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“Mom? Maybe . . .” She licks her lips. “Maybe he just went somewhere by himself.”

I fix her with a long look. “What are you saying?”

“I—” She looks away and seems so uncomfortable that I want to shake it out of her. I’m able to stop myself. Barely. “Sometimes he goes off by himself. He likes to be on his own. You know. Maybe—maybe that’s where he went.”

“Gwen,” Javi says. “This is serious business. You should call the police.”

He’s right, of course he’s right, but we’ve already drawn the police’s attention once. If my son, of all people, has been sneaking away, being on his own . . . that frightens me in a way I can’t even explain. His father liked to be on his own.

“Lanny,” I say, “I need you to think now. Is there some special place he goes to be alone? Anyplace at all? In Norton? Around here?”

She shakes her head, clearly frightened, clearly feeling guilty for having walked away from him this morning. For having failed in her duty as an older sister. “I don’t know, Mom. Around here, he likes to go up in the woods. That’s all I know.”

It’s not enough.

Javi says, quietly, “I’ll drive around and see what I can spot, if you want.”

“Yes,” I say. “Please. Please do that.” I swallow hard. “I’ll call the police.”

It’s the last thing I want to do. It’s a dangerous move, just as dangerous as having Lanny as a potential witness to a body disposal; we need shadows, not spotlights. But every second I waste could be a second that Connor, hurt or (God forbid) taken, stands in real danger.

Javi heads for the exit. I start to dial the phone.

We both pause as a knock sounds on the door.

Javi gives me a look over his shoulder, and when I nod, he swings it open. The alarm chimes but doesn’t go off. In the panic, I’d forgotten to reset it.

Standing on the doorstep is my son, with an inadequately wiped bloody nose, and a man I barely recognize.

“Connor!” I rush forward, past Javi, to grab my son in a hug. He makes a gurgling sound of protest, and some of his blood smears on my shirt, but I don’t care. I let go and go to one knee to look at his damage. “What happened?”

“Got in a fight, I guess,” says the man who’s brought my son back to me. He’s medium height, medium weight, sandy dark-blond hair cut short, but not as short as Javi’s. He has an open, interesting face and eyes that lie steady on the two of us. “Hi. Sam Cade. I live up the ridge?” I finally remember him from two different sightings: first, he’d stepped in at the gun range against Carl Getts, and second, I’d seen him walking down the road below our house, earbuds in, waving quietly to us.

He offers a hand. I don’t take it. I usher my son inside, where Lanny grabs his arm and drags him off to see that his nose is cleaned up as it drips more dark blood. Javi stands quietly, arms folded, a silent presence that feels very, very comforting right now.

“What are you doing with my son?” It comes out sharp, urgent. I see Cade’s Adam’s apple bob as he swallows, but he doesn’t take a step back.

“I found him sitting on the dock. I walked him home. That’s it.”

I glare at him, because I’m not sure that I can believe him. Still. He’s brought Connor home, and Connor doesn’t seem afraid of him. Not in the least. “I remember you, from the gun range. Right?” There’s still a sharp edge to my voice.

“Right,” he says. My tone has brought a slight flush to his cheeks, but he’s working not to sound defensive. “I’m renting the cabin up the hill there, the one up to the east. Just here for six months or so.”

“And how do you know my son?”

“I just told you, I don’t,” he says. “I found him sitting on the dock. He was bleeding, so I cleaned him up and brought him home. The end. I hope he’s okay.” He’s matter-of-fact, but his voice is getting firmer. He wants this to be over.

“How exactly did he get hurt?”

Cade sighs, looks up at the sky as if searching for patience. “Look, lady, I just was trying to be nice. For all I know, you hit the kid. Did you?”

I’m taken aback. “No! Of course not!” But he’s right, of course. If I’d found a kid sitting with a nosebleed, I’d wonder if he was running from abuse at home. I’ve come at this all wrong, and too aggressively. “I’m sorry. I should be thanking you, Mr. Cade, not giving you the third degree. Please. Come inside, I’ll make you some iced tea.” Iced tea, in the South, is the hallmark of hospitality. Shorthand code for making someone welcome, and the all-purpose apology. “Did Connor tell you anything about what happened? Anything at all?”

“He just said it was kids at school,” Cade says. He doesn’t follow me in. He stands on the outside, looking in. Maybe Javi’s silent presence is warning him off, I don’t know. I make the glass of tea and bring it to the door. He accepts, though he holds it as if he’s not quite sure what it’s for. Takes a tentative sip. I can instantly tell this is not a man who’s used to the Southern traditions, because the sweetness of it surprises him. He doesn’t quite make a face. “I’m sorry, I didn’t even ask your name . . .”

“I’m Gwen Proctor,” I say. “Connor’s my son, obviously, and you saw my daughter, Atlanta.”

Javi clears his throat. “Gwen, I should probably get going. I’m going to walk to the range; I’ve got a bike there I can ride home. You bring the Jeep back and pick up the van whenever you want.” He puts the keys on the coffee table and nods to Sam Cade. “Mr. Cade.”

“Mr. Esparza,” Cade says. I can’t leave a stranger standing here with my iced tea glass in his hand, obviously, and I’m not ready to run off and leave Lanny and Connor at home alone, either. So I let Javier go, though I hold him back for a moment to look him in the face.

“Javi. Thank you. Thank you so much.”

“Glad it worked out,” he replies, and then he’s gone past Cade, ambling down the drive, then kicking into an easy, loping run toward the gun range on the ridge. Marine, I remember. This is just a quick jaunt for him. No effort at all.

I return my attention to Cade, who is looking after Javi with an expression I can’t read. “Let’s sit out here?” I make it a question. He seems to think about it, then eases down into a chair on the porch. He perches on the edge of it, ready to bounce up and go at any moment. His sips of tea seem more polite than appreciative.

“Okay,” I say. “I’m sorry. Let’s start over. I’m sorry for accusing you of—well, of anything. That wasn’t fair. Thank you for helping Connor. I really appreciate it. I was freaking out.”

“Can’t imagine,” he says. “Well, they wouldn’t be kids if they didn’t make it a mission to freak out parents, right?”

“Right,” I say, but it’s a hollow sort of agreement. That might be true of normal kids. Mine are different. They’ve had to be. “I can’t believe he didn’t call me, that’s all. He should have called me.”

“I think—” Cade hesitates, like he’s thinking about a line he doesn’t want to step across. “I think he was just ashamed. He didn’t want his mom to know he lost a fight.”

I manage a hollow, shaky laugh. “Is that normal for boys?”

He shrugs, which I take to mean yes. “Javier’s a marine. You might want to ask him to show the kid a few moves.”

I thank him, but inwardly I’m thinking that Sam Cade can also handle himself; he’s compact, but not small, and he has a lithe tension in him that makes me think he’s had experience at being picked on, and hitting back. Where Javi is so visibly military that someone would have to be blind to miss it, Cade comes across as a normal guy, but with an edge.

On impulse, I say, “Army?”

He glances at me, startled. “Hell, no. Air force. Once upon a time,” he says. “Afghanistan. What gave it away?”

“You just leaned a little hard on the word marine,” I say.

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