"WATCH YOUR BACK. ..this isn't over."
Aubrey Grayson tried to bury the ominous warning and instead focus on the clear, southern Texas predawn sky suspended above her. She was safe for now. Lost beneath a million brilliant stars. A rush of happy memories pushed their way to the surface, past the threat, and managed to bring with it the familiar sense of contentment she always found here.
She needed to do this more often. Needed to find time to step away from the frantic pace of life she'd found herself caught up in back in Houston. God had a reason for reminding his people to be still, and three days of trekking through the Texas wetlands in exchange for her high-stress job was exactly what she needed. She took a sip of the steamy coffee she'd brought with her and breathed in the invigorating scent. She'd spend the rest of the morning hunting waterfowl, eating bacon and eggs cooked over a fire in a cast-iron pan, and listening to Papps and his boys swap tall tales from previous trips.
But for the moment she was simply going to enjoy the quiet.
Something splashed in the distance, breaking through her thoughts. She turned toward the noise, immediately feeling a spike of adrenaline, but she couldn't see anything. She shook off the instinctual warning. It was probably nothing more than a duck or a frog enjoying the last moments of darkness, broken only by a thin layer of yellow light now along the horizon.
She let out a sharp sigh of relief. "Papps. I was hoping you'd come join me."
"Sorry...did I scare you?"
She motioned for him to sit down next to her. "Just lost in thought."
"I'm not surprised. No matter how early I get up, you always beat me."
The former senator sat down on the slice of dry ground Aubrey had found overlooking the wetlands. "I'm glad you decided to come down here. You needed a break."
"You're right, and I'm slowly starting to relax."
"Good, because this is the perfect setting for that. I love the hunting, but I also know how much you love the solitude out here at this hour."
"It's something hard to find back home."
He nudged her with his shoulder. "Which is why you should come down here more often. You know there's always a place at the house, and, next to this setting, the front porch is the perfect spot to watch the sunrise."
She smiled at the offer. "I do need to take you up on it more often."
"I wish you would. The house gets lonely with all the kids gone. With Gail gone."
Aubrey didn't try to fight the wave of sadness that swept through her. "I miss her too."
The former senator Grant McKenna and his family had been a part of her life for as long as she could remember. And Papps, as she'd always called him, had become like a father to her, taking the place of her absent biological father. His residence outside Corpus Christi had become her home away from home.
"Ryan told me you were thinking about selling the house," she said.
"I talk about it every now and then, but I don't think I'll ever bring myself to actually do it. Too many memories. Too much work. And for now at least, it gives you and the boys a place to come two or three times a year."
She reached down and squeezed his hand. "You sound lonely."
"I'm doing okay. Really. Gail's been gone four years now, though it's crazy how it feels like yesterday sometimes. Other times it seems like a lifetime ago."
"How are you doing? I mean really doing?"