Ice covered the shoveled walk from the house to the milking barn, and the path was slick with it. The predawn air was cupped by a dark sky chiseled with frosted chips of white stars. Each gulp was like sipping chilled razor blades that sliced, then numbed, the throat before being expelled in a frigid steam.
Wrapped in a multitude of winter layers, from long johns to knitted muffler, Shane MacKade headed toward the milking parlor and the first chores of the day. Unlike his three older brothers, he was whistling between his teeth.
He just plain loved the frosty and still hour before a winter sunrise.
His oldest brother, Jared, was nearly seventeen, and went about the business of running a farm like an accountant approaching a spreadsheet. It was all figures to him, Shane knew, and he supposed that was well enough. They had lost their father two months before, and times were rough.
As for Rafe, his restless fifteen-year-old soul was already looking beyond the hills and fields of the MacKade farm. The milking and feeding and tending of stock was simply something to get through. And Shane knew, though they never really talked about it, that their father's death had hit Rafe the hardest.
They had all loved their father. It would have been impossible not to love Buck MacKade, with his big voice and big hands and big heart. And everything Shane knew about farming—everything he loved about the land—had come straight from his father.
Perhaps that was why Shane didn't grieve as deeply. The land was there, so his father was there. Always.
He could have talked about that thought with Devin. At fourteen, Devin was already the best of listeners, and the closest to Shane's own age. Shane was going to make the big leap to thirteen next Tuesday. But he kept the thought—and the feeling—to himself.
Inside the milking parlor, the first of the stock shifted and mooed, tails swishing as they were prepped. It was a simple enough process, could even be considered a monotonous one. The cleaning, the feeding, the attaching to machines that would pump the milk from cow to pipe, from pipe to tank for storage. But Shane enjoyed it, enjoyed the smells, the sounds, the routine. While he and Devin dealt with the second line of stock, Rafe and Jared led those already relieved of milk outside again.
They made a good team, quick and efficient despite the numbing cold and early hour. In truth, it was a job any one of them could have handled alone, or with very little help. But they tended to stick together. Even closer together these days.
Still, there were chickens and pigs to see to yet, eggs to gather, muck to shovel, fresh hay to spread. And all this before they gobbled down breakfast and climbed into Jared's ancient car for the drive to school.
If he could have, Shane would have skipped the school part entirely. You couldn't learn how to plow and plant, how to harvest or judge the weather by tasting the air, from books. You couldn't learn from books how to look into a cow's eyes and see that she was ailing.
But his mother was firm on book learning, and when she was firm, she was immovable.
"What the hell are you so happy about?" Grumbling, Rafe clanged stainless-steel buckets together. "That whistling's driving me crazy."
Shane merely grinned and kept on whistling. He paused only long enough to talk encouragingly to the cows. "That's the way, ladies, you fill her up." Content as any of his bossies, Shane moved down the line of milkers, checking each one.
"I'm going to pound him," Rafe announced to no one in particular.
"Leave him be," Devin said mildly. "He's already brain-dead."
Rafe smiled at that. "It's so damn cold, if I hit him, my fingers would probably break off."
"Going to warm up some today." Shane patted one of the cows waiting in the stanchions to be hooked for milking. "Get up into the thirties, anyway."
Rafe didn't bother to ask how Shane knew. Shane always knew. "Big deal." He strode out of the milking parlor, toward barn and hayloft.
"What's eating him?" Shane muttered. "Some girl dump him?"
"He just hates cows." Jared stepped back in, smelling of grain.
"That's stupid. You're a sweetheart, aren't you, baby?" Shane gave the nearest cow an affection swat.
"Shane's in love with cows." Devin flashed the wicked MacKade grin, which had a dimple flickering at the corner of his mouth. "He has better luck kissing them than girls."
Immediately insulted, Shane narrowed his eyes. "I could kiss any girl I wanted to—if I wanted to." Under the layers of clothing, his lean, rangy body was on full alert.
Recognizing the signs, Jared shook his head. He just didn't feel like a tussle now. There was too much work to do, and he had a big test in English Lit to worry about. Devin and Shane were too evenly matched, and a fight between them could go on indefinitely.
"Yeah, you're a regular Don Juan." He said it only to focus Shane's attention, and temper, on him. "All the little girls are puckered up and waiting in line."
Devin made a long, loud kissing noise that made Jared want to slug him. As Shane pivoted to do just that, Jared stepped between them. "But before you make their hearts flutter, lover boy, the water trough's iced over. These cows are thirsty."
Aiming a glance that promised Devin retribution, Shane stomped outside.
He could kiss a girl, Shane thought as he hacked at the ice. If he wanted to. He just wasn't interested.
Well, maybe he was a little interested, he admitted, blowing on his fingers to warm them. Some of the girls he knew were starting to get pretty interesting shapes. And he'd felt an odd sort of tingling under his skin when Jared's girl, Sharilyn, wiggled up against him when they were packed into the front seat of Jared's car the other day.
He could probably kiss her, if he wanted. He set the iron bar aside, looking toward the milk barn as the stars winked out overhead. That would show Jared a thing or two. They all figured he didn't know what was what because he was the youngest. But he knew plenty. At least he was starting to imagine plenty.
Hauling up the bar again, he clumped over the slippery, snowpacked ground to the pig shed.
He knew how sex worked, all right. He'd grown up on a farm, hadn't he? He knew how the bull went crazy and white-eyed when he smelled a cow in heat. He just hadn't thought the whole thing looked like a whole hell of a lot of fun... but that had been before he began to notice how girls filled out their clothes.
He hacked away the layer of ice for the pigs and, leaving his brothers to finish up the milking, dealt with the feed.
He wished he was grown-up. He wished he could do something to prove he was—besides holding his own in a fight. As it was, all he could do was simply wait until he was older, and know that then he could take control of his life.
The land was his. He'd felt that in his bones, as long as he could remember. As if at birth someone had whispered it in his ear. The farm, the land. That was what really mattered. And if he wanted a girl, too—or a whole platoon of them—he'd get that, too.
But the farm was what counted most.
The land, he thought, looking over the snow-coated fields as the sky grayed with dawn and turned explosive at the tips of the eastern mountains. The land his father had worked, and his father before that. And before that. Through droughts and floods. Through war.
They'd planted their crops, and brought them in, he thought, dreaming a little as he walked toward the fields. Even when war came, right here, with Confederate gray and Union blue clashing in these very fields, and in the thick woods just beyond, the farm had stayed whole.
He knew just what it would have been like, turning the rocky soil behind a horse-drawn plow, your back and shoulders aching, your hands raw. But the crops would be planted, and you would see them grow. Corn springing up, spreading, hay waving and going gold with summer.
Even when the soldiers came, even when their mortars and black powder singed the drying cornstalks, the land stayed. Bodies had dropped here, he thought as a chill crept up his spine. Men had screamed and crawled through their own blood.
But the land they had fought over, fought for, didn't change. It endured.
He flushed a little, wondering where that word had come from, that word and the strong, almost dizzying emotion behind it. He was glad he was alone, glad none of his brothers could see. He didn't know how to tell them that he knew the farm had been his responsibility before, and would be again.
But he knew.
When he heard the sound behind him, he stiffened and, shouldering the bar again, turned with his face carefully closed, free of emotion.
There was no one there.
He swallowed hard. He was sure he'd heard a sound, a movement, then a small, weak cry. It wasn't the first time he'd heard the ghosts. They lived here, as he did—in the fields, in the woods, in the hills. But they terrified him nonetheless.
Gathering all his young courage, he moved around the shed, toward the old stone smokehouse. It was probably Devin, he told himself, or Rafe, or even Jared, trying to get a rise out of him, trying to make him bolt, as he'd nearly bolted the time they spent the night in the old Barlow place, on the other side of the woods. The haunted house, where ghosts were as thick as cobwebs.
"Get a life, Dev," he said, loudly, loudly enough to calm his speeding heart.
But when he rounded the building, he didn't see his brother, or even any tracks in the snow. For an instant, just a quick, tripping heartbeat, he thought he saw a figure there. Crumpled, spilling blood over the ground, the face as white as the untouched snow, the eyes dulled with pain.
Help me. Please help me, I'm dying.
But when he stepped forward there was nothing. Nothing at all. Even the words that rang in his head faded away in the wind.
Shane stood there, a young boy with his whole life a wonderful mystery yet to unfold, and stared at the unbroken ground. He stood there, shuddering, as the cold reached through the layers of clothes, through his flesh and into his bones.
Then he heard his brothers laughing, heard his mother call from the kitchen door that breakfast was ready and to get a move on or they'd be late for school.
He turned away, closed his frightened mind off to what he had seen and what he had heard.
He walked back to the farmhouse, and said nothing of that one jolting moment to anyone.
Shane MacKade loved women. He loved the look of them, the smell of them, the sound of them, the taste of them. He loved them, without reservation or prejudice. Tall, short, plump, thin, old, young, their wonderful and exotic femaleness pulled him, drew him in. The slant of an eyelash, the curve of a lip, the sway of a shapely female bottom, simply delighted him.
He had, in his thirty-two years on earth, done his very best to show as many women as possible his boundless appreciation for them as a gender.
He considered himself a lucky man, because the ladies loved him right back.
He had other loves. His family, his farm, the smell of bread baking, the taste of a cold beer on a hot day.
But women, well, they were so varied, so different, and so delicious.
He was smiling at one now. Even though Regan was his brother's wife, and Shane had nothing but the most innocent and brotherly feelings for her, he could appreciate her considerable female attributes. He liked the way her deep blond hair curved around her face. He adored the little mole beside her mouth, and the way she always looked so sexy and so tidy at the same time.
He thought if a man had to pick one woman and tie himself down, Rafe couldn't have done better.
"Are you sure you don't mind, Shane?"
"Mind what?" He caught her quirked brow as she lifted the newest MacKade onto her shoulder. "Oh, the airport run. Right. I was just thinking how pretty . you look."
Regan had to laugh. She was frazzled, Jason MacKade, her youngest son, was squalling, her hair was a mess, and she was afraid she smelled more like Jason's diapers than the scent she'd dabbed on that morning.
"I look like a madwoman."
"Nope." To give her a breather, Shane took Jason from her and jiggled the three-week-old baby into hiccups. "Just as pretty as ever."
She glanced over to the playpen she'd set up in the back room of her antique shop, where her toddler, Nate, napped through the chaos. He had the look of his father, she thought, with a burst of love. Which meant, of course, that he had the look of his uncle Shane.