"Place me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm; for love is as strong as death, its ardor unyielding at the grave. It burns like blazing fire, like a mighty flame. Many waters can’t quench love; rivers can’t wash it away. If one were to give all the wealth of his house for love, it would be utterly scorned." Song of Songs 8:6-7.
Ann Ballard jerked awake, shaken by a rumble she felt clear to her bones. A dazzling flash of light burned her retinas when she glanced through the living room window. She jumped and felt her heart stutter at the roll of thunder that rattled the panes of glass.
At least she’d been saved from sinking into the nightmare again. Three times in a row, whenever she’d closed her eyes she dreamed of being trapped in a swampy pool on the banks of the winding Black Earth Creek, helplessly watching her son Ritchie and his friend Trey struggle against a current. The fact that the creek was not that big in real life didn’t seem to matter in her dream.
Ann tossed aside the afghan that had been covering her feet and stood. Only little old ladies took naps in the afternoon. What was the matter with her? The magazine she’d been reading slipped to the floor, sending the photograph she used as a bookmark spilling out. She snatched up the picture before it bent. She knew what sleeping during the day would lead to: wandering her big empty house at night, wide awake and scaring herself silly at every creak. Probably another headache, too. One that would take two days of head-banging and nausea to get over.
Another crack of lightning sent her scurrying to the kitchen.
Dinner. Make dinner. Anything to distract herself from the storm.
Speaking of which … Ann stopped in front of the cupboard and rubbed her arms. Where had she stored the battery-operated lantern? Were the power cells charged and ready? She hadn’t swept the basement all summer and hoped she wouldn’t have to wade through curtains of cobwebs if the severe weather forced her to take shelter down there.
Long ago, her first thoughts in inclement weather went to protecting her family. Since she’d been alone, wondering who would come to her rescue if she became trapped like those Chinese earthquake victims was turning into a sour hobby—especially on weekends when her niece Maeve was gone.
One thing she knew for sure: her mother-in-law wouldn’t be the first in line to save her. Maybe Ritchie would care. After a few days anyway, when she was due for supper at his and Colleen’s house in Portage and didn’t show up with the casserole.
The doorbell rang. Ann walked down the hall, grinning at the thought of Donna, her mother-in-law who hadn’t liked being a grandmother, becoming a great-grandmother. She fingered the colored square of paper in her hand while she pushed aside the filmy panel covering the sidelights to check out her visitor.
Bonus. A beautiful, dark-haired man stood on her step. Almost any company would be a welcome interruption. Ann opened the door to a gust of chilled wet breeze. Goose bumps rose at the sudden drop of temperature the coming storm brought. A scurrying rustle of dried leaves swirled on the unswept deck of her pillared front porch. Rain slashed at his little car on the brick drive.
Did she recognize him? Something about the nose … the photograph! Ann resisted the urge to compare her picture with her guest.
The man’s lips tilted into a practiced smile as he held out a hand. "Mrs. Ballard? Ann? Do you remember me? Mark? I’m Mark Roth. Trey’s brother? We lived next door."
Yes, yes. That was it. He squatted at the edge of the frame in her photograph of Ritchie and Trey in fifth grade with a catch of bluegills. How could she have forgotten Mark’s eyes? Even when he’d been a high schooler, those eyes had been the talk of the neighborhood ladies. Arresting blue, the iridescent color of bluebird feathers, Patricia from across the way used to say. Patricia always had been a bit of a nature freak.
Ann put a hand to her mouth and held up the picture with the other. "Well, this is amazing. I was just cleaning Ritchie’s closet and thinking about the boys and their fishing and found this photograph." What on earth made her say such a ridiculous thing? "Oh, you don’t care about that. Please, come in."
Ann pulled the door wide and gestured. He’d filled out from the wiry athlete who took the basketball team to a regional championship. How many years had passed since she last saw him? Ritchie’s high school graduation. Mark had gone east to college and stayed except for an occasional visit. After Trey’s accident a few years later, the Roths moved away from Wisconsin.
When Mark’s broad back was turned, Ann smoothed her hair and tugged her blouse straight, took a deep breath and prayed her deodorant was still working.
Mark preceded her into the living room and, with sweet attentiveness in his enchanting smile and raised brows, waited until she’d taken a seat before he settled into a place of his own. Wow—no one had manners like that anymore. She perched on the edge of one of the oxblood club chairs on either side of the formal brocade sofa. "Well, how are you? It’s been a long time. Are you visiting friends?"
"I’m fine, thank you. I’ve moved back to town. Just a week ago, as a matter of fact."
"You moved from Virginia? So, you quit your job? I’m afraid your parents and I haven’t kept up much, just a note once in a while, since their … retirement."
Out of the corner of her eye, Ann saw the rumpled stack of newspapers she’d left on the end table and a cobweb hanging from the lampshade. Unexpected company rarely happened. Shame! How could she have let the place go? She looked back at her guest before he answered. "I’ve accepted a position with Jung and Royce."
A tingle of surprise made her raise her eyebrows at the name of the well-known private law firm here in Clayton. Unfortunately, she and Gene had required their services more than once to yank Ritchie out of some scrape. That, besides their general legal business. "Todd Royce was a golfing partner of my husband Gene’s. I hope it works out for you. They must think highly of your abilities."
Mark turned his head toward the cold gas fireplace. He shrugged and faced her again. "I’ve had a few successes. I hoped to catch up on news from the old neighborhood. I heard Ritchie and Colleen are expecting a baby. And I wondered how you were doing."
Ann nodded and smiled. "I’m well. It’s nice of you ask. And excited for Ritchie, even though that will make me a grandmother." Ann jumped back to her feet like some excitable rabbit. "Forgive me. Why don’t I find us a something to snack on?" She started down the hall only to hear him follow her.
Her kitchen, with its seldom used gleaming copper-bottomed pots and dark flecked granite countertops, felt small and cold. She flipped a switch to light the sink area and the swag over the breakfast table set in front of the patio doors. She and Gene used to do a lot of entertaining. In fact, Ann used to do a lot of things, but it seemed that no one wanted half a couple in the spotlight. Maybe they thought her circumstances were contagious.
Snacks. Right. Ann checked the chrome refrigerator, although she knew exactly what she had in there: a quart of skim milk three days past the due date, some yogurt, old tortillas, and leftovers from the church guild lunch meeting a week ago. Drat. The refrigerator fairy hadn’t visited. Cooking for one didn’t call for a stockpile of food. Maeve always ate on campus. Ann closed the door with a grimace. Stalling for time she asked, "How do you like being a lawyer?"
Mark settled back against the counter and folded his arms.
Ann let her eyelids half close as she studied him. She tried to keep her breathing even, to direct her heartbeats to remain steady. Mark was definitely no longer the sweet polite young man from next door, but an adult in his…let’s see…thirties? He was nine years older than Ritchie and Trey; which made him nearly thirty-five. Eleven years younger than she. And he didn’t resemble any of the staid lawyers she did business with at Ballard, Gorman and Wicht, Gene’s company, where she worked as a CPA two days a week.
Eleven years…not so many. Men married much younger women all the time. In fact, just last year…stop it. Where did that come from? Ann watched Mark’s lips move, answering her question, while she stood there like a smitten idiot. Thinking ridiculous dreamy scenarios. Watching him like a lusty lonely widow—which she was not. A widow, anyway.
But he was pleasant to look at. His smooth face showed more character lines than her son’s. His deep chest and flat stomach under the soft gray dress shirt and dark pleated slacks hinted at regular workouts, something the swimmer in her appreciated. She tuned back in to his words.
"I love helping people solve their problems, especially the folks who’ve been victimized. You know, the easy targets. I worked for a grassroots group last year who represented landowners over an abandoned mine land property dispute with a reclamation company."
Ann tore her gaze away and hunted for clean glasses in the cupboard to his right. "So, you sound like you’re settling in." He wasn’t likely to find too many victims to help at Todd Jung’s prestigious firm, but she kept her mouth shut. "Is it hard to change firms? Or does everyone do business pretty much the same way?"
Mark took the two tumblers she grabbed and turned on the tap. "The work I do, estate planning and business law, has to work across multiple states, but every firm has its own way of handling clients."
Ann looked for ice cubes, hoping they hadn’t evaporated since the Fourth of July, the last time she knew she had any. They took their glasses to the kitchen table. Lightning crackled outside her patio. She gasped at the immediate report of thunder.
Mark pulled her chair out for her. "Close one."
Ann focused on his calm expression and relaxed. "Seems like this has been going on for long enough already."
"I listened to the radio on the way over here. Sounds like a quick-moving storm. Should be out of here soon."
They watched the play of cloud-to-cloud lightning for a few minutes. Like Mark said, the clouds scudded along. He told her about some of the spectacular storms he’d witnessed in the hills around Lynchburg. Ann circled the rim of her glass with her finger, trying to think of something witty and mature to say. It’d been years since she’d had a personal conversation with a man to whom she wasn’t related. "You must have liked it there in Virginia to have stayed so long."
"I always planned to return to Wisconsin. I consider it home."
"And now you’re moving up the ladder."
"Mr. Jung knows I want to spend a certain amount of my time doing pro bono work. He thinks it’ll be good for the firm’s image. Plenty of folks need help around the Madison area."
Ann read the tautness of her guest’s expression. Touchy. Okay, time to change the subject. "So, you’re back in Clayton. It’s really good to see you. I’m sure Ritchie and Colleen will be happy to know you’re nearby. And, um, your other friends. I thought you were engaged?" Ann looked for a wedding ring. Nope. Well, not all men wore one. "Did you get married? Is she with you?" Ann tried to recall the name Tiffany Roth linked him with in one of her Christmas cards.
"We’ll have time to catch up. I hoped you were available to celebrate my new job with me. You were one of few people from my past who always believed in me, supported me."
Ann’s back went straight with surprise. "Me?" She shook her head, brow furrowed. "I didn’t do anything special."
Mark smiled. "More than you know. How about we talk over dinner? I’m hungry."
One of the few people from his past … in her opinion, Mark’s father and stepmother had shamefully neglected both Trey and Mark while they spent all their time on their Internet business. All Ann had done was attend a few of Mark’s games and make sure he’d been welcome in her home.
This grown man was different from the boy next door. Ann knew Mark Roth, and yet she didn’t. Exciting? What was the matter with her? This nice young man simply wanted to be polite and touch bases with people he used to know. And maybe he was lonely if his wife had stayed in Virginia to wrap things up. The least she could do was eat a meal with him, for old times’ sake. She knew better than anyone that eating alone wasn’t much fun. And he was obviously proud of his new job. "Of course I’ll celebrate with you. There’s a new buffet place we could try."
Ann didn’t protest when Mark ushered her to his newer model metallic blue Mazda. Not that she embarrassed easily, but the little Ford she’d traded for her Beemer showed its age.
She knew she’d chosen wrong when they entered the crowded lobby of the restaurant. The place was a madhouse decorated in fake Wild West. Had the storm made everyone crazy to get out? Mark smiled grimly as he folded his wallet back in his pocket after paying the cashier. He picked up a cafeteria tray with their soft drinks in chipped plastic cups and flatware wrapped in a paper napkin. The cafeteria din made her clench her jaw.
Mark led the way into the main dining room and indicated a far corner with his elbow. "I think I see a free table." They seated themselves. Ann wished the place would wash away and take her along. At least she wasn’t trying to make some kind of impression on him, as if he were a prospective client. Or a candidate for a romance. She looked at him, hoping he could see how sorry she was for choosing such a raunchy restaurant. Mark mouthed something she couldn’t quite hear.
"I’m sorry, what did you say?"
A young waitress with a nose ring arrived, setting a basket of greasy-looking rolls on the table. She lingered, eyeing Mark as she might the dessert table while reminding them to take a clean plate whenever they visited the buffet. Ann wondered how Mark’s wife would have treated the girl and sat up straight, squinting with what she hoped was a disapproving frown. Now she felt more like a mother protecting her naïve son. She lost the frown when he spoke.
"You must enjoy the food here," Mark said after the young woman left.
"I’ve never been here. Ritchie and Colleen said they liked it." Ann took a deep breath and risked a sip of the cloudy iced tea she’d ordered. She couldn’t see Mark bringing his wife here. What kind of person was he married to, anyway? "So, um, Allison..." That was her name! "Isn’t she here with you? Did you leave her to settle things in Virginia before she comes?"
"I’m sorry, I can’t hear you."
Ann was pretty sure he’d heard, but no way was she going to shout her question again. She already sounded like a busybody grandma. "Do you … do you—"
Mark cut in. "Let’s see what they have to eat."
Ann scavenged without much success through the commingled aromas of steaming platters and bins of canned and diced and fried-looking bits. Mark did not appear to have fared much better, she noted, when they returned to their table. Mark looked around, as if waiting for something.
Ann turned her head, too, but did not see anyone she knew. When she faced him again, his eyes were closed. Ah. Praying.
That church youth group he’d attended in high school must have left a lasting impression. She briefly copied him. When he looked up at her again with a peaceful expression, she picked up her fork. Dare she ask about Allison again? Ann decided on a safer topic. "How are your parents?"
"Parents?" He cocked an ear toward her. "Dad and Tiffany are well as ever, if that’s what you asked. Golfing every day."
They gave up trying to converse through the ruckus after that. She couldn’t think of anything to say to him on the way home. Since her ears were still ringing with the noisy chatter and clank of dishes, she appreciated the quiet. Within an hour after they left Ann’s, Mark drove back into her driveway. He stopped the car and went around to open the passenger door for her. Another of his quaint mannerisms few practiced anymore.
Ann hesitated after he closed the car door. "Thank you. I … I can’t recall the last time … well, anyway, I apologize for tonight. You must let me make amends."
Mark accompanied her across the driveway to the dark front door. "Yes, I’d like that. Soon." They arrived on her front step. "But I think I’ll choose the place."
"Would you like to come in?"
What made her ask that? She stopped mid-reach with her key. "I’m sorry, never mind me. You’re tying to make connections with people you knew before. Not that I remember everyone, but maybe I can help if you’re trying to track down someone in particular." She felt his long stare. Maybe he was just as embarrassed as she was, caught at trying to flirt. Flirt? Oh, goodness. A little old married lady chatting up a nice married young man. If there couldn’t be a flood to swallow her, how about an earthquake? Could things get any worse?
"Thank you, that’s kind of you," Mark said. "I’m slowly finding my way again. But I’d like to have some coffee, if the invitation’s still open. We didn’t get much of a chance to talk back there."
Ann clutched the key so hard she knew she’d bear the impression of it for hours. It squealed, metal on metal, as she tried to insert it into the lock with nervous fingers. She opened the front door and turned on a light with a shaky, yet defiant, flip. She could have a harmless little talk with her former neighbor’s son. Do something more exciting than her usual trip to the Y, the monthly guild meetings, and working at Ballard, Gorman and Wicht, reminding Gene’s partners, Howie and Tim, that Gene could walk in the door any day now. As if he could. "Coffee?"
"Yes. Can I help?"
She led the way to the kitchen, and let him fill the carafe at the tap while she ground beans. Mark flashed a smirk. "You like fresh ground, too?"
"Ah, don’t tell me you’re one of those coffee snobs," Ann teased back as she started to measure the grounds and promptly lost count. How many scoops was that?
"I have been contemplating how an espresso machine would fit in my apartment. That was four, by the way."
The heat of embarrassment crawled up the back of her neck. How had he known? She looked at him out of the corner of her eye.
He leaned against the countertop, arms folded the same as he had earlier. "Ann."
Other than when she’d answered her door to him earlier, she’d never heard him call her anything but "Mrs. Ballard." Did that make him a contemporary? Or her less formal? She looked up at him after ensuring a steady trickle of dark liquid entered the glass pot. "Yes?"
"There’s never been any word, no new reports or information about him? About your … about Mr. Ballard?"
Ann blinked heavily and shook her head. "No. There’s never been any more than false leads. Nothing at all now, for—"
Seven years. Sunday would mark the seventh anniversary of the disappearance of her husband.