NICK WALKER LEANED HIS shoulder against the weathered wall inside the barn. Sturdy and solid, a good place for his sister. A safe place. Through the open back end of the barn, he could see a patch of dry grass blowing in the wind. Farther in the distance, a dark line of green pines met a hazy blue sky.
Hannah’s hair hung in a long braid down her back, the exact color of the blowing grass, and he watched her carefully as she stabbed the pitchfork into the hay bedding then dumped horse manure into the wheelbarrow parked next to his feet. As she went back for more, he continued to lay out all the pitfalls of dating, all the reasons to be careful, every precaution an overprotective FBI agent could think of. For all the good it did.
He should be glad his sister was spreading her wings, but thinking about her with McKinney only amplified that sick feeling in his gut. Part of him said that fear was irrational. A bigger part knew it wasn’t. He hadn’t protected her before. He wouldn’t make that mistake again.
He sighed, noting she was going about her work without comment. “Are you even listening to me?”
“Are you even saying anything worth listening to?” she countered sweetly.
His baby sister, who admittedly wasn’t a baby, shook off the extra straw then swung around for another dump in the wheelbarrow beside him. He’d hung around after bringing Hannah lunch, his excuse for checking in on her more than she’d like. But she was his little sister; that was his job. The fact she was dating had his threat level dialed up to the highest setting. DEFCON one on the big brother scale.
It didn’t help that he still saw her as a two-year-old with corn-silk, barely-there pigtails and eyes too big for her face. “The guy is trouble.”
“The guy has a name. He even has a family and everything.”
“Yeah.” Stephen McKinney. As an FBI agent, Nick had run the guy through the system and found things in his past that might or might not be legitimate cause for worry. The fact that he was a millionaire playboy was enough. That his photo was recently on the cover of a magazine as Norfolk’s most eligible bachelor would have made Nick roll his eyes in any case. But McKinney was sniffing around his sister. Definite cause for a lot more than eye rolling. Hannah was not a player, and she sure as hell was not going to be played with.
Tall and lean, she had an inner strength, but she was also fragile. Breakable. Even with the heat thick enough to swim in, she wore jeans, which made sense for riding. But not the long sleeves she wore, as she always did, to cover the scars of her past. The marks left by a man Nick hadn’t protected her from. Faded after twelve years, but he still saw them, still heard her crying in his nightmares.
That was the bitch of regret. It kept the past in the present, right on top of you, so you couldn’t forget, so it could keep eating at you until there was nothing left. Until the woman that was holding all your pieces together walked right out the door.
“Nick, you know I love you,” Hannah was saying, “even if you are a pain, but I’m twenty-six years old. I can make some decisions for myself.”
“I didn’t say you couldn’t.”
“You didn’t have to.” She sent him a meaningful look before turning back to her task. “You know, if you have time to watch me work, you have time to help me work.”
“And get yelled at? I don’t think so. You’ve told me more than once to stay out of your way.”
“Hmm.” She leaned the pitchfork against the wall. “Well, you’re in my way now, so move you and your fancy self back.”
Dressed in his standard khakis and button-down, he stepped back into the barn aisle not to save his scuffed brown boots but because he didn’t put it past his sister to dump horse shit on them.
Hannah lifted the handles of the wheelbarrow and marched it out to her dumping pile. A breath of summer air blew through the breezeway, sweeping tiny bits of hay to the sides of the aisle, offering a little relief from the Virginia heat.
Freedom Farm was a physical therapy riding facility for children with various special needs, from amputations and paralysis to severe burns and visual impairments. Even five years ago, he couldn’t have imagined it, and seeing her happy was like a balm to his soul. And McKinney was ruining that, he thought with a scowl.
“Where’s Luke?” he asked as Hannah walked back, pulling off her work gloves. “I saw his truck.”
“I don’t know. He went for a walk, I think. We talked, then he left.”
He wondered what they’d talked about. His younger brother wasn’t much of a talker. A Special Forces officer, Luke still hadn’t said why he was home. That worried him. He worried, about all of them, had since the day they’d stood like soldiers in the front row of the church, struggling to keep their gut-wrenching shit together.
Luke, a sullen seventeen, the twins, Zach and Dallas, just fourteen and forced to take the sudden death of their parents like men. And then two-year-old Hannah in his arms, quiet, observant, confused. Not yet twenty, he hadn’t been ready for the responsibility of his siblings. It hadn’t mattered.
The service ended; a pause between music pieces followed as the organist flipped pages in her book. The air was sticky with the scent of too many lilies. The only sound came from the squeaking wheels as two identical caskets were rolled to the back of the church. You could have heard a pin drop until Hannah’s scream split the reverent silence in two.
It pierced every ear, so high and sorrowful it rattled the organ pipes. She lunged toward the aisle with a desperate cry for Mommy that tore through all of them. Again and again until her voice gave out. She understood more than he’d thought. Solemn music played over her while women around him wept. Luke and Dallas watched the scene in horror. Zach slumped to the pew and buried his face in his hands.
Since that moment, she’d been his.
He’d like to think he’d done a decent job. He knew he hadn’t. The screams that had come years later were far worse than those in that church twenty-four years ago.
“Don’t you have any real detective work to do?” Hannah bent to scatter the pile of fresh hay she’d set inside the doorway. “Someone else to bother?”
“It’s more fun to bother you,” he said lightly, even if he didn’t feel it. He did have two hot cases going, both related to drugs and possibly to each other. He checked his watch. He’d only meant to come for lunch. “I do need to go, I just—”