Reb knew that look – too well. How many fucking times had he seen it in the god damned mirror or reflected somewhere? This woman, his woman, was not just frightened for her daughters.
She was whipped by life. He supposed it made sense, if he were ever to be with anyone, she or he would have to be as damaged as he was. It wouldn’t work any other way. But that did not help in this situation. They did not have time for swapping sob stories about life and the abuse that had damaged them beyond repair.
Right now, they needed to be on the road. Getting the hell as far away from Sebida, Texas, as they could. As fast as they could. But not in that car. If Sherriff Kerr had not already issued an APB on it and her, he would soon.
No, Reb had to talk her down. Use reason to make her see that. Because anything else did not bear thinking about.
“Two minutes,” he held out his hands in surrender and pleaded. “Give me two minutes of your time. That’s all I ask.”
Though honestly, Reb was not sure that they had two minutes to waste. He knew he had to make the time.
Trust was going to be incredibly hard to build between them. Hell, they may never truly get there. May never have what most people took for granted. But that was okay. They would have whatever they could handle, and sometimes that was more than a soul could hope for. And certainly, more than he deserved.
She clutched those keys to her chest and slowly rose to her feet, backing ever closer to her car. He feared that she would get inside and drive away at any moment. And what then? He fucking had no idea.
So, when she slowly nodded her head, Reb wasted no time. “I know you’re scared.” No matter how much she shook her head, her eyes told the truth. “Worried about your daughters. If it helps, Jack said that they had gotten wherever they were going. Laura is safe.”
She did not say anything. Not with her mouth, but he knew that feeling. Sometimes you got to the point where you just could not make your brain and mouth communicate. But he noticed that her shoulders relaxed a tiny little bit, and more tears came to those remarkable green eyes.
“I didn’t catch all that you said to Mercy. But we can talk about that once we get on the road. Away from Sebida.” Reb dared to take one small step towards her, but she stiffened, clutched those keys more tightly, and shook her head violently.
“I’m not going anywhere with you.”
Her voice trembled. It was like each word, each letter, took all her energy to force them out. God, he knew that feeling. He needed to make her understand that. Make her see that she could trust him.
“Please. You can’t leave here in that thing. If Kerr has not already, he will issue a statewide, hell, probably nationwide, alert for your car, Mercy’s, and every other vehicle connected with your family.”
“Can you call her or get word to her, somehow? Once we are safely on the road.” He had to keep chipping away at that point, slowly but steadily. She nodded.
“Okay, that’s good. But you know what I’m saying is right, don’t you, sweetheart?”
He wanted to kick himself when he saw her stiffen again at that word. He knew better than to push her too hard right now, but it was just so natural that it slipped out. “I know you don’t trust me. I can’t blame you. You don’t know me.”
And you’ve had horrid experiences with other men, but he could not say that to her right now. “But you trust Jack, right?”
He noticed that even on this one, there was a slight hesitation, but she did finally half nod. “I spent three years in the Rangers with Jack. We’ve been through hell together.”
Just like you’ve been through hell. Like we’ll probably go through it over and over again for the rest of our fucked up lives, but he could not say that either.
Reb wasn’t sure what possessed him to do it. It was a risk. A huge fucking risk. And if he had been thinking straight, taken the time to analyze his options like he usually did, he never would have tossed his car keys towards her. “Those are the keys to my truck.”
In for an ounce, in for a pound as his mother said. He had no choice now but to play this one out. He motioned with his head towards his shiny silver, almost new F-250 pick-up with its capped eight-foot bed and extended cab. Damn, he loved that truck.
But not as much as he was sure he would come to love this woman. Hell, as much as he probably already did. But now was not the time for that shit either.
She started to laugh. Until the tears in her eyes glistened in the florescent lights. When she looked up at him, the ice was broken, and some crucible passed. “Do I have to take off my shoes before you let me get in? Do you kiss her goodnight?”
He joined her in the joke as he inched forward a couple more steps. “No, but I wouldn’t mind seeing you in leopard print velour hotpants and a bikini top.”
She shook her head, “You are either blind, crazy, or kidding me. At almost sixty and with stretch marks from three pregnancies, that is enough to make any man run for the hills.”
Reb shrugged, though sex had not been his thing in over a decade, this woman fascinated him. Flannel pajamas and cuddling under a thick blanket as they talked and laughed would be just as good in his book. But the way his woman reacted to the lightest of touches told him even that might be a challenge for Stacey Reynolds.
Now that the tensions were not as high, he took his chance. “You drive. Wherever you say. But would it really be so bad to have another gun along for this ride?”
She looked him in the eye, “Why? Jack wanted you to babysit Mercy and me here. Now that our plans have changed, why would you want to? Don’t you need to stay here and take care of your job?”
Her question was a hard one. He could not simply blow it off as a favor to Jack. She barely trusted Jack and had probably known him most of his life. But he could not exactly use words like love or forever, especially as he had no fucking idea where this thing was going or how the fuck either of them would manage any kind of relationship as damaged as they both were.
So, Reb settled for a half-truth, “Kindred spirits. Something tells me that we have lots in common. You’re in a bad way right now, and that’s what I do – help out when I can.”
“As for Jack and my job? Elvira is as much my home as anywhere. I’m a drifter. I have been for most of my adult life. Jack knew that when he hired me. Besides, I don’t technically work for Jack. I work with him. I’m a contractor.”
He reached in his pocket and pulled out his phone, “But if it bothers you, then call him. Ask him yourself. I’m pretty sure that Jack will not only vouch for me but tell you that he would rather I went with you.”
He looked around the parking lot. It was dark, and they were in a somewhat secluded section of it, thank goodness she had had the forethought not to park anywhere more obvious. With the new security system ‘glitching out,’ there was a chance that no one would remember seeing her or her car here tonight.
Shit, her car? Reb considered the options for a moment. Taking it back to her home might make the most sense, but did they have time? Perhaps abandoning it across the county line? But that meant separating for a bit, and he was pretty sure that would not be a good idea. He did not want to have to chase her off the road and kidnap her when she got those second thoughts. He was not sure that getting George involved in this any deeper was a good idea.
That left leaving it here as the only option. Reb knew that when they found it, it would bring more heat down on Jack and the casino. That kid had enough troubles as it was. But with the security cameras down, it was plausible they could deny seeing her. Was it all that much of a stretch to think that someone on the run might abandon their vehicle at such a public venue? Probably not.
Fuck it, let Jack decide. They needed to get their asses on the road, or there would be video feed showing that Stacey Reynolds had been at the casino and left with him.
“But we have been way longer than two minutes. I’d feel much better if we got on the road. We can make all those calls while we drive. Then if you decide you can’t trust me, drop me on the road somewhere.” He smiled and winked down at her, “I’m hoping without a bullet hole.”
Stacey looked around too. She pondered it way longer than he was comfortable with. He felt the seconds ticking away. There was no reason for Sherriff Kerr to look for the women here specifically, after all, Jack had not been close to the Reynolds in years. Still, Reb had been around Sebida long enough to know that no piece of this county would go unturned.
She finally nodded, then opened her vehicle, reaching across the seat to pull out a pack. The damned thing looked almost regulation. She shifted its weight on her shoulder, “Do you need to get anything from the casino?”
“Nope, as I said, Elvira is pretty much home. Everything I need is in the back of my truck.”
She laughed again, and it tickled something deep inside of Reb’s heart that he swore had died in the pouring rain over twenty years ago.
He knew that eventually, they would need to get around to swapping those old war stories, but not tonight. Not until he had her somewhere safe. Because Reb knew damned good and well that when that time came, neither one of them would be in much shape to do any fighting or running for a while.
“Okay then, like you said, we should get the hell out of Dodge.”
“Nope, always been more of a Ford man. As for that city, it was a far sight more lawful than Sebida, Texas, darlin.’”
“I can’t argue that with you.”
Reb went to take the pack from her, but she shook her head and hung on to it tighter. He shrugged and kept walking towards his truck.
“Which one of these dangs buttons open the doors?”
“The one on the top, darlin.’ And if you hit the one in the middle with the two-x on it twice, the darn thing will start up.”
“You’re shitting me, right?”
“Nope, try it yourself.”
“Don’t that make it easy for someone to steal the damned thing?”
“Nope, it can be tracked, and remote stopped as well.”
“Tracked, don’t sound too good right now.”
“Then good thing you’re with a security nerd who disabled certain features long ago, darlin.’”
“Quit calling me that. Or I will put your ass out on the side of the road.”
“I’ll hang around as long as you will let me. I never minded standing in the rain. You don’t have to call me darlin,’ darlin,’” he sang.
“And if you sing again, I will shoot you. Hell, I’d be doing the world a favor and by the sound of it, putting you out of your misery too.”
She tossed the keys back at him, “Here, you drive for now. You know Elvira better. And I can make those calls.”
“Yes, Ma’am.” He turned his head as he got behind the wheel. If she saw his shit-faced grin, she would shoot him for sure.
Stacey came awake with a start. She shook her head as she tried to remember what woke her. But it was almost always the same thing – the dream. Or, more likely, the nightmares and memories. But this time, she was not in her bed. It took her a moment to recall it all.
When it did come back, she felt those damned tears rising again. She looked at the clock on his dashboard. It seemed that all twenty-seven years, three months, thirty days, two hours, and twelve minutes had decided to burst forth, and there was fuck-all she could do about it. Even around this man that she didn’t know from Adam.
Stacey turned to look out the window of the truck. It was dark outside as they sped by on what appeared to be a decent-sized road. She swiped her eyes with the back of her hand, “Where are we?”
“Highway 7, just the other side of Crockett. Are you okay?” He shifted his eyes for a moment from the road to meet her gaze.
“That’s the wrong direction. We need to head west. The safe house is outside of Lubbock.” She frowned as she remembered that after speaking with Ryan on the phone, she had fallen asleep without giving this man any of that information. “I’m sorry. I should have told you before…”
He shook his head as those intense eyes turned back towards the road. “It wouldn’t have mattered. I need to pick something up from a friend before we go anywhere, darlin.’”
“You can’t just go making decisions without me, dammit.” She glared at him while she weighed her options. She realized now that she should not have left her SUV at the casino. Getting in his truck was her first mistake. But she did not want to examine those reasons too carefully at the moment. “Let me out now.”
“And what? What you going to do, Stacey? Where would you go?”
She considered her options. Laura and Chloe were with Ryan somewhere. Could she get Ryan or Jack to pick her up? Would she bring more trouble their way if she did? With some luck, Elena and Bradley had already crossed the border into Mexico. And Mercy? Lord knows what that girl was up to?
She still had a couple of thousand dollars in her bugout bag, but how long would that last her if she stayed in hotels? And there was always the possibility, if they released her photo in connection with Laura or Mercy, that someone would turn her in. What choice did she have?
But that angered her too. She had begun to halfway trust this man. Something she should have known better than to do. “Where are we going? And what do you need, so all fired badly?” She let her tone tell the man how upset she was as much as her words.
“A small farm, just east of Nacogdoches. Chad’s an old buddy of mine from the Marines.”
“I thought you were in the Army with Jack. He was a Ranger?” She was almost sure of it. The man’s story was not making any sense. Stacey reached for the door handle. The truck was going way too fast, but when it slowed down, she needed to be ready.
He turned back to her for just a moment and flashed that damned smile. “I was. But before that, when I was just a kid, I enlisted in the Marines. I had just completed my enlistment and was doing a bit of work with Americorps when 9/11 happened.”
He was silent for a long moment. Though his eyes stayed on the road, Stacey got the impression his mind was elsewhere. She watched his Adam’s apple move as he swallowed like there was some bad taste in his mouth. Or maybe she was reading too much into things.
“I knew that I had skills that were needed, but well, let’s just say, my time in the Marines wasn’t the best.”
Something about the way he said that resonated with Stacey, though she wasn’t sure why. “So, you joined the Rangers?”
He nodded and once more silence ricocheted in that small space. It was another mile, or maybe more. Stacey had turned back towards the window. She still had her hand on the door handle, though she was debating whether throwing herself out was her best option, then he spoke again.
“There aren’t many people from that time in my life that I would trust as far as I could throw them, darlin.’ But Chad Wilson is one of them. He was my drill instructor for sharpshooting. You asked what was so all fire important it was worth this detour and taking the risk of exposing us?”
“An M-40. I need to get my hands on a high-powered rifle. Something that will take them out before they even get close to the people I care about.”
Reb paused again, and those silences told her more than his words. “When I left the Rangers seven years ago, I’d had enough of guns, war, and fighting to last me several lifetimes. Even before 9/11, I’d learned the hard way that the line between the good guys and bad were not always as clear as people think.”
There was a thickness to his voice that touched something inside of her. Stacey took her hand off that handle and reached across, placing it on his knee. She felt his whole body stiffen for a moment. She heard him, those deep, cleansing breaths in, and slow ones out. She felt his muscles begin to relax a bit before he turned and faced her. His smile was incredibly tense and forced as his hand covered hers and squeezed, just briefly.
“But sometimes, sometimes, to protect those you love, you have to do things you swore you never would. Right now, even if I could get my hands on the gun I need legally, it might raise suspicions.”
“I know Chad. He’ll have what I need. And I’m betting that I can convince him to let me borrow it for a bit. Especially since the man called me yesterday about a new security system on his ranch.”
He lifted her hand from his knee and brought it to his lips. He pressed a kiss to the back of it. Stacey stifled a gasp at the feel of soft lips and slightly scratchy face hair on her knuckles. She battled those tears again and turned her head when she realized that was the closest she had come to a kiss in almost thirty-three years. She did not have the time or energy to ponder the differences between this and those others that Ignacio had used to dupe and seduce that naïve and stupid young woman-child.
“I’m pretty sure I can trade Chad some expertize with installing his new security cams for a loaner. Or I hope so. Otherwise, this side trip has been a colossal risk and unnecessary waste of time.”
He turned back to her with more of those forced smiles. “We’re less than half-an-hour from Nacogdoches now, then another hour or so to Chad’s ranch. It’s way too early to show up on his doorstep unannounced. I think the best plan would be to check into a motel. Get a couple hours sleep, a hot breakfast, and then call your daughters again. What do you say, darlin’? Does that sound like a plan to you?”
Reb was right. She had agreed to call Ryan and Laura back in the morning, when her daughter had recovered a bit. And she hoped to hear from Mercy and Elena too. A shower, sleep, and food might be just what she needed to pull herself back together and find her big girl panties. Who knows, maybe tomorrow they could all come up with some sort of plan? She nodded her head. This time when he took his eyes off the road and turned to smile at her, it was not as forced. Sad, maybe, but not forced.
“I’ll look for something once we get to the other side of Nacogdoches. Until then, why don’t you try to get back to sleep, darlin’?”
Stacey nodded her head as she turned back to the window to watch the dark zoom past. But she had way too much to think about to sleep, at least for now.