Chapter 2

                It was like a winter wonderland. 

                A soft snow had fallen while they’d been inside. It was beautiful, as snow could only be in those first moments when it was nothing but crystal white flakes, pure and beautiful. 

                Of course, here in the country, without the trample of dirt in the city, the snow would stay beautiful longer. 

                It seemed now to dance upon the pines and brush that surrounded the area, and Jackson looked to the firepit, thinking he had to hit the woodshed and get a blaze going. They had to have some hot chocolate or mulled wine and sit and enjoy the fire. 

                “Anything? What is it?” Angela asked. 

                He winced and gave her an abashed grin. “I think I need this break. When I was out here before, I thought I heard something moving in the brush. And when you asked me about the door, I don’t know. I remember I felt I needed to know what it was.”

                She nodded, looking at him with concern. 

                “I’m okay; really.”

                “Right,” she murmured. “Jackson, we’re out in the countryside now. Lots of beasts we don’t have in Washington. Okay, well, we all know Washington attracts a certain kind of two-legged beast sometimes. But out here, we have bears, deer, bobcats, skunks, bats, raccoons, squirrels—big, bushy squirrels—and all kinds of other creatures. But . . . you’re not the kind of guy to be afraid of nature. Respect it, yes; be afraid of it, no.”

                “Right. So, I’m just assuring myself whatever beast I think is out here, we’re covered.”

                He walked over to her, grinning, putting his arms around her and pulling her tightly to him. “I’m okay—been a city boy too long now. Anyway, I’m going to get a fire going. Want to mull some wine, get a couple of Irish coffees going, or just some good old cocoa? I know we have more to do. But not too much really, because between Adam and the owners, they left it decorated, clean—and with what Adam called ‘starter’ groceries.”

                 “I think we’ll start with hot chocolate,” Angela told him. “Uh, okay. You get a fire going; I’ll see if they left us hot chocolate.”

                She headed on into the house. 

                He went over to the woodshed and started collecting logs. 

                 The scent of the pines, the feel of the snow against his face, all was good. In another minute, he heard Christmas carols playing from somewhere within the house. Angela had apparently found the entertainment system.

                She loved Christmas and Christmas music and everything the holidays stood for, and she was so excited this year—for whatever his surprise present was going to be. 

                He forgot about noises in the brush as he set to the task of staring up the fire while wondering just what he could possibly do for her. 

                  Then—pure instinct because of his work—he paused and drew his Glock, moving to the side of one of

the big pine trees. 

                A car was coming along the secondary road that passed by the house. 

                He frowned; the car apparently belonged to a deputy from the local sheriff’s department.

                The car stopped in front of his house; the officer parked and stepped out, ready to head through the fresh snow to the front door. 

                Jackson holstered his Glock and went out to meet the deputy.

                “Hey, there!” the man called. “I’m Deputy Sheriff Marlin O’Boyle. “The Newton family told me you’d be out here. G-man, right?” the deputy asked in a friendly way.

                 Jackson nodded with a smile, offering the man his hand. “Special Supervising Agent Jackson Crow,” he

said, “But right now, just a man getting away on a holiday with his wife. Is there a problem out there? I was rather hoping for some peace and tranquility.”

                “We’re all about peace and tranquility,” O’Boyle assured him. “No, honestly, this is as good a place as you’re ever going to find. Close enough to Richmond and D.C. for people to be diverse and all respectful of one another, far enough away so that community matters and everyone looks out for one another. Our biggest crime in the last few years was some sabotage at the graveyard outside the church; someone decided to dress up the funerary angels and all with top hats and coats—local teens, they just thought it would be cool.”

                “Nice to hear the biggest crime comes by way of well-dressed statues,” Jackson said. 

                “Ah, we have the occasional bar fight, too. And little problems. Hey, I hear you’re buying the place.” 

 

                “We’re trying it out for Christmas; we’ll have to have a caretaker on it, but . . . I saw it years ago, and

I’m hoping my wife will fall in love with it the same way I did,” Jackson told him. 

                “Well, it would be great to have you.”

                “Thank you.”

                “You haven’t seen a kid around here, by the way, have you?” the deputy asked. 

                “A kid? No. I haven’t seen anyone but you. Are you missing a kid?”

                “Corby—Corby Latimer. He’s not really missing—he takes off a lot, and he’s usually back before Miss Victoria knows he’s gone. He’ll be back by dinner, I’m sure.” He shook his head. “Just, uh, watch out for him around here. He seems to gravitate to this place.”

                “Really? Who is Corby Latimer? And Miss Victoria—and should we be worried?”

                “Worried? No, no, nothing like that. Corby is one of our orphans. He lives at Our Lady of Peace Orphanage. He’s a bright kid, and my heart goes out to him. His folks were killed in a car accident when he was five. He’s ten now, smart as a whip—told me he’s going to be a lawyer, and then run for public office and make things better for people. Miss Victoria has tried to place him for years, but . . .”

                “But?”

                Deputy O’Boyle sighed. “Finding the right fit is apparently hard. I wanted to take the kid myself; he’s cute as a scamp. They say I’m too old. I thought old was better than nothing with the kid being an orphan, but my wife passed away a few years ago, so . . . well, anyway, if you see him, he’s not a bad kid. Just give me a call and I’ll come back and get him.” He handed him his business card. “If it’s after midnight, I’ll probably be out cold. Sleep like a baby, but there’s a whole department behind me. I don’t set my phone to wake me up at night.”

                “Sure,” Jackson said, grinning. “Before midnight, call you. After midnight, call the sheriff’s office.” 

                “Yep, and thanks. And good to meet you.”

                “You, too, Deputy.”

                O’Boyle waved and headed back to his car. Jackson watched him go. He thought about the movement in the bushes, about wondering if he had raccoons, or brush-rustling ghosts, or some other possibly unwanted visitor. 

                But . . . a kid. 

                He hadn’t seen the boy yet, but from what the deputy said, he wasn’t a bad kid. Just a kid who didn’t have a family. A kid who loved the house—was drawn to it—as he was.

                He headed back to his task; he wanted to get a fire going. Make hot chocolate and sit before the fire.

Lean back, hold his wife. Let the world go by. 

                Soon he had a fire going—impressive for a guy who lived in the city, he thought. He grinned; he was half Native American. Maybe that meant he was genetically equipped to start a fire. 

                Maybe not—maybe he’d just gotten lucky. 

                But the flames leapt up and touched the sky just as the sun was falling. 

                Beautiful. 

                Angela stepped out the front door, bearing a little tray with cups of cocoa and snacks of some kind. He

hurried over to her and took the tray.

                She smiled at him. 

                “Beautiful!” she said. 

                 He carried the tray to the benches. She joined him. She set her phone to play Christmas music and offered him his cup.

                He leaned back and took a sip of his cocoa. 

                 It was great. Leaning back, just leaning back, loving the beauty that could exist in the world, loving the

Christmas season, and most of all, loving his wife. 

                Then she frowned, inching forward a bit, not completely out of his arms, but looking out over the snow-covered terrain. 

                “What?” he asked her. 

                “Did you hear that?”

                “Hear what?”

                “A rustling sound.”

                He answered slowly. “No, but I thought I heard one before.”

                “But not now.”

                “No. Oh, and a deputy came by.”

                “Did we do something wrong?”

                “No, no, nice guy. Deputy O’Boyle. He said it tends to be peaceful around here. He breaks up a bar fight now and then, or gets on kids who decide they should rip up an old cemetery. Oh, and he was looking for a kid.”

 

                 She straightened. “A kid? That’s serious. Jackson, it’s cold out here. What happened? Is it a kidnapping? Should we be involved? I know you want peace and quiet and time together, but Jackson, if a child is involved—”

                “No, no, nothing like that. It’s a boy of about ten. An orphan. And apparently, he takes off now and then and likes this house. But . . . he takes off. I said we’d keep an eye out for him.” He grinned at her. “You didn’t see a kid hiding under any of the decorations, did you?”

                “No,” she said, and she sighed. “Poor kid.”

                 “Corby Latimer. That’s his name.”

                 “An orphan at Christmas. That’s so sad.” She hesitated. “If we do see him, maybe—”

                  “Maybe he can stay for Christmas?” Jackson said. 

                  “Yep. Of course. I know we have some folks coming up—or down here, I guess. Those who can and don’t have other plans. The McFadden’s are from around here. Brodie was telling me many Virginia houses are associated with Jefferson and other statesmen, but then again, many of American Founding Fathers were from this region.”

                  “Well, you know we’re buying it,” Angela said.

 

                  He shook his head. “Yes, I want the house. But I want what we both want—for you to talk me out of it—if it’s all just a foolish whim.”

                  “I love the house. And yes, there’s something. And no, we can’t live here full time, but it’s not that bad

a drive when we have days off. I’m sure we can find a caretaker or decide what to do when we’re working.”

                  “I’m not holding you to that yet,” Jackson said. 

                  She smiled at him. “Hm. Pretty sure you have my agreement. But what . . . what is mysteriously

moving around? Is it raccoons? Bushy squirrels, all set for winter. Something more aggressive? Seriously, this place was built—started at least—in the late 1700s. I know you assured me there’s nothing crazy or tragic that happened here, but . . . beyond a doubt, people have died through the centuries! Think we have a ghost?” 

 

                “I promise,” he assured her. “There are no stories about ghosts, no one was ever murdered—there weren’t even any Revolutionary or Civil War battles in proximity to the house. I mean, yes, Virginia had its share of battles, but never on or near this property; it was never a hospital. No one murdered anyone. It’s just. . . charming. Not far from civilization, but far enough away to be unique and . . .”

                “Hey, it’s super. I love it,” she said quickly.

                 “Angela, I swear, I wouldn’t have lied.” He hesitated and then said, “You know you’re the best thing

that ever happened to me. I love you more than words could ever express . . . I wouldn’t lie to you.”

 She smiled, leaned toward him, and kissed him. “No. You would never lie to me,” she said. She leaned back again. 

                He did the same, one arm around her, his other hand on his cup of cocoa. The flames were warm

against the chill of the day.

                “You could return those words you know,” he teased softly. 

                “You are the best thing that ever happened to me,” she said, words just above a whisper. “I love you. I love the way you love me. I love that you worry about me and can be protective, but you also have enough faith in me to know I’m competent.”

                He grinned. “And can out shoot most of the guys at the shooting range.”

                “And if you were someone else, that could intimidate you.”

                He shrugged. “I don’t intimidate easily.”

                “I know! And I love that about you,” she said. Then she laughed and asked, “How did I do?”

                “Damned well,” he told her. She leaned over and kissed him. It was a lingering kiss. Provocative.

 

                “Hey . . . we’re out in the wilderness, but . . .”

                “It was never my dream to make love in the freezing snow and get ice burns,” she told him, laughing.  “We’ll go back inside in a bit,” he said. 

                “Ah, promises, promises.”

                “Okay, we’ll go back in now.”

                 He stood, reaching for her hand. She accepted his hand and rose, and then turned back to collect the tray and their mugs. 

                She started for the house ahead of him. 

                He paused for a minute. The last of the sunlight was leaving the winter sky. Lights from the house bathed the yard, dazzling in color. The colors from the lights strung around the Christmas tree played out on the snow, beautiful in all their shades. The fire still burned in the pit. The snow on the ground was caught in brilliant crystal bits of light, fresh and clean. The air seemed sweet. 

                He loved where he stood . . .

 

                All his life, he had found places easy. The city, the north, the sun, beaches and sand. He enjoyed mountains, valleys, rivers, and the ocean.

                But there was something here.

                He looked to the door and smiled. Yes, the place was wonderful. 

                But it was wonderful too because they were together, he and Angela, just the two of them. And it would be wonderful to welcome friends, but tonight . . . 

                All this beauty, the peace of the season, and the two of them. 

                He took a moment just to be grateful. 

                Then he hurried into the house. 

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