Harrison Parker had no family and no ties. She was invisible to be traced. Her job with the government was top secret. So secret that she only reported to two people. Now, she was the target and she had to figure out who wanted her dead. Hurt, and laying low, she reached out to the only man she trusted, an old man she had befriended in the cemetery, Sheppard Marshall.
Sheppard Marshall had been grieving the loss of his Millie for the last fifteen years. He would sit by her grave every day. He was an old man of ninety, and he looked forward to the visits he received from the sassy woman, Harrison Parker. Over time he had grown very fond of her, and when he received the message that she needed his help, Sheppard would help her or die trying.
His grandson, Sheppard or Shep, wasn’t letting the old man go alone. If he got hurt, Shep wouldn’t be able to live with himself. Even though the Marshall men were jaguars, that didn’t mean the old man couldn’t get into a situation that got him hurt or possibly killed.
The bullet had gone clear through, but the poison it had been laced with left Harrison with a high fever and near death. Shep didn’t know what this woman was into, but he knew two things—she was dangerous, and she was his mate. What kind of mess had the old man gotten him into now?
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Sheppard Marshall, with hat in hand, made his way to the front of the church. His ma, dead these three days, was awaiting her place in her Garden of Eden that she had talked about all the time. He hadn’t been home as much as he should have, all because of work. Shep figured he’d held up the pallbearers enough, so decided to get on with it. Kneeling down, he put large rough hands on the smooth oak casket. The beautiful spray of roses was lain over her like one of the quilts that she made every year. He knew that in the last few of them, she’d barely been able to walk to the table, much less sit at her quilter. Wiping at the tears that he’d shed more in the last three days than he had in his life, he started to speak to her as if she were sitting in her little rocker snapping beans for supper. “Ma, I’m surely sorry I didn’t make it like I thought I could. I talked to the other boys. They said you were in a car accident. I’m so sorry that I couldn’t be here for you.” There was plenty for Sheppard to be sorry for, he thought. A longer list than he thought that his ma knew about. He smiled then. For sure, she knew each and every one of his deeds. “I’m sure you and the good Lord know each thing I did, even if I thought to keep them from you.” His ma was gone.
His heart broke every time he thought about her not being there when he called home. He’d tried his best to make sure she had a good ending. Sending her money every payday had helped her, he knew that. Also having her put in one of them homes that she’d get round the clock care had kept her safe. But Shep knew he’d not been able to give her the one thing she wanted—a wife for him and a grandchild for her. When he was ready to face the cemetery, he got up and walked to the back of the big church. In his lifetime he thought he’d polished more of those pews than most people his age. All his fidgeting that had been done in the seats had made them shiny well beyond what polish could have done. Dean and his other brothers were there waiting for him when he stepped into the sunlight. “I thought for sure you weren’t going to make it.” Sheppard told his brother Oakley that he’d had to pull in a few favors to make it home. “Are you home for good this time, Shep? Dad is around. Grandda told me the other day that he was.” “Causing any trouble?” He didn’t answer the question about staying home this time. Shep thought he’d made it clear that he was—his boss was a shit hole and Sheppard wasn’t sure he was keen on working.
Shep had been doing his work and his boss’s for the last several years. Rodney told him that their dad hadn’t caused trouble so far. “I don’t know what I’m doing, to be honest with you.” The funeral director asked them to get into the limo. Shep eyed the machine and wondered if the man had gotten a good look at them. They were big men. The thought of crushing into that thing gave him the willies.
“Mr. Marshall, we have two limos for the family.” Nodding at the man, Trenton, Heath, and Rodney got into one limo. Shep, Dean, and Oakley got into the second one. “There is no one else, correct?” Dean said that it was just the six of them and the door was shut. Asking his brothers about their father, he settled back in the seat, trying his best to straighten his tie. Oakley turned toward him and fixed it for him as he spoke. “Dad has been around the farm a couple of times. Usually when no one is there. But since you had us put that surveillance shit around, we just have to call the cops when the thing goes off. Sure did scare the shit out of me the first time I heard it.” Shep leaned back in the seat when Oakley had the tie looking better. “Since they have an idea who he is and what sort of crap he might be doing, they’re out there before he can do any damage. The last time Dad fell and had to wait for someone to help him up. Drunk as hell and not sure how he ended up on his ass. Kept telling the police that one of them had done it.” “I bet that went over well.” Dean told him that they just stood him up, dusted him off, and warned him not to come around anymore. “Where are you guys staying while in town?” Dean looked at Oakley, and Sheppard had a feeling that he wasn’t going to like the answer. Or they were afraid of telling him. He asked what was going on. Dean spoke first. “About two years ago I had a house put on the back part of the farm. It’s a nice house, fits me well enough. I could have gone all out, but I didn’t want to.” Sheppard looked at Oakley as Dean continued.
“He has a house too, but a mite bigger than mine. Nothing too big, mind you, but like I said, it suits. The other three have been doing the same thing.” “Did you think I’d be pissed off or something? Why didn’t anyone tell me? It’s been two years, you said.” Dean leaned back and just looked at him. “Look. I’m exhausted, dirty, and I’ve not been on the grounds but a few times in the last sixteen years. Tell me or don’t—I don’t have it in me to care what you guys are doing out there.” “Ma signed the land off to the six of us. She did that about a month after she decided that she liked where she was staying. You did good with that, Sheppard. Ma surely did like it there.” He thanked Oakley. “Grandda, he’s not been in a good way since Grandma died. I know that it’s been a while, but you’d think that it was just yesterday. We’ve none of us told him about Ma dying yet. Dad complained that he had to take him out there every day for the last few months so he can sit with Grandma. It’s not doing Grandda a lick of good, but you know how stubborn he can be.” Sheppard did know how stubborn the old man could be. He was chasing the tail of being ninety years old, and having a good time with life—before Grandma had passed away, anyway. Sheppard—Sheppard James Cartwright Marshall the fourth—was named after him. Several other grandfathers farther back, too. All of them stubborn, each of them living to be well past a hundred and having a good long life. Then there was his father. Not so much stubborn, but an ass, a thief, as well as a drunk.
There wasn’t much at all that could be said that was nice about his father. No one tried. Not even their ma had. The cemetery was beautiful this time of year. The people that took care of it did a wonderful job of it. The trees were trimmed back. All the markers were upright and free of moss. Also, if there were plants put on any of the graves, they made sure they didn’t get too big. His ma’s parents had been buried out here, and that was why they’d made sure that she had a space next to them. Sheppard didn’t know where his father was going to end up. None of them wanted him anywhere close to where Ma was. After the service was over, the six of them decided to go into town and have some dinner. Sheppard had booked a hotel to stay in for the next week. He’d also rented a truck to drive around. He’d have to be careful of driving. It had been a while for that as well. Shep, as they called him on the rigger that he worked on, had started out on the lowest rung of the ladder working an oil rig. It paid good now that he was higher up on the ladder, but he’d grown sick of doing the job of two people for the pay of only one. Especially when the other man was like his father in so many ways. Hank Jones had been a drunk when they were on the same level. But through a great many lies being told and a great many asses being kissed, Hank had made it to the top level. That was ten years ago, but for the last several he’d been pushing his work off onto Shep. When the big bosses came around to see what was going on with the rigs, just their usual visits, Shep had heard Hank telling them all the ideas that he’d come up with.
Every last one of them was Shep’s. The call about his ma had come about the time he’d been ready to tear the man a new ass. But he’d only had a couple of days at most to make it home in time for her funeral. Shep had made it without any time to spare. On the plane home he’d put in his resignation. It was that or be fired for throwing his boss off the rig into shark infested waters. He wasn’t even sure that the sharks would have eaten the man. They’d be drunk after just one bite. He spent a good evening with his brothers. The six of them had been on their own for a long time, but they’d taken good care of their ma, sending money to her when she needed it, and even when she didn’t. Even though Shep was far away out in the middle of the ocean, he remembered to send her flowers and chocolates not only on her birthday, but Mother’s Day as well. Even when there wasn’t any sort of holiday he’d send her some, just because he loved her. His phone was ringing as soon as he got out of the elevator. Not answering it, he made his way to his room at the hotel and opened his door. Shep had dropped off his luggage at the front desk, and they’d assured him that they’d take care of it for him. They had. The first order of business was to get a shower. Just standing under the hot water felt like he’d gone to heaven. Washing his hair three times, he even used the little bottle of conditioner too, just because he could. By the time he dried off, Shep didn’t have enough energy to pull the blankets down, but fell onto the bed and was out before he could turn off his phone.
The ringing phone woke him and Shep reached for it. “This had fucking better be important, or so help me, I’ll hunt you down and tear you apart.” He felt his cat roll over him when he heard sobbing at the other end of the phone. “Who is this?” “Sally. You didn’t call me.” He didn’t know any Sally. He started to tell her that when she started talking again. “You got out of prison and you didn’t call me. After all I did for you, you just left me in the dirt.” “I don’t know who you’re calling, but I don’t know you. I’ve never been in prison either.” She asked him who it was. “I just told you I don’t know you. Why don’t you hang up and try again?” “He left me hanging.” Shep wasn’t going to get into this with anyone, especially someone that he didn’t know. “Did you hear me?” “I did. And now that you’ve woken me up from the first good sleep I’ve had in a while, I’m going to hang up. Lady, take my advice. Let him leave you hanging. You don’t want to get mixed up with some guy from prison.” She started cursing at him and he simply hung up. He didn’t have time for this shit. Shep was wide awake now, so he got up and took another shower. He wanted to go to the house and run for a few hours. Being on a rig didn’t afford him much time to run as his jaguar, much less shift when he needed it. Driving out to the farm, he was surprised to see Trenton there. He said that he was working on getting some of the things in the house fixed up. Shep, having nothing but time on his hands now, said that he’d help after he had himself a good run. Trenton decided to join him, and they stripped down and took off.
It had been too many years since he’d felt this free, Shep thought. Much too long, too, since he’d fixed something that didn’t leave oil running in his eyes. He might even ask if any of them cared if he stayed in the family house for a while. He could work on it and figure out what he wanted to do with himself. ~*~ Sheppard heard her coming before she got where he could see her. Harrison Parker. He would never tell anyone, but he was kind of sweet on her—like a man to a daughter, that was. She stopped for a minute and shook her head before speaking to him. It was usually something snide and full of curse words, but he thought he liked that about her. She didn’t care who he was. “You know that your wife has been gone for nearly fifteen years, right?” He said he missed her every day. “Yeah, I can see that. Yet here you sit, pining away for a woman that can no more offer you comfort than the stone that marks her passing. What do you plan to do, Mr. Marshall, sit here until they find your body all crippled up from sitting on that bench? Or a human popsicle that kids eat all day? Doesn’t sound to me like anything that wife of yours would have wanted.” “Now see here. You can’t talk to me that way. I had a good life. One that I miss with her.” Harrison nodded. “I don’t think I want you coming around me anymore. You’re not nice at all. And here I was thinking that I liked you a bit. Well, I’ve changed my mind.”
“Suit yourself, sir. But you told me that you have a beautiful daughter-in-law that you love like your own child. Six grandsons that you’ve had a part of raising. And a son…well, we won’t go into how you feel about him. I don’t know how you could be here, with the dead, when you have so much life at your fingertips.” He told her to mind her own business. “Yes, I can see that you’re as stubborn as all men are. I have to tell you, Mr. Marshall, you certainly are about the most stubborn man that I’ve ever met.” “I’m doing what I need to do to get by. What about you?” She didn’t answer him. Harrison usually didn’t when it was about her. He’d already figured out she was military, but what she was, he wasn’t sure. “You got you a family at home that you have pining away for you?” “Let me ask you something, Mr. Marshall. What do you want your grandkids to say about you? Is it that Grandda is finally with Grandma? Or do you want them to say ‘Grandda, he sure was a pistol, and I’m glad he knew how to have a good time.’” He looked at her. “Up to you. But I’d think that with six grandsons, you’d be able to find one or two of them to get into trouble with.” “And what about you? You run this path day after day. Who you out having fun with, young lady?” James, his worthless son, came out of the car whining about how long he was taking, and Sheppard waved him off. “You got someone out there who is going to say, ‘Gee, Harrison wasn’t one to hang out with.’” “They’re all dead.” She stretched her legs again, and he knew she was about ready to take off. “Mr. Marshall, I’m going out again in the morning. I don’t know each time I go if I’ll be back. But I swear to Christ, if I come home and you’re still sitting here day after day, I’m going to roll you over into a hole on the other side of your lovely wife and bury you. Understand? Because the way I see it right now, you’re already playing dead.” When she jogged off, he sat there for a few more moments. Sheppard looked at his wife’s marker, and realized that Harrison was right. He was playing dead. And he was going to do something about it right now.
Walking to the car wasn’t difficult, but the ground wasn’t as smooth as a floor. When he leaned against the car, James beeped the horn at him, nearly scaring him right into that grave Harrison was talking to him about. Flipping his son off, he was glad to see that he’d been able to shock him a little. As soon as he got in and buckled up, James started talking at him. Never to him, he just realized, but at him. “I’m going to need this car for a few days.” Sheppard said no, he had plans for it. “What are you going to do, old man? Drive it into a tree? I said I needed it, and you’re going to sit over there and not say shit about it when I drop you off at the nursing home.” “You take my car, James, and I’ll call the police and say that you stole it off me. They’ll believe me too, since you’ve done it before.” The car stopped so suddenly that he was glad for his belt over him. “You trying to kill me?” “Yes, as a matter of fact, I am. I told you not to argue with me. Now, get your skinny ass out of this car and leave me to it.”
Sheppard got out but he didn’t go far. Calling the police gave him the most satisfaction he’d gotten in some time. As soon as his son turned the corner after leaving him beside the road, Sheppard heard the sirens. That felt pretty good too. As soon as the officer brought him back his car, Sheppard showed him that he surely did have a license to drive, and he’d had nary an accident in nearly fifty years. By his estimation, that was about double how long the boy had been around. Getting in his car, he noticed that his boy had left behind his wallet and a few other things. Tossing them to the back seat where his son had been tossing trash for a while, Sheppard smiled. It was time to get with the living. Since he’d checked himself into the nursing home, the quality care place that he was in, he had no trouble checking himself out. Gathering up a big trash bag, he cleaned out his back seat and the floorboard, and put the wallet and notebook that James had under the seat. Not a clue what was in it, he thought he might take it by to him before he left. Then he set to packing his things. It was not that he hated the home he was in. They had all right food. The nurses were young little things that sure made a man smile. And it was a roof over his head. There was big enough yard out back with some trees where he could go out in the middle of the night and have a good run. As a jaguar, he figured that was why he’d been in such good health all these years. Packing was a little harder than he thought it would be. Not that he owned a thing that was heavy, but the memories would flood him so badly that he’d have to sit a spell and think on things. The quilt that laid on the bed when he and his Millie had been married.
There was the blanket that she’d made just for sitting that he used in the rocker in his room. Even the shirts that he had, most of them as checkered as his son’s past, were soft as cotton and warm as toast. His Millie had gotten him one for every birthday and Christmas. He’d teased her once that he had enough to open himself a department store. She didn’t stop buying them, and he didn’t care. It was wonderful to have a new one twice a year, and to know that she’d picked them out just for him. Sheppard missed that too. By the time he was finished packing up, he needed some food. Sheppard loved drive thru shopping, and got himself a big burger and a milk shake to go. Getting on the road, he thought about Harrison. He’d have to figure out how to tell her that he’d moved on, and remembered that she’d given him her number. Just in case. The thing went to voice mail when it connected. “Going to live with my pretty daughter-in-law and them grandboys of mine. Isn’t far from where I was staying, but you can find me. The name of the farm is Marshall’s Shadow. You come out for a visit sometime, and I’ll have my Jill Ann make you a fine meal for visiting me.” The thing beeped that he was done before he could think of anything else to say, so he pulled back onto the road, from the side where he’d stopped to make the call, and drove the few miles to the farmhouse. He was looking forward to staying there with the boys and Jill Ann. Yes, he thought, that was what he’d needed. A good talking to by someone that was strong enough to do it.
Pulling up in front of the big farmhouse, he could see that someone was doing some work on the place. There were roofing supplies there on the ground, some other things in boxes that he’d have to check out, as well as a ladder leaning against the house by the upper floor. Getting out, two men came around the side of the house, and Sheppard was embarrassed to say that it took him too long to recognize that it was his grandboys. If he didn’t miss his bet, it was Shep and Heath. Both of them hugged him up like he’d been gone forever. “Grandda, you still have that old caddy, I see.” He hugged Shep again when he commented on his car. “You staying? I’ve only just got the kitchen fixed up, and it’ll be nice having some company.” “Where is that momma of yours? Her cherry pie is all I could think about all the way here. We should make some homemade ice cream too.” When they didn’t laugh with him, Sheppard just knew that she’d gone and left him. “No. Please tell me that she’s not gone too. Why didn’t anyone tell me?” “You didn’t seem to be in a place that made us feel like you’d take it well.” That was true enough, he thought, but they still should have said something. “She didn’t want much, Grandda. Just a little service and no one there but family.
We didn’t even put it in the paper for fear of Dad coming along and making a scene.” He was taken into the house. Sheppard wasn’t sure if he’d been carried or he’d walked on his own, but there he was sitting in the parlor with a blanket over his legs. He’d forgotten how chilly this room could be. “She go fast, or did she have herself some trouble with it? I didn’t even know she was sick, to tell you the truth.” Heath said that she’d had a car accident, and that she’d died on the scene. “That woman never could drive. I loved her, you know. More than your daddy.” “She knew that too, Grandda. Ma talked to us about you daily. Even when you moved out there to that home, she thought of you daily.” He nodded at Heath, telling him that was nice of him to say. “When we were cleaning out the freezer, we found some of her pies. If you’re staying here tonight, we can thaw one out and have it with some steaks. Shep is living here for now. Maybe forever. He’s not decided.” “You home for good, boy?” Shep nodded. “Good. A man should be where his roots are. I never cottoned to you being so far away, but I do know that you needed to stretch your wings a bit. Being out there on the water all the time, I’m betting you had to get your earth legs back under you.”
“I did.” They all three laughed and Heath said that he had to go into town for a bit, but he’d bring back some steaks. Shep looked at him when he asked him if he was all right. “I’m not sure, Grandda. I’ve missed so much here. Not just the family, but everything. When I left here all those years ago, I had it in my head that it would only be for a little while. Then before I could think about it, nearly all my life was gone.” “Don’t say that, Shep. You got a long life ahead of you.” He nodded. “Something else is bothering you. You tell me what it is, and I’ll tell you it isn’t worth a hill of beans to be worrying over.”
“I couldn’t give Ma what she wanted.” Sheppard didn’t know what to say to that, so waited for his grandson to explain. “All she talked about was having a daughter-inlaw to go shopping and such with. She said she needed to have a balance in some way. And a grandbaby. I didn’t do any of those things.” “You think that is all she wanted out of you boys? To make you into breeding machines? Darn it, boy, she was as happy as a lark having you six around her all the time. I know for a fact that you protected her from that son of mine on more than one occasion. And it wasn’t you having a wife and a child that would have made her happy; it was having you happy to have a family of your own.” Shep said that they had all loved her. “Well, of course you did. She was a woman that you’d be hard pressed not to love. Jill Ann, she might have said she wanted those things from you, but you can be sure as rain making mud in the dirt that she was just as happy with you six being here with her and loving her.” “I did. We all did.” Sheppard stood up and asked where he would be staying. “You’re here for good? You’re not going to be cramping my love life, are you, Grandda?” “Just so long as you won’t be cramping mine, you whippersnapper.” Shep helped him bring his things into the house. He started to put him in the master bedroom, but Sheppard didn’t want it. He didn’t think it would be right for some reason. But he was just down the hall, and that suited him just fine and dandy.