Esther stared at the computer screen. Her fingers hovered over the send button. The words haunted her. Honestly, more than this email was bothering her this day.
After the most incredible night of her life, she had woken up alone in her bed. The early morning sunlight filtered through the sheers, and the pillow next to her was still warm. She had finally found Michael in the kitchen, making coffee and breakfast.
It was not like she had a great deal of experience to draw upon with this sort of thing. There had not been many mornings after in her life. Being a single mother and teacher had been her focus.
But everything was changing now. Too fast, it seemed. Tommy was gone now. And if she sent this email, her career might well be over also. Well, perhaps not her career, but certainly her job in this town would be in jeopardy.
That was the way things were in small towns – they protected their own. And despite a quarter of a century living in Sebida, she would never be one of its own. But Sandy Monroe was, no matter her tattered and tawdry past, or what she might do to her young son.
This was an email that Esther had written and re-written a hundred times over the past few months. She knew better than to report her concerns to the local authorities; their allegiances were to the men who were turning a blind eye. But her friend with Children’s Services in Austin was another matter. The woman would make sure there was an investigation.
It had never really been an issue of whether or not she would send the email. A child was being abused. Unlike others, she could not just turn a blind eye. And lately, there had been more bruises and cuts.
No, what had been holding Esther back had been fear. Pure and simple. She was afraid of what might happen, what she might lose when she made this allegation. With Tommy gone, her job and the house where she had raised him was all that she had left. The idea of losing her job and being forced to move had kept her paralyzed for months.
But no more. Not after last night. No matter what might have happened or not happened this morning, she knew that something deep inside of her had come to life again.
Hitting the send button, Esther grabbed the paper sack on the table next to her. He had made her lunch while she slept. Practically forced her to sit at the kitchen table and eat breakfast as well as her usual coffee. And through it all, neither had mentioned a thing about what had happened under cover of darkness. Instead, they chatted about inconsequential things, plans for tonight.
Esther supposed it could have been worse. He could have apologized; said it was all a mistake. This thing between them might be many things, but a mistake was not one of them.
Mike put the finishing touches on dinner. Damn, cooking was not his thing. She was certainly pushing the limits of his culinary skills. First breakfast two mornings in a row, and now spaghetti. Hell, the only other thing he had ever learned to cook was lasagna.
The only reason he even knew these things was the foster mother, who had insisted that each of the children in her care cook one night each week. Had the older woman’s purpose been to teach them life skills or merely avoid cooking for half a dozen unruly teens? Not that it mattered. It was a skill set that had served him well over the years. Though thanks to the Marines, one he had rarely had to use.
He tasted it and added a touch more oregano. The water was boiling for the pasta; he would put that on while she changed into her costume. He had already donned the Frankenstein monster one. Though it was a bit tight around his middle and a tad too short for him. It had been another reminder of how cruel Fate was. Tommy had been too fucking young even to have the middle age spread that Mike was beginning to battle.
He chuckled as he pulled another tray of the cookies from the oven. He had decided to help out a bit and get a head start on the baking for her. He lifted one from the pan and bit into it, still warm and gooey. It was delicious, but not as much so as other things that had been so fucking warm and wet last night.
He growled as the little traitor raised his head again. Not that he was getting what he wanted. Mike’s big head had already made that decision, and it was final. He was not going to hurt her. And she was not the ‘love’em and leave’em’ type.
No, he was more confident than ever that the woman was the ‘happily ever after’ type, and he did not have that to offer her. So, it was best to take a step back, keep the little traitor in his pants where he belonged and do what he came here to do – help her out tonight, pack it all away tomorrow, and get the hell out of here while he still could.
“Something smells good, Mike,” her voice caressed his mind as he turned to see her standing in the doorway. His throat tightened at how fucking beautiful the woman was.
After a half-decent night’s sleep, the circles beneath her eyes were less dark, but he could see there was still a tightness around her mouth.
Was that because this night held so many memories for her? Had something happened at work today? Was she still as worried about that little boy as he was? He had looked into calling the authorities but wondered what good it would do. Those people rarely got it right. He, of all people, knew that.
He did not want to think that perhaps that tightness was unease around him – after last night. He chuckled as he waved the wooden spoon and threatened, “Then you better get changed so you can eat properly.”
She sashayed, and he could think of no more accurate word than that to describe the all-too-fucking sexy sway of those hips across the room. His throat tightened, and the little traitor made his presence all too known in the tight confines of his jeans beneath the costume pants.
When she placed her hand squarely over his heart and leaned in to lick the spoon, her eyes danced with mirth as they held his gaze. When she let out a milder version of one of ‘those’ moans, Mike realized he was in big trouble. Huge trouble. Resisting this woman now that he had tasted heaven might be the hardest fucking thing he had ever done.
“Mmmm…delicious. Though I have tasted sweeter things,” she smiled up at him, and his heart stopped, even if he knew she was telling a little white lie, his cooking was anything but.
He drew a deep breath and forced himself to turn back to the stove. “You better get dressed while I finish up here. The big night is upon us, and the kids will probably be here before you know it.”
“Yeah, you’re right, of course.” He could hear the pain in her voice, knew he was the cause of it, and fucking hated himself even more than he ever had. The last thing he had ever fucking meant to do was hurt this woman. But he had.
The night, that had and always would mean everything to him, had probably only made things worse for her. And that was his fault. He wanted to say he should have stayed on the couch, but he could not. He could not bring himself to regret the only good thing that had ever fucking happened to him.
He would just have to find a way, some way, to make this up to her. Not that he had any fucking idea where to start – other than making this night as good as it possibly could be. For her. For that little boy and all the other kids of this shit hole. And for his friend, it was the least he owed Tommy. The very least.
Esther smiled as she looked around her almost vacant front yard. It was getting late; her watch said that it was close to ten. She should give the last call for the haunted house and witch’s brew. There were only a handful of her students left anyway. The parents had started taking the younger children in over an hour ago.
She stood up from the table where she had been reading cards for most of the night. Her muscles were a bit stiff. Or perhaps they were sore from unfamiliar activities. Either way, it had been a fantastic night. The children and young people were genuinely pleased that she had kept the tradition. And for her part, Esther felt her value to this community. If not to its leaders, its young families certainly appreciated her.
Well, most of them, she thought, as she looked across the street at the dark house where Joey lived with his mother. He had not come tonight, and that worried Esther. She had made up a special goody bag for him. Perhaps tomorrow morning, she would take it over there?
But before tomorrow morning, she had to make it through tonight. That was not as easy as it sounded. It was also why she had been putting off sending the children home. She was unsure what to say or do around Mike after last night, especially after the cold shoulder he had given her in the kitchen.
There had not been much time to discuss what happened after she got dressed. They had stuck to finalizing plans as they ate the spaghetti. Then they were too busy. More cookies were to be baked, blood and eyeballs to make, and witch’s brew to be mixed. Both of them had thrown themselves into the work, ignoring undercurrents that raced between them. But Esther knew, they could not go on pretending nothing had happened.
“Alright, everyone, it is getting late. I need to see most of you in class tomorrow. So, ‘Sleep shall neither night nor day, hang upon his pent-house lid.’ And that’s ten points extra credit for anyone that can tell me where that quote is from tomorrow. But I want it exactly – author, title, scene, act, and line. Off to bed with the lot of you.”
She waved her arms about and cackled loudly as the teens laughed. She noticed that a couple of the older boys were hanging out with Mike by the haunted house and drinking punch. Her heart ached at how easily she could imagine Tommy with them.
As the first of the teenagers headed towards the street, an old Mustang sped around the corner. Her heart lurched in her chest, and she caught her breath at how close a call it had been. The car sped into her neighbor’s driveway. Its engine was still revving loudly as a very drunk Sandy Monroe appeared out of the driver’s side. Her dishwater blond hair hung limply about her molten face as she stumbled around.
A large man in a dirty t-shirt and dusty jeans got out of the passenger side door. “Hey, bitch, I thought we was gonna have us some fun. Where you running off to now?” He brought an open can of beer to his mouth.
Esther pushed a couple of the girls behind her as the woman came stumbling across the road, without even checking to see if another car was coming. Sandy tried to steady herself against the mailbox, but it did little good as she continued on her ill-fated journey up Esther’s walkway to where she stood near the front porch.
Her words rang like thunder through the night air. “I know it was you, nigger bitch. After all, this town’s done for you, turning our eyes to your whoring and accepting your half-breed bastard. Hell, even letting you teach our kids. And you do this?” Even though her speech was slurred, anyone could make out what she was saying.
Esther stepped back a bit. While she knew that this was coming, even she was shocked at how quickly things must have happened. It certainly explained Joey’s absence this night and honestly came as a relief to her mind. She imagined far worse scenarios every time she had glanced up from the cards, and her eyes had taken in that dark house.
Still, the woman’s words stung. Not because they were said in anger by a drunk, who blamed her for losing her son. They hurt because, for the first time in the almost twenty-five years that she had lived in this town, someone spoke them aloud to her face. As hurtful as they were, ringing inside her head, she knew they were merely amplified versions of those whispered so often behind her back in the past.
She squared her shoulders and reached out a hand to steady the woman. “Sandy, I don’t know what you are talking about. But don’t you think you ought to go home and sleep it off?”
“I’m talking bout the welfare lady that picked Joey up at school today. They won’t even let me see him until some fucking court day. But Daddy says not to worry, he’ll get me the bestest lawyer. He’s gonna show everyone what a vindictive bitch you are.”
Rising to her full height, which was several inches shorter than Esther, she looked into her eyes as she threw the ultimate word bomb. “Just because God took your son, don’t give you no right to try and take mine from me, nigger bitch.”
Esther froze. Her heart stopped. She feared that air would never again pass through the tightness in her throat. Her fingers went limp. The woman swayed, almost taking them both to the cold concrete beneath their feet.
Suddenly an arm wrapped about her waist. It was the only thing holding her up. From somewhere far off, she heard a deep voice.
“I think you better leave now.”
It was steely quiet. The half a dozen young people did not move. Several were so embarrassed that their eyes stared at the ground. She wondered, how many times have they heard something similar? How many times had her students listened to their parents talk about the negro whore?
The worst flashed through her mind. It was right after Tommy’s funeral. People had followed her home after the church service. Food lined all the countertops in the kitchen, and people milled about her house as if they visited every day. It was an intrusion that she did not want or need. But it was also a custom that she did not have the strength to balk at that moment.
Instead, she had taken refuge in his room, hiding out in her own home from strangers that cared nothing for her. People that did not even accept Tommy. It felt like the ultimate affront to her life.
She was getting ready to leave her refuge. She had made up her mind that she would ask the Reverend to have everyone go. She had endured enough of their ‘Southern hospitality’ to last her a lifetime. But her hands froze to the door handle as she listened to two unidentified voices on the other side of the wood.
“Yeah, well, seems to me like the woman got what was coming to her. You can’t flaunt your sins in front of God and everyone for all these years and expect the good Lord just to take it. Oh no, I suppose it is just his merciful justice, taking that boy the way he did.”
Another voice joined in the vitriolic chorus, “Tommy was a good man, despite having that woman as a mother. But still, I wonder if she’ll be so damned high and mighty now. Like she looks down on the rest of us with her Shakespeare and Greek mythology. Ain’t like kids even need to know any of that shit in the real world, downright pornographic too if you ask me.”
“I’ll give the woman one thing; she kept her sins quiet in this town. Of course, you heard about how she practically threw herself at Todd Meadows, didn’t you? All because he was the boy’s Little League coach. And him a married man. No, that woman deserves everything she gets and then some.”
Esther had fled their lying words then. Curling back up in Tommy’s bed to cry until the new Methodist preacher came to tell her that he was going. That most everyone else had left. The man was young about Tommy’s age and had only been in town a couple of years. She struggled to remember his name.
She had mumbled her thanks and reluctantly followed him to the living room. Elena Reynolds was trying to clean up the mountains of mess strewn about the room. She remembered then, Bradley Williams, that was his name, and he had married Elena. The young woman was pregnant with their first child, from the looks of it about to burst.
“Here, let me get that,” Esther had reached out to take the stack of paper plates from her former student’s hand. “You shouldn’t be doing this.”
Elena smiled tightly; the young woman had always been shy. The middle child, between her brilliant older sister and her trouble-making younger one. She had hoped that Tommy would have taken an interest in her – rather than that other one.
Like the devil himself, Sandy Monroe seemed to sense her. The young woman tore herself away from the fireplace where she had been talking in hushed tones with the former preacher’s wife. Rumor had it that the man had finally been forced to surrender his position at the small church due to dementia. But she had been victim to those sorts of small-town gossip too often to believe anything she heard. She might not like the man or have agreed with his views of god, but she hoped those rumors were wrong. It was not a future she wished on anyone.
Sandy and the older woman made a show of picking up discarded plates and cups, but honestly, they were making more mess than they were cleaning up. The older woman reached out her hand in Christian kindness to take the plates from her, “Here, sweetie, Let me get those.”
Esther recoiled. She recognized the voice, knew what this woman honestly thought of her. She was never sure how she had managed to get the women out of her home without losing all control. She vaguely remembered the young man, who reminded her in many ways of her son, ushering them to the door with his thanks. The women had reluctantly gone, mumbling beneath their breaths about gratitude. Esther could only imagine what else they said as they left that evening.
The new preacher and Elena had tried to comfort her, to ask if there was anything they could do to help. But she had insisted that they too go. She knew that she could not hold it together one moment more. And now was not the time to let these people see that they had won. That they had finally broken her.
She had looked around her at the utter mess. Her ordinarily neat home looked like the VFW hall after one of its big to-dos. Paper cups and plates piled high with half-eaten food were strewn about the place. There were several spills on her couch and carpet.
Actually, she supposed she owed them all a debt of thanks, after all. She did not know how she would have made it through that first night if it had not been for the hours of cleaning that took her through until dawn. She was so exhausted that by the time she fell into her bed, sleep overcame even the heavy burdens on her heart and mind.
This was just as bad. But she realized something else as those hateful words flew around her. The other voice, she recognized it now. It had been Sandy Monroe, who was speaking with the former preacher’s wife in the hall that day.
Esther’s palm itched. She wanted nothing more than to slap the woman. How dare she, of all people, pass judgment on her? At least she had raised her half-breed bastard, as they called Tommy, with love. Not bearing bruises and marks, and not with a drunk for a mother. She longed to tell it all to the nasty creature that was half bent at her feet.
But it was the faces of her students about her that held her back. They did not need to see another adult in their lives acting with such shame.
Instead, she took a step back, putting some distance between them. “As I said, you should go home and sleep this off.”
As she turned towards the porch, she heard the Master Sergeant take command. It came so naturally that not even the drunken man hesitated when he was ordered to take the woman home. Her students beat hasty retreats too. But Esther knew that the story of this night would fly about the school halls, reaching every ear and young mind even before the homeroom bell rang in the morning.
It all hung like a supercell over her head. The dread of another tornado of the soul consumed her. She had made it through this storm once when she returned to teaching after the funeral. But she was not confident she could do it all again. Not now.
She did not even think about the cookie plates, punch bowl, or dozens of other things that she had left outside. She practically ran to the bathroom. The spaghetti that Mike had insisted she eat for dinner tasted even worse coming up than it had when she forced it past her lips hours earlier. Though she had smiled and complimented his cooking, the man would never be a chef. She was certain that strands of it were tangled in her dark brown curls.
It was hard, crying and vomiting at once. Her body shook and trembled, not from the crisp chill that hung in the Texas autumn air, but from the cold hearts and closed minds of this place that had been her home for most of her life, for practically all of Tommy’s brief life.
Didn’t these people see? It was one thing to hate her, but what had that little boy ever done to deserve their ire?
At last, the sobs slowed. Esther reached up for the washcloth that hung from the white porcelain sink. It was still damp from washing up before dinner. She passed it over her face, but it did nothing to clean off the taint of this bitter and hateful place.
It had been over twenty-five years since she felt like this. The need to plunge her body beneath the water as hot as she could stand it. Hotter even. To wash every trace of him, of them from her body and soul. But unlike last time, Esther knew that there would be no precious gift to ease this pain.
She stripped the white blouse over her head, taking with it the red bandana that had held her mane back from her face as she bent to read the cards. She tore at her bra, not caring if she broke the straps. She pushed the flowing skirts down her legs, taking her underwear with them. She realized that she had kicked her shoes off somewhere along her journey from the front yard to the bathroom but had no idea where.
She had no idea how long she stood beneath the scorching hot water as rivulets raced down her body to pool and swirl down the drain, the steam wrapping about her body like the quilt she had sewn from scraps of Tommy’s clothes collected over a lifetime. The corner of the blue baby blanket in which she had brought him home from the hospital. The white shirt that he had worn on his first day of school. His Scout uniforms. His football jersey. His black graduation gowns. His Marine uniform. They had all become squares and many more.
The comfort was scant. But eventually, the heat pounded through to her shattered mind. Her body was a bright pink beneath the light brown, and her fingers and toes had begun to wrinkle. But still, she stood beneath the hot spray, the need to escape, to wash it all away warred with common sense and self-preservation.
Even as the water turned colder, she battled beneath its rivulets. She began to shiver. Her teeth chattered as it got colder and colder, matching the temperature of a late fall Texas night and the cold hearts of this place.
Then there was a voice and hands gently tugging her from the tub. A towel wrapped about her. Arms scooped her up into a firm embrace, carrying her into the bedroom and tucking her beneath that quilt.
He was there. Drawing her into his arms, holding her as he worked the towel over her hair, drying it. His hands moved quickly up and down her arms, trying to warm flesh that she would have sworn long dead.
Except when he touched her, she felt alive. Truly alive. She moved closer to his warmth, snuggling against the hard plains of his chest. The roughness of the hairs on his chest abraded her cheek.
His fingers stilled on her shoulder. “I should probably go back out to the couch.”
Esther froze. New tears glistened in her eyes. She could barely breathe, this latest rejection cutting deeper still. She started to move away, pull away. But his fingers came up to hold her chin, lifting her face to his gaze.
“I won’t take advantage of you again,” he whispered into the darkness as his soft lips pressed against her nose.
Esther shook her head at his words of self-incrimination. “But…” she began.
“You are hurting right now. I can’t. Not like this. Not now.”
She shook her head, her grip on his shoulders, tightening at his words. “Don’t go. Please don’t go. I don’t want to be alone. Not now. Please.” Her words burst forth like a river flowing with floodwaters.
She felt him exhale. Felt him collapse back against the pillows. His arms wrapped around her shoulders as he drew her against him. He pressed light kisses to the top of her head. “I hadn’t thought about that, sweetheart. Of course I’ll stay.”
Esther swore for a moment that he added, ‘if it kills me,’ but it must have been part of her dreams as exhaustion and the late hour overtook her. Cocooned safe in his strong arms once more, the dreams dared not haunt her this night.
Mike once more held her tightly as she slept. But this night was not as sweet as the last had been. Her sleep was all too fitful. He certainly could not blame her. It was a good thing he could not get his hands on an M1A1 tank from one of his buddies in the 1st Tank Division. He would raze this whole fucking town to the ground at the moment – beginning with that bitch’s house.
How dare she? How fucking dare her, of all people, say things like this to Esther? Had Sandy Monroe not done enough to hurt Tommy in high school? Hell, the little bitch had even tried to intimate that the child was his son. Luckily, his friend had been too smart to fall for that one. But the way she had come on to him when he was on leave that last time had still done a head number on his friend.
Now, this? Blaming Esther for losing custody of her child. Mike sighed as he pressed a kiss to her forehead. He bet there might be more than a grain of truth to the accusation, but that only made him prouder of this woman. She was no one’s fool. She would have known there would be repercussions for her actions. Even if she might not have expected something quite like this.
And this had been inexcusable. After she had run inside the house, Mike had shooed the partygoers away and cleared up the worst of the mess. He had also kept a close eye on the house across the street, looking for any sign of more trouble. In the end, he had pulled his Beretta M9 from the locked compartment where he kept her on his motorcycle. Just in case.
He had learned early that alcohol and anger were a lethal combination. One that he was not going to be defenseless against ever again. Not with this woman. Not with Esther. He would give up his life. Even his honor to defend her. In all his years, all the battles, all the crap he had seen, he had never been forced to use violence against a woman. But he would. He would, to keep her safe. He just hoped it did not come to that.
Wasn’t what they had endured already bad enough? It was not just what that woman had done to his friend, either. The abuse went back much further than this night or even high school. He remembered the other half of that scouting camp-out story that Tommy had shared only with him after the others had gone back to their tents that night. The way that the other scout moms had made fun of her and how it had turned vicious, first about her being a city girl, then about race, and ultimately about her being a single mother. Though the way they said it was not nearly as polite as all that.
He sighed as he drew her closer into his arms. He supposed he should not be shocked by what happened tonight. Not after the stories, Tommy told of the whispers behind their backs. Or the men, too many of whom were married, who had thought his mother fair game for sexual passes. Even men who were supposed to be trusted members of the community – coaches and Sunday school teachers.
Of course, his own experiences with small-town life in Honour was still all too fresh in his mind. The lengths to which Brenda and Josh had gone to protect little Billy from being labeled a ‘bastard.’ The nasty words that those ‘Church ladies’ had used to describe Becca’s African husband and her mixed-race daughters. Sometimes it made him wonder – was it worth it?
Hell, he, of all people, believed in the Constitution. In ‘free’ speech, which was never really free. No, it was always men like Billy, Manny, and Tommy, who paid for those people’s right to slander and debase others simply because of their religion, their politics, or, worst of all, the color of their skin. It was too often brown skin that paid that price for others’ prejudiced and hate-filled speech against them. It was another of those things that were not right with this fucked up world. And another that Mike had absolutely no power to do anything about.
That bothered him most of all – that he had no real power to truly save her from any of this town’s mean-spirited bullshit. His throat tightened, and his vision clouded over as he stared over the top of her head at the door. How fucking much he wanted to scoop her in his arms, throw that gorgeous ass on the back of her namesake, and get her as far from this fucking hell-hole as he possibly could.
And then what, ass-wipe? What then? What do you have to offer a woman like her? Your fucking life, or what little is left of it, is nothing more than miles on roads that lead nowhere. Days and weeks spent with old friends trying to fucking balance the karmic scales. Trying to make life as bearable for others as he could.
This woman was the only thing that had ever made even a single moment of it bearable for him. He knew he was a selfish bastard, but he supposed he came by that honestly enough. Like his grandmother said, he was ‘bad seed’ after all. And he certainly had nothing to offer this woman. Any more than his father had to provide for his mother.
She turned in her sleep, cried out in pain. He knew that sound all too well. He was tempted, more than tempted to kiss her awake. There was not even that threadbare old nightgown between them this night. Just his jeans. How fucking easy would it be to unbutton them, roll her beneath him, and enter her? To draw those moans from deep in her soul as she came apart in his arms.
Maybe he did not have a lifetime of tomorrows to give this woman as she deserved, but he did have this moment, the next few days. It was for damn sure that he was not leaving as quickly as he had planned after this night. He was not going just to ride away and leave her to face that woman’s wrath alone. No, he was staying in Sebida for as long as it took to be sure she was safe.
So, the question was – what was indeed the right thing to do? To push her away as he had in the kitchen tonight. He remembered the hurt look in her eyes as they ate his lousy imitation of spaghetti. He had tried to think of all the right words to tell her, to explain that it was not her, that he wanted her so fucking badly, but he just could not hurt her. The truth was he was not good enough for a woman like her. But he had not been able to find the words. He had never been any damned good with the things anyway.
It was for certain that she was sure as hell sleeping a lot better last night than she was tonight. Had he been wrong to push her away when she reached out to him for comfort? Would he have been able to use his body to love away some of the pain from that woman’s hateful words? Could he have sent her over the edge so many times that her body was too replete to care what her mind thought? Did he deny them both what they needed? Was he doing the wrong thing for all the right reasons?
He shook his head as he drew her so close to his body that if he allowed it, his mind could envision them becoming one. Instead, that mind played the dilemma over and over from all sides until his head pounded. He still did not have any answers as sleep, at last, overcame him. But he knew it was perhaps the second most important decision he would ever have to make – and one that he would need to face when they woke.