Stacey paced the tiny cabin. She knew that this was the right thing. Wanda was on edge. Hell, perhaps, this had even pushed her over. While she was not about to ask now, she was pretty sure Kerr had done more than just beat the woman.
How many of her rapes had occurred here? If she thought about it long enough, Stacey was sure she could come up with a relatively accurate number. That was what was making this so incredibly hard.
The man was tied up on the bed across the room. She did not dare look at Earl Kerr. Though she could feel the man’s eyes on her, watching her every movement. Was he plotting some escape attempt? Though given his leg and the amount of blood he lost, that would be difficult, she would not put it past him.
Wanda was sitting on the rickety old chair next to the table. Those were the only furnishings in the place. It did not even have running water or electricity. An old kerosene lamp sat on the far end of the table.
“You know I’ll get out. And I’ll find you. Both. You bitches will pay for this.”
Wanda’s sobs became louder. Hadn’t this woman learned by now that was what he wanted? The man fed off fear. Maybe that was why he had tired of her. She refused to give him that power. Only afterward, when she was alone, had Stacey ever allowed herself to freedom to cry like the woman was now. Under the shower with the hot water scalding her, knowing she could never truly wash his stench from her body.
“Shut up,” Stacey waved the gun in his direction. She even forced herself to focus on the man for a moment. She needed to make sure he was not attempting to break free of the bonds. Reb had tied the man’s hands together in front of him, but given the state of his leg, had not dared to bind his ankles as well. She could not tell if he managed to loosen the rope.
But looking at the man was a mistake. The smug and self-satisfied visage on his face belied his situation. It was as if he were laughing at them. She inhaled and shook her head, hoping that Reb would be back soon. If he had to take the truck to find a signal…
“You were almost as bad a fuck as she was,” Stacey was unsure which of them he was speaking to, but she refused to take the bait.
“Maybe we weren’t the problem, sheriff. About the only thing big about you is that ego.”
Wanda looked up at her, or as much as she could given that her eye was almost swollen shut now. “See, I told you. You should have killed him. Or at least let him die.”
Stacey crossed the room, she never thought she would feel any sympathy for this woman, but over the past week, she had. She knelt in front of Wanda, “Don’t listen to what he says. Where he’s going, he won’t be able to hurt anyone again.”
She dared once more to look at the man struggling on the bed. Yeah, he was trying to loosen the ropes. Where was Reb? She fingered the gun. “He’ll learn what it feels like to be a victim in prison. He might be a bit old, but I’m sure that there are some guys in there with a grudge against the ‘good’ sheriff who’ll be more than happy to…”
“Bitches, what do you know? I just gave you what you wanted. What all women want. Real men take what they want. And women eat that shit up.”
“Please, Stacey, give me the gun. If you can’t…”
She shook her head, “That’s not the answer, Wanda. That just brings us down to his level. We’re not like him. We’re mothers. Look at all you’ve done to keep your girls safe. Don’t blow it now. Not on him.”
“I am thinking of my daughters. They will never be safe. We, you and me, we’ll never be free. Not as long as that monster is breathing.”
“Mothers? Bah! What’s so special about being able to push a bowling ball out of your coochie? It doesn’t make you special or better. You’re all the same. Whores! Whores that use men. Well, no one uses Earl Ray Kerr, never again.”
The man thrashed on the bed. Stacey saw the red on that bandage spreading. The look in his eyes was almost the same madness she saw in his wife’s. For the first time ever, Stacey considered what created a monster like him. She had always assumed he was pure meanness, but something about those eyes made her feel almost sorry for him. Almost.
The distraction was a mistake. She felt a hand cover hers. “Give me the damned gun.”
She started to shake her head, but Wanda did not wait for an explanation. Her grip tightened as she tried to wrestle the gun from Stacey’s hand. She was shocked by how strong the other woman was. But Stacey supposed fear and adrenaline fueled it.
The first shot hit the roof right over the bed. Stacey pushed hard and turned them as they struggled over the weapon. She could see the man pulling at the bindings in her peripheral vision. Fuck, where was Reb? If he didn’t get back here soon, it was all going to hell.
The second shot hit the old kerosene lamp just as she noticed the man slip his fingers beneath the first bit of rope. Shit, he would be fear in less than a moment. But the way those flames lapped at the walls was a bigger problem.
“We need to get out of here,” her eyes pleaded with Wanda as much as her words.
The woman shook her head as she shoved them closer to the door. “No, you need to get out.”
It took a moment for Wanda’s words to register in her brain. Time that the other woman used to push them to the door and open it. “No, Wanda. Your girls! You can’t.”
Tears were streaming down the woman’s battered face as she shook her head. “Tell them I love them. I know you’ll take good care of them. But…”
Another shot rang out. But it was not from the gun that the women still held in their hands, pointed at the ceiling. Wanda collapsed into her arms, “Go. Now. While you can…”
Stacey shook her head as tears fell, and she struggled to drag the injured woman through the door with her. The man across the room had that look of triumph that she knew all too well. Forty-seven times she had tried to erase that look from her mind.
“Bitches are weak. They never do what is necessary.”
“Take care of my girls.”
Stacey would never be sure of what happened next. How had a woman, that badly beaten, bleeding from a gunshot somewhere, managed to wrestle the gun from her fingers, push her out the door and slam it shut? Despite all her pretty words to the contrary, had she subconsciously given into Wanda’s pleas? Had she been an unwitting accomplice?
She heard another shot, or was it two? She pounded on the door, pushing and shoving at the wooden frame. But it would not budge. Even as the flames grew higher and hotter around her, she slammed her fists against the door. She kicked it. And she cried out for the other woman.
She was mad with worry when strong hands gripped her from behind. She fought to break free as valiantly as Wanda had struggled over that gun. Had Kerr somehow escaped those flames, gotten past Wanda? She struck out blindly. She would not let him take her. Not now.
Somewhere far away, she heard him calling her name. Reb was back. She just had to hold out a bit longer. Those hands gripped her shoulders tighter. Dragged her away from the door. She tried to break free again. To go back for the other woman. But he held her firmly.
She had managed to pull away so that only one hand around her wrist detained her when there was a loud groan. The roof of the old cabin collapsed. Though the wood continued to burn, it looked more like a bonfire than a building. “No!”
Then those arms wrapped around her and drew her against a chest. His smell. Reb always smelled differently. And even over the smoke and humus, she recognized him. “Shhh, sweetheart. I’ve got you.”
Stacey shook her head, “Wanda’s in there. We have to get her out.”
“Stacey, there’s no way, you know that. Not now.” He held her tighter. His hands on the back of her head kept her from seeing what remained of the cabin as it burned.
The dam broke. Tears flooded. Were they tears for the woman she had hated for so long? Were they for those last dreams that had died at that man’s hands? Were they even for that glimpse of something, perhaps fear or pain, that she had seen so briefly in her tormenter? Were they for her so uncertain future that stretched ahead? Without hate and bitterness to fuel her, what would she do?
He held her once again as she cried. It was becoming an all too common thing. Then he scooped her up in those strong arms and carried her back to Chad’s truck. He let down the gate, and they sat in the bed as she continued to cry. Was it minutes or hours?
Then all hell burst loose again. Ryan was the first to arrive. Jack followed a few minutes later. Then it was loads and carloads full of men in black suits or assault armor. An ambulance. By the time the volunteer fire department arrived, the flames had almost burned themselves out. But there was not much any of them could do except take down names and put out the flames. And through it all, those arms held her.