good," Wallace said.
"Nope. My dad said if you didn't treat me better, he was coming to get you with his double-barreled shotgun."
Wallace laughed. "I bet he said that very thing."
"Actually, we're getting ready to eat lunch. Mom said I should call you and ask if you could come by. Lord knows she has plenty."
"I'm in the area so there's no way I can turn down an offer like that. Tell Celia I'll be there in less than ten minutes."
"I'll tell her. See you shortly." I hung up and turned to Mom. "Wallace says he can't turn down your cooking and he'll be here in a few minutes."
"Oh, I'm glad. We really like that boy, don't we, Brad?"
"We sure do. Best son-in-law we have."
"You'd better not let May hear you say that," I said.
"Oh, don't get me wrong," Dad said. "We like Bert, too. He's made May a wonderful husband and they seem to be happy. I guess it's because we get to see Wallace more."
"And compared to May and April's first husbands, Wallace is such a sweetheart."
"Thanks, Mom." I decided I'd better tell them about the bandage on Wallace's head. I was finishing the story when he came to the back door.
Of course, Mom hovered and petted and waited on him like a baby. He ate it up. I couldn't help saying, "Now don't expect this kind of treatment at home." I pointed my finger at him.
"Don't pay any attention to her, Celia," Wallace said. "She's a lot nicer than she wants people to know."
"Of course she is," Dad said. "She's always tried to make everyone think she's tough, when she's really just a marshmallow inside."
I just shook my head and let them talk.
When we finished eating, Wallace said, "I sure would like to stay and talk all afternoon, but I guess I'd better get back to work. We're having a busy day."
"I wish you could stay, son," Dad said. "We're pretty peaceful folk."
Wallace stood up. "I wish everyone was." He kissed Mom on the cheek. "Thanks, Celia. It was wonderful as always."
"You're welcome and you be careful. I don't want you to get hurt again."
"I promise to watch it." He reached out and shook Dad's hand. "See you, Brad."
I walked to the porch with him. "Thanks for coming by. Mom and Dad are always glad to see you."
"I love your parents, June. They've made me a part of the family and in such a short time." He smiled down at me. "I'll see you tonight."
"Wait." I took his arm. "You're not usually out this time of day. What's going on?"
"Doing a little investigating. We may have identified one of the bodies and we're going over all the scenes where they were dumped. I'm going to walk the field at home."
"Want me to come home?"
"No. You stay and visit with your parents. I won't be there long because I don't expect to find anything."
"Okay. Then I'll see you this evening."
He put his arm around me and I looked up at him. Neither of us spoke. We didn't have to. We were saying 'I love you' with our eyes. He leaned down and kissed me. I closed my eyes and kissed him back.
Mom finished placing the dishes in the dishwasher and Dad stood by the back door putting on his coat as I came in. "June," he said. "I hope you don't mind, but I promised John I'd pick him up at two to go to the feed store."
"I don't mind at all, Dad." I leaned up and kissed his cheek. "I'll see you later."
Mom and I headed to the living room, took seats and chatted about several things. She told me my youngest brother, Toby, had written them this week to tell them how much he liked his classes at NC State. She said they hadn't heard from Jan this week, but last week she'd said she had some hard tests coming up. May had called and said she had some exciting news. She hoped the family could get together this weekend.
"I bet she's pregnant." I grinned at Mom. "I know that would make you and Dad happy."
"I'm hoping that's what it is. It would be nice to have a baby nearby again." She grinned. "I guess you and Wallace aren't planning a family yet."
"Mom! We've only been married three months. We want to have some time together before we think about a family."
"You do want kids, don't you, June?"
"Of course. Just not for a year or so."
"I think you and Wallace will make wonderful parents."
"I hope we will when the time comes."
She showed me some pictures August and Teresa had sent from Atlanta. They were mostly of seven-month-old Bradley and his seven-year-old brother, Freddie. "I'm glad to know you'll add some grandchildren someday, June," she said.
"As I said, Wallace and I want to have time to ourselves." I smiled at her. "You know I have a lot to make up to him. I was really pretty cruel in school."
"I know you were, dear, but I bet Wallace never throws it up to you."
"He does kid me about it occasionally."
"That's fair, I guess." She looked at me. "You're really happy, aren't you, June?"
"Happier than I ever thought I'd be, Mom. I don't know what I thought my life would be like, but settling down here in Edison County with Wallace Striker wasn't the plan I had for my future at all. Now I realize being with Wallace is the only thing that will ever be important to me."
She didn't say anything for a minute. Then she stood and reached her hand to me. "Come with me, June. I want to show you something."
I wrinkled my forehead. "Where to?"
"Just come with me." She tugged on my hand. "I think you'll appreciate seeing this."
I stood and followed her. We went upstairs to the room she shared with Dad. She went to the closet where I knew she stored her linens and opened it. There were six twelve-inch square plastic boxes stacked on the top shelf. Each one had the name of one of her children. She took down the one with JUNE written on it with a magic marker.
"What in the world is this, Mom?"
"Have a seat and I'll show you."
We sat on the side of her bed. She said, "Years ago, I realized I'd never be able to keep all the drawings, papers and cards you children made for your Dad and me. I decided I'd make a special box for each of you and limit the souvenirs I kept. Sometimes it was hard to get rid of something, but I knew how much space I had and I was determined to keep to this rule for all of you." She laughed. "Of course, you were the hardest because so much of your stuff was unique."
"I'm not sure if that's a compliment," I said with a laugh.
"Believe me, it is." She looked at me. "Do you remember your last English assignment in your senior year of high school?"
I thought a minute, but nothing came to mind. I shook my head and she went on, "Well, I do. You had a very insightful English teacher. She said for the last class assignment she wanted each student to write down ten goals using a sheet of paper for each one. She wanted you to start with the person you wanted to marry, and if you didn't know who it was at the time to write what type person you wanted to end up with. Number two was to be what type of job you wanted or what profession you wanted to enter. The third thing was to write down the number of children you'd like to have and their sexes. The next seven goals were to be whatever you wanted them to be."
"I do kind of remember doing that. I don't remember what I wrote, though."
"I didn't think you would, but I do. I have those papers in this box."
"You're kidding, Mom."
"No. I thought it gave me a clue to the way you thought and how you wanted to live your life." She opened the box. "I would've never looked at the papers if it had been something you wanted to keep private, but you didn't. You came home and showed it to me. When you said you were going to throw it away, I asked if I could keep it."
She unfolded the sheets of notebook papers and handed the top one to me. Though the paper had yellowed some, I recognized my handwriting. I started to read the first goal. It said: I have no idea of who the man is I'll someday marry, if I ever do get married. But if I do, I want him to be at least six foot three and have a body women can get excited about when they look at him. I want him to be strong yet gentle. I want him to accept me for what I am and I want him to support me in all my goals. If he does, then I'll do the same for him. He doesn't have to be the most handsome man in the world, but I do want him to look decent and have regular features, not two noses or anything like that. His hair can be either brown or black. I don't much want him to be blond because I am. I wouldn't mind if he wore a uniform. I could be happy with a general or a chief of police. And I guess a fireman would be okay, too. The one thing he must have is green eyes. I love green eyes for a man. That's about it. Now I have to go out into the world and find this Mr. Right if he exists.
I looked up at my mother's smiling face. "Mom, I described Wallace."
"Yes, I know," she said. "The day Wallace was bringing you home from the hospital last summer, I remembered this and took it out and read it. He'd already told us he was going to give you his mother's ring. As soon as I read it, I knew you were going to be a happy wife because you were getting the man you asked for. I also knew Wallace Striker was and always had been the right man for you."
I folded the paper and handed it back to her. "I wonder who Wallace wrote about."
"I don't know, but I bet I could make a guess and be right about it. If he didn't actually put your name down, he put somebody just like you."
"I really love him, Mom. He's so good to me and there's nothing I wouldn't do for him."
"I know, honey. We all know Wallace was crazy about you for years. I guess it just took you a little longer to realize you were crazy about him." She put the paper back in the box and stood.
"Aren't you going to let me read the rest of my goals?"
"Not today. I want you to absorb what you read." She went to the closet and we didn't talk for a few minutes.
I was thinking about what I'd written, and wondering what Wallace actually did write. A noise downstairs cut into my thoughts. Something wasn't right. I got up and eased to the door. I peered out and heard whispers. These whispers didn't come from any voices I recognized. There were some people in Mom's house and I knew they didn't belong there.
* * * *
"Mom," I whispered. "Don't get frightened, but I think there might be intruders in the house."
Her eyes grew big, but she didn't say anything. I went on, "Does Dad have a gun in here?"
She pointed to my father's closet. I went to it and saw one of his rifles. I got the thirty-thirty and mouthed, "Bullets?" to her and she pointed to the shelf.
I loaded the rifle and whispered to her to call nine-one-one. She nodded and I eased out the door. I crept down the steps and the whispers grew louder. Then someone laughed.
"Shhh," someone said.
"Why do we have to be quiet? You said you saw the car leave. There's nobody here."
"There could be somebody upstairs taking a nap."
"I'll go see."
I was half way down the stairs. In a firm voice I said, "I'm not asleep and I'm armed. I suggest you put your hands up and get out of here."
Two young men whirled around and glared at me with disbelief on their faces. The one at the bottom of the steps grinned.
"Well, well," he said. "We've interrupted your beauty rest, I guess."
"I said, put your hands up and move out on the porch."
"Oh, pretty lady. You ain't gonna shoot me. You probably don't even know how to shoot that gun."
"Yes, she does," the guy who looked as if he was the youngest of the three said. "She's the sheriff's wife. She shot Gus in the hand. Remember?"
The boy at the foot of the steps cursed and bit his lip. "Okay, okay. We'll go."
I waved the gun toward the boys in the living room. "Put everything you have in your hands down and don't break anything."
They sat their bags down and I could tell they were using care to do it.
Sirens ripped through the peaceful day. I heard tires screech as cars turned into the driveway. "On the porch," I commanded.
The three boys opened the door and went outside. Allen was coming toward the house with his gun drawn. Charles was headed to the back of the house.
"Keep your hands up until the deputy gets on the porch."
Wallace, with his siren and blue lights on, pulled in as Allen cuffed the first guy. He ran to the porch. "What's going on?" he asked.
Allen laughed. "Looks like your wife is playing police again. She caught these guys breaking in to rob the place."
The front door opened and Mom came out. "Are you all right, honey?"
"I'm fine, Mom." I un-cocked the rifle and put my arm around her shoulder. "They've got it all under control now. I didn't have to shoot anybody this time."
Charles came around the house leading another handcuffed youth. "This one was trying to sneak out across the back yard."
Wallace had finished cuffing the third man on the porch. The young man looked at me with fear in his eyes. "Thanks for not killing us."
"You were just lucky," Wallace said to him. "You caught her on a good day or right now you might be missing an ear or something more important to you."
"She does like to shoot off body parts, doesn't she?" Allen added, with a straight face. "Is this everyone?" He looked at one of the young men.
"This is all," the one from the foot of the steps interrupted him. He seemed to be the boss. "There were only four of us."
They started to put the boys in the cars, when Wallace paused. "You wouldn't happen to be the F-Us, would you?"
"That's right. Four of us," the one who seemed to be in charge said.
"I think there are five in the F-Us, Sheriff," Charles said.
"You're right," Wallace said. "I'm going to check out the house." He turned to look at Mom and me. He took off his coat and said as he put it around Mom's shoulders. "You're going to have to stay out here for a little while, Celia. I won't be long."
When Allen and Charles had the prisoners secure in the back seats of their cars, they came back to the porch, both of them taking off their coats. Charles said, "Here, June. Take my coat."
"I'm fine, Charles."
"I insist," he said. "Wallace would have our heads if we let you stay out here and get cold. I'm going inside to see if I can help him anyway."
"Thank you." As soon as Charles was inside, I turned to Allen. "What in the world is an F-U?"
He was putting his coat back on. "It's a symbol this gang has been leaving when they break into a place. It stands for the Five-Unstoppables." He chuckled. "Of course, it would be you who stops them."
"I think I heard something about that on the news," Mom said.
"They've been operating all over the county. No set pattern. They've robbed places in town, out in the country and in populated areas. We knew they were a bunch of young guys, but we never thought they'd be this easy to catch."
I shook my head. "Allen, do you know my mother?"
"I met her some time ago when we were in school. How are you, Mrs. March?"
Before Mom could answer, Dad came driving up. He looked alarmed as he ran up to the porch. "What in the world is going on?"
"Don't get excited, Brad," Mom said. "Everything is under control, thanks to your brave daughter here and the efficient Edison County Sheriff's department."
"Why don't we sit down?" I asked. "We have plenty of chairs and swings and such. There's no need to keep standing."
"Let's go in the house where it's warm," Dad said. "Then you can tell me all about this."
"We can't go in yet Dad," I explained. "Wallace and another deputy are in there searching for the fifth member of this gang."
"That's right, sir." Allen stuck out his hand. "Mr. March, I'm Allen Ledbetter. I went to school with Wallace and June."
"Hello, deputy," Dad said, taking a seat on one of the rocking chairs. "Maybe you can tell me what happened."
"All I can tell you is that when we arrived, your daughter was holding the suspects at gun point. All we had to do was put cuffs on them." He looked at me. "She'll have to tell you how she did it."
Dad turned to me.
"It was no biggie. Mom was showing me something in your room when we heard a noise downstairs. Mom called nine-one-one and I got your gun and came down and held them at bay until the officers got here."
Before Dad could answer, the door opened. Wallace and Charles came out with a sobbing handcuffed boy who couldn't be more than fifteen. "Found him hiding in the bathroom," Wallace said. "He was huddled down behind the shower curtain crying."
To Charles he said, "Put him in my car. I think yours and Allen's are full."
"Wait a minute, Charles," I said standing and taking off his coat. "Thank you."
He nodded. "You're welcome."
"We can get him in my car, boss," Allen said. "Charles and I can get them booked."
At that moment, the TV crew van pulled into the driveway.
"I don't want to talk to them, Wallace."
"Okay, go inside and I'll handle it."
I was watching and listening at the window when Jessica Bennett and her cameraman came up to the porch. She stuck the microphone toward Wallace. "Sheriff, we just picked up on the scanner about a break-in here this afternoon."
"There was. It happened about thirty minutes ago. But the suspects have been apprehended and officers are moving them to the county jail for questioning as we speak."
The cameraman turned his camera and recorded
Charles and Allen leaving in the patrol cars. "You must have been close by to get here in time to catch them red handed, sir?"
"Actually, the victims' daughter was holding them at gunpoint when my men and I arrived."
She looked at Mom and Dad. "Then you must be the Marches?"
"Yes, dear, we are," Mom said.
"And where is your daughter now, Mr. March?"
"As soon as everything was taken care of, she said she needed to go inside and lie down. She'd been fighting a headache all day and the incident really got to her," Dad said.
What a good liar my dad is. That must be who I got if from because Mom could never pull it off.
"Do you think she'd come out and say a word or two to me?"
Wallace butted in, "I'm sure she'd be more than happy to talk with you later, Ms. Bennett. Why don't you give her a call and set it up?"
"I can do that. Would you tell me her name?"
"Oh, I thought you knew," Wallace said. "Ms. Bennett, these are my in-laws, Celia and Bradley March. The daughter they're talking about is my wife, June."
Her mouth flew open and she stared at Wallace. "I didn't make the connection, and I knew your wife's maiden name was March."
"I tell you what," Wallace said. "If you want to come back at six o'clock and do a live feed on the news, I'll see if my wife will come out and speak with you. That should give her a couple of hours to sleep and that usually makes her headaches better."
"That's a deal." She turned to her cameraman. "Let's pack it up. We're coming back at six for a live feed."
He took the camera off his shoulder and headed for the truck.
"Thank you, Sheriff. Would you tell June I'll see her at six?" Jessica said and followed her cameraman.
I smiled to myself and turned from the window. My parents and my husband were people I could always count on to protect me.
* * * *
Wallace and I were in the bed when the eleven o'clock news came on. He had his big strong arms around me and my head was snuggled under his chin. The break-in at Mom and Dad's was the lead story. The announcer said, "The Edison County Sheriff's department arrested five suspects in a break- in at the farm of Mr. and Mrs. Bradley March this afternoon, thus ringing down the curtain on the rein of break-ins committed by a group known as the F-Us which stands for Five-Unstoppables. We're going to show you a repeat of a telecast which we featured on our six o'clock report."
The screen flashed to Jessica Bennett standing in front of the March farmhouse. She was saying, "I'm here in front of the home of Bradley and Celia March, whose home was invaded by the F-Us at approximately three o'clock this afternoon. The Five-Unstoppables have been stopped by none other than the wife of our County Sheriff, Mrs. June Striker." She turned to me. "Mrs. Striker could you tell us what happened?"
"My mother and I were upstairs in her room. We were going through some mementos when we heard the intruders downstairs. My father had gone to the feed store to order some special seeds for planting this spring, so I knew Mom and I were in the house alone. My father keeps a gun in his closet. I got it and found the bullets. I asked Mom to call nine-one-one and I crept downstairs to confront the intruders."
"Were they armed, Mrs. Striker?"
"I didn't see any weapons."
"Please go on with your story."
"That's about it. I was holding the gun on three of the young men when the sheriff and two deputies arrived. Deputy Ledbetter arrested and cuffed the three and Deputy Easton went around the house and caught one boy trying to slip out the back. I didn't know there might be a fifth person, but when the sheriff saw we had four in custody, he and Deputy Easton searched the house and found the fifth one."
"And where was he, Mrs. Striker?"
"Hiding in a bathtub behind the shower curtain."
"Where there any shots fired?"
"No. No shots fired and nobody was hurt."
"Thank you, Mrs. Striker." She turned to Mom and Dad. "Mrs. March, what did you think when your daughter grabbed that gun and went down to confront the intruders?"
"June is a very capable person. You know she was a private investigator in Greensboro for several years before she came back to Edison. I was confident she knew what she was doing."
"And you, Mr. March. I bet you were surprised when you got home."
"I was. But when I saw everyone was okay, I didn't feel anything but pride. My daughter, June, is a special person."
She turned to Wallace, "Sheriff Striker, what has happened to the boys you have in custody and can you tell us who they are?"
"We're processing the young men, Ms. Bennett and I'm not able to tell you their names at this time. Most of them are juveniles. Their parents have been notified."
"Will they be prosecuted as juveniles, Sheriff?"
"That will be up to the district attorney."
The picture switched back to the studio and the announcer said, "As I said, that was an earlier report. Now we will go live to Jessica Bennett at the Sheriff's Department."
The picture switched again and the man said, "Can you tell us what's happening now, Jessica?"
"At this moment, everything is quiet here. Most of the parents have been in and some, if not all of the young men have been released in the custody of their parents pending a court date at a later time."
"Have they released the names yet?"
"No and I don't think they will. It turns out that all of the young men are under eighteen and unless the DA decides to try them as adults, their names won't be released to the press."
"Do you have any further comments from the sheriff or his wife?"
"No. I haven't talked with either of them since this afternoon."
"Thank you, Jessica." When the picture again focused on the news desk, the announcer said to his partner, "Well, it looks like we may have to elect the sheriff's wife as his assistant in the near future."
"That might work. They sure seem to make a good team."
"They sure do." He took a deep breath and said, "Now we'll get a word from our weather team."
Wallace snapped off the television and pulled me closer to him. "Well, sheriff's wife, I think we do make a good team and I don't necessarily mean in rounding up criminals. What do you think?"
"The best team there is." I put my arm around his waist.
He kissed me. "And you're getting to be famous. I'm not sure I know how to handle a famous wife," he said as he began to gently caress my shoulders.
"I think you do pretty well in the handling department," I whispered as his mouth covered mine.
* * * *
The next day, I called Jessica and asked if she would like to come to dinner on Saturday night. She accepted when I told her Charles would be here. I hung up and sat down at the table with the grocery ads to plan my menu for the night. The first thing I noticed was a special sale on oysters. Not being a fan, I started to skip over it, then I remembered how much Wallace liked oyster stew. If I could find out how to make it, I would get some of the slimy things and make stew for his dinner tonight. I was reaching for the phone to call Mom when it rang.
"Hi, honey," Wallace said after I answered. "I did as I was told. I asked Charles to dinner Saturday. He was surprised, but said yes, he'd love to come."
"Thank you, Wallace. This is going to work out. You'll see." He didn't say anything and I added, "You're not mad at me for arranging it, are you?"
"Not at all. I'm just distracted. Allen brought some files and dropped them on my desk. We're checking out your theory about someone who might have a grudge against the department."
"Has anything turned up?"
"Not yet, but we're looking"
"If I can help you in any way, you know I will."
"I'll go through these files and I'll pick your brain tonight."
I started to make a smart remark about him picking my brain, but decided he was too busy to play around this morning. "Okay. I'll see you tonight," I said. "Love you."
"I love you, too."
We hung up and I called Mom. I didn't get an answer so I left a message on her answering machine and picked up my grocery list. I decided to go to the store this morning so I could have an uninterrupted afternoon to clean and get ready for tomorrow night. I was almost to the supermarket when I realized I was passing the library. On impulse I wheeled into the lot.
"Hi, June," May said as I walked in. The sister who was two years older than I had been the head librarian at Edison County Library ever since her graduation from University of North Carolina five years ago. Even though she married a wealthy man last summer, she still worked. Said she loved her job too much to quit. "What brings you here on such a cold morning?"
"I was on the way to the grocery store and thought I'd pop in." I looked at her. "Mom said you had some news for the family."
"So you thought you'd stop by and worm it out of me?"
"That was one reason. The other was to look up some old newspaper clippings. You do have them, don't you?"
"Of course." She glanced around. The library was almost deserted. "I think Carole can handle things here. Why don't I show you where to look at the files?"
I followed her to a back room where the archives were kept. "Now that I'm here, why not tell me the news?"
"I swear, June. You're the nosiest sister I have."
"Of course. That's what makes me a good detective."
"If you're so good, I bet you can guess my news." Her eyes twinkled.
I cocked an eye at her. "When's it due?"
She shook her head. "Let's just say, I hope you're around in September to help us celebrate."
"I'll be here." I laughed. "Not going to name it September, are you?"
She laughed, too. "Would you believe Bert asked if I wanted to carry on the family tradition so it'd feel part of the Calendar Clan?"
"I hope you refused."
"Don't worry. I did. I told him our child would feel part of the family without that tradition." She went to the files. "What newspapers did you want to see?"
I knew she had told me all she was going to about her baby. "I want to see the crime section for the county for the past five years or so."
She frowned. "You got a reason for this?"
"I'm looking up something for Wallace."
She nodded and gave me the files I wanted.
May left me alone and in a few minutes I was sitting in the little office going through the old newspapers on microfilm. I don't know what I expected to find, but I thought I might run across something which wasn't in any of the files they kept in the sheriff's department.
An hour later, I left with a stack of copies of arrests and crimes which had been committed in Edison County in the past five years and a promise to May that I'd be the most surprised family member when she announced her coming blessed event. I hadn't felt I could spare the time to read everything I found today, so it was easier to make copies. I never dreamed so much went on in such a small corner of North Carolina.
Beachum's Market was crowded when I got there and I ran into several people I recognized. I was bombarded with questions about the break-in at Mom and Dad's as well as how it felt to be interviewed on television.
I was on the last aisle and looking in the ice cream freezer when someone said, "Hello. Aren't you June Striker?"
Turning around, I faced a tall, willowy brunette. She was dressed in a severe business suit and had her hair pulled back in a tight bun. She had lovely aqua eyes, but they were camouflaged by dark-rimmed glasses. I couldn't help thinking she could be pretty if she'd change the hairstyle and apply her makeup in a different way.
"Yes," I said. "I'm June."
She kind of smiled. "It's been a long time since high school, but I thought I recognized you. I'm Gwyn Warrick, now Ledbetter, in case you don't remember me."
"Of course, I remember you, Gwyn," I said, hoping my smile covered my lie. "How are you?"
"I'm kind of tired. I got off work early today, but getting groceries is a hard job."
I wasn't sure what she meant by that because there were only a few items in her cart. "I'm not really fond of grocery shopping myself," I said. "But it's something we have to do weekly, isn't it?"
"Like everything else that keeps a household running." Her voice was full of disgust. "Men are so inconsiderate. Allen doesn't like to shop, so I get stuck with the job." She cocked her head to the side. "I bet Wallace doesn't come for you either."
"Not always, but sometimes he'll tag along just to get out of the house, and he always does the shopping when we're going to cook out. He likes to pick out the meat he grills himself. Otherwise, I like to get my own supplies."
"Not me. I work with a woman whose husband won't let her buy the groceries. She gets upset about it, but I tell her that'd be heaven to me." She sighed. "She says he even folds the laundry and does several household chores. I'd never get Allen to do anything like that."
I put a carton of Breyer's vanilla ice cream in my almost full cart. "I'm making a peach pie tonight," I said because I wanted to change the subject. "Wallace likes vanilla ice cream on it. Does Allen?"
She looked at me as if I'd asked her to explain Einstein's theory of relativity. Finally she said, "I don't make pies."
"Really? Wallace always likes something sweet after a meal. He'd eat chocolate cake every day, but I try to vary the menu a little."
"No wonder Allen was bragging about your cooking the day the power was out. Made me feel worse than I already do."
"I didn't do a lot of cooking then." I knew I had to change the subject again or I might say something to her I would regret. I wondered if there was anything this woman would talk about without whining. "I told Wallace the other day I'd like to get to know the wives of the men he works with. Would you and Allen come for dinner one night?"
She looked as if I'd slapped her. "You want us to come to your house?"
"I think it'd be a more relaxed way to get together than going to a restaurant, don't you?"
"I guess so. Allen doesn't take me out very often. He's like all men, just wants me to clean and cook and let him wallow on me in bed."
I was too flabbergasted to acknowledge the remark. Finally I mumbled, "I'll have Wallace see what their schedule is like and we'll see about getting together. Is there any night that's not good for you?"
"I usually go to Bible Study on Wednesday."
I wanted to say, you sure need to go, but I bit my tongue. I said, "I'll get back in touch with you."
"It was nice seeing you, June." She began to roll her cart away. "I sure hope your marriage is a good one, but don't be surprised if the honeymoon fades fast."
"Good-bye, Gwyn." I turned back to the freezer. I had no intention of getting more ice cream, but I didn't want to be in line to check out with her. I was in no mood to continue our conversation. I did end up putting a box of frozen popsicles in my cart, just in case she looked back to see if I was coming.
As I pushed my cart toward the checkout, I couldn't help thinking, Wallace is right. I don't think their marriage is a very good one and after only two years. It will definitely be a good idea to have Charles and Jessica on Saturday without them.
"Hello, Mrs. Striker," Lydia, the checkout lady said as I rolled my cart up to the cash register. "Caught any more criminals?"
I laughed. "Not today, Lydia. It's been pretty quiet."
"I saw you on television. You really looked good."
"Thank you." I was taking items from my cart and placing them on the counter.
"Let me get those for you, Mrs. Striker," a male voice said.
I glanced up at Bob, the assistant manager. "Thank you," I said as he began placing my groceries on the conveyer belt. If Bob was in the store when I bought groceries, he always came to help me. Though he wasn't the most liked person in the grocery business, his treatment of me stemmed back to last summer when I made him feel like a worm for belittling my sister, April. I think he wondered if I'd still sue the store or something. I was sure he didn't want to be responsible for making me angry again.
"Is it cold enough for you?" Bob asked to try to start a conversation.
"We still have a few days left in February and I suppose it's natural to be cold this time of year," I said.
"Of course you're right. I'm looking forward to spring."
"I enjoy all the seasons," I replied and began looking in my purse for my debit card.
"Me too," he said. He straightened as he put the last item from the cart on the counter. "I'll bag those for you, Lydia." He moved around to the end of the checkout stand.
She didn't look pleased, but managed to nod at him. When the bags were filled and placed in the basket, Bob said, "I'll take these to your car, Mrs. Striker. Where are you parked?"
"Thank you, Bob, but I prefer to take them out myself today. Maybe you can do it next time." Without waiting for him to answer, I turned to the cashier. "It was good to see you, Lydia."
"Nice to see you too, Mrs. Striker. Please come back."
J.T. Goodman was going out at the same time I was. I couldn't tell if what he gave me was a sneer or a smile. "Well, what do you know, it's the sheriff's famous wife."
"Hello, J.T." I pushed my cart toward the door.
He walked out with me. "You're still a rebel, aren't you, June? Not many women I know would fight off intruders the way you did. I don't know if I would've been able to defend my mother in such a manner."
"I'm sure you would have."
"Maybe so. Maybe so."
All I wanted to do was get away from him. I didn't like the way he kept staring at the front of my sweater, and kept walking. "I acted on instinct."
He kept pace with me. "You really looked pretty on television, June. I must say, old Wallace did okay for himself. You're still as pretty as you were in school. A lot of the women I know didn't hold up the way you have."
"Thank you," I mumbled. I didn't know what else to say.
"Yeah, I always had a feeling, the way you treated Wallace in school was a cover-up. All the time you two were actually together so it's no wonder another guy didn't stand a chance with you."
I didn't answer and we were almost to my car when he told me to thank Wallace again for calling him about the man in his mother's house.
I told him I'd give Wallace the message and opened my trunk. He insisted on helping me put my groceries inside. Though it had been years since the high school incident, J.T. still gave me the creeps. As I watched him push my empty cart to the collection section, I wondered how Sadie or any other woman could put up with him.
When I got into my car I noticed a piece of paper under my windshield wiper.
"Ads," I muttered. "I hate it when people stick their ads on my car." I got out of the car, left it running and grabbed it. I started to toss it in the trash bag I keep hanging on the gear shift in my console, but changed my mind. I unfolded it expecting to see some come-on to a local business. Instead, written in block letters, read: Well, Well Mrs. Striker, I've been watching you since you've come home and married our illustrious sheriff. Can't say as I blame him for tying the knot with you. You're still a looker and as good at getting what you want as you always were. Since you've been a busy girl rounding up lawbreakers lately, let's see if you can catch me before I toss another body. Maybe next time I'll choose someone you know. Love, The Tosser.
* * * *
I glanced around the lot, but didn't see anything or anyone unusual. Before I started my car, I locked the doors. I was trembling as I pulled into the highway and headed home. There were no cars following me at the moment, but I kept an eye on the rear view mirror just in case.
When I got home, I opened the garage with the opener and pulled inside. I didn't get out of the car until I put the door down, then I carried my groceries in through the pantry. It took three loads to get everything inside.
I tried not to think about the note as I put the canned food away. I moved into the kitchen and put the fresh vegetables, frozen items and meats in the refrigerator. I was headed for the laundry room with the cat food when the phone rang. I jumped.
"Get hold of yourself, June," I muttered and reached for the receiver. "Hello."
"Hi, honey, it's Mom. Sorry we weren't home when you called. I had to run to the doctor with your dad this morning."
I came to attention. "What's wrong with Dad?"
"He's just fine, but he's been having an awful time with an ingrown toenail. I finally got him to go have it cut out. He says it feels a hundred percent better."
"Why do men wait until they're in almost unbearable pain before they'll go to the doctor?"
"I guess it's just the nature of the beast." She changed the subject. "You said you wanted to know how to make oyster stew. I didn't think you liked oysters."
"I don't, but Wallace does. I thought I'd surprise him and make him stew for dinner. Of course, I'll make something else for myself."
"I'm proud of you, June. If anyone would have told me this time last year my rebel daughter would become such an attentive wife, I'd have laughed in their face."
"At that time, I would have laughed, too. In fact I would've bet my last dollar there wouldn't be a wedding in my near future, if there was ever one. But now here I am, playing house and trying to do things just to please a husband. Kind of makes you sick, doesn't it?"
"It makes me very happy. Of all the kids, you were the one I worried most about. Now you're the least of my worries because I can see how much you love your husband and how happy you are."
"Wallace is a wonderful husband, Mom. I still wonder why he didn't blow me off last summer. Of course I'm very glad he didn't. As I told you the other day, I never dreamed I'd be this happy. I know we've only been married a short time, but I'm still excited when he comes home and I love being with him as much as when we first married."
"Wallace waited a long time for you, June. I'm glad you finally realized he was the love of your life."
"I know. I met the wife of one of his deputies at the grocery store today. She seemed so unhappy and whiny. It made me count my blessings."
"Just keep doing what you're doing and your marriage will always be a happy one." She took a breath. "Now here's the recipe I use when I make oyster stew for your dad."
I grabbed a pencil and wrote it down as she talked. When I finished, I thanked her and hung up.
After making myself a sandwich, I looked through my spices and checked my staples. I was thankful I had all the ingredients Mom said I needed to make the stew. I decided to go ahead and make it early. That way I knew if it didn't turn out well, I'd have time to prepare something else for dinner. Of course, I didn't know how I'd know if it was good or not. I had no intention of tasting it.
The stew turned out well, or at least Wallace said it did. When he finished his second bowl, I was starting on my second half of a tuna fish sandwich.
"Did you have an exciting day at work?" I asked when he glanced up and smiled at me.
"Not exciting, just busy. How about you?"
"I went to the library and then the grocery store." I wanted to tell him about the note I found on my car, but decided to wait until after dinner. "I got the news out of May while I was at the library."
"I bet you were right and she's pregnant."
"She is, but I promised I'd act surprised when she told the family. You have to be surprised, too."
"I can do that."
"I met Gwyn Ledbetter at the grocery store."
"I think you're right about her and Allen. She had nothing positive to say about her married life."
"So you discussed marriage?"
I nodded. "Wallace, why is...I mean...do you know her?"
"I've met her a couple of times."
"She seemed...well a little bit...I don't know how to explain it." I hushed because I couldn't come up with the right words.
He put down his spoon and took my hand. "You mean she's a negative person, don't you?"
I nodded and he went on. "Once in a while, Allen will say something about how nothing seems to please her, but I haven't been around her enough to form an opinion for myself."
"She seemed unhappy to me. She was complaining about shopping and wondering why husbands don't do more of it. When I told her I was making you a pie for dinner, she looked at me as if I had two heads."
His eyebrow shot up. "She didn't intimidate you into not making it, did she?"
I laughed. "Of course not. Are you ready for it?"
"Not yet. I'm enjoying this stew." He kissed the back of my hand and let it go. Picking up his spoon again, he said, "I'm a lucky man. How many husbands out there have a wife who'll cook something they don't like just to please their man?"
"I bet there're more than you think."
"Well, poor Allen doesn't seem to be one of them."
"I wonder how he and Gwyn got together. They seem so different."
"From what I heard, he was at a party alone and so was she. He'd been dumped by a girl he really liked and was hurting. Gwyn had been dating someone and it hadn't worked out, so I think they kind of drifted together because they were both lonely. He only dated her a few months before they married." Wallace shook his head. "He did confide to me one time that he wished he'd never married her, but since he had, he'd stick it out."
"He deserves better. I wish..."
"Now, June, you can't start trying to fix their marriage."
I laughed. "I know. It's just that I'm so happy, I want everyone in the world to have a marriage like ours."
"I wish things were better for Allen, too. He and I have been friends since high school. We were both outsiders and we kind of drifted into a friendship."
"What do you mean, outsiders?"
"You know I was always thought of as the son of that crazy woman and Allen's father was the town drunk. They always lived so far across the tracks that the poor wanted to give them charity."
"I don't think I remember it like that. I thought Allen was kind of a ladies man in school."
"He tried to be, but he was like me. If he hadn't been on the football team, he'd probably never had a date."
"You had dates, Wallace. I remember them."
He chuckled. "I had a few, but for some reason most of them ended up breaking up with me after we went out a few times." He looked at me and kind of smirked. "I think they were all afraid of you."
"Me? Why me?"
"You and I know how our relationship was, but to the outsider it kind of looked like we were together."
"And we should have been," I mumbled.
He pushed back his bowl. "I agree, but it doesn't matter because we're together now." He winked at me. "Now I think I'll have that pie."
I jumped up. "I'll get it for you."
"June, you don't have to wait on me."
"I know I don't." I leaned down and kissed his cheek. "I guess that's why I love doing it."
I cut two slices of peach pie and put a scoop of ice cream on each. "Want some coffee with it?" I asked.
I put the pie on the table and filled two cups with the decaf coffee I'd already made and rejoined him.
He said, "I knew being married to you would be an adventure and probably lots of fun, but I never dreamed I'd reap all these extra benefits."
I frowned at him. "What do you mean?"
"I didn't think June March was the type of woman who would take such good care of her man." When I started to protest, he shushed me and continued, "I thought I'd have to do most of the things around the house while you pursued your goals. I never dreamed you'd pamper me the way you do."
"It's a two way street. Look at all the things you do for me."
He took a bite of his pie. "Our marriage is a special one, June, and if we both want it to be, it'll always be that way. I don't want us to ever fall into a relationship like Allen and Gwyn seem to have."
I shuddered. "Maybe when they see us together, it'll help them."
"When are they going to see us together?" He eyed me.
"I told her I wanted to get to know the wives of the men you work with so I invited them to come to dinner sometime"
He sat back and looked at me. "You didn't."
"Did I do something wrong?"
"Of course not, but it'll be a hard dinner to get through." He resumed eating his dessert. "When are we going to be having this dinner?"
"There's no rush. I told her you'd work it out with Allen."
"I know we said we'd have them separately but since Charles and that reporter are coming Saturday, do you want me to fix it for them to come then?"
"No. I still think it would be better if we did it another time. I don't want Jessica to see...I mean, I rather she see a happy marriage."
"Okay, June. I'll work it out with Allen, but let's put it off for a while."
"That'll be fine. I'm in no rush to spend the evening with her." I finished my pie and stood. "Thank you, honey."
As I started to the dishwasher with my plate, he playfully reached up, took my arm and pulled me down in his lap. I put the plate on the table and locked my arms around his neck. "Thanks for a great dinner," he whispered.
"You're more than welcome," I whispered back.
He kissed me then let me up. "Let's get these dishes put in the washer and go cuddle in front of TV."
* * * *
Wallace held the threatening note in his hand and glared at me. "Why didn't you tell me about this last night?" His voice was the sharpest he'd ever used with me.
"Please don't be mad. I meant to tell, I really did. Then we got kind of carried away while we were watching that romantic movie on TV...and well, you know...I didn't want to break the mood."
"June, this is too important not to tell me about it right away."
"I'm sorry." Tears were close to forming in my eyes.
"So you came out of the supermarket and this was on the windshield?"
"Yes. I didn't notice it until I had the groceries in the car and was getting in. I almost put it in the trash without reading it. I thought it was just one of those ads people plaster on every window in the lot." In spite of all I could do, a tiny tear slipped out of the corner of my eye. "You don't have to treat me like a suspect or something."
He put his arms around me and his voice softened. "I don't mean to be harsh, sweetheart. It just scares me when something like this happens." He kissed the top of my head. "You know I couldn't stand it if anything happened to you."
I put my arms around his waist and felt the bulletproof vest under his uniform. I was glad he had it on. "I feel the same way, but..."
"No buts, June. If anything like this ever happens again, you tell me immediately. Don't wait until you get home. Call me the instant it occurs."
I looked up at him and saw the serious look on his face. "I will, I promise."
He leaned close to me. "You'd better."
"Come on and eat your breakfast now." I didn't tell him I wished I'd waited until after he ate to give him the note, though now I did. "Your eggs are getting cold."
He finally released me and sat down. He said a prayer then looked at me. "Do you plan to go anywhere today?"
"No. I'll be cooking and getting ready for Charles and Jessica tonight."
"Good. I'll not have to worry about you then."
I resisted telling him he didn't have to worry about me at all. "What time will you be home?"
"I'll try to get here by two. Henry is coming in then. Is there anything I can do to help you?"
"Just give me your support. Other than family, do you realize this is the first time we've entertained since we've been married?" I was glad he'd finally dropped the discussion of the note.
"I hadn't thought of that."
"I just want everything to go well. I want you to be proud of me as a hostess at our first real dinner party."
"I'm always proud of you, June. Don't you know that?"
I saw the love in his eyes and knew he wasn't trying to placate me.
After we finished eating, I walked him to the door. He put his arms around me.
"Have you forgiven me?" I whispered.
"Honey, there's nothing to forgive. I just want you to take things like that note seriously."
"Then you're not going to fuss at me any more?"
"Of course not." He leaned down and kissed me. "I don't mean to fuss at you. I was frustrated and scared. I need you to forgive me for raising my voice. I only want to keep you safe and happy."
"I'm very happy and I always feel safe when I'm with you."
He kissed me again and said, "I'll see you around two."
I watched him take long strides to his car. When he got inside, I closed the door and locked it. When I turned back to the kitchen and laid out the things I planned to cook for dinner, all the time I was thinking that no matter what happened, I was one lucky woman. I had a husband who really loved me and would protect me with his last breath.
True to his word, it was shortly after two when Wallace came home. He ate a sandwich because he'd skipped lunch. When he finished, he went into the bedroom and changed into jeans and a sweater, then came back and asked what he could do to help.
"Why don't you build a fire in the fireplace? I think that would be romantic."
I had the roast in the oven and knew I didn't need to put the vegetables on until about five. I looked around. The house was clean, the carpet vacuumed and the furniture dusted.
"It sure smells good in here." Wallace came through the door with his arms full of wood. "Roast? Right?"
"I hope that's okay." I didn't know why I was a little nervous about tonight.
"I think that's wonderful. I hope you're serving those wonderful mashed potatoes you make."
"I am. I know how much you like them."
He began placing the wood on the grate. "I'll peel the potatoes for you whenever you're ready for them."
"I'm doing it so I won't be telling a lie."
"I told Charles today I was helping you cook."
I laughed and changed the subject. "Whenever you get the fire going, why don't you go take your shower and then come in here and relax until time to peel the potatoes?"
By four he'd showered, dressed in a burgundy turtle-neck and jeans, and was relaxed on his recliner. Some college football game was on television, but he wasn't watching. He'd dozed off.
I took my shower, dressed and came back into the kitchen. I debated whether or not to wake him to peel the potatoes and finally decided he'd want me to. I walked over to his chair and touched his forehead with my lips. He stirred, but didn't wake.
"Wallace," I said softly and his eyes opened. "Hi."
"Hi yourself." He straightened the chair. "I went to sleep, didn't I?"
"Yes. You must be tired."
He stood and stretched. "I'm not tired. I think I was so content being here with you puttering around in the kitchen that I relaxed and dozed off." He dropped his arms on my shoulders. "Hum. You smell good."
"Thanks. I clean up pretty well sometimes." I leaned into him and put my arm around his waist.
"Okay, now," he said playfully. "Don't you go getting me turned on. We don't have time for that." He squeezed me and then let me go. "Where are my potatoes?"
At six-thirty a car pulled into our drive. Wallace went to the door and welcomed our guests. Charles was handsome in brown slacks and a beige sweater. Jessica was stunning in winter white pants and a forest green cashmere sweater. She had gold chains around her neck and gold hoops in her ears. I was glad I'd put on my black jeans with a white sweater and accented it with the turquoise squash blossom necklace and earrings Wallace had given me for Christmas.
"This is so nice. I love the fire," Jessica said as Wallace took their coats and invited them to have a seat in the living room.
"We like it. Especially on these cold winter days," Wallace said.
"Here you go, June," Charles said, handing me a bottle of wine. "We appreciate you cooking for us so very much."
"I've enjoyed doing it. I love to cook."
Wallace was putting their wraps in the coat closet. When he turned around he asked, "How about a glass of that wine?"
"That would be nice," Jessica said as she sat on the sofa.
Charles sat beside her and said, "It should be chilled. It's been in the cold car all afternoon."
When everyone was served, Wallace said, "Here's to friends." We all drank and he went on, "We're glad you could come tonight. June reminded me today you're the first dinner guests we've had other than family."
"I'm honored," Jessica said.
"So am I," Charles added. "And from the wonderful smells coming from the kitchen, I'm glad we were invited."
It wasn't long until we fell into easy conversation.
"June, I must tell you I can hardly keep my eyes off your squash blossom necklace. Is it Navajo?" Jessica asked.
"Yes. It's very special to me because it was a Christmas present from Wallace."
"I'm impressed, Wallace," she said. "Not many men would think of something this special."
He only grinned at her.
Charles noticed the picture album on the lower shelf of the coffee table. "Is this your wedding?"
"Yes," I said. "It's also our honeymoon."
"Where did you go?" Jessica asked.
"Oh, how romantic! I've always wanted to go there."
"Do you mind if we look?" Charles asked.
"Not at all. While you're looking, I'll put dinner on the table."
"Let me help you," Jessica started to get up.
Wallace was on his feet. "You go ahead and look at the pictures. I'll help."
I decided to serve the meal family style. I filled all the bowls and Wallace carried them to the table. I had put salads in individual bowls which he sat at each plate. With the roast and gravy, I'd made mashed potatoes, green beans with almonds, honeyed carrots and had some side dishes with pickles, beets and tomatoes. I made light rolls from my mom's recipe, but they flopped. I ended up serving dinner rolls I'd picked up at the grocery store. I baked a chocolate cake because I figured everyone liked chocolate. I also had vanilla ice cream to serve with it.
"Boy, Wallace," Charles said as he cut another piece of roast. "No wonder you married June. A woman who can cook like this is hard to find."
"I have to give my mother-in-law credit for that. She said she made sure all her children could cook before they left home."
"It is all wonderful," Jessica said.
"Thank you," I said. "Everything here is one of Mom's recipes."
"Wallace, I was trying to tell Jessica the story about you and June with your fifth grade science project."
"Oh no," Wallace said. "Not the strawberry jam episode again."
"I'll never live that down," I said. "People only remember how mean I was to Wallace in school. Nobody sees how good he has it now."
"I do," Charles said. "He comes to work almost every day with a big grin on his face. We'll offer him a sweet roll or a McDonald's biscuit and he'll always say 'no thanks. June made pancakes and sausage this morning' or 'June fixed ham and eggs' or 'we had homemade biscuits with ham and gravy' or something like that. It makes us all envious."
"Don't kid yourself, Charles," I said. "He makes breakfast almost as often as I do. If I had to do it all the time, we'd eat a lot of cereal."
"Can you cook, Charles?" Jessica asked.
"A little, but nothing like this. How about you?"
"I'm a pretty good cook. My mom was like June's. She insisted we all learn."
The conversation flowed easily for the rest of the meal. When it was over, Jessica insisted on helping me clean up. Charles and Wallace went into the living room and I was sure their conversation centered on their work.
Jessica said in a quiet voice, "Thanks for having us, June. I've enjoyed getting to know you and Wallace on a social level and of course, Charles is everything I hoped he'd be."
"I'm glad. I had a feeling you two would hit it off."
"When he called this afternoon to ask if I'd like him to pick me up tonight, I don't know what made me say yes. It was so unlike me. I always want my car in case I need to make a quick getaway. For some reason, I felt I wouldn't want to escape tonight. And I was right. I don't."
"Charles is a nice person."
"Yes, he is." She smiled at me and placed the last plate in the dishwasher. "Well, looks like that's it."
"I'll run it later tonight," I said. "Let's go join the guys before they get too involved in solving crimes."
It was almost eleven when Jessica and Charles left. Wallace turned from the door and put his arm around my waist. "Well, Mrs. Striker, I must say, for your first dinner party you did an exceptional job."
"Thank you. I think it went well."
"I think before we turn in, I'll have another piece of that chocolate cake with a glass of wine. How about it? Want one?"
"I don't think so. You go ahead and get a piece of cake and I'm going to put on my nightgown. Pour me a glass of wine and I'll have it with you."
When I returned, he'd finished his cake, turned out the light and was stretched in his chair with his wine. My glass was sitting on the coffee table. The dying fire and the television emitted the only light in the room.
I picked up my wine and looked at him.
"I've got your place ready right here," he said holding out his arm.
I laughed as I slipped into his chair. I sat my wine glass on the side table and stretched out on my side next to him. He put his glass down and put both arms around me. The small flames left in the fireplace threw a soft glow into the room. I don't think it was very long until we both fell asleep.
It was still dark outside when a loud shot gun blast and the shattering of glass jerked us awake.
* * * *
Wallace jumped to his feet. "Stay down, June."
"I'll be right back." He ran down the hall.
I pulled the throw we'd been covered with around my shoulders and slid down in Wallace's chair as another blast came and more shattered glass hit the floor.
Wallace was edging his way to the door. He looked out and I saw him raise his gun. He fired and I sank further in the chair and closed my eyes.
The squealing of tires answered his shot. He jerked open the door and went onto the porch, firing his gun as he went.
When he came back inside, he was talking on the phone. "I'm pretty sure it was a Chevy S-10. Black or dark blue. It was only a couple of years old, but it was so dark I couldn't get a plate number. Okay. Thanks." He hung up and turned to me. "Are you okay, honey?"
He turned on the lamp which sat on the side table and gave me an assuring smile. "They got away."
"I know." I started to get up.
"Wait," Wallace said and picked me up. "There's glass all over the floor. I don't want you cutting your feet and you will with those silk slippers you have on."
"The glass is not from our beautiful new door is it?" I asked.
"I'm afraid so."
He carried me down the hall to our bedroom. "You might want to get dressed. Allen is on his way."
I glanced at the clock on the bedside table. It was three-ten. "What happened?" I asked as I began putting on clothes.
"Looks like someone wanted to scare us." Wallace ran his fingers through his hair. He was still dressed from the night before.
"They accomplished their goal. I'm still shaking."
Wallace sat beside me. "This was no random shooting, June. I have a feeling they knew exactly where they were and whose house they were shooting at."
I turned to his waiting arms. "Why?"
"That's the hard part. I have no idea why." He looked down at me. "But we'll find out."
"How are you going to find out?" I looked at him and answered my own question. "I'm sorry. I know you'll be able to catch them."
"Sure we will." He reached down and tied the sneakers I'd slipped onto my feet. "Come on. Let's go make some coffee." He took my hand and pulled me up.
"Want something to eat?" I asked. I knew if I could keep things normal, I wouldn't fall apart, but it was the latter I wanted to do.
"Not now. Coffee is fine."
I shivered. "The cold air is really coming in."
"I'll get a board and nail it over the glass as soon as Allen gets here."
I heard a distant siren then it cut off. In an instant, a car wheeled into the driveway and almost immediately Allen was coming up the steps. "Man this is a mess," he said as Wallace opened the door.
"Isn't it?" Wallace stood aside. "Take a couple of pictures, then I'm going to get a board and cover the door before we start looking around. It's getting cold in here."
"Want me to start looking around outside after I get the pictures?"
"Why don't you stoke up the fire? It'll help knock the chill off." Wallace headed toward the garage.
"Are you okay, June?" Allen looked at me.
"Just a little shaken up." I went into the kitchen and filled three cups with coffee.
He took the pictures then went to work on the fire. In a few minutes it blazed up. I handed him one of the mugs. "Thanks," he said. "I guess you didn't see anything."
"No. Wallace made me stay down. I huddled in his chair until they pulled off."
Allen frowned. "Weren't you in bed?"
"We were asleep in his chair." He gave me a strange look, but didn't say anything else. I added, "We sleep there sometimes."
"Well, it's certainly big enough," he mumbled.
Wallace came back in with a piece of plywood and his tool box.
Allen moved over to help him and in a few minutes they had the gaping hole in the door covered. Allen picked up his coffee and I handed a cup to Wallace.
"Thanks, honey," he said and turned to Allen. "Turn your car spotlight on the house and we'll go see if we can find any more damage. I kind of think they were aiming for the front door."
They both downed their coffee and handed me the mugs. Wallace got his coat and the two men started outside.
"Will you be all right by yourself?" Wallace asked.
I gave him a weak smile. "Yes. I'll go cook some breakfast. That'll help calm my nerves."
He winked at me and went out the door.
In the kitchen, I began cooking. I fried country ham and put on a pan of frozen hash browns. I also put biscuits in to bake and fixed a pot of grits. I waited until Wallace and Allen were coming back inside to start whipping the eggs.
Allen was saying, "I went ahead and sent for a list of all the newer Chevy trucks in the county, but I wouldn't get my hopes up there. Do you realize how many trucks there are in Edison County which fit that description?"
"I know," Wallace said. "And the fact that this mess was made with a shotgun, which about all the men in the county have, doesn't help us either. At this point, it's all we have to go on, though."
"Why don't I get back to the office and start writing this up? You take your time about coming in. June probably doesn't want to be alone right now."
I wanted to butt in and say June could take care of herself, but I didn't get the chance because Wallace said, "I'm going to hang around here for a while, just in case. I'll be in later if I can get June to go to her Mom's for the day."
"Well, I'll head out..."
I did butt in this time. "No, you don't, Allen," I said. "I've just cooked breakfast and I expect you to come eat with us."
He started to argue with me, but Wallace said, "Come on, Allen. You can't insult my wife. Let's go wash up."
"Boy, I'm glad I was on call tonight. I haven't had a breakfast like this in a long time," Allen said as he was about to finish everything on his plate.
"I'm glad you enjoyed it." The thought filtered through my mind that I was getting to be like my mother. It pleased me when people complimented me on my cooking.
"No wonder Wallace comes in every day grinning and refusing to eat our bag breakfasts." He looked at his boss. "Does she cook like this every morning?"
"Most of them," Wallace smiled at me.
"Don't let him make me out to be a better wife then I am. Wallace cooks a lot of breakfasts himself."
"Well, all I got to say is you're the luckiest two people I know." He stood. "I'll waddle my way to work and see what I can get done." He looked at me. "Thanks for cooking, June. It was great."
Wallace and I cleaned the table together after Allen left. "I'll feed Dingo," I said as I turned on the dishwasher.
"Okay. I'll take something to Buzzy."
After the animals were fed, I followed Wallace to the bedroom. While he took a shower, I sat on the bed and thought about what had happened. I knew someone was out to get him for some reason. This had to be connected with the tossed bodies. I wondered if the sheriff's staff had checked out their former cases to see if anyone would be holding a grudge for some past action of the department. I couldn't come up with anything else so I got up and began laying out Wallace's clothes.
When he came out of the bathroom, he put on the pants to his uniform. He hesitated as he glanced at the vest. "I plan to spend most of the day in the office..."
I interrupted him. "Please, do it for me. Someone means us harm, Wallace, and I think we should take every precaution we can."
"Okay, if you insist." He slipped the vest over his head. "Since you feel that way, I want you to go to your parents' house while I'm at work. I'll feel much better if you're with someone."
"I'll be fine here," I said.
Wallace put his arm around me. "I know that, honey, but I guess it's inbred in a man to protect the thing he loves the most. And you know, to me, that means you."
I didn't want to go, but when I looked at those pleading green eyes, I couldn't refuse him. "I've never doubted you love me, Wallace," I said. "I'm sorry I'm so feisty sometimes. I guess I'm just used to looking after myself."
"Well, please let me do it this time."
"Okay, I give in. Do I have time to shower and change clothes?"
He nodded and I slipped into the bathroom. When I came out of the shower, Wallace wasn't in the bedroom. I dressed in a charcoal gray pants suit, white blouse and again put on my squash blossom necklace. I knew Mom and Dad would probably want to go to church and I felt this outfit would suffice if they insisted I go with them.
I found Wallace in the third bedroom which we use as an office. He was talking on the phone and looking something up on the computer. He was saying, "So he's still incarcerated? ...I understand. ...Thanks for looking. ... Yes, I'm taking June to her parents' house, then I'll be in. ...Thanks, Allen."
I came up behind him and put my arms around his neck. "I wish you'd let me stay here," I whispered.
He swiveled his chair around so he could pull me into his lap. "Not a chance. I want you out of harm's way."
"You act as if the shooter might come back," I said as I snuggled up against his chest. It felt funny with the thickness of the vest, but he put his arms around me and that felt good.
"You never know. As you said earlier, we don't need to take any chances."
"I can't argue with that." I looked up at him and changed the subject. "Who were you talking to Allen about?"
"A guy we'd sent to prison a couple of years ago. He'd threatened to get even with us, but he's still incarcerated so it couldn't have been him."
"There are others who threatened to get even with us. We're still checking them out."
"Please do." I put my arm around his neck and pulled him toward me. "I want you to get this culprit behind bars. The sooner the better."
"And I want the same thing." He stood and took my hand. "Now let's go wake up Brad and Celia."
* * * *
I finally convinced Wallace to let me take my car to my parents' house. I might need it, I'd said, and driving Dad's pick-up truck just didn't cut it with me. I even promised I wouldn't go alone if I had to go somewhere. I'd have Mom or Dad go with me. He gave in, but insisted on following me to their house in his patrol car. I didn't object.
I hadn't told him the main reason I wanted my car. I left the papers I'd copied at the library in it and I knew I'd have time during the day to read all of them. If I found anything in them, I'd confess. As I threw the bag in which I'd put a pair of jeans, a sweater, a pair of socks and my sneakers into the back seat, I noticed I'd left the uniform I'd picked up at the laundry for Wallace in the car. I decided I'd leave it there and bring it inside when we came home tonight.
Of course Mom and Dad were upset when Wallace explained why he wanted to pawn me off on them. I tried to tell them it wasn't as bad as it seemed, but they didn't believe me.
"We won't let her out of our sight, son," Dad said. "She'll be safe and sound here just like she is when she's with you."
Wallace smiled. "Thanks, Brad. Together we'll make sure she's taken care of."
"Okay, you two," I said. "I'm not a little china doll who has to be protected. I can do pretty well taking care of myself."
Wallace put his arm around me. "I know that, honey, but you promised to humor me this time, remember?"
"We won't even go to church today," Mom said. "We'll stay locked up in the house."
Before I could protest, Wallace said, "I think going to church would be fine, Celia. Just stay together. That's all I'm asking you to do."
"Maybe going to church would be a good thing," Dad said. "We'd have lots of people around us there."
I knew I was fighting a losing battle with the three of them against me. "Okay," I said. "We'll go to church. I wouldn't mind that, but then could we come back here? I have some things I want to read."
We left for church at ten-thirty. It lasted until almost twelve-thirty. Then the three of us plus May and her husband, Bert and April, her two kids, and the Reverend Larry Smithers ended back at the farm for the Sunday dinner Mom had mostly cooked before attending services.
In spite of myself, I began to enjoy being with my family. After lunch, the kids decided to watch the Cinderella DVD Mom kept for them. The adults were having a second helping of Mom's cake and cobbler and celebrating May and Bert's announcement about their coming baby. I couldn't help noticing how easy and casual Larry and April were with each other. I wondered how long it would be before there would be another wedding in the March family. After her terrible marriage and the death of her husband, I was sure my older sister was going to get it right this time. And Reverend Smithers seemed to be the right man for her.
It was two-thirty when May and Bert left. The rest of us retired to the living room. Cinderella was over and the kids were busy coloring. April and Larry sat on the sofa. Dad leaned back in his recliner and Mom and I took the side chairs. Dad flipped on the television and turned the sound low. I thought it was going to turn into a relaxed, lazy afternoon.
The tranquility was ripped apart when a breaking story came across the screen about a house fire the fire department was trying to get under control. I had a sudden feeling of fear. At the same time I heard a siren. In a minute it turned off and gravel flew. I knew the car had wheeled into my parents' driveway.
I got up and looked out the window. "It's Allen Ledbetter," I said. "Oh, Lord, something's wrong. Please, not Wallace."
Dad stood and opened the door. "Allen, what's the matter?"
"Wallace sent me to get June." His voice was rushed.
I turned around and almost shouted, "Is Wallace all right?"
"He's fine, June. There's some trouble at your house and he wanted you to come."
I didn't question him further. I grabbed my coat and followed him out the door. When we were in the car I said, "Allen, you need to prepare me. What's going on?"
"There's a fire, June."
"A fire? What kind of fire?" I was confused.
"It seems someone set fire to your house. Thank God, you and Wallace weren't home."
"I don't understand."
"We don't understand it all either. What time did you leave this morning?"
"Around five or so. Wallace wanted to get an early start and he insisted I go to Mom and Dad's."
"They think the fire was set somewhere around six to seven and smoldered for several hours before it became a big blaze. The perpetrator...maybe I should let Wallace tell you this."
"Wallace will try to protect me, Allen. You tell me."
"He knows he'll have to tell you. It'll come out on the news. Somebody called the television station and they'll be there soon. A man from a radio station is already there." Allen took a deep breath. "It seems the person had barred the doors, hoping no one would get out of the house. The fire started somewhere around your bedroom. I guess he was hoping to get...." his voice trailed off.
"Was somebody trying to kill us, Allen?"
He nodded. "It looks that way."
I didn't say anything else. I'd heard all I wanted to.
When we pulled into our driveway, I couldn't believe my eyes. One of the walls of our pretty little house was crumbling. I knew without asking that our home was going to burn to the ground.
Wallace came toward the car as soon as it stopped.
I got out and staggered into his arms. For a minute we didn't say anything. We just held each other. Finally I whispered, "At least we're alive."
"Yes. We can be thankful both of us are okay."
Then a terrible thought crossed my mind. "Dingo," I cried. "My poor Dingo. And Buzzy."
"No, no, June. Dingo is fine." Wallace caressed my hair. "One of the firemen saw your pet sticker on the window and went in to get him."
"And he got him out?"
"Yes. They found him hiding under the bed in the guest room. They got Buzzy out of the garage. Our cats are fine."
I knew some people would think I was crazy with all we'd lost, but I was thankful our cats had survived. Before I could respond, the reporter with a radio station microphone and a camera crew from the TV station headed in our direction. There was no reporter with the TV cameras. I didn't want to talk to any of them. I wanted to hide my face against Wallace's chest and let him do the talking, but I knew I wouldn't leave him to face them alone.
The reporter stuck the mike in Wallace's face and asked, "Sheriff Striker, can you tell us what happened?"
"It's under investigation. At this point, I'm sure the fire chief can tell you more than I can."
"I know this is hard for you and your wife, but could you tell us how you feel at this moment?"
"We're both very upset, but we're thankful to be alive."
I could tell by Wallace's voice he wasn't in much better shape to be answering questions than I was. I looked at the reporter and said, "It's hard to stand here and answer questions when you're watching practically everything you own go up in flames."
He looked a little flabbergasted, but he said, "I'm sure it is, Mrs. Striker, but I'm sure you know the public is interested in what is happening here. Do you have any idea who would burn down your house, Sheriff?"
"If I did, I'd be arresting them right now."
The reporter looked at me. "Would you like to elaborate on that, Mrs. Striker?"
"No, I don't want to elaborate on that, but I'd like to say that though we're devastated, my husband and I are truly thankful we are okay and the firemen were able to find our two cats."
"That's wonderful, Mrs. Striker. Sheriff, do you feel that way too?"
Wallace tensed in my arms, but he had his composure when he said, "Yes. There was nothing else in the house alive, and though it might take a long time, everything without sentimental value can eventually be replaced."
The reporter started to say something, but a pickup truck came into the driveway. It was Dad and Larry. Wallace edged me away from the reporter toward them. The persistent man followed.
I ignored him. "Dad," I said and held my hands out to him. "Isn't it awful?"
"Yes, honey, it sure is."
"Good of you to come, Larry," Wallace said shaking his hand.
"Are you Mrs. Striker's father?" The reporter asked sticking the microphone out toward Dad.
"I sure am, young man. Now why don't you go point that thing at somebody who wants to talk to you? These two grieving people have enough to cope with right now. They don't need to be harassed by the media."
"But sir, the public has a right to know what's happening here."
"They do know, young man. A house is burning down. A nice couple has lost most everything they own. They're sick at heart and they need their privacy. Now the public knows everything we know. So let's stop bothering them, okay?"
I was glad to see a car pull up and Jessica Bennett and Charles Easton get out. She walked up to the reporter and grabbed the microphone out of his hand and said, "How dare you use my camera crew to do your interview."
"Don't but me. If you stick this thing in their faces again, I'll see to it that you get it down your throat."
"Who do you think you are?"
"I'm a reporter, not a muckraker. Now you get out of here." She turned toward the cameraman and handed him the man's microphone. "Put this away, Ben and come with me." She turned back to the reporter. "I think I told you to leave."
"You have no right to tell me anything."
"Maybe not, but if you ever want to work in the news media in this area again, you'll do what I say."
He took a deep breath, but walked away.
Jessica looked at us and shook her head. "I'm sorry this happened. He won't bother you again," she said. She turned to the cameraman and said, "Let's go over here."
She paused in front of the smoldering ruins of our home. "This is Jessica Bennett reporting from the lawn of what used to be the home of Sheriff and Mrs. Wallace Striker. As you can see, their home will soon be a pile of rubble. If this happened to you, ask yourself how you'd like someone coming up and asking you how you felt about losing everything you own. I'm sure you'd be confused, lost, devastated, sorry, upset, angry, and have many other unexplainable feelings. And I'm sure you'd be in no mood to do an on-camera interview with a pushy reporter." She took a breath. "Well, this did happen earlier to this couple and it may even hit the airways, but I will not be focusing on this kind of reporting. Yes, I will talk with the Strikers, probably privately at first and when they feel up to it, I will ask them to do an on camera interview. But for the time being, I will not try to exploit their feelings. I plan to dig up some facts concerning this horrendous act which some possibly deranged person has committed. As soon as he is available, I want to question the fire chief. I also want to speak to the firemen who were able to rescue the Striker's two cats. I may even get a chance to introduce you to Buzzy and Dingo." She turned her head. "As a matter of fact, I see the cat carriers over there. Let's go see if the rescued felines are in them."
Charles came up to us. "I'm glad we got here. A radio station was carrying this live and Jessica was furious when she heard what the reporter was asking you. I know she won't be bothering you until you've had a chance to let it sink in."
I nodded. "Thanks, Charles. And please thank her for us."
"I appreciate you coming, Charles," Wallace said. "Let me introduce you to the Reverend Larry Smithers."
Charles and Larry shook hands.
Allen motioned for Charles to come over where he was. He said quick good-byes to us and headed toward Allen.
"June, honey, why don't you let your dad take you back to his house? There's really nothing you can do here. I knew I had to have you come see what was happening. I didn't want you to find out about it on the news."
"I want to stay with you, Wallace," I said.
Dad butted in. "Maybe she needs to be with you, Wallace. She'd do nothing at the house except fret and worry anyway."
Wallace pulled me close to him. "Okay. We'll see it through together."
"Dad," I said, "I'd appreciate it if you'd take Buzzy and Dingo with you as soon as Jessica is through showing them off. Even animals can get stressed out in a time like this."
"I'll do that, June. You won't have to worry about the cats."
"Thanks, Brad," Wallace said. He looked down at me. "Let's see if we can find a spot where we can be by ourselves for a few minutes."
* * * *
As the sun went down, a cold drizzle began to fall. Wallace insisted I sit in the patrol car as he and his men met with the firemen. The rubble was still too hot to poke around in and the chief said it would be tomorrow before they could do a thorough investigation.
The longer I sat there and looked at the devastation which only this morning had been our home, the sadder I became. It wasn't long until I was sobbing.
I don't know for sure how long I cried, but it was dark when the driver's side of the car opened and Wallace got inside. He held out his arms and I fell into them.
"What are we going to do?" I cried.
"We'll be okay, honey," he said. "Together we can overcome anything. Even this."
"We lost everything didn't we, Wallace?"
"Just about," he said. "But we have each other."
"I know." I clung to him. He smelled of smoke and I was sure I did, too.
"Brad said we should come there when we were ready." He kissed the top of my head. "Are you ready to go?"
"Yes." I pulled myself away from him.
When he started the car and backed into the highway, he looked over at me. I tried to smile, but I couldn't. I didn't think it was possible, but my heart broke more when I saw his eyes were moist. I took a deep breath and reached for his right hand. I knew he could drive with his left. We held hands, but didn't talk all the way to Mom and Dad's house.
It was a little after seven o'clock when we climbed the steps to the front porch. Mom met us at the door. "Come in, children," she said and gave each of us a big hug.
"Thanks, Celia," Wallace said.
"I knew you'd want to get cleaned up as soon as you got here." She smiled at us. "I put plenty of towels in the bath and there are some things on the bed for you." She ushered us toward the guest bedroom which had been my home last summer. "I also put the uniform from June's car in there. I thought you might want to put a clean one on."
"You thought of everything, Mom. Thanks so much."
"It's the least I can do. Now you two get cleaned up and I'll put some supper on the table. I know you must be starved."
When we closed the door to the bedroom, Wallace walked over to the bed. "June, look at this."
There was a package of men's briefs, in Wallace's size, a package of extra large tee-shirts and three pairs of black socks. For me, there were three sets of underwear and a nightgown. The outfit I'd put into the car to change into later in the day was also there.
"God bless them," Wallace whispered. I nodded and he continued, "Do you want to shower first?"
"Why don't you go first?" I turned to him. "I know you're exhausted."
"I won't be long." He gave me a smile, but I knew it was forced.
He wasn't long and when I got into the shower, I let the water run as hot as I dared. I felt better when I finished and wrapped myself in a big pink towel. Wallace was sitting in the chair by the window when I came out. He didn't say anything, but he watched me intently as I dressed. When I finished, he stood and came over to me.
He put his arms around me and said, "I don't think I could go on if I lost you, June." Tears came into his eyes.
"But you didn't," I whispered. "Nothing happened to me or to you either."
"I can't help remembering how you wanted to stay home today. What if I'd left you there?"
I locked my arms around his waist. "You didn't leave me, Wallace. You made me leave. We're safe and that's what's important now."
He cupped my chin with his hand and lowered his face down to mine. "I love you more every day, June Striker."
"And the same goes for me."
He kissed me and then I saw him smile a real smile for the first time that afternoon. "As long as I have your love, nothing else really matters."
We went out of the bedroom, arm in arm and crossed the hall into the living room. Dad was in his recliner. "Well, I hope those baths made you feel better."
"They did, Dad."
"Good. Now let's go see what your mom has on the table. Ever since she and April got back from town, she's been puttering in the kitchen."
Her puttering had produced a feast. Because she knew how much Wallace liked ham, she'd baked one and made potato salad, cooked more green beans and corn. She'd even made him a chocolate cake. This was on top of all the food she'd already cooked for lunch.
"This is great, Celia," Wallace said as he filled his plate for the second time.
"It sure is, Mom, but you've made so much. We couldn't eat all of this in a week."
"I had to stay busy. It kept me from worrying about you two."
"Where's April?" I asked. "I thought she and the kids would be here."
"She went to church with Larry. She said she'd see you later because she felt Ryan and Rachel had to get home and get ready for bed." Mom smiled at us. "She took most of the lunch leftovers for their supper tonight."
I changed the subject. "Thanks for the underwear. It was thoughtful of you."
"I hope the sizes were okay."
"They were perfect," Wallace said. "As June said, it was a thoughtful thing for you to do."
Mom blushed. "Well, as my mother used to say, I can't let my kids be running around without clean underwear. I'll get your smoked and dirty clothes washed up too."
Mom went on. "Now tomorrow, we'll get all your sizes and go buy you the things you'll need for the next few days. April and I were both afraid to guess at sizes for Wallace and I'm not positive about all of yours either, June."
"Did April go with you?"
Dad spoke for the first time. "Larry and I kept the kids and the two of them went shopping. We all knew none of us men had anything Wallace would fit into."
Before we could answer, there was a knock on the front door.
Dad stood. "I'll get it. If it's another nosy reporter, I'll tell them you're both asleep."
In a minute he came back into the kitchen followed by Larry Smithers.
Wallace stood and shook hands with Larry. I smiled at him.
"Would you like something to eat, Larry?" Mom asked.
"I ate with April and the kids, but I'll take a cup of coffee if you have it, Celia."
"I sure do. I also have some chocolate cake and some of the blackberry cobbler left. Want either of them?"
"I'll have a piece of cake whenever you have dessert."
"I think we're ready for dessert now," Wallace said. "Whenever I hear chocolate cake mentioned, I'm always ready."
We all laughed. It felt good.
After Mom passed out the coffee and dessert, Larry said, "Of course you know all the talk at church tonight was about the fire. People are outraged that someone would do such a thing and everyone wanted to know what they could do to help."
"We can always use their prayers," Wallace said.
"That goes without saying," Larry said. "I took it on myself to tell the congregation not to start bringing household goods or clothing because I knew you'd probably be staying with the Marches for a while. Then someone suggested we take up a collection. I told them to let me discuss it with the two of you before we did anything."
"We appreciate that, Larry," I said.
"Yes, we do appreciate it, but we're going to be fine," Wallace said. "We have good insurance on the house and contents. Of course I lost my car, but it was well insured, too. June had driven her car over here today, so we won't be without a vehicle. I have my job and a salary coming in and there's a little money in the bank. Tell the folks to give to someone who is in worse shape than we are. All we really need are the prayers."
"April stood and thanked the people for their concern and she said basically what you just did. But you know how people are. Some of them want to help you anyway. You've been a good sheriff to the people of this county, Wallace, and they want to return the favor. Of course it goes without saying, June is a March and the March family has a high standing in this community."
"That's nice, but..."
Larry interrupted. "You might as well accept it, Wallace. People are going to do something. I even had one man say he had a rent house you could use while you were rebuilding your home."
"I think things are still too raw for us to make a decision about something like that," I said.
"I agree," Larry went on. "I finally suggested if they insisted on giving to you, to get gift certificates at Lowe's or department stores or even grocery stores. That way you could get what you need."
"Now that was a good idea," Mom said.
"I thought so, but they weren't satisfied. There was nothing I could do to stop them, and they took up a collection tonight anyway." He pulled an envelope from his pocket. "Deacon John Middleton said there was four hundred and seventy-two dollars here."
When Wallace started to protest, Dad held up his hand. "I think they did the right thing, Wallace. Sometimes you have to let people give to you for their own good. And giving money is the only way some people know how to show they care."
Mom put her hand on Wallace's shoulder. "Brad's right, Wallace. Take the money even if you don't need it. Then people will think they've helped you, whether they have or not."
Wallace finally said. "If you think it's the right thing to do." He took the envelope and handed it to me.
"We'll use it as an emergency fund," I said.
Larry left soon after and we retired to the living room. We watched television for a little while, but were too exhausted to give it our full attention. At ten we decided to go to bed. We didn't want to see the news tonight.
As we snuggled under the covers, Wallace folded his arms around me and whispered, "Folks have been very kind to us, haven't they?"
"Yes, but I can't help feeling sad about the things we lost which no amount of money will ever be able to replace."
"I agree. But we did get a few things."
"Something besides the cats and the clothes on our backs?"
"Yes. In all the commotion I forgot to tell you something," he said.
"One of the fireman said Dingo was hiding behind a box under the bed in the guest room. When he picked it up to get Dingo, he handed the box to his partner. Though they didn't know why they did it, they came out with both the cat and the box. I haven't shared what was inside the box with you yet, but I will. There are some things in there which are very precious to me."
I snuggled closer to him. "I'm so glad something was salvaged."
"That wasn't all. Another fireman told me that when he realized he had to get out, he happened to see our wedding album on the coffee table. He knew how important it must be to us so he grabbed it and brought it out before the roof caved in."
"Oh, Wallace, that's wonderful." I began to cry. "That was one thing I'd grieved over. I'm so glad it was saved."
"Don't cry, sweetheart," he whispered. "I have them both in the trunk of the patrol car. I'll get them out tomorrow."
"Believe it or not, these are happy tears. There's one other material thing saved which I'm glad of."
"My squash blossom necklace. I had it on today. You don't know how precious it is to me."
"And I wore the watch you gave me for Christmas to work this morning."
"We do have a lot to be thankful for, don't we?"
"We really do, June. We really do." He began kissing me.
I relaxed and let the passion rise between us.
As we made love, neither of us was aware of anything else going on around us.
* * * *
Of course Mom cooked a farmer's breakfast--bacon, eggs, pancakes, grits and homemade biscuits, among other things. We were eating when someone knocked on the door.
Dad answered it and came back into the kitchen followed by Charles Easton.
Wallace stood and greeted him. "What's up?"
Charles glanced at the people around the table.
Wallace went on, "Go ahead and talk, Charles. We have no secrets here."
"Before you start," Mom said. "Let me get you a plate, Charles. I bet you haven't had breakfast."
"I have a Hardee's biscuit in the car," Charles said.
"You can eat that later," Mom said. She handed him a plate. "Now take a seat and you and Wallace can talk while I get you some coffee."
As everyone does, Charles obeyed Mom. "It sure looks good," he said. He then turned to Wallace and me. "How are you two this morning?"
"We're doing okay," Wallace said. "Have you learned anything to give us a clue as to who may have started the fire?"
"There was a call to the office asking for you, but when Roberta told him you hadn't come in. He said it didn't matter because wherever you hid, he'd find you."
Wallace frowned. I could tell he was thinking about something. Finally he asked, "Did he say anything else?"
Charles glanced at me. "He said for you not to get it into your head that your pretty little wife was safe staying with her parents."
"That scum," Dad said. "What did he mean by that?"
"It probably means he's smart enough to know we're staying here," Wallace said.
"Of course you're going to stay here," Mom said as she bent over the table to refill everyone's coffee cup. "Where else would you go?"
"We talked about that," Charles said. "Maybe you might want to think about another location."
"Hogwash," Dad said. "They're going to stay right here, just like Celia said."
"Wait, Brad," Wallace said. "Charles may be right. If this guy is out to get us, he'll not stop just because we're here."
I glanced at him. "That means Mom and Dad could be in danger, doesn't it?"
"Then we'll have to go someplace else," I said.
"Now, wait a minute. Who's going to protect you more than your family?" Dad asked.
"Actually, we posted a man to watch your house last night. We wanted to be sure nothing happened. A lot of curiosity seekers came by, but the only person we let in was the preacher. I recognized him."
Wallace frowned. "He didn't mention you were out there."
"We asked him not to. We figured you'd want to come out to help." Charles took a deep breath. "Of course, you know we don't have the manpower to keep watch here for any length of time."
"Then we need to make a plan," Wallace said. "Let me think about it for a bit."
"While you're thinking, finish your breakfast. You've hardly touched it," Mom said.
Wallace smiled at her. "Maybe we better eat up. We don't want to insult the cook."
I began nibbling my slice of country ham. I knew Wallace would come up with the right plan. I trusted him completely.
I was right. After breakfast, Wallace and Charles spent a while on the phone arranging to get us away and to protect Mom and Dad. Though my parents protested, they finally came around and helped us pack the clothing we had, some easy to prepare foods and some personal items. Dad hid my car in one of his sheds in case the criminal realized it had been salvaged. With this all accomplished, we waited for Jessica and her camera crew to show up to interview us for the noon news broadcast.
When she arrived, we sat in Mom and Dad's living room as the camera whirred. Wallace was saying, "Yes, we're devastated about our loss, Ms. Bennett, but we're sure with all the prayers and support of our friends and family we'll survive."
"Yes," I said. "We're very thankful no lives were lost." It was hard, but I smiled.
Then Jessica asked the question the sheriff's department had prompted her to ask. "Will you be staying with your parents while you're rebuilding, Mrs. Striker?"
"They want us to, but we feel it's too much of an imposition on them. We'll be moving to a motel this afternoon."
"Yes," Wallace interjected. "Our insurance covers temporary accommodations and as my wife said, we don't want to impose on her parents."
"Can you tell us which motel you'll be calling home?" Another question they were prompted to ask.
"The department asked us not to reveal where we'll stay. As you know, the perpetrators of this crime are still out there. The sheriff's office felt is would be better if we kept our location a secret," Wallace explained.
"Couldn't anyone just call and find out if the Strikers are registered at a motel?"
Wallace smiled. "They could, but we'll not be registering as the Strikers. The department has already made arrangements for us and it is under another name."
"Could you tell us if the motel is close by?"
"Not really. We could end up in any of a number of towns around. North Wilkesboro, Boone, Wilkesboro, Blowing Rock, West Jefferson or several others," Wallace said.
"Will your parents or other family members know where you are, Mrs. Striker?"
"No, and neither will they know what name we'll be using. We'll stay in touch with them through the sheriff's department. We think this is the best way to do it for their safety as well as ours."
Since this ended the questions we had asked her to pose to us, she changed the subject and asked some general things. I felt better now that we'd gotten out the information we wanted known. We weren't staying with Mom and Dad and they had no idea where we'd be staying or what name we'd be using. I agreed with Wallace: this was for their protection.
When we were ready to leave the farm, Mom insisted on sending a huge basket of food with us. We didn't argue. We figured we'd be having a lot of restaurant food in the next few days and her home cooking would be a real treat.
To confuse anyone who happened to be watching, Charles drove us to the sheriff's office in his patrol car. Once inside, Roberta rushed us out the back door where Allen, dressed in civilian clothes, was waiting in his SUV. The motel he took us to turned out not to be a motel at all. It was a small furnished second floor apartment not far from the department.
"Not bad," Wallace said as he sat the suitcase down. "You guys did okay."
"Thanks," Allen said. "We thought you'd be happier here where it would be more like you were in a house than a motel." He sat the food basket on the kitchen counter. "Roberta bought some groceries for you, but if you don't have everything you need, she said to let her know and she'd go shopping again."
"I'm sure it'll be fine," I said as I walked to the refrigerator and looked inside.
"Who all knows about this place?" Wallace asked.
"Just Roberta, Henry and me. I haven't even told Gwyn, and Charles said he didn't want to know the exact location. He said he knew he could trust Jessica, but he might let something slip and she might feel obliged to tell the media."
"That was good thinking and it's probably better if you don't tell Gwyn," Wallace said. "The fewer people who know about it, the better."
"That's what we decided." Allen indicated the manila folder he had in his hand. "I brought the file on the fire. Thought you might like to go over it."
"I sure would. Let's sit down."
"Do you guys want something to drink? There are Cokes and beer in the refrigerator. Or I'll see if I can find coffee."
"Coffee sounds great, honey."
"Coffee would be good for me too," Allen said.
I washed the pot to the small maker and looked in the cabinets until I found filters and coffee. As it perked, I put the food we'd brought from Mom's in the refrigerator. I had to smile when I saw the chocolate cake. I knew she'd put it in for Wallace. Without asking, I cut them each a slice.
After serving them, I went into the bedroom and put the few clothes we had in the closet. I wished I'd borrowed some linens from Mom, but I really thought we were going to a motel. I turned back the bed covers and was surprised to see it had been made with a new set of sheets. I checked out the bathroom and found towels, soap, toothbrushes, paste, some personal items for me and a variety of other things we'd need. I knew this had to be Roberta's doing. The men wouldn't have thought of the things she'd purchased.
I went back into the living room and said, "Allen, tell Roberta how much I appreciate her thoughtfulness."
"I'll do it," he said. "Can you think of anything else you might need? Wallace has made a list of office supplies he wants."
"Right now, I can't think of a thing."
Allen stood. "Then, I guess I'll be on my way. If you want anything, you know all you have to do is call us."
"We know," Wallace said. "I hope you're keeping a running tab on what we owe you already."
"We'll discuss that later," Allen said. "Take care of this guy, June. The sheriff's department can't afford to lose him."
"I'll do my best," I said. "I can't afford to lose him either."
Wallace dropped his arm around my shoulder. "That goes double for me."
Allen shook his head. "You know, it does my heart good to see a couple like you two. It proves to me real love does exist."
After he left, Wallace picked up the coffee cups and plates. I followed him into the adjoining kitchen. "I sure wish Allen had a happy marriage," he said as he put the dirty dishes in the dishwasher.
"Maybe it's happier than you think, honey."
He shook his head. "He's always making little remarks about how happy you and I are. I see the longing for the same thing in his eyes."
I didn't know what to say so I just put my arms around him and held him tight.
* * * *
At five o'clock, I was chopping bell peppers and onions to put in a meat loaf for dinner and Wallace was sitting at the kitchen table going over the papers from the file Allen had left. I had decided to save the leftovers from Mom's until later. Besides, I reasoned, cooking helps occupy my time.
There was a knock on the back door.
"I'll get it," Wallace said. "I don't know who could know we're here."
I didn't argue.
He grinned when he looked outside. He opened the door and said, "Roberta, I might have known it was you. Come in."
"Well, of course it's me, Boss." She laughed. "Somebody's got to keep an eye on you two. Besides, Allen said you wanted this stuff." She handed him a banker's box filled with office supplies.
"Hello, Roberta," I said.
"Hi, June. How are you?"
"I'm fine." I smiled at her. "I was just putting together a meat loaf from the groceries you bought. Thanks for everything."
"Ah, it was no problem. I just got basic things. I figured if you wanted something special, I'd get it as soon as you made a list."
"We're in good shape right now." I tossed the chopped vegetables in the bowl with the ground meat. "Why don't you stay and eat with us? It won't take this long to cook."
"I don't want to bother you," she said.
"Don't be silly," Wallace said. "We'd love to have you and June is a pretty good cook."
"Pretty good my eye." Roberta laughed and looked at me. "He might say that in front of you, but at work he brags about your cooking all the time. Makes us all envious."
"Don't tell her that, Roberta. She might get the big head."
I shook my fist at him. "Why don't you take all the papers you have strewn on the table and set them up in the living room?"
"Well, if I'm going to be your first guest in these new quarters, I might as well help out. What can I do, June?"
"You can peel some potatoes. I thought I'd mash some for supper. Wallace loves them and they're always easy."
"I'll be happy to."
"Did you hear anything more about the fire?" I asked as we worked.
"Not really. The fire chief was out there checking over things. Charles went out and looked around. I don't think he found anything important. Of course, they don't share a lot of what they find with me." She shifted her weight. "He said he was going to call Wallace after a while."
Hearing our conversation, he interjected, "Did he give you any clue why he was going to call me?"
"No. He just said he'd call." She looked back at me. "Are you really all right, June? I know it must be awful to cope with what happened."
"I'm okay," I said. "It's hard to imagine why someone would want to kill us in such a horrible way. I'm just thankful they didn't succeed."
"We all are," Roberta said.
"Were there any unusual calls to the office today?" Wallace asked.
"One guy called and wanted to talk to you, but I told him you weren't there. He kept insisting on getting in touch with you so I finally gave him to Allen."
"Did Allen tell you what he said?"
"As soon as I transferred the call, the man hung up."
"That could have been..." His voice trailed off, but I knew what he started to say. He suspected the caller was the person who had tried to kill us.
I shuddered. Though I knew the answer, to push the conversation out of my mind I asked, "Wallace, do you want the leftover green beans from Mom, or broccoli tonight?"
"You know I want Celia's green beans."
I did know that. Wallace only ate broccoli when I didn't ask him if he wanted it. I took the beans from the refrigerator and put them in a pot to warm. "I hope you like beans, Roberta," I said.
"Love them. Can't wait until the fresh ones come in. They're always so tasty."
"I agree." I sat the pot on the stove. "These are some Mom canned last year, so they're next to fresh."
Wallace's cell phone rang. He answered it and from his end of the conversation I knew he was talking to Charles. I couldn't tell what they were talking about because Wallace was mostly grunting and saying "I see" every now and then.
I looked at Roberta and she shrugged. I figured she didn't know what they were discussing either.
When he hung up he began shuffling papers and didn't explain anything to us. I was curious, but before I could ask him anything the door bell rang.
"You two go into the bedroom and I'll answer it," Roberta said.
We did as she said.
We heard her open the front door. "Hello," she said.
A woman's voice said, "Hi. I saw someone had moved in here. I'm your neighbor. I thought I'd pop over and say hello. My name is Maggie Webber."
"Nice to meet you, Roberta."
"It's nice to meet you too, Maggie. I'd invite you in, but I'm expecting company for dinner and I'm in the middle of cooking it."
"That's okay. I just wanted to say hello and to welcome you."
"I appreciate your warm welcome and maybe we can get together soon."
"I'd like that. I get kind of lonesome sometimes. My husband is a truck driver and he's gone a lot."
Undoubtedly Roberta stepped out onto the porch because her voice wasn't clear, but I could hear her continue to talk with Maggie. I turned to Wallace and whispered, "I feel like a fugitive hiding like this."
"Maybe we won't have to do it long," he whispered back. "But at this point we can't afford to let anyone know where we are."
"I know," I said. "At least I'm here with you. That makes it easier."
He folded his arms around me. "Same here," he said and kissed me.
The door closed and we heard Roberta come back into the kitchen. "You can come out now," she said.
We went back into the living room.
She went on. "Maggie Webber is a talker and I'm afraid we haven't seen the last of her."
"I don't know how we'll avoid her then," I said.
"Don't worry about it, June," Roberta said. "I'll think of something."
As promised, she devised an elaborate scheme, but we knew if anyone could pull it off, Roberta could.
She said she would tell Maggie her brother was staying with her and he worked twelve to fourteen hour shifts at night. The hours were irregular, but he would be sleeping all day and it would be better if nobody came to the door during the day. "I'll also tell Maggie I have a boyfriend in town and spend most of my evenings with him, so I won't be home much. I think that'll explain my coming and going at different times."
"A tale like that should deter the woman from becoming too nosy," Wallace said.
I couldn't think of a plan any better than the story Roberta had concocted, so we decided to go with what she said.
After we ate and Roberta left, I decided to call Mom and Dad and let them know we were okay. I also wanted to ask her to go shopping for a few clothes for us. I gave her the list and the sizes. I used Wallace's official phone so if anyone happened to trace it, they would get the Sheriff's office.
Of course she was delighted to hear we were fine, but she was still a little put out because she didn't know where we were. At least she was glad I had given her a job. She promised to do the shopping the next day.
"You can either drop the things at the sheriff's office or we'll have Allen or Roberta come by your house and pick them up."
"I don't mind bringing them to you, June."
"I know that, Mom, but you know as long as you don't know where we are...."
"I understand," she interrupted me. I heard a bit of disappointment in her voice.
To placate her, I said, "I appreciate you doing this, Mom. You're so good to us. Hopefully this will all be over soon and we can get back to our normal lives."
"I hope so, June. I really do."
We said good-bye and I hung up the phone. "Mom tried to finagle our whereabouts from me by saying she'd drop the items off to us."
Wallace grinned. "That doesn't surprise me. I'm sure they've never had to cope with anything like this."
"Come to think of it, neither have I."
He put the folder on the coffee table and motioned for me to come sit beside him. "Maybe we can look at this as a second honeymoon. Nobody knows where we are and I have you all to myself."
I snuggled against him. "You always put a positive spin on everything, don't you, Wallace?"
"I try." He picked up his folder. "Now why don't you read your book or something? You're too distracting when you snuggle against me like this."
"Am I losing the power to hold your interest?"
"Goofy." He kissed me. "I just want to look through this a little more. Then I'll give you all my attention."
I shrugged and sat up straight. "I guess that's fair."
At eight-thirty, the blinds and curtains were all drawn and we had only one light on in the living room. Wallace was still going over the papers. I wondered what he was looking for.
Before I could ask, he said, "I need to get to the office computers to look some things up."
"Could you get somebody to bring you a laptop?"
"I can do that, but there are some things I need to find in the files which are only on the office computers."
"What are you looking up, Wallace?"
"I need to coordinate some of these felons with the crimes and with their trials."
It dawned on me I'd forgotten to get the papers I'd copied from the library out of my car. I told him about them.
"That would be a big help, June. Do you think you could have your Mom or Dad get them and I'll have Allen pick them up?"
"Sure. I bet Mom wouldn't mind dropping them at your office when she brings the clothes she's going to buy for us."
"That'll be fine." He stuffed the papers in the manila folder and laid it on the coffee table. "Now it's time to start paying attention to you. I'll work on this tomorrow."
He put his arm around me and pulled me close. "Why don't we watch a little television and try to relax a bit?"
"Sounds good to me," I said as I lay down my book and clicked on the TV. "What do you want to see?"
"See if you can find something light and funny. I've had about all the police stuff I want for the day."
* * * *
We were finishing lunch the next day when there was a knock on the back door. Still a little nervous, I let Wallace answer it. He said, "Come in, Allen."
"Thanks." He came through the door with some packages. "I think your mom bought everything they had at J.C. Penny, Belk and Dillard's and only the good Lord knows where else. There are more bags in the car."
"I'll get them," Wallace said with a laugh.
"Better let me, Boss."
Wallace sighed. "I guess you're right."
Allen made another trip to the car while Wallace helped me carry the packages to the bedroom. When we got back into the living room, Allen was putting some food on the counter. "She insisted I bring this because she knew you were tired of motel food."
I looked at the basket. "She's baked us a ham, or should I say she baked you a ham?" I grinned at Wallace. "She knows how much you like it."
"She knows her son-in-law, doesn't she?" He chuckled.
"There's some potato salad, baked beans and some of her homemade pickles." I continued to go through the basket.
"Doesn't look like you'll have to cook supper tonight, June," Allen said. He turned to Wallace. "I brought the laptop and here are the papers Mrs. March got out of June's car. She said something about them being things to help you find out who burned your house. Is this true?"
"I don't know. June did some research at the library the other day. She made copies of the crimes which have happened in the county in the last five years. I think it'll help me put some of the facts from the files together and we might get a clue as to what's going on."
"Smart thinking, June."
"Want something to drink?" Wallace asked. "We have soft drinks and beer. June made some good tea at lunch, too."
"I'll take a glass of tea. I'm still on duty."
When Wallace started to the refrigerator, I said, "I'll get it, honey. You go ahead and sit down."
I filled two glasses, put them on a tray and carried them to the living room. Wallace and Allen already had the papers I'd copied and the papers from the file spread on the coffee table. I sat the drinks on the end table.
Wallace said, "This is going to help, but I still need to get to the computers at work."
"You can't take that chance," Allen said. "There was a car following June's mom when she came to the office. They're sure looking for you two."
My heart jumped to my throat. "Is Mom in danger?" I know my voice was sharp, but I couldn't help it.
"No, June," Allen said. "I followed her home in the patrol car. So I'm sure whoever it was thought she was coming to the office to see how you were doing. It didn't follow me to the farm. I think they were hoping she'd lead them to you."
"You didn't drive the patrol car over here did you, Allen?" Wallace asked.
"No. And as you can see, I changed into civilian clothes. I went out the back and I'm sure nobody noticed me."
I took a deep breath and Wallace reached over and patted my arm. "It will be over soon, honey. Hang in there."
"I know. I just wish I could hurry it."
"We all do," Allen said. "And we may have our first lead."
Wallace and I both stared at him. He went on, "The guy who was dumped at your place is beginning to regain consciousness. He said a few words to the nurse and she called the office. Charles is going down to see if he can question him this afternoon."
"Oh, I hope he can tell us something," I said.
"Maybe he will, sweetheart." Wallace grinned at me. "See, things are looking up."
I leaned over and kissed his forehead, then moved to the kitchen.
Allen left as I finished cleaning and I busied myself reading a romance novel. Wallace continued to work on the computer. I wasn't sure what he was doing, but he was so intent on the work I didn't want to disturb him.
The afternoon passed quickly and I was about through the book when Wallace said, "I'm getting hungry, June. What about you?"
I glanced at my watch. "My goodness, it's seven. I bet you are hungry." I laid my book on the coffee table and stood. "I'll put out the food Mom sent."
"I'll help you. I'm about to go blind looking at all these facts and figures."
We were about half through the meal when the phone rang. Wallace answered. Again he grunted and said a yes or a no every now and then. I had no way of knowing who he was speaking to or what they were talking about.
Finally he hung up and turned to me. "That was Charles. He interviewed the guy we found in our yard. Unfortunately he doesn't remember what happened. He said he'd been at the back of Mark's Pub trying to wait out the ice storm. The next thing he knew, he was wandering around with his head throbbing and he was trying to find a place to get warm or somebody to help him."
"So he isn't going to be much help."
"Unless his memory of the event gets clearer, I'm afraid not." Wallace sighed.
"I'm sorry, honey."
He smiled at me. "If I could just get...." His demeanor changed. He threw down his napkin and sounded a little excited as he said, "June, I've got an idea of how I can get to the office."
Without explaining further, he flipped his phone and began dialing. "Allen, I need you to come over here and get me about ten or eleven tonight. Do you mind?--Ask Roberta or Henry if one of them will come and stay with June.--Yes. I want to get to the office and I think I can slip in without being noticed--Thanks."
"Oh, Wallace," I said when he hung up. "Do you think it's wise for you to go out?"
"I think it'll be fine." He smiled at me. "Remember, I've got a gun."
"Now, don't you worry. I'm sure we can pull this off."
After Wallace and Allen left at ten-thirty, I couldn't help worrying. To get my mind off them, Roberta insisted we go through the things Mom had bought. I tried on the clothes and she cut tags off the things which fit and hung them in the closet. I stacked the things Wallace needed to try in the chair beside the bed and we put the underwear in the drawers. We were arranging the make-up and personal items in the bathroom when we heard a knock on the back door.
"I think they're back," I said and started out of the room.
"Sounds like it," Roberta said. "But just in case, let me go see if it's them. You wait here."
I didn't argue with her, though I knew it had to be them because it was almost midnight. I was wrong.
* * * *
When Roberta opened the door a booming voice said, "All right, where's that brother of yours?"
"He's at work. Besides what business is it of yours?"
"My wife said he worked at night, but I heard some noise over here and knew somebody was home. Is he messing around with my wife?"
I heard Roberta take a deep breath. "I don't know your wife, sir."
"Yes you do. She came over and introduced herself. What's that cock and bull story about her not waking your brother in the daytime? I heard some noise in here today. He weren't asleep."
I remembered dropping the pot I got out to warm up supper for Wallace and me.
The man went on. "Then I saw two men go out of here a couple of hours ago. I was going to wait until they come back to see what's going on here, but they called me to go out on a run and I can't wait." He eyed Roberta. "Them men weren't your brothers. They was both white men."
"My brother is white. Can I help it if my father married a white woman?"
"You don't look like you have a white mother."
"Can't help that either. I took after my father."
"Didn't he take after him?"
"Nope. Looks just like mother's side of the family."
For a moment there seemed to be a standoff. Neither of them spoke. Finally the man asked, "Well, who was the other fellow?"
"Must have been one of his friends from work. He doesn't have a car and someone always picks him up."
"Maggie said you told her not to come over here in the daytime," he said again.
"I did. That's when my brother sleeps."
"Then why did I hear that noise?"
"Mr. Webber, it is Webber, isn't it?"
"Yes. Carl Webber."
"Well, Carl Webber, I don't know what noise you heard. I wasn't here. I can't be here all the time. I just come over sometimes to help with supper or to do my laundry after he goes to work. My boyfriend doesn't have a washer in his apartment."
There was another pause, then the man said. "Well, I guess I jumped to conclusions. I thought it was strange, but I guess Maggie told me right. I thought she was trying to cover up 'cause maybe she had something going on here."
"I assure you, Mr. Webber, your wife has nothing going on here."
"When a man's on the road as much as I am and his wife is as pretty as Maggie...well, he just gets a little jealous when her stories don't sound right."
"Again, let me assure you Maggie had her story right this time."
"Does she know your brother is white?"
"Not that I know of. I don't think she's ever seen him."
He paused for a minute, then said, "I guess I'll just have to take your word nothing is going on. I'm sorry I bothered you."
"You didn't bother me, but why don't you try to believe your wife? From what I gathered about her, she seemed to think highly of you."
"Yes, really. Now why don't you go on to work or wherever you are headed and forget you ever came over here?" Roberta said.
He didn't say anything, but in a minute I heard the door close.
When she got back to the bedroom I said, "Roberta, maybe you should take up acting or start writing fiction."
She grinned. "Maybe I should. I've always been pretty good at making up stories."
It wasn't long after Carl Webber's visit until Wallace and Allen returned. They seemed pleased with what they'd accomplished at the office, but were a little disturbed we'd had the visit from the neighbor.
"I hope he didn't see us come back in," Wallace said.
"I think I heard him leave a little while ago," I said. "The front door slammed and a loud car left the parking lot."
"I just hope his wife doesn't see me leave with Allen. That will open up another round of questions," Roberta chuckled and looked at Allen. "Can you act ghetto, deputy?"
"What?" Allan stared at her.
"When we leave here, you've got to look black. I don't think I could ever come up with a story to explain why I was spending time here with a white man. Now if my African American boyfriend comes out with me, that would be an easy story to concoct."
"Roberta, you're nuts." Allen laughed. He took her arm. "Let's get out of here before you have me believing all this mess."
We walked them to the door and Wallace said, "Thank you both for all your help tonight. I think we got some things accomplished."
"No problem," Allen said. "We want to get this cleared up so we can get you back to work."
"I want you back, too, Wallace," Roberta said. "Between Charles and this lug, I feel like a pack horse around there. Henry is the only one who seems to know what he's doing."
I went over to her and hugged her. "Thanks for everything. Come back any time."
She nodded, took Allen's arm and went out the door.
Wallace closed it, turned and dropped his arm around my shoulder. "Let's go to bed."
"You mean you don't want to eat or anything?" I smiled up at him.
"Not tonight. I want to cuddle in the bed and tell you what went on at the office."
I smiled up at him. I knew he'd discovered something important because we often had our most serious conversations in bed with me wrapped in his big strong arms.
* * * *
I was cooking breakfast the next morning and mulling over the things Wallace had told me. He'd found three suspects who had been problems when he arrested them and who had been let out of jail in the last year. He eliminated the one who left the area and now resided in Georgia. He had almost eliminated another one, a woman who seemed to be doing everything she could to regain custody of her two kids. She was still on his suspect list only because she'd written a couple of letters from jail saying how unfair the sheriff's department had been during her probation hearings. He was going to have her checked out just in case.
The third suspect looked the most promising. His name was Wayne Quincywood and he had returned to his hometown of Wilkesboro after his release. He'd been especially hostile during his trial and had actually shouted he would get even with Striker as they lead him away. Wallace said he asked Allen to have Quincywood's neighbors and co-workers contacted to find out what his demeanor had been since his release from prison in November.
I hoped they were on the right track.
Wallace came into the kitchen as I was putting the syrup and butter on the table. "Smells good," he said. "What are we having?"
"I found a waffle iron in one of the cabinets and decided to fix some sausage to go with waffles. It that okay?"
"Sounds great." He took the cup of coffee I handed him and sat down at the table.
I took a waffle from the iron, put it on a plate with two patties of the sausage and sat it before him. I fixed the same for myself and joined him.
He took my hand and said a short blessing.
"I sure wish we could go for a walk or something," I muttered as I covered my waffle with syrup.
"Getting stir crazy, honey?"
I shrugged. "I guess I am a little." I looked at him. "Don't get me wrong, I don't mind being shut up with you, but you stay busy on the computer and I've read all the books Mom has sent me. There's only so much cleaning I can do in these three rooms."
"Is there something I could have sent here for you? Maybe get your mom to bring some more of those mystery novels you like, or maybe some knitting or something?"
I couldn't help laughing. "The novels would be fine, but whatever made you think of knitting?"
"I don't know. It just popped into my head."
"Well, it might as well pop right out again. I have no earthly idea how to knit."
He chuckled. "You think of something then."
I shook my head. "I'm sorry for whining. Maybe I'll play on your computer when you're doing paperwork."
"That gives me an idea."
"What if you had your own computer?"
"That'd be nice."
He was nodding. "That's it, then. I'll have Roberta bring you a laptop. When you're tired of doing your own stuff on it you can help me look up some of the things I need."
"Oh, Wallace, I'd love to help you work on this case. You're so smart." I reached over and hugged his neck. "I'm so glad you thought of that."
"So am I," he said and winked at me. "It got me a hug, didn't it?"
When we finished eating, Wallace gathered the dishes and put them in the dishwasher. I went into the bedroom to make the bed. I couldn't help smiling when I got there. Wallace had already done the job.
I fluffed a couple of pillows and came back into the living room. He was closing his cell phone. "They'll have you a laptop here by noon."
I put my arms around his neck and kissed his cheek. "Thank you."
He pulled me close to him. "You're welcome." He gave me that smile which makes me weak.
Neither of us said anything because we didn't have to. He picked me up in his arms and headed to the bedroom. I knew one of us was going to have to remake the bed.
* * * *
It was a little before noon when Roberta knocked on the door. Wallace was on his computer so I let her in.
"I brought you a play toy, June," she said with a laugh.
"You timed this delivery just right. I was getting ready to fix lunch. You can join us."
"My timing's perfect. I seem to always show up when you're getting ready to eat." She laughed. "Where do you want this thing?" She indicated the computer.
"Put it in there on the coffee table, if you don't mind."
"Don't mind at all. Hello, Boss," she said to Wallace.
"We've had a lot of calls at the office about you two." Roberta put the computer on the table.
"It's nice to know people out there care." Wallace smiled at her. "What were they saying?"
"Most of them just want to let you know you're being supported. A few have asked what they can do to help you out and three or four have gotten mad because we won't tell them how they can get in touch with you."
"Did you get any names?"
"I sure did." Roberta grinned and took a small notebook from her pocket and handed it to Wallace. "I knew you'd want to know."
"Roberta, I now know why I keep you around the office."
"Of course you do. You can't wait to come every day and see my sexy smile." She turned toward the kitchen.
Wallace and I laughed and he looked at the list. "Okay, Ms. Genius, what do the stars beside some of the names mean?"
She put her hands on her hips and looked at him as if he was a dummy. "Those are the ones who got their dander up because I wouldn't tell them where you were, or how to get in touch with you. Good idea, huh?"
Wallace nodded. "Very smart."
Roberta turned toward me. "Before he asks me another question, can I help you, June?"
"No thanks, Roberta. I'm just warming up some of the leftovers Mom sent. Hope you don't mind."
"Not at all. Leftovers are sometimes better than the original."
I laughed. "I did make a fresh pitcher of iced tea."
Roberta left soon after we ate. Wallace helped me clean the kitchen, then we put our laptops on the dining table and began to work. At first I wasn't sure how much help I'd be, but soon I was into the process of looking up old court cases and tracking the felons who had either not been prosecuted or were now out of jail. The afternoon slipped away and it was time to start dinner before I realized it.
"You've done all the cooking since we've been here, honey." He closed his computer. "Why don't I put something together for us tonight?"
"I don't mind cooking, Wallace."
"I know, but I need a break." He leaned over and kissed me. "Humor me, will you?"
"Of course, I will." I kissed him back.
While Wallace was cooking, I noticed the notebook Roberta had given him. "Do you mind if I look at this?"
"Of course not. I'm sure Roberta made the list for both of us."
"There sure are a lot of names here." I couldn't help being touched by the number of people who'd called. I wasn't surprised at some of the names she'd marked as getting mad because she wouldn't tell them where we were. I had to smile when I saw she'd put a red star beside Sadie Middleton's name. Knowing Sadie, it was predictable she'd be upset. For some reason she still thought I needed to be constantly in touch with her. Also under the irritated side was Aunt Nadine Norton. That didn't surprise me either. I knew how pushy Aunt Nadine could be. Her son Jackson, on the other hand, had simply called to let me know he was thinking of me. I wondered if I ever really appreciated my cousin.
The other two names she'd marked were unfamiliar to me. "Honey, do you know a Tyler Venable, or a Mazie White?"
"I don't really know Tyler Venable. He goes to Edison Methodist where I belong. I just know him from church."
Though my family had always gone to Mt. Calvary Baptist, Wallace had gone to the Methodist church. When we were married, we decided to support both churches. It didn't really matter to me because I figured we were worshipping the same God, but I also knew how important it was to my father that we go to Mt. Calvary. Wallace, who has the greatest respect for Dad, agreed we attend there most of the time. Without telling anyone, we slipped into Edison Methodist about once a month.
When he said nothing further, I prompted. "What about Mazie White?"
He cleared his throat. "Mazie is a woman, shall we say, of questionable reputation. She's never been caught for anything, but a lot of men in town know her name."
I narrowed my eyes. "How well do you know this lady?"
He chuckled. "I don't know her at all, my love." He walked over to where I was sitting and kissed the top of my head. "I've only heard the talk."
"That better be all," I said in a teasing voice. "I don't like to think of you ever having known another woman besides me."
He laughed again. "Goofy, you know I've loved you since we were in fifth grade. How can you suspect there was ever another serious woman?"
I knew this was true, but I couldn't help teasing him. "What about Melinda? She was the love of you life until I came back to town last year."
"Oh, yeah," he teased back. "I hear she's still on the prowl, so you'd better watch your step."
I laughed and swatted at him as he turned back to the kitchen. There was no doubt in my mind Wallace loved me with all his heart. As I watched him, he took some things from the refrigerator and began putting pots on the stove. I felt warm and content inside as the love for him seemed to seep into my soul.
Wallace warmed over the rest of the baked beans mom had sent. He added boiled corn and made burgers. When it was ready, we left our computers on the table and moved to the living room to eat. It was almost like a picnic.
We were cleaning up the kitchen when the front doorbell rang. I glanced at Wallace. For a minute he looked surprised, but said, "I'll see who it is."
He took his gun from the cabinet above the refrigerator and slipped it in the back of his belt. He motioned for me to step into the bedroom. I almost obeyed. I went into the hallway and knew I could dash into the bedroom if I had to.
Wallace glanced outside, then opened the door. "Yes?" he said.
"Hi, I'm Maggie Webber..." her voice trailed off. "I was expecting...I mean...I thought you'd be...Roberta told me..."
"Yeah, I know. I'm white and she's black. I took after my mother's side of the family and she took after our dad? It confuses a lot of people when they meet us."
"I see. I bet it does confuse people. I've never seen that in a family except on the old television show, The Jeffersons." There was a slight pause, then she added, "I thought I heard somebody moving around in here and decided to come over and introduce myself. My husband is a truck driver. He's gone a lot and I get lonesome. I thought I'd be neighborly and maybe make a friend."
"My name's Lee."
"Well, are you going to invite me in, Lee?"
For a minute I thought Wallace would have to let her through the door, but he said, "I'm sorry, Mrs. Webber. I'm awfully busy right now. I got laid off from my job last night and I'm on the computer trying to find another one."
"Oh, that's too bad." She paused again. "Well, if you decide you want to sit around and chat a while, you'll know where to find me. As I said, I get lonely and we might enjoy being friends when my husband is gone."
"Thank you, but my girlfriend is coming up to stay with me for a while. I don't expect we'll be doing any visiting."
"So you have a girlfriend?" Wallace nodded and she went on. "I guess that's good for you, but maybe not for all the lonely women around."
Wallace didn't respond to her suggestive tone. "Well, thank you for stopping by, Mrs. Webber."
"Maybe when your girlfriend leaves, you'll feel more like company."
"Maybe," Wallace said and closed the door.
I came out of the hall shaking my finger at him. He grinned at me and dropped his arm around my shoulders.
"See there, your old man gets flirted with once in a while. You're not the only one in the family who gets looked at by the opposite sex." He pulled me close. "There're a lot of lonely women out there."
I popped him in the stomach with my fist. "You better stay away from those lonely women."
"Don't worry, my love. I think I've told you before I only have eyes for you."
"You'd better keep telling me that."
He put his gun back in the cabinet. "Yes, June. You'd be surprised what we run into sometimes."
"I don't know if I would or not. I lived in Greensboro, you know." I moved back to the table and to our computers. "One thing does surprise me, though." When he looked puzzled, I added, "I would've thought she'd have recognized you."
Wallace shook his head. "Probably never watched a news show in her life. She may not know who the president is, much less the sheriff. There are a lot of people out there who don't pay any attention to the news."
"I hope she continues to ignore the news. It would take only one slip of the tongue for someone to discover our hiding place."
"I think we're safe with Mrs. Webber." He clicked on his computer and changed the subject. "Why don't we Google the names of the people who were upset because they couldn't find us? There probably won't be a thing on them, but it's worth a try."
"Even Aunt Nadine?"
"I don't think we have to worry about Aunt Nadine, but maybe you should call her and thank her for checking on us."
"I'll do that. I'll also check in with Mom. I know she likes to hear from us every day."
Wallace handed me the secure phone and I dialed the number.
Aunt Nadine wanted to chat, but I told her I only had a few minutes to make my calls. It wasn't really a lie, I reasoned. I wanted to get back to the computer and help Wallace look up names.
I didn't talk long to Mom, either. She said she'd heard from all my siblings. "They all wanted to check up on you two."
"I hope you told them we were doing fine."
"I told them what I knew, June, which is not much."
"I know, Mom. Maybe it'll all be over soon."
She changed the subject. "Sadie Middleton called trying to get a number where she could reach you, but I told her she'd have to call the sheriff's office just like the rest of us. I don't think she liked it much."
"I don't understand why Sadie thinks she has to get in touch with me so often."
"I think she's just lonely. She's tied down with three kids and doesn't have much going in her life. A lot of people have turned their backs on her since Steve was sent to prison."
"Oh, Mom, you always look for the good in people. Maybe I should be kinder to Sadie."
"Right now, you have things of your own to worry about. You can worry about Sadie later."
When I said good-bye and turned back to Wallace, I saw a frown on his face. "What's wrong?"
"Maybe nothing, but it looks odd. Roberta has made a note here I overlooked. Mrs. Goodman is back from Florida and she called to check on us. I'm sure J.T. told her about our troubles. I know she's our neighbor, but we've never been that close."
"You're right, but she seems to be a caring soul. Of course, I'm sure J.T. is glad we're having trouble. Maybe he gloated about it to his mother and she called to make up for his lack of concern."
Wallace chuckled. "Baby, you sure can be cynical."
"Maybe so, but I don't like that man. I haven't liked him since high school." I had to smile too. "Maybe he's still trying to get even with me for poking him in the eye with my high heel shoe."
Wallace shook his head. "Be serious, June. It'd take someone very unbalanced to try to kill us for a high school incident."
"So you don't think I'm worth the bother."
He rolled his eyes at me. "Now you're trying to get me stirred up. Sit down here and let's get this done before I have to drop everything and chase you to the bedroom."
"Okay, if you'd really rather work on the computer than chase me." I flirted with him.
"Sit down. Work," he ordered.
Within thirty minutes, we turned off the computers. He didn't chase me to the bedroom. He carried me.
* * * *
Mid-morning the next day, Wallace slipped out with Allen. There had been another attempted murder and my stubborn husband insisted he be in on the case. I was worried about him, but he insisted he'd be all right. When Allen informed him Roberta had come down with a bad cold, he asked Deputy Henry Thompson to came and stay with me.
I liked this older man. He was balding and his cheekbones were high, adding length to his already long face. He was tall and thin and I wondered if he wasn't underweight.
He talked a little, but not nearly as much as Roberta. Maybe it was because she felt more comfortable with me. When the conversation grew thin, I offered him a glass of tea. He accepted and I went to the refrigerator to get it.
There was a knock on the door.
Henry sprang from the sofa and motioned to me to get out of the room. As soon as I slipped down the hall and into the bedroom, he cracked the door.
"Who are you?" A deep voice demanded.
"Who are you and what do you want?" Henry answered with his own question.
"Where's the big guy who flirted with my wife?"
"I don't know what you're talking about."
Oh, Lord, Henry doesn't know the game about Roberta and her white brother. I hope he doesn't blow it.
"I mean the black man who is white."
"I still don't know what you're talking about. You must have the wrong apartment."
"Look, fool. I don't know who you are, but a black woman here told me she had a brother. Turns out he's a white man and he flirted with my wife."
"Please, Henry. Catch on," I whispered under my breath.
"That doesn't make sense," Henry said.
"I agree. Now where is he?"
"There's nobody here except me. I assure you I haven't met your wife."
There was a pause, then the man said, "You look familiar to me. What's your name?"
"I'm sorry, sir. I'm closing the door now. There's no one here you need to bother."
When I heard the lock click, I came back into the room.
"I have no idea what that was about, Mrs. Striker. Do you know what's going on?"
I explained to him the game we'd been playing with the neighbors.
"I'm so sorry. Roberta or someone should have told me. I hope I didn't mess things up."
"I don't think you did, Henry. You didn't say anything to make him think anyone other than Roberta's brother lives here."
I went back to the refrigerator and poured a glass of tea for Henry and myself. We had it only half drunk when Wallace returned. Henry left and I began to question my husband.
"It was much like the other shootings, June. The man didn't know his assailant. Though the bullet only grazed his head, he was so drunk, I'm not sure he'll be able to identify the shooter."
"Oh, Wallace, when is this going to end?"
He put his arm around me. "I did find out something about the fire."
"Oh?" I brightened.
"There were some footprints around Mrs. Goodman's house which matched some from our yard. The ground was trampled when they were fighting the fire, but further into the garden area there were some prints which lead to her door."
"Do you think they planned to burn her house, too?"
"We're not sure, but we think maybe they did."
"Oh, Wallace, I'm getting scared again."
He pulled me closer to him. "It'll be fine honey. Just hang on. We'll get to the bottom of it."
"I know you will, darling. I just wonder when."
He squeezed me tighter. "Soon, June. Soon."
While Wallace worked on the computer, I fixed lunch. We were running low on leftovers. I decided to make tacos. We both liked them and it would be a change. I was almost through when someone rapped on the door. Without being told, I turned the stove down and headed toward the bedroom.
I didn't have to disappear, though. The visitor turned out to be Allen.
"Wallace, I decided to drop this by to you on the way home." He came inside and I went back into the kitchen. "Hi, June."
I nodded at him.
"What is it?" Wallace took the file Allen held out.
"I was going back through the report you made on the man who was shot at your house and I noticed you wrote that the fellow mentioned the name Jay before he passed out."
"I remember that."
"I started putting it together with a file that came across my desk today. We didn't arrest this guy, the Edison police did, but I want you to look it over. Something doesn't fit."
The two men moved to the living room and I went back to the stove. "We're getting ready to eat. Would you like to join us, Allen?"
"Sounds great, June, but I guess I'd better get home. Gwyn only worked half a day today and said she was making lasagna and I'd better be there to eat it."
"That sounds good. I like lasagna," Wallace muttered. He had his head in the file. "Allen, do you think this guy could have anything to do with it?"
"I'm not sure, but I thought it was worth checking out."
"I agree. I'll study it tonight and get in touch tomorrow."
"Sounds good." He headed for the door. "Thanks for the invite, June. Maybe you'll give me a rain check."
"Be happy to."
"Good. You're a much better cook than Gwyn. She doesn't seem to want to ever make good meals for me; this lasagna thing is a rarity." He opened the door and as he stepped outside, a man pushed him aside and came into the apartment.
"Who the hell are you?" Wallace bellowed. "What do you mean bursting in here like this?" He had already crossed the floor and had the man by the collar before Allen could get back inside.
"I came to see why you flirted with my wife!" The man tried to twist away.
"Man, I don't know your wife."
"She said you came on to her."
"She's lying. I've been right here with my girlfriend all day."
The man seemed to calm down. He turned and looked at me. "That your girlfriend?"
"Does she look like my mother? Of course she's my girlfriend." Wallace let the man go and he staggered backward.
"Well, I've got to admit, with a girlfriend who looks like her, I don't know why you'd want my wife."
"Everything okay?" Allen asked from the doorway.
"It's fine. I'll see you tomorrow." Wallace nodded at him. He turned back to the intruder. "Now, do you want to explain yourself or do you want me to call the police?"
Allen was still in the doorway, but after Wallace nodded at him again, he went toward the steps.
"I'm confused. My wife said a man here flirted with her. I figure it was you, but where was the woman?" He looked at me.
"Let me assure you, mister," I said. "My man doesn't flirt with any woman. He has all he can handle with me."
Wallace put his arm around me. "A truer fact has never been spoken."
"Then why did Maggie say...."
I interrupted him. "Maybe Maggie wishes she had a man who would give her the love and attention Lee gives me. If you'd try that instead of acting like a jealous idiot, you might find she gives you so much attention you have no reason to be jealous."
His mouth flew open, but he didn't speak. He only stared at me.
"Delilah's right. I've learned the way to keep a woman faithful is treat her good, and give her all the love you have to give. Now, why don't you go home and make love to your wife instead of pushing her around and acting like a fool?"
I don't know if Carl Webber took Wallace's words seriously or not, but he did back out of the apartment without another word.
Wallace moved to the door. "Allen's in the parking lot. I'm sure he wants to be sure everything is okay." He gave Allen the thumbs up sign and closed the door.
"Where in the world did you come up with the name Delilah for me?" I eyed him when he turned around. "Is there some babe in your past with that name?"
"She's in all our pasts, honey. Remember Delilah who subdued Samson with a hair cut?"
"Of course, I remember her. Are you saying I'm a manipulative woman like her?"
"You used to be, and you still have the same power. When you give me one of your little smiles, my heart melts and I'm as subdued as Samson ever was."
I hugged him close and batted my eyes at him. "Are you hungry, my big handsome subdued man?"
"I'm hungry, but not for food." He leaned over me and I felt his warm breath on my neck.
"Then let's turn off the stove and see if I can satisfy your appetite."
* * * *
It was three o'clock in the morning when the window in the bedroom shattered. Wallace grabbed me, rolled me off the bed to the floor and covered my body with his. "Stay down, June."
Still half asleep, I muttered, "What's going on?"
"Slide under the bed and stay quiet," he commanded as he pushed me toward the bottom of the bed.
The glass shattered again and I heard a picture fall from the wall opposite the window. Wallace moved away from me and crawled to the closet. He pulled open the door and I heard him loading his gun.
Someone had found us. They were shooting into our bedroom. I wanted to run to Wallace, and almost did, then another shot sounded and the covers on the bed moved.
"Honey, can you reach the cell phone on the nightstand without getting up?" He asked in a whisper.
"I'll try." I wiggled to the stand and reached for the phone. My hand closed on it and I flipped it open. When I got through to the department, I told them what was happening.
"I'll be there in two minutes, June," Charles said.
Wallace crawled to the window and raised his head to look out. I cringed. I could imagine someone shooting at my husband's head. He raised his arm and fired.
There was a curse word from a man outside.
Wallace ducked as another bullet flew into the room. At the same time, the sound of sirens came into the parking lot. Lights began to come on in the complex.
In a few seconds, I felt Wallace's arms around me. "It's okay," he whispered. "Maybe they'll catch him."
"I hope so." I clung to him.
Someone rapped on the door.
Wallace helped me up, then picked up his pants and slipped them on. I grabbed my robe and we headed to the living room.
"Are you two all right?" Charles asked when Wallace opened the door.
Wallace nodded. "Did you get him?"
"Pete is checking the courtyard. The Edison police picked up on the call and a couple of their guys are backing him up. I came to see if you needed help."
"Stay with June. I'm going to grab my coat and go see what's going on."
I grabbed his arm. "Don't leave me."
He kissed me quickly. "Honey, Charles will be here and I'll be back in a minute."
Before I could say anything else, he was going down the hall for his coat.
"What happened here, June?" Charles ushered me to the sofa as Wallace went out the door.
"I don't know. I was asleep and the next thing I knew, there was a loud noise and Wallace pulled me to the floor. Somebody kept shooting into our bedroom."
"Thank goodness you called us so quickly."
"Wallace leaves his cell on the nightstand. I was able to grab it while he was at the closet getting his gun." I dropped to the sofa and put my head in my hands. "When's this going to end, Charles?"
"If we catch him, it'll end tonight."
"That'd be wonderful."
He touched my shoulder. "Keep the faith. I know you have it."
"I'm trying, Charles. I'm really trying."
In a little while, Wallace came back into the apartment. Allen followed him. I jumped up and Wallace held his arms open for me. I went into them, gladly.
"Did you get him?" Charles asked.
"I'm afraid not, but they're still looking. No vehicle left after we got here, so he's got to be around somewhere." Allen smiled at me. "Thank goodness you two are okay."
"How did they find us?" I demanded.
They all looked blank. Finally Charles said, "We have no idea, June. I didn't even know where you were until you called tonight."
"There had to be a leak somewhere," Allen said. "I know I didn't say anything and I'm sure Roberta didn't."
"Maybe the Webbers said something," I said. "They are the only strangers who came around."
"I don't know," Wallace added. "Maybe they didn't swallow Roberta's story."
Charles looked confused and Wallace told him they'd talk about it later.
In a few minutes, Roberta appeared at the door. "What's going on here?" she demanded.
"They've been discovered," Allen said.
"How? I know we've kept everything quiet."
"I don't think it came from the department." Wallace looked at her. "How did you get here so quickly?"
"Believe it or not, I got up to go to the bathroom and heard it on the police scanner."
Wallace chuckled. "If it was anyone but you, I might question it. But you, I believe."
"Thanks, Boss." She looked at me. "Now, what can I do to help out?"
"I guess there's nothing to do except to get out there and help look for the guy," Charles said as he stood. "No need to sit around here and wait."
"Charles is right. I'll go put my vest on and we'll give the Edison Police a hand."
"Honey..." I started.
"Now don't you worry about him, June." Roberta moved beside me. "I'll be right here with you."
"Do you have your gun?" Wallace asked.
"I do. Don't go anywhere without it."
"Good. Why don't you ladies make some coffee? I'm sure we're going to need it." Wallace headed to the bedroom to get his vest.
After they went outside, Roberta and I busied ourselves in the kitchen. We had the makings of breakfast cooking when she said, "Honey, why don't you go get dressed? In case they don't pick that fellow up, you know you and Wallace are going to have to move."
I didn't answer because I knew she was right.
When it began to get daylight, it looked like a restricted military area around the apartment. No one was allowed to go in or out of the complex without a thorough check from a police officer stationed at the entrance. Other officers were doing a door to door search. A couple of deputies came and boarded up the broken window in our bedroom. Wallace and his deputies came in and ate at different times and he agreed with Roberta that we would have to move. I got busy packing a few of our belongings and necessities. Roberta said the department would take care of anything we left.
Because I knew it would be on the news, I called Mom and Dad. Of course they were concerned and told us to come right to their house. I said I'd have to let them know.
It was about seven-thirty when Maggie Webber knocked on the back door. "I just had to slip over and see if you knew what all this commotion is about," she said to Roberta.
"Well, Mrs. Webber, you might as well come in. Want a cup of coffee?"
"That'd be good."
I came down the hall.
"Hey, I know you." Maggie looked at me. "I saw you on television after you shot a man."
"Is that right?" So she did occasionally watch the news.
She shattered my thought when she said, "Yep. They did this special program about interesting people in our area and you were one of them."
"I'm glad they thought I was interesting."
"What are you doing here, anyway? Are you a friend of the white black man?"
I chuckled. "Actually, I'm his wife."
"But he said...wait a minute. On that show they said you were the sheriff's wife."
"Honey," Roberta broke in. "Take this cup of coffee and let me tell you the true story."
After Roberta quit talking, Maggie looked at her with her mouth open. Finally she said, "You mean he ain't your brother."
"No, Maggie. He's my boss, the sheriff of Edison County."
"And he's married?"
"Yes. He's married to me." I smiled at her.
"They interview him sometimes and we were sure you'd seen him on the news. That's why we made up the story about him being my brother."
"I don't watch the news."
I smiled. Wallace had been right after all. She would've never known who we were if the incident hadn't happened early this morning. "By the way, Maggie," I said. "Did you happen to mention anything about us to someone else?"
"Just my husband. I was trying to make him jealous."
Roberta cocked an eye and I said, "Maggie came by to talk to Wallace."
"He told me his name was Lee."
"Lee's his middle name," I explained.
"So you didn't talk to anyone about your new neighbors except your husband?" Roberta prompted.
"Nope. Just my husband. I don't know if Carl told anybody or not. You'd have to ask him."
"We'll do that." Roberta nodded and poured her more coffee.
* * * *
"I'm sorry you didn't catch the guy, Wallace." I snuggled close to him in the hotel bed.
"Not half as sorry as I am, honey. I can't keep asking you to live this way."
"Darling, don't you know that as long as I'm with you, nothing else matters?"
"At least, we'll only be here a couple of nights."
"Yes. I told Allen to let us get a good night's sleep, then we're going to move again tomorrow night. Probably in the wee hours."
"Where are we going?"
"You'll see." He pulled me close. "Now how about getting to sleep? I think you need a good rest after what we went through last night."
"How do you expect me to go to sleep when this big strong sexy man is so close to me he's turning on every inch of my body?"
"I must say he's a little turned on himself."
He chuckled out loud. "Okay, more than a little, but I didn't want to take advantage of you if you were too tired."
"Oh, come on, big boy. Take advantage."
Later, as he held me close, I whispered. "I love you, Wallace."
"I know. That's why I'm such a lucky man. I don't know many wives who are always there when their husbands want or need them, but you've never pushed me away."
"I can't push you away. You're too big." I giggled.
He laughed. "Sweetheart, you have so much control over me you could push me anywhere you wanted to with only your pinky finger. Don't you know that?"
"And all you have to do is look at me with those green eyes of yours and you can have your way anytime you want to." Feeling nostalgic, I snuggled against him again. "Wallace, do you remember our senior prom?"
"Of course I do. I took you in my old beat-up truck and worried that you were going to get that beautiful blue gown dirty."
"You remember the color of my dress. I can't believe that."
"How could I forget? All night long, my eyes kept slipping to the top of that gown where you showed just the right amount of cleavage to be intriguing to a hormonal eighteen year old."
I laughed. "You looked pretty snappy in that grey tux, too. I know we made some people jealous; we looked so good together."
"Especially Allen Ledbetter and J.T. Goodman and Guy Ferguson."
"Why those three?"
"You know how J.T was. He'd graduated a couple of years before, but when he brought one of the senior girls back to the prom, the rumor began to fly that you were the only one to say no to him while he was in high school." He squeezed me. "Though it meant nothing to you, I was proud to have you on my arm and make him wonder if I'd succeeded where he'd failed."
"Well it's true. A lot of people wondered about us because of our relationship. It made me feel good and I admit, I never said anything to squash those rumors."
"I never heard any rumors."
"That's because you didn't hang out in the men's locker room."
I bopped him on the stomach. "What about Allen and Guy?"
"Guy always seemed to worship J.T. He backed anything his idol put forth. Still does, as far as I know. They're in business together, you know."
"I'd forgotten about that."
"As for Allen, he was mad because I took you to the dance. He and I planned to go stag and see who we could pick up. When I told him I was taking you, he read me the riot act because I was letting you use me again. To top it off, I think he was a little jealous. In fact, I think he still is." He kissed the top of my head. "Though I dreamed about it since fifth grade, it's still hard for me to believe we ended up together."
"I know it took me longer to know that we were meant to be, but I'm glad I finally saw the light."
"I realized that on our wedding night. You'll never now how proud I was to discover you were not only the woman I'd always wanted, but you were coming to me untouched by any other man."
"I know you told me." I smiled. "Of course I admit it wasn't easy to keep myself unspoiled for you, but it was that darn pledge."
"Yes. At Mt. Calvary Church, they passed out these pledge cards when I was a teenager. It was a promise to stay a virgin until we married. I was only fifteen or sixteen at the time so I thought it would be a cinch to keep the promise since I planned to be married to my favorite rock star by the time I was eighteen. I signed the darn thing and you know me, when I give my word, I keep it." I sighed. "When you put that wedding ring on my finger, I knew I didn't have to keep that promise any more."
He laughed. "So that's why you married me."
"Of course. My curiosity got the better of me."
"I'm glad I was good for something."
"You're the most important person in the world to me, Wallace."
"And you are to me." His lips covered mine and he mumbled, "As you said earlier, as long as we're together, nothing else matters."
It wasn't long until we fell into a peaceful sleep.
* * * *
It was past midnight the following night and Wallace and I were sitting on the side of the bed in the upstairs bedroom Mom used to keep her sewing machine, ironing board and off season clothes. Allan had left and Mom and Dad had gone to their own room.
"Wallace, I don't want to do this."
"I knew you wouldn't want to, but it's the best way, June."
"But I want to be with you."
"Honey, I'm going to stay with you the rest of the night. Then, we'll be together again soon."
I couldn't help it. I began to cry. Wallace put his arms around me. "We're going to catch him and then it'll all be over."
"You knew last night you were going to do this to me. That's why you were so sweet and why you made love to..."
"June." His voice stopped me. "That's not why we made love. We did that because we love each other and it's a natural thing to be with the one you love when you're married."
"I know, Wallace. I'm sorry. I'm just afraid to be here without you. What if something happens to Mom and Dad and you're not here to protect them?"
"We've covered that. Celia and Brad won't tell anyone you're here. Not even your siblings. You're in this room because there won't be a change in the light pattern if anyone is watching the house at night. You mom comes into this room now and then and turns on the light so it won't be unusual if you use it sparingly. We knew if you were in the guest room, someone might notice that light being on." He smiled at me. "Now, I know we can't go long without seeing each other and I'm working on something so we can be together."
"That sounds good, but you and I know things can go wrong."
He ignored my statement. "You have the secure phone I gave you. We can be in touch at any time. You know I want to hear your voice several times a day."
"But won't you be uncomfortable at the station?"
"I'll be fine. They've put up a bed in the storage room and you know we have a full bathroom." He brushed my hair back from my face. "I'll miss you, but I'll be thinking of you every minute."
"Why can't I stay at the station with you?"
He pulled me to him and I rested my head on his chest. "Honey, you'd be too distracting." He kissed the top of my head. "Besides, I don't want my deputies to become too involved in our private life."
"I guess I understand."
"Good. Now let's not waste the time we have together."
I watched as he stood and went to flip off the light. As always, he wore his knit boxer shorts and a tee-shirt, his regular night outfit. And as always, his masculine form turned me on.
After we made love, I went to sleep in his big strong arms.
When I awoke, I was alone. Thinking he was probably in the bathroom, I sat up on the side of the bed. It was then I spied the note propped against the lamp on the nightstand. I grabbed it.
My darling June, Know that until I can again hold you close in my arms, I'll hold you close in my heart. Always, Wallace
I couldn't help it. I burst into tears and crawled back into bed. I pulled the covers around my chin and continued to cry. I had never felt so alone in my life.
An hour later, I got up, took a shower and dressed in a warm jogging suit. Dad and Mom were in the kitchen when I came down. "Hi sweetheart," Mom said. "Want some coffee while I fix you some breakfast?"
"Just coffee is all I want, Mom. I'm not in the mood to eat."
"You have to eat something, June."
"I'll eat later."
Mom started to say something, but Dad interrupted, "Let her be for now, Celia. She's missing her husband and I don't think food will fill that empty spot."
I half smiled at him. "You're so right, Dad. When did he leave, do you know?"
"I think it was about four or four-thirty this morning when I heard him slip down the stairs."
"I hope he didn't get cold waiting for Allen."
Mom handed me the coffee. "Honey, I'm sure he was fine. His work clothes are pretty warm." Without saying a word, she put a plate of muffins on the table.
I didn't acknowledge them. I only sipped my coffee. "He hasn't called, has he?"
"No, honey. If he calls, I'm sure he'll ask for you." Dad smiled at me. "I bet he's missing you as much as you are him."
As if by cue, the cell phone he gave me rang. I grabbed it out of my pocket. "Is it you, Wallace?" I could hardly get the words out.
"Of course it's me. What other man is going to call you on our special phone?"
"There had better be none," he teased, then he grew serious. "How are you, honey?"
"Why? You're used to me being gone during the day."
"Yes, but I'm not used to waking up alone and not getting my good morning kiss."
"Neither am I, but at least I got to kiss you good night."
"I worried about you walking to meet Allen. Did you get cold?"
"Allen said he'd driven by our prearranged meeting spot three times waiting for me. As soon as I stepped out of the woods, he was there."
"Good." I sighed. "I don't want to be a nag, but when will I get to see you again?"
"I think I have a plan, if Celia will cooperate."
"I'm sure Mom will be glad to."
"Then ask her if she'll bring that food basket she fills and come to the station about five-thirty or so. Tell her to bring it empty because I'm going to slip out and get into her car and enjoy one of her good meals at her kitchen table. Allen's off duty tonight and he volunteered to come back and pick me up again."
"Oh, Wallace, that'll be great. And I know Mom will be happy to cooperate."
"Then I'll look forward to holding you in my arms tonight."
"I can't wait."
We said good-bye and I turned to Mom. "I think I'm ready for some bacon and eggs now, then we're going to decide what we're going to cook for dinner. Wallace has a plan I need to tell you about."
* * * *
Mom was making a chocolate cake and I was peeling potatoes for a casserole when there was a knock on the back door. "Hide in the pantry, June," Mom whispered.
I didn't argue. I put the knife down and stepped into Mom's big walk-in pantry.
I heard Mom go to the door and open it. "Hello, there, folks. How are you?"
"We're fine. Had to go to the bank this morning and thought we'd drop by and check on you." I recognized India Middleton's voice.
"Well come in. Brad's in the living room, John. He's either watching television or has gone to sleep. He often does both at the same time."
I heard John Middleton laugh. "India says the same thing about me."
"Looks like you're cooking for a crowd, Celia. You expecting company?"
"No, I'm cooking up a batch of things to take to Wallace and June. They say they get tired of motel food and I like to fix them some of their favorite dishes."
"Can I help?"
"Well, I started to peel those potatoes in the sink, then I decided I'd better get the cake in. You can finish peeling them if you like."
"I'd be happy to." India moved to the sink. "How are Wallace and June, Celia?"
"I guess they're doing okay. They won't tell me where they are, so I haven't seen them. They do call once in a while and give me reports."
"How do you get this food to them?"
"I have to take it to the sheriff's office. One of them takes it to them, I guess." Mom sighed. "I sure will be glad when this mess is over. I want them to get back to normal so they can start rebuilding their house."
"That was such a shame. They sure do have a lot to contend with and they've only been married about three months."
"Yes, a lot has happened in such a short time." Mom changed the subject. "Have you heard from Steve, India?"
India took a breath so deep I heard it in the pantry. "I don't hear much from him, but the last time we talked I told him he should just go ahead and plead guilty. There's no way he'll beat those murder charges. Everyone knows he did it."
"I'm sorry, India. I didn't mean to pour salt in the wounds."
"Lord knows, you have a right to be vindictive, but I know you weren't being mean or nosy. Even after John and I asked Brad to resign as deacon last year, you were the first ones to offer sympathy when things came out about Steve."
"We hurt for our children, don't we, India?"
"More than anyone who doesn't have them can ever know." She sighed again. "Now I have to contend with Sadie and her new boyfriend."
"Sadie has a boyfriend?"
"J.T. Goodman, that sorry good for nothing..." her voice trailed off.
Mom chuckled. "I'm not laughing at you, India. I couldn't help remembering what happened with June and J.T. in high school."
India laughed, too. "Sadie said J.T. still gets mad when she mentions it to him. She thinks it's funny."
"Looks like he would've forgotten it by now."
"I know, but you know those Goodmans. Old Archie carried a grudge against Wilt Plaxico 'til the day he died."
"Really?" Mom sounded interested.
"Yeah. Don't you remember? Archie was building some of his rental units below code and Wilt turned him in to the city. Archie vowed to get him back someday, but he died before he had the chance."
"He died right before high school graduation, didn't he?"
"Yes he did. If I recall correctly, he somehow got tangled in something at one of the building sites and accidentally hung himself." India's voice seemed to grow stronger and had more lilt since the subject wasn't any longer on Steve. "Remember how everyone was talking about how sad J.T. was at graduation?"
"I do remember, but I guess Archie's death was a good thing for Wilt."
"Maybe so, but Wilt has had his share of trouble. He says he thinks his business is jinxed." India turned on the water. "I finished the potatoes. I'll run cold water on them so they won't turn dark."
"Thanks, India." Mom opened the stove door and I knew she was putting the cake inside. "How did Sadie and J.T. get together anyway?"
"Guy Ferguson is Sadie's cousin or something. Sadie told me J.T. had seen her at the grocery store and was interested in getting to know her. He asked his partner to get them together. Of course, it's common knowledge Guy does anything J.T. wants him to do and it wasn't long until he set them up."
"I guess Guy's devotion to J.T. is why that partnership has lasted this long." Mom moved away from the stove and I heard the refrigerator open.
"I know, but it may be dissolving soon."
"What do you mean?"
"J.T. told Sadie they were having some financial problems. That's why he brought his mama back from Florida. Said he couldn't afford to keep her down there."
"I thought she was visiting her daughter."
"She was, but seems J.T. still has to pay part of her support." India changed the subject. "Celia, why don't you and Brad come for supper one night? We could have one of those long talks we used to have. Don't many people want to associate with us since Steve's problem and we get kind of lonely."
"We'd be glad to come, India. Of course, it'd have to be a night I'm not cooking for the kids. I'll give you a call later and we'll set it up."
I heard the men enter the kitchen. "We better go, India. You told Sadie we'd be back in time to keep the kids. I think she and that J.T. fellow have plans this afternoon."
"I'm ready," she said. "It's a shame we have to put up with her going out with him just to get to see our grandchildren."
"Maybe he's not so bad," Dad said.
"Yes, he is, Brad," John said. "I figure he's a crook, just like his old man. Why there was a shooting at one of his apartment buildings the other night and they say he's suing the police for damages because he didn't have any insurance on the building."
My heart jumped to my throat. He must be talking about the building where Wallace and I stayed. Did J.T. Goodman own that?'
As soon as I heard the Middletons say good-bye and the back door close, I bounded from the pantry. "Do you know where that building is that John was talking about?"
"I read something about it in the paper, but I don't know anything about it," Dad said. "Why do you ask?"
I bit my lip. I knew I had to be careful because I didn't want them to know that Wallace and I had been shot at. "No reason. I just thought it was interesting in the light that J.T. Goodman isn't my favorite person in the world."
"And we all know the reason for that, don't we?" Mom teased.
"That we do." I grinned at her.
Mom refused to take a completely empty picnic basket to the sheriff's office. She said everyone there had been so nice, she had to take them something so she made two chocolate cakes. I shook my head and kissed her cheek. "I know they'll love it," I said.
She nodded and went out the door. I slipped upstairs and took a bubble bath. I put on my prettiest outfit and was careful putting on my make-up. I wanted Wallace to see me at my best. When I was dressed, I came back to the kitchen and put four place settings on the big round table. Mom had said we should make it nice and eat in the dining room, but I knew how much Wallace liked to eat in her kitchen. Dad came into the room as I was folding the last napkin.
"Thought your mom said we were going to eat in the dining room."
"You know Wallace is a kitchen man, Dad." I smiled at him. "Want some tea or something while you're waiting to eat?"
"I'm fine." He smiled back at me. "You sure do look pretty, baby girl. I bet you fixed up for that man of yours?"
I twirled around. "Of course I did. Do you think he'll approve?"
"How could he not approve of my beautiful daughter?"
"Thanks, Dad." I kissed his cheek.
He grinned. "Even with the fire and everything else that has happened, you and Wallace are going to be fine. I can just feel it in my bones."
"Thank you, Dad. I know it isn't going to be easy, but when I'm with Wallace I can't help but know it'll be okay. The two of us being together is the important thing."
"With an attitude like that, I'm sure it'll be more than fine."
He continued to look at me and I said, "You have something else on your mind, don't you, Dad?"
"I'm just a little concerned about the two of you. I didn't say anything to your mother, but I believe you and Wallace were in that apartment that was shot up, weren't you?"
Though I pride myself on being a good liar, I couldn't lie to my Dad. "Yes, it was us, but things worked out okay. Wallace's reactions to a crisis are phenomenal."
I told him how Wallace pulled me off the bed and shielded my body with his until he could get to his gun. "He'd do anything to protect me, Dad."
"He's a good husband." Dad sighed. "Sometimes I wish he had a job that wasn't so dangerous, though."
"I wish the same thing occasionally, but I know he loves his work and I'm learning to live with it."
"Maybe we better not tell your mother about the shooting."
We would've talked more, but there was the sound of a car in the driveway. It pulled around the house close to the back porch. I couldn't help it, my heart pounded like that of a school girl waiting for her date, but I didn't dare go out on the porch. I waited until the door opened and the six-foot-three love of my life entered.
Of course the first thing he did was take me in his arms and kiss me. "Missed you today, my love," he whispered.
"I missed you, too. I think all of those days together in the apartment spoiled me."
"It's not going to be long until we can be together like normal." He kissed me again.
"Do you promise?"
"I promise." He reached and shook hands with Dad. "Hello, Brad."
"Hello, son. I'm glad you made it here tonight. This girl of mine could hardly wait to see you."
"You'd think we hadn't seen each other in a month." He looked at his watch. "I bet it has been all of twelve hours."
"It has been at least fourteen. I counted," I said with a grin.
"Well, if you love birds are ready, I'll get the food on the table. As we were coming home, Wallace said he was hungry."
"I'm always hungry when I get in your kitchen, Celia."
"Then we'll just have to see if we can satisfy that appetite right now." She began taking food from the stove. "Why don't you two take those chairs in the back and do a little smooching while I get it all set out?"
"Thanks, Mom." I took Wallace's hand and led him to the back of the table. "I've waited all afternoon to get to sit close to my husband."
* * * *
"How did things go at work today, honey?" I asked as we closed the door to the bedroom upstairs. It was almost ten o'clock.
"As usual. We're still checking things on the computer. They did bring the dogs out to the apartment complex, but nothing came of that."
"Did you know J.T. Goodman owns that apartment building?"
He wrinkled his forehead. "No, I didn't. How did you find out?"
"Dad told me he saw it in the paper after the shooting."
"I'll check into that."
"I also heard India say today that his construction company is in trouble."
A look of concern crossed Wallace's face. "Did India see you?"
"No, honey. Relax." I moved to the side of the bed where he'd taken a seat. "I was hiding in the pantry. She had no idea I was here."
Visibly relieved, he put his arms around me. "Good. I sure don't want anyone to know where you're hiding."
"They won't. Mom's pantry is huge." I giggled. "When April and May were teenagers they used to go in there to kiss after playing spin-the-bottle."
"And how many times did you go in the pantry for a kiss?" He cocked his eyebrow at me.
I laughed. "Zero. I wasn't going to have some old boy kissing me."
"Well, this old boy is going to kiss you right now. We don't need the pantry."
"No we don't." I turned my face to him. "Give me those lips, old boy."
Later I told him what else I'd overheard India say, but we were sure it had nothing to do with our problems. Before we went to sleep, Wallace said that when Mom came back for her basket, he was going to slip a laptop inside so I could help with the investigation. I snuggled close to him, happy that we could work together, though we couldn't stay together all night.
It was still dark when I heard a rustling in the bedroom. "Wallace," I whispered.
"I'm sorry I woke you, sweetheart."
"What time is it?"
"You're getting ready to leave, aren't you?"
He moved back to the bed. I sat up and he put his arms around me. "You know I have to go."
"I know." I clung to him.
"Maybe I can come back tonight."
"Tell your mom to come get her basket late this afternoon and I'll see if I can slip out."
"Maybe to throw everyone off, I'll have Dad pick it up."
"Good idea." He kissed me passionately. "Now, that should hold you until tonight."
I touched his cheek. "Maybe."
"What do you mean, maybe? It better hold you."
I squeezed him around the waist. "You be careful out there and dress warmly."
"I was putting on my vest when you woke up. That thing keeps me warm." He kissed me again. "See you tonight." He stood and continued dressing.
It took me a while to go back to sleep after Wallace left. I kept thinking that someone trying to kill us was the reason we couldn't be together all night. And of course, I couldn't think of any reason why someone wanted us dead.
When I woke, the day was cloudy and it looked cold outside. It was pushing the middle of March and I wondered when it was going to begin to get warm. I gathered my underclothes and started to the bathroom, but before I could leave the room Mom poked her head in the door.
"Nadine is on her way over here, June, and I thought I'd warn you."
"Oh, my goodness. What does she want?" My aunt is a good woman, but she's nosy. You would never know she and Dad were brother and sister.
"I don't know, honey, but I brought you a cup of coffee and I made biscuits and fried sausage this morning. I was going to wait until you came down to scramble your egg." She sighed. "If Nadine decides to stay a while, I hope this will hold you until you can come downstairs. I guess you'll have to forgo the egg."
"That's okay, Mom. With your wonderful biscuits, I don't need eggs." I chuckled as I put the food on the night stand.
"I hear her car coming in the driveway. I guess I better get down there. It'd be like her to come up here looking for me if I'm not in the kitchen." Mom closed the door as she left.
I took a sip of coffee and spied the telephone Wallace had given me. I decided I'd call him before he called me. I didn't want Aunt Nadine to hear the phone ring.
"Hi, sweetheart," he said when he came on the line. "What's up this morning?"
"What do you mean, you?"
"Aunt Nadine decided to pay the folks a visit so I'm holed up in the bedroom drinking coffee and eating sausage biscuits. What are you doing?"
"I'm not having one of Celia's good biscuits, that's for sure. I'm making do with a stale donut."
"Too bad." I pulled my feet up on the bed and crossed my ankles. "Honey, I've been thinking. Maybe we shouldn't be too quick to mark J.T. Goodman's name off the list of suspects."
"Why do you say that?"
"Didn't you tell me once he thought you cheated his mother when you bought the land from her?"
"I may have mentioned it."
"Well, since his business is in trouble and money seems to be a priority with him, maybe he's decided to take it out on us" I paused. "Stranger things have happened, you know."
"I know it's feasible, but what about the men being dumped? I still think there's a tie-in with us where they're concerned. I don't think J.T. would go that far."
"Maybe you're right, but I still say he could think that getting us will be payback for all his misfortune."
I heard Wallace shift positions as the leather of his desk chair breathed. "I guess I might as well tell you that I did do some checking on him this morning. It seems he has borrowed more money than his business is worth. Unless he can pay it back, he stands to lose everything."
"What about his partner. Can't he help him?"
"Guy co-signed some of the loans, so I'm sure he's in as deep as J.T."
"It still doesn't explain the bodies, does it?"
"Not to me." He changed the subject. "I sure hated to leave you this morning. Did you have trouble going back to sleep?"
"Of course. I didn't have your big strong arms around me."
"I think I have it worked out so they can be around you tonight."
"I'd love that."
"As I was jogging through the woods, it was misting rain. All I could think about was cuddling next to your warm body." He chuckled. "Of all mornings for Allen to be late."
"Oh, honey. I'm sorry you had to wait. Was it long?"
"About half an hour. He said Gwyn woke up when he was leaving and she threw a fit. Accused him of going to meet a woman. He said he finally had to tell her he was picking me up. Of course, he didn't tell her where."
I frowned. "I hope she won't say anything."
"Who would she tell? She's not on speaking terms with her family and she doesn't like the people she works with. Besides, she was worried about Allen and a woman, not about you and me."
"It wouldn't surprise me if Allen got another woman one of these days."
"June, that's not nice." I could almost see him grin.
"Maybe not, but think about it. How would you feel if I treated you like she does him?"
"I don't think I have to worry about that. I have the greatest wife there is."
"You sure know how to warm my heart."
"Wait until tonight. I'll warm..." He paused. "Thanks, Roberta." To me he said, "Roberta just gave me a note. It seems the man in our yard has remembered a little about the night he was shot. I better check this out."
"Of course. I love you and I'll see you this evening."
I hung up, ate a second sausage biscuit then tiptoed to the door. I opened it a crack and was surprised I could hear the voices in the living room clearly.
"Well, Brad, I don't see why you don't demand they tell you where June is. You're her father. You have a right to know."
"I'm sure Wallace is taking good care of her, Nadine."
"Hogwash. He's like most cops. If it comes down to it, he'll concentrate on catching the perp and ignore June. You need to have her here where you and Celia and the rest of the family can look after her."
"By the rest of the family, do you mean you, Nadine?" Mom asked.
"Of course. Why, she could even come to my house and stay. I wouldn't mind taking care of her at all. I've always loved June."
"I'm sure they're going to do it their way." Dad tried to change the subject. "What's Jackson up to? I heard he was only working part time at the insurance company now."
"He only works three days a week because he got the fool notion in his head that he wants to sell real estate. He's going to school to get his license. A lot of nonsense, if you ask me. He's going to classes on Monday and Wednesday during the day and on Friday nights. Now he's hanging around with a low class gal who goes there." She sighed. "Lord knows, you can't do anything with them when they grow up. They think they know so much."
"Don't you want Jackson to meet a nice girl and settle down?"
"A nice girl, maybe, but I don't want him going out with that Warrick tramp."
"Those are harsh words, Nadine." Dad's voice was firm.
"May be, but it's the truth. Why, her sister trapped that nice Ledbetter boy into marrying her. I'm afraid Melba will do the same thing to Jackson."
"I think Jackson's smarter than that." Mom defended him.
"I don't know. He seems to like her and you know what her family is like, don't you, Brad?"
"I don't think I do."
"They're those religious nuts. Made their girls wear old long dresses to school when their classmates were in short skirts and slacks. Wouldn't let them wear make-up and they weren't allowed to date until they got out of school. I guess that's why Gwyn went wild."
"I don't think she and Allen are very wild."
"I'm not talking about Allen, Celia. I'm talking about that J.T. Goodman fellow. The one June poked in an eye. Seems Gwyn went wild over him because the company she worked for insured his condos or something. They dated for a few months, but as soon as he got what he wanted, he dropped her. She was devastated, but it wasn't long until she married the Ledbetter boy. They say she still carries a torch for J.T."
"How do you know all this, Nadine?" Dad asked.
"She works for the same insurance company Jackson works for. He told me all about it a long time ago."
"Allen has been here a few times and I didn't notice him being unhappy," Mom said.
"I don't know about that, I just know I don't want my Jackson to get mixed up with that crazy Warrick family."
"Celia, why don't we have a spot of coffee and some of that cake you baked last night? I bet Nadine would like a piece."
I heard Mom stand. "Sure. Why don't you two come into the kitchen?"
"I can't stay much longer. I'll have a small piece of cake then be on my way."
The voices moved out of earshot and I pushed the door closed. Aunt Nadine may not know it, but she gave me an interesting piece of information. It's hard to believe Gwyn Ledbetter was once in love with J.T. Goodman. I wonder if Wallace knows that. Better still, does Allen know?
* * * *
That afternoon at five, Dad went to pick up the picnic basket and Wallace. It was almost six-thirty before they got back to the farm. "I was worried," I said as Wallace came directly to me and gave me a hug.
"I'm sorry. I had a few things I had to clear up. Your dad didn't seem to mind waiting."
"Not at all. I had a nice talk with Henry Thompson. He used to take Nadine out every now and again."
"You're kidding." I was floored. Aunt Nadine had been a widow for over twenty some years. Uncle Raymond was killed when his tractor turned over on him, but I was too little to remember it. She was pregnant and Jackson was born after his father was killed. We all knew this was why Aunt Nadine spoiled him so much. I don't know why it never occurred to me that she would be interested in another man. "Now that I think about it, she and Henry might be well suited for each other," I said.
"Now, June, don't start playing matchmaker again," Wallace teased me. Mom gave him a funny look and he added, "June is the one who got my deputy, Charles, and the news reporter, Jessica together."
"That's working out, isn't it?" I cocked my eye at him.
"I have to admit it is. Charles seems awfully happy."
"Good. Charles is a nice young man and he needs a nice woman like Jessica." Mom began bringing food to the table.
As usual it was a wonderful meal and after we had dessert, we talked for a little while then Wallace and I went upstairs to our room.
He put the laptop he'd brought me from the office on the small table by the window. When he turned, he smiled at me. "Do you mind if I get a quick shower?"
"Of course not. I'll be right here when you come out."
I decided to surprise him and as soon as he slipped down the hall, I slipped into the sexy nightgown Roberta had bought me when we were in the apartment. I hoped Wallace would be pleased.
"Wow!" His green eyes lit up when he came back into the room and saw me posing on the bed. "What a wonderful surprise."
"Love it." He came to the bed and I went into his arms and held him tightly. His lips covered mine. As he nibbled my lower lip, he whispered, "You sure do smell good."
"I took a bubble bath this afternoon just for you."
"I'm sorry I wasn't here to take it with you," he whispered as he trailed kisses down my neck.
Though I intended to tease and toy with him, I didn't. As usual I gave myself to him completely without reservation and our lovemaking was passionate and fulfilling. Then we lay in each other's arms, happy and content.
I think it was only about nine-thirty when his breathing became steady and I knew he'd drifted off to sleep. I rested my head on his shoulder and listened to his even breathing. I was glad he could relax and get some rest. Going to bed at eleven or twelve and getting up at three or four in the morning was wearing, even on someone in Wallace's excellent physical shape
It dawned on me that I was being unfair to expect him to come to sleep with me a few hours every night. If he stayed at the office, he could at least sleep through the night and not have to go jogging through the woods in the middle of the night to meet his ride. I took a deep breath and decided I'd tell him not to try to come tomorrow.
I'm not sure when I went to sleep, but I was awakened by movement in the dark room. I reached out for Wallace and his spot was vacant.
"Wallace, are you leaving?"
"Yes. I'm sorry I woke you. I was trying to be quiet."
"I'm glad you did wake me. That way I can get a kiss before you go."
"I would've kissed you before I left."
I scooted up in the bed. "Maybe so, but this way, I'll know it."
He sat down on the bed and put his arms around me.
There was enough moonlight coming in the window that I could almost make out his features. "I was thinking, Wallace. It's not fair to ask you to come here every night. I'll miss you terribly, but maybe you should stay at the office a night or two so you can get some rest."
"I can't rest without you. I think I've told you that before."
"And you know I want you with me."
"Then I'll be back tonight." He chuckled. "It's almost like we're back in high school and I'm sneaking in your room at night then I have to slip out before your dad wakes up."
"Now, when did you ever sneak in my room at night?"
"I didn't, but I sure did fantasize about it a lot."
"Of course. I told you I've loved you since fifth grade. Then, what I wanted to do was maybe hold your hand or kiss your cheek. It was in high school that I dreamed about ripping your clothes off and making wild passionate love to you."
"You never told me." I touched his cheek.
He laughed. "After you attacked J.T. Goodman with your shoe I was afraid to. I didn't want to go blind."
I bopped his shoulder gently. "I hope you think I was worth the wait." I put my arms around him and held him tighter.
"Every minute of it." He kissed me, then started to pull away.
I was reluctant to let him go. I was beginning to have one of those dark feelings I get sometimes. "Can't you stay a little longer?"
"I'd love to, darling, but Allen will be waiting. I'm already late."
I still didn't want him to go, but I kissed him and released him. "Stay safe. I need you, Wallace."
"I'll see you tonight." He touched my shoulder and went out the door.
I listened to him go down the stairs. Then I heard the door open and close. I bit my lip and laid back. For some reason, my heart was pounding and my throat was dry. An ominous feeling enveloped me and I couldn't push it away. I began to cry.
"June, you're awfully quiet this morning," Mom said as she refilled my coffee cup. "You and Wallace didn't have a fight, did you?"
"No, Mom. It was just hard for me to let him leave this morning."
"Things will settle down soon, baby girl." Dad reached over and patted my hand. "I know you miss your husband."
"I do miss him, Dad. I worry so about him."
"He worries about you, too, sweetheart." Mom sat down beside me. "His main concern is to keep you safe."
"I know. There isn't a doubt in my mind about how much Wallace loves me. I love him the same way." I smiled at my parents. "I never thought I'd ever say this about anyone, but I'd willingly give my life for that man."
"When a couple feels that way about each other, that's true love, honey."
"You're right, Mom. I'm probably being silly, but I had a bad feeling about him leaving this morning. I don't know why, but I'm worried."
"I know how you get those feelings, June. I hope you're wrong this time."
"So do I, Mom."
"Why don't you call him?" Dad put down the morning paper which he always read at the breakfast table and looked over his glasses at me.
"I think I will." I took the cell phone out of my pocket and punched in the number for the sheriff's office. Roberta answered on the second ring.
"This is June..."
"Well hello there, girl. How are you? I miss those dinners at your apartment."
"I know. We'll have to get together soon, but right now I need to talk to Wallace."
There was a pause.
"Is he too busy to talk?"
"Honey, Wallace isn't here. I thought he was still with you."
My heart lurched to my throat. "Roberta, Wallace left me around four o'clock this morning."
"Hold on, June."
"Dad," I cried. "Wallace isn't at the office. Roberta thought he was still here. Where could he be?" I was on the verge of panic.
Another voice came on the phone. "June, this is Charles. When did you say Wallace left you?"
"Around four. Where is he, Charles?"
"Roberta is calling his cell to see if he answers."
After a slight pause I asked, "Did he answer?"
"I'm afraid not."
"Ask Allen where Wallace is."
"June, Allen isn't here either. We figured since he'd been pulling so much night duty, Wallace gave him the day off."
"Oh, Charles, something is wrong. Something is terribly wrong. I'm coming down there."
"No, June. You stay put. I'll come out there."
"It's important you stay there. I want to trace Wallace's steps this morning and you can help me do that. I'll be there shortly."
He hung up before I could say anything else. I closed the phone and was having a hard time breathing. "Wallace didn't make it to the office," I gasped and burst into sobs.
In an instant, I felt my father's arms around me. "Hang on, Sugar. Things will be all right."
* * * *
When Charles arrived, Roberta and an officer I didn't know were with him. "June, this is Tad Weathers," Charles said. "He's one of the best at tracking I've ever seen."
"Hello, Mrs. Striker," he said.
I nodded and hugged Roberta.
Within a minute, Mom had us all gathered at her kitchen table with cups of coffee. "If you're going to be out there in the cold, you need to warm up first," she said.
Dad sat with us, but he didn't say anything.
"Now, June," Charles said as he began to question me. "Tell us exactly what happened this morning. Was Wallace feeling okay?"
"He was fine. I didn't feel good about his leaving, but I knew there was nothing I could do to stop him."
"What time did he leave?"
"I didn't look at the clock, but he said it was sometime around four."
"What was he wearing?"
"I guess he wore his regular uniform. He dresses in the dark so there won't be a light in the room that early in the morning. I know he had on his vest because I felt it when he hugged me good-bye."
"So that's his regular routine?"
"Mrs. Striker," Tad said. "When he leaves, which door does he use?"
"The front door."
"I gave him a key to the front door. He always locks it when he leaves," Dad put in.
"Do you know which way he goes to meet Allen?"
"He said he goes through the woods so he'll be undercover," I said wondering why all these questions. "Are you going to try to follow his tracks or something?"
Tad nodded. "Do you mean the woods off to the right or left?"
"I think the ones to the left. They eventually come out at the road."
He stood. "I think we should go, Charles."
I jumped up. "I'm going with you."
"No, June. You stay here. We'll call you as soon as we know anything." Charles put on his coat.
"That's not good enough. I'm going." I went to the peg where Dad kept his heavy coat and pulled it down.
"June, I don't think..."
Roberta butted in. "I don't think you're going to be able to stop her so I'll go with her, boys."
"June, it's cold out there. Put on my boots. They're there by the door," Mom instructed. "Brad, maybe you should go with them."
"No, Mom. I want Dad to stay here with you."
"Are you sure, honey?"
"June's right, Mr. March. We don't want to leave your wife alone," Charles said.
Roberta and I stayed about fifteen to twenty feet behind Tad and Charles, because they insisted we do it that way. We were several yards into the woods when I noticed the deputy pointing out something to Charles, then move on.
When we reached the spot, I looked at the limb of the scrub pine he'd pointed out. There was a broken twig barely hanging on. I wanted to reach out and grab it because I was sure Wallace had brushed by in the dark.
"Oh, Roberta," I whispered. "I can't stand it if anything has happened to Wallace."
"I know how you love him, June. Let that love keep you strong."
She patted my shoulder, but didn't say anything.
We walked for several minutes without talking. The deputies in front of us came to a sudden stop. Charles turned around and said, "Stay back. I think we see something."
"What is it, Charles?" I cried.
"I'm not sure, just stay there."
"No. Is it Wallace? Oh, please God. Let him be all right." I started to move forward, but Roberta grabbed me.
"Better wait here, June."
"I've got to go. I've got to see. Oh, Wallace."
Charles was running toward what I could now see as a form on the ground. "Keep her back, Roberta," he yelled.
I think I screamed, but I couldn't get away from Roberta's grip. "Please let me go. I've got to get to him."
"You just calm down, honey. What good are you going to do Wallace if you don't keep yourself together?"
"Oh, Roberta," I began to sob as I put my head on her shoulder. "I can't live without Wallace."
"Okay, I'll take you up to them if you calm down a little."
I pulled myself together as best I could. "I'll be all right. Just take me to him, please."
With her arm around me, we walked slowly toward the form on the ground. I could see Charles checking his pulse and Tad was on his cell phone. I was praying as hard as I could and I was hanging on to Roberta for support because my legs were about to fail.
* * * *
"Oh, Lord, it's Allen." I almost collapsed when I looked down at the man on the ground. "Is he ..."
"He's breathing, but it's shallow," Tad said. "I've called an ambulance."
"Does this mean...?" I shook my head because I didn't know what I wanted to ask.
"As soon as the medics get here, I'll continue to look for Wallace, Mrs. Striker."
"Continue now. I'll look after Allen." I knelt down beside Charles. "What happened to him?"
"Looks like somebody hit him on the head, then did a number on his body. He's beaten up pretty bad. His head has an awfully ugly gash and there's blood all over him. Looks like his legs might be broken, too"
"Oh, poor Allen," I mumbled. "I hope Wallace..."
Roberta interrupted me. "Why don't you and Tad go on and search for Wallace? I know CPR and I've had some medical training so we can take care of Allen."
Charles got up. "Okay. We'll let you know when we find him."
Roberta and I looked at each other and I knew there was nothing we could do except wait for the rescue people. I thought of Gwyn and wondered how she'd take the news that Allen was hurt. I hoped she'd be as upset as I was when I thought he was Wallace, but for some reason I doubted it.
"Allen is a good man," Roberta said as she removed her coat and wrapped it around him. "He's going to be just fine, aren't you, buddy?"
"Of course he is." I took his hand. "He's been a wonderful friend to Wallace and me."
"I know he talks about how good you've been to him when he'd have to come to your house for something." Roberta chuckled. "He's also told everyone at the office how you pamper and pet Wallace. Said if he ever married again, he wanted a woman just like you."
"Gwyn doesn't know what a fine man she has."
"I don't think she's going to have him long."
"What do you mean, Roberta?"
"He told me the other morning that he was fed up with the way his marriage was going and he planned to do something about it. He said the mornings he picks Wallace up and sees how happy he is just because he's been with you proves to him marriage can be more than a little food and occasional sex."
"I'm sorry it has been like that for him."
"Face it, June. You and Wallace are a wonderful example of how a marriage should be." She chuckled again. "Why do you think I got such a kick out of coming to that apartment and being with the two of you? It makes me want to try marriage again."
"You'd make somebody a wonderful wife, Roberta." I smiled at her and saw her shiver. "You're getting cold aren't you?"
"I'll be okay. The ambulance should be here soon."
"It was sweet of you to give your coat to Allen, but why don't you take it back and let me put mine on him for a while?"
"No way. At least I have my vest on. That helps keep warmth in. I don't think that sweater you have on under your coat is quite the same."
The sounds of sirens cut through our conversation. "See, there," she added. "They'll be here in a matter of minutes."
After the ambulance carted Allen away, Roberta insisted I go back to the house. I refused until Charles came and told me there were no signs of Wallace. He said there was a possibility the criminal had taken Allen's patrol car because it was missing. They sent for the dog team and asked for reinforcements to aid in the search.
The rest of the day was a fog to me. News got out that the sheriff was missing and one of his deputies was in serious condition in the hospital. People swarmed on the farm to search. Others came to the door to offer sympathy or were just plain nosy. Aunt Nadine was among them.
I wanted to go out and look for Wallace, but everyone put their foot down. They said I was too upset to do myself or my husband any good. I finally gave in and retreated to my room, but I knew I couldn't stay there forever. What was I going to do?
Facing all the neighbors was bad enough, but they all wanted to speculate on what had happened and why Wallace was in the woods at that time of night. How could I tell them it was because we had to be in each other's arms at night? How could I tell them that it was my fault for expecting him to come to me?
I was huddled in a chair at the window of my room watching the activity in the back yard below. Another car was pulling in. "Oh, heavens. It's Sadie Middleton. I don't want to see her," I muttered.
There was a light tap on the door. I buried my head in my hands. I wanted to scream 'go away,' but I knew most of the people arriving were here because they cared about Wallace and me. Since I knew this wouldn't be Sadie, I raised my head and said, "Come in."
"Hello, sweetheart," Aunt Nadine said as she came into the room with a tray. "Celia said you hadn't eaten anything so I insisted she let me bring you some tea and a sandwich."
"I don't feel like eating, Aunt Nadine."
"I know you don't, June, but you need to make yourself eat a bite. You're going to need your strength when they find Wallace." She put the tray on the table beside me and poured tea into a small cup. Handing it to me she said, "Now, drink this."
I wanted to refuse, but I didn't.
"June, I know this is probably the hardest thing you've ever gone through, but believe me, you can get through it. You have the March blood in you and we're all tough."
I smiled a little. "I know that, Aunt Nadine, but without Wallace I don't want to get through it."
She sat on the side of the bed and looked at me. "I don't know how much anyone has told you about Raymond, but I loved him the way you do Wallace."
I looked at her. "I only know he was killed when the tractor turned over on him."
"Eat your sandwich and I'll tell you the whole story."
I don't know why, but I picked up the chicken salad sandwich on the tray and began to nibble.
"Raymond Norton was the love of my life. Nobody but your daddy understood when I married him. After all, he was from a poor family and his father was a drunk, but I didn't care. I loved him and he loved me. Brad told me once that you don't always get to pick out the person you love. Your heart does it for you. I know my heart picked Raymond for me because there was never any other man."
"Just the way my heart picked Wallace for me."
"You're absolutely right." She smiled at me. "I'm going to tell you something, June. Something that nobody in the world knows except me."
I stared at her and she went on, "For years I believed it was my fault Raymond was killed. Sometimes when I think about it now, I can't help but still think so."
"How in the world could it have been your fault?"
"Raymond wanted to go into town that day to buy some things for the new outbuilding he was constructing, but I insisted he plow the area where I wanted to plant day lilies. I had this notion of making extra money by selling the plants." She sighed. "We even argued a little about it at breakfast, but as with most of our arguments, it didn't last long and we ended up in bed. It was always our way of making up."
I couldn't help smiling at her. My straight-laced aunt was telling me that she and her husband had sex to settle arguments. It was hard to grasp, so I didn't say anything.
"Afterward, I told him to go on to town and he could plow the field the next day, but he refused." Tears came into her eyes. "I'll never forget what he said to me. He often called me Naddie and he did this morning. 'Naddie, it'll only take me a couple of hours to plow that area and I'll still have plenty of time to go to town.' He winked at me and added, 'I want to show you how much I enjoyed this morning and maybe we can have a rerun tonight.' Of course, I told him we'd have all the reruns he wanted, but it didn't happen." She dabbed at her eyes.
"I'm sorry, Aunt Nadine."
She reached out and patted my knee. "It's okay, honey. Though that was the last time for Raymond and me, he left me a wonderful gift. Exactly nine months to the day, Jackson was born."
"Oh, Aunt Nadine," I said getting up to go sit on the side of the bed with her. She put her arms around me and I said, "You do understand, don't you?"
"I think I do, honey. When I see you and Wallace together, it always makes me think of Raymond."
"What happened to him wasn't your fault."
"Logically, I know that, but in my heart I keep saying if I hadn't wanted that garden plowed, I'd be with my husband today."
"It could have been something else. He could've been killed going to town or a number of things. I believe when your time to go comes up, you go no matter what."
"Then believe me when I tell you Wallace's disappearance is not your fault, June. He wouldn't have come here to be with you if he hadn't wanted to. If someone was determined to hurt him, they would have found a way, no matter what."
I cried in her arms for several minutes, then she straightened her head. "Now, June, I want you to finish that sandwich. I believe Wallace is coming back and you don't want him to find some sickly woman who refuses to keep herself in shape for him."
I did eat my sandwich. I also washed my face and put on some make-up and went downstairs with Aunt Nadine. I had known I loved her because she was Dad's sister, but for the first time in my life I realized I loved my aunt because she was a wonderful woman.
* * * *
"June, what in the world are you doing here?" Jackson dropped his books to the coffee table and stared at me.
"There was so much going on at the house I had to get away."
Aunt Nadine came in the room. "Hello, Jackson. June is going to spend a few nights with us. The media and the visitors were getting on her nerves at Brad's house so I slipped her out to get away from it."
"I heard about Wallace. Sorry, June," he muttered.
"Thanks Jackson, but I have every hope they'll find him soon. They're staying in close contact with me and they'll keep me informed."
"Yes and we have to keep mum about June being here. They think she could be in danger, too." She reached down and straightened his books. "Dinner will be ready shortly. Why don't you sit here and talk with June while I finish it up?"
"Don't bother dinner for me, Mama. I have a date."
"Not with that tramp, Melba Warrick, I hope."
"Mama, Melba is a nice girl."
"I don't think so. Look at her background."
I knew Jackson and his mother were about to have a fight. I didn't want that to happen so I intervened. "Aunt Nadine, didn't you tell me that you don't always get to pick the person you love because the heart picks them for you?"
"But this is different."
"Why?" I looked at her.
"I don't know. I just feel like it is." She turned and left the room without another word.
"Thanks, June," Jackson gave me a look I couldn't interpret. "Mom and I have fought over Melba before. This is the first time I haven't had to storm out of the house to end the argument."
"I don't think anyone should be told who they should date unless they're putting their life in danger."
"You sure didn't let anyone tell you, did you, June?"
"No, I didn't and I'm glad. Maybe that's why I ended up so happy."
"I'd love to be happy like that someday."
"There's no reason why you can't be, Jackson."
"Oh, yes there is. She's right out there in the kitchen."
I sighed. "I know your mother can be a pain sometimes, but you're a man, Jackson. You have to stand up for what you want. You can't live your life to suit her."
"I know that, but she keeps telling me that I'm all she has. I know she was pregnant when my daddy was killed and I guess she's transferred both her hurt and her love to me. It almost smothers me at times. I can't seem to do anything to suit her and when I try something new, she has a fit. I thought she might like the idea of me going to school, but she only worries about the women I see there."
"Then we need to find your mother somebody else to concentrate on."
"What do you mean?"
"We need to find her a boyfriend."
"What?" He looked at me as if I'd lost my mind.
"I'm serious, Jackson. Your mother isn't too old to go out with some man. It would sure fix your problem, wouldn't it?"
"Yes, but who in their right mind would be interested in Mama?"
"You go get ready for your date and leave that to me."
He shook his head and stared at me again. Finally he grinned. "I always knew you were a different personality, June, but you still surprise me with the things you come up with."
"Wallace tells me that, too. He also says most of my plans work out. So let me see if I can work this one out, too."
The mention of Wallace's name sent me toward depression again. I closed my eyes and thought about my husband. Where could he be? I had a feeling he was not that far away, but where? "Oh, God," I prayed silently. "Please take care of him and bring him back to me."
"June," Aunt Nadine's voice broke into my prayer. "Dinner is on the table."
I started to tell her I wasn't hungry, but I knew it would be no use. I got up and followed her to the kitchen.
After dinner, I called the office. They still didn't know anything about Wallace, but promised to call me before I went to bed to give me a report even if there was nothing.
I called the hospital and talked to Gwyn.
When I inquired about Allen, she said, "He's still in a coma, but they think he'll live." Her voice was flat.
"I'm sure he will, Gwyn. My thoughts and prayers are with him."
"I'm about ready to go home and get some rest myself. I've been here all day and I don't see that my staying is doing him any good. It sure isn't helping me."
"I know waiting in a hospital can be tiring."
"That's for sure. People keep coming in to see him, but I don't know a lot of them. I've never met many of the people Allen works with."
"I know they're all concerned. He's well liked at the office."
"That's what they tell me."
I couldn't believe her attitude. No wonder Allen was ready to get out of this marriage. "Well, Gwyn, I just wanted to let you know I care about both of you."
"Why, thank you, June. You're the first person to say they cared about what I'm having to put up with. I appreciate it."
"I know something like this can be as hard on the family as it is to the patient."
"You're so right."
"I'll let you go and if I can do anything for you, let me know."
"Thanks again." She hung up.
Though I would've liked to talk to Aunt Nadine about the woman's attitude, I didn't dare mention it. Knowing Jackson was out with her sister, my aunt would have a lot of ammunition to throw at him. I decided the best thing to do was keep quiet.
Later that night, I was still awake when I heard Jackson come in and go to his room. I had no idea what time it was, but I figured it was close to midnight because the last time I looked at the clock it was almost eleven.
I had cried until I didn't think I could cry any more. Questions kept flooding my mind. Of course, paramount was where my husband could be. Was he cold and starving? Was he hurt and needing me? Was he as lonely for me as I was for him? What had they done to him? And the question that I couldn't keep back no matter how hard I tried: Was he alive and would I ever see him again?
* * * *
The next day crept by. Mom and Dad came over to check on me and to bring me some clean clothes and my wedding album which I'd requested. They stayed for supper, but it wasn't a very jovial meal. I spent most of it staring into space and praying for Wallace.
Charles called to tell me they were sure whoever attacked Allen had lured him into the woods and then had taken the patrol car. They were also sure they had taken Wallace away in it. The dogs confirmed this.
Later he called back to say they found the car hidden near Sandstone Creek. There was nobody around and again the dogs picked up Wallace's scent which they thought was transferred to another car. They lost it on the main road.
It was early when I went to the room I was using. I wanted to be alone with my thoughts and go through the wedding pictures and the ones Wallace and I had taken on our Hawaiian honeymoon.
I traced his strong features in the close up of us eating a fresh pineapple. I remembered how he'd let me wipe his chin and then kiss it with my sticky lips. There was one of us leaning against a palm tree. Wallace had his arms around me from behind and my head rested against his chest. I remembered his feel, his smell and the way he'd pulled me against him and told me I was the most beautiful woman on earth.
The one of me getting ready to dive in the lagoon brought back how he'd told me my bikini turned him on so much he felt he should hide in the bushes. I told him to dive in with me and cool off.
There were so many pictures and so many memories. I devoured each one and thought of how it was for him to hold me in his arms in that luxury hotel bed at night. I never dreamed I could be so happy, but it seemed the longer we were together, the happier I was and the more I loved him.
"Oh, Wallace," I mumbled aloud. "You've got to come back to me. We have so much living to do and I want to have your babies and raise them with you. I don't want to pine for you the rest of my life the way Aunt Nadine has for Raymond. And if you don't come back, I know that's exactly what I'll do."
I knew it was getting late when I finally put the book on the table by the window and lay on the bed. I didn't bother to put on a nightgown. I just wanted to rest a few minutes and think about Wallace. I didn't know I'd dozed off, but I did.
I was awakened by a noise in the hall. I sat straight up and my first thought was that Wallace was coming to be with me. Doors burst open and then slammed shut. I knew then it wasn't Wallace.
Before I could react, my door came open and the light flipped on.
"Well, well, I finally found you, pretty June."
I gasped. I didn't recognize the man. "Who are you and what are you doing here?"
"Never you mind."
About that time, Aunt Nadine came running into the room. "Leave her alone," she shouted and came at him with a vase in her hand.
He laughed and hit her on the side of the head with his fist. She went sprawling across the room. I heard the vase shatter, then her head hit the floor, hard.
Jumping to my feet I started for her, but the man grabbed my arm. "Let her be. That weird son of hers will find her. Where's your coat? You're coming with me."
"I don't want to go with you."
"You think what you want matters?" He opened the closet and grabbed my coat. Throwing it at me, he dragged me out of the room and down the stairs.
There was a black SUV sitting on the driveway. I knew he intended to take me away in it. I began to fight as hard as I could, but he was stronger and I didn't make much headway.
We got to the car and the back door opened. A hand reached out, took my arm and pulled me inside. "Come on in, June. I've been waiting for this for a long time."
When the man who abducted me opened the front door, the light came on and I gasped. "J. T. Goodman."
He grinned and said, "Get us out of here, Guy. I don't want to be here when old J.J. gets home."
"He wants to be called Jackson." I don't know why I said that, but I did.
J.T. laughed out loud. "What the hell do I care what he wants to be called? All I know is that I want to call you mine and at last I'm going to do that." He put his arm around me and pulled me to him.
"Don't you dare touch me!" I slapped him as hard as I could.
He grabbed my hand. "Well, well. I see you still have the fire in you. Can't do much damage with that pretty soft hand. Too bad you don't have on your high heels tonight." He looked at my feet and laughed again. "Why, you're barefoot! Don't you know your tootsies are going to get cold?"
"Let me out of this car right now, J.T. Goodman."
"Now, June, don't be a spoil sport. I won't let your feet get cold. Anyway if they do, don't they say something like cold feet, warm heart? That's what I want from you, a warm heart."
"You're crazy. I can't stand you."
"Who knows, you might change your mind. I'm quite a lover, you know. A lot of women say so. Why don't you ask Allen's wife or your friend, Sadie? Neither of them have any complaints."
"I said let me out of this car. If you don't, Wallace will kill you when he finds out what you're up to."
"Hear that, Guy. She thinks her husband is gonna save her. Ain't that a kick in the head?"
"Did you do something to Wallace?" I whirled toward him.
I heard Guy chuckle and J.T. grinned at me. "I haven't hurt him much, sweetheart. He's still alive for now. You and I are going to have a little fun and I'm going to let him to watch. Then I'll make him dead. I'll let you watch me do that."
"No! How could you?"
"It's easy, beautiful June. So easy. I like to kill people. Haven't you enjoyed watching your husband chase after the bodies I've been leaving around?"
"I can't believe this. You might have been offensive to me in school, but I didn't think you were this horrible."
"Oh, baby, I'm not horrible. Didn't you hear me say I'm a lover?" He grinned an evil grin, then without warning he crushed my lips with his. I wanted to throw up.
When he pulled away, he said, "I bet old Wallace never kissed you like that." He sounded proud of himself.
"No he hasn't," I said. "Wallace knows how to kiss to turn me on. You only leave me disgusted."
He slapped me.
I slapped him back and he laughed. "Go ahead and fight. I like it rough, June. Especially when I know I'm going to win."
It dawned on me that I needed to temper my actions. If I wanted to get out of this, I had to play it cool and stop reacting to everything he said and did, so I didn't answer him.
"Aren't you going to tell me I'm not going to win?" He glared at me.
"Then you're accepting your fate?"
"Okay, June March. I know you're devious. What are you thinking?"
"My name is June Striker."
"Ah, yes. The wife of our illustrious sheriff. The woman who shoots at men who try to come in her house. You're in no position to do anything to save yourself this time are you, June Striker?" He jerked my arm. "Why aren't you talking now? You were full of words a little while ago."
"I was wondering what happened to that football hero in school. The one who had so much going for him. How could he turn into a person so warped and filled with hate?"
"If you hadn't poked him in the eye, he'd probably be fine today." He was showing his anger now. "When I got home from seeing the doctor, my old man beat the hell out of me. Told me I wasn't a son of his or I would've never let a girl get the best of me like that. He said I had to get her back someday no matter how long it took. Then he said maybe he'd let me be his son again. So you see, June. I have you now and you'll be mine in a short while. I guess that makes me a Goodman again instead of the sissy mama's boy my dad called me."
"For heavens sake, J.T., your father has been dead for a long time. Does it really matter if you..."
He interrupted me. "Of course it matters. As he was dying, I made the promise to him that I'd get you someday. It has taken a while, but here we are together at last."
"What a stupid promise to make to a dying man."
J.T. laughed again. "Guy, do you think we ought to tell her the circumstances under which I made that promise?"
"I don't see why not, boss. Who's she going to tell?"
"You're right. She's not going to be here long enough to tell anything, is she?" J.T. leaned toward me as Guy swerved the car onto a dirt road. "Why don't I wait until we get to the house to tell her? Old Wallace might like to hear about it, too."
"You're right. I bet he would. He'll have the answer to an old crime he didn't know existed and he won't be able to do a thing about it when he finds out." Guy shifted in the front seat. "J.T., I'm hungry. Can we go by a drive-through before we get back to the cabin?"
"Guy, you fool. Somebody might see us."
"But I'm hungry."
J.T. laughed. "Then we'll make this pretty lady cook us something at the cabin. I could eat some good home cooking myself."
I had no intention of cooking for these two fools, but I decided not to argue the point at this moment.
* * * *
I stumbled on the cold steps and J.T. jerked me up as we went onto the porch of a small log cabin. It was a neat place with a well trimmed yard and rockers on the porch. I wondered if it belonged to him.
He unlocked the door and shoved me inside. The first thing I saw was a straight chair at an oval table. Wallace was tied in it.
"Wallace," I cried and ran to him. I fell on my knees beside him. "Darling, are you all right?"
He raised his head and looked at me through swollen eyes. He frowned. "Oh, June, I didn't want them to find you."
I was trying to touch him when Guy grabbed my arms. "None of that. Your hugs and kisses belong to J.T. now."
"My hugs and kisses will never belong to anyone but Wallace!" I yelled as he pulled me away from my husband.
"Don't hurt her!" Wallace demanded.
"Shut your mouth or I'll shut it for you," Guy said and hit Wallace across the mouth.
"Don't hit him like that." I kicked Guy in the shin and he began to dance around. I couldn't help grinning a little because I didn't realize I could do that much damage with bare feet.
He started to strike me, but J.T. intervened. "Don't mark her up. I want her pretty and soft when I decide to take her. When I'm through with her, you can do whatever you please."
"Can I take her, too?"
"Sure. Why not? Give Wallace another show before we kill him."
"In the meantime, I'm hungry." J.T. took hold of my arm. "Get to the stove and fix me something to eat."
"What?" I glared at him.
"Something good. I hear you cook great meals for your loving husband so use your imagination." He shoved me toward the stove.
The kitchen area of the cabin was well equipped. I found a pack of chicken breasts in the freezer and decided I could do something with that. All the time I was keeping an eye on Wallace.
He had taken a severe beating and his breathing was a little uneven. I wondered if he had some cracked ribs. Though I wanted to run and put my arms around him, I knew I would do him more good if I figured someway to get us out of this mess.
It wasn't going to be easy. J.T. was sitting at the table, too. He was eying me. I ignored him, because I knew in my heart I'd make him kill me before I let him molest me in front of my husband.
Guy had moved to the other side of the room and taken a seat in a green lounge chair. I saw him nod and this pleased me. I was sure he'd go to sleep soon. That would make it a little easier.
Wallace was watching me, too. I caught his eye and tried to communicate to him. Maybe if he caught on to what I was up to, he'd be able to help subdue J.T.
"Okay, you two quit making eyes at each other," J.T. said. "You look like two moonsick cows. No matter how much you think you love each other, it'll do you no good now."
"Do you want some coffee?" I asked in an unpleasant tone. I wanted to distract him from watching Wallace and me. If he accepted my offer, as I hoped he would, I knew hot coffee could be used as a weapon.
"Sure. Coffee on a cold night is a good thing." He glanced at the sitting area. "Guy, wake up and get your butt over here. I think we promised pretty June a story."
Guy pulled the chair to a sitting position and came to the kitchen. He took a chair at the table.
"Want to come sit with us, June?" J.T. winked at me. "You can hear my story better."
"Yeah, Wallace," Guy said with a laugh. "J.T. says I can have her when he's through. Ain't that gonna be fun for you to see?"
Wallace was seething. I wanted to shout, "Keep your cool, baby. We've got to stay focused. You taught me that, remember?"
To diffuse the situation, I said, "I have to watch the chicken. I can hear you from here."
"That'll be fine, sweetheart. I like to see a woman in the kitchen." His smile was evil. Nobody said anything and he went on, "I know we all remember the high heel incident. Hell, everyone in town still remembers it." J.T. took a breath and looked at me. "Wallace, I told June that my pa beat me good when he found out I'd been subdued by a girl. He told me to never let it happen again. I decided then and there I'd never let a woman get the best of me and without him knowing, I also decided he'd never beat me again. No matter what."
"He didn't either, did he, J.T.?" Guy was excited.
"No, he didn't and keep your mouth shut, Guy. This is my story. I'll invite you to tell your part." Guy nodded and J.T. went on, "A couple of days after the incident, I came home in a foul mood because everyone at school had made fun of my eye bandage all day. I was ready to burst something. Of course, that was the day Mama decided to whine and complain because Dad was going to have to work late. I knew he wasn't working, but was laid up somewhere with his secretary. Anyway she told me to go out to the site and help him so he could get home at a decent hour." He looked at Guy. "Now you can talk."
"Well, J.T. came by and picked me up. We went to the convenience store and got a six pack. J.T. had it in good with the woman who worked there and she'd let us buy beer when nobody was around. We then rode out to the site because J.T. said it was a good place to drink 'cause it was deserted after the workers went home. Well, low and behold, his dad was there because some of the workers had made a mistake and he decided to correct it before he went on his date. He was on the second story of the apartment building and was close to the edge beating some wedge into place to shore up a section that might otherwise fall."
J.T. took up the story. "When I told him what Mama said, he laughed at me. He said I not only let a girl get the best of me, making me a sissy, but I was now acting out my role as a mama's boy and to trot along home and he'd be there when he was good and ready. I couldn't stand the way he looked at me and I grabbed his arms and pinned them behind him." He looked at Guy.
Guy smiled and said, "At first I was stunned, but then I figured J.T. wasn't going to take any more of his crap, so I came over to help. I took his old man's arms and held him while J.T. put the orange rope they use in construction around his neck. Back to you, Boss."
"Oh, he fought us, and he was strong, but there were two of us. I decided then and there, I'd had all of him I was ever going to take. I'll never forget the words I said to him. 'This is it, old man,' I said. 'I'll get that girl back someday even if it takes me a hundred years. Too bad you'll not live to know about it because I'll never take another beating from you.' Then I pushed him off the side of the building." He laughed. "Then Guy and I sat down and drank the last of our beer while we watched his legs dangle and twitch."
"Yeah," Guy interrupted. "When he didn't kick anymore, we toasted him and finished off the six pack."
I shook my head and moved to the table. "That must be when you decided you liked to kill people."
"See, Guy. I told you she was smart." He thumped Wallace on the shoulder. "How could somebody with no more guts than you end up with a babe like her?"
I began putting out silverware.
"What the hell are you doing?" J.T. grabbed my wrist.
"I'm setting the table. What does it look like?"
"Yeah and you're using sharp knives."
"Well, how do you expect to cut your meat if you don't have a sharp knife?"
He eyed me and I gave him my most innocent look.
"I guess you're right, but why did you put silverware down for Wallace? How's he going to eat with his hands tied?"
"I figured you'd untie him to eat."
"Nah. He doesn't need anything. Take his silverware back."
As I picked it up I fumbled and let it drop to the floor. "Oh, how clumsy of me." I bent down and began to pick it up.
"Watch her, Guy. Make sure she gets the sharp knife, too. Be just like her to slip it to Wallace."
I straightened. "I'm not a fool, J.T. Here's the sharp knife." I showed it to him.
He nodded. "Maybe you're smarter than I thought you were." He grinned. "I'm not so sure I want to get rid of you after we have our fun. You might be nice to keep around for a while."
"Now, Boss, you promised I could have a turn at her."
"Shut up, Guy. I can change my mind if I want to."
"But, J.T., I was looking forward to it."
"So? Maybe I'll let you have Gwyn back. She's getting to be more trouble than she's worth."
"I don't want her. I've had her before and she whines."
"She's been good about keeping us informed of what was happening with these two, hasn't she?" He shook his head. "Too bad I didn't kill her husband like she wanted. She stands to get a pile of insurance."
"We could've used that."
"Could we ever. You get in good with her and maybe we'll get some of it." J.T. looked at me. "That way I'll keep this one for myself, at least for a while."
"But, I don't want her."
"Cool it, Guy. Talk about whining. You do enough of that yourself. How about Sadie? How do you like the looks of her?"
"I don't want her either. She's kind of fat and she's my cousin. Besides she has those three kids. I don't like kids. You know that."
I moved back to the stove and hoped they would keep yammering so they'd be distracted. I knew Wallace was making good use of the sharp knife I slipped to him.
It had been easier than I thought it would be. I took five knives to the table. When I had to pick up the place setting from the floor, I'd put the fifth knife in Wallace's hand.
Our eyes met and I knew he would let me know as soon as he'd cut through the rope binding his hands. I forced myself to look away. I didn't want to draw attention to the fact that we were trying to give messages to each other.
"You know, June." J.T. looked at me. "I'm glad you didn't burn up in the fire. At the time I wanted you dead, but now I've changed my mind."
"What made you change your mind, J.T.?"
"When I saw you in the grocery store that day, I was afraid I would never be able to get you away from Wallace. That's when I decided to kill you both. But now I'm beginning to believe you might be a little interested in me after all."
I ignored his statement. "Did you put that note on my windshield?"
"No. I had Guy do that while I was in the store talking to you. I watched to see if you read it, but you didn't seem too interested in it. Then I saw you reading it in the car." He laughed. "I wanted to follow you home, but Gwyn came out and was waiting for me. I knew I had to keep stringing her along, so we went off for a while."
"You sure had everything planned out, didn't you, J.T.?"
"I sure did. It took me a while to find you two after the fire, but when old Carl Webber complained about the big white man who said he was black, I figured you were in the apartment. I kept watching 'til I saw Ledbetter and that black deputy go there a couple of times."
"How did you get away that night?" I hoped he'd tell me.
"It was easy. I had a key that would open any apartment. We slipped into one where the tenants were out of town. When the police pulled out the next day, we simply walked out."
"I see." I glanced at the chicken. It was beginning to boil.
"Finding where you went from there was a little harder, but thank goodness, Gwyn was willing to follow her husband now and then. When she told me that he was picking up Wallace at the edge of March's woods, I had my answer of how to get you both. I followed Ledbetter the next time and he led me right to the rendezvous spot. Boy, was old Wallace surprised when he started to get in the patrol car and saw me. Good thing Guy whammed him on the head from behind before he could react."
Guy laughed. "Didn't get a chance to say a thing. Just bam! and he was out like a light." He laughed again. "It was sure fun getting the best of you and your loving husband. Don't you think it was ironic that you were staying in one of J.T.'s condos when we shot it up?"
"It is pretty strange." I put coffee cups on the table and hoped Wallace was almost through the ropes. "How did you find me at Aunt Nadine's?"
"Your cousin let that out of the bag. He mentioned at work that you had given him some good advice about his personal life. Gwyn figured the only way he'd be able to talk to you was if you were at his house. Good thing, too. I planned to raid your folk's place after we had Wallace here captured, but I was afraid your daddy might come after me with a gun. I like killing people, but for some reason I didn't want to kill your old man. Don't know why, but it might be the fact that he told my folks he'd pay the doctor bill after you about put my eye out. My old man didn't take it, of course. He had insurance, but he often said old Bradley March was one man around here with integrity." He looked at me. "I guess I hoped you'd respect me for not hurting your daddy."
I wanted to tell him that nothing he ever did or didn't do would make me respect him, but I simply said nothing.
"I'm ready for something to drink. Can I have some coffee now?" Guy asked.
"In a minute," I said as I moved to the table and placed the cream and sugar near him.
"When I get free, I'll see the both of you bastards pay for what you've done," Wallace said.
"Ah, the dummy speaks." J.T. laughed. "And just when do you think you're going to get free, lawman?"
"Any time now."
"Right. You're really gonna want to be free when I make it with your woman right here on the sofa in front of you."
Both J.T. and Guy burst into laughter.
Wallace started to speak, but I looked at him and he stopped. His eyes told me his hands were free.
"Don't rile them up, Wallace," I said quietly. "Let me serve them now. Both the chicken and the coffee are done. I'll bring them at the same time."
"See that's the kind of woman I want, Guy." J.T. sat back. "She knows how to wait on a man if he just gives her the right incentive."
The words were barely out of his mouth, then he was screaming because I'd thrown the boiling chicken in his face. At the same time, I poured the hot coffee down Guy's back and he joined in with his screams.
Wallace was on his feet and had J.T. on the floor. Through his pain, Guy tried to help his friend. He was going after Wallace. I whacked him on the back of the head with the hot pot and he crumpled to the floor. "That's for hitting my husband on the head," I yelled.
J.T. was bellowing for somebody to help him, but I did nothing to help until Wallace had his hands secure and had drawn his feet up toward his back and tied the rope to his hands. I then ran a pot of cold water and poured it in his face.
He tied Guy in the same way. I then poured cold water on his back.
I had no doubt that both men would suffer severe burns, but at the moment I didn't care. I had helped save my husband's life and possibly my own, because there was no doubt J.T. planned to kill Wallace tonight. My fate would've come later, but it would've come.
Wallace took me in his arms and kissed me as passionately as his bruises would allow. "Thank God you're a quick thinker, June. I thought I'd have a heart attack when they came in with you."
"Once I saw you, I knew we'd be together again."
"Together for ever," he whispered and kissed me again.
"For God's sake man, cut out the mushy stuff and do something for my face. It's killing me," J.T. begged.
"And my back hurts," Guy said through his sobs.
"Maybe we should try to help them," I muttered. "Can you call an ambulance or something?"
Wallace found his cell phone in his jacket pocket which they'd thrown over the back of a chair. "I'll let them know where we are." He had his arm around me as if he'd never let me go.
"Honey, let me go look for a first aid kit or something."
"Okay, but hurry right back."
"Now that we have them out of our way, and you've taken care of my wounds why don't we go out on the porch and smooch while we wait for everyone?" Wallace smiled at me as I closed the first aid kit I'd found in the bathroom.
"Good idea. I don't like the looks of them."
"Maybe it's because of all that gook you put on their burns."
"Whatever. I want to sit where you can hold me close and kiss me all night long."
"J.T. should be the one holding and kissing her," Guy said.
Wallace looked down at the two bound men on the floor. "Where J.T.'s going, he'll never have the opportunity to kiss another woman as long as he lives. And neither will you."
"Come on, darling. We'll leave them to their misery and nobody will be able to watch us while we hold each other."
Wallace grabbed a throw from the chair to cover us and to wrap my feet in as we went out the door. We were sitting on the porch in one of the rocking chairs when, less than thirty minutes later, sirens and blue lights came screaming into the yard of the cabin. An ambulance followed. We were still not through kissing.
* * * *
Three months later, we were gathered in Mom and Dad's back yard for a big cookout. We'd been hugged and kissed by family and friends and most of the sheriff's department. Our big surprise was when Charles and Jessica arrived. They came around the house pushing Allen in a wheelchair.
I couldn't help myself. I jumped up, ran to him and threw my arms around Allen's neck. "I'm so glad to see you."
"Wow, Wallace. I like the way your wife greets people."
"She can get gushy at times, but don't let it go to your head. She's all mine."
"We all know that, my friend. I figure you'll still be chasing her around the house when she's old and grey and you're barely able to stand up with a cane."
"You got that right, buddy." Wallace shook Allen's hand. "It's good to see you coming along. You've got to hurry this healing process though. I'm short handed and it doesn't look good if a sheriff's chief deputy has two broken legs."
"I'll see how quickly I can get well."
Roberta came next. She was on the arm of a handsome African-American man about the same size as Wallace. A banker, she told us. They made a good looking couple.
Henry Thompson arrived and I noticed Aunt Nadine smooth her hair. I made a mental note to see if I could do something about that later. Now that she'd told Jackson if he wanted to date Melba Warrick she wouldn't object, I knew she needed someone in her life. I was surprised when Jackson said he thought he'd give up women for a while and enroll in a four year school. He was thinking about going to State since he knew Toby was there.
Of course, April and her date, the Reverend Larry Smithers, were there as were her twins, Ryan and Rachel. Toby called to say he wished us luck, but he was in exams and couldn't get away for a couple of weeks. August also called and said he and Teresa would bring the children a little later because he was working on some big case and couldn't come now.
May and her husband, Bert, were there and everyone was enthused about the coming event. May's tummy was actually beginning to protrude. I knew Mom and Dad were thrilled to have another grandchild on the way.
Jan made it down from Boone for the party. I got a little nervous when I saw her hovering over Allen and bringing him food and drinks.
Wallace noticed my frown and whispered, "She's a woman now, June. Don't interfere."
"But she's so young and he's ..."
"Honey, he's twenty-seven. Jan's nineteen and in school. Don't start trying to pick out men for your sister."
I knew he was right.
When we saw Jan move away and Allen was alone, we went over and sat with him.
"Nice party, Wallace. You and June deserve it."
"Thanks, but it was all my in-laws' idea. They love company."
There was a silence. Finally he said, "I'm sorry Gwyn was part of your problems and I was too dense to see it before it came crashing down on us."
"You have nothing to apologize for, Allen."
"June's right. There was no way you could've known what was going on."
"I knew Gwyn didn't love me, but I never dreamed she was having an affair with J.T. Goodman."
"J.T. was a disturbed man." I patted Allen's arm.
"He sure was. When he finally confessed to everything, he said he killed the men he threw out of cars because he liked killing and he thought it was one way to keep the sheriff's department confused. He did say it helped rid the world of people like them. Seemed he picked most of them up in and around Mark's Pool Hall where they'd wandered in from the homeless shelter."
"Are you okay with what happened to Gwyn, Allen?" I looked at him.
"I am, June. It's not so hard to grasp that she'd want me dead when I think back on some of the things she said to me at times. My whole marriage to her was a mistake. I've filed for divorce."
"Good. At least it was a mistake you can remedy."
"That's right, Wallace. As I've often said, the next time I marry, I want a woman like June."
"I hate to tell you this, buddy, but there's not another woman out there like June."
"Doesn't hurt for a guy to have high hopes, does it?"
"Maybe I'll see if I can find you a woman, Allen."
"Now, June. Don't start that matchmaking again." Wallace put his arms around my shoulder.
"Why not? I'm batting a thousand so far. Look over there at Charles and Jessica. It wouldn't surprise me at any time for him to give her a ring. And then there's Henry."
"Henry?" Wallace and Allen said almost together.
"Sure. Look how he's being so attentive to Aunt Nadine. With just the right shove, it wouldn't surprise me if something were to happen there."
"June!" Wallace said again.
I laughed. "If you'll excuse us, Allen, I'm going to take my husband for a walk and explain to him how good I'd be running a matchmaking service."
Allen waved us away and we wandered around to the front porch. It was vacant, so I pulled my husband toward the porch swing.
"Now what's this about a matchmaking service?" he asked when we sat down.
"That was just a ruse to get you alone. I want to tell you something."
"Will I like what you're about to surprise me with now?" He put his arm around me and pulled me closer.
"I hope you do." I smiled up at him. "Guess what I bought today?"
"I have no idea. With my wife, it could be anything."
"I bought a home pregnancy test."
"Why in the world...are you telling me..?" His face showed complete surprise.
"I haven't used it yet, but I'm three weeks late. I thought I'd do the test tonight so you can be with me."
"Oh, honey..." He grinned from ear to ear. "What do you think? I mean, do you...June, I can't wait to find out. Why don't we go inside and do the test now?"
"So you're not upset?"
"Of course not. Are you?"
"No. I know we said we were going to wait a while to have kids, but now the idea of a little Wallace makes me all excited. I bet he'll be as wonderful as his daddy."
He grabbed my hand. "Or a little June." He smiled and shook his head. "I sure have my work cut out for me if I have to keep up with two Junes."
"It'll be a boy. I've already named him."
"Lee Bradley. How do you like that?"
"Love it." He couldn't quit grinning. "If you're wrong, how about Cynthia June? That was my mother's name, you know."
"I like that."
"Then what are we waiting for? I'm ready to find out if this is a reality." He stood and took my hand. "Now you be careful."
I laughed. I knew if the test was positive, I was in for pampering for the next nine months.
When we got inside and started up the steps, Wallace stopped and scooped me up in his arms.
"Are you going to carry me up those stairs?" I kissed his cheek.
"I sure am. I don't want you to exert yourself."
Yep, if the results were what I thought they'd be, I was sure in for some pampering. I didn't mind that at all.
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