Stacey was drying her hair with the towel as she stepped back into the main room. She had decided a quick shower was just what she needed after over twenty-four hours on the road. She felt better than she had since Laura’s baby shower. Was that only a few days ago? She had lost all track of time. How late was it anyway?
She stopped, her face broke into a wide smile when she saw him stretched across most of that small bed. He was lying mostly on his stomach. His arms stretched out above his head that was turned to the side. In sleep, those worry lines that creased his ruggedly handsome face were less pronounced.
Stacey tiptoed across the small space before she realized that from the loud buzzing coming from the man’s half-open mouth, a bomb could go off, and he would not wake up. Maybe that wasn’t a fair assessment. This man was a former soldier. She was almost certain that a bomb would wake him, or gunshots. But not a woman walking across the room.
Reb turned over. The blanket slipped low on his hips, and she was blessed with a view of his bare chest and abdomen. Even though the very idea of sex was petrifying, she could appreciate the raw male beauty, much as she did with the male models on her romance books.
It might seem odd that she read the genre, but Stacey figured fiction was fiction. Most fantasy readers did not believe in trolls, fairies, and leprechauns. So, what was the problem with her escaping into a love story when she did not believe in the emotion?
She studied him closely. She still was not sure what to think about this man. Why was he helping her?
Sure, he was Jack’s friend. But they had not even been close to Jack in over a decade, since he joined the Army. She could understand why the man would agree to help out his friend when it was just guarding them at the casino. But he had dropped everything. For her? Why?
Reb turned to his side this time. That sheet slipped lower, revealing a tight ass covered in those boxer brief things that seemed to be in fashion these days. But obviously, she had overestimated how deeply the man slept.
The problem was that, after sleeping practically the whole way from East Texas to Arizona, she was wide awake. Stacey pulled the cell phone from the pocket on her backpack as quietly as she could, but he rolled on to his back this time. She had to admit the chest hair was appealing. Neither Iggy nor asshole had any.
What was she doing standing here admiring a man’s body? It wasn’t like she could ever do anything about it even if she wanted to. No, she was much too damaged. Besides, sex was highly overrated. At least with men. She had never once orgasmed that way. Not that she had much interest in masturbating either. Once in while she watered her desert, that was enough.
But she supposed you did not have to be an artist to appreciate a fine painting. Or, in this case, she supposed sculpture would be more accurate. Lean and hard but not over-the-top muscles the way…
Not going down that rabbit hole.
As if he sensed her line of thought, the man rolled over in his sleep again. She would say perhaps Reb was like her and just a light sleeper, but he had not been like this last night in the back of Elvira.
Stacye bit back a chuckle at the name he had chosen for his truck, hell, at naming a damned machine at all. Although to be fair, all her vehicles had gone by the generic name of Betsy.
He kicked at the covers, and they slipped lower, revealing more of the sexiest ass she had ever seen on a man. Even on the covers of those ebooks.
But there was no doubt her presence was disturbing his sleep. And after all those hours of sleeping on the way here, Stacey knew there was no point lying down next to him. She would not be able to get back to sleep. Besides, having spent most of her adult life working the night shift, this was the body clock that she gravitated towards naturally.
She pushed the button and looked at the notifications on her phone. One new message. Brad and Elena had made it to their sister church in Belize. They were as safe as they could be for now at least.
She had heard from Mercy earlier when they crossed safely into Mexico. Her youngest had told her that was likely to be the last message she could send for a while. They were taking the SIM card out and hiding it until they needed it. She was supposed to text Laura as soon as they arrived. Stacey looked at the time – a bit after five. The sun would be up in another hour or so.
Reb moaned in his sleep and rolled over, giving her the full view of the first erection she had seen in a quarter of a century. Even if those shorts mostly covered it, she felt her chest tighten, like a baby elephant sat squarely in the middle. She could barely breathe, even if she knew he was asleep, that it was nothing more than a physiological reaction. Even though she recognized this man would never be interested in someone as old as she was, or with her kind of problems. She was safe.
Or as safe as she had been in days, maybe weeks or months, if Laura had been on those people radar all along. She should get out of this cabin before she woke him. From what little she had seen of the place when they drove, it was beautiful. Maybe just walk a bit, do some thinking. She was confident that they were as secure as they could be. Otherwise, she knew this man would not be sleeping now.
Stacey turned and slipped from the door into the early morning darkness. The sky was just beginning to lighten with that false dawn. Stacey was not that much of an outdoors person. She had never had the time to go off exploring the wild. She had three girls to raise alone. While she had worked a couple of odd jobs on farms, this is not one of those.
So, she stuck to the path. She looked back the way that they had come, but she knew what lay that way. While it narrowed and appeared a bit rougher in the other direction, it was enough for her to make it out the way, especially if she used her phone as a flashlight. She could not tell that much about the land in the darkness, but enough to know she wanted to explore it more once the sun came up.
She had walked a good five or ten minutes when the path came to an end at the edge of a cliff. The sun was just beginning to lighten the horizon a sliver. It was perhaps the most breathtaking thing Stacey had ever seen. Except, of course, her newborn girls when the doctor put them in her arms.
Then she noticed that she was not alone. A lone figure, female she was pretty sure from the shape, knelt at the very edge of the cliff. Stacey could not make out much in the dim light, but from what she knew growing up the child of a preacher man, the woman was preying. She started to back away.
“Don’t go,” said the voice that Stacey recognized. Reb’s mother turned to face her. In this early morning light, the woman looked younger than her son.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to disturb your praying or anything,” she stuttered. The woman could not be much older than she was, so why the hell did she make Stacey so nervous? Maybe it was the religion thing? Stacey had never been comfortable around it. Even with Bradley.
The woman threw back her head and laughed. The sound echoed off the canyons that stretched out before them. Stacey was not sure what the woman was laughing about. What had she said that so funny?
She turned and looked behind her, “I’ll just head back. Reb was sleeping, and I did not want to disturb him. So, I thought…” She was rambling even more now.
The women, Celestine Rainbow Moonmother, quieted and patted the ground next to her. “Come join me.”
Stacey looked back towards the cabin. Maybe she should go back. But she did not want to wake him. He had gotten so little sleep the past couple of days, and she did not want to offend the woman. Since Reb still had not spoken with his mother about the trouble she was in. Reluctantly she took the few steps to the edge of that ravine.
The ground was incredibly rocky and the woman knelt on some kind of quilt or blanket. It was still hard to make things out in the dim light. Stacye saw a small boulder nearby and sat on it.
The woman studied her for a long moment before speaking, “So, my son still has trouble sleeping? The nightmares still plague him.” There was an unmistakable sadness to the woman’s voice as her words ended on a heavy sigh.
It was still hard to imagine that this woman was Reb’s mother. She looked much, much too young. “How old are you?” Stacey could have kicked herself as the words just slipped out. But she had always been like that. Unless she kept her guards incredibly high, thought about every word that she said, things just popped out of her mouth. It had gotten her into lots of trouble as a child.
The woman laughed again, “I am seventy-three, soon to be seventy-four.”
“No fucking way,” Stacey’s hand flew to cover her mouth as words once more bypassed her brain and came unbidden from her lips.
“Yes, I am afraid so,” she rubbed her knees. “Trust me, no matter what the mirror says, these remind me several times a day of my mortality. At least on this plane.”
Was this woman’s mumbo jumbo any different from her father’s or Bradley’s? No, she was much more comfortable dealing with the here and now. The things that she could be sure of. She always had been.
But what would they do if this woman refused to permit them to stay? She had not spoken with Reb about that. She supposed they could head back to the old cabin near Lubbock that had been her original plan, but Reb and the others did not feel Texas was safe for any of them.
As if the woman could sense her thoughts, “I want you to know that you’re welcome here. Agartha is always a place of peace and refuge for those who need it.”
“Agartha? I’ve never heard of that name before. What does it mean?” It seemed a safe enough question in the situation. She would let Reb deal with his mother over the particulars of her situation later. She had no idea how much of the truth he even planned to share with her.
“Like heaven, Olympus, Nirvana, Zion, or Asgard, Agartha is a place of legends. But unlike most of those, it was hidden deep within the earth.”
“Like some sort of hell?” That did not make sense for a place of peace or refuge.
“No, not at all. Agartha was the capital city, an advanced civilization, in the Buddhist tradition of Shambalayah. But they were not the only ones with this idea of a hollow earth. Many of the indigenous cultures of North America believed that man crawled up through a series of caverns from the center of the earth. Even writers like Poe and Jules Verne wrote about ancient cultures. There was even a children’s movie about it a few years ago.”
Her words reminded Stacey of the older man on that conference call, the one who owned the ranch where Laura and Ryan were staying. She got the feeling that even if these two did not know one another, they would have a lot in common. But before she could say anything more, the woman looked out at the horizon and began to rise.
“I’m sorry I can’t stay and talk with you more. I hope we can find more time to speak before you and Rebel disappear. But I lead the morning meditation group at dawn, so I really must get going. You’re welcome to join us if you like.”
Stacey shook her head and made her polite excuses, “Nah, I ain’t much for religion.”
The woman laughed again, “Good. Neither am I. I’ll see you later then. Breakfast is in the dining hall of Shangrila. That’s what we call the main building. Even if Reb is still sleeping, I hope you’ll join us. Just follow this trail back.” The woman picked up the blanket and gave a parting smile.
Leaving Stacey alone with her demons. Her mistakes, the pain, and her fears for her daughters and granddaughters. Maybe it would have been better to go to some stupid prayer meeting, meditation, or whatever you wanted to call it than to face all those things alone.
Then again, she reminded herself, she had always born those burdens alone. Her little girls were not little anymore. And though they were scattered about, she was grateful they were not alone. Each of them had what she never had – someone else to rely upon. Even if she did not even know where they all were, that was some comfort.
Reb would kill for a cup of coffee. But he knew the best he could hope for was some intense herbal tea crap here. He did not care what his mother said, that Yerba Mate and Rooibos shit would never be as good as a cuppa Joe. And bacon. He was going to miss his bacon and burgers. His mother employed the best chef, but nothing made tofu, beans, or mushroom mush taste like a good juicy burger.
It would have to do for now, though. There was no way he could risk one of his usual jaunts into Sedona for ‘real’ food. Now that they were here safely, this was where they stayed. Until the shit settled, and he heard from Jack or that Ryan guy. Or until…
Damn, he needed to talk to his mother. He looked across the dining room to the ‘family’ table, where she and whichever of his fathers and siblings were around, usually took their meals. He knew he should not be, but he was a bit shocked to see Stacey laughing at something his sister Indie said.
He was happy to see that Barry was there, but not Edward. Would he ever get over his anger with that man? Probably not. He had done his best to destroy their family, after all. But Reb knew he really should not allow his issues with the man to taint his relationship with his younger brother. But it did. Or maybe it was the fact that Malcolm was so much like his father?
None of that mattered, though. Reb could not allow his fucked up family history to confuse this situation. He needed his mother and this place. That meant he was prepared to play nice for once, even with Edward and Malcolm, if he must.
But who was the youngish guy with them? He was probably with Indie. However, his little sister had always been more into her studies of the metaphysical than men. Then again, she was what? Thirty-nine? Forty? Not that she looked it. The women in his family aged well.
He, on the other hand, had gotten his looks from Barry or perhaps Mike. Though he had always believed that Barry was more likely to be his father. It was not just that they looked more alike, but they had similar personalities and likes. The whole working with your hands and building shit thing must have come from somewhere.
Though, he knew his mother would point to nurture over nature. Barry had undoubtedly had more to do with raising him and Indie than either his mother or Mike, who were always off to some dig or conference somewhere.
Either way, it was time to face the music. And without fucking coffee no less. Damn, he knew there were reasons he never fit in this place. He did his best to force a smile as he crossed the room to the ‘family’ table. Barry sat to one side of his mother and the other guy on her other. Indie was on the other side of the new guy, and Stacey sat next to Barry.
“Good morning, Mother.” He greeted her as he nodded to the older man, “Barry.”
“Good to see you, son.” Reb knew that DNA had nothing to do with the man claiming him, that the love and care of a lifetime meant more.
He walked over to his little sister and held open his arms. “Indie,” he was not prepared for the giant bulge that obstructed their hug. “Wow,” was the extent of his vocabulary.
His sister laughed and punched him lightly in the stomach, “That’s what happens when you don’t come around very often, Rebel.”
He held out his hand to the man that sat next to her, “Congratulations.”
The guy shifted nervously in his chair, and his mother blushed. “I’m sorry, Rebel. There has been some confusion. This is Mason. He’s my…”
Reb shook his head as he looked at the man who might be his age but was probably closer to Indie’s. “What the fuck, Mother?”
His sister chuckled, and Barry gave him one of those stares, “Son…”
It was Stacey, who looked down at the bowl of granola and whatever passed for milk around here these days, that made Reb hold his tongue. He inhaled and held out his hand to the man who was probably screwing his mother. He cringed at the thought. But they needed his mother’s help. Agartha was the safest option.
“Mason, this is my son, Rebel Za…”
“Reb will do just fine,” he stopped his mother’s little speech this time. There was only so much a man could handle.
He walked around the table, bending to kiss his mother’s cheek before taking the chair next to Stacey. She bit her bottom lip and looked up at him. They would have to talk later. It might be a good thing that he wanted to get away for a couple of days to reacquaint himself with the M40. Not only did he need to come to terms with using a gun, having someone in his life, and all the other shit that was happening, but now this. And that did not even take into account the ‘little’ chat he needed to have with his woman.
He had no sooner sat down than some young girl brought over a steaming cup of… Maybe it was best if he did not know. He picked it up and took a sip. This one almost tasted like coffee. Almost. The bowl of grass flakes, fruit, and nuts that the woman sat in front of him made his stomach plead for bacon and eggs. But he knew it was futile to even think about it.
He had to admit that whatever passed for milk these days was a vast improvement on the last time he had visited. It was thicker, creamier, and sweeter. Almost edible even. He was on his third bite of purgatory when his sister spoke, “So, how long are you going to be with us this time, big brother?”
Reb finished chewing, which with grass took longer than expected. He turned towards his mother, “I don’t know. I need to discuss some things with Mother.”
Celestine Rainbow Moonmother shook her head, “I figured we could talk about whatever is bothering you now, Rebel. You know, decisions are always communal.”
“This is not the place, Mother.”
“Then, whenever you are done, we can all go to the office. But as I told you last night, this is your home. You and your friend are welcome for as long as you want or need. No matter what.”
He nodded as he put his spoon down. Four bites of grass and too sweet goop was about his limit anyway. One good thing was that stuff sat on your stomach all day, filling you up, or at least making you think you were. “Let’s go then,” he stood.
Stacey started to step away. This was family business. Maybe she could explore a bit more of this place.
Even her dark thoughts this morning had not been able to diminish the sheer natural beauty of the sunrise over that red desert. She had always thought of deserts as brown and lifeless, but, at least from a distance, this one seemed to sparkle with reds, oranges, and the purples of dawn. She had rarely seen anything as beautiful.
Hell, she probably never had. She had to admit this place had a serenity about it. Something she had never known in her almost six decades on this planet.
She had to remind herself that it was all an illusion. There was no peace or solace to be found on this earth. At least not for her. And whatever hocus-pocus this woman was peddling was just as fake and useless as her father’s Jesus bullshit.
So, why did the woman exude that calm, tranquility, and composure? It was something her father definitely lacked. Though Bradley had the beginnings of the same, perhaps given time, he too would develop such presence of mind.
But there was nothing tranquil or peaceful about the situation she and her girls found themselves in. She could not forget that. Not even here. And she knew that Reb wanted to speak to his mother to explain that.
Maybe they were wrong? Perhaps they should not have come here at all? She hated the danger and potential violence that they brought with them to this place that, if there were such a thing, Stacey would call sacred.
She reached out her hand and placed it on his arm, “Maybe we should just go…”
Reb smiled tightly and tugged lightly until she stood next to him. He casually draped his arm across her shoulder. It was strange, but for the first time, a man touching her did not bother her. Hell, it was sort of nice. Whether it was this place or a bit of his mother in the man, she felt that same stillness and peace.
“Come on, sweetheart.”
“This is a family thing. I don’t want to intru…”
His laughter sent those funny tinkles shooting up her spine, “I have no idea how that one feels, do I? Now, get your cute butt up those stairs.”
He used his head to indicate another spiral staircase just outside the open patio doors. Though his mother remained nearby, greeting people as she made her way across the room, his sister and the other two men were already heading that way.
Stacey contemplated arguing, but he was right. She had dragged him into this mess, well, Jack had, on her behalf. Reb had been just as vocal as she had been in the teleconference with her girls and those other people. No, it was only fair that she face whatever was to come by his side.
She nodded and made her way across the intricate terracotta tile floor. It was easier to keep her head down, looking for some pattern in the seemingly random arrangement of hues, than it was to think about what was to come.
She did not belong here. These people were mostly rich executive types like Laura used to work for. They were probably trying to get away from that stress for a few days. And she was…
Trailer trash. She had never let that word bother her before. She had not worried about what anyone else thought about her. Not since that day outside the courthouse in Houston, when the government attorneys had revealed Iggy’s other family, and her parents had walked out. To hell with what anyone thought. She had done whatever she had to keep her daughters safe.
Stacey shivered, and it had nothing to do with the early morning mountain breeze that blew off that desert. She stopped outside the door, at the foot of those stairs that climbed to the second floor of this stone and glass edifice. No, she did not belong.
“Please, just take me back. Drop me off at the cabin near Lubbock.”
He stared down at her, and then he brushed his finger tenderly down her nose. It should have irritated her, whether the touch of man or the familiarity of the caress, but she found herself leaning into him. And that scared her more than just about anything except losing her girls.
This man was getting to her. But now was not the time to try and figure out why. Despite all those hours of sleep, Stacey was tired. Exhausted in a way that slumber could never quench. Bone tired of life itself. Defeated by it. If it weren’t for her girls…
Then she felt it. That balm of repose and reconciliation. She turned and gazed into the smiling face of love itself. Maybe that was why this woman did not look her age? Perhaps such things were timeless?
Stacey shook her head; what the fuck was she thinking? She knew better than to believe or trust such bull shit. The only thing you could rely on was yourself.
But the hand that rested firmly at the small of her back and that smile called her a liar.
“Come on, you two. The others are waiting. Let’s get whatever needs to be said out in the open so we can get on with our lives.” The woman ascended the stairs. Her loose, gauzy dress flowing about her made it almost appear as if she floated.
He leaned his forehead against hers, “I know that isn’t a good idea, darlin.’ Trust me; I understand how you feel. My mother’s Age of Aquarius shit has never sat well with me, either. But this is the best option. You know that.”
He did not understand. He did not get it. It was not that all of this did not ‘sit well’ with her, but that its false veneer appealed too much to her. She found herself wanting to give in to those illusions of serenity, hope, and love that this place and this man brought forth in her.
But life had proved to her that shit was not real. Or if it was, then it was not meant for the likes of her. Plain old trailer trash had no place in this world. Especially as broken and damaged as she was.
But she found herself climbing those stairs anyway. His hand at the small of her back guided and reassured her.