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Authors: Nora Roberts

Year One (34 page)

BOOK: Year One
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“She's not the Savior,” Lana said fiercely. “She's my daughter.”

“She's both. I could hear them.” Now Starr pressed a hand to her head. “Hear all the hate. It hurts my head, so I ran and hid, like I did with my mother. I didn't fight, but I will next time. I will. They'll help, they'll protect you. Her.”

“I have to protect her. I can't stay. They'll try again. They'll come back and try again.”

Starr nodded. “Then you have to run. You have to hide. I can still hear them in my head. I'll put Max's name on the tree for you.”

Blinded by tears, Lana ran. She ran into all the dreams that had haunted her nights.

 

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

Lana kept off the main roads for days. She took shelter where she could, scavenging remote houses for clothes and supplies. Along with clothes she found a chain and threaded it through Max's ring to wear around her neck.

She ate what she could find, and worried about the baby.

Whenever she saw crows circling overhead or heard their call, she changed direction.

Once, exhausted, she dropped down at the base of a dead tree, too steeped in fatigue and grief to go on. Staring at the sky through its skeletal branches, she drifted away, she dreamed. Dreamed of a slim young woman with gray eyes and black hair telling her to get up, to move, to keep going.

So Lana got up, moved, kept going.

One terrible day blurred into every terrible night.

With no sense of time or distance, she slept in an abandoned car
on the side of the road, and woke in the shimmer of dawn to the sound of engines.

Her first instinct was to call for help, but the stronger one ordered her to stay still and quiet. The stronger one had her skin shivering as those engines stopped.

Car doors opened, slammed. Men's voices floated through the windows she'd left open in hopes of a breeze.

“We ought to go back to that shit-hole town, level it. Somebody there knows where the bitch is.”

“The Rev says she ain't there, she ain't there.”

She heard footsteps coming closer, tightened her grip on the gun she slept with. Then the distinctive sound of a zipper, the sound of water striking asphalt.

“Waste of gas, you ask me, and if those two freaks want her so bad, they should've taken her out when they had the chance. Instead we lost six good men. We're supposed to be killing freaks not working with them.”

“Don't see nobody asking you. The Rev knows what he's doing. He's got a plan, and I expect we'll be taking those freaks out after we do the woman. Fucking witch. I got a score to settle with her now.”

“Aw, did she mess up your pretty face when she cut loose?”

“Fuck you, Steed.”

A quick laugh, the jerk of a zipper. “What I know is the freaks are hurting more than you, which is why we're driving all over hell and back looking for some knocked-up demon whore.”

“I find her first, I'm putting a knife straight through her and the brat inside her.”

“Witches have to hang or burn.”

“That'll come. We oughta go through these couple of cars here, see if there's anything worth taking.”

“Forget that. We got a gas mart about twenty miles east. Better pickings.”

Lana kept her grip tight on the gun as she felt the car rock.

“Piece of shit anyway.”

She held her breath as the footsteps moved on, as doors opened and slammed again. She lay still as an engine roared to life, tires squealed.

She counted the knocks of her heart one by one even after the car sped off, as silence fell again.

“I wouldn't have let them touch you,” she murmured as she crawled out of the backseat on trembling legs. “East. They're going east, so we'll go west.”

But not on foot. However long she'd walked and wandered, she hadn't put enough distance between her child and those who wanted to harm her.

She'd risk the road, for now she'd risk it.

She got behind the wheel, laid the gun on the seat beside her. It took a moment to gather herself, to pull up the power she'd set aside since the day it had ripped through her in a red, killing rage.

When she held her hand out, the engine didn't roar to life. It sputtered, knocked, caught. With the sun rising behind her, she drove.

The sun hung high when the car died. Leaving it where it stopped, she walked again with mountains rising around her.

Time blurred, walking, driving when she found another car, scavenging for food, for water. Though she asked herself how far would be far enough, she avoided any towns where people might have gathered.

How would she know if they held friend or enemy?

She closed away her old life, killed rabbit and squirrel, dressed them, roasted the meat over a fire made by power to feed herself and her baby.

She who'd once believed food could be, should be, art, ate to live, ate to feed what lived inside her.

Her world became trees, rocks, sky, endless roads, the pitiful thrill of finding a house that had fresh clothes, boots that nearly fit.

Comfort became feeling the baby move inside her. Joy became finding a peach tree and tasting the sweet, fresh fruit, having the juice run down a throat parched from the summer heat.

Safety became hearing no human voice but her own, seeing human shape only in her own shadow.

In those weeks since New Hope, she became a nomad, a wanderer, a hermit with no plan except movement, food, shelter.

Until.

She topped a rise thick with trees, then immediately crouched for cover.

A house sat on land that gently rolled, then flattened again. On the flat an expansive garden spread at summer peak. She dragged at the pack she'd scavenged, pulled out binoculars.

Tomatoes, red and ripe, peas, beans, peppers, carrots. Rows of lettuce, cabbage, hillocks of squashes, eggplant. The rising field of corn brought back the scent of blood, of death.

Of Max.

She curled up a moment, fighting off waves of sorrow and grief, then made herself lift the glasses again.

A couple of horses stood together, fenced off from a black-and-white cow, another fence line and black cows—beef cows along with a calf.

She scanned over a pen where five pigs lolled.

Chickens! The idea of eggs nearly brought tears to her eyes.

The house itself stood square and sturdy, simple white with a wide porch. A small, traditional barn stood cheerfully red.

She skimmed over a shed, a small, squat silo, a pair of windmills, a greenhouse, some ornamental trees and shrubs, what she thought
might be a beehive. Beyond it more fields. Wheat, she thought, wheat, and maybe hay.

Obviously not abandoned, she thought, and, as a truck sat outside, someone was probably inside.

Eggs, fresh vegetables, fruit trees.

She could wait.

Waiting, she dozed.

The barking woke her, sent her heart leaping into her throat.

A pair of dogs raced around the front of the house, bumping together, tumbling over a patch of grass.

She lifted the glasses again as a man came out. Tanned, strong-looking in faded jeans and a T-shirt. He wore a ball cap over a shaggy mop of brown hair and sunglasses that obscured his eyes.

He loaded a couple of bushel baskets full of produce into the truck, walked back into the house. He came out again with two more before whistling to the dogs.

They both jumped into the back of the truck. After loading the other baskets, he got into the cab, drove away.

She counted to sixty, then counted again before rising.

She could hear nothing but birds, chittering squirrels. Using a hand to support her pregnant belly, she picked her way down the rocky slope, eyes trained on the house.

If he didn't live alone, someone might be inside. Though she wanted to make a run for the garden, she approached the house cautiously, circling it to peer in windows.

Another porch ran along the back, and in the bold sun grew herbs. Pulling her knife she cut basil, rosemary, thyme, oregano, chives, dill, reveled in the scents as she pushed them into a plastic bag from her pack.

Someone could be inside, on the second floor. But she'd risk it.

She ran as quickly as her skewed center of gravity allowed and
plucked a tomato from the vine. Bit into it like an apple, swiped the juice from her chin.

She picked pea pods, a handful of string beans, a glossy eggplant, tugged up a carrot, a bulb of garlic. She picked lettuce, ate a leaf while she gathered what she could carry in her pack, her pockets.

Apples, a little on the green side, went into her pack along with a cluster of purple grapes from a vine. She ate some where she stood looking down at two stone markers under the shade of the apple tree.

Ethan Swift

Madeline Swift

They'd died in the plague, Lana noted, in February, two days apart.

And someone—the farmer?—had marked their graves and planted a sunbeam-yellow rosebush between them.

“Ethan and Madeline, I hope your souls found peace. Thank you for the food.”

Eyes closed, she stood in the dappled shade, wished she could curl up under the tree and sleep. Wake in a world without fear and constant movement. Where Max could put his arms around her, and their baby would be born in peace and safety.

That world, she thought, was done. Living in this one meant doing what needed to be done next.

She glanced toward the clucking, humming chickens, imagined sautéing chicken in one of the pats of butter she'd hoarded, flavored with fresh garlic and herbs.

And figured while the farmer probably wouldn't miss the vegetables, he'd surely miss a chicken. And since she might want to stay in the area for a day or two, she'd come back, relieve him of one of the hens before she moved on.

For now, she'd settle for a couple of eggs.

She walked through the pecking chickens into the open coop,
where she found a single brown egg under a single roosting bird who seemed as wary of her as Lana was of it.

“He gathered the eggs earlier,” she murmured. “I'm lucky you held back.”

“She usually does.”

Lana whirled, the egg clutched like a grenade in one hand, her other thrust out ready to throw power and defense.

He held his hands up, away from the gun on his hip.

“I'm not going to give you grief over an egg, or whatever else you helped yourself to. Especially since you're eating for two. I've got water if you need it. Milk, too. A little bacon to go with that egg.”

She had to swallow before speaking the first word to another human since she'd left New Hope. “Why?”

“Why what?”

“Why would you give me anything? I was stealing.”

“So was Jean Valjean.” He shrugged. “He was hungry, too. Look, you can take the damn egg and go, or you can come inside, have a hot meal. It's up to you.”

She lowered her hand, laid it on her belly. Thought of the baby.

He'd planted a rosebush for his dead. She would take it as a sign.

“I'd appreciate a hot meal. I can barter for it, and for the fruits and vegetables I took.”

He smiled then. “Whatcha got?”

“I can work for it.”

“Well.” He scratched the back of his neck. “We can talk about that.”

He stepped back, gave her plenty of room.

She could still run, Lana thought.

“Lady, if I wanted to hurt you, I'd have already done it.”

Now he turned, walked to where she saw the dogs—prancing and wagging—just outside the chicken wire.

“How did you know I was here?”

“I caught the flash of the sun on your field glasses. Or what I
figured was field glasses. The dogs and I decided we'd head out, stop up the road, and walk back to see what you were up to. They won't hurt you.”

As if to prove it, both dogs—big with thick, creamy fur and madly happy eyes—moved in to rub their bodies against her legs. “That's Harper, that's Lee.
Mockingbird
was my mother's favorite book.”

She saw him glance toward the apple tree, the graves. Feeling foolish holding on to it, she handed him the egg. “Your parents?”

“Yeah. Yeah,” he said again, starting toward the house. “Those boots have some miles on them.”

“They did when I found them.”

Accepting that, he continued out, walked onto the porch, opened the unlocked front door. When she hesitated, he let out an impatient breath.

“I was raised in this house by the two people I buried out there. They lived here for thirty-five years, made a good life for themselves and for me. I'm damn well not going to disrespect them by pulling any crap on a pregnant woman under the roof they gave me. In or out?”

“Sorry. I've forgotten people can be decent.”

She stepped inside, into a wide, comfortable living room with a big stone fireplace, easy furniture that mixed styles in a cheerful, welcoming way.

It boasted considerable dust and dog hair.

Stairs made a jog up. A laundry basket full of jumbled sheets and towels sat on the bottom step.

He continued down a hallway, paused when she did at a room lined with shelves jammed with books and trinkets.

“My mother was a fierce reader. I've been catching up on reading lately myself.”

Like a dream—was she dreaming—the room drew her in, the memories of a life she'd once had. And more, as she reached out, took a book from the shelf, the love.

“Max Fallon. She liked his stuff. I haven't tried him yet. Are you a fan?”

She looked up, eyes drenched, clutching the book, her love's picture, to her heart. “My … my husband.”

“He was a fan?”

“Max.” She began to rock, to weep. “Max. Max.”

“Shit.” He pulled off his cap, raked hands through his hair. “Maybe you should sit down. You can keep the book. Just … I'm going to, ah, bring the truck back. So…” He gestured, eased out of the room.

She did sit, on the edge of a big chair of navy blue leather, and wept herself empty.

He hiked up the road for the truck, came back, put a kettle of water on.

She'd looked wound tight in the henhouse, he thought. Ready—and he suspected able—to hold her own. Eyes—big and summer blue—exhausted but fierce. And the pregnant—really pregnant—had struck him then as adding a fertile warrior angle to her.

But there, in his mother's library, all that had fallen away, leaving her frail, vulnerable, broken.

He did better with the fierce and able.

When he heard her coming, he put a frying pan on the stove.

“I'm sorry,” she said.

“Losing somebody sucks. Pretty much everybody left knows how much.” He went to the refrigerator, took out bacon wrapped in cloth. “Max Fallon was your husband.”

BOOK: Year One
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