What the hell was she even doing here? Stacey had asked herself that question with every mile she took out of Sebida. This was not the plan. They had all agreed on a bug out location months ago. They would gather there together – if the shit hit the fan.
But the shit had more than hit the fan. And none of it was going to plan. They were scattering to the four winds — her babies and grandbabies. And Stacey felt the panic rising along with the bile in her throat.
Her eyes darted from side to side, looking for just one thing – her baby girl. But she saw no sign of Mercy.
She should leave. Get out of here. Head to the old abandoned cabin that had been the original plan. Maybe Mercy had gotten confused. These changes were last minute, and she had not fully answered the girl’s questions. She had been in too much of a rush to get Elena and her family on the road and out of danger.
This was not a good idea. Too many people. Too visible. The cabin would be much better to hide out – until they could figure out a plan. Or until Ryan and Laura came up with whatever the feds were looking for, and made a deal with the people. But Stacey knew it was not that simple. She had read that in Ryan’s eyes.
But Laura was right, no matter what, she trusted the man with her daughter’s and granddaughter’s lives. Jack, too. It might have been years since they had much to do with the boy, though he was no longer that, her gut told her she could trust him. The problem was that Jack was not even here. He was with Ryan and Laura wherever they were heading. That bothered her too. Not even knowing where her family was.
But what bothered her most was that she had waited at Laura’s for almost two hours for the Sherriff to show up. She had rehearsed her whole performance over and over, but the man never came. She had even run by her trailer on the way here, but no sign of the man there either.
Had Kerr managed to intercept Brad before they made it out of Sebida County? That wasn’t likely. They had met almost at the county line. No, Elena and her family should be okay. Of course, Kerr might have found Laura before they made it to meet Lupe in Navasota? But surely she would have heard something from Jack or Ryan by now.
She wrung her hands as she scanned the darkened room one more time. No, what worried her most was Mercy? The county library was just blocks from the jail. The sheriff could have, likely did go straight there, first.
Why hadn’t she thought of that earlier? Why had she allowed Mercy to go into work at all? She knew that answer too. They were all trying to appear as close to ‘normal’ as they could. To give Ryan the best chance of getting Chloe and Laura someplace safer. But dammit, not at her baby’s expense.
She shook her head when she saw no sign of her youngest daughter. Jack had said that someone, some friend of his from the Army, would meet her there, but she could not even remember the man’s damned name. And going to the bar to ask for him would only draw attention to herself.
No, it was better to head towards the cabin. It was fully stocked, and she still had her bug out bag with a couple of grand, the gun, and, most importantly, the burner phone. The only real numbers in it were the ones of the other burners that her girls carried with them. Hopefully, she would hear from Mercy or at least Laura soon. Her mind made up she headed back towards the door.
“Keep heading that direction but turn right just before the door,” the voice lacked that distinctive Texas drawl. It had virtually no accent at all. And the hand on her elbow that guided her towards the door was firm but not so tight as to be painful. She shivered as she always did at any man’s touch. But for now, she allowed it, in this case, it was not worth creating a scene.
Stacey turned her head to look at the man. Chiseled, until that moment, she had never understood what that word even meant when she read it in her trashy romances. But it was the only word she could think of to describe the firm planes and deep valleys of this man’s face. He was older than Jack, by at least a decade. Perhaps somewhere in his mid-forties. The deep creases and lines around his mouth, eyes, and forehead told her that.
She had not seen the man around Sebida before. He was definitely not one of Kerr’s crooked deputies. Unless the man had hired someone new. But she had no idea who was looking for Laura. Could this be the Stephens guy that Ryan spoke to? Another thought occurred to her, “Who are you?”
“Reb, Reb Smith, I work for Jack,” the man did not smile. His eyes seemed to be scanning the room, especially the door as he turned them down an even darker hallway.
His words should have reassured her, but something about his demeanor, the urgency and caution that he exuded, actually made her even more nervous. “Where are you taking me?”
“Somewhere that we can talk without being seen,” he opened the door to a black room.
“I don’t know you from Adam. I sure as hell ain’t going in a dark room with a man I don’t know. Even if you do say, you know Jack.”
He ran his free hand through his thinning but longish brown hair. Stacey took a moment to study the man closer. He had a mustache and closely termed goatee that covered his strong chin. But even his firm jawline wore a five o’clock shadow. She could tell the man was thinking, perhaps considering what to say next. But she was not prepared for the words that came from those, sort of, sexy lips.
“There is an APB out for your daughter. She shot the Sherriff.”
Stacey collapsed against the wall. If not for the man’s firm hand on her arm, she would have slid to the floor, “How did he find Laura?”
He shook his head, “Not Laura. I just heard from Jack. They are fine. Or they were.” His eyes met hers directly for the first time. Amber like good Scotch, and just as heated.
“Mercy. It was Mercy who shot Kerr.”
“No,” she shook her head in denial. “If it were Mercy, the man would be dead.”
His grip on her arm tightened just the slightest bit, “How many men has your daughter shot? How many have you shot, sweetheart? Cause let me fucking tell you, looking a man in the eye and pulling the trigger is a helluva lot harder than some fucking black and white outline on a piece of paper.”
Stacey wanted to deny his words, argue about all the hours she had spent drilling her girls in gun safety, and shooting those targets. But he was right. As much as she hated Kerr, even she had wondered if she would have the courage to carry through with her plan…one day.
But this was today. And her baby girl had shot the man. She took a deep cleansing breath, “So if there is an APB, that means he does not have her under arrest, right? Not yet, anyway.”
He shook his head again and sighed, “I don’t know. It all just came over the police band radio we keep in the office. Right before you came in. I left George in the command room while I came for you.”
She stood up, “Okay, then let’s get back in there. Find out what’s going on.”
“Nope, we need to get the fuck out of here. Now. While we still can.”
“Hell, no. I’m not going anywhere without my little girl,” she stood her ground, her hands on her too broad hips.
“Your daughter is long gone. According to Kerr, there was some Ninja dude on a motorcycle? He knocked Kerr out cold. And I mean cold. The Sherriff was out for two hours. And let me tell you that ain’t normal or good.”
She stared at him, “We don’t know anyone who owns a motorcycle.”
He shrugged, “Maybe it was some good Samaritan who just happened by and saw something. We both know that Kerr harasses the hell out of women. But if she isn’t there, and you or Laura have not heard from her, then the best we can hope is that whoever she is with, is one of the good guys.”
His fingers gripped her chin and lifted her face to his. Stacey froze, a man’s touch always did that to her, no matter how casual. But shock and warmth flooded her mind when she met his gaze.
She could get lost in those eyes. She shook her head, what the fuck was she thinking? She was not into men or sex or relationships. She had not been for twenty-seven years, three months, twenty-nine days, and over seventeen hours.
“But, Stacey, you won’t do any of your girls any good, if Kerr finds you.”
She was not sure which frightened her more that warmth, which settled in the bit of her stomach when she heard this man say her name, or the idea of once more being at the ‘tender mercy’ of the man who had robbed her of all that.
Reb made some quick calculations in his head. Things were changing fast. What was supposed to be nothing more than bodyguard/babysitting two women had suddenly become much more complicated. And one thing he knew for sure – Sebida, Texas was not the place for this woman. Hell, nowhere in Texas was.
He ran through the list of his favorite places. Most were isolated, but that was not enough. He needed somewhere outside of Texas where they could hide in plain sight. With this latest, he was sure it was just a matter of time before all the Reynolds’ women had their faces plastered all over the television.
“Fuck,” he turned her towards Jack’s office at the end of the hallway. He felt her shiver as his hand rested at the small of her back.
He had seen that wild look in her eyes at the mention of Kerr, the way that she froze or pulled away when he touched her. Of course, there could be any number of explanations, but Reb knew the most likely one. But they did not have time for that now. “The door at the end of the hall. It’s Jack’s office.”
She nodded and kept walking. He moved past her to open the door and turn on the lights. He waved his hand at the chairs in front of Jack’s desk as he walked around and sat in the boss’s chair. Reb kept his eyes towards the computer screen as it booted up, but his peripheral vision told him the woman was still on edge. Why wouldn’t she be?
Reb logged into the computer using his login and password. He was already half a dozen steps ahead in this cat and mouse game and lying a false trail all the way. He pulled up the security system and typed a bit of code. If they pulled in the feds, their forensics team would catch it quickly enough, but Reb was betting that he would have them safely away from this place before that happened. It took him only a couple of minutes to do what needed to be done.
He dared to make eye contact with the woman before his next move, “I need to call Jack.” No one would think anything at first if Reb called his boss from the office phone, especially since the new security system had gone down.
She gripped her hands tightly in her lap, “I need to talk to Laura.”
Right now, he was not certain that was such a good idea. This woman was barely hanging on by a thread. Would speaking with her daughter reassure her or push her over the edge? He would deal with that in a moment.
He picked up the phone and dialed Jack’s cell. “What the fuck is going on, Reb?” Jack’s voice blared into his ear.
“I was hoping you could fill me in some, boss man.” It was a standing joke between the men, especially since Reb was almost a decade older than Jack, and had been his non-commissioned officer in the Rangers for a couple of years.
Still, it was technically accurate. Well, sort of. Reb did not work for the casino. He was an independent contractor. Even if he did like Jack, he was not the type to ‘work for’ anyone.
He could almost see the younger man pacing back and forth, running his hands through his hair, and cussing under his breath. The kid was good, calm under pressure, but before and after missions, he was always a fucking emotional wreck. Hot-headed. Impetuous.
“How much of it did you overhear?”
“Most of it, I think. But fuck, we didn’t expect Kerr to go after Mercy. We figured he’d go to Laura’s house then maybe her Mama’s. Stacey was supposed to talk to the man. Feed him a line about Laura hemorrhaging and taking her to the hospital. Then she was to join Mercy there with you. Fuck, where’s Stacey?”
Reb smiled across the desk to the woman, “That I can ease your mind over. I hung up on you earlier because she had just arrived.”
“Does she know? About Mercy, I mean?”
“Fuck, I bet that woman is ready to be tied. She’ll want to go after Kerr and finish the job herself. You can’t let her do that, buddy.”
“I know. So, what’s the plan?”
The long silence on the other end of the phone was not reassuring. “Fuck, if I know at this point. Are you still at the casino?”
“You should get her out of there.” Reb bit back a smartass retort as Jack continued, “Does Stacey know who was on the bike?”
Reb looked at the woman as he spoke, “Nope, she said they did not know anyone with a motorcycle.” He hesitated over his next words, but the truth was she was already thinking it, “Hell, for all we know, it was someone that the people McBride was messing with sent.”
The shake of her head agreed with Jack’s next words, “Nay, I grew up with Mercy. She’s the closest I have to a little sister. That girl would not run off with someone she did not trust.”
Reb wanted to argue with them both. The girl had just shot the sheriff. No one was thinking clearly after just shooting someone, especially the first time. Not even all his sharpshooter training had truly prepared him for that first kill. And even if Mercy had not killed Kerr, she had shot the man.
Watching Stacey now, Reb knew that he could not speak his concerns aloud. She needed to hold onto that belief, and maybe Jack did too. Hell, even he hoped they were right. After all, he didn’t know the girl at all.
If Jack did not have a plan, then he would take charge, at least for now. “Listen, man. Sebida County is about to become the hottest place on earth soon. And everyone is going to be looking for anyone connected to the Reynolds. I need to get her out of here. Half an hour ago.”
“I need you to call and square things with George. The security feed went down a couple of minutes ago. I also erased the last half an hour. I can’t say who else might have seen Stacey Reynolds come in the casino, but without tapes and George denying it, that should at least slow them down a bit.”
“Yeah, agreed. I guess you could bring her here…”
“No,” Reb was quick, perhaps too quick to cut the man off. “At this point, it is more dangerous to have them together. Hell, maybe we should not even know where we each are.”
He heard that quiet again. He hoped that wherever Jack was, the floors were solid, as much pacing as the kid was probably doing. “Do you have someplace secure?”
“Yeah, it ain’t my favorite place. But it’s quiet, remote, and I know I can trust the people there. Hell, they don’t own a tv or a computer last I heard. So, they won’t even know what’s happening.”
Jack sighed as another phone rang. Stacey practically tore the front pocket on her pack open, getting to it, “Where are you?”
“Jack, I’ll call you back. Stacey’s on the phone, and I think it might be her daughter,” he disconnected without waiting for Jack’s reply.
The moment that the burner phone rang, Stacey knew that it was one of her girls. Only the three of them had this number. Burner phones had been Mercy’s contribution to their plans, well, the details of them anyway.
These were not like most burners. If they fell into anyone’s hands, they would look like any other phone. With apps, photos, though not of themselves, flowers, dogs, and especially food, but no selfies for identifying their owners. But they also had a few dozen names and numbers in the contacts folder. So, nothing looked amiss, unless you dialed those numbers. Most were pizza places, a few stores, even a couple of hotlines.
But when Stacey saw the display – Merry J Austen – she almost peed her pants.
“I’m fine. Or as fine as I can be.” How like Mercy to not even answer her question.
“That is not what I asked, Mercedes Reba Reynolds. Where are you? I’ll come and get now.”
“No, Mama, I’m safe.” There was a pause. A long one, as if her daughter were trying to think of what to say. Or was someone telling her what she should say? Stacey felt that anxiety rising again.
But when Mercy’s voice came back on the line, her words were not what Stacey wanted to hear. “I’m with a federal agent.”
“Listen to me, Mercy. You need to get out of there.” Stacey felt her heart beating so fast that she feared it would explode from her chest at any moment. For four decades, she had lived for one thing – her girls. Everything she had done or survived had been for those three.
But just when things were going good. When Laura’s career was at its height, when Elena had found someone who truly did love her, when even Mercy was beginning to build a life of her own, just when all was coming together, now this. And this time, her girls were scattered to the four winds, and she could not protect them.
She felt the tears. What did it fucking matter this time? Her daughter could not see her cry. And this guy, he was a stranger. What did she fucking care if he saw her break down, if he realized just how fucking fragile and weak she really was?
Even though the tears slipped from her eyes, she cleared her throat and managed to keep them from her baby girl.
“Ryan says there’s a leak in the agency somewhere, Mercy. Not even the feds can keep you safe. So, you need to get out of there somehow. Make an excuse and go to the bathroom, then find some way to escape. We’ll go back to our original plan. I’ll meet you at the safe house. Do you hear me, Mercy?”
“No, Mama, I know I can trust him. Besides, he’s not with the feds anymore.”
Like that was supposed to reassure her. Her youngest daughter was with some stranger. She did not even fucking know his name. What if he was the leak? What if he was working for whoever was behind all this?
“You can’t trust anyone, Mercy. We can’t trust anyone that’s not family. You should know that. I thought I taught all of you that.” Stacey felt panic welling inside of her. She stood up from the chair and turned her back to the man.
Those words had reminded her of the truth. She knew that she could trust Bradley. As much as she hated that church, she knew that he was the real thing, unlike her father had been. That man might not know how to fight his way out of a paper bag, but she knew that Elena could.
Her daughter might be the ‘softy’ in their family, but that did not mean she could not fire the Smith & Wesson Magnum .357 that was at the bottom of that bugout bag. All of her girls knew how to shoot. Except as the man said, firing at a moving human target was very different than those white paper sheets. And if Mercy could not, shit…
But Laura would be okay. Surprisingly, Stacey had almost instantly liked and trusted her future son-in-law. It was the way he looked at Chloe. And at her daughter. She did not doubt that Ryan had the skills to protect them, or that he would lay down his life to do it.
No, it was Mercy that she had to worry about. And she was. “You have to listen to your Mama. Get out of there, Mercy.”
“Listen, Marmee. I can’t go into all the details right now. I just need you to trust me. I know what I’m doing.”
For a moment, Stacey was stunned into silence with the use of that word. Growing up, one of the ways that she had instilled the values of family in her girls was reading to them. She might not have been able to do it every night. But since the power to their trailer seemed to be off as much as it was on, reading had taken the place of television for her family.
Those books were among her favorites. And she knew Mercy’s too. It was a special term of endearment between the two of them. And the fact that her daughter used it now, it was almost as if she were saying goodbye.
“Dammit, girl, I taught you better than this. I have not worked three jobs, gone to bed hungry, and…”
She caught herself. Stacey clutched her stomach. Her whole body shook at the memory. That was the real problem – the idea of that man anywhere near any of her girls frightened the ever-loving shit out of her. But he had been. Earl Kerr had gone after Mercy. What would have happened if…
“Are you done screaming, Mama? I knew you would be worried. So, I wanted to call you and let you know I’m okay.”
Stacey wanted to argue. She might even plead. But right at that moment, her mind was stuck in the past. Twenty-seven years, three months, twenty-nine days, and almost eighteen hours to be exact.
Mercy’s voice, on the other end, did anything but reassure her. Especially her next words. “We haven’t worked out a plan yet. But we’re heading to Torreon. Yes, I know. But not only does it mean I can fight international extradition, but something Kerr said makes me think…”
She had not thought that things could get any worse. But the mention of that place and that man in almost the same sentence ratcheted up her fear and anxiety.
Torreon – the place where her girls’ father had come from. And Stacey always assumed he went back to, after the extradition hearing. Mercy had been born that night. Almost three months too early.
Maybe that was why mother and daughter were so close. She blamed herself for it. The stress of turning her ‘husband’ into INS, sleepless nights watching over her other girls, and of course, the run-in with her parents outside the federal court building in Houston. It had been too much. But the thought of her baby going to that place was worse. And what did Earl Kerr have to do with Torreon?
“Hell, I don’t know.”
Stacye opened her mouth, tried to make her brain translate those jumbled thoughts into words. Words that her too-tight throat could say. Words that would change her daughter’s course. Bring Mercy back to her and keep her baby safe. But before she could conquer that latest battle, her daughter’s voice came back on the phone.
“Mama, I’ll try to call you later. Let Laura know I’m safe. And tell Ryan that I’m with Agent Williams. You got that? I love you, Marmee.”
The line went dead. Stacey just stared at it for a long moment. Then even the screen went black. She wanted to throw the damned thing at the wall, but she couldn’t. It was her only link to her girls. Any of them. All of them.
“What did she say?” His voice was calm. Too calm, and that irritated her. What did this man fucking care if her daughters’ lives were in danger? He was just some friend of Jack’s. And while Jack was almost family and she knew that she could trust him, well, as much as she could anyone. She did not know this man. This hireling that Jack had sloughed her off on.
“I need to call Laura.” She hoped that would cut him off.
But instead, his hands gripped her shoulders. Stacey was wired too tightly this time to control her reactions. She came out swinging. With the phone gripped tightly in her fist, she turned and connected with the man’s jaw. He stumbled back towards the desk.
It was the opening that she needed. She turned and fled, running back down the dim hallway. She had to get out of here. She needed to get to her baby. Somehow.
She heard him calling after her, but her brain was so engaged in the fight or flight mode that she did not register his words. She kept running, out the door, and as far as her old SUV.
“Dammit,” she cussed as she fumbled with the keys. Willing her hands to stop trembling. Why now? After twenty-seven years, three months, twenty-nine days, and eighteen hours. Hell, after practically, sixty years of life’s fucking bullshit. Why fucking now?
If she could just get the damned keys in the fucking door. Why hadn’t she allowed Laura to buy her one of those new-fangled things where you only had to hit a button to unlock the fucker?
Then the worst happened, she fucking dropped the damn keys. And when she came back up, he was standing a few feet away. His arms crossed over his broad chest. Just staring at her.