The Hollow
Author:Nora Roberts



Chapter Six
IT WAS FULL DARK BY THE TIME FOX PULLED UP behind his father's truck. The lateness of the hour had been one of the reasons his parents weren't going to be invaded by six people on a kind of scavenger hunt.

They'd have handled it, he knew. The house had always been open to anyone, anytime. Relatives, old friends, new friends, the occasional stranger could count on a bed, a meal, a refuge at the Barry-O'Dells. Payment for the hospitality might be feeding chickens, milking goats, weeding a garden, splitting wood.

Throughout his childhood the house had been noisy, busy, and often still was. It was a house where those who lived in it were encouraged to pursue and explore their own paths, where the rules were flexible and individualized, and where everyone had been expected to contribute to the whole.

It was still home, he thought, the rambling house of stone and wood with its wide front porch, its interesting juts and painted shutters (currently a sassy red). He supposed even if he ever got the chance to make his own, to build his own family, this farm, this house, this place would always be home.

There was music when he stepped into the big living room with its eccentric mix of art, its bold use of color and texture. Every piece of furniture was handcrafted, most by his father. Lamps, paintings, vases, bowls, throws, pillows, candles, all original work-family or friends.

Had he appreciated that as a child? he wondered. Probably not. It was just home.

A pair of dogs rushed from the rear of the house to greet him with welcoming barks and swinging tails. There'd always been dogs here. These, Mick and Dylan, were mutts-as they always were-rescued from the pound. Fox crouched to give them both a rub when his father followed them out.

"Hey." Brian's grin flashed, that instant sign of pleasure. "How's it going? You eat?"

"Yeah."

"Come on back. We're still at it, and there's a rumor about apple cobbler." Brian swung an arm over Fox's shoulders as they walked back to the kitchen.

"I was going to drop by today while I was working in town," Brian continued, "but I got hung up. Look what I found," he said to Jo. "He must've heard about the cobbler."

"It's all over town." Fox went around the big butcher-block table to kiss his mother. The kitchen smelled of his mother's herbs and candles, and the thick soup from the pot on the stove. "And before you ask, I've had dinner."

He sat in a chair he helped make when he'd been thirteen. "I came by to talk to you guys about the house-the farm."

"Moving back in?" Brian asked and picked up his spoon to dig back into what Fox recognized as his mother's lentil and brown rice soup.

"No." Though that door would always be open, he knew. "The main part of the house is pre-Civil War, right?"

"Eighteen fifties," Jo confirmed. "You know that."

"Yeah, but I wondered if you knew if it was built on any earlier structure."

"Possible," his father answered. "The stone shed out back's earlier. It stands to reason there was more here at one time."

"Right. You looked into the history. I remember."

"That's right." Jo studied his face. "There were people farming here before the white man came over to run them out."

"I'm not talking about the indigenous, or their exploitation by invaders." He did not want to get her started on that one. "I'm more interested in what you might know about after the settlers came here."

"When the Hollow was settled," Jo said. "When Lazarus Twisse arrived."

"Yeah."

"I know the land was farmed then, that the area was known as Hollow Creek. I have some paperwork on it. Why, Fox? We're not close to the Pagan Stone, we're outside of town."

"We think Ann Hawkins might have stayed here, had her sons here."

"On this farm?" Brian mused. "How about that?"

"She wrote journals, I told you about that, and how there are gaps in them. We haven't found any from the time she left-or supposedly left-the Hollow until she came back a couple years later. If we could find them..."

"That was three hundred years ago," Jo pointed out.

"I know, but we have to try. If we could come by in the morning, first thing in the morning before I have any clients coming in-"

"You know you don't have to ask," Brian said. "We'll be here."

Jo said nothing for a moment. "I'll get the famous cobbler." She rose, stroking a hand over her son's shoulder on her way to the cupboard.

HE'D WANTED TO KEEP ALL OF IT AWAY FROM HIS family, away from home. When he drove the familiar roads back to the farm at the first break of dawn, Fox told himself this search didn't, wouldn't, pull his family in any further. Even if they proved Ann had stayed there on their land, even if they found her journals, it didn't change the fact the farm was one of the safe zones.

None of their families had ever been infected, none of them had ever been threatened. That wasn't going to change. He simply wouldn't allow it to change. The threat was coming sooner, and harder, that was fact. But his family remained safe.

He pulled in front of the farmhouse just ahead of Cal and Gage.

"I've got two hours," he told them as they got out. "If we need more, I can try to shuffle some stuff. Otherwise, it has to wait until tomorrow. Saturday's clear."

"We'll work it out." Cal stepped aside so that Lump and the two host dogs could sniff each other and get reacquainted.

"Here comes the estrogen." Gage lifted his chin toward the road. "Is your lady ready to ante up, Hawkins?"

"She said she is, so she is." But Cal walked to the car, drew Quinn aside when the women piled out. "I don't know if I can help you with this."

"Cal-"

"I know we went over this last night, but I'm allowed to be obsessive about the woman I love."

"Absolutely." She linked her hands around his neck so that her bright blue eyes smiled into his. "Obsess me."

He took the offered mouth, let himself sink in. "I'll do what I can, you know that. But the fact is, I've been coming here all my life, slept in this house, ate in it, played in it, ran the fields, helped with chores. It was my second home, and I never got a single flash of the past, of Ann, of anything."

"Giles Dent wasn't here, neither were the ones-the guardians that came before him. Not so far as we know. If Ann came here to stay, she came here without him, and stayed on after Dent was already gone. This one's on me, Cal."

"I know." He touched her lips with his again. "Just take it easy on yourself, Blondie."

"It's a wonderful house," Layla said to Fox. "Just a wonderful spot. Isn't it, Cybil?"

"Like a Pissarro painting. What kind of farming, Fox?"

"Organic family farming, you could say. They'll be around back this time of morning, dealing with the animals."

"Cows?" Layla fell into step behind him.

"No. Goats, for the milk. Chickens, for the eggs. Bees for the honey. Vegetables, herbs, flowers. Everything gets used, and what's surplus we-they-sell or barter."

The scent of animals wound through the morning air, exotic to her city-girl senses. She spotted a tire swing hanging from the thick, gnarled branch of what she thought might be a sycamore. "It must've been great growing up here."

"It was. I might not have thought so when I was shoveling chicken manure or hacking at bindweed, but it was great."

Chickens clucked in their busy and urgent voices. As they rounded the house Fox saw his mother casting feed for them. She wore jeans, her ancient Wellingtons, a frayed plaid shirt over a thermal pullover. Her hair was down her back, a long, thick braid.

Now it was his turn for a flash from the past. He saw her in his mind, doing the same chore on a bright summer morning, but she'd worn a long blue dress, with a sling around her, and his baby sister tucked into it.

Singing, he remembered. She so often sang while she worked. He heard her now, as he'd heard her then.

"I'll fly away, O glory, I'll fly away-in the morning."

In the near paddock, his father milked one of the nannies, and sang with her.

And Fox's love for them was almost impossible to hold. She saw him, smiled at him. "Timed it to miss the chores, I see."

"I was always good at it."

She cast the rest of the seed before setting her bucket down to come to him. She kissed him-forehead, one cheek, the other, the lips. "Morning." Then turned to Cal and did exactly the same. "Caleb. I heard you had news."

"I do. Here she is. Quinn, this is Joanne Barry, my childhood sweetheart."

"Apparently I have quite an act to follow. It's nice to meet you."

"Nice meeting you." She gave Quinn's arm a pat, then turned to Gage. "Where have you been, and why haven't you come to see me?"

She kissed him, then wrapped her arms around him in a hard hug.

He hugged back-that's what Cybil noted. He held on, closed his eyes and held tight. "Missed you," he murmured.

"Then don't stay away so long." She eased back. "Hello, Layla, it's good to see you again. And this must be Cybil."

"It must be. You have a very handsome farm, Ms. Barry."

"Thanks. Here comes my man."

"LaMancha goats?" Cybil commented and had Jo giving her another, longer look.

"That's right. You don't look like a goatherd."

"I saw some a couple of years ago in Oregon. The way the tips of the ears turn up is distinctive. High butterfat content in the milk, isn't that right?"

"It is. Would you like to try some?"

"I have. It's excellent, and fabulous for baking."

"It certainly is. Bri, Cybil, Quinn, and Layla."

"Nice to-hey, we've met." He grinned at Layla. "Sort of. I saw you yesterday, walking down Main."

"You were replacing a door at the bookstore. I thought how comforting it was that there are people who know how to fix what's broken."

"Our specialty. Nice job with the blonde, Cal," he added, giving Cal a one-armed hug and a wink. "About damn time," he said to Gage, and hugged him in turn. "You guys want breakfast?"

"We don't have a lot of time," Fox told him. "Sorry."

"No problem. I'll take the milk in, Jo."

"I'll get the eggs. Go ahead and put tea on, Bri. It's cold this morning." She turned back to Fox. "Let us know if you need anything, or if we can help."

"Thanks." Fox gestured the group aside while his mother began gathering eggs into a basket. "How do you want to start? Inside?"

"We know the house wasn't here then?" Quinn looked at Fox for confirmation.

"About a hundred years later, but it could have been built on another's foundation. I just don't know. That shed? Well, what's left of that shed, the one covered with vines? That was here."

"It's too small." Layla studied the remaining walls. "Would be, even for the time period for a house. If we're talking about a small family taking in a woman and her three babies, that couldn't have been big enough."

"A smokehouse maybe," Cybil mused. "Or an animal shelter. But it's interesting that most of it's still here. There could be a reason for that."

"Let me try the house first." Quinn studied the shed, the land, the big stone house. "Maybe walking around the house out here. I might get something. If not, we'll do a walk-through, since it's okay with Fox's parents. If nothing then... there's the land, that grove of trees, the fields, certainly the little ruin there. Fingers crossed, okay?"

She crossed the fingers of her left hand, held the right out for Cal. "The clearing in the woods, that's sacred ground-magic spot. And the stone, it pushed those flashes right in. The attic in the library, that grabbed hold, too. I didn't have to do anything. I'm not sure what I should do."

"Think about Ann," Cal told her. "You've seen her, you've heard her. Think about her."

Quinn pictured Ann Hawkins as she'd seen her the first time, with her hair loose, carrying pails of water from the stream, her belly huge with her sons, and her face alight with love for the man who waited for her. She pictured her as she'd seen her the second time, slim again, dressed demurely. Older, sadder.

She walked over the tough winter grass, the thick gravel, over stepping stones. The air was cool and brisk on her cheeks, and was tinged with the scent of animal and earth. She held firm to Cal's hand, knowing-feeling-he gave her whatever he had so that their abilities linked as their fingers did.

"I'm just not going there. I'm getting glimpses of you," she said to Cal with a quick laugh. "A little guy, when you still needed your glasses. Fairly adorable. I can get zips of the three of you running around, and a younger boy, a girl. A toddler-another girl. She's so cute."

"You have to go deeper." Cal squeezed her hand. "I'm right with you."

"That might be the problem. I think I may be picking up on things you remember, your pictures." She squeezed his hand in turn, then drew hers free. "I think I have to try it alone. Give me a little space. Okay, everybody? A little room."

She turned, reached the corner of the house, then followed its line. It was so sturdy, she thought, and as Cybil had said, so handsome. The stone, the wood, the glass. There were flower beds sleeping, and in others sweet and hopeful shoots that must have been daffodils and tulips, hyacinths, and the summer lilies that would follow the spring.

Strong old trees offered shade, so she imagined-or maybe she saw-the flowers that shied from sunlight blooming there.

She smelled smoke, she realized. There must be wood fireplaces inside. Of course there would be. What wonderful old farmhouse didn't have fireplaces? Somewhere to curl up on a cold evening. Flames sending dancing shadow and light, and the warmth so welcome.

She sat in a room lit by firelight and the glow of a single tallow candle. She did not weep though her heart was flooded with tears. With quill and ink, Ann wrote in her careful hand in the pages of her journal.

Our sons are eight months old. They are beautiful, and they are healthy. I see you in them, beloved. I see you in their eyes and it both comforts and grieves me. I am well. The kindness of my cousin and her husband are beyond measure. Surely we are a burden on them, but we are never treated as such. In the weeks before, and some weeks after the birth of our sons there was little I could do to help my cousin. Yet she never complained. Even now with the boys to look after, I cannot do as much as I wish to repay her and cousin Fletcher.

Mending I do. Honor and I made soap and candles, enough for Fletcher to barter.

This is not what I wish to write, but I find it so hard to subscribe these words to this paper. My cousin has told me that young Hester Deale was drowned in the pool of Hawkins Wood, and leaves her infant daughter orphaned. She condemned you that night, as you had foreseen. She condemned me. We know it was not by her will she did so, as it was not by her will the motherless child was conceived.

The beast is in the child, Giles. You told me again and again that what you would do would change the order,clean the blood. This sacrifice you made, and I and our children with you was necessary. On nights like this, when I am so alone, when I find my heart full of sorrow for a girl I knew who is lost, I fear what was done, what will be done so long from this night will not be enough. I mourn that you gave yourself for nothing, and our children will never see their father's face, or feel his kiss.

I will pray for the strength and the courage you believedlived inside me. I will pray to find them again when the sun rises. Tonight, with the darkness so close, I can only be a woman who longs for her love.

She closed the book as one of the babies began to cry, and his brothers woke to join him. Rising, she went to the pallet beside her own to soothe, to sing, to offer her breast.

You are my hope, she whispered, offering one a sugar teat for comfort while his brothers suckled.

WHEN QUINN'S EYES ROLLED BACK, CAL LIFTED her off her feet. "We need to get her inside." His long, fast strides carried her to the steps leading to the side porch. Fox rushed ahead, getting the door, then going straight into the family's music room.

"I'll get some water."

"She'll need more." Cybil hurried after him. "Which way's the kitchen?"

He pointed, turned in the opposite direction.

Because Quinn was shivering, Layla whipped a throw from the back of a small couch as Cal laid Quinn down.

"My head," Quinn managed. "God, my head. It's off the Richter scale. I may be sick. I need to..." She swung her legs over, dropped her head between her knees. "Okay." She breathed in, breathed out as Cal massaged her shoulders. "Okay."

"Here, try some water. Fox got you some water." Layla took the glass he'd brought back, knelt to urge it on Quinn.

"Take it easy," Cal advised. "Don't sit up until you're ready. Slow breaths."

"Believe me." She eyed the brass bucket Gage set next to her, then shifted her gaze to the kindling now scattered over the hearth. "Good thinking, but I'm pretty sure I'm not going to need that."

She eased up until she could rest her throbbing head on Cal's shoulder. "Intense."

"I know." He pressed his lips lightly to the side of her head.

"Did I say anything? It was Ann. She was writing in her journal."

"You said plenty," Cal told her.

"Why didn't I think to turn on my recorder?"

"Got that." Gage held up her minirecorder. "I pulled it out of your purse when the show started."

She took a slow sip of water, glanced at Fox out of eyes still blurry in a pale, pale face. "Your parents wouldn't happen to have any morphine around here?"

"Sorry."

"It'll pass." Cal kissed her again, rubbed gently at the back of her neck. "Promise."

"How long was I gone?"

"Nearly twenty minutes." Cal glanced over when Cybil came back in carrying a tall pottery mug.

"Here." Cybil stroked Quinn's cheek. "This'll help."

"What is it?"

"Tea. That's all you have to know. Come on, be a good girl." She held the mug to Quinn's lips. "Your mother has an amazing collection of homemade teas, Fox."

"Maybe, but this tastes like-" Quinn broke off when Joanne walked in. "Ms. Barry."

"That blend tastes pretty crappy, but it'll help. Let me have her, Cal." Brushing Cal aside, Joanne took his place, then pressed and rubbed at two points at the base of Quinn's neck. "Try not to tense. That's better. Breathe through it. Breathe the oxygen in, exhale the tension and discomfort. That's good. Are you pregnant?"

"What? No. Um, no."

"There's a point here." She took Quinn's left hand, pressed on the webbing between her thumb and forefinger. "It's effective, but traditionally forbidden for pregnant women."

"The Adjoining Valley," Cybil said.

"You know acupressure?"

"She knows everything," Quinn claimed, and took her first easy breath. "It's better. It's a lot better. Down from blinding to annoying. Thank you."

"You should rest awhile. Cal can take you upstairs if you want."

"Thanks, but-"

"Cal, you ought to take her home." Layla stepped forward to pat a hand on Cal's arm. "I can ride into the office with Fox. Cybil, you can get Gage back to Cal's, right?"

"I could do that."

"We haven't finished," Quinn objected. "We need to move on to part two and find out where she put the journal."

"Not today."

"She's right, Blondie. You haven't got another round in you." To settle the matter, Cal picked her up off the couch.

"Well, hard to argue. I guess I'm going. Thanks, Ms. Barry."

"Jo."

"Thanks, Jo, for letting us screw up your morning."

"Anytime. Fox, give Cal a hand with the door. Gage, why don't you take Cybil back, let Brian know everything's all right? Layla." Jo put a hand on Layla's arm, holding her in place while the others left the room. "That was smoothly done."

"I'm sorry?"

"You maneuvered that so Quinn and Cal would have time alone, which is exactly what they both need. I'm going to ask you a favor."

"Of course."

"If there's anything we can or should do, will you tell me? Fox may not. He's protective of those he loves. Sometimes too protective."

"I'll do what I can."

"Can't ask for more than that."

Fox waited for Layla to join him outside. "You don't have to go into the office."

"Cal and Quinn need some space, and I'd just as soon be busy."

"Borrow Quinn's car, or Cybil's. Go shopping. Do something normal."

"Work is normal. Are you trying to get rid of me?"

"I'm trying to give you a break."

"I don't need a break. Quinn does." She turned as Cybil and Gage came out. "I'm going to go into the office for the day, unless you need me back at home."

"I've got it covered," Cybil told her. "Other than logging in this morning's fun and games, there isn't much else to do until we find the journal."

"We're putting a lot of stock in a diary," Gage commented.

"It's the next step." Cybil shrugged.

"I can't find it." Fox spread his hands. "Maybe she wrote them, maybe she wrote them here-it seems clear she did. But I lived in this house and never got a glimmer. I went through it again last night, wide open. Walked around inside, out, the old shed, the woods. I got nothing."

"Maybe you need me."

His eyes latched on to Layla.

"Maybe it's something we need to do together. We could try that. We've still got a little time now. We could-"

"Not now. Now while my parents are here in case... of anything. They'll both be away tomorrow, all morning." Out of harm's way, if there was any harm to be had. "At the pottery, at the stand. We'll come back tomorrow."

"Fine with me. Well, cowboy." Cybil gestured to Quinn's car. "Let's ride." She said nothing else until she and Gage were inside, pulling out ahead of Fox's truck. "What does he think might happen that he doesn't want his parents exposed to?"

"Nothing's ever happened here, or at Cal's parents' place. But, as far as we know, they've never been connected before. So who the hell knows?"

She considered as she drove. "They're nice people."

"About the best."

"You spent a lot of time here as a boy."

"Yeah."

"God, do you ever shut up?" she demanded after a moment. "It's all talk, talk, talk with you."

"I love the sound of my own voice."

She gave it another ten seconds of silence. "Let's try another avenue. How'd you do in the poker game?"

"Did okay. You play?"

"I've been known to."

"Are you any good?"

"I make it a policy to be good, or learn to be good, at everything I do. In fact-"

As she rounded the curve, she saw the huge black dog hunched in the middle of the road a few yards ahead. Meeting its eyes, Cybil checked the instinct to slam the brakes. "Better hang on," she said coolly, then punched the gas instead.

It leaped. A mass of black, the glint of fang and claw. The car shuddered at impact, and she fought to control it with her heart slammed in her throat. The windshield exploded; the hood erupted in flame. Again, she fought the instinct to hit the brakes, spun the car hard into a tight one-eighty. She prepared to ram the dog again, but it was gone.

The windshield was intact; the hood unmarred.

"Son of a bitch, son of a bitch," she said, over and over.

"Turn around, and keep going, Cybil." Gage closed a hand over the one that clamped the steering wheel. It was cold, he noted, but rock steady. "Turn the car around, and drive."

"Yeah, okay." She shuddered once, hard, then turned the car around. "So... What was I saying before we were interrupted?"

Sheer admiration for her chutzpah had a laugh rolling out of him. "You got nerve, sister. You got nerves of fucking steel."

"I don't know. I wanted to kill it. I just wanted to kill it. And, well, it's not my car, so if I wrecked it running over a damn devil dog, it's Q's problem." And at the moment, her stomach was a quivering mess. "It was probably stupid. I couldn't see anything for a minute, when the windshield... I could've run us into a tree, or off the road into the creek."

"People who are afraid to try something stupid never get anywhere."

"I wanted to pay it back, for what it did to Layla yesterday. And that's not the sort of thing that's going to work."

"It didn't suck," Gage said after a minute.

She laughed a little, then shot him a glance and laughed some more. "No, now that you mention it, it really didn't."
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