Epilogue – Pleasant Valley Sunday

***Reynold’s trailer, Sebida, TX***

This might be the hardest thing she had ever done. Stacey Reynolds inhaled deeply as she stared at the woman in the mirror. She had not been to that place in four decades. Not since the day she turned eighteen and told her preacher-father to fuck off. She had run off with Iggy then. She realized now that she never loved the man. Infatuated maybe. Saw him as an easy way out, away from her life and parents, absolutely. But loved, no.

Could she do this? But she knew she would. For her daughter’s sake. Elena, Bradley, and Rehab had made it back last night. Her baby had called, almost in tears. There was a letter waiting when they got home. There had been complaints to the Arch Diocese about Bradley. His ongoing missions had been cited, but what upset Elena most was the thinly veiled racial bias – ‘highly inappropriate appointment.’

Someone from the diocese would be there today. And rumor had it, and Patsy at the general store was reasonably reliable, that the whole church was boycotting the service. After everything that had happened in the past few weeks, it was the final straw. Stacey was determined that this town was not going to beat them. Reynold’s women were strong.

So, she and her girls had called in favors. They had gotten on the phone with all their friends in the area and asked for their support this morning. Mercy had taken to social media, too. Something she called tweeting, whatever that was. And this Facebook? Whatever.

Stacey wasn’t sure how many would show up. Most people around here went to the Baptist church anyway. Even when her daddy ruled, Sunday services usually had no more than three dozen butts in the pews. She was hoping they managed at least twenty. Hell, their family alone almost amounted to that.

But she had put down her foot on one thing. No dress. So this time, she wore her jeans, the nice ones, and an actual shirt, not a t-shirt. But that was as fancy as she got. She picked up the cup of coffee and took a big swig. She needed something stronger for this. But it was barely ten in the morning. Damn, it had grown cold while she lollygagged.

“Mama, what’s taking you so long. We’re all ready.”

Her baby was home, too. She had gotten to know Will better these past few days. She liked him as much as she did Ryan and even Bradley. She might have shit taste in men, but her girls had done good. Correction – had shit taste. Reb had been by her side, almost hovering, all week long.

But nothing was settled yet. Stacey fingered the bulge in the back pocket of her jeans. They needed to talk. What would happen then? She had no idea. But she knew where she belonged and what she had to do.

And if Reb did not want to come with her? Stacey told herself that she would survive. She didn’t need no man. She has raised three girls alone once. She could do this, too. But those words were hallow even in her own mind.

One final glance in the mirror at the lines in her face and the gray hair peeking through the red dye. She called up all the courage that had gotten her through this past week. Hell, a lifetime, and she opened the door with a smile. “I’m ready, baby girl.”

Mercy wrapped her arms around her and squeezed. Leaving this one, all her girls and grandbabies, would be the hardest part. But she had been right. This past week had shown her that they did not need her. They had lives and families of their own now. But those others….

“Let’s get this over with.”

Reb was by her side in a heartbeat. She wanted to believe that he would be when he heard what she had to tell him. But there were no guarantees. He, too, wore jeans and a shirt. As did Mercy. Will had gone a bit dressier with slacks and a button-down shirt.

“We got all the food?” Brad and Elena did not know it yet, but she and the girls arranged a picnic lunch after the service. Putting their best foot forward for some bureaucrat from the church in Austin irritated the bejesus out of her. But she’s always said she would do anything for her girls. She just never imagined it meant going back there.

“Yeah, Mama.” Mercy held up a stack of plastic containers.

“I made buttermilk biscuits. Since I know how much you like them,” Rose smiled at her. They had gotten even closer these past couple of weeks. Stacey would be sad to see the woman go. She’d never really had friends before.

The other guests were a mixed lot. Chad wore jeans but a fancy Western shirt. Rose wore a lovely dress. But the two teen girls were strictly jeans and t-shirts. Chad’s family would be leaving for their home after church and lunch. Rose was feeling well enough now for the three-hour journey.

As for Bebe? The girl barely said a word to anyone other than Grace, and occasionally Mercy when her daughter instigated a conversation. She avoided her cousin altogether. It wasn’t like she was difficult or anything. She did anything you asked her to around the trailer. She just didn’t say much. Even when they began to pile into the trucks, Bebe rode with Chad’s family rather than them and her cousin.

When they arrived at the small wooden A-frame building erected almost a hundred years ago, Stacey was pleased to see a few other vehicles. Laura’s little economy car was there as well as Jack’s baby. And a couple others that she did not recognize.

She checked the time on her phone. The others had chattered away for the few moments it took to drive into town. But she could not tell you a word they said. Just as she hoped, they had made it on time. But not too early. She might be able to force herself through those doors but making small talk was beyond her right now.

At the top of the steps sat a basket filled with homemade masks and a bottle of hand sanitizer. A note on the table asked that everyone wash their hands and take a mask as a gift of love, one for another. Their group each took one and cleaned their hands before stepping through those doors.

Stacey paused for a moment in the doorway. The place was as close to packed as she could remember it. A crowd rivaling ones of her daddy’s homecoming or revival services. Probably more than the three dozen people she had hoped for.

She noticed something else too. Behind that sea of rainbow-colored masks, most of the faces were shades of brown. Jack seemed to have brought a contingent of Native Americans, probably his employees.

Mercy’s friend Lizzy was there, too. She stayed at the back of the church because it was the only place for her brother’s wheelchair. How had they managed to get it up the steps? Stacey looked around for her daughter’s other friend Abby Jean, but she was not there. At least, not yet. The others about the room she did not recognize at all.

Then she noticed them. The others. Grandfather, Rex, and Angel, though Jaycee was not there. She had given birth to their baby boy, oddly enough, last Sunday evening. As everything was happening….

Stacey wanted desperately to slip into that back row alongside Lizzy and her brother. But Laura waved to them from the front pew. The front pew. Could she do it?

She had sat on that front pew for the first eighteen years of her life. Some of the worst beatings came on Sunday night, if she had fidgeted too much. She felt that arm around her and turned to look into those warm brown eyes. “I’m here, sweetheart.”

She returned the smile and reached over, lacing her fingers through Reb’s other hand. The words, ‘yeah, but will you be…’ were on her lips when Elena stepped to the raised dais in front of the church. Her middle daughter had always been quiet and shy. The only one of the Reynolds women who was. It was incredibly easy for her to get lost in that middle. Until she picked up a guitar.

The first had been one that Stacey found in the thrift shop. It had been Elena’s tenth birthday present. The one she held now was much nicer. And the chords were more in tune. Brad sat to the side with a small drum of some kind between his knees.

Rahab sat at her father’s feet. Stacey felt the anger rising inside of her. She wanted to run down the aisle, scoop her granddaughter up, and let loose a string of cuss words. How dare they put that child on display like this?

Except when she looked at her grandbaby’s face, it was love and happiness that shone there, not fear.

Stacey reluctantly allowed Reb to usher her into…her seat. How had it come to this? Full-circle it seemed.

But the hymns were not what she expected. Tears came to her eyes as her daughter’s lovely voice filled the church, “Someone’s crying, Lord. Kumbaya. Someone’s crying, Lord. Kumbaya. Oh, Lord, Kumbaya.”

When Rahab stepped next to her mother and begin to sing ‘This Little Light of Mine’ in a voice so like she remembered Elena’s as a child, Stacey could not stop the tears.

Elena stole the show back when Rahab bowed and jumped off the stage into Mercy’s waiting arms. Stacey was not the only one with tears on her cheeks by the time her daughter finished with ‘You’re in the arms of the angels. May you find some comfort here.’

***Sedia Methodist Church***

Bradley Williams lay aside the drum that the village elders had given him before they left. Their words – that it was time to spread the music of reconciliation to the world – rang louder in his mind than the fear that had gripped him since he held that envelope from the Archdiocese in his trembling fingers.

Whatever happened here today, he had to trust. He had to believe. Have faith. This was meant to be.

He reached out his hand and took hers. No matter what, this woman was the greatest miracle of his life. This gentle soul had given him a chance. The woman had stood by his side through it all. He squeezed Elena’s hand and smiled into her face.

“You’ve got this, Brad.” She stood on tiptoes and pressed a soft kiss to his lips. His hand briefly caressed her growing mound and felt their second daughter move in agreement with her mother. Whatever happened, they had one another. Hadn’t he seen first hand the power of love to conquer anything – even fear and hate.

His wife stepped away, took the mask from her pocket, and put it on before walking down a couple of steps and sliding into the front pew with the rest of her family.

Was that Stacey Reynolds? His mother-in-law had sworn she would never again set foot in this place. But behind that mask, Brad was almost sure it was. He knew from what Elena had said how difficult this must be for the woman. But wasn’t that a sign? The fulfillment of that message of reconciliation.

Brad stepped to the pulpit. He gripped the lectern and, for a moment, bowed his head, not to stare at his notes but to calm his mind. Whatever happened, this was the message that he was meant to give. Somehow he knew that.

“So if you are presenting a sacrifice at the altar in the Temple and you suddenly remember that someone has something against you, leave your sacrifice there at the altar. Go and be reconciled to that person. Then come and offer your sacrifice to God.”

“Those words are attributed to Jesus in Matthew 5, verses twenty-three and twenty-four. They are part of what is called the sermon on the mount.”

“Notice that word – reconcile. Jesus didn’t say to ask forgiveness or to apologize. He said to be reconciled. That’s not a word we hear very often these days. What does it even mean?”

“Merriam-Webster says reconcile is to restore to friendship or harmony. Or to settle and resolve. To accept something unpleasant. The Cambridge dictionary defines reconcile as finding a way in which two situations or beliefs that are opposed to each other can agree and exist together.”

“For those of us who google it, Dictionary.com says to cause a person to accept or be resigned to something not desired. To win over to friendliness or cause to become amicable. To compose or settle a quarrel or dispute.”

“But it was these words upon which I have been meditating lately. To bring into agreement or harmony. To reconsecrate.”

He paused to look out over the sea of faces. Tears filled his eyes. Where had all these people come from? He recognized only a handful of the faces behind those masks.

He knew that Elena had been on the phone from the moment he opened that letter to her family and friends. That his pregnant wife had fought back jetlag to sew close to fifty face masks to combat this new virus that was sweeping the globe. They had barely made it back before the borders were closed.

Each of those mask-clad faces seemed like a miracle this sunny Sunday morning when not only his job but so much more seemed to lay on the line in this little town.

“We live in a world of turmoil. A world of strife. Racism. Sexism. Ageism. Homophobia. Transphobia. Islamaphobia. And ones you may not have heard of before, such as able-ism and adultism. Jesus also lived in a world of oppression, conflict, and domination of one people by another. It cost him his life.”

“This country was founded on the beliefs of white supremacy more even than religious freedom. On the premise of ‘civilizing’ ‘savages.’ Of bringing the gospel.” Brad looked out at the rainbow of masked faces. Some nodded their heads. Others looked shocked.

“Some of my ancestors were brought here in chains. In boats with conditions so deplorable that over half would die before even seeing America. Of the fifty-five delegates to the Constitutional Convention, twenty-seven owned slaves. Nine of our presidents were slaveholders. Only George Washington freed his slaves.”

“Those men obviously did not mean the words, ‘we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’ Even the word ‘men’ excludes one-half of humanity.”

“On our way back home, Elena and I stopped in New York City. We stood at the foot of that great lady, and I read these words.”

“Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Inscription on Statue of Libety

Brad saw a young Latino man sandwiched between an older man and woman, perhaps his parents, on the back row. He had no idea who they were or their story, but something about their eyes held a pain that spoke to him. 

“But we know despite these words of poet Emma Lazarus, the Irish and Italian immigrants that were held on Ellis Island once faced many of the same prejudices as slaves and Native Americans. Even today, along our borders, babies are being torn from the arms of their mothers. Some may never be reunited.”

“How then do we reconcile ourselves to this world in which we live? Is that what Jesus meant? To just accept these injustices, many of which have been done in his name?”

“I, as a man of mixed race, have struggled with that issue my whole life. Coming here – to this town – has been a struggle. Maybe one I have not reconciled myself to. But I know one thing, I have a dream. One that was enunciated more eloquently than I ever could half-a-century ago.”

“I have a dream that little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.” Brad paused and nodded to the man in the front row whose face flowed with tears as he spoke each of those words along with him. A man he would soon be proud to call his brother.

“I have a dream that one day down in Sebida, Texas with its vicious racists and gossips. One day right there in Sebida, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. And Latino and Native American ones too. Mixed-race ones who can celebrate their multi-cultural roots fully.”

He felt it then. A gentle breeze. Was it from the windows they had left open as an additional precautionary measure? Was it the elusive holy spirit? Or perhaps the winds of change?

“You may think I’m a dreamer. And an idealist. Out of touch with reality. But I know it can happen. I have seen it and lived it.”

How could mere words translate those experiences, though? How could he possibly transfer that vision to these people half a world away? But he had to try.

“What if I told you about a village a half-a-world away where murderers and the families of their victims live side-by-side? Where they till the soil together? Build houses for one another? Where woman and girls who were the victim of vicious rapes and bore the children of their rapist celebrate life not as victims or even survivors, but as full participants in a community dedicated to that ideal of reconciliation.”

“Elena and I spent the past few weeks in this place. A land that is slowly healing from a genocide that killed one million people in a matter of weeks. I was humbled by what I saw and heard there.”

“A place not of forgiveness and contrition, but of reconciliation. Where sins are not pushed to the side or buried deeply, only to resurface later. But where those old hurts are exposed to the light of day. Where excising them from the culture and future generations is the common goal of all. Where children, all children, are a blessing and hope for a new country, a new and healed world.”

“I can’t tell you in words the miracles I saw there. Not healings, or walking on water, or turning water into wine. Those things are easy. It is much harder to grow love and harmony in soil stained with the blood of one million people. But that village is doing just that. It is breeding harmony, compassion, and acceptance in its children.”

“That is a true miracle. The fulfillment of that dream. And something I know we can build here. A place of healing. A place where even though we are different – different colors, different tribes, different religions – we can agree and co-exist in that harmony.”

“But that kind of a miracle does not begin in Washington, D.C., or Austin, the Hague, or the United Nations. Governments can make and enforce laws. The Emancipation Proclamation, the Civil Rights Act of 1968, and others. And as we have seen, those laws can be ignored. They can even be changed.”

“Because laws cannot remove hate and prejudice from a person’s heart. Neither can you or I. We don’t have that kind of power – to change another person. Not even those closest to us. And yes, though parents can and do have an obligation to teach their children understanding, acceptance, and unconditional love. Ultimately, those children must make that choice for themselves.”

“Where then does change begin?” Brad shook his head and smiled at that rainbow of faces, “The hardest place of all. That reconciliation begins with the person in the mirror. Before we can change this town and make it a beacon of hope and love, we have to reconcile ourselves.”

“We have to face our own failings. And we all have them. Anger. Ignorance. Or willful denial. We are all part of the problem. Caught up in our own lives, our needs, the injustice that we face. That we don’t see the pain, we inflict on others.”

“This long road to a better world begins with looking deep into the mirror of self and facing our own ugliness. The scars of our past limit our movement and growth. That keeps us from truly being…Free at last, free at last. Thank god almighty, we’re free at last.”

“So I charge each of you, as that man of Galilee said, ‘if someone has something against you, leave your sacrifice there at the altar. Go and be reconciled to that person. Then come and offer your sacrifice.’ As Elena closes this service in song, I encourage you to search your hearts and minds for those you need to reconcile yourselves with. Then go out and do it. Whatever it takes to restore harmony. To be reconciled one to another.”

“Whatever happens, in this world, in this nation, in this state,” Bradley swallowed his own deepest fears as he continued, “In this town and this church. Elena and I are committed to this place and these people. In our minds and our hearts, we have reconsecrated Sebida as Reconciliation, Texas.”

Brad smiled down at that front row and nodded. As they had agreed, Elena, with tears running down her face, took their fidgety daughter from her sister’s arms and came to stand side by side, shoulder to shoulder with him. He wrapped his arms around his wife. Once again, Brad was flooded with the peace, solace, and acceptance that he only ever found in Elena’s arms. Together they faced that sea of masked faces.

“We welcome you, whatever your faith or beliefs, even if you have none at all. We believe that love unites us all. We hope you will join us to write a new story in the days, weeks, months, years, and decades ahead. A story of hope. A story of reconciliation. One with another and with this magnificent planet on which we live. As Gandhi said, ‘be the change you want to see in the world.’”

He smiled out at the crowd. Though they had asked each group to keep a safe distance from one another, the place looked packed. Would any of them answer the call? Were they ready for the challenges? The hardest part of change?

He took Rahab from his wife’s arms. As she reached for her guitar, “We hope at least a couple of you will be back to join us next Sunday.” Silently he added, ‘if we’re still here.’

As the song began, Chad glanced over at his daughter. Yeah, she knew that now. That had not been an easy conversation to have either. But he and Rose had answered her questions openly and honestly. He had hoped that would draw Grace out of the shell that she had been in, even before the kidnapping. But it hadn’t. Not completely anyway. She still mainly kept to herself. Preferring to spend time with the other girl, though he could understand that. Having someone closer to her own age must be nice.

He liked Bebe. She was a good kid. But that girl had been through so much. He’d be lying if he said the difference between his still relatively innocent daughter and the girl who had been… He still could not bring himself to think about all Bebe had endured. But at sixteen, those experiences put her in an odd position, neither child nor woman.  

Still, he was not sure how they would manage when they went back to the ranch. They had talked about the situation these past few days. Rose and Grace were safe. His daughter could go back to school. Not some fancy private academy, maybe, but the local high school where he had spent his last two years before graduating and joining the Marines. That was good enough.

But while they were safe, the press was having a field day with this shit. Some of the others had agreed to interviews. After shooting the sheriff, Stacey’s girl Mercy was some best-selling romance writer, going from utter obscurity to fame. Ryan and Will had spoken with a couple of local reporters. Heck, Rose believed that the best way forward was for her to give one. They were still debating that, though. And definitely not until they got home, and she was healed completely.

But they had been so hounded by the press at Jack’s casino, that was why they had ended up staying at Stacey’s trailer. Despite how crowded it was.

Chad noticed that Grace was crying. Rose reached out to wrap her arm around their daughter, but she pulled away. His daughter slipped from the pew, down the side aisle, and out the door as the woman continued that final song. Rose turned to go after her, but he stopped her with a gentle hand on the shoulder. “I’ll go, darlin’.”

The service might have been the best he’d ever been to, but that wasn’t saying much. He liked the young man’s ideas about what Jesus said a far sight better than the hellfire and brimstone of his grandparent’s church. If they lived in Sebida, he might even come back, now and then.

But whatever the man had said, it seemed to have upset his baby girl. And that was his worry now. He looked around for Grace. Her natural blond might be peeking through the roots, but that rainbow still made it hard to miss the girl. But he did not see her.

Then he looked off to the side. There was some open pasture land next to the old wooden building. He had to chuckle to see his daughter making friends with an old nag that looked like it had seen better days. Wilson green eyes. And the Wilson way with horseflesh.

Right now, he knew his child was as skittish as a colt. So, he approached her slowly, with as much care. She turned as he came alongside her. Those green eyes were swollen and shining with more unspilled tears.

“I’m sorry. It’s all my fault. If I had only listened to ya’ll. Hell, even Gerald told me. And now, Mama….” She broke down into sobs that shook her tiny body.

Chad wasn’t sure where he stood with his daughter. One of her multitude of questions had been, ‘so, do you expect me to call you dad now or something?’ They had assured her that was not necessary. Hell, he had missed almost fourteen years of her life. Fifteen if you counted those precious months of Rose’s pregnancy.

He might not know where he stood with Grace, but Chad knew he could not just stand here and watch her cry like that. He reached out and drew her into his arms. He was a bit surprised that she did not fight it. Instead, Grace laid her head against his chest and just cried more.

He wished he had words to make it all better. But those had never come easily to him. All he could do was hold his child. It seemed utterly inadequate. But hold her, he did. He was not sure if it was two minutes or twenty when her sobs turned to hiccups, and Grace pulled back from his embrace.

“I’m sorry, Daddy. I know I’ll never be able to make it up to you or Mama. That preacher’s wrong. Somethings can’t be reconciled. Mama losing that baby is my fault. And there’s nothing I can ever do to make that right.”

Chad reached for the old fence post. He hoped like hell it was more solid than it looked. He wasn’t sure which registered louder in his mind. His daughter had chosen to call him Daddy. Or that Rose had lost a baby. Their baby. And she had not told him.

But some part of him knew that this was a pivotal moment. Perhaps the most important one, since the night outside that motel door. What he said now would determine his relationship with his daughter for the rest of their lives.

He wasn’t sure of the right words, but he knew one thing. This burden was too big for those little shoulders to bear alone. He reached for her once more. Grace started to draw away, but he put his arm around her shoulders and pulled her against his side.

His head swam with questions. How? He knew that Rose had been hurt, badly beaten. The doctors in Laredo had insisted on keeping her overnight for observation. Hell, they had stopped in Sebida because she was too tired to go any further.

But Rose had not mentioned a miscarriage. Had she known about the miscarriage? Had she known she was pregnant when she went after Grace? To begin with, he hadn’t liked the plan, but he sure as hell would not have agreed to it if he had known she was pregnant.

Or would he have? Holding his daughter now, knowing Grace was safe, that she had a whole new life stretching out before her, what was that worth? Had Rose been forced to make an unimaginable choice? They’d need to talk about that. But they had a lifetime for that. When she was healthier.

“Grace, I want you to know that I don’t blame you for any of this. It’s not your fault.”

She shook the rainbow, and more tears appeared in those emerald eyes, “But if I hadn’t….”

“If you hadn’t logged in and played that game? How do we know what would have happened? Because you were kidnapped, I swallowed my pride and reached out to Reb and the others. We came to Mexico, and Mercy and your friend Bebe were saved. What might have happened to them if you hadn’t been taken?”

“And who’s to say your mother wouldn’t have lost the baby anyway? Rose is almost forty now. These things happen all the time, even to younger women, but especially as you get older. Maybe that’s why she didn’t say anything to me?”

He’d have to set Rose straight on that one, though. Couples shared the bad as well as the good. But right now, his daughter needed his full attention.

“If you’re assigning blame for this all, then start with your old man. I sneaked out of that hotel room fifteen years ago even though everything inside me said this was the woman for me. I had my head so far up my ass about the shit I had seen and done. All the ‘things’ that your Mama was used to that I couldn’t give her. That I didn’t look at the most important one. The one thing that I could offer her that Gerald or no other man could – my undying love.”

“Who knows what would have happened if I had the courage to stay. To wake up next to her and make love to your Mama one more time. To tell her how I felt and beg her to give me a chance.”

“Would she have listened? Would she have traded that champagne and crystal chandeliers for a broken-down old jarhead with nothing to offer her? I don’t know. Hell, she can’t say for sure. But maybe, if I had, if she had, I’d be the kind of father to you that deserved being called Daddy.”

His voice choked on the word that was precious in his mind. No, he didn’t deserve it. But for this girl, he’d damn well become a better man. The kind that did. Tears filled his own Wilson green eyes, and he had no shame in letting his little girl see them.

“When that man drove up, and you and your Mama got out of that car, I didn’t know what to think. But the moment I saw you, when I looked into those eyes, I knew you were mine. I never doubted that. Even before McBride confirmed it.”

Grace laughed and leaned against him, “Yeah, those Wilson green eyes. That’s how I figured it out too.”

“And if we had been honest with you, treated you like the responsible young lady you are, maybe you wouldn’t have been so angry with us. Perhaps you wouldn’t have logged into that account?”

“You see, it ain’t about blame. There’s plenty of that to go around. If Gerald hadn’t lied all those years, kept the truth from all of us? Heck, if your grandfather hadn’t bartered off your Mama’s hand in marriage to an old coot?”

“But all those what-ifs don’t count. We can only deal with the here and now. The present. And right now, I have you and your Mama back. You’re both safe. And we have the chance to build a future together as a family.”

“That preacher might have focused on harmony and reconsecration but don’t forget another of those definitions was accepting something unpleasant. We can’t change the past, Grace. But we can choose to love and trust one another in the present. And we can commit to doing better in the future.”

“And that’s what I’m doing right now. I want to be the kinda daddy you need. That you always wanted. And the type of husband that your Mama can trust with her pain as well as her joy.”

He felt the hand on his shoulder and turned to look into the tear-filled eyes of the woman he had loved for fifteen years as Rose laid her head on his back. “You already are. I’m sorry… I should have told you. But I wasn’t even sure myself. And all I could think about was bringing our daughter back safely.”

“Oh, Mama,” Grace turned and threw herself into her mother’s arms. Somehow they ended up in a group hug. Their first. But Chad hoped not their last. It would probably take a helluva a lot of those to heal fifteen years of regrets and what-ifs.

But it was a new and sunny day in Sebida, Texas. And for the Wilson’s too. It might be a long, hard, and bumpy road to accepting and resigning themselves to some of the things that had happened and the choices they had made in the past. They might even lose their way a time or two. But Reconciliation for this family had begun.

Will did not even try to stop the tears from falling as his future sister-in-law picked up her guitar and began to sing, ‘You raise me up to more than I can be.’ Rahab, who had been passed from family member to family member during the service, struggled in Mercy’s arms to get down. Brad nodded at them, and Mercy let the toddler down. Once again, the toddler stole the show by dancing and singing along with her mother in the aisles. But no one seemed to mind.

He knew the tears were coming faster, especially when Mercy laced her fingers through his and squeezed tightly. She lay her head on his shoulder, and nothing had felt that good in a very long time.

The man’s words had been an arrow to his heart. It was as if his grandparents whispered in his ear. He looked over his shoulder where Bebe sat with the Wilsons. Chad and her friend were no longer there, but his cousin and the woman sang along. There was no doubt where his reconciliation must begin. As soon as this was over.

And yes, he would be back. Will still wasn’t sure about his beliefs regarding god or religion, but he could definitely buy into this man’s vision of a better world. Beginning with this small town where they had decided to raise their family. He liked that name – Reconciliation, Texas.

And he wanted to be a part of re-building this place. So, whether Mercy could get over her aversion to church or not, Will knew where he was spending his Sunday mornings. Maybe she would enjoy sleeping in while he brought the kids? He could almost see them running and dancing down the aisles with their cousins and other children from the community.

The song ended, and his soon-to-be brother-in-law stepped forward. “The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you. The Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.”

The young family walked down the center aisle together and stood by the door. The pews began to empty. People shook the man’s hand and chatted. Will was anxious. He could feel the seconds ticking away like the old grandfather clock that was Etta Mae’s pride and joy. He wondered what had become of it. Probably another family memento and historical artifact for his mother and aunt to fight over.

He saw the woman leaning on his cousin as they spoke to the preacher. They were just a couple of people ahead of them. He considered leaving Mercy’s side to talk with Bebe. But not only was it rude, but there was also something he wanted to discuss with the man.

Mercy leaned in and kissed him softly, “You’re sure about this?”

He brought their joined hands to his lips and pressed a kiss to the ring she wore. It was one heirloom the women would not fight over. His grandmother had slipped the rings from her fingers herself as he sat holding her on that cold floor. She had pressed them into his hand, “You’ll know her when you find her.” And he had.

He had taken grandfather’s wedding band that she had worn on a leather string around her neck as well. He knew they weren’t fancy. The bands were made of silver because black preachers in the fifties could not afford gold. And you could not even call the stone in the engagement ring a diamond. The tongs that held that sliver in place overshadowed it.

But Mercy understood. She had cried as hard as he did as he went to his knee in the storage unit where they had taken his stuff that they cleared out of his apartment. These rings had blessed one perfect union of two souls that had stood by one another’s side through some of the darkest days of this countries history. And come what may they would another.

Mercy let go of his hand to embrace her sister. This one did not look as much like their mother as Laura and Mercy. There was something softer, gentler, quieter about Elena Reynolds Williams. But it was still obvious the women were related. “Thank you,” the woman hugged Mercy tightly.

“For what?”

“You know what. That place was almost full. How did you all do it?”

Mercy laughed as she held up her phone, “A couple of calls. A few posts to social media. That’s all it took.” His woman turned to face the man by her sister’s side. “Brad, you know how Mama, Laura, and I feel about god, and about this church in particular.”

Will wanted to laugh at the way the man shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot, “Are you going to threaten me with the shotgun again?”

Mercy laughed, and the music filled the early summer morning as sweetly as her sister’s singing. “No, I was going to say, but you gave me some things to think about this morning.”

“Then, maybe you’ll come back sometime?”

Will stepped forward, “I know we haven’t been introduced formally, but I’m Caleb Williams. She’s right, you know. I haven’t heard a sermon like that since my grandfather died.”

“That’s right, Elena told me about your grandparents. I’m humbled you’d say that, and I hope that you’ll come back, too.”

“Oh, you can count on that. But actually, Mercy and I have a favor we’d like to ask you. We were wondering if you might have time soon to perform a wedding?”

The man laughed, and his eyes twinkled, “Funny, you should ask that. I’m performing a wedding ceremony Friday evening for Laura and Ryan.” He turned towards Mercy, “What do you say? Check with your sister, but maybe the Reynolds women tie the knots together?”

Mercy nodded, “I will. I think that’s a great idea. I’ll go find them now, and we’ll get back to you.”

“Thanks, man. I look forward to getting to know you better,” Will held out his hand to the man who, through some twist of Fate, shared his name, if not his lineage. Through the corner of his eye, he caught sight of the one person he was looking for. Bebe stood on the edge of the property near an old wire fence. She was off to the side as the Wilson family shared a group hug.

He turned to Mercy, “Darling, would you mind talking to Laura and Ryan alone? There’s something I need to do, first.”

Perhaps she had seen the directions of his gaze, or maybe she just knew. That had happened a couple of times lately, when somehow they just seemed to know what the other was thinking, even finishing their sentences for them. It was freaky nice. She nodded, squeezed his hand, and said, “Go.”

Will did not need to be told twice, taking the little church’s wooden steps two at a time. He covered the distance in no time with a light jog. “Hey, Bebe, I wanted….”

His cousin jumped out of his reach as he approached her. “Don’t touch me.”

It ate at his heart and gut that she felt that way. He understood why, of course. But it seemed another reminder of how deeply he had failed her. “I’m sorry.”

“I figured you’d find me.” The girl crossed her arms over her body and stepped back even further.

“I just want to talk….”

“No. How about you listen instead, Will?”

He nodded silently. Whatever she needed or wanted. He would do whatever it took. He’d stand by her side, help her to adjust back into society, the family. Even if he wasn’t so confident, either of those were good things.

“I know you thought you were doing the ‘right’ or ‘honorable’ thing. I get that. But what you don’t understand is that I don’t belong here. I’m not that innocent and idealistic little girl you knew. She died. It wasn’t a quick or merciful death either. I’m not even sure when it happened. At the bus stop? When they turned me over to that sheriff? When they auctioned….”

Bebe paused and stared at the ground at her feet. Her words were knives plunging deeper into his soul. He wanted to take her in his arms and promise her that everything would be alright. He wished he had some magical words to ease her pain. But all he could do was honor her pain with silent space.

“You don’t need the dirty details. That would just be me striking out, trying to inflict my pain on others.” She looked up at him then. Tears raced down her cheeks, and more glistened in her eyes as she spoke, “It wasn’t your fault. You did what you could. I absolve you of whatever guilt you feel.”

So, why did her words not make the ache in his heart any lighter? “So, what next? I know you don’t want to go back to Dallas. I get that. You’re welcome to stay here with Mercy and me….”

She was shaking her head so violently that the curls danced about her face, some caught in those tears. “No. I can’t.” Her eyes met his again, and his heart pounded in his throat at the ice in their dark depths. “You’ve changed, Will. You and Gran were the only people whose touch I could stand.”

“I know what they call it, sensory processing disorder. But I always knew better than to tell anyone the truth. When I touch someone, I feel them. Their emotions. Their memories. You were the only ones that were pure enough that it didn’t overwhelm me.”

Others, his aunt, her father, and certainly those doctors and ‘experts’ who had diagnosed her might think her mentally unbalanced, but Will did not doubt her gifts. Anymore than Gran had ever doubted his. Had his grandmother known? About Bebe’s abilities as well as his own?

Then it hit him. The reality of all his cousin must have endured. Not merely the repeated violations of her body but the torment of her mind. He knew that many people never recovered from such atrocities. It was a testament to her strength that she survived at all.

Her following words cut him to his core and almost brought him to his knees. “When you touched me in Torreon, Will, all I felt was anger and hate. I can’t handle that right now. I don’t want that kind of energy around my baby.”

He wanted to deny her words. Not that. How could she ever move on now? “Baby? Are you sure? Do you…” He could not even bring himself to say the words.

“Yes, I’m sure. I’ve known for a few weeks. But the doctors at the hospital in Laredo confirmed it.”

Will wanted to push the thought in his mind aside. He knew that it went against everything their grandmother believed, but still, maybe it was the only way. “You could….”

“Terminate? No, I planned this baby. It’s Bobby’s. And yes, before you ask, I’m sure. That place was Garcia’s top-end whorehouse. And he made damned sure that everyone used protection.” Those words revolted him.

Perhaps she read his thoughts, the expression on his face, or his body language? Bebe’s shoulders slumped, “I don’t know, I suppose I thought if I got pregnant with his child that Bobby would… But none of that matters now.”

“I know you can never understand this. Hell, I’m not sure I do. But this baby is all I have. I know exactly how you feel about Bobby. Trust me, you broadcast those feelings so loud and clear that it overwhelmed me.”

Will stepped back as the impact of her words registered. That was why she had passed out in the barn?

“Will, ask yourself, what would it be like if I stayed with ya’ll? Watching my belly get bigger right alongside Mercy’s? How are you going to feel? Are you going to project your anger at Bobby onto his child? I know you’d never mean to. But….”

“But, like I said, this baby is all I have to live for right now. You know I can never go back to my parents. You know how daddy would feel. He’d say that my skirt was too short, or I must have looked at them the wrong way. It was always some Jezebel or harlot, the woman’s fault.”

“Maybe one day, I’ll go back to school.” She laughed bitterly, “Hell, even Bobby wanted to send me to Harvard. He graduated there, you know.”

They were both silent for a long moment. His mind raced with images of that smiling and optimistic young girl. The woman-child before him was neither of those things.

“I know you’ll never believe this. And I’m struggling with it myself, but he wasn’t all bad. Yeah, I know, better than you can imagine, the things he did. But in the end, he kept his promises. To you and to me. He saved them,” Bebe motioned to the Wilsons, who were beginning to break that hug.

“Maybe it is Stockholm syndrome. I don’t know. But I’m not that little girl they stole from that bus stop. The child you knew. And I can’t be like other teens. Even if it weren’t for this baby, I just could not bring myself to give a shit about make-up, clothes, boys, or some stupid video on the internet. But this world won’t see me as a woman or let me make my own choices either. So, thank you. I do appreciate your offer. But no. And no, I don’t know where or what I’m going to do. Other than this child. That’s the only sanity I’m holding onto right now.”

Will felt the ground shake beneath his feet at the honesty in her words and face. He wanted to deny it all. But Bebe was right. Somewhere along the road, he had lost his faith. Not only in his grandparent’s god, but in humanity. In his own ability to make a difference. And in its place, hatred and anger had grown.

She was accurate about something else too. He could not see this child she carried as a blessing like he did the little girl growing inside Mercy. But no matter who had fathered it, the child was innocent. It deserved to be wanted and accepted as his cousin seemed to. And he admitted that he would struggle to do that.

He had no words to offer, so he only nodded as Bebe walked away. He had come looking for reconciliation with her. What he had gotten was the hard truth. A deeper look at that man in the mirror. And he did not like what he saw. It was easy to blame men like Roberto and Diego Garcia. Hell, even ones like J. T. Tyler for perpetuating unjust systems.

It was harder to face the prejudice and hate in yourself. But at least, he knew where he stood and what he needed to do to become the kind of man that Bebe needed him to be, that Mercy deserved, and that would make Etta Mae Williams proud.

Ryan’s sleeves were rolled up as he carried the folding tables from a storage closet outside. Laura had made him leave his coat and tie at the house, telling him they were going to a country church, not a board or courtroom. She had worn a loose-fitting sundress to make feeding Chloe easier. The baby was the only one dressed up for church in a cute blue outfit and tiny booties.

It might be a good thing he had not worn the suit too. She and her Mama had put him, Jack, Reb, and Rex all to work carrying tables, a few chairs for those who might have trouble sitting on the ground, and setting out blankets on the ground, always a reasonable distance apart. Stacey and Laura were busy in the kitchen organizing the food.

His future wife might not be much of a cook, but the woman could clear out the deli at Walmax at 2 a.m. Lunch meats, fancy loaves of bread and cheeses, and all the condiments. Her mama had warned her not to bring any of that store-bought crap when it came to fried chicken, potato salad, and coleslaw. Evidently, Stacey, Mercy, and Rose had that covered. As well as homemade biscuits.

But it was not just their family. Others had bought food too. Cakes, cookies, and things that he had no idea what they were. The two tables that he and Rex had set up filled with bowls, platters, and casserole dishes so quickly that they had added two more. And from the looks of it, they might need another one or two. There was more food here than even this many people could eat.

He was proud of Laura. She had used the same organizational skills that she used as Chief Counsel in defense of her family. But what surprised him was just how much he felt a part of the whole thing, of her family, hell, even this screwed-up little town.

They had had several long conversations these past weeks, especially since coming back here. Sebida was even smaller than Fredericksburg, where he had grown up with that label, ‘bastard.’ Laura understood as well as he did the prejudices of small towns. But when balanced against the positives of being close to family, a slower pace of life, and more in touch with nature, well, small-town living had its own advantages.

They were staying. And while they could not continue to rent her former teacher’s house in town forever, they were already looking for a place to build their home. Tyler had assured them that Laura’s assets would be released, not that the man realized all the cash his woman had squirreled away. And his savings was not exactly paltry.

No, they had already decided to call Sebida home, though he liked the sound of this Reconciliation his future brother-in-law spoke about better. He had never been the ‘church type.’ But maybe, now that they were putting down roots, it wouldn’t be such a bad thing? At least every now and again.

“Excuse me. You’re Ryan Ranger, aren’t you?”

He turned to see the slightly older woman, maybe late forties or early fifties, holding out her perfectly manicured hand. She was definitely overdressed for this place. A designer suit that screamed Houston, maybe Dallas or Austin. Her dark hair was pulled back from her tight face. Perhaps a bit older? With some work?

He shook his head at her extended hand. Obviously, the woman had not gotten the memo about spreading this damned virus. But he had a family to protect. “Yeah, I’m Ryan. What can I help you with?”

She looked decidedly uncomfortable as she shifted from foot to foot, not something easily done on the grass in those heels. “Just a few moments of your time….”

“Listen, if you’re another reporter, I’m not interested. We’ve said all we have to. So, if you’ll excuse me, I have work to do.” He started to turn away as he saw Laura approaching with more plates.

“No, I’m not a reporter. My name is Renata Esparza-Cruz. I’m from the governor’s office,” she held out her hand yet again.

“Didn’t vote for the man. Don’t intend to. So, as I said, I have work to do, ma’am.”

“Yes, well, the governor asked me to speak with you.” She looked at Laura, who now stood at his back with a dessert of some kind in her hands. “Privately. A matter of a sensitive nature.”

“Okay, ma’am, let me make this clear,” he put his arm around Laura. “This is my fiancée and the mother of my child, Laura Reynolds. And come Friday, my wife. So, if you or the governor have anything to say to me, you’ll say it to us both.”

The woman nodded with a look of begrudging respect, “Fine, but can we go somewhere more private?”

Ryan was about to tell the woman exactly what he thought of her governor, but Laura’s hand on his arm and the way she looked up at him stopped him.

“As Ryan says, Ms. Esparanza-Cruz, we’re a bit busy right now.” Laura looked around at the crowd, milling about, “If you could let us know what the matter pertains to, then we can perhaps schedule some time to talk later.”

Damn, he loved this woman. Especially as he watched the other woman hem-and-haw.

But Ms. Cruz finally nodded her head reluctantly, “As you are aware, it is the governor’s responsibility to appoint an interim sheriff for Sebida county. Until a special election can be organized. He would like to offer the position to you, Mr. Ranger.”

Ryan frowned and started to shake his head, but those fingers on his arm squeezed gently. Laura turned to a young woman nearby, “Lizzie, can you finish up here? Ryan and I need to speak with this woman for a few moments.”

He tried to place the face. He knew he had seen this woman around town. Then the name registered. Lizzie Patterson owned the diner in town. She was also one of Mercy’s best friends. He was a bit shocked to see her here today. Sundays were some of her busiest at the diner, once church was over anyway. But she just smiled and nodded. “No problem.”

Laura laced her fingers through his and motioned with her head to the woman, “If you’ll follow us.”

She led them through the side door into the kitchen, “Mama, there’s not much left. Why don’t you go outside and double-check everything? I asked Lizzie to help out, but it seems pretty much done. Just need to find Bradley and have him say grace. I’ll finish up in here and join you in a bit.”

Stacey Reynolds didn’t miss a thing. Her dark eyes going from her daughter to his, then to the woman before nodding. “Sure thing, sweetie.” She leaned and kissed her daughter’s cheek. He was sure she whispered something to Laura, but he could not hear what.

The moment the door closed behind his future mother-in-law, Laura nodded her head to the woman, “Proceed.”

The woman cleared her throat, “As I was saying, the governor would like to appoint you as the interim sheriff until the special election can be called. Although, to be honest, there is no rush for that.”

“Why? Why me?”

“Tyler recommended you. When the governor asked, who he could trust to clean up this county, yours was the first name on the list.”

His first reaction was a resounding ‘no.’ He had a family now. And while this position was not as dangerous as going undercover or being a SEAL, it was not without risks. Especially as he, Tyler, and others believed that Kerr was not the only crooked cop around here. On the other hand, if they were going to make this their home, did he really want to raise his family in a place where you could not trust the legal system?

He looked at Laura. The nod of her head was almost imperceptible. But those eyes told him she was thinking the same thing. He turned back to the woman, “I want complete control of personnel.” He would not work with anyone that his gut told him he could not trust. It was his deal-breaker.

“I understand your concerns, Mr. Ranger, but it is the governor’s hope that any other corrupt law enforcement officers can be brought….”

“I’m sorry, Ms. Cruz, but this is not open to negotiations. Texas is an at-will employment state. I will not put my life at risk working with anyone I do not trust. Thank your boss for me, but….”

“The governor would like you to give this matter serious consideration, Mr. Ranger.”

“I did. And those are my terms. The governor can take them or leave them. Oh, and that goes for who I hire, too.”

The woman looked from him to Laura at his side. If she thought to appeal to his woman, she’d have another think coming. He knew that Laura would support him on this one. As he would support her, whatever she decided to do.

“Alright, Mr. Ranger. You have a deal. The governor would like to make the announcement tomorrow at noon on the steps of the courthouse.”

“One more thing, I need Friday off.” He lifted Laura’s hand to his lips and kissed the knuckle with his ring on it. “I’m getting married.”

The woman’s smile was tight, “Congratulations. I assume your fiancée will be joining us on Monday then.”

“You bet your sweet ass I am, Ms. Esparanza-Cruz.” Laura smiled at the woman. “Our daughter, too.”

This time the woman’s smile was genuine, “I see that one of you knows how to play this game.”

“No, I know how to beat the system. Don’t make the mistake of under-estimating my husband again. We’re not taking this job to make the governor look good for the next election. We’re doing it for this town. For our daughter, so she can walk or bike these streets safely. We’re doing it to bring justice to Sebida. And if you missed my brother-in-law’s sermon to transform Reconciliation. Texas-style.”

“Now, if you’ll excuse us, we have a luncheon to attend. The first of many, I’m sure. You’re welcome to stay. Of course. Please have my husband’s employment contract emailed to me this afternoon. I’ll get back to you with any changes before tomorrow.” Laura reached for her purse and hand the woman a card. Then they walked from the kitchen hand-in-hand.

Ryan noticed people were already at the tables helping themselves. Coming up in family groups, one at a time. Beginning with those with children and older adults. He looked out at the sea of primarily masked faces, though a few had taken them off to eat. But that’s why they had placed the old quilts so far apart.

It hit him then. The weight of the responsibility he had just accepted. These people deserved a safe place to call home. A town where you knew you could trust law enforcement to apply justice fairly regardless. It was a heavy burden.

She leaned against his back and squeezed his fingers tightly, “You did the right thing. And I promise it’s not a burden you’ll bear alone. This is my town, Ryan. Once I thought, happiness was Sebida, Texas, in my rearview mirror. But I learned the hard way. People are the same wherever you go. Houston. London. Los Angeles. Hong Kong. Some are bad. But more of them are good.”

“As Edmund Burke said, ‘the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.’ There are a lot of good people in this town who have done nothing for way too long. Maybe because they were afraid. Or because they did not think they could make a difference. Or because they believed that’s just the way this world worked.”

“Like you told the woman, this is about those people, this town, about Chloe, Rahab, Mercy’s and Elena’s new babies. Brad was right. We can reconsecrate this town. Make it a better place for them.”

Her fingers caressed his face as tears shone in those dark eyes, “I’m proud of you, Ryan. Proud of the man that does the right thing, even when it’s hard. And I’ll be proud to stand by your side on the steps of that courthouse tomorrow. And proud to walk down the aisle on Friday. I didn’t know it, but that night in the pub, I made the smartest decision of my life.”

He bent his head and tenderly kissed her lips. “I will always be guilty of love in the first degree. ”

She smiled and chuckled, “I love you too, counselor. Just remember that this job comes with handcuffs. And if you keep talking about this locking you away inside of my love, you’re gonna give me some kinky ideas.”

“No, if anyone is using those handcuffs, it’ll be me.”

“We’ll see, counselor. Although it looks like I’m going to have to get used to calling you sheriff.”

“Not for long….”

“No, that’s where the governor has it wrong, Ryan. If he thinks this is a safe, non-political appointment, and he’ll bring in one of his people to run this town, once you have straightened all the shit up, he’s wrong. This town needs a sheriff it can trust, and you are that man.”

“We’ll see….”

“You realize that usually means I win, right?”

He pressed another kiss to her lips, “Nope, counselor, as long as I have you by my side, we both win.”

“In this case, I think it is Reconciliation that wins. Now, let’s go tell my family.”

Ryan smiled, “Yeah, I know just who my first deputy is, too.”

Mercy did her best to listen to whatever Abby Jean was saying. She really tried. But she couldn’t keep her eyes off Will. He was across the grass field, where the old church bordered with Old Lady Milton’s pasture. He was talking with Bebe, and whatever his cousin was saying was not good from the look on his face.

She knew that Bebe felt estranged from her family, Will included. The only one who might have been able to reach the girl was their grandmother. But Etta Mae Williams had died a couple of weeks before she met Will.

She understood; she truly got it. Bebe’s trouble with Will was his attitude towards her baby brother. She could even empathize with the girl. Roberto Garcia, for a few weeks, had been almost like family to her. Or as close as she’s come in that place.

But she got where Will was coming from too. She was under no illusion that the man had been a saint. She knew he had kidnapped Grace, beaten Rose, and committed murder. But the sin that Will could not forgive him for – was taking a fifteen-year-old girl as his lover.

Mercy watched tears roll down the girl’s face as she took a step back from the man who had destroyed the career he loved and put their lives at risk to bring the girl home. That, too, was the problem. For Bebe, there was no going back. She would never be that innocent little girl at the bus stop, if she ever indeed had been. She would never be like other teenage girls either.

Yet, she was denied the right to determine her own future. A minor. Her father was demanding that she go back to Dallas. Will wanted her to stay with them. Not that she would mind. But Mercy just was not sure it was the right thing for the girl or the man she loved.

“Earth to Mercy,” Lizzie called her back.

Lizzie’s arms were wrapped around Abby Jean. Their friend was a total and utter mess. She had driven to Austin and back yesterday. It was a fucking miracle she had not run Miss Myrtle’s precious mint-green 1957 Chevy Bel Air off the road or wrapped it around a tree.

And for what? A man? No, a spineless, cheating, worthless weasel. No, that was not fair to the cute rodents. John William Cummins might have Texas blood bluer than even the Monroe’s, but he was not worth this. She and Lizzie had been trying to tell Abby Jean that for the last year and a half. Honestly, she was out of patience with the girl.

“What do you want me to say? He’s a worthless piece of shit. Are you really surprised to find him with another woman?”

Abby hiccuped; the girl was not a pretty crier. Her peaches and cream complexion was mottled, her long blond hair was tangled. “Damn, girl, you need a shower. Pull yourself together. It’s just a break-up.”

Lizzie sent her one of those scathing looks. Mercy was sorry if her best friend didn’t like this brand of tough love. But dammit, what did Abby Jean Monroe know about life anyway? Sure, she was Miss Myrtle’s bastard granddaughter. But in Sebida, the name Monroe carried more weight than that.

Mercy was not as close to Abby as she was Lizzie. Maybe it was the age difference? She was the oldest at thirty-two. Lizzie was only a couple of years younger. But Abby was the youngest. At twenty-seven, the girl was a mere babe. But Lizzie had drawn the young girl into their protective circle, almost like some mascot. At least until Miss Myrtle found out that her precious granddaughter was hanging out with that ‘wild Reynolds’ girl.

Aside from the handful of times that Lizzie and Abby had lied to the girl’s grandmother so they could have a sleepover, she had not really known the girl. Not until Abby Jean came back here eighteen months ago to care for her dying grandmother. Miss Mrytle had mellowed in her old age. She had even welcomed Mama into her home when she took over a casserole and pound cake.

Perhaps she was not fair to the girl, but dammit, wasn’t it time for her to grow the fuck up? “Listen, Abby Jean, go home. Take a shower. Find your big girl’s panties, and put those fuckers on. The man ain’t worth this, and you know it. It’s not like you even really loved him. Otherwise, you would have let J.W. punch your V-card sometime in the last… What five years?”

Lizzie frowned at her and shook her head, but maybe a heaping helping of the truth was what the girl needed right now. “Come on, Lizzie. You know I’m right. J.W. Cummins was nothing more than Abby Jean trying to impress Miss Myrtle with the right kind of boyfriend.”

She grabbed Abby by the shoulders and shook her, “You know it, too. Andrew Jackson Greywolf is the only man that’s ever gotten your panties in a knot. So, what you gonna do about it?”

Abby sniffled; yeah, a runny nose too. This girl was definitely not a pretty crier. Mercy turned to the table of food a couple of feet away and grabbed a handful of napkins. They might not be Miss Myrtle’s fancy, monogrammed handkerchiefs, but they’d wipe up tears and snot just as well.

She pressed them into Abby’s hand. “You know what you need? To get good and drunk. Cry into your beer, or white wine, or girly drink. Get that man out of your system and get on with your life.” Lizzie gave her a vicious stare then. “Yeah, I know how you feel about drinking, and I get that, Lizzie. But we won’t let her drive. You have my word on that.”

“Alcohol never solves anyone’s problems.”

Mercy put her arm around her other friend. Lizzie had been nineteen and in her first year of college when she got that call. The one that no one wants. There had been an accident. Her mother and step-father had been killed instantly. Her eight-year-old half-brother was in bad shape.

A drunk driver had cost her best friend her whole life as much as he had her parents or her younger brother his legs. Lizzie had been the good girl, quitting school, coming home to care for Gareth, and taking over the diner to keep a roof over their heads and food on the tables.

Mercy squeezed Lizzie’s shoulders, “It’s one night. And it’s my bachelorette party.”

“What?” Both of her friends squealed like the teenage girls they had all once been in another life. But Mercy had never been like them. Even back then, she had carried a heavy load. And while Lizzie had joined that club, Abby Jean was still incredibly naive. The damned girl needed a protector. Maybe she’d help that one on a bit….

“Yeah, Will and I are getting married.”

“What? When?” Lizzie helped Abby Jean to dry her eyes, though they were red and puffy. That girl really should not cry.

“We’re having a double wedding here with Laura and Ryan on Friday evening.”

“What? So soon? But there’s no time….”

“Don’t even think it, Elizabeth Chandler Patterson. I am not wearing any damned dress. Blue jeans and a fancy t-shirt. That’s it.”


“But that’s final. So, what do you two say? A final girl’s night? How about at the casino? My treat, since I’m a best-selling ‘author’ now.”

They all giggled, and Lizzie smiled, though Mercy could tell it was not easy for her friend. She knew some pains ran deep. “Okay, it’s a date.”

Abby Jean pasted a fake smile on her face, “Alright, but no kissing or feeling one another up this time. I turned that offer down once this week already.”

Now that Mercy could understand her friend being upset about. She would have never thought J.W. had the balls to suggest that her prim-and-proper friend join him and his lover in a poly-relationship. Not that it was genuinely poly, the man had gotten caught with his pants down, quite literally. But she would bet there was nothing worth looking at anyway.

“It’s a deal. I’ll text you the details. But I have something I need to do now. And girl, go fix your make-up, girl; it’s just a break-up.”

Before she could get another note out, Lizzie was smiling and joining her in the chorus, “Run and hide your crazy and start actin’ like a lady ’cause I raised you better. Gotta keep it together, even when you fall apart. But this ain’t our mama’s broken heart.”

By the end, even Abby Jean was laughing and nodding. No, what this girl was going through wasn’t her Mama’s broken heart.

That went much deeper. A pain that her mother had borne alone for most of Mercy’s life. But no more. Neither of them might buy Brad’s Jesus bullshit, but there was no doubt where reconciliation began for her. And if she was to start a new life with the man she loved, it was time to let those old secrets go.

She walked over to her mother, who was putting more food out on the table. Yeah, it was long past time, “Mama, can we talk?”

“Sure, babygirl. Just let me finish getting these out.” Mercy took the platter from her mother and began distributing cookies and cakes, too. Now that this moment had come, she wasn’t sure she had either the words or the courage to go through with it. Especially as they finished their task all too quickly.

Stacey drew her daughter away from the crowd around the side of the building. “What did you want to talk about, Mercy?”

She shifted from foot to foot, her head down, unable to look this woman in the eye. She wrapped her arms around herself and started rocking back and forth. She was back there. In that dark hallway. Listening to her mother’s stifled groans and pleas.

“Mercedes, snap out of it,” her mother shook her gently as she had Abby Jean.

Her eyes met the woman who had sacrificed everything for her. Over a stupid candy bar, and the tears came in a torrent of pain. “It’s all my fault. Everything. I’m sorry, Mama. I stole that chocolate, not Laura. And…”

Her daughter’s words finally registered in Stacey’s mind. She had been so distracted with dealing with her own shit. This place brought back almost as many memories as that cabin had. And none of them were pleasant.

Except today and Elena’s wedding. But even at her daughter’s wedding, she had stood on the steps. On the outside, looking in. But that’s how she had dealt with life for as long as she could remember. Like it was a lousy movie that was happening to someone else.

Mercy’s confession broke through all that. She heard the depths of her little girl’s pain. How much did her daughter know of what had happened? But that was not possible. Her girls had been safely in bed. She had kept quiet. So that she did not wake them.

Oh my god, Mercy had come down the hall after Kerr left. She had grabbed the quilt from the back of the couch, but maybe she had not been quick enough? Perhaps Mercy had seen the bruises? She was only five, so Stacey had assumed that if she did, it would not register. But maybe Mercy had remembered later?

Stacey did something rare for her anyway. She could probably count the number of times she had hugged her girls. Like that day when Elena and Brad had left. But now, Stacey wrapped her sobbing daughter in her arms. “It was no biggie. It was just a candy bar.”

But Mercy broke free and what she saw in her daughter’s face had her clutching the walls. The girl’s words only confirmed her worst nightmare as a mother. “No, Mama. I know the truth. I was there. In the hall. I heard….”

Stacey’s knees gave out, and she fell against the side of the building. She shook her head violently, but she could not deny the truth written in Mercy’s eyes. “No,” she was crying as hard as her daughter.

But through it all, the same need to protect her children, which had forced her to give in to the man’s threats that night, had her reaching out for her youngest child now. “It wasn’t your fault, Mercy.”

“If I hadn’t stolen that candy….”

The truth hit Stacey then, and it hurt. It was as devastating as the rape had been, as watching helplessly as that cabin burned. But it was a revelation that she knew would change her life and others as she spoke it forth.

“If it hadn’t been the candy, it would have been something else. A parking ticket, speeding, a broken taillight. Something. As long as society turns a blind eye to men like that, women will be vulnerable.”

She shook her daughter, but in fact, it was herself that was shaken. “I won’t have you blaming yourself. Women have been conditioned to do that for too long. To question the clothes we wore or the route home we took. Or the look we gave some man.”

“But that has to stop. Earl Kerr was a monster. He was the only one responsible for what happened that night. Not you, or Laura, or me. We didn’t do anything that justified his actions.” That truth finally registered in her fractured mind. And it freed her in a way nothing else had. Except maybe Reb.

“Maybe it’s too late for me. And I’m so sorry that you kept this all inside of you for so long. I’d like to think that you could have come to me, but to be honest, if you had back then, I would have probably just yelled at you. Not because I was angry or blamed you, but because I blamed myself for not protecting you.”

It was hard to face that too. To realize how she had pushed away even her girls. Oh, she had done everything she could to feed them, clothe them, and educate them. But from that moment, some part of her had been locked away even from her daughters.

“But this has to stop.” She reached out her hand and placed it on her daughter’s flat stomach, “This little girl, Chloe, Rahab, her sister, all these little girls deserve that better world Brad talked about. And it is up to you and me, babygirl, to give it to them. To stop hiding, to speak our truth, and to stand together with other women. To say – no more.”

She brushed the tears and the trail of dark mascara stains from Mercy’s cheeks. Then she used the back of her hand to dry her own. “I’ve always told you girls that Reynolds women are survivors. But that ain’t good enough no more. Just surviving is what victims do. And we’re not victims.”

“Reynolds women are ass-kickers and world changers.” Stacey chuckled and smiled as she saw Elena come around the corner, “Even the quiet ones.”

She held out her other arm for her middle daughter. Elena laid her head against her mother’s shoulder on one side, and Mercy did the same on the other. “I know I don’t say it enough, but I love you all. And I am so fucking proud of all of you.”

“Mama,” Elena exclaimed.

“So, that’s where all of you have gotten off to? A Reynolds’s family reunion and I’m not invited?” Laura’s eyes were dancing with laughter as she joined them. “I’ve got something to tell you.”

Reb watched them. Maybe he was wrong. Perhaps Stacey did belong here with her daughters. Did it really matter where they lived? As long as she was by his side, that was enough, right? Maybe her son-in-law was correct? Perhaps it was unnecessary to live in an isolated community like Agartha to find that kind of paradise? Goddess knew that place was not perfect either.

So, why did something about that not sit right with his soul? How could the place that he had spent more than two decades running from have gotten such a hold on his heart? It was like the place was calling him home. But that couldn’t be right. Home was this woman. Wherever she was.

Her daughters laughed as they drifted away. Laura tried to pull her mother with them, but Stacey shook her head. Their eyes met. How long had she known he was there? Why did it not surprise him? She smiled and said something. Her daughter nodded and moved away to follow her sisters.

“I’ve been looking for you. We need to talk.”

Her words so closely mirrored his own thoughts. Reb nodded and closed the distance to her side. As he approached, she held out what looked like a folded square of paper. “What’s this?”

“Read it.”

He took it and unfolded the scrap. The words on the page were barely legible. Not only had they been quickly scrawled, but the ink was smeared, and the paper pockmarked with tears. The woman’s for certain. But something told him that some of those stains belonged to the woman he loved.

“Will your mother and sister help? Will they honor her last request?”

Reb nodded without hesitation, “Of course.” But his mind was filled with the implications in that brief paragraph. It took him a moment to gather his thoughts and courage, but she spoke before he could.

“I’m going back there.” She was crying again, and those tears ripped his heart out of his asshole. “Even before this, I knew Agartha was where I belonged. But now… Now, I have some purpose, some meaning to my fucked up life. Or what’s left of it?”

Her words ate at his soul. This incredible beautiful soul, without a thought, would take on the responsibility of raising the daughters of the man who had raped her. Sure, there were stories like that preacher talked about, women having and raising their children conceived in rape.

But this was different. These girls were not related to her at all. Just three children who had seen too much. Three girls who had endured goddess knew what at the hands of their father. And who now had lost the one parent that had found the courage to protect them. Three young women alone in this world.

Her eyes stared up at him, overflowing with those tears. Her hand reached out to caress his cheek, and Reb leaned into it. He turned his head and kissed her palm. “I’m sorry, Reb. I know how you feel about that place. I know you only went back there for my sake.”

“But from the moment I looked out at that sunrise, Agartha spoke to me.” Her shoulders slumped, “I know my daughters have decided to stay here. I hope Brad is right, that they can be this change. And I’ll miss seeing my grandbabies every day. But these last weeks have shown me I can still talk to them. Share their lives in chat, or videos, or pictures. They can come to visit, or I can come back here. Once in a while, maybe.”

“This place was never my home. And these last couple of weeks have shown me, it never can be. There are just too many bad memories. They’d always be here. Always hold me back. And now this….”

“When?” was the only word Reb could manage to force out his lips. His heart was pounding. Tears filled his eyes so that her face blurred but never her beauty. This woman’s beauty came from within. And he saw that crystal clear.

“I found it in my purse. When I was switching them out for the funeral.” He knew she had been reticent that day. She had been ever since. But this….

“Are you sure? My mother and sister will care for those girls, raise them. You don’t have to….”

“Yes, yes, I do. Maybe this is my reconciliation? Going back there, raising those babies. I know things are going to be tough, especially for Beth. She’s been through so much. Now, this.”

Stacey dropped her head. She silently stared at the ground for a moment, “I just found out that Mercy knew. That she was hiding in the shadows the first time, he raped me.” She looked up at him, “She blamed herself. A five-year-old little girl thought it was her fault that a man raped her mother. Because she had stolen a fucking chocolate bar.”

“We have to break these cycles of violence and blame. I’ve done all I can here with my girls. They have to make their own choices. And they’ve got good men, real partners, by their side. But those girls have no one now. I’m sorry, Reb. As much as I love you, I have to go back there. Back to Agartha. I have to do this.”

Her words knocked the air from his lungs. Did she even realize what she had said? He’d play it cool, just in case. Just this once. He didn’t want to spook his woman now that she was coming to realize the truth. Reb laced his fingers through her hair and pulled her forward. He pressed a kiss to her forehead. “Your girls aren’t the only ones with ‘real partners,’ sweetheart.”

She shook her head, “I can’t, Reb. I know how you feel about that place. I can’t ask you….”

“How I felt. How I felt about Agartha was bound up in a whole bunch of shit to do with my fucked up family. But as daddy reminded me, it was my connection to that place that started it all. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I’m not promising you this is going to be easy. My family is still a mess.”

She started to shake her head in denial, “Trust me, woman. If we go back there… When we go back to Agartha, I’m sure it won’t take long for my mother’s husband and my little brother to show up.”

“But I thought that….”

Reb shook his head and laughed, “Trust me, darling, as gifted a visionary as Celestine Rainbow Moonmother may be, when it comes to men, she’s blind as a bat. And the moment they find out that I’m back, I’m sure that Edward and Malcolm Stanley-Neville will descend on Agartha like locusts. Somehow or the other, they feel that a piece of paper makes Malcolm more my mother’s child than Indie or I. But we’ll deal with that when it happens.”

“I came here to tell you that wherever you are, I’ll be by your side. And while Sebida is… Okay, I can’t lie. No matter what your son-in-law said, I don’t much like this place. It seemed from the moment that we crossed the county line, you shrunk back into that shell. That I lost you. But if this was what you wanted, where you wanted to live, I’d do it. Damn, am I glad that you don’t, though. So, when can we go home, woman?”

“Home? Partner? But I….”

“You’re stuck with me, woman. So, best you get used to it. I asked a question. When do we leave? I can be packed by sundown. Hell, screw that, let’s leave now.”

Stacey shook her head and laughed. The first genuine one he had heard since they left Agartha. Reb knew the road ahead would not be smooth or easy. He wasn’t totally sure that she even understood the task she had set for herself. But he knew that if anyone could set aside her personal pain and the past to do the right thing by three innocent girls, it was his woman. And damned straight, he would be by her side. Every step of the way.

Sebida, Texas, wasn’t the only place that could do with a healthy dose of that Reconciliation. And maybe, just maybe, it was time that he stood fully into his own calling. The one that had brought them to Agartha. This woman was a hell of a priestess to fulfill that vision together.

“Afraid, we have a few more days here. Seems I have a wedding to plan. A double wedding.”

He shrugged, whenever or wherever, as long as they were together. “So, when is the big day?”


“What the fuck?”

But as with everything else, if anyone could do it, it was Stacey Reynolds.

Rose had said her goodbyes to her friend with a promise to stay in touch through video conferencing. She and Stacey Reynolds might seem polar opposites to some people, but their love for their girls united them above all. She could not help but think of Wanda, who had made the ultimate sacrifice for her daughters. She brushed back tears. It was still hard to think about….

Chad was double-checking that their couple of bags were secure in the back of the truck. Of course, they had not taken much with them. Certainly not for the two weeks they were away. She had been worried about the ranch and animals, but Chad had assured her that his friend Travis’s father would make sure the horses and other animals were fed and watered. In exchange for the fresh eggs and milk, of course.

She would be glad to get back to her old life. It seemed strange, but in the short time she and Grace had been there, the place had become home. More so than that fancy house in Piney Pointe ever had been.

Of course, she worried that the reporters would find the place somehow. She knew everyone was clamoring for her story. Their story. But she still was not sure how much of the truth she wanted to share. It wasn’t just her story to tell.

Grace might know the truth about her birth now, but that did not mean she wanted the whole world to. But as Chad said, they would have time when they got home to talk about that and agree together. No more lies or keeping things from their daughter. Speaking of which, “Have you seen Grace?”

Chad nodded his head towards the fence line, where she noticed Grace talking with the other girl. “She’s gonna miss Bebe.”

Rose was worried about the other girl. She did not want to even think about the things that the girl had been through. But oddly enough, Bebe had been good for Grace, close enough in age that they could identify with one another, but neither were typical teens.

What would become of her now? She knew the girl did not want to go back to her parents in Dallas, but she had overheard enough of the conversation with her cousin to know she did not want to stay here either. Maybe….

Chad finished and came to stand beside her, looking across the field where the girls were now embracing and crying. “You know, maybe…. Bebe could stay with us for a bit?”

He nodded slowly, “But you heard….”

“That she’s pregnant? Yes, and I know that going to be hard. But…” She wasn’t certain how to put any of it into words. She was not even sure she understood herself, “It just feels right.”

“Our girl could use a friend close to her own age around. If she don’t want to go back to school.”

She understood their daughter’s concerns about school better than he did. Callie’s last few months at the academy had been traumatic. Discovering that people you thought of as friends your whole life weren’t had left its mark. And not only would she be the ‘new girl’ in a small town where most of the kids had known one another their whole lives, but there was the notoriety of their situation. Between the whispers of gossips and not knowing who your friends were, school was not the best option for their daughter. Or for the other girl….

“You go talk to them. I’ll find her cousin and discuss it with him,” Chad kissed her forehead.

She flung herself into his arms, “Thank you.”

“Anything for my girls. And it seems I just got another one. Now go, woman. So we can get this show on the road. I want to sleep in my own bed tonight.”

Rose went up on her tiptoes and pressed a kiss to his lips, “I’m not promising you that you’ll get much sleep. But I’ll be glad to be back in our bed too. Bebe can have my old room.”

He laughed, “I’m gonna lose my study to your sewing, ain’t I?”

She blushed and nodded as she turned to the girls, strolling towards her with their arms about one another. She hoped this was the right thing. It felt like it. But still….

No, none of this was that girl’s fault or the baby’s. She could do this. She was strong. Stronger than her daddy or Gerald had ever imagined. This was the best thing. For Grace. For Bebe. And for her baby. His baby… The man who had stolen her little girl. Who had beaten her. Who had….

No, she plastered a smile on her face as the girls approached, “Are you ready to go, Grace?”

Her daughter looked down at the ground and shrugged. “As ready as I’ll ever be.”

She was back to that sullen teen. But then again, wasn’t that common? But these girls weren’t ‘normal.’ Both had been through things that others their age could never comprehend. These girls needed one another. And maybe she needed them?

Her eyes met Bebe’s, “And you? What are your plans? I’m sorry. I don’t mean to be nosey, but we couldn’t help but overhear your conversation with your cousin earlier.”

“It’s okay, Miss Rose. It wasn’t like I was whispering,” the girl’s smile was tight. “I don’t know, right now.”

She looked from her daughter’s bowed head to the young woman’s sad eyes. “We have a spare room. If you’re interested.”

Rose was almost knocked off her feet as Grace threw herself at her. “Really, Mama? Bebe can stay with us? Do you mean it? Daddy agreed?”

She nodded her head and looked at the other girl, “If she wants. And yes, it was your father’s idea as much as mine. What do you say, Bebe? Would you like to stay at the ranch? At least until you decide what you want to do?”

The girl looked from her to her daughter then dropped her head to the ground. “If you heard me tell Will I didn’t want to stay with them, how much of the rest did you get?”

She knew what the girl was asking, and honestly, she had been asking herself the same question since the idea came into her mind. Would she be able to do what the girl asked one bit better than her cousin? Could she watch this woman-child’s belly grow bigger? Could she be excited for the girl, knowing all she had lost? Could she forget who that child’s father was? What he had done to her? All she had lost.

All she could do was be honest with the girl and herself. “I heard. All of it. And all I can promise is to try. As that preacher said, to make peace with things as they are. I can’t promise I’m going to be perfect. That I won’t be sad sometimes thinking about the baby, I lost. But none of that was your fault or that child. I understand if you say no. But I do believe this can work. Grace has decided to continue her home education rather than going to a new school. The two of you could study together.”

“But I do have one condition. I know that Stacey set you up with some counselor online. You need to continue that.”

The girl nodded, “I know. I’m going to. No matter what. For this baby’s sake.”

The girl looked from her to Grace and back again. Rose could see the indecision in her eyes. But Bebe held out her hand, met her halfway. Rose grasp it, not as a man might in a handshake, but with both her hands, she held the girl’s tightly.

She half-expected Bebe to pull away for a moment, but then the young woman looked up with a smile, “Yes, yes, I’d like to stay with you. At least for a bit. Until I decide what’s next.”

Grace gave a loud whoop and scooped them both into her arms. It seemed that group hugs might become their thing. And Rose knew that she might need lots of them in the weeks and months ahead. This reconciliation thing definitely felt right, but she knew it would not be easy. But seeing the joy on her daughter’s face was worth it.

“Chad’s gone to talk with Will. I know that he and Mercy are getting married this week. Did you want to stay for that? We could come back for you after the wedding.”

“No, I just want to leave this place. As quickly as I can.”

Rose remembered then that Stacey had told her how the sheriff had been part of the network that trafficked these girls across the border. Bebe had not said anything specifically, but it was possible this was not the child’s first time in this town. How difficult these past few days must have been for the girl?

“Okay, then. We’ll head back to Stacey’s and pack your stuff.”

“No, I don’t have anything there, really. Please, I just want to leave.”

Rose watched the girl’s bottom lip tremble. She remembered her words about no longer being a child but not being a typical teen or woman. Bebe had been through so much. But no matter how strong this woman-child was, everyone had their limits, and she realized that the girl was reaching hers.

“Then, let’s get on the road.”

Grace grabbed her friend’s hand and dragged Bebe towards the truck, talking non-stop. She had lost a baby in Torreon. But maybe Fate had brought her something in return? Time would tell.

Mercy watched Will grasp hands with Chad Wilson. She knew well the tensions between the men. Even when Chad had sought him out in the hospital to talk things through, she knew that Will had been unable to accept the absolution the man offered. Would he now?

She knew how heavily it had all weighed on his broad shoulders. The choices he had made. But he took far too much of the responsibility on those shoulders. He was no Sisyphus or Atlas to bear the weight of eternal punishment. He had done what he had to do. When no one else would. They both had.

Of course, maybe she was a bit of the pot calling that kettle black. Her mother’s words of exculpation were still hard to accept. But Mercy was finding the woman’s war cry a far sight easier to embrace. It was time for this world to change. To become a safer and more accepting place for everyone.

She smiled as she approached the men, “Stay in touch. And I promise I’ll look out for her like one of my own.” Chad nodded at her as he walked away.

“What was that all about?”

“Bebe is going to stay with the Wilsons’ for a bit.” Will reached out and drew her into his arms, resting his head against her shoulders.

Was that such a good idea? But how did she even ask that question without revealing her own secrets and the woman’s? That was not her place to do. To be fair, she was not even sure what the doctors had told the woman, what Rose remembered of her time in Torreon, or whether the woman even knew she had miscarried. Maybe she was just borrowing trouble, as Mama said.

If it was what Bebe wanted, she had to trust the girl to know what was best for herself. And her brother’s child. They had only talked briefly last night while her famous lemon pound cake was baking. She and Bebe had sat on the front porch, looking up at the stars. The girl wore some of her clothes that Mama had given her, and in the moonlight, it was hard to say if she was a child or a woman. But that was Bebe’s problem. Stuck somewhere between the two.

“What about her parents? I thought her father….”

Will nodded and pulled her closer, “Yeah, he does. But I’ll speak with my aunt. See if I can make her understand. If not… Well, your sister spoke with Bebe earlier about going to court for emancipation. Especially since… Did you know? That she’s pregnant? With his kid?”

As hard as it was, Mercy would never have an untruth between them. She nodded slowly, “But only since last night. I asked her to tell you herself. I assume she did?”

“She said that she didn’t want to live with us because she can feel my anger and hate. I know she’s right. I just don’t know how to fix it.”

She pulled him closer, wrapped her arms around his waist as she felt his tears wet the shoulder of her t-shirt. They stood like that by the old weeping willow. The writer in her appreciated the imagery of that one as she held the man she loved.

She drew back just enough to look him in the face. “There’s only one antidote for hate, Will. That’s love. And I believe we’ve got a pretty good start on that one. We just need to give her some time. Bebe has her own shit that she’s dealing with. Let her heal.”

“Maybe this baby isn’t such a bad thing? I know that’s hard for you to see. She’s just a little girl to you. But the things that happened to her there… She can’t go back. Perhaps this baby gives her a reason to go forwards?”

“You sound just like her,” his smile sent those butterflies into flight in her tummy. Mercy had a feeling that it might always.

“Perdóname por favor,” a young man, he couldn’t be much older than Bebe, approached them.

His hands were stuffed in the pockets of his jeans, and his shoulders slumped. Mercy could not see much of his face behind the mask, but those dark eyes pulled at her heartstrings. The pain in them was almost overwhelming. She recognized it. She had seen it before. In a cornfield in Bumfuck.

“You are Senor Caleb Williams, no?”

Will nodded his head as he stood straighter, but he kept his arm around her waist. Mercy was glad that he did. They both might need that reassurance. “Yes, do I know you?”

“No, senor. But did you mean it?”

“Mean what?”

“That all women deserve justice? Did you mean that?”

There it was. Somehow Mercy knew it was coming. Was this more than merely his calling? And she had no doubt that it was Will’s purpose. But her Mama’s words rang in her ears, ‘ass-kickers and world-changers.’ “Yes, we meant that.”

The boy’s eyes drifted to hers as he nodded, “I remember you, too. The writer lady?”

Mercy nodded with a smile, “And his partner.” She would have sworn that Will growled. “How can we help you?”

“It’s my sister. Selena has been missing for a couple of weeks. But the policia won’t listen.” Those dark eyes almost pleaded as loudly as the boy’s words as he looked at Will, “They say that she is an adult, and since there is no evidence of foul play, they can’t help us.”

Will started to shake his head, “I’m sorry, but we’re getting….”

Mercy elbowed his ribs hard enough to knock the wind out of him. “What police? Austin? Dallas? Houston? Have you tried the Texas Rangers?”

“No, Senorita, Selena was interning at some fancy law firm in Los Angeles. But the LAPD will not listen… I tried to get Mama and Papa to go to Telemundo with the story, but they are afraid….”

“Of immigration?”

“Si, senor. Selena and I are citizens; we were born in El Paso. My tio and his familia live there. Selena stayed with them so she could go to high school in America. She got scholarships to college and now law school. But… She would not do this, senor. She knows that Papa worries and that Mama’s heart is not so good. She would not become involved with people like that….”

“People like what? I’m sorry, what did you say your name was?” Mercy asked with what she hoped was a comforting smile.

“Javier. Javier Ortiz. Me padre is Jesus and me madre Jimena.”

“You said that your sister would not become involved with ‘people like that,’ what people? And how do the police know who she is involved with?” Mercy’s panties got wet just from the tone of his voice as Will asked questions that would not have occurred to her.

“Gangs. Bloods and Crips. The police traced Selena’s cell phone. All of the hits were known gang hideouts. That’s when they told my papa they would not get involved. They said that she must have gotten involved with the wrong people. But she would not do that. Selena had big dreams… She wanted to be President one day.”

Mercy braced her hand against Will’s abdomen. She knew how hard those words were for him. How much they mirrored another little girl’s dreams. And how deeply he felt he had let Bebe down.

She looked up at him, “Does it seem strange to you? That the girl would be involved with both? I thought they were enemies?”

“Yeah, but if she’s a courier or a messenger, it’s possible.” He turned to the young man, “Was your sister acting differently? Before all this happened?”

“Si, senor. Since right after she started this internship, she has been quiet. Not the same. I thought that something was wrong… She swore it was just the work and long hours. But then, right before it happened, she told Mama that she might come home for a while. That she needed to get away and think.”

Will shook his head, “I want to help. But I’m not sure how much I can do. Los Angeles is….”

“The perfect place for a honeymoon. I’ve always wanted to go there. And my agent said there are a couple of studios interested in making my books into movies.” She batted her eyes at Will but was not pleased with his frown.

“We just came back from Torreon. I don’t want you or that baby in danger again, woman.”

“Pish-tottle. If we’re with you, we’ll be perfectly safe. This could be that window, Will. That higher-purpose. Please, at least, let’s look into it a bit further.”

“Please, senor. You are our only chance. We can’t pay you much. But Papa and Mama have been saving money for me to go to college. It is only a few thousand, but….”

“Keep your money. You’ll need it for school. Didn’t you hear I’m a famous author now? Please, Will, you know we have to do this. I know you if anything happens to this girl and you didn’t at least try, you’d never….”

His dark eyes closed, and his head dropped, “Blessed, woman. We’ll do it.” He looked back up at the young man, “But we can’t leave until after the wedding on Friday. And I’ll need everything you have. The police files. Any emails she sent you or your parents. Access to her phone records if you can. I’ll look those over first, and we’ll talk more. But not here, not now.”

The young man nodded. Mercy was almost sure he was smiling behind that mask, “Garcias, senor. Garcias.”

“I’m not promising anything. The statistics… aren’t on our side. All I can do is have a look at those files. You understand?”

“Si,” the young man held out his hand but then seemed to remember that the world they lived in was changing.

Mercy grabbed a napkin from the table and scribbled her number and email on it. “How about we meet for breakfast at my friend Lizzie’s diner tomorrow morning? You can’t miss it. It’s the only one in town.”

The young man nodded and took the napkin, pulling it towards his heart like some precious artifact or treasure. “Garcias.”

She snuggled closer to Will’s side, “I know that you’re worried about me, sweetheart. But honestly, I believe this is it. That window. What you’re meant to do. Someone has to do it, has to go after these women and girls who have fallen through the cracks. And I can’t think of anyone better equipped than you are.”

This time there was no doubt, he growled, an actual growl as he buried his face in the crook of her neck where it met her shoulder. “You’re going to be the death of me, woman.”

“No, I’m gonna be the strong woman who stands by your sides.”

Mercy watched as Ryan and Laura walked towards them. The man looked so adorable with his sleeping daughter in some contraption on his buff chest. She definitely had to convince the man to do a photoshoot. That was one-hundred percent e-book cover material. Every woman’s ovaries would burst at that one.

But she doubted her sister would agree to her husband posing topless. Then again, she wasn’t putting Will on a cover half-naked either. Some things were for their eyes only. Hmm, she’d have to ask about where Laura got that thingy.

“Just the man I’m looking for. I have a proposition for you, friend….”

Mercy had almost forgotten her sister’s surprise earlier. She was pretty sure she knew what that proposition was too. And a half an hour ago, she might have even encouraged Will to accept her future brother-in-law’s offer, but she was confident that was not what Fate had in store for her man.

“Sorry, Ryan. You’re too late. We got a better offer.” She did not even wait for the questions that she was confident would come from Ryan, her sister, or even Will.

No, this was the right path. Mercy was certain of that. She was lucky enough to finally be making money doing what she had always loved. Enough money that they could afford for Will to do what he wanted…without worrying about finances. That, too, seemed like Fate.

And maybe, as Bradley said, they could make a difference. Not just for Sebida or Reconciliation or whatever you wanted to call it, but as Mama said, ‘to stop hiding, to speak their truth, and to stand together with other women. To say, no more.’ Mercy could almost feel Walter and Etta Mae Williams smiling down on this next generation of ass-kickers and world-changers.

Jack paced back and forth by Baby’s sliding door. He knew his hair must be a complete mess from running his fingers through it. And if there was a god, he was going to hell for sure, given how much cussing he had done for the last half-an-hour. In a church parking lot, too.

But he hadn’t felt this scared and unsure since that social worker had dropped him off at his grandfather’s casino. It had been nothing more than a tacky cinderblock building then.

Since Rex and Jaycee’s wedding, Grandfather had been telling him that he would know when he found her. But Jack had thought that was all just more of the old man’s mystical mumbo-jumbo.

Then he had looked up from that receiving line and saw her. Tall. Blond. And more curves than Farm-to-Market Road 149. But it wasn’t just how beautiful she was, and she was stunning. No, there was something utterly innocent about her. Something that woke the beast inside of him. Made Jack want to protect and defend this woman with his dying breath. No, not want…need.

He thought he knew all the eligible women in this town. Goodness knows he had gone through the limited list during the last twelve months. Maybe she was from out of town? One of Mercy’s friends from college or another writer? He’d like to give that woman fodder for those sexy books his friend wrote.

He’d bought every one of Mercy’s books, even before she suddenly became famous. At first, he’d done it to help out a friend. Not that he’d dare tell her that. But one night, he’d been lying in the spare room off his office at the casino. His mind was so full of all the shit he was dealing with. Kerr’s extortion. The money that the casino was losing. His grandfather’s fucked up will. Hell, the old man’s sudden death. And a few other demons that he didn’t like thinking about.

He opened the damned thing on his phone. He’d thought it would be good for a laugh. But damn, that shit was the hottest porn he’s ever read. He’d only felt a little bit guilty beating off to his friend’s writing. It certainly had him questioning all those rumors around town about the Vestal Virgins. It had undoubtedly put Mercy at the top of his potential bride list. Except for the one kiss they had shared as kids. It had definitely been like kissing his sister. That was why he’d moved on to Laura.

But damn, had he let his little head mess everything up. The Reynolds girls had been almost like family to him. And he’s blown it. Laura refused to ‘babysit’ anymore, saying he obviously didn’t need one anymore. He still saw Mercy around school, but things had never been the same. He hadn’t even gotten a decent feel of Laura’s magnificent tits, either.

Only one woman had torn his guts up and pulled them out his asshole the way that one did, though. But she was not a woman. She had been just a kid. Even the last time he had seen. Almost a decade ago, when he pulled that no good piece of shit Tad Meadows off her in the back of that souped-up Dodge charger his daddy had given him. But he would not think about her. He had sworn that night that he would never let that name enter his mind. But damn, was it hard. Especially when he came back to this place. But she had been the one woman who had never made his list. And not because she was engaged to some other guy.

This one sort of reminded him of… But he hadn’t seen the girl since the night he dropped her off at that place. He had been extra careful since he came back into town not to run into… And that wasn’t easy. Not in a place as small as Sebida.

Maybe that was why Jack was hanging out with Baby, hoping to catch a word with Mercy. Find out who the hell the woman was. He was already working on a plan of attack. She’d never know what hit her. He’d sweep her off her feet, give her everything she ever dreamed of, and make damned sure that she never had second thoughts about him.

But dammit, when had Mercy become some social butterfly? Flitting from her friends to her mother and then that man of hers. Not that he had anything against Will, he didn’t. He trusted that the man would do right by his friend.

It was just that after watching his cousin and all his friends, fuck even Reb, find love, he’d given up hope of ever finding the one for him. Until today.

But she had been crying. What or who caused those tears? Whatever or whoever he’d handle it. He always would for her.

Damn it, what was taking Mercy so fucking long. He needed to know her name. Hell, her whole life story. No, he’d wait. Let her tell him that. As they lay in their bed between bouts of making love. He’d learn it all. What made her smile, what made her sad, her dreams, he’d make all those come true.

Jack came up short when he bumped into something. He’d been so lost in thought that he’d not even noticed her. Lizzie Patterson. He’d barely known the girl. She’d been a couple of years behind him and Mercy in high school. To be honest, he’d been a bit jealous when the girl took his place as Mercy’s best friend and partner in crime, well, mischief.

Of course, Lizzie had made his shortlist too. He’d even asked her out after one of the Sebida Small Business Association meetings. But the woman had been brutally honest with him. She didn’t have the time for dating. And she was not looking for a husband. She had a brother to care for and a business to run. That was all she could handle. He’d respected that.

But what if his woman faced similar obstacles? She had been crying after all. No, with her, it wouldn’t matter. He would not accept no. Okay, he would. He wasn’t some stalker or rapist. But he’d just find some other way to convince her.

Then it hit him. Lizzie was the other one in that group. She had been the one holding the woman. Hell, so tightly that he had not even gotten a good look at the woman’s face. Something began to itch at the back of his mind. But he pushed it aside. No, fucking way, would Fate be that cruel a bitch?

“Who is she?” Jack forced the words out before he lost the courage.

Lizzie stepped back. She stared at him and shook her head for a moment. “Well, hello, Jack. It’s nice to see you, too. Did you enjoy the service?”

He knew what she was doing. He and this woman were like oil and water. He was rebellion, and she was prim and proper. Little Miss Do-the-Right-Thing. He admired that. Except when it stood in the way of him getting what he wanted. But he knew to pick his battles, and a bit of small talk wasn’t going to kill him. If she told him what he wanted to know.

“Hello, Elizabeth,” Jack used her full name because he knew it irritated her. He might have to play her games, but he’d do it his way. “I ain’t one for church or any of that spiritual bullshit. But some of the things the man said made sense.” He held her gaze, “Now, who the fuck is she?”

He could see Lizzie fighting to hold her laughter back. “Who is whom, Jack? There are a lot of people here today. But I thought you’d know them all? Better than I do.”

Jack flexed his fists at this side. He did not hit women. But damn, this one always had gotten under his skin. And not in a good way either. He must have been desperate to even consider her. But he bit his tongue. “The woman with you and Mercy earlier. The blond that was crying all over your shoulder. Who is she?”

Jack was glad that he was so close to Baby’s open door when her eyes met his. He knew. He knew the answer then. From that look in her eyes. The broad smile on her face. He almost fell down. He held on to the door frame to keep from ending up on his ass in the gravel parking lot.

As Lizzie spoke the words that sealed his Fate for all eternity. “What, Jack, I’m surprised you didn’t recognize Abby Jean Monroe. Didn’t you use to push her in the swing? Of course, I suppose she has done a bit of growing up, ain’t she?”

He hated the smirk on the woman’s face. While he supposed he had justifiable reasons to be pissed at that smugness, it wasn’t her fault. He should know better by now. Whatever made him think that Fate would be kind to him. The vicious bitch never had been before. From the druggy prostitute that had been his mother to the pussy-whipped old man that had taken him in, then the blood baths that he would never erase from his mind.

But not this time. No way. Three more days. He would sign those papers. Turn that money-pit of a casino over to the Nation. And he would hop in Baby and just go. He didn’t know where. But that didn’t matter. As far as he could from this place. And that….

Jack wasn’t sure he could bring himself to even think the word woman when it came to Abigail. The tempting siren of sexy curves and innocence was nothing like that cute little kid who always had stars in her eyes when she saw him. He could almost hear her squeal, ‘Jack.’

If she were anyone else on this planet, he would give his life to put those stars back in the woman’s eyes, the way they had been in the child’s. But the words, ‘more, harder Jack’ would not be about some damned swing unless it was a sex one.

Oh, fuck. Why did he get hard at that thought? He could almost see how fucking sexy she would look in a black satin corset, hands and ankles bound in the swing.

But no. Not her. Not that woman’s precious granddaughter. This was one Greywolf man who was never going to end up entangled in a Monroe woman’s web.

He stood up and slung open the driver’s door. He’d owe Baby an apology later. Maybe an oil change or perhaps a lube job?

If what they said was true, he’d need a helluva a lot of lube to work his cock inside that tight virgin cunt. “Shitpisscockcuntmotherfuckinsonsofbitches,” he pounded the fake-fur padded steering wheel.

He could see Mercy and her man joining Lizzie as she stood laughing in the parking lot. He hated those fancy custom side mirrors as he peeled out of the parking lot. Three days. He could do. Just three days and he could leave this place forever. And her.

Jack wanted to believe that if he ran far enough and fast enough, someday he’d find another woman that turned his insides to jelly the way that one did. But he knew better. Why did Fate have it out for him? Had he been some kind of monster in another life? He must have been. What other explanation was there?

The one thing he had wanted most, hell, he’d even come as close as he could to praying for. And he fell in love, at first sight, with a Monroe woman.

It was a damned good thing Kerr was dead, or his ass would be in jail considering the traffic laws he broke. He drove. Just drove. He knew he should go back to the casino. Begin all the paperwork that he had already been contemplating.

Instead, he found himself sitting at the edge of that driveway. The house was in worse shape than he remembered. But that wasn’t surprising. He knew the truth.

Miss Myrtle had been broke for years. And since she retired from her job as principal at the high school, it had been his grandfather who had made the monthly mortgage payments on this place. Stupid old-fool. Jack was half-surprised the man hadn’t left the casino or at least the trust fund to the girl.

Girl? Lizzie was right. Abigail was not that little girl anymore. Not with curves like that. Damn, was that the old swing still hanging lopsided from the tree?

“Fuck, fuck, fuckity, fuck, fuck, fuck,” Jack started the engine and turned Baby around. But every mile he put between them took another bite out of his broken heart. Just once. Would it have been too much? For Fate to be on his side? But evidently, it was.

Let that preacher talk all he wanted about reconciliation. Jack knew it was something he’d never find. No matter how far he went from this place. Or how long he stayed away. But Jack knew he was lying to himself. He would never get Abigail out of his mind. For as long as he lived, she’d visit his dreams each night. And the words ‘more, harder, Jack,’ would never be the same.

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