Stacey Reynolds stared up at the stars as she leaned against the wooden rail of the deck. Sebida. She was back in her trailer in Sebida. How many times in the past six weeks had she doubted that would ever happen? So, what was wrong? She should be happy.
Laura, Ryan, and baby Chloe had taken up residence once again in her teacher’s house in the center of town. Of course, Ryan never let her daughter or granddaughter out of his sight. But she understood and admired that, especially since Stewart Childress had not been apprehended.
Mercy and Will should be back in a couple of days. Both had to stay in quarantine in Laredo because they were exposed to someone who had died of that new virus. Of course, Will was still recovering from the gunshot wound to his shoulder, too.
Even Elena, Brad, and Rehab would be back in a few days. They had finally located them and got word that it was safe for them to return. Though she heard the reluctance in her son-in-law’s voice, she had pointed out the importance of bringing her daughter back home where Elena and the baby could have the best medical care – before her daughter was too far gone in this pregnancy to travel.
She felt the hands on her shoulder and leaned back into Reb’s embrace. She had been frightened that coming back here would set off old memories. That she would not be able to….
She turned her head, her lips meeting his. Nope. That bit still worked. Though neither of them had felt the need to push the boundaries of this thing between them beyond these kisses and cuddles. As he had told her in the desert, perhaps they never would. And surprisingly, that was alright with her.
“How’s he doing?”
She saw the frown on his face and could almost feel the guilt running off her man in waves. No matter how much she or his father had told Reb that he was not to blame for Mason’s condition, he still damned himself.
“Give it some more time. The swelling might still go down now that the doctor’s removed the bullet.” But she knew that each day that passed without feeling or movement decreased the likelihood that the man would ever walk again.
Of course, Mason was not the only one still suffering the aftermath of their ‘adventures.’ Their guests were, too. Her three-bedroom double-wide was overflowing with the refugees. While his friend Travis had returned to East Texas, Chad, Rose, and Grace stayed for a few more days until her friend was stronger.
Stacey was not sure who she was more worried about. Rose was not just weak from the beating, but she could tell something else was going on. She recognized the PTSD and depression that she had lived with for….
“What is it?”
She went still in Reb’s arms. When had that happened? When had she stopped counting the minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, and years since that first rape? Her mind automatically began to reach for that comfort, starting to recalculate. But she stopped herself. No more. She was not going to live the rest of her life defined by that night. Not anymore.
She looked out toward the country dirt road. If she tried hard enough, she could probably make out the mailbox. He was still at large too. They had not caught Sheriff Earl Kerr. One of their other guests was his wife. Wanda was a wreck. The only thing that kept the woman sane was looking after the girls.
Grace was as withdrawn and traumatized as her mother. Though Stacey was confident, there was more to it than that. The girl blamed herself for what happened to her mother. That, combined with discovering that the man you thought was your father, wasn’t, could not be easy for a fourteen-year-old.
But it was the sixteen-year-old that she worried about most. Stacey, better than anyone, knew what multiple rapes did to your mind. What bothered her most was that the girl sloughed it all off. She pretended like nothing had happened, helping to cook, clean, care for the others, even reaching out to Grace. While she hid from her own pain.
Stacey knew the price for that one too. But the girl was not totally oblivious. She would not speak to or about her cousin. She never even asked how Will was recovering or if he was ill. Though she did inquire about Mercy.
Her heart ached for the man that she knew would become her third son-in-law. He had lost both his grandparents, who had raised him. He did not even communicate with the woman who had birthed him. He had lost the career he had worked so hard to build.
Thankfully, J. T. Tyler had dropped the charges for the whole McBride thing. Rose had confirmed his story about the five grand, going so far as to produce the money. So, Tyler had no case when it came to accepting a bribe. But the black mark for dereliction of duty meant Will would never work in law enforcement again.
On the other hand, Tyler had begged and pleaded with Ryan to come back, even offering him the supervisor role once filled by another traitor. But he and Laura had agreed they wanted to remain in Sebida, wanted Chloe to have the stability of growing up in a small town.
And her? Soon, all three of her girls, both her granddaughters and the two Elena and Mercy carried, would be back here. While Sebida was filled with narrow minds and malicious gossip, it had been her home for her entire life.
She frowned; no, it was not. It never had been. This place was her prison. Her cage. But she had not even realized that until….
But Reb felt the same way about….
Unlike her, though, he had run away. As far and as fast as he could. He had only gone back there to protect her. But now that the danger was past, would he? Would he consider going back to the only place that had ever felt safe, brought her spirit peace? Could he bring himself to do that for her? Did she have any right to even ask? It wasn’t like they were a couple even. Not like Chad and Rose, or Ryan and Laura, or Will and Mercy. They were just….
Despite their conversation in the desert, Stacey was still not comfortable with this strange relationship. They were more than friends, surely? But what were they? And where did that leave her? Would this man hop into Elvira and just drive off to his next job? Just keep drifting? Would he ask her to go with him? Did she want to?
Where did she belong? Her girls were grown. The past six weeks had proven that they had their own lives to lead, relationships to build and nurture, little girls of their own to raise. Honestly, she was probably standing in the way of that. She could see that. Every time her daughters had an argument with their husbands, she would be there, telling them that they didn’t need….
She felt the chill against her cheek. That was when she realized that she was crying. How long had she been crying? And what had happened to…never let them see you cry? Hell, this man had probably seen more of her tears than her smiles. Though most of her life, those smiles had been fake.
She was almost fifty-eight years old, and she honestly did not know who she was or where she belonged. Not anymore. Reb squeezed her tighter. Once, she would have fought. Once, that would have scared her. But no more. That was one thing she did know. She belonged with this man. Wherever he chose to go. She could only hope he felt the same way.
***A hotel room in Laredo, TX***
Will stared at the man in the foggy bathroom mirror. He knew he was procrastinating. He’d finished his shower fifteen minutes ago. But he was not ready to face her…yet.
The entrance wound in his shoulder was healing nicely. He tried turning around but could not see much of the nastier exit wound on the back. But Mercy had cleaned it and changed the bandages daily. Surely she would have said something if there was a problem. Besides, he felt fine.
Something that could not be said for his temporary partner that night. Mason was still in the hospital. The doctors had removed the bullet from his spine, but there was still no sign of feeling or mobility returning to his legs.
That could have been him. Hell, it probably should have been. The whole damned thing had been his shit show. He was the one who had destroyed the only career he ever had or wanted. Put the woman he loved into danger. Kidnapped an innocent girl. And cost a man the ability to walk.
Not to mention all the other lives lost. Anna Garcia. Consuela. Rafael Dominguez. All those men in both the cartels. And, of course, Roberto Garcia. With the possible exception of Diego Garcia’s wife, he had little sympathy for the others. Even Bobby as his cousin and Mercy called the man.
They might have some conflicted feelings about him. Might see him as some poor tragic figure who never stood a chance. But he did not have such illusions. The man was a killer and a pedophile. No different than his brother. Perhaps better looking, definitely more educated, but there was no excuse for the things he had done.
But Will knew that attitude was creating problems with the women he loved. Sure, Mercy knew the things that her ‘baby brother’ had done were wrong. But she kept coming back to the fact that in the end, he had kept his word, helping them to escape. And it had cost him his life. Bebe was even worse. She claimed to love the man who….
He leaned against the bathroom countertop. He could feel the pull in the wound as he stretched his shoulder more than he perhaps should. But that twinge of pain was nothing compared to that in his mind and heart. Had it been worth it?
His cousin would not talk to him. Or to her parents. She refused to go back to Dallas. Of course, he could not blame her. Knowing what he did about the investigation into her disappearance, he was sort of glad about that. His Aunt and her husband would never win any prize for their parenting skills, either. But what was to become of that honor roll student with dreams of Harvard and the White House?
Hell, what was to become of him? His career was over. He would never work in law enforcement again. He was probably lucky that he did not face prison time alongside Garcia. That was probably due as much to Tyler’s guilt about what had happened to his cousin as it was the fact that they had taken down two of the world’s largest cartels. The man had some warped sense of justice. Of course, he was a fine one to judge anyone’s moral code.
Chad Wilson had dropped by while they were still in the hospital. How the man had gotten into the isolation ward Will had no idea. But they had made their peace, sort of. The man had said that he understood, that he would have done the same. But not even Cassandra McBride’s forgiveness was enough for him to absolve his choices. All he could think about was how disappointed his grandparents would be in him.
It bothered him too that Tyler had begged Ryan Ranger to come back to the agency. The man had broken the rules, too. He had become involved with a material witness. Hell, Laura Reynolds was a suspect back then. Was helping McBride get his wife and child to safety, away from dirty agents like Stephens and Saunders, really that much worse? Or was it the same old double standard that had run this country from the beginning? Will knew he should be grateful not to be behind bars. But there would always be the thread of doubt in his mind.
What was he to do now? He was not even thirty-five. They had a baby on the way. And he had no job. He had likely been evicted from his apartment in Houston while he was gone. What the hell were they going to do tomorrow? Where would they even go when this quarantine ended?
He should go out there and talk to Mercy about it. But it wasn’t like the part-time librarian of Sebida, Texas, who lived at home with her Mama at thirty-three, would have any answers. “Might as well get this over with, buddy,” he faced that man in the mirror.
When he opened the door, Will was not prepared for the squeal of delight or the way that his woman propelled herself at him, dragging them both to the bed. He was even less prepared for her words.
Reb felt the tension in her body. He had known that coming back here was a mistake. And he had watched this woman shrink since the moment they crossed the county line. But he understood too that she needed to do this. Her girls were gathering here, and she needed to be here for that. For them.
But once they were happy? What then? Would she choose to stay here? Go back to working crappy jobs just to get by?
And the fear? What about the fear and pain that she had lived with for so long? Never told anyone else about? He wished like hell they had caught Kerr. No, he wanted the man dead. Or did he? How many times over the past few days had he heard Wanda Kerr whispering those words, ‘we’ll never be free, not as long as he’s alive.’ Did he believe them?
Scratch that, Reb was not sure that even the man’s death would free Stacey. It was this place. He understood that. It was all she had ever known, and none of it good or happy. A miserable childhood with an abusive and tyrannical father. A shitty marriage with a man almost old enough to be her father. That turned out not to be a marriage at all. A lifetime of struggling to make ends meet, put food on the table, and care for her girls. And the whole time, a town that, despite its ‘Christian’ veneer, would rather gossip behind your back than lend a helping hand.
No, she did not belong here. But what did he have to offer her? Life sleeping on an old mattress in the back of a truck? Moving from place to place, from job to job? Sure, he had enough money in the bank to buy them someplace, somewhere. Maybe not in one of the big cities where houses were expensive. But another small town, perhaps. They could start over. Fresh. Together.
But somehow, that did not feel quite right either.
Agartha. He had watched her shine like one of those stars in the sky there. That group his mother and sister ran, it was probably why she tolerated his touch now. That she had kissed him that first time.
He remembered his father’s words on the phone tonight. Barry had almost pleaded with him to come back. Told him how desperate they were for his expertise. Sure, even if Mason never walked again, the man could run security there. These days, a few cameras and monitors were more powerful tools than manpower. At least as the first-line defense. And the team that the man had built there was impressive, even to him. The trouble was not Mason’s legs but his head. He was spiraling into depression. Reb could understand that. All too well.
The question was… Where did he stand with his mother and sister? Indie just assumed that one day she would take over from their mother. His baby sister almost acted like it was some entitlement. He knew for sure that their baby brother would swoop in from across the Atlantic at the first sign of frailty in their mother. The boy would push to develop the land into another mega-resort.
But Reb could not get that conversation with his father in the desert out of his mind. Agartha was his birthright. He was the one whose vision it had been. Not his mother’s or his sister’s. He was the one who had chosen the place. Or had it chosen him?
And the dreams? He still had it. This woman – covered in blood and soot, flames raging around them. But there had been no fire. Hell, Stacey had not been in any real danger in Mexico, caring for the girl while he and the others had gone to the main house.
The guilt stabbed him again. It was his call that had cost Mason so much. Not that he could have known what would have happened. But shouldn’t he have? Why had the dreams failed him? Not warned him of the dangers to Mason. While still blaring false alarms about her? That was what always frustrated him – he had no control over the damned things. He never had.
He pulled her tighter as he stared up at the stars. The questions raced through his mind, jumbled like a ball of yarn the kittens had stolen from his mother’s knitting basket. They wrapped about him, confusing and tripping him so that he did not even notice the small, lone figure that sneaked around the corner of the trailer. It was not until he heard the hum of Elvira’s engine that he tore himself from those ‘what ifs’ and watched as his truck drove off down the country lane…without him.
“What the fuck?”
***Esther’s house in Sebida, TX***
Laura stood on the front porch of the tiny house where it had all begun. Was it just seven weeks ago? Well, almost. She kissed the top of her sleeping daughter’s head. Chloe would be seven weeks tomorrow. But it seemed a lifetime ago.
So much had changed. Her baby sister and her mother had found men they cared for and loved them in return. Laura had never thought that would happen. Screw them; she never thought she would find a life partner. Someone more than mere social convenience. A man that loved and respected her. Someone intelligent and strong enough that she could love him in return.
But she had. That impulse decision in the pub half a world away had given her more than just the baby she wanted so desperately. It had given her the type of love she thought only existed in Mercy’s books. And goodness knows that man could grace one of those covers.
Laura tilted her head from side to side, trying to work the kinks out of muscles taut with stress. Even in the relative safety of Grandfather’s ranch, anxiety and worry for her sisters and mother had taken their toll. And those few days when Ryan was gone with the others had been the worst.
It was over now. Diego Garcia was behind bars. The man who had fathered her but whom she did not remember was dead. So too was the younger half-brother that she had never met. Her name was cleared. The threat of seizure of her assets was lifted. They were safe. Or as safe as they could be, considering Earl Kerr and her former fiancée were both out there somewhere.
She could begin her life anew. But what did that mean? She did not want to go back to practicing corporate law as she had for her whole career. She was almost sure she did not want to work for anyone else again. She had seen first hand the advantages Jaycee had, taking only the cases she wanted to, setting her own hours. And with a new baby and Ryan, maybe that was for the best.
Ryan? So, where did they stand?
The moment that they had left J. T. Tyler in that park, the women had headed to Jack’s casino. They had hidden out in one of the rooms there, just as her Mama and Mercy had planned to do. Jaycee, Rex, Angel, and Grandfather were still there.
Though Kerr’s wife had preferred to go with her Mama. She would have never thought those two would become friends. But then again, she had only her suspicions about the bad blood between Mama and that man.
Laura knew that she was delaying. Ryan had already gone inside the little house that she was renting from Miss Esther. She was damned lucky the woman had not cleared their stuff and leased it to someone else while they were gone. But when Laura texted the woman, telling her that she would be sending the arrears, her former teacher had seemed happier to know that she was safe than worried about the money.
She looked across the street. There was a light on in Sandy Monroe’s place. Laura did not know the whole story, but the rumor was the woman had something to do with her former teacher leaving Sebida.
On the back of a motorcycle. With some former Marine that had been a friend of her son Tommy. The whole thing had fed the gossip mill for months. Half of them whispering about how disgraceful and sinful it was – and much worse. The other half applauding her for taking the opportunity when she had it.
But Laura knew the town had something else to gossip about now. Of course, it would not be the first time. Her family had been a favorite topic of their gossip for almost her whole life. Indeed, from the moment her ‘illegal alien’ father was deported and word of his other family got out.
But this? The fact that ‘other family’ ruled a drug cartel? That she and Mercy were ‘living in sin’ with men? That Chloe was illegitimate. And that did not even take deeply-held racial prejudices into account….
Why had she come back here? She was still asking herself that question.
“Do you want me to take her? Put her to bed inside, where it’s warmer.”
Laura battled those damned tears again as she kissed the white-blond down on the top of her little girl’s head. How could she look so much like her father? Weren’t dark hair and eyes supposed to be dominant genes?
She passed her precious cargo to him. She had never imagined sharing her child with its father, but now that she had seen the tender way this man held their child, the way his eyes lit up at the least little thing, that frown of worry at Chloe’s cries, she could not imagine it any other way.
But where did that leave her? What now? Where did they stand? Sure, once upon a time, they had talked about marriage. For Chloe’s sake. So she would not be a ‘bastard.’ As both of them were. But with their story all over the news, that was a moot point now. In this place, her daughter would always be just another Reynold’s ‘bastard.’
She was still asking herself that ‘why’ question when she felt those strong hands grip her shoulder. How long had she stood there just staring at those stars?
“Are you sure about the job? It’s a great opportunity, Ryan?” Though it would mean a move back to Houston, perhaps that was for the best? Did her voice sound as tight to him as it did to her? She needed to get her shit together. Pull up her big girl panties and get on with life. Start making her own decisions for her and Chloe. That had been the plan all along, right?
Wanda knew two things. Going after her husband was the second craziest thing she had ever done. But…she had to do it. It was the only way that her girls would ever be free of that man. That was all that mattered. Whether she ended up dead or in prison, at least her daughters could get on with their lives. Have a normal life, perhaps.
She hated stealing Reb’s truck. She knew that the man loved the thing. Hell, he even named it. But the keys to Elvira had just been lying there. On the bar. It seemed like Fate somehow. As if it were meant to be.
Wanda sped down the country lane, kicking up dirt behind her. It might have been almost twenty years since she’d been to her daddy’s old hunting and fishing cabin, but she knew these roads.
How could she have been so stupid? Not seen the warning signs. And there were plenty of them. Beginning with the fact that the man was over a decade older than she was. But she had had stars in her eyes when her daddy’s young, new deputy smiled at her. She had been fucking sixteen.
Sixteen. The same age as Beth. Thoughts of her oldest daughter only affirmed her convictions. Wanda hit the accelerator. Time was against her. There was a good chance that Earl was gone already. Probably off to one of his dodgy prepper friends living off the grid in the woods. Nothing wrong with that. Her time at Agartha had been the happiest she had been since her Mama died in that hit and run.
That was why daddy had run for sheriff. He wanted answers, and there was no other way to get them. But in his almost two decades in office, he never had found out who was driving the car that ran over her mother as she pruned the roses by the road.
Her life had never been the same since she came home from school to find her mother’s body. Daddy had become obsessed. It was just the two of them, and Wanda had no one to turn to. So, when Earl had shown her the slightest bit of attention….
No, that was ancient history. There was no way to go back and warn that woman-child. All she could do was protect her girls the only way she could.
Sure, she could have given those federal officials the information about her daddy’s hunting and fishing cabin. Most people would say she should have. But she knew that no prison would ever hold that man. He would find some way to escape eventually. Even if he didn’t, she’d bet that he would pull some ‘poor me’ shit with the judges. She’d be forced to allow him to see their girls. Even in prison.
Beth was just now recovering. If you ever really did from watching your father beat your mother almost to death. When she was only trying to protect….
Katie. She was never sure what her ten-year-old saw or remembered. The girl barely spoke, living instead in the world of books.
But it was Maggy that she was really doing this for. Her youngest had barely been three when she had grabbed the girls and what few clothes she could find quickly and piled into her old beat-up van.
It wasn’t that they could not afford a better vehicle. The sheriff’s job might not pay much, but even then, she had known about the ‘service charge’ her husband forced all the local businesses to pay. Everyone in Sebida knew that bad things happened, such as robberies, fires, and accidents, if you didn’t.
No, that van was another way that Earl made sure she could never leave. It barely got them around town, let alone very far. That, combined with the fact that she never had access to the bank accounts or more than a few dollars, had left them virtual prisoners in their own home.
That day though, she knew she had no other choice. After what she had seen….
They had gotten as far as Houston somehow. She knew better than to go to a shelter. That was the first place he would look. And she knew too that he had probably issued an APB for the van. But all those prepper books her husband kept had taught her a thing or two as well.
She had headed to a rough section of town. Found an abandoned house and squatted there. She had brought some cans of food with her, and there was always a couple of gallons of water in the back for when the van overheated. She had refilled those in convenience stores, where she would top their food up with a loaf of bread every couple of days.
But she knew she had to do something more. She needed help. Legal help. She had finally worked up the courage to approach one of those shelters. She did not give her real name. But the woman there probably knew that. They had given her Jaycee Riley’s name and number. And things had turned around for her and the girls… That woman was their guardian angel.
She hated that she had to lie to Jaycee and Stacey. The women had been good to her. Better than she deserved. But she hoped they would understand. Both were mothers. And Jaycee knew the truth… Knew why she had no other choice… Hell, if she survived this, she’d need the woman to keep her off death row. But life in prison was a small price to pay for her daughters’ futures.
Wanda slowed the van as she approached the turn-off to daddy’s cabin. She had not been back here since her ‘honeymoon.’ First rape was more accurate. Sex was never enough for that man. She had learned that. Earl could only get aroused by pain. Her pain. The pain of other women. Pain and fear. Fear that she had seen in….
She pulled to the side of the road by that turn-off. It was best to leave the truck here and go the rest of the way on foot. Wanda leaned her head against the steering wheel. She wasn’t sure what she expected or hoped to find here. She was counting on her husband’s greed and hubris. That he would not want to leave until he had collected all the money and resources that he could.
Earl had never trusted banks. Or paper money, for that matter. Gold, silver, and other precious commodities maybe. But what he really believed in were things he could barter. She’d bet that was guns, knives, and other weapons, especially the assault ones, that it would be easier for law enforcement and former special forces to acquire. And he would need someplace safe to stash them. Somewhere remote, that few people even knew existed. Someplace like daddy’s old cabin.
Wanda got out of the truck. She was careful to not make any noise as she opened and closed the door. She had turned off the overhead light in the cabin when she and Stacey had run into town for some supplies. She had been planning this for days. No, she had been planning it since the beating five years ago when Earl admitted that it had not been a hunting accident. That he had murdered her father.
Of course, back then, it had been more of a fantasy than a plan. When she had seen what he did to… She had considered it. But she needed to make sure her daughters were safe. They were now. She knew that Stacey would find that note at some point. She knew that was asking a lot of the woman. While she never knew details, she was well aware of the numerous vulnerable women in Sebida that Earl….
She opened the back of the truck and leaned in, feeling for the gun that she knew was there. But without any light, it took longer than she hoped.
Stacey was exceptional. Even if she could not fulfill her request, Wanda knew the woman would make sure that Cellie and Indie did. Her girls would be safe and together. That was all she could hope for. Now she would make sure that man never….
The arm wrapped around her neck from behind. Her first instinct was to fight. It always was. But she knew that would be a waste of energy. Better to….
“Well, well, well, if it isn’t my sweet little wife.” The sneer on his face marred any appeal that silly sixteen-year-old might have seen. “Come back to join me or to gloat, darlin’?” He squeezed tighter as he jerked her down the path.
Wanda tripped a couple of times, but that arm about her neck kept her from falling. By the time her daddy’s run-down shack came into sight, she felt light-headed from lack of oxygen. There was an SUV parked out front that she did not recognize. The back of it was open, and she saw it was almost full of wooden crates, almost certainly guns. Probably ammo too.
Earl pushed open the door and threw her inside. He was on top of her before she could even move. The first punch almost blinded her as her face exploded in pain. The next robbed her of breath as she heard at least one of her ribs pop.
She did not know how long the beating or the rape that followed lasted. After the third or fourth one, she had learned the only way to survive was to dissociate. She had been barely eighteen when she learned that lesson…in this cabin. Though Earl had been careful to replace the bloody bed before her father saw it. They had left this cabin for Fort Hood before her father could see the bruises. Though Earl was usually pretty careful not to hit her face.
Only once before… She knew what that meant. He did not intend to stop this time. He was going to kill her. This time her happy place was not the meadow of bluebonnets with her Mama. It was red desert, a cool spring, and the sound of her daughters’ laughter. No matter what happened now, they were all that mattered. As if he could read her mind… And sometimes, she feared he could.
“Where are they? Where are my girls?”
His hand was about her throat, but it did not matter. She would never tell him that. Wanda welcomed the darkness. Prayed she would never again wake as she sent her final thoughts to those girls, ‘I love you. You’re the only good thing I ever did.’
***Hotel room in Laredo***
Mercy knew that Will had been struggling the past few days. He felt intense guilt for kidnapping Grace and what had happened to the other man. What happened with her sister’s man did not help either. She was more than a little glad that Ryan had turned down the promotion that they offered him. She was not certain if they could have withstood that kind of pressure on these new familial bonds.
But Will was intelligent, dedicated, and driven. Some door would open for him. She had no doubt. There was one worry, though, that she could alleviate.
She bent and kissed him. She had lost count of the number of times they had made love these past few days. It wasn’t like they had much to do, stuck in a hotel room. At least not until this morning when the agency dropped off that bag outside the door.
She got it. That one sack contained almost everything the two of them had in the world. Except for her tablet back home and some clothes. The notebooks that she had written in, a couple of old romance paperbacks she had managed to buy in the village, the keys to the Duchess that the agency had collected and delivered to the hotel. And that burner phone. That was it.
Hell, until she had turned on that burner phone and logged in to her accounts, she had been almost as concerned about their future as Will was. The two of them and a baby crammed into a trailer with Mama? She barely made enough as a librarian to cover her own expenses, let alone a baby. She relied on the tiny bit of money she made from her books to pay her cellphone bill.
She had logged in to ensure there would be enough to do that since she had not been promoting or marketing her books for the past few weeks. What she saw shocked her. She was absolutely giddy.
She turned them and pushed Will back onto the bed, landing atop him and straddling his hips. Her lips taking his. The fire and passion in that kiss still took her breath away. She was so incredibly glad she had waited for that passion. For this man. After a long moment, their lips parted. Will’s dark eyes danced with mirth as his fingers caressed her face.
“Woe, sweetheart, what was that for?”
“I shot the sheriff.”
He chuckled, “Yeah, we’ve been down that road, Mercy. But you know Tyler still has not been able to locate Kerr or arrest him.”
“It’s okay. My aim will be better next time.”
He frowned and shook his head, “Let’s hope it does not come to that. The agency is tracking down all the man’s friends, hoping to find where he’s hiding out.”
“Maybe we can find him first?”
He shook his head and tried to dislodge her. “I don’t think so, sweetheart. I want you and her safe.” His hands rubbed tenderly over her flat jean-clad tummy.
She threw back her head and laughed, “But shooting that piece of shit was the best publicity my books ever got.”
“What?” Will frowned.
She picked up the phone, unlocked it, and brought up the web browser that tracked her book sales. “You’re looking at a best-selling author.”
Will stared at the phone for a long moment then handed it back to her. “Congratulations?”
“I had half a dozen emails from agents wanting to represent me. Of course, we won’t see any of the money for another couple of months. It’s another of their games with authors. But by my estimates, I’m guessing close to ten grand.”
“That’s all a best-selling author makes? Ten thousand a year?”
She leaned down and kissed the tip of his nose, “No, silly, per month. Of course, I’ll need to capitalize on this whole thing. I’ve never really wanted to go the whole agent and publisher route. I prefer the freedom of self-publishing. But maybe one of these agents will be willing to work with me anyway. TV or movie rights? Audiobooks? Foreign sales? I have no idea about any of that. But what I need most is a good publicist. Someone who can arrange the right interviews. There were dozens of requests for those too.”
She was rambling, but she had barely managed to contain herself, to keep from bursting into that bathroom the moment she had seen her sales. She had only skimmed her emails. This was the kind of success that most indie authors dreamed about. Yet almost no one ever achieved.
“Hell, if I had known that shooting that asshole was so lucrative, I would have done it sooner. Of course, the fact that I was cleared of all charges makes it easier. I know that you have loads of time for writing in prison, but I’d rather not lose my freedom just to have more writing time.”
“Oh, my god, the new books. I wrote two new books while we were in Mexico. But they’re in longhand.” She reached for the pack next to the bed, pulling out the notebooks and thumbing through them just to reassure herself. “I need to get these typed into my tablet as soon as possible. Hell, I can even afford to hire an editor and cover designer now. I always enjoyed doing those things myself, but maybe my time is better spent writing.”
“What about my job? Assuming they haven’t closed down the library permanently. I’ve been battling the town council on that one for years. But do I want to go back there? Wouldn’t it be better to spend that time writing more books?”
His fingers covered her lips, “Shhh, Mercy, you have time to think about all those things. Maybe your sister can help you with some of it. At least have Laura look over any contracts before you sign them.”
“Yes, of course. Why didn’t I think of that? And I want to pay her back for my college and everything. She’s done so much for Mama and me all these years.”
He smiled as she continued to ramble, but she could see that smile did not reach his eyes. “What is it? What’s wrong, Will?”
“Nothing. Nothing’s wrong. I’m happy for you, sweetheart.”
“But? Is it the money? Does it bother you? You know this is the twenty-first century loads of women make more than their husbands?”
Her hand flew to her mouth. She had not meant to say that word. In all the weeks they had been together, and especially the past few days, locked in this crappy hotel room, they had not really discussed the future. Of course, with her pregnancy and Will’s honor, she had just assumed that they had one. But….
Will lifted his head and kissed her nose, “Was that a proposal, Mercy? I was going for something more romantic. Figured I’d wait until we stopped in Houston, until I went through my things and found my grandmother’s old ring. It isn’t fancy or expensive, but I liked the thought of you wearing it.” Tears clouded her vision as she leaned down and kissed him, sealing the deal.
This time, it was several minutes before she freed her lips to ask the question at the back of her mind. “So, if you planned on asking me to marry you all along, what is it, then? Does the money really bother you that much, Will?”
Mercy tried to keep the pain out of her voice. She could not imagine that something so petty would come between them, not after all they had been through.
He shook his head, “It isn’t the money.” He paused for a long moment, and she tried to be patient, to trust that he would tell her the truth, share his soul with her as they had come to do so often during their brief but intense time together.
“Honest, the money does not bother me. It’s just that… I don’t know… What’s next for me, sweetheart? All my life, all I’ve wanted was to work in law enforcement. But that door is shut for me. Closed solid. Decades. I’m relatively young, with more than half my life left. And I have no purpose. No idea what I want to do or be. Not anymore.”
She heard the pain behind those words. She felt them deep inside of her. This proud and dedicated man had lost so much. Much more than his career. His grandparents. His cousin. Perhaps even his faith in himself. It was a feeling she knew well. One she had seen her whole life. Her Mama. Even Laura when she came back to Sebida.
“You know Mama’s lost more jobs than I can count. Usually, when one of us got sick, and she had to call in or was late. A few times when the stores were robbed. Like they blamed her. As if a few dollars were worth more than Mama’s life. Do you know what she did every time?”
“No, darlin.’ But having met your Mama, I’m sure nothing kept that woman down.”
“You’re damned tooting. She’d buy pizza. That’s the only time we ever got pizza. Whether it was some awful frozen stuff or from a real restaurant. Us girls always knew what pizza meant. We’d eat, then Mama would tell us what happened.”
“Then she’d say, ‘Every time a door closes, a window opens somewhere.’ It’s a line from this musical she loved. Of course, that was a misquote cause Mama don’t believe in god. But you know what she does believe in? Herself. And us girls. I’m betting she believes in you, Ryan, and Bradley too. Mama would start singing a song from that movie then.”
“With each step, I’m more certain, everything will turn out fine. I have confidence the world can all be mine. They’ll have to agree I have confidence in me.”
“We’d all laugh. We knew things might get tough for a while. But we knew that Mama would come through. She always did. Those tough times taught us to have confidence in Mama and ourselves.” Her eyes met his as she caressed his cheek, “And I have confidence in you too, Will.”
“The money will buy us some time. But I know that you’ll figure it out. And I believe that whatever it is… You’ll love it just as much. And it’ll be just as fulfilling and rewarding as your career with the agency has been.”
She punched him in the shoulder, the good one, and laughed. “Besides, if I’m gonna spend all my time writing, who’s gonna take care of peanut?”
He laughed and rolled them so that he was on top, staring down into her eyes, and her heart skipped a beat at what she saw there. “Mister Mom? There could be worse things. But until peanut comes out, I suppose I’m stuck taking care of her Mama.”
“Did you have something in mind, handsome?” Mercy meant it. She believed in this man; she always would. Besides, she always preferred sneaking out windows to dumb old doors anyway.
***Reynold’s trailer, Sebida, TX***
Stacey watched Elvira peel off down the country road away from the trailer, kicking up dust and dirt. Should she be surprised? She did not even question who it was. Could she blame the woman? Hadn’t she fantasized about the same thing herself for decades?
But as Reb took off across the dry grass, waving his arms and screaming like a madman, she turned and opened the front door to the trailer. Bebe and Grace looked up as she walked in, “Where’s Wanda?” Not that she needed to ask. But maybe some part of her still wanted to deny the truth.
“She went out back. Said she wanted some privacy to call her daughters,” Bebe answered.
Stacey nodded; if she were going to follow through on the plans she had made for most almost three decades, she would want to say a final farewell to her girls too.
Chad popped his head around the corner of the bedroom doorway, “What’s up? Rose has just fallen asleep.”
Reb came barging in the front door behind her at the same time, looking around the room. “Shit.”
“I don’t know, but I think this might warrant one of Jack’s ‘shitpisscockcuntmotherfuckingsonsofbitches.’” She smiled at Chad, “Trust me, they heard it all already.”
Why was she so incredibly calm? Had some part of her been expecting this all along? Did she want it? Was she living vicariously through Wanda? Happy that the other woman dared to do what she had always wanted to, planned to do when this day finally came?
“Wanda took Elvira.” There was no doubt in her mind, even as she looked to the bar between the living room and kitchen at the empty space where she had put Reb’s keys earlier.
“We have to go after her,” Chad stepped from the bedroom, closing the door quietly.
“No, you need to stay here with Rose and the girls.” She looked at Reb as he ran his fingers through his long, thinning hair, “I think I know where she’s going.”
Both men looked at her. “After Kerr, of course, but we have no idea where to even begin looking,” Reb started to pace.
Stacey closed her eyes and did that half prayer thing. She still had no idea who or what she spoke to. It, sure as hell, was not the vengeful god that her father had preached about. But she was not ready to embrace this celestial bullshit that Reb’s mother and sister spoke of either.
But for as long as she remembered, she had sent her pleas up to whatever was out there. Even when they went unanswered. Long after, she realized that if there was something, he/she/it did not give a flying fuck about her or her minor problems. Still, she ‘prayed.’
This time it was just one plea – could she go back there? Stacey remembered what Wanda had said on that trail in Agartha. Her daddy’s old hunting cabin. She’d lay dollars to doughnuts that was where the woman was heading.
Was Kerr there? It was likely that the man had been. But was he still? It had been days since J. T. Tyler had issued a federal warrant for the man, based on Bebe’s testimony and evidence they had discovered at the Garcia compound. If the man had a lick of sense, he’d be long gone by now.
But Stacey knew the man’s weaknesses – greed, hubris, and arrogance. It was a lethal combination. Knowing the ‘good’ sheriff as she did, it was just possible the man was arrogant enough to think no one would find him. He would want to take as much of the hidden wealth he had robbed from the people of this town and acquired from his illegal activities with Garcia.
What Wanda and the others did not know was that she knew where the cabin was. It had been over twenty-five years since she had been there. The thought of going back was enough to turn her stomach. But it had been some perverse delight for Kerr, meeting her at his father-in-law’s cabin. Of course, back then, the man was his boss, not his father-in-law. But somehow, he had gotten the key.
The sick bastard got off to forcing her to meet him there. He said that if she ever told anyone, he would claim it was all consensual. And her coming there of her own ‘free will’ would prove it. But there was nothing ‘free will’ about it, not when he made threats about all the accidents that could happen to her daughters. About how she would go to prison for leaving them alone in that old tinderbox of a trailer.
She hadn’t had a choice about that either. It was leave them while she worked, let them go hungry, or have social services take away her only reasons for living. Maybe she should have been more selfless, turned her girls over to foster care. And if she had been guaranteed that they would find a good home together, she probably would have. But she heard all those stories about what happened to foster children. She might not have much or be much of a mother, but one thing was for sure, she would die for those girls. Or worse. So much worse.
She felt strong hands gripping her shoulders, turning her frozen body. Fingers gently lifting her chin until she stared into those warm brown eyes. “What is it, sweetheart? What do you know that you’re not telling me?”
She could not lie to this man, ever. “I think I might know where she’s going. Where Kerr might be.”
Ryan pulled her closer. He felt the resistance. Laura had barely said two dozen words since he, Jack, Rex, and Grandfather had shown up at the casino earlier.
He still wasn’t sure what the plan was with his cousin. Jaycee was due any day now. He remembered well that journey with Laura and Chloe just hours after his daughter’s birth. He hoped that Rex would see the wisdom of staying here and not going back until after the baby was born. And more than a day old.
But whatever his cousin decided, he had his family to worry about now. And right now, he was. Very worried. Had she changed her mind? About them? About him?
He did not want to be some part-time, every other weekend dad. And he sure as hell did not want to lose her again. “Laura, look at me.”
Ryan thought for a moment that she would refuse him. She hesitated that long. Then she brushed her hand across her face and turned. But he could still see the tears glistening in those dark eyes. And it broke his heart.
“I meant it. I don’t want any job so demanding that I can’t make you and Chloe my top priority.”
Her shoulders slumped, and she dropped her head. She did not even look at him as she spoke, “But you don’t have to. I know none of this was your idea, your plan. I never gave you any choice. You don’t owe….”
His fingers beneath her chin lifted her face. He looked for the words to explain how he felt. But there weren’t any. So he used his mouth to convince her another way. He held her gaze as he lowered his lips, capturing hers. His tongue was determined to sweep all those nasty insecurities, words of doubt, and thoughts of leaving from her mind.
The only problem was this woman held the power to scramble his brain and jumble his thoughts as well. Beyond the one that called for him to carry her into that house and make love to her until her legs weren’t capable of walk away from him.
But that wasn’t what he wanted. He wanted Laura to choose. Choose him. Not because he was some superior breeding stock. But because she wanted to spend the rest of her life with him. Wanted to fight the darkness by his side like those shieldmaidens of his ancient ancestors. Damn, he could almost see her with a shield and sword.
He slowly drew back and dropped to one knee. He pulled the box from his pocket, “Laura, you’re right. I don’t have to do anything.” He sighed heavily, “Unfortunately, neither do you. We can’t lie or cover things up. We can’t change the things that some people will say about our little girl. Not anymore. And maybe you are right. Perhaps you did not give me any choice that night. Maybe you used me. But I wasn’t honest with you, either. And we can’t change those things.”
“But I know this much. You’re the best thing that ever happened to me. Yes, I love my little girl. I will always be grateful to you for giving me Chloe. But even before I knew about our daughter, it was her Mama that I couldn’t get out of my mind. It was you that captured my heart in that London pub.”
“I know that the things I did the next morning hurt you. And the fact that I knew who you were that night, I know that’s hard for you to forgive. But from the moment I opened that file, something inside me awoke. And when I walked up to that bar, I was….”
He knew he risked it all with his next words, but he did it anyway. Laid bare his soul. “I was yours. And every night, I dreamt of you. Every day I thought about you. I planned and schemed about how I would win you back. Then I showed up here….”
“And found a fat, pregnant lady….” Her laughter gave him hope. Though the tears streaming down her cheeks worried him.
“The most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.” He dropped his eyes, “I’m sorry. Sorry that I got you messed up in all this. Sorry that I’ve used our child to keep you by my side.”
It was probably one of the hardest things he had ever done, but he forced himself to look her in the eye as he finished his confession. “But I don’t want you to be with me because of our perfect little girl. I don’t want you to feel that you owe me anything for not telling me the truth. We both kept secrets from one another that night.”
“I want us to move past those lies and secrets. Honestly, I want you to choose me. Not because I’m the father of your child. Not because you feel you owe me for anything that happened in Mexico. But because you love me. Even if it’s only a tiny fraction of how much I love and adore you. And if you can’t, or don’t, I’m begging you, please give me another chance. Time to prove to you that I’m the right man, hell, the only man, for you.”
Those tears were running faster down her cheeks. Then again, it was hard for Ryan to tell for sure through his own. She reached out for the ring, wrapping her hands around his. She tugged at him until he stood. That was a bad thing, right? If she were going to accept, she’d want him on his knees?
“Okay, counselor, time to negotiate.”
“Anything. You name it.”
“Gees, you know that’s not very good representation for your client.”
“Yeah, well, my client’s guilty.” Ryan smiled as he sang, “Baby, you left me defenseless. I’ve only got one plea. Lock me away inside of your love, and throw away the key. I’m guilty of love in the first degree.”
“The first clause, no singing.”
“The second is no more talk of kinky key shit.”
“I don’t know. My cousin tells me that it can be kind of fun.” Laura’s face scrunched into such a cute mask of distaste, he had to bend and kiss her nose.
“No, just no. Why would you even put those images of Jaycee in my head?”
“I’m still waiting for your answer, counselor. Though I’m hoping for a life sentence.”
“Do you have any idea how cheesy you are?”
“I have no dignity left, woman. Just put me out of my misery. Please, Laura Reynolds, do me the honor of being my wife?”
She nodded her head with a long sigh, “Okay, counselor, I’m sure we can come to some mutually beneficial terms. Yes, Ryan. Yes, I’ll marry you.”
“Tomorrow?” He knew he was pushing his luck, but he was almost a year too late already as far as he was concerned.
“Hell, no. A wedding takes time to plan. There are invitations, a dress, venues, a reception, and loads of other shit to organize.”
“One week. Your sister and her husband should be back then. He’s a preacher. You have one week to get all that done, Laura.”
“Are you shittin’ me? Come on, Ryan. I can’t plan a wedding in a week. It’ll take months.”
“Nope, one week. I’m not having this whole town talking about us living in sin for months. If they’re going to gossip, let them talk about how beautiful you look in some silly dress.”
“Living in sin? This is the twenty-first century. And besides, what sin? I…”
“You want sin, counselor? Let me remind you of some advantages that come with this deal. I’m going to curl your toes and make you scream.”
He scooped her into his arms, kicked open the door, and carried her through to the bedroom where their daughter was sleeping in another of those basket things.
“Okay, so maybe not the screaming bit. We don’t want to wake our daughter. Oh, I remember one more clause. She needs a brother or sister.”
***On the road again but near Sebida this time***
Reb snuck another glance at Stacey across the darkened cab of Chad’s truck. It wasn’t Elvira, but it would do in an emergency. And this was. He had watched his woman shrink since the moment they crossed that county line, but this scared the shit out of him. She was back to that wild-eyed doe that he had met that night in the casino. Frightened, timid, almost trembling. And quiet, much, much too quiet.
He knew they needed to talk, but there was no time now. They had to get to the other woman. The question was – would she be alone? And if she wasn’t? If Kerr were there? What then? He wanted to believe that he would do the ‘right’ thing. Call Tyler and have the man arrested. But would that be enough? Enough to take that haunted look from Stacey’s eyes once more.
He tried to focus on the road. These country dirt roads could be dangerous, especially at night. But his mind was all over the place. He was too old for this shit. Maybe they should have called Ryan or Jack? But what if Wanda wasn’t at this cabin? What if she was, but the man was not? What would be the point of keeping the others from their beds?
“Here. Turn right here.”
That was all she had said since they left the trailer almost half an hour ago. Directions. Something about the flat tone of her voice, the slight tremble occasionally. Was she reliving her nightmare? How she even knew about this place bothered him. And taking her back, well, that was something he wished like hell he did not have to do.
But sometimes, you had to face the worst to move beyond it. Could coming back here be the key to the prison that Stacey’s mind had lived in for most of her life? Or would he lose her?
Hell, no. He was not losing her. Maybe this was the fire in his dream? Perhaps the flames were her memories and not actual fire at all?
He was pondered that as he took a curve just a bit too fast. He would have known precisely how to maneuver Elvira, but he focused more on the road with Chad’s truck. But the gasp from Stacey alerted him that there was something besides the bumps and holes in this dirt road to worry about.
He caught of glimpse of it then. Elvira. She sat on the side of the road, next to an even smaller dirt path that disappeared into thick foliage and trees. The driver’s side door and back were left open. But he saw no signs of the woman.
He killed the headlights. Though it made driving even more challenging. Was it even necessary? Had he done it in time? Or had they already announced their presence to whoever was here?
He came to a stop a reasonable distance from his truck. He was thankful that Chad’s vehicle came equipped with a gun rack too. Of course, Stacey had her Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum Special.
But they had no idea what they faced. Just like he had not that night in Torreon. As he had not so many places before. But he would not lose this woman. He could not.
They got out of the truck but did not bother to close the door fully in case of the noise. Neither spoke as they crept slowly through the shadows to Elvira. There was more moonlight tonight than there had been in Mexico. But whether that worked in their favor or against them was the question.
He stayed behind Elvira as he reached inside the darkened bed. He did not dare even whisper the woman’s name. He felt around for her but nothing. Reluctantly, he crawled inside, but the only thing he found was Chad’s M40. Someone had pulled it from its hiding place but had not taken it from the case.
He opened the case and took out the gun. This would offer a more extended range than the shotgun or Stacey’s handgun. He dug deeper into the case and found what he was looking for. He quickly added the night sight. They could use it to see as well as to sight their target.
Then he felt the tug on his jeans. He turned to see Stacey, those eyes perhaps even wider as she pointed to something on the ground. He backed out of the truck to see what had frightened her. At first, he did not notice anything, then he saw them. Tracks. Drag marks, actually. Someone had been dragged from the truck.
He nodded to Stacey and motioned for her to follow him. They took to the trees, though none of them were large enough for them to hide behind. Stacey placed her hand on his shoulder and motioned with her head from them to head left. He nodded and lifted the gun, using the night sight to see the ground ahead.
He could see an old shack up ahead. The damn thing looked like it was ready to fall down. And almost directly in front of it was a black SUV. Its back was open as well, filled with wooden crates. He could guess what was in them.
He wished like hell that Chad had gone with thermal sensors rather than mere night vision because he had no idea who or how many were in that cabin. At least two, though. Likely the Kerrs, but did the man have others with him? Hell, had the woman betrayed them all along? He did not think so. If she had, the woman deserved an Oscar.
What did they do? It would be safest to go back to the truck. Call Ryan, have him get ahold of Tyler. Maybe call Jack too. But it had taken them half an hour to get here. How long would it take even the feds to assemble a team? Would the man even be here by then? The back of the vehicle looked pretty packed, like the man was ready to leave.
And if the woman had been telling the truth, did they have time for anyone else to get here? Hell, was Wanda Kerr even alive? He’d bet that she was. The ‘good’ sheriff was a sick fuck. He got off to fear. He would want to savor his wife’s fear. Prolong it for as long as he dared.
Reb considered sending Stacey back to the truck. She could make the calls and stay safely away from this shit show. But she was only holding onto her shit by the merest thread. She was almost as volatile and unpredictable as Wanda Kerr. No, probably better to keep her where he could see her.
The scream rent the night air. Stacey tried to move past him, but Reb stuck out an arm and shook his head. They sneaked a few feet closer. Did he charge the place? What if one or both of the women were caught in the crossfire? That had been a cry of pain, a wounded animal cornered and capable of anything.
He did not get the chance to make that choice. A moment later, Earl Kerr appeared in the doorway. He dragged his wife by the hair. The woman half-covered his body. Even if Reb wanted to, Wanda was too close to take a kill shot. This was one collateral damage he was not accepting as ‘just the cost of war.’
He could not see a gun. The man liked his head fucks. Controlling the woman with his bare hands and fear was more the style of a bully, but most domestic abusers were. Still, he did not have a clear shot from this distance, with trees, the woman, and a vehicle in the way. He’d only get one chance. Once the man knew they were here, Reb would lose the element of surprise.
As Kerr tugged the woman by her hair towards the SUV, Reb had it. His one shot. He did not hesitate to pull the trigger.
It was all over so fast that Stacey was barely aware of what was happening. A shot rang out. Kerr released Wanda. And Reb was on top of the moaning, whiny, pleading man. He used the same rope that had been wrapped around Wanda’s wrists to secure her husband’s.
“Shit, he’s bleeding too much. I must have hit the femoral artery. Stacey, I need you to find me something to stop the bleeding.”
Reb pressed his hands into the man’s hips, leaning his whole weight forward. Kerr just lay there. Was the man even conscious? He had destroyed so many lives. Not just hers. Wanda’s. His daughters’. Hell, who even knew how many people had been hurt by this man’s avarice, greed, hubris, and lust? A whole damned town at his mercy.
And it came to this? All those years of fantasizing about killing this man? And one shot? That she did not even fire?
“Stacey, listen to me. I need you to come here. I can’t move my hands, or he’ll bleed out. I want you to take my belt off and wrap it around his leg. Do you understand me, sweetheart?”
The woman on the ground next to them had been sobbing. If it weren’t for the color of her hair, Stacey might not recognize Wanda Kerr. He had done a real number on her face. The woman moved slowly. Her whole body must be riddled with pain. But even through the nasty swelling, Stacey saw the determination and hate in the woman’s eyes.
“No! Don’t. Let him die. It’s the only way any of us will ever be free.”
Reb looked at the woman, then back to her. His warm brown eyes seemed to plead as much as his words, “Please, darling, help me here. Not because he deserves it. But because you’re better than that. We aren’t like him.”
It was the truth of that, which Stacey saw in those eyes, that finally broke through to her paralyzed brain. She kept as far away from the man as she could. Unfortunately, that was not very far, as she unbuckled Reb’s belt and pulled it from his jeans.
“One of us needs to wrap that around his leg above the wound. While the other keeps pressure on it. I’m sorry, Stacey, but that means you’re going to have to touch him. I know how hard that will be, sweetheart. You decide which.”
Wanda moaned, and the sound shook her again. But it was thoughts of her granddaughters that gave Stacey the courage to do what she had to. She had spent over a quarter of a century letting this man control her. Even after the rapes stopped, she lived in fear and hate. But no more. She wanted to be the kind of person those babies could look up to. The type of woman that this man believed she was.
“You’re already applying pressure. Makes sense for me to do apply the tourniquet.”
“That’s my girl,” he smiled at her, and those words felt better than they should. “There’s a limb over there. We’ll need it to tighten the tourniquet.” Reb motioned to trees just a few feet past Wanda.
Stacey stood up to walk there, but she felt something tug her ankle. She looked down into the bloody and pleading eyes of the woman she had once hated almost as much as this man. A woman who had lost even more than she had at this man’s hands. “I’m sorry, Wanda. But you know he’s right. We have to do the right thing. Or we’re no better than he is.”
The sob from those swollen lips tore at Stacey’s heart. The death throes of a wounded animal. Were her front teeth missing? Was that why her words sounded so slurred? Or perhaps she had head injuries?
She and Reb had to stabilize both of them and get an ambulance here as soon as possible. It broke something inside of her to shake off the woman’s hands and pleas. But she kept her mind focused on what needed to be done. As a supervisor at the computer factory, she was required to take first aid courses. She focused on the steps she had learned in those rather than on the man and woman on the ground.
Stacey found a limb that was sturdy enough not to break under pressure. When she returned, she kept her eyes from either of their faces. Trying to pretend Earl and Wanda were random strangers.
She knelt on the cold, damp dead leaves and leaned forward around Reb. She picked up the belt from the ground next to him and lifted the man’s leg. Kerr moaned, and before she could stop herself, Stacey looked at the man’s face.
It was a mistake. That face. Contorted in pain. This was no random stranger. This was her rapist. The man that had stolen what little hope she had left after her daddy and Iggy were finished with her.
Reb didn’t know it, but she had gone into that bedroom, looking for more blankets to warm the girl. She had stared at the blue-black death mask of the old man who had once been her… But looking at Iggy’s body had not brought her the satisfaction or closure she had thought it would.
And neither would this man’s death.
She shook off those thoughts as she pulled the leather strap through the buckle as tightly as she could. Then she wrapped it around that stick and began to turn. After the third revolution, the man lifted his upper body from the ground and screamed.
Those ice-cold, lifeless gray-blue eyes met hers, “Bitch.”
She smiled and nodded as she turned the stick tighter, “The bitch who’s saving your worthless ass.”
Reb nodded and smiled at her as he began to release the pressure. “I’ll call 9-1-1.”
Stacey turned her attention to the woman. She didn’t even know where to begin. Head-to-toe, her training kicked in. She was as gentle as she could be as she began to feel for the extent of Wanda’s injuries. Her eyes were closing fast; the swelling around both of them was extensive. Stacey was pretty sure that the left cheekbone was broken. And yes, both front upper teeth were missing.
She noticed movement in her peripheral vision and turned back to see Reb stand and walk towards the back of the SUV. He was holding the phone up and cussing as loudly and profanely as Jack.
She looked at the man on the ground, but with this hands tied and the tourniquet around his thigh, the good sheriff was not much of a risk. So, she turned back to the man’s wife.
“You should have let him bleed to death,” the woman mumbled as Stacey went back to checking her injuries.
Wanda screamed when she barely touched her right side. Her ribs were likely broken, too. But at least the woman was not having any trouble breathing. That meant none of the bones had punctured her lungs. That was a small blessing, at least.
Stacey noticed then that the woman was not wearing the t-shirt and jeans that she had worn earlier. All she had on was an extra-large shirt, likely his. She did not need to feel the woman’s legs for injuries. She could see no apparent deformities and only bruising on her upper thighs.
“Fuck,” Stacey cussed under her breath as she noticed the sheen of something wet on Wanda’s inner thighs.
Perhaps Wanda heard her or noticed where she had been looking because the woman closed her legs tighter and grabbed the shirt pulling it down. Stacey held out her hand, “Can you sit up?”
Wanda kept her eyes down as she nodded. But before she could help the woman up, Reb let loose another of Jack’s infamous incantations, “Shitpissdamncockcuntmotherfuckingsonsofbitches.” He was almost as good as Jack at turning the tirade into a single word without so much as a breath.
Even before he came to kneel beside her, she knew it was not good news. “I can’t get a signal, darling. I need you to take my phone and go back to the truck. Maybe you’ll be able to get one there.”
“But if not, there’s a damned CB in Chad’s truck. Maybe you can reach someone, the emergency channel? Hell, if you have to take the damned thing and drive until you see somewhere that might have a phone, or you get a signal. We need ambulances here. Now.”
Stacey shook her head, her eyes meeting his, trying to tell him without words. “It’s best if you go, Reb.”
Her telepathy powers must be improving around that new-age mumbo-jumbo that his mother and sister preached because Reb looked from her to the woman on the ground and nodded. “Okay.”
“But I need you to help me get them into the cabin first. Shock is going to set in, if it hasn’t already. And being out here will make it harder for me to keep their body temperatures up.”
“Where did you learn so much, woman?”
“I told you Clara Barton was my hero growing up. I might not have ever fulfilled that little girl’s dream of going to nursing school, but my job sends me on first aid courses.”
“Damn, woman, that’s sexy,” Reb brushed a quick kiss on her cheeks.
“Oh, sweet on the slut? Hate to disappoint you, but she’s a terrible fuck, almost as bad as the other one.”
Reb turned back to the man on the ground, his fist raised in the air. “We might save your sorry life so you can rot in prison. But that doesn’t mean I can’t rearrange your pretty face if you say one more word about my woman.”
Stacey reached out and grabbed Reb’s wrist. “We don’t have time to waste on that piece of shit. Carry her inside. I’ll handle this one.”
Reb looked from her face to the man’s several times before he finally nodded. “Where’s your gun, woman?”
Stacey reluctantly pulled it from the waistband of her jeans. She didn’t think the man was any real threat, but she understood. She scooted back out of the man’s reach and took the safety off. “Now, go.”
Reb lifted Wanda, “I’ll be back for him.”
“Don’t worry about us. I’m sure the good sheriff knows better than to mess with me. I’m a better shot than my daughter.”
Reb didn’t like it. Not one little bit. But he understood perfectly. Perhaps too perfectly why it was best if Stacey were the one to stay and guard the Kerrs. Still, he could not help but worry.
He had thought their part in this whole cluster fuck was over when they came back from Mexico. Her daughter was back safe. They had found and saved the missing girl. Two cartels were destroyed. Wasn’t that enough? Couldn’t Tyler and the feds handle the rest, now that they had rooted out the traitors?
But here they were. In the middle of nowhere. No damned signal. And two injured people.
He rechecked the phone. One bar. Probably not enough for a call, but he might be able to send a text? Jack or Ryan? He did not have Tyler’s direct line, but Ryan would. And he’d have the capacity to trace their location via GPS.
Reb typed quickly before that bar disappeared too…
Wanda went after Kerr. We followed. Send help. NOW.
He pushed the send button and prayed. But those tiny dots just kept bouncing. “Fuck, fuck, fuckity, fuck, fuck, fuck. Can’t anything go right?”
That left the CB in the truck or standing on the roof and trying to get enough of a signal for the message to send. Assuming that Ryan wasn’t so busy fucking Stacey’s daughter that he missed the text. Yeah, perhaps not the best option, then.
Reb climbed into the bed of the truck and lifted the damned phone as far above his head as he could. Still only one bar. But enough for him to try getting another message to Jack. He knew his friend could track their location; he’d taught Jack that trick himself.
But what then? Jack did not have Tyler’s number either. His friend’s best go was to try to get ahold of Ryan, gather some men, or call 9-1-1 himself.
The thing was… Did they dare call emergency services?
That was the reason he was so hesitant to place the call himself. He knew that technically his phone should be able to reach emergency services even without a single bar. But those were Kerr’s men.
While Tyler had enough information to get a federal warrant for the ‘good’ sheriff’s arrest, there was no evidence of who else in his department was or was not involved. And right now, the governor still had not appointed an interim sheriff to replace the man.
If he made the wrong call with this one, he and both those women could end up dead, and Kerr would drive away. Of course, they would blame Earl for the deaths, but what were three more murders when the man was looking at a life sentence or possibly even the death penalty anyway?
Shit, what was he to do? He could try the CB. But even if he got through to someone, they’d just call 9-1-1, and they’d be back in the same situation.
Even if he called for an ambulance, unless he lied about the nature of the injuries, they’d send the cops anyway. An ambulance crew would not even come up the road until the location was cleared by the police. So, he was back to the million-dollar question – could they trust the Sebida police department not to side with their corrupt former boss?
Of course, it was almost inevitable that whoever was handling the casino’s security room would hear the call on the CB’s emergency channel. But how likely was it that Jack would be able to get here before the police?
He was not one-hundred percent sure where they were. He had just been blindly following Stacey’s directions, but if he remembered his area map right, this county road was even further from the casino than the police station.
He checked his phone yet again. Both messages read sent. That was something, at least. But was it enough? Did he dare make that other call or fire up the CB?
Stacey paced the tiny cabin. She knew that this was the right thing. Wanda was on edge. Hell, perhaps, this had even pushed her over. While she was not about to ask now, she was pretty sure Kerr had done more than just beat the woman.
How many of her rapes had occurred here? If she thought about it long enough, Stacey was sure she could come up with a relatively accurate number. That was what was making this so incredibly hard.
The man was tied up on the bed across the room. She did not dare look at Earl Kerr. Though she could feel the man’s eyes on her, watching her every movement. Was he plotting some escape attempt? Though given his leg and the amount of blood he lost, that would be difficult, she would not put it past him.
Wanda was sitting on the rickety old chair next to the table. Those were the only furnishings in the place. It did not even have running water or electricity. An old kerosene lamp sat on the far end of the table.
“You know I’ll get out. And I’ll find you. Both. You bitches will pay for this.”
Wanda’s sobs became louder. Hadn’t this woman learned by now that was what he wanted? The man fed off fear. Maybe that was why he had tired of her. She refused to give him that power. Only afterward, when she was alone, had Stacey ever allowed herself to freedom to cry like the woman was now. Under the shower with the hot water scalding her, knowing she could never truly wash his stench from her body.
“Shut up,” Stacey waved the gun in his direction. She even forced herself to focus on the man for a moment. She needed to make sure he was not attempting to break free of the bonds. Reb had tied the man’s hands together in front of him, but given the state of his leg, had not dared to bind his ankles as well. She could not tell if he managed to loosen the rope.
But looking at the man was a mistake. The smug and self-satisfied visage on his face belied his situation. It was as if he were laughing at them. She inhaled and shook her head, hoping that Reb would be back soon. If he had to take the truck to find a signal….
“You were almost as bad a fuck as she was,” Stacey was unsure which of them he was speaking to, but she refused to take the bait.
“Maybe we weren’t the problem, sheriff. About the only thing big about you is that ego.”
Wanda looked up at her, or as much as she could given that her eye was almost swollen shut now. “See, I told you. You should have killed him. Or at least let him die.”
Stacey crossed the room, she never thought she would feel any sympathy for this woman, but over the past week, she had. She knelt in front of Wanda, “Don’t listen to what he says. Where he’s going, he won’t be able to hurt anyone again.”
She dared once more to look at the man struggling on the bed. Yeah, he was trying to loosen the ropes. Where was Reb? She fingered the gun. “He’ll learn what it feels like to be a victim in prison. He might be a bit old, but I’m sure that there are some guys in there with a grudge against the ‘good’ sheriff who’ll be more than happy to….”
“Bitches, what do you know? I just gave you what you wanted. What all women want. Real men take what they want. And women eat that shit up.”
“Please, Stacey, give me the gun. If you can’t….”
She shook her head, “That’s not the answer, Wanda. That just brings us down to his level. We’re not like him. We’re mothers. Look at all you’ve done to keep your girls safe. Don’t blow it now. Not on him.”
“I am thinking of my daughters. They will never be safe. We, you and me, we’ll never be free. Not as long as that monster is breathing.”
“Mothers? Bah! What’s so special about being able to push a bowling ball out of your coochie? It doesn’t make you special or better. You’re all the same. Whores! Whores that use men. Well, no one uses Earl Ray Kerr, never again.”
The man thrashed on the bed. Stacey saw the red on that bandage spreading. The look in his eyes was almost the same madness she saw in his wife’s. For the first time ever, Stacey considered what created a monster like him. She had always assumed he was pure meanness, but something about those eyes made her feel almost sorry for him. Almost.
The distraction was a mistake. Stacey felt a hand cover hers. “Give me the damned gun.”
She started to shake her head, but Wanda did not wait for an explanation. Her grip tightened as she tried to wrestle the gun from Stacey’s hand. She was shocked by how strong the other woman was. But Stacey supposed fear and adrenaline fueled it.
The first shot hit the roof right over the bed. Stacey pushed hard and turned them as they struggled over the weapon. She could see the man pulling at the bindings in her peripheral vision. Fuck, where was Reb? If he didn’t get back here soon, it was all going to hell.
The second shot hit the old kerosene lamp just as she noticed the man slip his fingers beneath the first bit of rope. Shit, he would be free in less than a moment. But the way those flames lapped at the walls was a bigger problem.
“We need to get out of here,” her eyes pleaded with Wanda as much as her words.
The woman shook her head as she shoved them closer to the door. “No, you need to get out.”
It took a moment for Wanda’s words to register in her brain. Time that the other woman used to push them to the door and open it. “No, Wanda. Your girls! You can’t.”
Tears were streaming down the woman’s battered face as she shook her head. “Tell them I love them. I know you’ll take good care of them. But….”
Another shot rang out. But it was not from the gun that the women still held in their hands, pointed at the ceiling. Wanda collapsed into her arms, “Go. Now. While you can….”
Stacey shook her head as tears fell, and she struggled to drag the injured woman through the door with her. The man across the room had that look of triumph that she knew all too well. Forty-seven times she had tried to erase that look from her mind.
“Bitches are weak. They never do what is necessary.”
“Take care of my girls.”
Stacey would never be sure of what happened next. How had a woman that badly beaten, bleeding from a gunshot somewhere, managed to wrestle the gun from her fingers, push her out the door and slam it shut? Despite all her pretty words to the contrary, had she subconsciously given into Wanda’s pleas? Had she been an unwitting accomplice?
She heard another shot, or was it two? She pounded on the door, pushing and shoving at the wooden frame. But it would not budge. Even as the flames grew higher and hotter around her, she slammed her fists against the door. She kicked it. And she cried out for the other woman.
She was mad with worry when strong hands gripped her from behind. She fought to break free as valiantly as Wanda had struggled over that gun. Had Kerr somehow escaped those flames, gotten past Wanda? She struck out blindly. She would not let him take her. Not now.
Somewhere far away, she heard him calling her name. Reb was back. She just had to hold out a bit longer. Those hands gripped her shoulders tighter. Dragged her away from the door. She tried to break free again. To go back for the other woman. But he held her firmly.
She had managed to pull away so that only one hand around her wrist detained her when there was a loud groan. The roof of the old cabin collapsed. Though the wood continued to burn, it looked more like a bonfire than a building. “No!”
Then those arms wrapped around her and drew her against a chest. His smell. Reb always smelled differently. And even over the smoke and humus, she recognized him. “Shhh, sweetheart. I’ve got you.”
Stacey shook her head, “Wanda’s in there. We have to get her out.”
“Stacey, there’s no way, you know that. Not now.” He held her tighter. His hands on the back of her head kept her from seeing what remained of the cabin as it burned.
The dam broke. Tears flooded. Were they tears for the woman she had hated for so long? Were they for those last dreams that had died at that man’s hands? Were they even for that glimpse of something, perhaps fear or pain, that she had seen so briefly in her tormenter? Were they for her so uncertain future that stretched ahead? Without hate and bitterness to fuel her, what would she do?
He held her once again as she cried. It was becoming an all too common thing. Then he scooped her up in those strong arms and carried her back to Chad’s truck. He let down the gate, and they sat in the bed as she continued to cry. Was it minutes or hours?
Then all hell burst loose again. Ryan was the first to arrive. Jack followed a few minutes later. Then it was loads and carloads full of men in black suits or assault armor. An ambulance. By the time the volunteer fire department arrived, the flames had almost burned themselves out. But there was not much any of them could do except take down names and put out the flames. And through it all, those arms held her.