Part 3 – Monday Morning Blues

***Week 1, Monday, just after midnight Sebida, Tx.***

Laura was groggy and disoriented as she came awake. Where was that loud cry coming from? Who had left their baby with her? Then it all came back as she looked down at her red-faced daughter screaming at the top of her lungs. She was a mother. A mother. After all, she had been through this past year, Chloe was finally here.

And so was her father. Laura still was not entirely sure how she felt about that. After planning for almost fifteen months to be a single parent, to have Ryan Ranger turn up on her doorstep as she went into labor was confusing as hell. Especially when she saw the bond that already existed between father and daughter.

She barely remembered Ignacio Garcia, and her sisters did not at all. The little she did remember of the man almost made her glad that he had been captured and deported. The man never worked. Of course, now she knew that was because he did not have the necessary paperwork. But it was not just that. He was with them all day, but still, her mother had to come home and cook, clean, and do the laundry. Because that was woman’s work.

She knew that Elena had contacted his other family in Mexico during one of their mission trips, but Laura had stopped her sister before any details of that trip left her lips. She had no desire to know, or even know about, the man who had sired her.

But Ryan Ranger was different. Well, the Ryan that she had spent that one beautiful night with, and the Ryan that took charge and delivered their daughter, the baby he knew nothing about. Of course, the cold bastard who showed up that morning in her office and fired her was not on her happy list.

She loosened the button that kept the flap of her nursing gown closed and shifted to release her breast, but that was not as easy as it sounded. Her whole body was sore. It felt like a Mack truck had driven between her legs. And the relatively strong contractions, which Lupe assured her were not only perfectly normal but necessary, well, those were a bitch.

Two strong hands reached out and lifted her daughter. At first, panic rose along with bile in her throat. But she followed those hands up muscled arms to his face. His pale blond hair was darkened as it curled tighter to his head. Obviously, he had taken a shower.

She could use one, too. Lupe and her mother had helped her wash up after the birth, but she would almost kill for a long bath. Even a quick shower would do for now. He wore another dark t-shirt and jeans that were not stained with amniotic fluid. He looked way too good, especially as rough as she felt.

“Shhh, princess, Mommy’s getting your food,” Ryan crooned in a low, comforting voice to the baby as he held her to his shoulder and softly rubbed up and down her back.

Yeah, he was definitely different than her sperm donor or even most of her friends’ husbands. She certainly could not imagine Stewart Childress with his designer suits and Ivy League degrees cradling a baby with such care. Yeah, she was well rid of that one.

But did she trust Ryan? Did she dare? Did she have any other choice at the moment?

Freeing her breast, she got into a more comfortable position for breastfeeding Chloe. She noted that each movement pulled and tugged. While there were no sharp pains of those after-birth contractions, her whole body ached. To be fair, birth was more strenuous than any gym workout. Although it did little for her figure.

“Hand her to me.”

He kissed the top of Chloe’s downy head before passing their daughter to her. “You’ll be nice and full soon, sweetie.”

“Not likely. She is only getting a few drops of colostrum right now. It’ll be a couple of days before my milk comes in properly.”

She did not add – if it came in at all. She would not allow those thoughts to take root. Even if she knew that this stress made that more likely. She had wanted to breastfeed even when she planned to return to work. The thought of bottle feeding her only child seemed like such a defeat.

Like her Mama, she was more than just a survivor. She would not be defeated in this. Any more than she had been when the bottom fell out of her career. Thanks to this man. Well, not entirely. The McBrides had more to do with that, she supposed.

She got the baby settled and well attached to her nipple. It took a couple of tries to get it just right. But she managed without her Mama or Lupe’s assistance this time.

When that was accomplished, she forced herself to face other dilemmas. Raising her face to his, “So, what did you find out?”

She could tell he was hesitating, and she steeled herself for what was to come. Chloe must have sensed her unease because she broke her latch on Laura’s nipple with another piercing cry, and the whole process began again.

By the time she had their daughter had settled again, he had sat on the edge of the bed. His wet hair looked like he had run his fingers through it a couple of times. But she gave him credit; he met her gaze head-on.

“We need to leave here.”

“I figured that much. When? How long do we have? Where will we go?” This time she kept her voice low and tried to remain as calm as she could. Breastfeeding her daughter was important to her, though perhaps not as important as staying alive.

“As soon as possible.”

She watched him bite the inside of his cheek and knew whatever came next was not good news.

“Stephens, my handler, isn’t willing to play ball. He’s threatening to send the sheriff to arrest you if I don’t turn you in.” He held her stare, “I don’t need to tell you how corrupt that man is; you grew up here. I can’t protect you if you’re in his custody.”

She shivered, and her eyes glazed over with tears. Sheriff Earl Kerr had stood trial for murdering a drug dealer when the man would not cut him in on the profits. Worse, he had been acquitted, despite overwhelming evidence. Even though the trial had been moved to another county. No, if she ended up in that man’s jail, she was as good as dead.

“How long do we have?”

“As soon as you can get packed, I’m gonna call Jack Greywolf. He’s my cousin Rex’s cousin on his mother’s side of the family. The three of us used to spend summers together on Rex’s grandfather’s ranch in the Hill Country.” Ryan met her gaze, “My cousin Rex says Jack’s back in Sebida and thinks we can trust him to help. But I wanted to talk with you before I made that call, sweetheart?”

She nodded her head, though she did not trust her own judgment at the moment. This was all so surreal. Like a nightmare or horror movie. And she was the star. “How well do you know Jack?”

“As I said, Jack is my cousin’s other cousin,” he chuckled. “Yeah, I know how odd that sounds. But Rex is my cousin on his father’s side. Jack is his second cousin or something on his mother’s. His grandfather and Rex’s were brothers, though they were separated and adopted by different families when they were little boys.”

“The brothers found one another in their middle years, quite by accident, as both had become active in Native American issues. They got to comparing notes and realized the truth,” he explained. “When we were in our teens, Rex, Jack, and I would spend our summers on his Grandfather’s ranch in the Hill Country. That’s where I want to take you. If you’re okay with that.”

“Why there? Won’t the agency, at least, know about this place? Even come looking for us there?”

He bit the inside of his cheek again. His tell, she would have to remember that. “Yeah, it is a possibility. But for one thing, I trust the sheriff in that county. And for another, I know those hills better than I know my own mind sometimes. Besides, if we go there, then I have Rex and Grandfather as backup. And you’ll have another woman to talk to and rely on. Rex just found his mate. Jaycee has a little girl who is six or seven and is pregnant with Rex’s first child.”

“Then, should we be taking our troubles to them?”

“Taking it back to them. Jaycee’s ex-husband was Sean Riley. I don’t need to tell you that his death started all this.”

She frowned, “Then isn’t that even more reason not to?”

His shoulders slumped, “I won’t lie to you, sweetheart. I don’t like involving my cousin and his family in this mess, especially with Jaycee pregnant. But we need someplace defensible and close. Even the few hours’ drive that it is between here and there is probably longer than you and Chloe should be traveling right now. You got any better ideas?”

Laura rifled through the shortlist of possibilities that she had already compiled for such an eventuality. The cabin that had been Mama’s bugout plan was almost eight hours away. As for the other options, those were not close enough, either. “Okay, so what do we do next?”

“Are you good with me calling Jack, sweetheart?”

It had been over twenty years since she babysat him. She was eighteen, and he was thirteen the last time. When he tried to put his hand up her t-shirt, she had told Injun Joe. The old man had forced Jack to apologize, and they had agreed that perhaps Jack was old enough not to need a babysitter anymore. But something told her that was a story best kept to herself.

She knew that, like Ryan, Jack had enlisted in the military. Though he was not the academy or officer type, the rumor was that he had been special forces, too. He had left the army after his grandfather’s death and come back to Sebida. She had even seen him, or she thought it was Jack, once or twice in the dinner, when she was feeding her country-fried steak and bacon cravings.

Yeah, she had no reason not to trust the man, especially if Ryan and his cousin trusted him. “Yeah, I guess so,” she nodded her head as she broke Chloe’s seal on her nipple. She winced as she tried to scoop the baby up and roll to the other side.

“Fuck,” Ryan cussed. But almost immediately, he was by her side, taking their daughter in one arm and holding out the other for her to use as leverage to turn over. “I’m sorry, babygirl. Daddy should not cuss like that around you.”

Laura got herself settled, closing the flap of her nursing gown on one side and opening it on the other, as she held out her arms for the baby. “My first word was ‘ah, shit,’ and I turned out alright.”

“Ah, shit?” his brow shot up.

“Well, thankfully, it came out more like ‘watch it.’ So Mama wasn’t embarrassed all over town. We can hope hers is ‘duck,’ maybe?”

He kissed Chloe’s smattering of hair again and handed her to her mother. Laura’s heart tightened a bit as she watched the two of them. “Yeah, well, I’m way behind on this father shit. Oh, damn. Sorry, I’ll do better, I promise.”

As Chloe latched on to her other nipple, she winced. Who knew babies had such strong suction? “I don’t know, counselor, it seems to me, you’re doing a damned fine job.”

He seemed to blush at her words, but she could not tell between the soft glow of the bedside lamp and the sunrise that was beginning to filter through the sheers. “So, what’s the plan?”

“Let me call Jack. Then you need to tell me what to pack for the two of you. We should call Lupe too, see what advice she has to offer. I know you should not be traveling right now, but we don’t have any other choice. I’m sorry, sweetheart. Maybe I should not have quit or come clean with Stephens when I did. Perhaps I could have bought us some time if I’d…”

“Lied? No, Ryan. Don’t blame yourself. Any more than I can. We are just caught up in this mess.” She forced the cobwebs from her brain. “Okay, you call Jack. I’ll call Lupe while Chloe finishes her breakfast.”

“Then, you can tell me what to pack while we wait for Jack.”

“There are two bug-out bags with the essentials on the top shelf of the cupboard in the hallway. At the back, hidden behind some of Miss Esther’s Halloween decorations.”

His eyes widened at her words before he bent to kiss her forehead. “Damn, woman, I knew I loved you for a reason.”

Laura’s mind was still reeling from those words. Though she doubted, Ryan meant them the way they sounded. Was that even what she wanted? She looked down at their daughter, who had once again fallen asleep on her nipple. Maybe? Perhaps that was what they both needed. But right now, she had more important things to do as she scrolled through her contacts looking for Lupe.

***5:30 a.m. Chad’s ranch***

Chad stood, biting his lower lip, outside of the door that had once been the guest room. However, its more common purpose had been his grandmother’s sewing room. He felt guilty as hell about not clearing all that shit out of there before she went to bed last night. It was not just the mammoth table and fancy sewing machine against the window. The chest of drawers was full of fabric. There were dozens of boxes under the bed, in the closet, and around the room.

Fabric had been his grandmother’s one vice. The woman could not go anywhere without checking out the sewing stores. And as much sewing and quilting as the old woman had done on a working farm and ranch, there was never enough time for hobbies. Though, those last months, before cancer won, it had been about all she could do. She had sewn him, all his cousins, and their children beautiful quilts.

“To remember me by,” she had said. As if he needed scraps of fabric, no matter how sewn together with love, to remind him of the woman who had instilled values in him more than his mother. Chad still got choked up thinking about it, but sleeping under the red, white, and blue stars and stripes quilt that she had sewn him did just that. Then again, he always felt their presence here.

But that was not what he was doing here this morning. He raised his hand to knock on the door – until he saw the time on his watch. Five a.m. might be standard rising time for him. He had always been an early riser, a morning person. But he was confident that women like her, and their daughter, were not used to such hours. True, he had warned her last night that the day started early around here. And one thing that he wanted to impart to that girl, young woman, his daughter, was the value of hard work.

Still, yesterday had been traumatic for them both. Hell, for all of them. It was not every day you discovered that you had a teenage child. He was sure that the past few months must have been hard on them, too. What harm would it do to allow them to sleep in this morning? He would get the horses out into the pasture, do a few chores, then make her a cup of coffee and bring it up. Yeah, that sounded like a better plan. Then they could all discuss things like routines and chores over breakfast.

With the decision made, Chad turned and walked down the stairs. Into a kitchen that had not smelled this good since the doctors found the lump in his grandmother’s breast. He stopped at the bottom of the stairs and stared. She was humming something, though he could not tell what song it was, as she stirred something in a couple of the old cast iron skillets on the stove. Her butt sure looked fine in those Walmax jeans. He felt his body respond, even though he had been vigilant to take care of that before he got out of bed.

He focused his energies and wayward thoughts elsewhere. He inhaled deeply, trying to figure out what was for breakfast. It was not the sweetness of pancakes, and there was no distinct smoky flavor of bacon hanging in the air. He inhaled again as she turned with the old wooden spoon in one hand.

She wore one of those frilly apron things that his grandmother sewed. She had made a passel of those for everyone, too, before she died. Those things had defined the woman for him. Except for church, funerals, and when they went into town, he could not remember the woman ever being without her trademark. If he had his way, they would have buried her in one. As with so much that came in the early days after losing his grandparents, he had not had his way.

But the woman, his woman, sure looked good in one. It seemed right somehow. To see her standing there in his grandmother’s apron with the old woman’s spoon in her hands. It reminded him of his visit to Washington, D.C. Well, specifically, to Arlington National Cemetery. The changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier had affected him as few things could. That was the only thing he could compare to this feeling — a changing of the guard at this old place. And something told him that his Grandmother Grace would have liked this woman.

Except maybe, of course, how they had met. And the fact that he had not been there for her or their child when she had needed him. But he had to let that one go. As he had told her last night, they could not change the past. And he was here for them now. When they needed him most.

***5:30 a.m. Sebida, TX***

Ryan followed her instructions and searched on the top shelf for the bags behind a couple of boxes marked Halloween. Sure enough, he pulled out two rather heavy bags. One a sizeable pink shoulder strap bag that he supposed had Chloe’s things. The other was a much larger gym bag that felt incredibly heavy.

While he admired her forethought in packing them, there was no way Laura would have been able to reach or carry them. Let alone drive right now. He shuddered to think what would have happened to her and his daughter if he had not volunteered for this mission.

He dropped the bags by the front door as he pulled out his phone and dialed the number that Rex had texted him. It was close to a decade since he had spoken to Jack. They had run into one another by accident at a joint DoD awards ceremony in Washington.

Before dialing, he quickly went over their options once more, looking for any viable alternative rather than involving his cousin, Grandfather, and Jack in this mess. But this was the best option they had, maybe the only one. He pushed the button and waited.

“Damn it! This better be good. Who the fuck are you?” came the cranky voice on the other end.

“Hi, Jack, this is Ryan. I know it’s early, and I’m truly sorry for waking you, but Rex said I should give you a call. I’m in Sebida, and I’ve run into a bit of trouble.” There that should explain it, at least to begin with.

“Ryan?” He heard the confusion in the other man’s voice for a moment. “Ryan? Rex’s cousin? Oh, yeah. Long time no hear, buddy. So, what’s up? What you doing in Sebida?”

“Listen, I don’t have much time to go into all the details. Do you remember Laura Reynolds? She used to work as general counsel for McBride Industries. She’s from Sebida.”

The low whistle on the other end of the phone took Ryan by surprise. “No red-blooded man forgets Laura. She was my ‘babysitter.’” Jack said disparagingly, “And my first crush. I saw her at the diner the other week. I would have gone over and renewed our acquaintance, but she looked like she had swallowed a beach ball. But, damn, that woman is enough to give a man a pregnancy fetish.”

Ryan cleared his throat. “Yeah, well, she just delivered MY daughter yesterday.”

Jack chuckled, “Guess I just stepped in a steaming cow patty. Congratulations, man. On your baby, and your good taste in women. I’ll mark her off my potential bride list.”

Ryan shook his head, “Potential brides? Never mind, I don’t have time. Listen, we’ve run into a bit of trouble here. I don’t have time to explain, but I need to get Laura and our baby to Grandfather’s ranch. Rex thought you might be willing to ride point.”

“But I need to be honest with you. This may be dangerous and isn’t strictly speaking legal. It isn’t illegal exactly, either. At least not yet.” Ryan worried that he was revealing too much to the man that he had not seen in too long.

“Listen, let me put on some clothes. Laura’s living in our old teacher’s house a couple of doors down from the filling station and diner, right?”

He was reluctant to confirm their location, but he had to trust Rex and his gut. “Yeah.”

“I’ll be there in fifteen minutes. You can explain more then. Or at least as much as you can.”

“Alright,” why was he not surprised that Jack would have guessed national security was involved. Then again, the McBride case had been all over the news for months. He should have known that Jack would put one and one together quickly.

He hung up the phone and looked back towards the house. Chloe wasn’t the only one that could use a good breakfast. He hoped that the diner was open early, as most of these Mom and Pop places were in small towns. Not only could he feed their bellies before they hit the road, but maybe he could even lay a false trail.

If anyone came poking around, or more likely, when. Ryan would bet that Stephens was even now typing up the material witness warrant.  He was hoping that the man followed procedures and took it before a judge. If he used the Patriot Act to circumnavigate the law, they might not have time to get Laura to safety.

He could not allow himself to consider what would happen if she ended up in that man’s jail. He was going to do everything he could to make damned sure that his little girl grew up with her mother. And her father.

***5:45 a.m. Chad’s ranch***

Cassie, no, Rose, she had to start thinking of herself by that name now, felt incredibly embarrassed. She had tossed and turned all night, unable to do more than doze here and there. When she looked over at the old digital clock next to the bed and saw the bright orange numbers four-three-five, she had given up. He had said, Chad had told her, that the day started early around here.

So, she had gotten up and made the bed, admiring the intricate workmanship in the old quilt, wondering if she would ever be any good at that sewing stuff. Then she had grabbed some jeans, a t-shirt, and underwear from the neat pile, which sat on the old cedar chest at the foot of the bed. She had snuck quietly into the bathroom, showered, and dressed.

There was no point in make-up, and to make things simpler, she had combed and braided her hair while it was still wet. She knew her hair would have waves when she undid it, but the braid would keep it out of her way while she made breakfast and did whatever chores Chad needed her help with.

She had tiptoed down the stairs, not wanting to wake the others with creaks and moans that were only natural in an old house like this. She had opened the fridge and began to plan their meals for the day.

But seeing him standing there, saying nothing, worried her. “I’m sorry. Maybe I shouldn’t have…” Rose stumbled over her words. In broad daylight, as Aunt Rose called it, she felt far more insecure than she had the night before.

His words on the front porch had been the reason she could not sleep. She felt the heat rising in her cheeks even now. She dropped her head and stared at the old yellow and green linoleum. Its geometric patterns of squares and rectangles reminded her of the quilt.

She was a stranger here. And she knew that the other Grace, the woman whose kitchen she had invaded, would have been far from pleased with her. It was one thing to know that she had disappointed Aunt Rose. She had struggled with that for almost fifteen years. But the other woman’s presence just seemed to hang over this place.

She reached behind her to untie the apron strings as she felt tears gathering in her eyes. What was she doing here? No matter what the man said, she had no right to be here. In the woman’s kitchen. Wearing one of her aprons, that she was sure had been sewn with the same love and care that went into the quilt she had slept under last night.

But her fingers had ceased to function, transforming the neat bow into a mess of knots. What a prophetic image of her life. She could almost hear the words, ‘Two wrongs don’t make a right.’ This time, she was unsure whether that voice was her beloved Aunt Rose or the ghost of the woman who lived here.

Just when she was about to turn and run, she felt his heat, followed by his hands reaching behind her, staying hers as they continued to tug and pull on those strings, only tightening the noose. “No, leave it.”

Rose looked up into those eyes and chastised herself once more. How had she not seen it? Perhaps some people would dismiss it. After all, it had been just one night. The bar had been dark. The motel room lights dim. But those eyes had burrowed into her soul that night. Just as they were now. She shook her head and opened her mouth.

She got no further as his mouth covered hers. His fingers clasped tighter around her own at the small of her back, drawing her body against his. If there had been any doubts, that kiss blew them to smithereens. The power of that connection – that need – was just as volatile as it had been fifteen years ago. And the thick bulge behind the zipper of his Wranglers left no doubt that he agreed.

By the time that Chad drew back, his forehead resting against hers, those strong, rough hands covering hers in the small of her back were the only thing keeping her on her feet. His voice was husky as he whispered, “Good Morning, darlin.’” The tenderness of those lips brushing against her forehead was almost as devastating as those other kisses had been.

“Shit,” she cussed as the smell of biscuits pushed its way through the haze of need, passion, and newly awakened memories. She shoved him, and Chad released his hold on her hands, allowing her to turn back towards the stove. She bunched up the corner of the apron and used it to open the door of the oven and remove the pan. She was pleased to see that her little faux pas had not caused them to burn.

“So, what’s for breakfast?” She looked up as she set the pan on the back burner. He had moved away and was rummaging through the cupboards, pulling out plates, cups, and glasses.

“Just biscuits with sausage, gravy, and fried taters,” she turned back to the stove to cheek on the pans there as well. She had lowered the propane on those earlier, only enough to keep them warm. She knew they were all fine, but it gave her an excuse to pull her eyes away from those tight fittin’ jeans. She could not stifle the chuckle as she began to hum the old tune quietly.

“Do I get out things for Cal… for Grace, too? Or do we let her sleep in?” He turned back to her with a smile.

She had been pondering that one herself. Callie had gotten out of the habit of waking early since they had taken her out of school. Even then, her daughter might not have seen this side of six a.m. since she was a baby. But Aunt Rose had always said, “Begin as you intend to continue,” she spoke her thoughts aloud.

“Yeah, I had considered that, too. On the other hand, I don’t relish the thought of trying to wake her at this time of the morning. And maybe, we could use the time to talk about some things without her around?”

He passed the plates to her, “I suppose you are right. Maybe just this once. But when she wakes up, we need to talk with her.”

She took two biscuits from the pan and cut them open, placing them on the first plate before taking it from his hands. She spooned up fried onions and potatoes, then covered it all in the creamy sausage and gravy mixture. “Sorry, I was going to scramble eggs to go with it, but I could not find any.”

Chad chuckled, and the sound skittered along her spine as if he had run those calloused fingers up her bare skin. “That’s because I have not collected them yet.”

She passed him the plate before turning back and loading another one with much smaller portions. “Oh, if you’ll show me how to collect them later, I’ll take over that chore.”

He sat the plate on the table and came back to pour two cups of steaming, dark ambrosia. “Coffee, the elixir of the gods,” Rose placed her plate on the table next to his.

“Milk? Sugar?” he turned towards the fridge.

It struck her then. Just how little they knew of one another. One night. Less than ten hours. Fifteen years ago. That was all they had ever had. Until Gerald pulled this shit yesterday. Then, why the hell had it all felt so natural?

“Yes, please,” she replied as she watched him grab an old-fashioned brown cow cream and sugar set.

He took a glass pitcher of yellowish-white liquid from the fridge and sniffed it before pouring some into the one with a hole in its nose. “Sorry, it’s from yesterday, but it still seems fresh.” He blushed, and the red spread to the tips of his ears. Another feature their daughter seemed to have inherited from her father. “I usually do the morning chores before breakfast,” he explained as he took his chair and passed the cows towards her.

“I’m sorry,” she stared at her plate. That awkward feeling was asserting itself again.

His fingers, under her chin, forced her eyes up to his. “Don’t worry. You didn’t know.” He smiled, another mannerism that Grace seemed to get from this man. How had she never noticed how little her daughter had in common with Gerald?

“Besides, homemade biscuits and gravy are way beyond my limited culinary skills. Bacon, eggs, toast, and cereal are about my limits,” he took a bite.

Those eyes actually rolled back in his head as he moaned. Not quite as loudly or as passionately as the ones that he had that night, but it was a reminder enough for her nipples to harden in the soft cotton bra.

“Where did you learn to cook like this?” Chad managed to squeeze the words out as he brought the next bite to his lips.

She was torn between giggles and tears as she brought the first portion to her lips. She used those brief moments to compose herself. They had so much to learn of one another, especially if they were to build that dream he held forth last night.

She frowned as she remembered that Gerald had never asked such questions. Even in the beginning, when she had been determined to ‘make the best of things’ as Aunt Rose had advised her, he had not really listened to the things she said.

“Growing up, I spent more time in the kitchen with our housekeeper and cook, Aunt Rose, than I did with my mother or especially with Daddy.” It seemed strange, telling these things to this man, the father of her child, as they ate breakfast.

On the one hand, their actions, the way things had just flowed as they worked together to get the food on the table, was like they were an old married couple who had been doing this for years. But these questions, and the fact that she had not known about the fresh eggs or milk, reminded her again how very, very little they did know of one another.

How strange it all felt. But then again, she had never felt that she belonged anywhere. Not in her whole life. She was just an actress playing a bit part in this thing they called life. Ironically, this felt more comfortable, more natural, than any of those other roles had.

“Is that where the name comes from?” He shoveled another heaping forkful between those incredibly sexy lips.

She forced her eyes from those lips, looking at the food instead. Even the silence was companionable as they ate. But as he said, there were things they needed to discuss. And those chores and meal schedules seemed an excellent place to begin.

“I’m sorry that I didn’t consult you about meal times or even the things you liked to eat,” she stammered as she brought the last bite to her lips.

“Don’t worry about it. Things were so hectic yesterday. Besides, it’ll probably take a while for us to figure these things out.”

He leaned back and brought the cup to those lips. She had to stop looking at his lips. Her eyes dropped, but the broad expanse of shoulders and chest were even worse. She could also see a few of those crisp chest hairs peaking from the top button of his flannel shirt.

This time, the tingle between her legs caused her to shift on the hard wooden chair. Even though she had masturbated when she went to bed last night, maybe she should have this morning in the shower? Being around this man seemed to have ratcheted up what she always considered her healthy sexual libido.

Even if she and Gerald had not had sex in years, she had a decent collection of toys in the nightstand back in Houston. And dozens of romance novels, porn for women, on her old tablet as well. But no book boyfriend had ever measured up to this man.

They definitely had lots of things to figure out. And at the moment, how she was going to survive hours, days, and weeks of this man’s presence without shoving him to the ground and having her wicked way with him was the one that took priority in her mind.

“Penny for them,” Chad smiled around the rim of the delicate porcelain cup.

She shook her head, and that blush which never seemed far away in his presence flared once more. She practically spluttered coffee across the table as that deep, melodic peel of laughter warmed her nether regions again.

“While you’re humming those old Conway Twitty songs, add this one to your playlist. I’ll come right out and tell ya, I’d just love to lay you down.” He rose from the chair, collected their dirty dishes, and put them in the sink.

Rose was still pondering those words as he ran hot water in the sink and added detergent. She practically jumped out of the chair when she felt those strong hands grasp her shoulders.

Chad leaned over, “But those morning chores need doing.” He bent and kissed the top of her head, “Wake her up whenever you think best. It’ll take me a couple of hours, but when I get back, we can talk about that internet stuff.”

“And darlin’, while your humming those tunes, don’t forget Charlie Pride. It sure was nice kissing my angel good morning. It might be a while before we get around to the love her like the devil when you get back home part. Just know this old jarhead can’t wait.”

Rose watched him turn and head outside without saying a word. She did not trust herself to say anything. Maybe she should get another shower before she woke Grace up? A cold one.

***6 a.m. Sebida, Tx***

Laura realized that she must have drifted off once again after chatting with Lupe. Something woke her. But what? She listened in the silence as she tucked Chloe underneath the quilt. She was careful to leave enough space around her tiny face for the baby to breathe.

She heard steps coming down the hallway. She listened closer — more than one set of feet. Too many nights alone in a run-down trailer, with sole responsibility for her younger sisters, had honed her survival skills.

Where was Ryan? Was he one of those sets of feet? Had she been wrong about him? She clutched Chloe tighter and looked around the room for some way of escape or even a good hiding place, but trying to move was not easy. She was sore. Of course, she was sore. She had pushed something the size of a football out of her vagina just yesterday.

The door opened a crack. Laura reached for the drawer of the nightstand next to her bed and her Glock 19. She knew Mama loved her American-made Smith & Wessons, but she had traded her ‘Made In the USA’ for an extra seven shots. She hoped she did not need them as she aimed at the door.

“Woooo, I’m really sorry. I was only thirteen, and those perky tits were my first fantasy.” Laura eyed up the man as he stepped fully into her bedroom, followed close behind by Ryan, who was giving him a look that could kill.

The past couple of decades had been more than kind to Jack Greywolf. His dark hair might be much shorter than the long braids that had fallen down his back then. And he might have tiny lines around his dark eyes, but he had filled out his jeans. And his t-shirt from the way it stretched tightly across muscles. While leaner than Ryan’s bulk, the man was still pretty impressive. If it weren’t for Ryan, she might not be so quick to push his hands away these days. But that was not something she planned to reveal to either of them.

Ryan stared daggers in the man’s back. His hands were clenched tightly at his side, “I don’t think I want to know. At least not until this is all over with.”

Jack turned to him and smiled, “I was just a kid.”

“If you two are through with the pissing contest, what’s the plan?”

Ryan gave Jack one final glance before turning towards her. “What did Lupe say?”

“Besides not to go? But I explained this was life or death. She said she would meet us at the truck stop west of Navasota. She wants to check Chloe and me out one more time. She would have come back today anyway. She’ll bring some more herbs to help me recover and to…” She blushed. How did she say bring her milk in?

Jack laughed, “Don’t worry, I promise not to sneak peeks when you feed the baby. Not that a man ain’t tempted, mind you, but I like my face the way it is right now. I’m counting on my good looks to find me, my own woman. One of the old man’s stipulations in his will. Must say I was disappointed to strike you off my list when Ryan called.”

Laura laughed as she noticed Ryan’s hands clenched even tighter. “I’m sure you’ll survive somehow, Jack.”

She was reminded of the winsome boy who had been her first job. She was just thirteen, and he was eight. He had just moved in with his grandfather, and the man needed someone to watch him after school. Since she already picked her sisters up from the same school, Injun Joe had suggested she could make a bit of money by watching Jack for a couple of hours as well.

Sometimes she had taken them all back to their trailer and put in a video. Others they had all gone to the casino for an afternoon snack. Occasionally they had even run wild around Sebida, causing what trouble they could, without getting caught, of course.  She smiled, remembering that growing up in Sebida had not been all bad.

“I parked the truck over at the diner. Ryan and I made a big show of getting reacquainted in front of the gas pumps. I’m sure that Patsy will remember the whole thing and be happy to share the story with the sheriff or whoever else shows up.”

“Since I’m sure they’ll be looking for both your vehicles and maybe even my truck, I thought it might be a good idea if we left town in my baby.”

“Your baby?” Ryan asked.

“Yeah, a little project that I have been working on for a few years. I store her in an old garage I rent from old Clyde Ledbetter. You remember him, Laura?”

She snickered at the memory of the four of them, letting his pig out of its pen one day. After he had tried to hit on her Mama, who was working for him at the time. “Oh yeah. I’m surprised that he would even rent you one.”

“Money’s tight for him since he broke his back and had to close the old place. So, renting me space gives him a bit of money the government can’t trace,” Jack explained, looking sideways at Ryan.

“I never worked for the IRS or Social Security Administration. And right now, I’m not in very good standing with my former employer. So, your secret is safe with me. Not that I’m all that happy about how many the two of you seem to share.”

She was half tempted to reassure Ryan that he had nothing to worry about where Jack was concerned, but then again, maybe a bit of jealousy might serve her purposes.

“It would be best, of course, if we could wait for dark, but Ryan doesn’t think that’s wise. I already have my own trouble with the illustrious Sheriff Earl Kerr. So, if we can avoid more, I’m all for that.”

“So, how about you take off in your rental towards Madison, Ryan? Maybe even run into Walmax and buy some formula or diapers or something baby-like. I’ll take Laura and Chloe in my beauty. And you can meet us in Navasota.”

“I’m not sure that’s such a good idea. How are you going to get them to ‘your beauty’ anyway? And what about a car seat for Chloe?” Ryan argued.

“I need to see Elena before we leave anyway. I can have her drop off her old car seat at Ledbetter’s garage, Jack. Then, I can change clothes with her. From a distance, we look alike. And since she is pregnant again, no one will even think anything about my tummy.”

“Okay, but what about Chloe? Do I take her with me? What do I do if she gets hungry and wants to feed?” Ryan conceded though the look on his face was anything but happy.

“No, Jack needs to take Chloe when he leaves. I think there is one of Tommy’s old Marine jackets in the closet. I hate doing it. But if we put it back, I’m sure Miss Esther would understand. If you hunch over, you should be able to hide her nicely, at least no further than Ledbetter’s anyway.”

Jack grinned, “You always were a good strategist. That sounds like a plan to me. What about you, Ryan? Trust me with your little girl and her Mama?”

“What choice do I have, old friend?”

“Okay, you two get the hell out of here while I nurse the baby one more time. Ryan, make me another cup of that nasty tea Lupe left while I call Elena. And bring me the gym bag out of the closet, please.” She issued orders to the two men as naturally as she once had to her legal team.

No, she might have been holed up in Sebida for her pregnancy. Still, as Jack had reminded her, she had always been a damned fine strategist, whether playing tricks on the fine upstanding citizens of Sebida for payback for some slight to her family or in the boardroom. And this time, she had something even more precious than revenge or money and status to fight for – her life and the life of her child. And who knows, maybe even a future with her daughter’s daddy.

If not, Jack was looking for a wife. As if.

***Monday, 7 a.m. Houston federal building***

Caleb Jefferson King Williams sat waiting under the hot lights. He had not been on this side of the table in almost two decades. Not since the new ‘mall cop’ had decided that any thirteen-year-old black male was suspicious. Will would give anything to see Etta Mae Williams with her pillbox hat and white satin gloves march through that door, straighten her spine, look the white officers in the eye, and demand to know what the evidence there was against her grandson.

But this time, there was evidence. For the simple reason that he had done what they accused him of. Yes, it was a breach of his oath. Yes, it was a crime. But being a black man in America had taught Will that the law and right were not always the same thing. If he had it to do all over again, he would. Even knowing the price, he was going to pay. He was a dead man walking – one way or another.

The door opened. Will did not allow the shock he felt to register on his face. So, the man himself, James Travis Tyler, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District, thought this was important.

Will dropped his head and clenched his fists on the table, the light glistening off the cuffs. At least they were not his own. He felt the man’s gaze rest on him. But he knew this game too well. And if they wanted to play, it was going to be on his terms.

Caleb Jefferson King Williams had spent over three decades on this earth playing their game by their rules. Waiting for ‘that day,’ the promised land. Hell, his grandparents had chosen his name because Caleb had left Egypt and wandered in the desert for forty years alongside Moses. Of all the generations that exodus Egypt, only Joshua and Caleb had been allowed by god to enter the promised land. How many times had his Grandfather Walt read him that story from the old family bible that was almost as old as this country and just about as stained with the blood of his family?

His throat tightened; he could practically hear his grandparents now. ‘We might not make it. But you’ll get there, son. You will see that Promise Land.’ But it had been more than forty years of wandering in this desert of prejudice and racism that they had fought against. But nothing had changed. Perhaps it had even gotten worse.

Will was past the point of caring. He lifted his eyes to meet those of the man he had only cursory dealings with before. He knew this was a game of chicken. And he was going to win, just this once. Before, he lost everything, even his life. And he did best the man. After staring for a minute or so, Tyler turned to the agent standing by the door. “Take those off him.”

The agent showed his dislike of that order by delaying it, as long as he could, and by the stare that he gave Will as the now heated metal clicked open. Will was not going to provide them with the satisfaction of rubbing his wrists the way most people did.

“Take a seat, counselor,” Will addressed the U.S. Attorney in the same tone that his Grandmother Etta would some young new preacher or politician who had come to visit the grand dame of a lost era. He even mimicked her graceful motioning towards the chair across the table.

Tyler’s brow furrowed as if trying to reconcile the angry black man across the table from him with the decorated former police officer and federal agent. His look said that he came up short.

Will smiled as the man shook his head and laid the clear plastic bag beside him on the table. Tyler opened the file and pretended to study it before he cleared his throat and began, “I don’t understand, Williams. You’re one of the most highly decorated officers in this district. Why? Why would you just let McBride drive away like that?”

Will performed his best Jack Micolson impression, “You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth.”

Tyler sat a bit straighter. Those lips, that rarely smiled, turned down at the corners. “This isn’t funny. Not only is your career with the agency over, but you are likely facing prison time. How much is determined by what is said in this room today. So, I suggest that you cut the theatrics and answer my questions. Why did you let McBride escape?”

“I didn’t.”

“You were one of two agents on duty today. Neither of you reported that the McBrides were missing. That was not discovered until your replacements came.” Tyler paused, “I have spoken to Chandler already. I know that McBride paid him ten thousand dollars to look the other way.”

Will started laughing. He could not help it. This was too funny. Too fucking funny. Tyler stared at him like he had lost his mind. Maybe he had. He had assuredly lost his soul. That died twelve days ago in a dilapidated old wood-frame house in the Fifth Ward.

“I don’t see what is funny about accepting a bribe, dereliction of duty, and half a dozen other charges, Williams.”

Will stopped laughing. He looked the other man directly in the eye. “Then I will tell you, counselor. Even when it comes to bribery, white men are still paid more than black in this great country of ours.”

Tyler looked down at the table. Will saw the man’s throat constrict. Yeah, racism always tasted funny to people like him. Rich, white men of privilege. Especially the illustrious James Travis Tyler, son of Henry Stafford Tyler and Marianne Buford Walker, a true son of the Alamo on both side of his family tree and not just one of the Old Three Hundred but the blood of half a dozen or so of them probably ran through his blue veins.

But the Tylers weren’t the only ones with this nation’s history coursing through their veins. “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.”

Tyler shook his head, “I don’t understand. You can’t believe that McBride was a patriot?”

“No. McBride was a tyrant.” Will stared at his hands and flexed his fingers. He was silent for a long moment. Then he looked up and met Tyler’s gaze again. “Those were the words of my great-great-great-fuck-all-knows-how-many-greats grandfather. He wrote them to his son-in-law almost twenty years before my grandfather was born. To his black salve. The half-sister of his dead wife.”

Will enjoyed watching Tyler squirm in that chair. “That is the history of this country as much as your family’s glorious Alamo.” He held out his arm, the palm facing upwards. Beneath his skin, you could see the lines. “You see these veins? Through them runs the blood of the man who penned the Declaration of Independence. The man who wrote, ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.’”

“He was forty-four years old. She was fucking sixteen. He owned her black ass. This ain’t some damned Harlequin romance. This makes #MeToo and all those white women claiming they were coerced look like jack shit. My great-what-the-fuck-ever-grandfather was born while that man was President of these great United States of America. And folks today are worried about one privileged small-dicked shit?”

Tyler shifted in his seat again, “So, you’re angry that McBride paid Chandler more to sell out his oath, this country, and the Constitution that your supposed great-great-whatever grandfather helped to craft. The same Constitution that you swore to uphold and defend from all enemies, foreign and domestic. That’s what this about?”

“BeBe LaToya Mae Jefferson. That’s what this is about.”

He watched Tyler’s frown deepen, “I’m sorry if that is supposed to mean anything. I don’t know who that is. I’ve never heard the name before.”

Will sat back in his chair and smiled, “You would have if my cousin had been white. If it had been your daughter who had gone missing from the bus stop on the way to school, this whole fucking country would have been on some kind of Amber Alert. But they ain’t got no Shaunita or LaToya alerts.”

“Shit, your family probably don’t know what a fucking bus stop looks like. Let alone get their ass up before dawn to take one across town so they could get a better education. At the mostly white school. So much for fucking desegregation? Do you know it is estimated that there are sixty-four thousand missing black women and girls in this country?”

“Not that America is only one. Do you know that Scotland Yard spent almost twelve million pounds looking for one cute, blond-haired little girl whose parents left her alone in a hotel room with two younger siblings while their rich, posh white asses went out partying and drinking with friends? Do you know what would have happened if they had been poor and black? They would have gone to jail, and that would have been the end of it.”

Tyler shook his head and sighed, “Williams, I’m not arguing any of that with you. This country isn’t perfect. The world is not fair. I’m just trying to figure out why one of the best-damned agents we have threw his career away for some rich, white man that he supposedly hates?”

“I didn’t. And for the record, I did not accept McBride’s bribe, either.  I pushed the envelope with five grand – half of what Chandler received – back to the man. I told him to give it to his wife, so she could take care of her and that little girl.”

“Even if I believe that it just raises more questions. And it comes back to the same one – why? Why did you throw away your career and life over a man like McBride?”

“I didn’t. I did the right thing for another cute little white girl. Because ‘one day right here in Piney Point, Texas little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.’”

“Do you know that my grandfather and grandmother were there that day? Not in the crowd on the mall, but on those steps with that great man. My Grandmother, Etta Mae Williams, was there too when they told his wife that he had been shot. My Grandfather accompanied her and their children to Memphis. And they both walked in that great patriot’s funeral procession. Hell, they even quoted Jefferson about the blood of patriots. Do you see a statue on the mall for that man?”

Will felt the fight drain from him for the moment as tears that he had not allowed himself to shed threatened to burst their dams. “Do you know what happened to my Grandfather? A white supremacist gunned down that African Methodist Episcopal preacher on the altar of the church where he had preached reconciliation for over fifty years.”

Tyler had the dignity to look him in the eye as he said, “I’m sorry, Will.”

He should feel some sense of victory. He knew that. In three years they worked together, it was the first time the man had used anything other than his last name. Though everyone else called him Will, he had not thought that this man even knew that. But he was just too numb now. “My Grandmother died twelve days ago,” his voice was so quiet he was not confident that the man had even heard.

“My condolences.”

Will’s eyes, now filled with those tears, met the other man’s. Man to man. Not white man to black man or attorney to agent. And especially not interrogator to suspect. One human being to another. And a single tear slid down his cheek.

“A heart attack. She was eighty-four. She died in my arms while waiting for an ambulance. We waited for forty-six minutes, Tyler. I held her body for almost another two hours as it got cold and stiff before they finally came. Do you know why? Because they were afraid to send an ambulance to the Fifth Ward. Because of the protests.”

He heard the scoff from by the door. His dark eyes filled with anger again as the man who he had worked with for years sneered, “And whose fault is that?”

Will clenched his fists. It took everything he had inside of him to stay in that chair. He wanted nothing more than to launch himself across the room. Tyler might spend some time in the gym, but he was no match for Will. He could quickly push the man aside to get to the other agent. He wanted nothing more than to wrap his hands around the man’s throat and squeeze until he was as dead as his grandmother.

As dead as the great man who had stood on those steps and decreed, ‘that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last, Free at last, Great God almighty, We are free at last.’

Though it had been more than half a century since those words and that man, his grandparents had drilled them into his brain from even before he was born. He had never seen his Grandpa Walt prouder than the day his fourth grade self stood in front of the school assembly for Black History Month. He had recited that whole speech, over sixteen minutes’ worth, from memory.

And now, in perhaps the most crucial moment of his life, he could almost feel them in this shitty room, standing behind him. His grandparents. Maybe even some of those great-greats too. Perhaps that frightened young black slave girl. It was for their sakes’ that Will remained in his chair. One old, white agent like that was not worth it.

He had more to say, perhaps even more to do – before they got him. “Thank you for your sentiment.” Will motioned with his head to the plastic bag on the table next to Tyler. He could see his shield, gun, cuffs, keys, wallet, some loose change, and the folded scrap of paper they had taken from his back pocket. “Open it. Open the bag and take out the paper.”

Tyler looked confused, but he did as Will asked. He unfolded the plain piece of paper that had been folded to fit inside Will’s pants pocket that morning. Will had known that he would need it to give him the courage to do what he had decided was the right thing. No matter the cost.

Tyler frowned, “She was the only other person outside of my grandparents’ church who offered me any compassion. You asked why, Tyler. Why I threw away my career, and we both know my life, cause I am a dead man walking now. They’ll get me too. Just like they did Stephen McBride. Like they have Gerald.”

“Yeah, I heard. Overheard, I suppose, would be more accurate. I know that they found the SUV with Gerald McBride in it in a ditch outside Sebida. But his little girl and wife weren’t in that car. That’s why I did it. For Callie. Because in those innocent green eyes of hers as she handed me that card, I saw my cousin.”

“She made it herself, alone in that fancy house. Part of her homeschooling, she said. Cause that posh school of hers didn’t want her anymore. Now that her daddy got caught doing what rich white men have done throughout history. But in Callie McBride’s eyes, I saw Bebe. I saw the very last remanent of that great man’s dream.”

“Do whatever the fuck you want to me now. It won’t matter. It’s just a matter of time. Minutes. Hours. Days. But I’m good with that. Because somewhere out there, my grandparents’ dream lives on in that girl. And before you ask, no, I don’t know where. I never asked. McBride only told me that it was somewhere ya’ll would never think to look.”

Will felt a bit of that anger surge back through him. He could see that for the moment, he had scored one on the man. And he wanted to push that. If there was any chance, there was one last thing he wanted to do on this earth. He wasn’t sure if he’d be allowed in his grandparents’ heaven. He had never really believed that the place existed. But he hoped like hell that just for a moment, he would see them one more time as he died.

But before that, he had one more promise to fulfill. His grandmother’s dying wish, “Don’t forget.” He had not forgotten that man’s dream. And now he wanted to show her that he would never forget Bebe either.

There was just one clue in the paltry three-page police file on her disappearance. Three pages were the sum total of nine-hundred-ninety-eight days of investigation. But there was one thing, an anonymous tip called into the police line. It could not be a coincidence.

“So, Tyler. Charge me.” He held out his arms, almost expecting the clink of those cuffs again. “Or let me go pending further investigation. I’ve told you every fucking thing I know.”

The other man stared at him. The thing was, James Travis Tyler was not a bad person. Will knew that. He knew that the man bought all that crap — the American Dream bullshit. The guy had a reputation as a bit of a stickler, in fact. Will was beating his life, short though it would be, on that fact. Tyler was not corrupt, as so many others were.

But he was white and privileged. He could never understand the things that Will had seen. He had never been pulled over for ‘driving while black.’ This man never had to fear for his life when facing some hyped-up cop. He did not sit in his vehicle, knowing that if the ultimate went down, his whole life and death would be pulled to shreds – despite his badge. And you could damn well bet that something would be found. Hell, if they had to plant evidence. He would become dirty.

Looking at the older, white, self-righteous man by the door, Will knew that some would consider him dirty now. “Keep my shield, cuffs, and gun. I wouldn’t want them now if you gave them to me. But can I have Callie’s card, please?” He held out his hand.

The paper shook as Tyler passed it, and his wallet, keys, and that loose change across the table. “Don’t go anywhere.”

Will chuckled as he pocketed the piece of paper, his key, and wallet. He noticed a nickel among that change.  Will picked it up separately. He stared at that face. He had many times before. He stared in the mirror almost every morning as he shaved, looking for hints of it there too. He turned the coin over. He thought about that building. How that black slave girl must have felt.

Choice had nothing to do with it. Sally Hemings never had any. She was born with three strikes against her. She was a woman. She was black. And she was a slave. She died a slave too. That man didn’t even have the decency to give the woman her freedom. Though she had papers ‘for time served’ given to her by Jefferson’s daughter after his death. Like she was paroled for spreading her legs for an old white man.

Sixteen. Bebe would be the same age. Assuming she was alive somewhere – which was a damned big assumption. Pain ripped through his chest. For a moment, his vision blurred, and he wondered how often thirty-four-year-old black men died of heart attacks. Probably a hell of a lot more often than white ones did. Was this how his grandmother felt for those forty-six minutes?

But something somewhere, maybe his grandparents had made a deal with their god, or perhaps it was just his Fate, but his vision cleared. Strength, which he had not realized had fled, returned to his limbs. And he knew just where he was going. It would assuredly be the last thing he did on this earth. But he was cool with that, too.

He flicked that nickel at the man by the door on his way out. He double-checked the ID on the man’s black suit coat. “Here, Agent Saunders. I don’t need this, either.”

He kept walking, not looking back. He hoped he made it to his bike and out the building before Tyler had time to rethink the guilt that had motivated him to release Will on his own recognizance. Yeah, he signed those papers too. Promising he would not leave town. But he had broken unjust laws already. What were a few more?

“Sebida, Texas, here I come,” he declared in the same clear voice in which he had given that speech a lifetime ago. He secured his motorcycle helmet, started the powerful engine between his thighs, and turned his Duchess north. Sebida, Texas, was anything but the Promised Land.

***8 a.m. Sebida, TX***

Elena Reynolds-Williams was at her sister’s house before Laura had finished nursing Chloe. Laura’s middle sister was pregnant with a second child in less than two years of marriage. It was ironic, really, that her sister had married the man who replaced their grandfather as the Methodist minister.

Brad had met the wrong end of their Mama’s Smith & Wesson when he first came to check up on the ‘backsliders.’ Elena had told him in no uncertain terms what their family thought of the church and why. Most young ministers would have been frightened off, if not by the gun, then certainly by the vitriol their family held for his church. But whether it was her sister or some misplaced Christian duty, the man kept coming back.

And eventually, his relatively progressive ideas of Christianity had intrigued Elena and Mercy enough to at least go one Sunday morning. But not her Mama. It was well and good to feed the hungry, clothe the poor, and house the homeless – all the things that Jesus taught, but Sebida wanted no part of it. But Brad kept plugging along at it, though the pews were emptier every Sunday.

Elena sat down on the bed next to her. “Want to tell me what’s going on?”

Laura considered glossing things over, but it would be better for them to know what was going on, easier for them to protect themselves. “There’s a bit of trouble with the whole McBride thing.”

“We figured that when Mama called last night and suggested we take an unscheduled mission trip. How bad is it?”

“Ryan is taking the baby and me someplace safe for a bit,” Laura hesitated.

Was it possible that they were overly cautious? Was there any real threat to her family? After all, McBride Industries was a Fortune 500 company, not the mob or a cartel. Then again, they did not know who the McBrides had been laundering money for, but drug cartels and terrorists were genuine possibilities.

“But, there’s a chance that they could get to you through us?” Her sister put their fears into words.

Laura reached out and took her sister’s hand in hers. Elena had always been the delicate one. Laura had not had that option. As the eldest, it was her responsibility to care for her younger siblings. And as much as Mercy liked to keep her head in those books, she had a practical streak a mile wide. But Elena was always some fairy creature.

“I don’t want to frighten you, but yeah. That’s why it would be best if you and Brad took Rahab on a mission trip for a few weeks. I know it is kinda sudden, but I’m sure the deacons can cover Sunday services.”

Elena laughed as she rubbed her belly. “The pews will probably be fuller than if we were here.”

Laura was concerned about the anxiety written in her sister’s face, but this was not the time to discuss whatever was bothering Elena. “Hand me the bag on the floor there.”

Elena reached for the duffle bag but struggled to lift it even a few feet to the bed. “What’s in here? Bricks?”

“Here, let me help with that.” Ryan came in, carrying a steaming cup that smelled as revolting as it tasted. He sat it on the nightstand next to the bed and lifted the bag onto the bed next to her.

Laura hesitated again. Was she ready to reveal all her secrets to this man? But if anything did happen to her, he needed to know. To care for Chloe. She unzipped the bag and reached inside, finding another compartment and unfastening it too. She pulled out two bound stacks of bills and passed them towards Elena. “Take this. Just in case.”

At first, her sister shook her head, “We can’t take your money.”

Laura pressed the money into her sister’s trembling fingers. “Don’t worry. It is MY money. I earned it; nothing illegal about that. It’s my savings.”

“But, you might need this?”

Laura pulled out four more stacks of hundred-dollar bills. “There’s plenty more.” She looked at Ryan, “I’ve been clearing out my bank accounts ever since the whole McBride thing hit the news. A few thousand at a time, but not enough to trigger any of the safeguards.” He nodded but remained quiet.

“I don’t know how long this is going to last. But I want you, Brad, and the kids to be safe and comfortable. Just far from Sebida and this mess. I’m sorry, Elena. Sorry, ya’ll are caught up in this.”

Her sister fingered the bills, “How much is here?”

“Twenty grand. It should be enough for a long while in the places ya’ll go. Just promise me…” Laura stumbled over the words. It was not a subject she had ever discussed with her sister or wanted to, for that matter, but it was important to her. “Promise me you won’t give it to them.”

“No chance of that. I know we never talked about it – about him. But I think you should know. That family is deep into the cartels. Not Papa; he’s got dementia. But his oldest son, our older brother,” Laura heard her sister stumble over the word. They had never thought of their father’s other family as related in any way. “Diego is pretty high up,” her sister almost whispered.

“Who? Diego who? Diego Garcia?” She could see Ryan’s shoulders tense, and he bit the inside of his cheek again. This could not be good.

Elena nodded her head, “I don’t know exactly, but high. His family controls, practically own, that town.” Her eyes sought out Laura’s, “I promise, we haven’t been back. We won’t. We travel the long way round to avoid not just that town but the whole state.”

Laura was silent for a long time before she spoke. Her eyes sought Ryan’s once more. She hoped like hell his poker face was better in the courtroom or when undercover than it was around her. She reached into the bag and passed two more of the stacks to her sister.

“I know Brad had spoken about a mission trip to Africa. Do it. Take the money and go there. Convert the cash. It’s not safe to travel with it. Gold, jewels, that sort of thing. Pass them off as fake unless you need them. You won’t get as much as they are worth, but it is a safer option.”

“And don’t travel from here. Go to Canada or Mexico, maybe even Central or South America. Get a flight or boat from there.” Tears welled in her eyes, “If you need more, get in touch with Mama; she knows where I keep the rest.”

Her sister was crying too, “Are you sure this is necessary?”

Laura forced as reassuring a smile as she could manage. “No, no, I’m not. But I’d sure rather ya’ll be safe than worry about you.” She wanted to put as positive a spin on it as she could. “I know this is a pilgrimage that Brad has wanted to take for a long time.”

“What was the Methodist Church thinking? Sending a black man to take Grandpa’s church is beyond me.” Laura sighed and squeezed her sister’s hand, “But if all this does some good, then all the better. Just stay in touch with Mama. Promise me.”

“The Methodists don’t have a whole lot of choice when it comes to ministers these days. Old white men are dying out to be replaced by women and minorities. Things are changing in this world, whether Sebida wants to admit that or not. And I promise – we’ll be okay.” That look of worry marred Elena’s face again.

“Get Brad to take the baby and leave now. But I need you to do me a favor first,” Laura squeezed her sister’s hand.

“Anything. We are family. I got all my sisters and me,” her sister sang.

“At least, the Methodists got a choir out of the deal,” she teased to lighten the mood.

“Anything to help Bradley out. Now, what do you need, big sister?”

“I need you to be me for a couple of hours.”

***8:30 a.m. Chad’s ranch***

Rose woke Grace up just before eight. Her daughter grumbled, pleaded, and eventually gave in to the inevitable when Rose reminded her that she needed to discuss the internet with Chad.

“Can we dye our hair today? I think I have picked out the style I want,” were her daughter’s first words as she plopped down in a chair at the kitchen table.

Rose turned the dial on the microwave. She had made Grace a plate and put it in there before cleaning up the kitchen and going outside to help Chad with the chores. She rubbed the red marks on the back of her hand, reminding herself that she had to get quicker grabbing those eggs. It might take a bit of time before Rose was ready to tackle this milking business after that experience.

The dinging of the microwave broke through her reverie. She used the oven mitten, which also looked homemade, to place the plate on the table in front of her child, whose nose was already in some game or YouTube video. “Be careful. The plate is really hot.”

Grace nodded but did not speak as she reached for the fork. Rose took a glass from the cupboard; she was rapidly learning her way around this kitchen. She poured some orange juice from the carton in the fridge and placed that next to the plate.

Rose was uncertain where to begin. As tough as the past few months had been for her daughter, this sullen young woman was not the person she had raised her to be. Was she making excuses for her child? Perhaps some of this was merely typical teen angst? That was something she had no experience with. In all her almost four decades on this planet, she had rebelled just once.

But was playing the role of the ‘good girl’ really what she wanted for her daughter? Look where it had gotten her. Unquestioning obedience to authority was not always such a good thing, she had learned. Still, pouting and petulance were not either. So, where did that central road lie?

She turned as she heard the back door open. Red dust coated Chad’s jeans and shirt. His hands were dirty. Rose could even see sweat beading on his brows. In short, he was the sexiest thing she had ever seen.

“Good morning.” He walked to the kitchen sink, washed his hands, and pulled a glass from the cupboard, running cold water into it.

Rose watched as his Adam’s apple moved up and down in the strong column of his throat as he drained the glass. Oh, she wished she had even one of those toys from her nightstand in Houston. Because she was certain, she could never find the courage to ask this man to order more.

He rinsed the glass and put it on the drainer. Then he turned back towards them, leaning against the old porcelain sink. “I said, good morning, Grace.”

“No, you said, good morning. How was I to know you were talking to me?” Her daughter lifted her head from the tablet. Green eyes met green eyes, and both had that same smile as if truly taking the measure of an adversary for the first time.

Chad chuckled and moved away from the kitchen sink, coming to take a chair across the table from their daughter. “Fair enough. But we all have some things to discuss. Would you mind putting that thing away at the table, please?”

Grace stared at the man for a long moment, then she glanced at her mother, but in the end, she laid the iPad on the table next to her barely touched plate. “Okay, so here it comes. Lay down the law to the kid time.”

“There’s a reason we have laws and rules. They keep us safe. They make it easier for us all to live together,” Chad replied.

“Justice is nothing more than the advantage of the stronger.”

Rose had trouble suppressing the smile that played at the corners of her lips. Her daughter often surprised even her.

Chad did not bother as that hearty laughter boomed off the slightly yellowed kitchen walls. “You know how to quote Plato. These days anyone with the internet can.”

“Plato wrote Republic, but that quote comes from Thrasymachus.” Grace’s stare was as stalwart as her father’s.

“Ah, yes, but to render to each his due.”

While this game was certainly interesting, it was getting them nowhere. Rose held up her hand, “We can have the Philosophy 101 class this afternoon. For now, let’s focus on what needs to get done. Internet, first. Grace, did you look at those brochures that your…” She barely caught herself before the word ‘father’ came out.

She inhaled and brought her third cup of coffee of the morning to her lips. “Did you look at the information Chad gave you last night?” She finished more calmly, or at least she hoped it appeared that way.

Her daughter looked from first her face to Chad’s, then back again before nodding her head.

“And?” Rose demanded, feeling her doubts and insecurities arise.

But it was not necessary. The two of them focused on that one thing. Chad questioned their daughter about specifics and about her thought process, but in the end, he shrugged his shoulders and looked Grace in the eye. “Alright, I know next to nothing about any of this stuff. Heck, I can barely manage the breeding spreadsheet. I meant it when I said that the final decision is yours, Grace.”

The stare down resumed, “But with that privilege comes responsibility. Our choices always have consequences. So, if we go with the faster satellite stuff, then you can’t complain if, or more likely when, it goes down.”

Grace nodded and held out her hand, “Fair enough, old…”

“I’ll have you know I ain’t that old. I can still hold my own against most men in a fair fight.” He looked at her before continuing, “Speaking of which, one of the stipulations your Mama asked for when she agreed to ya’ll stay here was that I teach both of you some basic self-defense. You good with that?”

Her daughter beamed like the sun on a bright West Texas summer’s day, “Hell, yeah.”

“Young lady,” Rose chastised.

“Come on, Mama. Preachers say that word all the time. It’s just a mythological place, same as Olympus, Zion, or Valhalla.”

Chad laughed, “This homeschool shit seems to be going well. Where did you learn so much about philosophy and ancient religion?”

“YouTube, of course,” Grace replied with a smile. “There are thousands of videos on there about everything.”

“Really? Your Mama wants to help out with the chores around here. She ran into a bit of trouble this morning with old Maude while she was collecting the eggs. Is there one of them videos on there bout that?”

Grace picked up her iPad with a broad smile. She did not even bother typing the search in, “Siri, YouTube videos on collecting eggs from chickens.”

“Here, Mama, that should get you started,” Grace passed the tablet across the table, making sure that Chad saw as well, “One-hundred-twenty-million of them.”

That laugh did funny things to Rose’s stomach, but his following words did even more to her heart. “I’m really starting to like you, kid.”

“Verdict is still out on you, old… Okay, if I can’t call you old man, then what? I mean, it is only JUST if you call me ‘kid.’”

“Yep, that seems about right. How about jarhead?”

“Jarhead? I’ve never heard that one before. Though it somehow seems about right for you.”

“It’s a slightly derogatory name for Marines.”

Grace nodded, “Is that how you met Mama? In the Marines?”

Chad caught her eye; Rose could see the questions in those green depths. “No, honey, Chad and I met when I was on a trip to New Orleans. Now, show me those pictures of the hairstyle you picked out, and let’s see what we can get done.”

She knew that pink, blue, and purple hair dye would distract any fourteen-year-old girl. But for how long? And how much of the truth did they tell her? When? There were just so many unanswered questions. But she and Chad needed to talk about it and come up with a plan.

***10:30 a.m., Madison, TX***

Ryan was nervous as he stood in the checkout line at Walmax. Three dozen newborn diapers, a case of formula, half a dozen baby and parenting books, and a box of maternity pads should be enough to start a conversation with the older woman behind the till. Enough for her to remember him and everything he said.

“Good morning. New baby, I see. Boy or a girl?” The woman asked as she began to ring things up.

“A little girl. But her Mama ain’t doing so good. My dang wife insisted on one of them new fangle homebirths, but now she’s bleeding. More than I think she should anyway. I’m gonna take her to the hospital as soon as I get this stuff back to her Mama. She’s gonna take care of the baby,” he lied.

The older woman nodded her gray head, “These women today. Homebirths, indeed? I had four, and trust me, I was begging for every med them doctors had.” She chortled, and her belly shook, “I hardly remember a thing. Of course, that might be why I had four of them. Thems was good drugs.”

“And don’t you worry none, ain’t nothing wrong with bottle feeding babies either.” She adjusted her smock over large breasts, “No young’ un was sucking on these things and making them all saggy. Of course, time did that in the end anyway. But let me tell you, in my younger days, I filled out a sweater.”

Ryan blushed; perhaps he should have chosen another line. No, this woman was almost certain to remember the conversation. Stephens should waste a few hours checking out all the hospitals in the area for a woman with a post-partum hemorrhage.

He wondered if Jack had gotten Laura and Chloe safely away. Had Stacey shown up at the house to take Elena to the hospital? Dressed in one of Laura’s gowns and robes and doubled over, holding her belly in pain, Laura was convinced that the whole town would be gossiping about her stupid decision to have her baby at home. While she, Chloe, and Jack were on the road in one direction, Brad and their little girl would meet his wife and her mother on an old dirt road to do the exchange. They would go the other.

“That’ll be two-hundred-thirty-six dollars and fifty-nine cents. Cash or card?”

Ryan pulled out his personal debit card. He knew that Stephens would have canceled his business account by now. And besides, this was personal. Even if his goal was the same as it had been when he came here – to get to the truth. He swiped the card.

“I’m sorry, sugar. But that’s been declined.”

So, Stephens was playing hardball. Ryan took out his wallet, drew out three crisp one-hundred-dollar bills, and handed them to the woman. “Sorry, with the whole messy birth thing and worrying about Laura, I haven’t had time to make it to the bank to deposit my paycheck yet.”

The woman held the bills up to the light and then used a marker on them. “There’s a check cashing place, over in the corner, if you’re worried about having enough cash. They charge a bit, but you don’t want to get stuck in a hospital without some cash.”

“Thanks.” It might not be a bad idea to convert some of the cash he had taken from Chloe’s diaper bag to smaller bills. While they wanted this woman to remember his visit, and his card being denied made that a virtual certainty, once they were on the road, anonymity was their friend.

“You take care of that baby and woman of yours, sugar.” The woman smiled before turning back to the line, “Next, please.”

Ryan sent a plea to god, or whatever was out in the big vast universe, that Laura, Chloe, and her family were all safe. Of course, no amount of pleading had convinced Stacey Reynolds to leave Sebida. Not yet, she said, insisting that she could handle Sheriff Kerr when he showed up asking questions.

Laura had begged and pleaded with her baby sister, Mercy, to call in sick. Tell the people at the library that Laura needed her. But the girl was as stubborn as her Mama and her big sister. Jack insisted that Mercy and Stacey stay in one of the suites at the casino. Her sister had promised Laura she would go just as soon as her shift at the library was over. Their mother would join her once she cried and moaned an Oscar-worthy performance for their crooked sheriff. Jack had even asked an old Army buddy that was doing some security upgrades at the casino to keep a special eye on them.

The plan was solid. And everything was going exactly to that plan. But there were just so many unknowns. And the one that worried Ryan most was – who in the agency could he trust, and where was the traitor?

***Chad’s ranch, noonish***

Chad was guiding Garnet’s Folly around the coral on her lead line. The mare was too close to birthing her foal to be ridden, but she needed exercising nonetheless. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught her. Grace was once more holding out the carrot to Inferno.

He could empathize. That was how he felt with his daughter. Like he was trying to gentle a wild thing. As much as he preached to Cassie – Rose – that they could not change the past, he struggled with guilt. Both of them had been through so much. And at least some of that responsibility rested on his shoulders.

His gut had told him to stay that morning. To find some way to be with the woman that had captured his heart as she lived out her fantasy. But he had allowed logic, insecurity, and yes, some warped sense of duty and honor to override that gut feeling. And they had all paid a high price for it.

But like he told Rose, he could not change that. All he could do was the right thing now. But what was that right thing? Sure, he knew all about ‘breaking’ new recruits. He had been both a drill instructor and front-line corporal in the US Marine Corps, after all. But he was also a horseman and a rancher. As Grace said this morning, he knew that the ‘advantage of the stronger’ was not always the just or the right way to go.

While his grandparents had been both highly religious and strict, they had also been fair and loving. That was the example he wanted to emulate, but it was not always as easy as it sounded. Finding that line between setting boundaries and understanding, accepting, and loving your child was a totally new concept for him. And his greatest fear was failing at this most important job of his life.

Chad had to admit – he was damned impressed with the girl over breakfast this morning. He didn’t think all that many teenagers knew who Plato or Socrates were, let alone Thrasymachus or a philosophical argument that was almost three thousand years old. Grace even seemed to grasp it, at least as well as he could anyway. Hell, probably better.

So, what should he do? Did he approach her and try to start up some conversation? About what? Philosophy? Horses? That new hairdo of hers? He was not precisely whippy on the damned thing. It was not just the stripes of shocking pink, blue, and royal purple, but they had cut it, taken several inches off, until it barely reached her shoulders.

Worst of all, they had found the old clippers that he kept in the bathroom cabinet, for those times when he didn’t have the time or energy to get to the barber in town. They had shaved the right side, almost regulation short. Damn, what was he thinking of, buying those colors anyway? One thing was for sure, though – no one would remember anything about Grace except her hair.

“If you ain’t got anything good to say, then don’t say anything at all.” He might not have had much use for his grandmother’s words of wisdom as a Marine drill sergeant, but Chad got the feeling they might come in handy as a father.

He drew the lead line in, slowing the mare’s canter and drawing the circle of movement tighter until Folly stopped almost right in front of him. He petted her between the eyes, then ran his hand down her neck and across her burgeoning sides. He felt the foal moving strongly within.

His throat tightened; damned, he had missed so much. Who had taken care of Cassie when she was pregnant? He seriously doubted that man had much time for rubbing her tummy to feel the baby move, let alone her aching back or swollen feet. And this situation meant he might never even get to see any photos of her while she carried Grace. Maybe there were a couple on that internet thingy. But he didn’t know how to find them, and he couldn’t ask his daughter to do that search thing. He cursed his own stupidity for not listening more to his gut than his fucked up head that morning.

He started to lead the mare back to the barn. She needed to be brushed down and given an extra ration of oats before putting her back in the pasture. Folly had once been a prize-winning rodeo horse, as had the sire of this foal. He had planned to train it, perhaps for tie-down roping or maybe even bareback, but now he was thinking barrel racing. He knew the damned thing was worth a lot of money, but he didn’t care about that. One of Grace’s smiles would be worth it.

“Hey, whatcha doin’?”

He tried to hide the smile. Yep, the best policy was always to let the wild things come to you. “I was just exercising Garnet’s Folly. She’s almost ready to foal…”

“So, she can’t be ridden. Cool,” his daughter reached out a hand and slowly caressed the mare’s side. Chad could see the foal moving almost right under her fingertips. Maybe that was some sign, some connection between them? “Is it okay if I give her a piece of carrot?”

He nodded his head, not just in answer to her question, but at the fact, she knew enough to be mindful of regulating the horse’s food intake. “Sure, go ahead.” They kept walking; he needed to cool Folly down slowly, but he also wanted to spend some more time getting to know his daughter. “I thought you’d be doing schoolwork or something?”

She shook her head, and those colors flew everywhere. “No, homeschooling isn’t the same. I don’t have set hours. Back in Houston, Gerald had bought this online course shit, but it was almost as lame as school. But Mama says we can’t use that; any more than I can play on my old gaming profiles.” She looked down and scuffed the old boots that she had on when they arrived in the red east Texas dust. “I guess there are some upsides to all this.”

“So, what ya’ gonna do then?” He had not considered that. He should talk to Cassie – Rose – to see if they should open another of those accounts. The man was right about one thing; raising a child was expensive. Not that he was poor or anything, but he should start to think about putting some savings aside for college. That was less than five years away. He’d have less than five years with his only child. It was a sobering and depressing thought. But he wasn’t going to let it get to him now. He had to make the most of what time he did have.

“Most stuff is free online anyway. Loads of the classics, like Plato, have been digitized. I can read them or print them out. I don’t always understand it all, but I can usually find YouTube videos or articles online explaining it. Or at least discussing that person’s opinion on it. But as Plato said, ‘opinion is the medium between knowledge and ignorance.’”

“What about other stuff, though? I mean math, science, history, that kinda things?” He should have given it all more thought, talked more to Rose about it. His daughter’s education was important; he didn’t want to leave it all up to her. Even though he was sure, she was doing her best for their daughter. He knew that school wasn’t an option right now. Maybe he could get Miss McCarthy, his old teacher, who had long since retired, to tutor her?

Before he could ask more questions, Grace picked up the brush and began at Folly’s neck with gentle but firm circular strokes. He could not stop the smile – the girl was all Wilson when it came to horses.

“With math, Mama has focused mostly on practical stuff. I help her cook sometimes. She doesn’t usually use recipes, but she will, just to force me to add, subtract, multiply, and divide with fractions. And finding the area, circumference, that sort of thing too.” She stroked as she spoke. Her tone was low and soothing.

“As for science and history, well, there are loads of things online too. You can even take college courses on those subjects. Mostly, Mama lets me choose what interests me. Sometimes, she’ll take the courses or watch the video. Then, we’ll discuss it, or she’ll make me write a paper on it. Lame, right?”

“So, why the fascination with Plato and Socrates?”

“It was one of the first things we studied. My da – Gerald – insisted that I needed a ‘classical’ education. I think he might have preferred Machiavelli or that misogynist Jean Jacques Rosseau, but Mama and I just sort of like The Republic. We read a bit in it each day and discuss it.”

She worked her way down Folly’s flanks, “Mama says that this self-defense stuff with you will become ‘part of my curriculum’ now.” She paused, and those green eyes that were like looking in the mirror met his.

This girl was smart, damned smart. And he would bet that she knew genetics, maybe not as well as he did. After all, breeding was his business. But he and Rose needed to have a long talk, not just about her education, but about how they would tell her the truth. Cause he was confident that she would guess the truth if they didn’t, and something told him that wouldn’t be a good thing for any of them.

“She says that chores around here are part of it, too.” She scuffed the toes of those boots in the hay, “I guess it’s only fair. I mean, you are giving us a place to stay and feeding us. Hell, my math is good enough to know I owe you at least one-hundred-fifty hours at minimum wage for my iPad alone. Not to mention the new satellite, tv, or laptop.” She looked back up and squared her shoulders, firmly meeting his gaze. “I don’t know how you know Mama or why you agreed to this crazy shit, but I don’t want charity from no one.”

His heart just about burst with pride. He was the one to break their gaze because if he didn’t, he feared his daughter would see the tears he knew were glistening in his own Wilson green eyes. The very thought that he might have lived his whole life and died, never knowing this remarkable young woman had his guts in fucking knots.

But he could not say that or let it show, not now. He needed to talk to Rose about all this. The woman had done a remarkable job raising their child. Part of him said ‘alone,’ but another part argued despite that man. He’d like to think that genetics played some role in that. That Grace’s  Wilson blood showed through, but even with horses, he knew that training held as much sway as a bloodline.

Hell, Inferno proved that. That horse had one of the finest bloodlines in the country, if not the world, but the abuse he suffered that first couple of years had meant the horse would never be good for anything more than stud services. Even then, Chad had to be damned careful with the mares.

He shifted his weight from foot to foot, “So, what you proposing?”

His daughter shrugged, “I don’t know. I mean, we don’t even know how long Mama and I will be here.”

It was on the tip of his tongue to say ‘forever,’ but somehow or the other, he held it back. “Your school work still needs to come first.”

She laughed, and he swore he would do whatever it took to see that the rest of her life was filled with those or at least the next five years that Fate and that bastard had given him. “What don’t you agree with Plato’s assessment that ‘The object of education is to teach us to love what is beautiful?’”

“Tell you what, let me give that one some thought, and we can talk about it at breakfast tomorrow.” He picked up another brush and began rubbing down the other side of Folly as he spoke. “When my cousins and I came here in the summers, my grandmother had this old dictionary. Every morning she had one of us open it randomly and find a word of the day. A fancy one. She called them her fifty-cent words.”

It felt incredible to share this part of their family history with his child, even if she did not realize it was that. Yet. “Then we all had to try and use it as often as we could during the day. And the winner got an extra-large slice of dessert. But maybe the three of us reading your Plato and discussing it is better?”

She finished brushing Folly in silence. “Why don’t you take her out to the pasture, then meet me in the kitchen? I’m sure your Mama has made lunch. We can wash up, eat, and talk about what’s appropriate chores for you then. That good with you?” Grace half-nodded as she took the horse by the lead, and they walked together towards the door. “Then, after lunch, the three of us can work on some basic self-defense moves, okay?”

“Sure, whatever,” he got the feeling that Grace still was not buying McBride’s concern for their safety. Was she right? Was the man paranoid? Maybe his son’s death was suicide? He was sure that no parent would want to face the reality of that situation.

But as his grandmother used to say, ‘Better safe than sorry.’ A few basic self-defense lessons and some shooting practice would not do his daughter any harm. Heck, as much as she looked like her Mama, the girl would need them – if he ever let her date.

He was caught up in the complexities of that thought as they exited the barn. But before they separated, his daughter stopped and looked up at him with those wide Wilson green eyes, “What was her name?” He shook his head, uncertain what the girl was talking about. “What was your grandmother’s name?”

He would never out and out lie to her. She had had enough of that for several lifetimes, “Grace. Her name was Grace, just like yours. Pretty funny coincidence, huh?” He saw her eyes flare wide. And it had been, but if he had been there, if he had been around for his daughter’s birth, that was precisely the name he would have chosen. But instead of saying any of that, he settled for, “I’ll see you back at the house in a few minutes.”

He stood there, watching as she walked the pregnant mare back to the fields. Yeah, things were moving fast. Too damned fast. He and Cassie – Rose – had some serious thinking and talking to do. And no time like the present, another of his grandmother’s sage pieces of advice, as he headed back to the house to wash up.

***2-ish, Sebida County Library***

Mercy Reynolds looked out the big bay window that was the main feature of the Sebida County Library. Miss Myrtle’s old Chevy was parked in front of the only diner in town. That meant Abby Jean was having a late lunch with Lizzie. She wished that she could take a break and join her only friends. But she had a job to do.

After all, she was Head Librarian. The job sounded a lot better than it was. Only twenty hours per week, and barely more than minimum wage. After all the money her sister Laura spent on four years of college, and she earned barely enough to keep from being a financial burden on Mama. A thirty-two-year-old virgin with nothing more than a part-time job and still living at home with her mother. In a fucking trailer, nonetheless.

Still, considering how she had begun life – the third bastard daughter of an illegal alien and the disavowed daughter of a preacher – Mercy guessed she could not complain. Librarian beat the hell out of working the night shift at the local convenience store and getting robbed every other weekend. The way her Mama had to put a roof over her girls’ heads, food on the table, and keep the power on – most of the time.

Maybe it was her damned writer’s brain? This need to just take off, see the world, and have some big adventure. She certainly did not want to believe it had anything to do with some ‘wanderer’ gene that she had inherited from Ignacio Garcia, a man she had never met.

But instead of some grand adventure, she googled far-off lands, distant stars, and ancient history. Then she wrote trashy romances about those things. Sci-fi aliens, Sultan’s harems, or just places she would never see like Paris and Rome. She had self-published half a dozen of them. And in a good month, it was enough to pay her cellphone bill.

The phone rang, pulling Mercy from the pity party that was so unlike her otherwise sanguine self. She rushed across the small room to grab the receiver. The library still had a phone with a cord. This was Sebida, after all. “Sebida County Library. This is Mercy speaking. How may I help you?”

“It’s Mama.”

Mercy’s stomach dropped to her toes. Her family never called her at work. Though they all had the number programmed into their phones for emergencies. They knew that she did not answer her cell when she was at work. The thing was in her bag out back, an area used for storage and a breakroom. She cut straight to the chase, “What’s wrong, Mama? Is Laura okay? The baby?”

Her oldest sister had just given birth to her daughter the night before. Mercy tried not to think about the yearning that had bubbled up inside her as she held that tiny pink bundle of sweet-smelling heaven. Laura was thirty-nine and had gotten pregnant with Chloe just fine. She had time, Mercy reassured herself, even if this latest round of broody was worse than the last.

But she was not Laura. She knew that she could not handle single motherhood while her ‘husband’ went galivanting around the world on some mysterious mission for the government. And she had not been lucky like Elena to find a man who worshipped and adored her. What man would be willing to put up with her smart mouth shit?

“I need you to grab your bug-out bag and meet me at the casino,” her Mama’s words brought her back to the moment.

She must have missed something, “What, Mama? I don’t understand.”

“Dammit, Mercedes Reba Reynolds, I don’t have time for your shit. I’ll explain it all, well as much as I know, when I get there. But right now, I am on my way to drop Elena off with Brad so they can get out of town. Your sister and that man are already on the road.”

“What’s this all about?” Though she had a pretty good idea. She had honestly never thought it would come to this. Not that they were not all prepared. Her Mama was the queen of prepping. For as long as Mercy could remember, Stacey Reynolds had drilled her daughters on one emergency or another. They had a plan for fire, tornado, robbers, even the alien apocalypse. But this one was the latest.

“All I can say now is that the McBride chickens are coming home to roost, baby.”

There it was. The answer that Mercy had been dreading the most, but the one that somehow she had known would come. “Why the casino, Mama? That ain’t part of the plan.” She kept her voice low. The walls in Sebida always had ears.

“Plans change, you know that, Mercy. And right now, all of us are safer if we aren’t together. Like I said, I’ll tell you more when I get there. I just need to drop Elena off and get back to Laura’s place.” There was a long pause. That worried Mercy; it was not like her Mama. “I need to deal with Sheriff Kerr first. Then I’ll join you at the casino.”

Mercy’s heart dropped into her shoes at the mention of the man’s name. Especially if it meant Mama going anywhere near their ‘good’ sheriff. And alone, what was Mama thinking? “No, Mama, I’ll meet you back at the trailer or Laura’s place. Just tell me where,” she pleaded like the little girl she felt at that moment.

“No, I told you where to go, and I meant it. I’ll deal with this shit and meet you there as soon as I can.”

“But Mama…”

“Don’t you ‘but Mama’ me. I can’t keep my focus and deal with everything if I have to, if I’m worried about you. I mean it, Mercy. The best thing you can do for your sisters and me, and those nieces, is to close that library and get your butt to the casino where you’ll be safe. I want you to promise me you’ll do what I say, babygirl.”

Mercy wanted to argue. She wanted to demand that Mama go straight to the casino. But she knew better than anyone the lengths her Mama would go to protect her girls. Besides, she was right – this was about more than her or Mama or even sisters. Those little girls, Rahab and Chloe, needed them all to protect them. To do better by them. “I promise, Mama.”

She looked around the library. Only Miss Mable was there. She would tell the woman that she had a family emergency and had to shut down early. “Okay, Mama. I’ll get there as soon as I can.”

She raised her voice beyond the library whisper, making sure that the older woman heard. The news would be all over town before she even made the fifteen-minute drive to the casino outside of town. This was Sebida, after all. Everyone knew everyone else’s business and gossiped about it. Someone should tell these people about reality tv.

“Do you have your bugout bag with you?”

“Of course, Mama,” she smiled at Miss Mable.

“Okay, I want you to promise me that if I don’t make it there by morning, you’ll take the money and get out of town. Hell, out of Texas. Fuck, out of this country. You have that fancy passport in there, right? Go to fucking Paris or Rome like you dream about.”

Now Mercy was worried. She would almost swear she heard fear in her mother’s voice. But nothing had scared Stacey Ruth Reynolds in a very long time. She had survived the betrayal of her husband and the abandonment of her self-righteous family. She had worked two, sometimes three or more jobs to raise her girls. Hell, they all joked that Reba must have been talking about Mama when she wrote that damned song.

To hear even the faintest hint of that fear or doubt in the woman’s voice set Mercy on her redneck ass and took her back to a very dark place. “I promise, Mama. But it ain’t gonna come to that.” She took her voice back down to librarian level, “I love you, Mama. I’ll see you there soon.”

“I love you, babygirl. Just know that, no matter what happens, I loved you all. You were my life. The best thing I ever did.”

Mercy heard tears in her Mama’s voice. She gripped the desk for dear life. Mama never cried. Never once. At least not in front of her daughters. The line went dead. That horrid peep sounded in her ear, and she had to turn her back so that Miss Mable could not see her wipe the tears from her own eyes.

She inhaled, squared her shoulders, and reminded herself that the Reynolds women were strong. They had made it through Thanksgivings without a turkey and Christmases when the only presents came from the Salvation Army’s bargain bin. Hell, power had almost been a luxury growing up. They had survived all that. And they would this, too. Whatever this was.

She hummed that song under her breath as she closed her eyes. She was not Elena. She did not believe in some god somewhere who would keep them safe. Mama had taught her that the only person you could rely on was yourself and your family. But they weren’t here right now. So, she would pull her shit together. Put on her big girl panties. The Wonder Woman ones that she had bought on sale at Walmax were packed in that bag in the back.

But first, she plastered on that smile. The one that she had perfected by the time she went to kindergarten. Laura had taught her how to handle the ‘good people’ of Sebida before she set foot on that old yellow school bus. ‘Hold your head up, proud, and smile.’ That was precisely what she did now as she turned to Miss Mable.

“I’m really sorry, Miss Mable, but that was my Mama. It seems we have a bit of a family emergency. So, I need to close the library early. But I’m happy to check those books out for you first.” Mercy was proud of how calm her voice sounded. Almost like nothing had happened. Certainly not her Mama almost crying on the phone.

The old woman hobbled to the desk, “Oh dear, yes, Patsy said that sister of yours was having a bit of trouble. Whatever was she thinking about, having that a baby at home? That’s what the good lord made hospitals for.”

Mercy bit her tongue and smiled even wider. She nodded her head and played along with the woman. It did not even surprise her that half the town seemed to know more about what was happening than she did. She was used to being gossip fodder for these people.

Maybe that was why she was a thirty-two-year-old virgin who still lived at home with her mother? Too afraid to give them more to talk about, so she had never bothered to actually live? That was a good enough excuse to keep her from looking more deeper for the real reason for her fear of intimacy.

The older woman reached out her arthritic hand and took Mercy’s. She squeezed gently, “I’ll add Laura and that baby to our prayer chain. That husband of hers, too. Patsy said the man arrived just in time for the birth. What was his name again, dearie? I know that Laura insists on keeping the name Reynolds, though why I’ll never understand. It ain’t right if you ask me. These women today not even taking their husband’s last name when they get married.”

Mercy wanted to scream. She wanted to push the old woman out the door and tell her to mind her own fucking business. She knew that ‘prayer circle’ was just a euphemism for the blue-haired betty club that fed the gossip mill in Sebida. But right now, she needed to get out of here. Besides, laying a false trail might be in everyone’s best interest. “Ryan. Her husband’s name is Ryan Ranger.”

The old woman nodded that blue-head, “Yes, Patsy said he was quite a handsome young man, too. He was one of our boys over there, wasn’t he, sweetie?”

And here it was. Mercy knew that this woman would keep her here for hours, pumping her for information. But she had other places to be. “I’m sorry, Miss Mable, but I really do need to get going. I’m sure you understand.” She gently removed the woman’s hand from her arm.

She saw Miss Mable lift her proud nose. She knew those words before the woman ever opened her mouth, “Well, yes, dear.”

It was the ultimate snub. But Mercy was used to it by now. She smiled as she put her hand on the woman’s back and pointed her towards the door. “Thank you for visiting the Sebida County library. Ya’ll come back now, ya hear.”

It was the words that Mercy had perfected to end these types of conversations. Most of the patrons of the library were those blue-haired betties. And most of them came into the library, not for the same couple of hundred books they had read years ago. But for the sheer privilege of pumping Mercy for the latest on her family. Hell, this place would have probably been closed long ago if it had any other librarian. All the young people had tablets, text readers on their phones, or watched YouTube. Hell, she bet the old betties did too. When they weren’t in here, torturing her.

She closed the front door, locked it, and turned the sign to closed in the big bay window. Mercy slipped into the breakroom and grabbed the backpack that her Mama had picked up at the Army-Navy store or some thrift shop. She quickly rummaged through it, double-checking that she had what she needed. Clothes. A few protein bars, water, and dried fruit snacks for emergencies. A big, heavy flashlight. One of those metallic blanket things. A burner phone. Her passport. More money than she made in a whole fucking year – thanks to Laura.

And her Smith & Wesson .380 EZ Shield. She went to put the gun back at the bottom of the bag, where she usually kept it. But something stopped her. “Better safe than sorry.” She slid the thing into the side pocket, where it was more accessible. Something told her not even to bother fastening that pocket. That sent a shiver down her spine.

She had just turned out the lights and was setting the alarm when the police cruiser drove up. “Just what I fucking need now,” she cussed under her breath as she plastered that special smile back on her face and turned as the man got out of his car. “Sheriff Earl Kerr, to what do I owe the pleasure?”

She fingered the side pocket on the bag as she spoke. In her mind, she hummed another tune. ‘I shot the sheriff,’ had a real nice ring to it when you grew up in Sebida, Texas.

***2:30 p.m. Sebida, TX***

Stacey Reynolds held her daughter and granddaughter tighter. She never wanted to let them go. But she knew it was for the best. She had made a mess of everything. And her girls were paying the price for her mistakes.

But no more.

She closed her eyes and inhaled that sweet smell of innocence as she kissed Rahab’s dark, wild curls. This ended now. She placed her hand on Elena’s distended abdomen and felt this latest granddaughter move inside her middle child.

When Stacey opened her eyes, she met the frightened ones of her little girl. She squeezed Elena’s hand as she turned to her son-in-law. “Bradley, it’s your job to take care of them now.” Somehow she managed to push those words past the pain and hurt of a lifetime that clogged her throat and clouded her mind.

The young Methodist preacher stepped forward. Brad wrapped his arm around his wife. Elena practically collapsed against her husband as more tears slid down her face. Rahab, with the innocence of a child, wiped her mother’s tears away and pleaded, “Mommy, no cry.”

Stacey fought back the rebuke that sprang to her lips. Never once had any of her girls seen her cry. Not in the almost four decades since that ‘mistake.’ Not when the INS agents had raided their small trailer at gunpoint and taken her ‘husband’ of five years away in handcuffs. Not when the prosecutor in his case revealed that their marriage was not valid because the man had another wife and family in Mexico. Not when her self-righteous, sanctimonious parents had stood up and walked out of the courtroom. Withdrawing all their support and leaving Stacey to raise her daughters alone, with the stigma of bastardy in small-town Sebida, Texas.

Not the dozens of times they turned off power to the old trailer that was falling down around them. Not when all they had to eat for Thanksgiving was bread, eggs, and milk. Not when Christmas morning came, and all she could afford under the tree were old stuffed animals and dolls that she had bought from the Salvation Army’s bargain bin. At the very last moment, when they had cut the price even further. Was that to get rid of the stuff or because the older woman that ran the store took pity on them? Hell, she had not even cried or pleaded for her life the dozen or more times that she had stared down the barrel of a gun held in the trembling fingers of some punk ass kid or stoned out psycho.

That did not mean Stacey Reynolds never cried. Only that she made damned sure that her daughters never saw it. Just as she fought back those tears now.

The chickens had come home to roost.

She did not blame her oldest daughter Laura for this. That girl had done all she could for them. Hell, she had bought them a new trailer with her first bonus check. It had stung Stacey’s pride to accept it from her child, but as Laura had pointed out, she had Elena and Mercy to think about.

No, this was her fault. All of it. If she had made better choices, Laura might not have been so driven. Driven to make money, climb the corporate ladder, prove herself to the world. Or maybe it was just Sebida, Texas, Laura had needed to impress? Stacey knew that her daughter’s job as General Counsel for McBride Industries came at a high price. Still, she could not stop Laura from selling her soul to the devil.

Stacey was so grateful that these past nine months, they had re-established the mother-daughter bond. No matter what happened, they had that precious time, and she had another remarkable granddaughter to show for it. She forced that smile. The one she had taught her girls. The one that hid the pain. “Ya’ll have everything?”

Brad nodded, “Are you sure this is necessary?”

“No, but better safe than sorry. You have the burner?” The young man nodded his head, and his Afro bobbed in the mid-afternoon sunlight.

Bradley Williams was a good man. He would take care of his family. She might not like his job. Stacey Reynolds had good reason to hate the small Methodist church this man now led. It was the same one that had once been her father’s. Most people in those pews had turned a blind eye to the ‘accidents’ that were all too common for her and her mother. She may not even buy his Jesus bullshit. But she knew this man would do whatever it took to keep Elena, Rahab, and this new baby safe. Did anything else matter?

“I wish you’d take some of this money back. Forty-thousand dollars is more than we need.”

“No, we don’t know how long any of this is going to last. I want you to promise me that the minute you cross the border, you’ll ditch this car. Buy something new — a private sale, not a dealer. Then drive. Drive as far as you. Put as much distance as you can between you and Sebida, Texas.”

“But Mama…” Elena’s tears still fell. She was always a gentle soul. This middle child had neither Laura’s stubborn determination nor Mercy’s toughness. Hell, she had even screwed up on naming her girls. This one had far more mercy than her baby sister ever would.

Stacey inhaled and squared her shoulders, rising to her full five-foot three-and-a-half-inches. “Don’t you Mama me. You know that the Reynolds women have one another’s backs. We can’t let Laura down. It’s the least we owe her. She did all this for us.” She softened her tone just a bit and gave her daughter another gentle squeeze, “You promised your sister that you would leave.”

Stacey turned her gaze to her son-in-law, who had earned her respect over the last three-and-a-half years. “You’ve been planning and saving for this pilgrimage for years. Consider it a holiday, a well-earned vacation.” The solemn tone returned, “But under no circumstances do you bring them back to this country. We’ll send for you when this shit is over. We have a general idea of where you’re going. I’m sure it won’t be too hard to trace a mixed-race American preacher and his white wife in Rwanda.”

She looked at her granddaughter, whose light brown curls now rested against her mother’s shoulder. Rahab’s eyes were almost closed, and she had her thumb between her lips. “Wait a minute.”

She walked back to her old SUV. The thing was close to fifteen years old. It had been bought third or maybe even fourth hand. But at least this vehicle was made in this century. The last one had been a beat-up Toyota pickup from the eighties. She opened the passenger side door and rummaged in the oversized faded green duffle bag that she had bought used at the Salvation Army.

She pulled out the two stacks of fifty-dollar bills, another one of hundreds, and three of twenties. That was almost another thirty-grand. She left a single packet of the twenties in the bag. She’d be joining Mercy soon. Her youngest daughter had more cash in her bug-out bag. Besides, Laura wanted them just to hang out at Ole’ Injun Joe’s casino until things died down. What use would they have for all that cash? She took the money to her son-in-law. “No arguing. You have a family to take care of.”

She could see the reluctance in the man’s eyes. Was it pride? Was it some lingering doubt that this money was ill-gotten? Or was it just his worry for her? He really was a decent human being – even if he was a fucking Methodist preacher.

Bradley looked to his wife. Their eyes held, and what Stacey Reynolds saw there almost stopped her heart. This man loved her daughter. She was reasonably sure she had caught glimpses of that same look in Ryan Ranger’s eyes when he looked at Laura. When her tough as nails corporate attorney daughter had her head turned, of course. But there was not a single doubt that either man loved their little girls. Would die to protect their daughters. Whatever Brad had seen in his wife’s eyes must have been enough because he nodded and tucked the stacks of bills in the bag with the rest of it.

“Remember to transfer most of that to gold and gems. But not loose. Jewelry that you can claim is costume. Unless you need the cash. I don’t know how you’ll buy plane tickets without a credit card, but hopefully, that will be easier south of the border.” She was rambling. She knew it. But now, as it came time to say goodbye to a daughter and grandbaby, for the second time this day, Stacey felt the world closing in on her.

“I’ll figure it out,” Brad pulled her into his arms.

She stiffened immediately. She could not help it. She did anytime a man touched her. Even her son-in-law. And this time, she had not been expecting it. She forced her mind away from those images. She inhaled and willed her muscles to relax. She pasted that smile on her face. Even if she could not bring herself to return the innocent embrace, she would do her best to slough it off as ‘not being the touchy-feely type.’

But dammit, those tears were getting harder to fight back. She had to get them out of here and on the road before she lost it. She was not about to cry in front of her daughter, not after almost four decades. “Ya’ll better get on the road, then.” If her voice betrayed her, well, she did her best.

The next couple of moments were a blur. She recognized that outer-body shit. She had experienced it more than once. But somehow, she managed to get through it. Another hug from Elena. A kiss on the top of Rahab’s soft curls. Would she ever see any of her grandbabies again? She hoped so. But she would do whatever it took to keep them safe. And her girls, too.

Thankfully, Bradley had settled for a handshake this time. But was there some knowing look in his dark eyes as he said, “God bless you. You’ll be in our prayers.”

She found the strength to ignore his words. She knew he meant the best. But Stacey Reynolds had long since lost any faith that god would bless her. If anything, the man, and there was no doubt in her mind that if there was a god, he was a man. And he had it out for her for some reason.

Well, god was not the only cruel, misogynistic bastard she had ever dealt with. She had a long history with those. Going right back to the beatings from her father, the man who held the minister’s position at that same Methodist church in Sebida for almost half a century.

That in itself was unheard of. Unlike the Baptists, Methodists moved their preachers from church to church every four or five years. They had tried that once with her daddy, too. But the man had quit the ministry, sat in the front pew of ‘his’ church, and generally made life living hell for the young kid fresh out of seminary. The man had not lasted six months. A letter from the deacons, signed by every member of the congregation, except one, had settled the matter for another quarter of a century.

Until the man became too senile to continue, he was still alive the last time she heard. In one of the church’s retirement homes near Austin. Her mother, also. Not that she gave a damn. Like they said outside that federal courthouse in Houston, after Ignacio’s immigration hearing almost thirty-five years ago, they didn’t have a daughter. And Stacey Reynolds did not have parents.

But that was the least of her worries right now. She waved and watched as that fancy hybrid thing struggled over the rocky dirt road. She hoped that whatever Bradley traded it for, over the border, was more sturdy than his damned environmentally-friendly shit.

The car was out of sight before she slipped into the driver’s seat of her own battered but reliable SUV. She knew that she needed to head back. She had already called Mercy. She was meeting her youngest daughter at the old casino. She wasn’t sure if she liked this sudden change of plans that her probable future son-in-law insisted upon. Of course, that was if they all made it out of this mess.

Stacey started to turn the key, but her fingers were trembling too severely. Instead, she pounded the steering wheel and cussed as the flood of tears burst its dam, “Fuck!” Now was not the time. Not for another flashback. She needed to get to her baby girl. Mercy was all she had left now — the only reason she had to keep her shit together anymore.

But Stacey Reynolds knew that the time would come when her girls no longer needed her, when she could no longer keep it together. She had been planning for that day for the last twenty-seven years, three months, twenty-nine days. She looked at the clock on her dashboard. It read two-fifty-six. Fourteen hours and fifty-one minutes.

Yes, she had it all planned out. When that day came. When this was all over. When Elena and Brad were back home in that little church where they belonged. When she had watched Laura walk down the aisle to the man that Stacey knew her daughter loved, even if Laura was too proud or too stubborn to admit it.

And once she knew that Mercy would be okay. Her baby girl was too much like her. She was not sure the girl would ever marry and settle down. Not unless one of the heroes from her trashy romance novels came to life. Then again, she had never thought that Laura would find someone either. But she would be satisfied just to see her youngest daughter out of Sebida, with a good job somewhere. Or maybe her books would sell well enough that she did not need to work, some crappy part-time minimum wage job, even if it did come with a fancier title than any her Mama ever had?

Whichever, when that day came, if it ever did, she had it all planned out. She was going to do what the special prosecutors from Austin and the federal government could not do. She was going to clean up Sebida, Texas. Or at least cut off Medusa’s head.

Yeah, she still remembered that Greek mythology shit from high school. But it was another head that she was going for on Sheriff Earl Kerr. The tiny one that the man had used to destroy what little of her life was left after Ignacio Garcia and her parents were finished.

Stacey inhaled deeply, practicing those same deep breathing exercises that had gotten her through three labors and births without medication. And forty-seven rapes. And way too fucking many other flashbacks, panic attacks, and dissociative episodes to count over the past twenty-seven years, three months, twenty-nine days, fourteen hours, and fifty-four minutes.

This time her hand was more steady as she wiped those goddamned useless tears away and turned the key in the ignition. She checked her phone in its holder on the dashboard. No messages from Mercy. That must be a good sign, right? Maybe Bradley’s prayers would get god off her damned back for a bit. Just once, she needed a break.

Because right now, she had to face her worst nightmare. Lie through her teeth. And smile. But then again, she had done that forty-six times with the man. After that first rape, she was determined she would never give him the satisfaction of seeing her broken and afraid again. So, she had put on an act each and every one of those other forty-six rapes. Hell, as much as it had turned her stomach, she had even pretended to enjoy it. That seemed actually to turn the sorry bastard off.

What was one more Oscar-winning performance before she joined Mercy at the casino and hid out until all this blew over – or blew up? She hit the button on her phone. That song filled the confines of her vehicle and her fucked up mind and heart. She focused solely on the road and singing along as she turned back towards the small wood-framed house at the corner of the main crossroads in Sebida, Texas. The place that Laura had been renting from her high school English teacher for the past eight months.

“And they don’t lose any sleep at night, ’cause Earl had to die, goodbye Earl,” she sang along with her favorite band and dreamt of the day that her Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum Special did what she had been dreaming of for twenty-seven years, three months, twenty-nine days, fourteen hours, and fifty-eight minutes.

Until then, she would do whatever it took to keep her girls safe. Lying was easy. She only hoped that she was much too old at fifty-eight to appeal to the ‘good’ Sheriff of Sebida County. But she knew that if it came to it, she would do even that. It might have been more than a quarter of a century since any man had touched her, but what was one more rape if it kept her daughters and granddaughters safe.

***Monday, 2:45 p.m. Sebida County library***

Will sat astride the Duchess, his true love, a Ducati Scrambler 1100. He was not sure what Sheriff Earl Kerr was doing at the Sebida County Library. The man did not seem the bookworm type — more a cold-blooded killer and crook.

The man had been on the agency’s radar since right after he retired from the military. If the hinky way that the former sheriff was shot on a hunting trip were not red flag enough, nor the surprise win of his former deputy, then the accusations of murder when a small-time drug dealer’s car blew up would have been. And the man definitely raised suspicions when the local District Attorney who was prosecuting the case was forced to resign due to DWI charges.

But shit, as much as this man seemed to wallow in it, just would not stick to him. Even when Austin appointed a special prosecutor to the case and moved it out of Sebida, Kerr had been acquitted of all the charges except a misdemeanor. It seemed that witnesses would not show up to testify or changed their testimony on the stand. And with double jeopardy attached, the state had dropped the investigation.

That did not mean the man was innocent. The feds were confident that the Torreon cartel was running their drugs through the town. It was the other allegations, though, that brought Will to Sebida County. It seemed that while drugs might be moving north, east, and west out of the small town, people might be heading south — human trafficking.

That one anonymous tip in Bebe’s file said that dozens of women and girls had disappeared from Houston, Dallas, and Austin over the past few years. And that most of them stopped in Sebida before being shipped south of the border. Prostitution, slavery, and worse. But as with the drugs and murder, Kerr seemed always to be just one step ahead of them.

Of course, that was because there was a leak in the agency. Will was pretty sure he knew who it was too. Or at least a couple of them. One look at Earl Kerr, and he knew that the man was guilty of everything he was accused of – and more.

The discerning of spirits, his grandmother Etta Mae called it. One of the gifts of the holy spirit. If you bought such bullshit. But even before the spray of bullets that left his Grandfather Walt bleeding out on the altar of his church, Will had his doubts. That Saturday, what little faith he had left was killed on that altar with his grandfather.

But whatever it was, Will had given up looking for any logical or scientific explanation for how he just ‘knew’ what was inside the hearts and minds of others. Whatever you called it, there was no doubt that it had been the edge in his law enforcement career that had not only kept him alive through some intense situations but helped him to rise through the ranks of first HPD and then the agency. Being able to know which informants you could and could not trust had made all the difference.

It was also why he had done what he had. He had seen into that young girl’s heart. Hell, in Callie’s case, it almost went deeper. It was as if he could see into her future or perhaps recognize in her untapped gifts that made her a kindred spirit?

But what had sealed the deal was that for the first time in the two and a half months that he had been guarding the McBrides, he saw some small, infinitesimal, shred of decency in Gerald McBride. Will knew that the man was telling the truth. This was not some attempt to escape justice. No, the man genuinely wanted to make sure that his wife and daughter did not fall prey to the same Fate that his son had.

After all the injustice he had seen – grandfather, Bebe, and finally his grandmother’s death – how could Will deny McBride perhaps his one chance to make something right? He could not. And if it took his life’s blood to protect Callie as he had not been able to Bebe, then it was worth it.

But none of that answered the question of the hour, what the hell was Sheriff Kerr doing at the library? And why had the man parked his police cruiser around back? Why not park on the street and go in the front door? What was the man up to now?

Then she stepped out the back door, marked ‘employees and delivery only,’ and Will’s whole world shifted beneath the wheels of his bike. All he could think was his grandfather’s booming voice, ‘Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby, some have entertained angels unawares.’

Sheriff Earl Kerr was the last person that Mercy wanted to meet in a dark alley, especially with forty grand in cash, a Smith & Wesson handgun, and a burner phone in her bag. She had spent the past almost decade, since the man returned to Sebida, doing every damned thing she could to avoid him.

‘Why now of all days?’ She asked the rhetorical question of the universe. But she knew. Like Mama said, ‘chickens had come home to roost.’ But dammit, it wasn’t gonna be just Reynolds’s chickens if she had anything to say about it.

“Hey, Sheriff, what you doing here?” Mercy smiled and used that same down-home tone she had with Miss Mable.

The man leaned against the back passenger door of his police cruiser. His hand was already on the holster of his gun. The strap was undone too. Mercy was glad that she had not fastened that pocket on the backpack.

“Where you heading, Miss Mercy?” The man took two steps away from his car, and she shifted the pack closer to her chest. As much to block the man’s view of her tits as to slip her fingers into the pocket and take the safety off her gun.

Mercy had never shot a man. Though she always wondered if she could. Mama had taught all of her girls to use a gun by the time they were ten. She knew loads of people would condemn Mama for it. But Mercy, more than anyone else, understood why Mama did it. And if there was ever anyone that she was almost sure she could shoot, the ‘good’ sheriff was that man.

But as much as that part of her called for revenge, she knew that would only complicate things. No, this was one time when talking needed to come before shooting. “I had to close the library early. A bit of a family emergency. I’m sure you heard that Laura had her baby last night?”

The man nodded but took a couple more strides until his boot rested on the bottom step. His hand had not left his sidearm, and though she kept smiling and did her best to appear relaxed, this man’s mere presence disturbed her as nothing else could. She swallowed that fear and hatred that went with almost twenty-seven years of memories and self-loathing.

“I’m just going to help out. Seems that Laura’s had a bit of trouble with too much bleeding. Mama’s left the baby with Elena while Laura’s husband ran over to Madison for a couple of things. She wants me to meet him over the county line and pick them up. So, he can head straight to the hospital to meet them.” Mercy knew she was talking too fast, but she hoped that Kerr thought that was concern for her sister’s health and not fear of him. She would not give the man that satisfaction.

He reached out and grabbed her arm. She jerked to the side. Her hand remained hidden in the bag, but the man captured the upper part of her other arm instead. She wanted to vomit. She considered screaming, but in this situation, that might cause more trouble than it was worth. His fingers were so tight that Mercy knew there would be bruises. Not that anyone survived Sebida’s jail long enough to claim police brutality.

But she was not going to jail. No matter what. Her life or his, but she would not become this man’s victim as … ‘Stop thinking like that. Do not go there,’ Mercy steeled her nerves. “I didn’t know it was a crime to close the library early, Sheriff.” Her face was going to break from that smile.

“I’m afraid you’re not going anywhere, Miss Reynolds. I’ve already been to your sister’s house. No one is there. And Laura is wanted on a material witness warrant issued by the federal government.”

She frowned and adlibbed, “I’m sure there must be some mistake. Elena must have taken the baby to her house. You know how hard it is for her to find someone to watch her little girl. If you want, I’ll call Mama. I’m sure we can straighten this all out quickly.”

“You can call whoever you want from the county jail. I’m taking you in for obstruction of justice.”

He pulled her down the steps. Mercy pretended to stumble, and when the sheriff turned back to look at her, she pulled the gun from her bag. “I don’t think so. I’m not going anywhere with you, Sheriff.” The way she said that was as if it were a cuss word. “We both know what happens when someone goes to your jail.”

The man dared to laugh even though she stood less than a half dozen steps from him with a gun. “No, darlin’, you have no idea what happens to pretty young things like you when they cross me.” He reached for his gun and drew it, “But you will.”

Kerr stepped forward and ran the cold steel of his service revolver right down the side of Mercy’s cheek, down her neck, and between her cleavage. “And before you die, you’ll wish like hell you’d never dared to draw a gun on me.”

Her hand shook, but she willed it steady. The cold gray of those eyes was almost inhuman. But Mama had taught her well. Never let him see the fear.

Those eyes dropped to where the end of the gun disappeared into her bra, “Is what they say true? Are you really one of the Sebida’s three Vestal Virgins?”

It was not the first time that Mercy had heard that term. She, Abby Jean, and Lizzie thought it was ironic. For a small town that preached chastity to then ridicule those who were. But right now, the longer she kept Kerr talking, the better her chances of getting out of there. Or so she hoped. “So, what if it is?”

“Damn, I’d sure have loved a piece of you, darlin.’ But if that is the case, you are worth far more south of the border with that precious cherry intact. Of course, that still leaves two other holes for me to use.”

She shivered at the man’s words. The thought that she had saved herself for thirty-two years, hoping that one day, someday a real man, and not merely some ‘book boyfriend’ would get her hot enough to overcome her fears, anxieties, and those horrid images that were forever scarred into her brain. And for what? To end up raped. Just like…

No, she would not. She would rather be dead. She lifted her gun. She no longer doubted that she could do it. “No, Sheriff, that’s where you’re wrong. I won’t be any man’s victim.”

“What you gonna do? Shoot me? You ain’t got the guts. No, you, sweetie, are gonna end up so far down the hole that no one will ever find you. If you’re lucky, you’ll end up in some modern-day harem somewhere. But if you cross me again, I’ll make sure that after Diego auctions off that sweet cherry pie, you spend the rest of your very short life in the cheapest bordello in Torreon.”

He tugged her gently, perhaps too afraid now of damaging such valuable merchandise. But that was his mistake. Mercedes raised the gun and pulled the trigger. But damn the man, he turned in the scuffle, and the bullet only nicked his arm. Those eyes that had been so cold suddenly flamed with anger.

They were both distracted by the sound of a roaring engine. It happened so quickly. The motorcycle threw up dust as it came to a stop right beside them. Without even getting off the bike, the driver’s foot connected squarely with the sheriff’s jaw. Kerr dropped like a sack of cement.

“Get on.”

Mercy could not make out much about the driver, who still wore his helmet and thick leather gloves. But looking down at the unconscious sheriff, what choice did she have? She hopped on the back, wrapped her arms around the man. She was pretty sure that it was a man. But what kind of man, what the fuck he was doing hanging out in the alley, why the hell would he help her, and perhaps most importantly, who the fuck was he? Mercy had no answers to those questions as the man reeved the engine, and they shot off at speeds that well exceeded her thrill-seeking capacity.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.