She was a mess. Stacey Reynolds was utterly and completely down the hole right now. And Reb recognized that.
Last night when she had come out of that shower, he knew that she would be uncomfortable, possibly embarrassed. However, she had no reason to be. Everyone lost their shit sometimes. It was healthy. Or so those stupid docs at the VA had told him.
Reb had figured the easiest thing for her would be to pretend it had never happened. And for now, he was good with that. He was an expert with bottling his shit, keeping it all safely in storage, under lock and key just to get through each fucking day. He’d bet his last dollar that this woman was, too.
These were extraordinary circumstances. Worry for her daughters weighed heavily on top of all that other shit from the past. He knew that he did not understand half of it, hell, probably a lot less than that.
But you didn’t have time for debriefing and strategizing during the middle of a battle. You just had to fight your way out. And right now, from the sound of that phone call, they were in a bigger fight than he had imagined. Cartels. Corruption. Murder. Fucking hell, kidnapping kids and human trafficking?
The other bit had been a real shocker, too. Sure, his crazy, tree-hugging, free-love, hippie mother with her three husbands always claimed that everyone had these gifts. It was just that some had more than others. But if someone could step away from the culture in which we lived that devalued and ridiculed such things, then anyone could tap into theirs, whatever it was.
But a kid, who had dreams like his, one guy who sensed danger, and another who knew if someone was good or evil, that shit was more a Hollywood movie than reality. Of course, he was not going to judge those people.
Other than Jack, he did not know any of them or their stories. Sure, they seemed legit enough, but trust had not come easily for him since he was barely more than a kid himself. But he sure did not put enough credence in these people to reveal that other side of himself.
In his mind, though, there was no denying those dreams and this woman. Reb watched her pace the tiny space in the shitty motel room. He knew they should get going on the road to Chad’s ranch. It was almost ten. He knew his friend would have been up for hours.
Reb wanted to make this stop as quickly as possible. Hell, they needed to. Get his friend’s security cams installed and get the fuck out of Texas. As soon as possible. Yesterday would have been good. Damn, if he did not need that gun.
But where they were going, he would have clear sight for close to a mile, and if anyone came for them, he damned well wanted to be able to take them out from a distance. While it had been years since he held such a weapon, Reb knew his skills well. A couple of days target practice, off on the mountain somewhere, away from the rest of them, and it would all come back.
Not that that might not be a problem in itself. That was one of the reasons he had sold his gun collection – too many memories. And way too much temptation, especially when comrade after fucking comrade ate their guns and became one of the twenty-two. He knew it was the right choice back then. But it left him in a hell of a bad place now.
He and his mother might have their differences, but he respected her work, her calling. It was bad enough that he was bringing this trouble to that place of calm, peace, and tranquility. He sure did not want it tainted with blood. Especially the blood of innocents. He had enough of that shit on his hands as it was.
But those thoughts too would have to wait for another day. Maybe while he was alone on that mountain and away from everyone else, that might be a good time to let his shit out. Right now, he had much more pressing concerns. Chief among them was helping his woman put the cap back on her shit – for now.
He knew this drill. He had been on both sides of it often enough. The one in need and the one doing his best to save another friend before it was too fucking late. This time the stakes were even higher. This time, Reb could not afford to lose. Because he knew deep in his soul that to lose Stacey Reynolds was to lose himself.
He kept his distance and his voice low and calm, “Stacey, I know that you’re upset and worried. But we need to go soon.”
The woman stopped pacing. She turned and stared directly at him as if she did not recognize him. Hell, maybe she didn’t. He’d been that far down the hole a couple of times himself. To the point that friends became enemies. Those times were what frightened him the most, why he kept his distance from people. Especially the people he cared about.
But he knew there would be no keeping his distance from this woman. At least not emotionally. Physically? Well, they’d have to deal with their shit someday. But not this day.
“Stacey, darlin’, we need to get back on the road.”
She nodded her head but did not move. Reb stood up from the bed, but he did not attempt to approach her. He backed up towards the bathroom. “You sit down for a minute. I’m going to finish up cleaning the bathroom. Then we are going to leave. Get some coffee and breakfast at a drive-thru. And go to my friend’s house. Okay?”
He did not like the silence, but at least she obeyed the command in his voice. That was something, right? But goddammit, he needed that wildcat that fought him at every turn back. Not his fawn in the headlights, not right now. He would deal with that later – when they were safe.
He was just hoping that giving her some space worked as well as it did with him when he lost his shit. He prayed it worked, or as close to prayer as Rebel Zappa Moonchild had gotten since that night in the sand.
Stacey sat, shaking at the end of the bed. She knew that she had to pull her head out of her ass. She had to get herself together, but that was not as easy had it had always been. As it was when she had her girls and grandbabies to live for. It was not so easy to be that strong, independent fighter without them to center her. But she knew she needed to. Knew that this was not the end. Not yet
But facing your demons head-on was more laborious than staying ahead of them, pretending they were not on your heals. They had all caught up with her now. Or caught up with her baby. Mercy had not only faced off against Earl Kerr, but now she was headed straight into the hellfires that were Ignacio Garcia.
And despite her protests, there was not a damned thing she could do to stop her baby girl. All she could do now was be there to pick up the pieces… If her baby even survived. That man made a mess of everything.
She knew that probably was not fair. It wasn’t like her life had been a rose garden before she met the man. She had first met Iggy while working her weekend job in the café. Of course, instead of saving money for college, Stacey spent her money on beer and pot to numb the pain. No, in some ways, Iggy or at least his daughters had saved her from that life. From the moment she knew she was pregnant with Laura, she had never smoked or gotten drunk again.
But without those girls or the crutch of alcohol and drugs, how the fuck did she survive? How did she make it through each day with those memories and regrets? Hell, forget each day, how did she get through this day? This fucking moment without curling up in a ball in the corner and crying herself, quite literally to death. No time for eating, drinking, or certainly sleeping. The nightmares were the worst.
“Stacey, we need to go, darlin’.”
She shook her head at the words. The voice was almost familiar like she ought to recognize it. But it was not one of her girls, so what the fuck did it matter? They had been the only thing in her world for four decades. The one thing she lived for.
A hand gripped her shoulder. A male hand. She could tell but the force of that touch. It was enough. It was too much. And she came out fighting. She jerked away, though it hurt her, probably more than it did him.
She would have run. Run for the door, but he blocked her way. So, she did the only left to her. She fought. She pounded her fists against a brick wall that might have been a chest. And when that did not work, she tried to scratch his face, but his hands captured her wrists before she could. That left her only one weapon, her teeth. She sank those into those hands that held her. Determined to get free. She would not, could not, go through that again. Not another rape. But those hands did not let her go, no matter how hard she bit, they held tight.
“Stacey,” the voice was louder, and her body shook. Yet something inside of her shifted. The way he said her name. That voice. Something called to her. Drawing her back from the precipice, just a couple of steps away.
She looked up, prepared to see that dirty blond hair and sneering face. Or perhaps the almost black with steel grey at the temples that she had once found so alluring. Or maybe the greying red hair and its stern, unmoving gaze of god. Instead, it was brown. The soft brown of autumn leaves or rich loam. Again something registered in her brain.
Stacey drew a deep, cleansing breath. Then another. And another. She stilled, and that grip loosened just a bit. It was not painful anymore. Another breath, and she forced her eyes to focus. “Reb?”
He smiled and nodded, “Yeah, it’s just me, darlin.’ I lost you there for a few minutes. But we need to go now. Remember, we agreed that the best thing for your girls would be to get you somewhere safe?”
“You don’t want anyone being able to use you against Laura, now do you? Remember, she just had a baby, and she can’t be worrying about her Mama, too.”
“Why won’t Mercy listen, though?”
The man had the audacity to laugh, “Probably cause she is all hellion like her Mama. Besides, sometimes in life, you have to do the right thing. No matter what the costs. I bet you’ve done that a lot, haven’t you, darlin’?”
“Maybe too often. I’m tired. Without them, watching everything I do and say, needing me to be the strong one, I just don’t know how. I don’t know what to do now.” She rubbed her hands back and forth against one another. But even that brought back old memories. How many times had she seen her mother do that same thing? Usually, when she knew another beating was coming.
He released her arms and stepped back, “Then will you let me? Will you allow me to help? To carry you through this tough spot? Please?”
His words drew her back again. Back from that rabbit hole of fear, pain, and regret that she could not afford to keep jumping down. She sighed as she stared at the man.
He had walked off his job. Traveled almost halfway across the state. Hidden her away in this hell hole. Been hit, scratched, and bitten. Hell, the man had seen her naked and cleaned up her vomit. And he still had not run. It made no sense.
“Why? Why the fuck do you care? Why not just leave me here and get the hell out of Dodge while you can, Wyatt Earp?”
Stacey loved the sound of his laughter. She had not liked anything about a man in so long that it was a shocking revelation. But this one, there was something about him that was growing on her.
“Besides the obvious fact, that is the right thing to do. Or how much alike the two of us are. I don’t want to freak you the fuck out, darlin’. But I care. I give a damn about what happens to you. And I don’t have the time right now to explain anything more than that.”
“So, get your bag and get that sexy butt out the door. We should have been in Elvira and on the road hours ago. We can’t risk any more time in Texas than we have already. Move it, woman.”
Two days ago if any man, even her boss had spoken to her like that, Stacey Reynolds would have taken him down a notch, but right now, it was just such a fucking relief not to have to be the one always in control, that she did as he said. Without questioning. That might have been the first time in four decades or so.
Reb risked looking away from the road for a moment. This part of Texas was relatively flat, and the traffic was sparse. Stacey was still staring out the side window. He was not sure what told him more, the stiff way she held herself, or the silence. She had not said anything since they left the hotel.
In the end, he had not even bothered with breakfast. Instead, he had gotten them both pisswater coffee from the gas station, where he stopped to fill up Elvira’s tank. They could worry about real food once they were out of Texas.
He kicked himself again for getting rid of his gun collection. If he did not need an M40, they could have headed due west. Perhaps even been in New Mexico by now. This was risky. He liked Chad, counted him and Jack among his few friends, but with this woman, his woman, he trusted no one.
His woman – Reb chuckled under his breath at the mere idea. What was he going to do with a woman? Hell, he could not remember the last time he had sex, certainly not in this decade. But maybe that was a good thing, with her demons. But even before – that night – he had not been the ‘relationship’ type. He liked his life. Drifting from place to place, answerable to no one, and responsible for nothing more than himself and Elvira.
But he had known that was coming to an end. Even before she stepped into Jack’s casino, Reb had known she was there. From the moment he arrived in Sebida to help his friend, the dreams had begun. He had seen that face in them every night. And always the same, that wild-eyed, far-off stare against incredibly pale skin, covered in blood and soot.
Reb’s hands trembled; he forced his full attention back to the road. Since he left the Rangers, seven years ago, he had spent his life outrunning those dreams. If he did not allow himself to get close to people, then he would not be haunted with visions of…
“I know you’re relieved to hear your girls’ voices this morning, huh?” He tried to break the silence. The quiet was when those dreams and thoughts always bred in his mind.
“They sound nice. It’s obvious they all love you very much, and one another. You must be one hell of a mother to raise three daughters like that all alone.”
Maybe if he focused on her success as a mother, he could also forget his troubled relationship with his own. Not that he doubted that Celestial Peace Moonmother did not love him as much as this woman loved her daughters. It was her life choices that always bothered Reb.
For a scientist, an archaeologist and historian with two Ph.D.s, the last time he heard anyway. His mother had eschewed every societal stricture there was. From her three husbands to her hinky pseudo-science theories of human pre-history to the commune that she and his fathers had built, there was nothing ‘normal’ about his mother.
And he had paid the price. Now was not the time to go down that rabbit hole. If they did not have time or the safe space to go down Stacey’s, they sure as hell did not with his, which went every bit as deep, perhaps even more so. Time to refocus.
“As I said, Chad is an old friend from my brief Marine days. He lives alone on the ranch that he inherited from his grandparents. So, it should be relatively safe. But so far, at least, yours and Elena’s faces have not appeared on any of the news reports. Heck, even the link between Laura’s involvement with McBride Industries and Mercy’s…”
“Shooting the sheriff,” Stacey finally spoke.
Reb turned his head long enough to nod and smile, “Yes, Mercy shooting Kerr. Even the link between your daughters has been nothing but speculation on the part of reporters.”
It was a good question. A damned good one, one that he had been pondering since that phone call. And the answers he kept coming up with were not the ones he wanted. But for now, the fact that an APB had not been issued for either Elena Williams or Stacey Reynolds was to their advantage.
He shook his head as he kept his eyes to the road. He never wanted to lie to her. But this was another worry, and right now, Stacey had more of those than she could handle.
Stacey realized there was something he was not telling her. But right now, she was not confident she could handle anything else.
She still was not satisfied that this was the right choice for her – to go with this man. She did not even know him. All she had was Jack’s word. And she had barely seen that kid since he retired from the Army and came back to Sebida after his grandfather’s death. She was not sure she even trusted him anymore.
She wanted to laugh but was afraid if she did, it would spiral out of control into one of those hysterical fits of laughter and tears. Stacey did not trust anyone. Not in a very long time. Certainly not since the first time, Iggy had backhanded her.
She, sure as hell, did not rely on anyone. Other than her girls. They had always had one another’s backs. But that was why she sat in this damned truck, heading god only knew where to meet another stranger. Another person who might put her girls at risk.
Damn, Laura. She had worked out a plan. A damned good one, too. They should all be in that old abandoned cabin outside of Lubbock. All of them – together. That was how this was supposed to be.
Then Ryan showed up, and the shit hit the fan harder and faster than they had ever imagined. Now, her girls were scattered across the continent, perhaps even the world. None of them even knew exactly where to find the other. And that bothered her, too.
“Where are we going?”
He shook his head and frowned, but those dark eyes stuck to the road. “I told you my friend’s ranch. It’s only another few minutes.”
“No, where are we going after that? Where are you taking me? You did not give any details earlier. And you haven’t told me much either. Just to trust you. I might not be myself right now, but I still have enough sense not to go somewhere I don’t know with a complete stranger.”
This time he turned his head and smiled at her. He fucking beamed, as if she had just told the idiot he won the lottery. He took one hand from the steering wheel and reached for hers. She tried her damnedest to jerk away, but the man’s reflexes were quicker and his grip stronger than hers. He squeezed her hand gently.
“That’s my girl.”
She shook her head, “Are you fucking crazy?”
“Yeah, probably. But I’m damned glad to see that fight back in your eyes. It tells me you’re going to be okay.”
Stacey thought about those words for a heartbeat, then burst out into laughter. Not the hysterical kind either. The cleansing kind that she and the girls shared at those moments when you either laughed or you cried. They always choose laughter. “Yeah, yeah, I am.”
For the first time since she walked into that casino and discovered that her baby was not there, she felt that old fight coming back into her. She had survived her daddy’s beatings, Iggy’s betrayal, and Kerr’s rapes – forty-seven times. She and the girls had survived those bread and butter Thanksgivings, old doll and threadbare Teddy bear Christmases, and almost as many nights without power as ones with it. They would survive this, too. They had not come this far to give up and let the bastards win now.
“So, answer my fucking question, or I throw myself out this moving vehicle. Where are you taking me?”
“A fucking hippie commune in the mountains just outside Sedona, Arizona, where they don’t have television or the internet.”
She frowned, was it his answer or the way he said it that bothered her most? But before she could even ask more questions, he turned left off the two-lane county road onto a red dirt one.
If the man thought that was going to end this matter, he had better think again. Stacey Reynolds was not leaving this place, not getting back into that damned truck, Elvira or whatever he called it, until she was satisfied he had answered her questions truthfully.
“I won’t be long, or I hope not anyway. You just wait here for now.”
Stacey considered arguing with him, but he was probably right. Even if her face was not all over the news the way that Laura’s and Mercy’s were, it was probably best for these people to know as little as possible.
She nodded; she had had never been the type to fight just for the sake of it. There was enough real shit in life that you had to battle, you did not need to go picking more.
She looked around as he got out of the truck. A man slightly older than Reb approached the truck, and they started to talk. But she noticed the young teen; she thought it was a girl, but she could not be sure. All she could see was pink, blue, and purple hair flying across the open yard between the barn and the house. What kind of parent allowed their kid to dye their hair like that?
And was that a curtain she saw move in the second-floor window? She thought Reb said the man lived here alone? This was seeming less and less like a good idea by the second. Who were these people?
She hunkered down in her seat. Wrapped her arms about herself and dropped her head. Damn, coming here was a bad idea. Was going to some fucking commune any better? At least the cabin near Lubbock was isolated. But she could not discuss, or more likely argue, any of that with the man now. Not when it looked like he was already engaged in some heated debate with his friend.
They should get the hell outta here now. She was about to open the door and say just that when Reb approached the truck again. The other man moved towards the house. Okay, so maybe they were leaving. But not to some damned hippie commune, not if she had anything to say about it. And she would.
Reb had just opened the door, and even before she could ask him any more questions, a woman appeared on the porch. She looked vaguely familiar, but that was beside the point at the moment.
“Hey, folks, sorry for Chad’s bad manners. Why don’t you come in and have a cup of coffee?”
Stacey felt the panic rising again, “Oh, hell, no.” Her eyes met Reb’s. Things were getting out of control way too quickly – again.