Year one, p.33
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       Year One, p.33

         Part #1 of Chronicles of The One series by Nora Roberts
 

  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 refrigerat
or, took out bacon wrapped in cloth. “Max Fallon was your husband.”

  “Yes.”

  “Did you lose him in the Doom?”

  “No. He got us out of New York. He got us away and kept us safe. They killed him. His brother killed him.”

  “His brother?”

  “His brother turned to the dark, his brother and the twisted witch who turned him. His brother, and the men who hate us because we’re not like them. They wanted to kill me. Her.”

  She wrapped her arms around the mound of her belly. “Max saved us. He died for us. They killed him. Eric, his brother, and the Purity Warriors. They killed Max, killed people we were building a life with. Tried to kill more. I had to leave because they wanted me and would kill whoever stood in their way. They hunted me. They may still be hunting me.

  “They’ll try to kill you if you help me.”

  He nodded, said, “Huh.” Then turned back to the stove. “You want the eggs scrambled or fried?”

  She’d worked herself up again, was nearly breathless with it. Her hands clutched at her sides. “Who are you?”

  “Swift. Simon Swift. In another life I was Captain Swift, U.S. Army. In this one, I’m a farmer. Who are you?”

  Slowly, she took off her pack, set it aside. “Lana Bingham. I was a chef. I am a witch.”

  “I got the second back in the coop when you gave me a little punch.”

  “I didn’t mean—”

  “Just a little. Bet you’ve got more. A chef? Why am I cooking?”

  She let out a breath, took in another, then crouched by her pack. She took out herbs, a tomato, a pepper, a couple of spring onions. “Would you like an omelette?”

  “Sure.”

  “It’s a nice stove. It’s a nice kitchen.”

  Her voice shook again. He could see as well as hear her fight to steady it. “How do you get the gas?”

  “Gas well.”

  “A what?”

  “Natural gas well.” He gestured vaguely toward the window. “It’s piped into the house. We’ve got gaslight, gas stove, gas every damn thing. Some wind power, too.”

  She washed her hands in the farm sink, then the herbs and vegetables. “I need a few things. More eggs, a small bowl, a whisk.”

  “I’ve got it.”

  After heating the skillet, she put on bacon. She took a chef’s knife—serviceable—from a block, pulled over a cutting board, and began chopping while it sizzled.

  Cooking. Normal. How could anything be normal?

  And yet, chopping herbs, she felt more herself than she had in weeks.

  “You were in the army.”

  “Yeah, for about ten years. I’d had enough, but I got out primarily because my mother got sick. Cancer. They needed help around here while she was fighting it. She fought it, beat it. And then … Well, fucking Doom.”

  “I’m sorry.”

  They worked together in silence for a few minutes. He got her the can he used to store bacon grease, the plastic tub he used for kitchen compost. And watched, mildly in awe, as she cooked.

  “How long have you been on the road?” he asked her.

  “I don’t know. I lost track. It was the Fourth of July when … I left.”

  “About six weeks. Where’d you start?”

  “We were in a place we called New Hope, in Virginia. I think south of Fredericksburg. Where am I now?”

  “You came a ways. This is Maryland, western.”

  “What are the mountains?”

  “The Blue Ridge.”

  “Are there other people?”

  “Some. There’s a town—more a settlement now. We do some trading. I was taking produce in. There’s a mill. They’re making flour. Got some sheep, a loom. A blacksmith, a butcher. You work with what you’ve got.”

  She nodded, folded the egg over the vegetables. “Is there a doctor?”

  “Not yet. A vet assistant’s as close as we’ve got.”

  She lifted the omelette onto one of the plates he’d set out, cut it in half, slid half onto the second plate.

  “Are there any Uncannys?”

  “A few sprinkled in. Nobody has a problem with it. Do you want that milk?”

  “I hate milk, but yes, it’s probably good for the baby.”

  He got out the jug, poured her a short glass.

  They sat at the kitchen counter, a classy and mottled gray granite. The first bite had her closing her eyes as her system absorbed.

  He took a heftier bite. “Okay, you were serious about the chef deal. I haven’t had anything close to this good in a hell of a while.”

  Calculating, she ate slowly. “If I could stay for a couple of days, I could pay you back with cooking. And we had a garden in New Hope, so I learned how to garden. I could help there. A couple of days should be safe.”

  For both of us.

  “Then what?”

  “I don’t know. I haven’t thought about anything but moving, getting away, keeping the baby safe.”

  “When’s she due? You said she, right?”

  “Yes. The last week of September.”

  “You figure to deliver her on your own, on the road?”

  She knew how it sounded, had worried about it constantly, but hadn’t seen a choice.

  “I hope to find a place and … do what I need to. I won’t let anything happen to her. Whatever it takes, nothing’s going to hurt her.”

  “There are women in the settlement—houses scattered around.”

  “I can’t … I can’t risk so many people. The Purity Warriors, you don’t know.”

  A pretty park, a happy celebration. Bodies scattered, smoke rising. Max’s blood soaking the brown earth.

  “Yeah, I do. Some of them came through the settlement a few weeks ago. They didn’t get a warm reception.”

  Fear jumped back into her voice. “They were here.”

  “From what I hear there are some of them traveling around, looking for others who think like they do. Like I said, they didn’t find that here.”

  He ate, considered. Between the Purity Warriors, Raiders, and general assholes, the road wasn’t close to safe for a woman alone. Add in that that woman was due to give birth in about eight weeks.

  And fierce or not, she apparently had a target on her back.

  He scooped up the last of his eggs, turned to her. “You should think about staying here. You can take over the kitchen, that’s for damn sure. You should think about staying at least until after you have the kid. Four bedrooms upstairs. I’m only using one.”

  “They could find me. Eric—”

  “That’s the brother?”

  “He’s mad with power. There’s something about my baby, something special. Important. I don’t know. But Eric and Allegra want to kill her.”

  “Well, if she’s special and important it’s just more reason to get her here safe. I don’t like people who start trouble, start wars, look to generally fuck things up. However they’re built, I don’t like it.”

  “You don’t even know me.”

  After nudging his empty plate aside, he shrugged. “What the hell difference does that make?”

  Nothing, nothing he could have said would have reassured her more.

  “I’m so grateful. And I’m so tired. I’m just so tired. Can we take it a day at a time?”

  “Sure. You can pick a bedroom. It’ll be clear which one’s mine.” He rose, started to clear.

  “I’ll do the dishes. Part of the deal.”

  “Next time they’re all yours. No offense, but you look pretty done. So go up, pick a bed, tune out. I need to get the produce into town. You ought to take my parents’ room. It’s one of those master deals. Got its own bathroom.”

  “Simon. Thank you.”

  He carted dishes to the sink. “Can you make meatloaf?”

  “If you have the meat along with what I’ve already seen, I can make amazing meatloaf.”

  “You put that together for dinner, we’re square.”

  CHAPTER TWENTY-FOU
R

  Lana found the master suite with its four-poster bed at the top of the stairs. A duvet of deep forest green covered it along with four thick shams in the same color edged in a quiet and dull gold that matched the walls.

  His parents had died here, she remembered. He’d put their room to rights again, cleaned what must have been heartbreaking, cleared the room of all signs of illness.

  Even through a gnawing fatigue, she recognized that his caring to restore the room to how his mother certainly would have wanted it said something about the son.

  A man who’d given her food and shelter. It made her think of Lloyd, what he’d said at that first full community meeting.

  Still, she locked the door behind her, adding a charm to block entrance. She didn’t consider it overkill to carry a chair over and prop it under the doorknob.

  She wanted to sleep, just wanted to go away for a while. On clean sheets, with pillows, under a duvet of forest green. Thinking of his mother, she considered the dirt and grime she carried from the trail, and stepped into the adjoining bath.

  She wouldn’t disrespect the woman whose home offered sanctuary by besmirching her bed.

  Here, too, he’d put things to rights. A stack of fluffy towels on clean, if dusty, counters. Setting aside her pack, she opened the glass door of the shower.

  Shower gel, shampoo, conditioner, even a woman’s shower razor. As her own supplies had dwindled, Lana ignored the niceties as she stripped down. She’d use
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