The woods echoed with war whoops and running feet. Troops were fully engaged in the battle, peppering the fields beyond the trees with sporadic shelling. The day rang with the crash of weapons and the cries of the wounded.
Already dozens of lives had been lost, and the survivors were out for blood.
Leaves, still lush and green from the dying summer, formed a canopy overhead, allowing only thin, dusty beams of sunlight to trickle through. The air was thick and humid and carried the rich scent of earth and animal in its blistering heat.
There was no place Jared MacKade was happier than in the haunted woods.
He was a Union officer, a captain. He got to be captain because, at twelve, he was the oldest, and it was his right. His troops consisted of his brother Devin, who, being ten, had to be content with the rank of corporal.
Their mission was clear. Annihilate the Rebels.
Because war was a serious business, Jared had plotted out his strategy. He'd chosen Devin for his troops because Devin could follow orders. Devin was also a good thinker.
And Devin was a vicious take-no-prisoners hand-to-hand fighter.
Rafe and Shane, the other MacKade brothers, were ferocious fighters too, but they were, Jared knew, impulsive. Even now, they were racing through the woods, whooping and hollering, while Jared waited patiently in ambush.
"They're going to separate, you watch," Jared muttered as he and Devin hunkered down in the brush. "Rafe figures on drawing us out and clobbering us." Jared spit, because he was twelve and spitting was cool. "He doesn't have a military mind."
"Shane doesn't have a mind at all," Devin put in, with the expected disdain of brother for brother.
They grinned over that, two young boys with disheveled black hair and handsome faces that were grimy with dirt and sweat. Jared's eyes, a cool grassy green, scanned the woods. He knew every rock, every stump, every beaten path. Often he came here alone, to wander or just to sit. And to listen. To the wind in the trees, the rustle of squirrels and rabbits. To the murmur of ghosts.
He knew others had fought here, died here. And it fascinated him. He'd grown up on the Civil War battlefield of Antietam, Maryland, and he knew, as any young boy would, the maneuvers and mistakes, the triumphs and tragedies of that fateful day in September 1862.
A battle that had earned its place in history as the bloodiest day of the Civil War was bound to tug at the imagination of a young boy. He had combed every foot of the battlefield with his brothers, played dead in Bloody Lane, raced through his own cornfields, where black powder had scorched the drying stalks so long ago.
He had brooded many a night over the concept of brother against brother—for real—and wondered what part he might have played if he had been born in time for those terrible and heroic days.
Yet what fascinated him most was that men had given their lives for an idea. Often, when he sat quietly with the woods around him, he dreamed over the fighting for something as precious as an idea, and dying proudly.
His mother often told him that a man needed goals, and strong beliefs and pride in the seeking of them. Then she would laugh that deep laugh of hers, tousle his hair and tell him that having pride would never be his problem. He already had too much of it.
He wanted to be the best, the faster, the strongest, the smartest. It wasn't an easy target, not with three equally determined brothers. So he pushed himself. Studied longer, fought more fiercely, worked harder.
Losing just wasn't an option for Jared MacKade.
"They're coming," Jared whispered.
Devin nodded. He'd been listening to the crackle of twigs, the rustle of brush. Biding his time. "Rafe's that way. Shane circled behind."
Jared didn't question Devin's assessment. His brother had instincts like a cat. "I'll take Rafe. You stay here until we're engaged. Shane'll come running. Then you can take him out."
Anticipation brightened Jared's eyes. The two brothers' hands clutched in a brief salute. "Victory or death."
Jared caught his first sight of the faded blue shirt, a blur of movement as the enemy dashed from tree to tree. With the patience of a snake, he waited, waited. Then, with a blood curdling cry, leaped.
He brought Rafe down in a flying tackle that had them both skittering over the rough dirt into the prickle of wild blackberries.
It was a good surprise attack, but Jared wasn't foolish enough to think that would be the end of it. Rafe was a vicious opponent—as any kid at Antietam Elementary could attest. He fought with a kind of fiendish enjoyment that Jared understood perfectly.
There really was nothing better than pounding someone on a hot summer day when the threat of school was creeping closer and all the morning chores were behind you.
Thorns tore at clothes and scratched flesh. The two boys wrestled back to the path, fists and elbows ramming, sneakers digging in at the heels for purchase. Nearby, a second battle was under way, with curses and grunts and the satisfying crunch of bodies over aged dried leaves.
The MacKade brothers were in heaven.
"You're dead, Rebel scum!" Jared shouted when he managed to grab Rafe in a slippery headlock.
"I'm taking you to hell with me, bluebelly!" Rafe shouted right back.
In the end, they were simply too well matched, and they rolled away from each other, filthy, breathless, and laughing.
Wiping the blood from a split lip, Jared turned his head to watch his troops engage the enemy. It looked to him as though Devin were going to have a black eye, and Shane had a rip in his jeans that was going to get them all in trouble.
He let out a long, contented sigh and watched the sunlight play through the leaves.
"Going to break it up?" Rafe asked, without much interest.
"Nah." Casually, Jared wiped blood from his chin. "They're almost finished."
"I'm going to go into town." Energy still high, Rafe bounded up and brushed off his pants. "Gonna get me a soda down at Ed's."
Devin stopped wrestling Shane and looked over. "Got any money?"
With a wolfish grin, Rafe jingled the change in his pocket. "Maybe." Challenge issued, he tossed the hair out of his eyes, then took off at a dead run.
The delightful prospect of shaking quarters from Rafe's pockets was all the impetus Devin and Shane needed. Suddenly united, they scrambled off each other and chased after him.
"Come on, Jare," Shane called over his shoulder. "We're going to Ed's."
"Go on. I'll catch up."
But he lay there on his back, staring at the sunlight flickering through the awning of leaves. As his brothers' pounding footsteps faded away, he thought he could hear the sounds of the old battle. The boom and crash of mortars, the screams of the dead and dying.
Then, closer, the ragged breathing of the lost and the frightened.
He closed his eyes, too familiar with the ghosts of these woods to be unnerved by their company. He wished he'd known them, could have asked them what it was like to put your life, your soul, at risk. To love a thing, an ideal, a way of life, so much you would give everything you were to defend it.
He thought he would for his family, for his parents, his brothers. But that was different. That was... family.
One day, he promised himself, he would make his mark. People would look at him and know that there was Jared MacKade, a man who stood for something. A man who did what had to be done, and never turned his back on a fight.
Jared wanted a cold beer. He could already taste it, that first long sip that would start to wash away the dregs of a lousy day in court, an idiot judge and a client who was driving him slowly insane.
He didn't mind that she was guilty as sin, had certainly been an accessory before and after the fact in the spate of petty burglaries in the west end of Hagers-town. He could swallow defending the guilty. That was his job. But he was getting damn sick and tired of having his client hit on him.
The woman had a very skewed view of lawyer-client relations. He could only hope he'd made it clear that if she grabbed his butt again, she was out on hers and on her own.
Under different circumstances, he might have found it only mildly insulting, even fairly amusing. But he had too much on his mind, and on his calendar, to play games.
With an irritated jerk of the wrist, he jammed a classical CD into his car stereo system and let Mozart join him on the winding route toward home.
Just one stop, he told himself. One quick stop, and then a cold beer.
And he wouldn't even have had that one stop, if this Savannah Morningstar had bothered to return his calls.
He rolled his shoulders to ease the tension and punched the gas pedal on a curve to please himself with a bit of illegal speed. He drove along the familiar country road quickly, barely noticing the first tender buds of spring on the trees or the faint haze of wild dogwood ready to bloom.
He braked for a darting rabbit, passed a pickup heading toward Antietam. He hoped Shane had supper started, then remembered with an oath that it was his turn to cook.
The scowl suited his face, with its sculptured lines, the slight imperfection of a nose that had been broken twice, the hard edge of thin. Behind shaded glasses, under arching black brows, his eyes were cool and sharply green. Though his lips were set in a line of irritation, that didn't detract from the appeal of them.
Women often looked at that mouth, and wondered ... When it smiled, and the dimple beside it winked, they sighed and asked themselves how that wife of his had ever let him get away.
He made a commanding presence in a courtroom. The broad shoulders, narrow hips and tough, rangy build always looked polished in a tailored suit, but the elegant cover never quite masked the power beneath.
His black hair had just enough wave to curl appeal-ingly at the collar of one of his starched white shirts.
In the courtroom he wasn't Jared MacKade, one of the MacKade brothers who had run roughshod over the south of the county from the day they were born. He was Jared MacKade, counselor-at-law.
He glanced up at the house on the hill just outside of town. It was the old Barlow place that his brother Rafe had come back to town to buy. He saw Rafe's car at the top of the steep lane, and hesitated.
He was tempted to pull in, to forget about this last little detail of the day and share that beer he wanted with Rafe. But he knew that if Rafe wasn't working, hammering or sawing, or painting some part of the house that would be a bed and breakfast by fall, he would be waiting for his new wife to come home.
It still amazed Jared that the baddest of the bad MacKades was a married man.
So he drove past, took the left fork in the road that would wind him around toward the MacKade farm and the small plot of land that bordered it.
According to his information, Savannah Morn-ingstar had bought the little house on the edge of the woods only two months before. She lived there with her son and, as the gossip mill was mostly dry where she was concerned, obviously kept to herself.
Jared figured the woman was either stupid or rude. In his experience, when people received a message from a lawyer, they answered it. Though the voice on her answering machine had been low, throaty, and stunningly sexy, he wasn't looking forward to meeting that voice face-to-face. This mission was a favor for a colleague—and a nuisance.
He caught a glimpse of the little house through the trees. More of a cabin, really, he mused, though a second floor had been added several years ago. He turned onto the narrow lane by the Morningstar mailbox, cutting his speed dramatically to negotiate the dips and holes, and studied the house as he approached.
It was log, built originally, as he recalled, as some city doctor's vacation spot. That hadn't lasted long. People from the city often thought they wanted rustic until they had it.
The quiet setting, the trees, the peaceful bubbling of a creek topped off from yesterday's rain, enhanced the ambience of the house, with its simple lines, untreated wood and uncluttered front porch.
The steep bank in front of it was rocky and rough, and in the summer, he knew, tended to be covered with high, tangled weeds. Someone had been at work here, he mused, and almost came to a stop. The earth had been dug and turned, worked to a deep brown. There were still rocks, but they were being used as a natural decorative landscaping. Someone had planted clumps of flowers among them, behind them.