Devin MacKade considered the age of twenty to be an awkward time in the life of a man. It was old enough for him to be considered responsible for actions and deeds, old enough for him to make a living or love a woman. Yet in the eyes of the law it was not quite old enough for him to be considered fully adult.
He was glad it would only take twelve months to get through it.
Being the third of four brothers, he'd already watched Jared and Rafe move beyond him into adulthood, and Shane was not far behind him. It wasn't that he was in a hurry, really. He was enjoying his time and his life, but Devin had begun, in his methodical way, to make plans for what would be.
The little town of Antietam, Maryland, would have been surprised to know that he had decided to uphold the law, rather than break it. Or bend it.
His mother had pushed him into college, true, but once he arrived, Devin had decided to enjoy it. The courses in administration of justice, criminology, sociology, fascinated him. How rules were made, why, how they were upheld. It had seemed almost from the beginning that those books, those words, those ideals, had just been waiting for him to discover them.
So, in his thoughtful way, he had decided to become a cop.
It wasn't something he wanted to share with his family just yet. His brothers would rag him, undoubtedly. Even Jared, who was already on his way to becoming a lawyer, would show no mercy. It wasn't something he minded. Devin knew he could hold his own with all three of his brothers, be it with words or fists. But for now, it was a personal agenda, and he wasn't talking.
He was aware that not everything you wanted, deep inside, worked out. There was proof of that right here in Ed's Cafe where he and his brothers were grabbing a quick meal before heading to Duff's Tavern to shoot pool. Yes, the proof was right here, serving him the blue plate special, flushing shyly at Rafe's easy teasing.
Five foot two, barely a hundred pounds, as delicate and fragile as a rosebud. Angel hair like a curling halo around a face that was all quiet gray eyes. A nose that tipped up just the tiniest bit at the end. The prettiest mouth in the county, with its deep dip in the top lip. Like a doll's. Small hands that he knew could juggle plates and coffeepots and glasses with a studied competence.
Hands that carried a ring with a chip of a diamond barely big enough to glint on the third finger.
Her name was Cassandra Connor, and it seemed he'd loved her forever. Surely he'd known her forever, watched her grow up with a flicker of interest that had become a full-blown crush he'd considered too embarrassing to act on.
And that was the problem. By the time he decided to act, he'd been too late. Joe Dolin had already claimed her. They would be married in June, just two weeks after she graduated from high school.
And there was nothing he could do about it.
He made sure not to watch her walk away from their booth. His brothers had sharp eyes and he would never be able to tolerate being teased about something as intimate and humiliating as unrequited love.
So he looked out the window at Main Street. That, he thought, was something he could do something about. One day he would give something back to the town that had been such an intricate and important part of his life. One day he would serve and protect here. It was his destiny. He could feel it.
The way he sometimes felt, in dreams, that he had done so before—or tried, when the town was ravaged by war, split and frayed by divided loyalties. In dreams, he could see it the way it had been, the way it was in those old Civil War photos. Stone houses and churches, horses and carriages. Sometimes he could almost hear the men gathering on corners or in the barbershop, discussing the War between the States.
Of course, he thought with cool rationality, the town, or parts of it, were haunted. The old Barlow place on the hill just outside of town, the woods, his own home, the fields he helped plow and plant every spring. There were echoes there of lives and deaths, of hopes and fears.
A man had only to listen to hear.
"Almost as good as Mom's." Shane shoveled mashed potatoes into his mouth, and the MacKade dimple flashed as he grinned. "Almost. What do you figure women do on their night out?"
"Gossip." His plate clean, Rafe leaned back and lit a cigarette. "What else?"
"Mom's entitled," Jared commented.
"Didn't say she wasn't. Old lady Metz is probably giving her an earful about us right now, though." Rafe grinned wickedly at that thought, and at the knowledge that his mother could handle even the formidable Mrs. Metz with one arm tied behind her back.
Devin looked away from his view of Main Street, back at his brother. "We do anything lately?"
They all thought about it. It wasn't that their memories were poor, it was just that they found trouble so easily, they often overlooked the results.
Anyone breezing by the big window of Ed's Cafe would have seen the four MacKades, dark-haired, green-eyed devils, handsome enough to raise any female's blood pressure, be she ten or eighty. Reckless enough to have most men bracing or backing away.
They argued awhile over who had done what most recently—fights picked and fought, laws broken, or at least dented. It was agreed, after the argument grew heated, that Rafe had the prize, with his race against Joe Dolin's Chevy on route 34.
They hadn't been caught, but word had gotten around. Especially as Rafe had won and Joe had slunk off muttering about revenge.
"The guy's a jerk." Rafe blew out smoke. No one disagreed, but Rafe's gaze shifted to where Cassie was busy serving a booth behind them. "What does a sweet little thing like Cassie see in him?"
"If you ask me, she wants out of the house." Jared pushed his plate aside. "Her mother would be enough to send anyone looking for the first escape hatch. The woman's a fanatic."
"Maybe she loves him," Devin said quietly.
Rafe's opinion of that was one crude word. "Kid's barely seventeen," he pointed out. "She'll fall in love a dozen times."
"Not everyone has a flexible heart."
"A flexible heart." Shane whooped with laughter at the phrase. "It ain't Rafe's heart that flexible, Dev, it's his—"
"Shut up, creep," Rafe said mildly as his elbow jammed hard into Shane's ribs. "You up for a beer, Jare?"
"I'm up for it."
Rafe leered nastily. "Too bad you two have to stick with soda pop. I bet Duff has a whole case of the fizzy stuff for you kids."
That, of course, insulted Shane. As it was meant to. Hot words came first, then the jostling. From her station at the counter, Edwina Crump shouted at them to take it outside.
They did, with Devin lagging behind to pay the tab.
On the other side of the window, his brothers pushed and shoved each other, more out of habit than from any real temper. Ignoring them, he smiled over at Cassie.
"Just blowing off steam," he told her, adding a tip that wouldn't embarrass her.
"The sheriff sometimes comes by about this time of night." Her voice was barely a whisper of warning. And so sweet to Devin's ears, he almost sighed.
"I'll go break it up."
He slid out of the booth. He thought his mother probably knew his feelings. It was impossible to hide anything from her. God knew, they had all tried and failed. He thought he knew what she would say to him.
That he was young yet, and there would be other girls, other women, other loves. She would mean the best by it.
Devin knew that though he wasn't yet be fully an adult, he had a man's heart. And he'd already given it.
He kept that heart out of his eyes, though, because he would hate Cassie's pity. Casually he walked out of the diner to break up his brothers. He caught Shane in a headlock, elbowed Rafe in the gut, cocked a brow at Jared and suggested amiably that they go play some pool.
The town of Antietam was a pretty sight in late spring. Sheriff Devin MacKade liked to walk the uneven sidewalks and smell the freshly mowed grass, the flowers, hear the yip of dogs and shouts of children.
He liked to take in the order of it, the continuity, and the little changes. Outside the bank, a bed of pink begonias was spreading. The three cars jockeying in line at the drive-in window constituted a traffic jam.
Down a little ways, in front of the post office, there were men passing the time, taking the air. Through the barbershop window, he could see a toddler experiencing his first haircut, while his mother bit her nails and blinked damp eyes.
The banners were flying for the annual Memorial Day parade and picnic. He could see several people busily scrubbing or painting their porches in preparation for the event.
It was an event he enjoyed, even with its logistical and traffic headaches. He liked the continuity of it, the predictability. The way people would plant themselves with their folding chairs and coolers along the curb, hours before parade time, to ensure that they would have a good view of the marching bands and twirling batons.
Most of all, he liked the way the townspeople threw themselves into that weekend, how much they cared, how strong their pride.
His father had told him of the ancient man who, when he himself was a little boy, had walked creakily down Main Street wearing Confederate gray at an earlier Memorial Day. One of the last living testaments to the Civil War.
Dead now, as they all were, Devin mused as he glanced over at the memorial in the town's square. Dead, but not and never forgotten. At least not in little towns such as these, which had once known the sound of mortar and rifle fire and the terrible cries of the wounded.
Turning away, he looked down the street and sighed. There was Mrs. Metz's Buick, parked, as usual, in the red zone. He could give her a ticket, Devin mused, and she would pay it. But when she lumbered into his office to hand over the fine, she would also treat him to a lecture. He blew out a breath, studied the door of the library. No doubt that was where she was, gossiping over the counter with Sarah Jane Poffenberger.
Devin drew together his courage and fortitude and climbed the old stone steps.
She was exactly where he'd expected her to be, leaning over the counter, a mountain of paperback novels at her dimpled elbow, deep into the latest dirt with the librarian. Devin wondered why any woman so... generously sized insisted on wearing wildly patterned dresses.
"Mrs. Metz." He kept his voice low. He'd been tossed out of the library many times in his youth by Miss Sarah Jane.
"Well, hello there, Devin." Beaming a smile, Mrs. Metz turned to him. Her elbow nearly toppled the mountain of books, but Miss Sarah Jane, for all her resemblance to an understuffed scarecrow, moved fast. "And how are you on this beautiful afternoon?"
"I'm just fine. Hello, Miss Sarah Jane."
"Devin." Iron gray hair pulled back from paper-thin white skin, starched collar buttoned firmly to her chin, Sarah Jane nodded regally. "Did you come in to return that copy of The Red Badge of Courage?"
"No, ma'am." He very nearly flushed. He'd lost the damn book twenty years before, he'd paid for it, he'd even swept the library for a month as penance for his carelessness. Now, though he was a man—one who wore a badge and was considered responsible by most—he was shriveled down to a boy by Sarah Jane Poffenberger's steely eyes.
"A book is a treasure," she said, as she always did.
"Yes, ma'am. Ah, Mrs. Metz..." More to save himself now than to uphold parking laws, he shifted his gaze. "You're parked illegally. Again."
"I am?" All innocence, she fluttered at him. "Why, I don't know how that happened, Devin. I would have sworn I pulled into the right place. I just came in to check out a few books. I'd have walked, but I had to run into the city, and stopped by on my way home. Reading's one of God's gifts, isn't it, Sarah Jane?"
"It is indeed." Though her mouth remained solemn, the dark eyes in Sarah Jane's wrinkled face were laughing. Devin had to concentrate on not shuffling his feet.
"You're in the red zone, Mrs. Metz."
"Oh, dear. You didn't give me a ticket, did you?"
"Not yet," Devin muttered.
"Because Mr. Metz gets all huffy when I get a ticket. And I've only been here for a minute or two, isn't that right, Sarah Jane."
"Just a minute or two," Sarah Jane confirmed, but she winked at Devin.
"If you'd move your car—"
"I'll do that. I surely will. Just as soon as I check out these books. I don't know what I'd do if I didn't have my books, what with the way Mr. Metz watches the TV. You check these out for me, Sarah Jane, while Devin tells us how his family's doing."