Will began to pace back and forth in front of the Duchess. He did not believe that Mercy would shoot him. He was pretty confident that she could not bring herself to do it. Strike that, he was sure of it.
That was just it, though. How the hell did he explain any of that to this woman? Other than his Grandmother, he had never told anyone. Hell, it was Nana’s idea not to. And that said something.
He had screwed the pooch on this one, for sure. So, what did he say to her now? How did he explain how he could know something that no one else did? “I can’t tell you that.” Maybe he could play the national security card?
She cocked the gun. He looked at her. No, he was still sure she would not shoot him. He would even bet that she felt the connection between them. Maybe not like he did, but then again, he had never felt anything like it before either.
“Try again, buddy. And you never answered my other question. What is your ‘personal’ business with Kerr?”
Will ran his hands over his hair. Damn, he was in this deep. And this time, he had no exit strategy. Hell, with this woman, he did not want one. But he damned sure needed to come up with a stick around one, to earn her trust, and something told him that was not easily done.
He shook his head and looked at her, met those dark eyes once more, damn, he could get lost in those things. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.” And that was the truth.
“Try me,” at least she lowered the gun as she crossed her arms across those spectacular tits. Damn, now was not the time to dream of motorboating those things. But he was sure they would become his favorite pillow for the rest of his life.
“I just do.”
“What kind of answer is that?”
“An honest one. I don’t know. I never have. I just know things.”
“What you’re like psychic or something?”
Damn, the woman was even sexy when she frowned. Though he would much rather see her smile. What he really wanted was to make her moan. “No, nothing like that. Nothing so specific. I just get these feelings about people when I meet them.”
“Yeah, well, we all have those.”
“Yes, but most peoples are based on assumptions. Stereotypes. Fears,” He held himself back from using the word prejudices.
They had a lifetime to discuss the weightier matters of the universe. And he looked forward to that. Laying in bed next to this woman after making loving and talking about everything, anything, and nothing. “And loads of people don’t trust their guts either.”
She nodded her head, and he loved the way that ponytail at the back bobbed. Yeah, he liked that style on her. Not that he did not want to see her soft brown hair falling about her face. But at the moment, he was too caught up on imagining what it would feel like to wrap that ponytail around his fist and pull her head back as he slammed his cock deep inside her. Spilling his seed and his soul and, in the process, creating a new life.
What the fuck! Where the hell had that one come from? It was the one thing that Will had sworn he would never do. Not in this world. He would never bring a child into this fucked up world. But when he looked at her, he could almost see her body round and ripe with his child. Now, he was fucking scared.
She frowned as she watched him, “Okay, say I buy that. Not that I do, mind you. But that still does not answer my other question, what is your business with Kerr?”
“I’m not sure.” He began to pace again, to work off the nervous energy that was strumming through his body.
Though he could think of better ways to burn it off, he did not believe Mercedes was up for that just yet. And he doubted he was any closer to earning that trust either. In fact, he might have just blown any chance of it. Well, not any chance, but he certainly had not helped his case. But maybe he could redeem himself a bit with more of the truth.
“I’m not certain, really. But my cousin disappeared from a bus stop in Dallas over two and a half years ago.”
“I’m sorry,” and he could see that she meant that.
“Bebe was only twelve, and she was waiting for the bus to school.”
He felt that same righteous indignation, as his Grandfather Walt called it surfacing, but Mercedes was not the cause of issues that went back hundreds of years. He was not going to take that anger out on her. So, he pushed it out of his mind, right along with the breath in his lungs.
He looked at the ground as he put his hands in the pocket of his leather jacket. “The police told her mother that she probably just ran away. An honor roll student that had never missed a single day of school in her life just ran away?” He met those warm brown eyes; he did not even have to say the words.
“Because she was black, you mean?”
He nodded, glad that he had not had to say them to her. He swallowed down the lump that rose in his throat every time he spoke about her, “Nine-hundred-ninety-eight days and the Dallas Poice Department’s file on her is only three pages.”
Was it his imagination, or had Mercedes taken a couple of steps in his direction? Not that his vision was all that sound right at the moment. A lifetime of tears seemed to be welling up in his heart and spilling into his eyes. He swiped at them with the back of his hand, but the damned leather only chafed and made his vision more blurred.
“The only thing in that file that was of any use was a tip from the anonymous police hotline. All it said was to check out Sherriff Earl Kerr in Sebida that dozens of young women and girls went missing there.”
“But Dallas is over two-hundred miles away from Sebida. What makes you think that Kerr had anything to do with your cousin’s disappearance?”
“I didn’t. Well, I couldn’t be sure. But it was all I had, and DPD had never bothered to followup.”
The next part was incredibly hard. He felt raw, like some wounded deer struck by a car on the road, bleeding out and just laying there waiting to die on the roadside. How could she understand? Hell, he did not want her to. He never wanted this woman touched by the nastiness of hatred and prejudice that ruled this world.
“He did it, didn’t he? When you saw him today, you knew?” Her eyes reminded him of that doe just before the crunch of the grill sealed its Fate. And he knew then. He knew that this young woman, his woman, knew depth of pain equal to his own. Perhaps not the same pain, but wasn’t all pain the same at its core?
He nodded his head at her words. He could not find words, and even if he could, Will wasn’t sure he could make his mind put them together or his throat speak them.
His words bounced in her head like sub-atomic particles setting off a nuclear reaction. Stirring up memories that Mercy tried to keep buried. She lost it. She was that little girl once more. Five years old. Back in that trailer. It was late, and Mama had just come home from work. She had pretended to be asleep so that Laura would not know, but she had waited up for mama, crying. She had something to confess.
She could hear voices down the hall. One of them was Mama. But she didn’t sound right. Maybe she had found out from someone in town. Mercy’s guilt only deepened. She couldn’t let Laura take the blame for her. It was all her fault. She knew better than to steal. No matter how much she wanted that chocolate bar.
She would tell Mama the truth. Mama would know what to do; she always did. Then she could make things right. So, Laura did not get into trouble. No matter what her sister said, it was not her fault.
But something stopped her just before she left the safety of those shadows. Mercy would never forget her mother’s face. Fear. Mama was never afraid of anything. But she was.
Then she heard him. She saw the new deputy. She did not remember his name, but he was the one that had come to the store when Miss Patsy called. He was the one that had talked to Laura. She did not know what the man said because her sister had pushed her, Elena, and Jack outside.
Mercy heard his words now, though. “I’m sure we can work something out.”
That sounded good. Until he grabbed Mama by the hair. “Don’t make a fuckin’ sound, bitch. I’d hate for anything; I don’t know a fire to happen to those pretty little girls of yours.”
She had not seen what happened. And she knew how hard Mama tried to keep quiet, but Mercy heard her whimpers of pain. That little girl sat there, frozen in the hall, she was not sure for how long. It seemed forever.
Then she heard the door close and Mama’s sobs. Somehow that little girl found the strength and courage to step from those shadows. “Mama?”
Her mother reached for the blanket that covered the rips and tears in their Salvation Army couch. She wrapped it about her half-naked body as quickly as she could, but not before Mercy saw the red welts, white teeth marks, and purple bruises that were already forming. Mama turned her head and wiped her tears.
When she turned back to face her daughter, she had that smile plastered on her face. She pretended nothing was wrong and that there had never been any tears. “You should be in bed, sugar.” She wrapped that old quilt tighter and walked on wobbly legs over to Mercy, “I’ll get you some water and put you back to bed.”
“I’m sorry, Mama. It was all my fault.” Mercedes dropped the bag and the gun. She turned her head away from the man and fell to the ground. The water, the stale tuna sandwich she had eaten for lunch, and almost twenty-eight years of pain, anger, and self-hatred spewed forth, fertilizing that ground and its crop.
Then arms, strong arms, broad shoulders, and the rapid beating of his heart wrapped around her. She was not sure if it was that five-year-old little girl or the thirty-two-year-old virgin that held him tighter as a lifetime of bottled tears poured forth.
Will sat on the slightly damp ground with her head resting against his chest. His arms wrapped tightly about her until the crying and hiccups stopped. The sky was that dark red and purple that came just before dark in Texas.
He wanted to protest when she pulled back. It felt like she had ripped away his security blanket, the most precious thing in his world. But he chuckled as she wiped tears and snot from her face with the back of her arm. Damn, he already loved this woman. Strong, beautiful, and down to earth, what more could any man want or need.
“I need to call Mama.”
“That isn’t a good idea, darlin’. They’ll be able to trace the call. Use it to locate us.”
She reached into another of the pockets on that pack, “Not if they don’t know who owns the phone.”
She nodded as she scrolled through the contacts and hit the buttons. “Yeah, we all have them.” She turned her attention to the phone as she spoke, “Mama.”
Will could not hear what was said on the other end, but he could guess from the look on her face and her next words, “I’m fine. Or as fine as I can be.”
“No, Mama, I’m safe,” she looked at him for a moment. “I’m with a federal agent.”
She frowned and shook her head, “No, Mama, I know I can trust him. Besides, he’s not with the feds anymore.”
Her eyes looked to him, almost pleading as she continued, “Listen, Marmee, I can’t go into all the details right now. I just need you to trust me. I know what I’m doing.”
He snickered as Mercy held the phone away from her ear. Though he could not make out the words, he heard the yelling. After a moment, she put the phone back to her other ear this time, “Are you done screaming, Mama? I knew you would be worried. So, I wanted to call you and let you know I’m okay.”
“We haven’t worked out a plan yet. But we’re heading to Torreon. Yes, I know. But not only does it mean I can fight international extradition, but something Kerr said makes me think… Hell, I don’t know.”
“Mama, I’ll try to call you later. Let Laura know I’m safe. And tell Ryan that I’m Agent Williams. You got that? I love you, Marmee.”
Will could hear her voice breaking over those final words. He knew their power. Less than two weeks ago, he had held his grandmother and repeated them over and over again as if those words alone could heal her heart and right the whole fucked up world. But they had not.
His world had just gone to hell in a handbasket. Or it had until the moment he laid eyes on her. When he followed Kerr to that library, he had thought his life was over. But with this woman sitting in his arms in the middle of a cornfield in Bumfuck, Texas, he knew he would move heaven, earth, and hell itself to have a long, loving life with Mercedes Reynolds.
He just had to convince her of that. Then keep them all safe. Get to the bottom of the whole fucking McBride shit. Oh, and clear his name enough that he did not spend his life in prison or on the run as his father had. Simples, right?
She pushed a button and dropped her head. Another of those tears cascaded down her cheeks. He was not going to tell her how dirty and grimy it was. But that did not matter; she was still the most beautiful woman in the world to him.
“Torreon, why there?” Will was more than familiar with the place. Any federal agent or narcotics officer was. Most of the drugs that came into the states went through the city at one point or the other. It was the corporate headquarters, you could say, of a couple cartels.
She looked at him, and something in those eyes wrapped about his heart, “Something that Kerr said when he…” She shivered again, and he drew her back against him, wrapping his arms tighter again.
“He threatened me. He said that he could make me disappear. ‘So far down the hole, no one would ever find me.’ He said that I would pray to die.” Her voice became distant and quiet, “He said they would auction me off. That if I were lucky, I would end up in a harem somewhere.”
Her words ripped his heart to pieces. Of course, he was not naïve. He knew that human trafficking, even in the twenty-first century, was still very real. Slavery and sexual exploitation had not died with Thomas Jefferson or Sally Hemings. Despite international treaties on slavery, the estimate was that over forty million people were enslaved worldwide. Of that, it was believed four million, mostly women and girls, were forced into the sex trade. One in seven runaway girls were thought to end up victims of it.
Will was never sure which frightened him more, the thought of Bebe lying dead and buried somewhere, the victim of a serial killer, or that she might still be alive and forced to…
She turned in his arms, her soft hands captured his face, and she looked deep into his eyes. “I am not saying there is a connection. But there are just too many coincidences here. Not only did Kerr specifically say Torreon, but…”
She shook her head, “My sperm donor, I won’t use the word father, because that man was never that to any of us. Hell, they deported the man before I was even born. But Ignacio Garcia was from Torreon. And I know that my sister Elean and her husband visited his family there once.”
Will heard the hesitation. What was Mercedes not telling him? But before he could ask, her answer floored him. “They never went back. His oldest son, our half-brother, is some big wig in one of the cartels there.”
She nodded her head slowly, “Yes, I’m pretty sure that was the name Elena said.
“Fuck,” Will wanted to grab his woman, hop on the Duchess, and head the exact opposite direction. Canada, maybe? Alaska? Somewhere that no one would ever find them. But he knew there wasn’t such a place. Not when it came to Diego Garcia and the Torreon cartel.
And if there was a connection to Kerr, and that tip was right? And McBride? The Torreon cartel was one of the possibilities that were behind that as well.
“Fuck!” The idea that his baby cousin…
That he would take his woman into that quagmire. “Fuck, no! I’m taking you to your sister or your Mama.”
She shook her head again, and Will knew he was going to lose this argument the moment he saw her face. “And what? You’ll go to Torreon alone? I don’t think so. I’m your ticket. The key to open that door.”
“If what Elena said was true, then someone like Diego Garcia won’t think anything of a little sister he never knew showing up on his doorsteps if she got into trouble.”
“And Kerr? What if the man is working with Kerr? How well do you think Garcia will take to having you shoot one of his men?” Will demanded.
That smile was lethal, and he hoped like hell his grandparents were whispering in god’s ear because it just might work. Hardass and innocent were a deadly combination. “I don’t know. Maybe big brother will consider it funny. After all, blood is thicker than water.”
He had lost, and he knew it. “Okay, I’m not going to waste time arguing with you now. It’s best if we travel at night. I’m guessing your face will be all over the news by now. I am sure Kerr never got a good look at me, and it’ll take a bit longer to analyze the video from his dashcam and run the plates if it even captured anything.”
“We need gas and food before we get back on the road. But since they might already be looking for you, or two people on a motorcycle, it’ll be best if I go alone. You stay here. Sleep if you can. I’m not sure what I will find or how far, but I’ll come back as quickly as I can.”
She gripped the backpack tighter. Reaching into it, she pulled out a stack of twenties and handed Will a couple, “How much do you have in there, sweetheart? Wait, I don’t want to know. Just promise me, no more phone calls until I get back. You have my word. We will call your Mama back before we pull over to sleep tomorrow morning.”
“How long will it take?”
“To get to Torreon?” She nodded, “Since it’s only safe to travel at night, a couple of days.”
“But if they’re looking for me, for us, how will we cross the border?”
Will chuckled, “The same way that Diego’s people do coming this way. I began my career with HPD in narcotics, sweetheart. I know all the best border crossings. Now, try to rest. Is there anything you need? Anything I can get you?”
Her eyes twinkled as that sweet laughter caressed his mind, “A raunchy historical romance, or some shapeshifter, vampire action? I can’t use my Kindle now.”
He bent and tasted those sweet lips for the first time. He kept it light, like a kiss on the front porch when you knew her daddy was watching through the window. “I’ll see what I can find, sweetheart. But in terms of food, you aren’t vegan or allergic to dairy or wheat or some such shit?”
“Hell, no, I’m all red neck woman. Beer, burgers, and chocolate are major food groups for me.”
He shifted her weight so that she was sitting on the hard ground. It felt all wrong, but he knew he had to get going and get back. They would have maybe eight hours of riding before the sun came up, and they needed to get as far away from this place as they could.
He hopped on the Duchess and winked, “I think I can handle those, sweetheart.” He put on his helmet, started the engine, and though it killed something inside of him, he drove off without her.
Mercy sat on the cold, hard ground. She had already pulled the hoodie from her bugout bag. Not only would the damned thing keep her warm, but it would make identifying her more difficult.
She knew America was not as bad as some places in Europe, but since 9/11, you couldn’t get too far without being captured on camera somewhere. Americans that would have once balked at such invasions of privacy just sloughed it all off in the name of national security.
She wrapped her arms about herself tighter. Was that from the chill since the sun had gone down? Or was it from the disjointed thoughts and feelings that she had been trying to piece together since the man left? The man? Will. Since Will left to get food and gas.
She did not bother looking at the burner phone to check the time. It would not mean much to her since she had lost all track to such things. She did not bother wondering if he would come back. She knew he would. It was not just that the whole McBride-Torreon-Bebe-Laura thing wrapped about them both tighter than Jane Russell’s sweater. No, there was something else between them.
She had felt it. She would say from the moment he took that helmet off, but that was not right. From the moment he had driven up on that motorcycle. Except that sounded way too fucking cheesy. Something worse than she would ever write in even her paranormal romances.
But if he were telling the truth, if his ‘feelings’ or intuition or gut were as accurate as all that, then he would have felt it, too. Of course, he did. She brought her fingers to her lips. Mercy would almost swear the damned things were still tingling. And that kiss had been nothing.
Except that was not right, either. That kiss, as simple as it was, had been hotter than the time she had made out with Jack behind the trailer. Of course, as good a kisser as Jack was, there had been that ugh-factor for them, like making out with your cousin. As for the other boys she had made out with in high school or college, none of them had come even close.
“Don’t go there. Do NOT go there, Mercy. Not now…”
It was her mantra. It had been for so long she could not remember when it began. Probably about the time in sixth grade when she had found out how babies were made, and what had really happened to Mama that night. Damned health class.
Sure, Mercy had graduated from the sweet romances of Little Women and Little House to those paperback romance where the hero and heroine did not kiss until after he proposed. But since the advent of ebooks and racier genres, she had jumped whole hardly into the sex thing. Well, at least in book form. But she had always believed the adage ‘book boyfriends are best.’
Not that she had not had opportunities. She got asked out at least once a week. Usually, by the same Sebida losers, but even when she visited Laura in Houston, she had gotten hit on. It was just that after kissing a couple of dozen frogs in high school and college, and one or two since, she had given up on finding Prince Charming. Or maybe she just was not princess material.
The sound of an engine saved her. As it got closer, she was almost sure she recognized that vroom. The damned thing gleamed in the full moonlight as it broke through the tall stalks of corn. Shining armor be damned, the tight black leather was way fucking hotter.
As he took off that helmet, Mercy could not help but admire those kiss-ass-able lips. The way that neatly groomed hint of a mustache and goatee ran together and framed the damned thing perfectly. He walked straight to her. Maybe swaggered would be more accurate. Only the greasy MacDees bag in his hands broke the spell.
But the magic came back the moment he wrapped his arm around her. Her eyes were glued on those lips right up to the last moment. The feel of them was even better this time. This kiss was more prolonged and firmer than the previous, but he did not make any attempt to take it to the next level. Why did that disappoint her?
“Guess, I don’t need to ask if you missed me, too, sweetheart. That has been all I could think about since I left you, woman.” But before she could question or protest his assumptions, Will passed her a bag.
“Sorry, it took so long. It’s almost half an hour to the next town.” Mercy nodded as she took a bite of the double cheeseburger. It reminded her that she had not eaten anything but six cups of coffee and that stale tuna sandwich since Laura’s baby shower. Fuck was that only yesterday?
“We’re about a hundred and twenty miles west of Sebida now. It’s another hour or so until we hit the hill country. We’ll head south towards the border from there. We need to avoid big cities and highways.”
Mercy could see he was not telling her everything. She took a long sip of the chocolate milkshake that was mostly melted but had not begun to get warm yet. “And? What ain’t you telling me?”
He finished chewing a bite of his food. “Your pretty face is all over the news. It’s not every day that librarians go shooting the sheriff. Even in Texas.”
Damn, that smile was sexy. She would have sworn that she preferred her men beefier, like Laura’s husband Ryan, or those cover models on her books. But this one wore tall and lean like the finest silk. “So, what do we do, mister hot pants agent?”
His chuckle washed over her like that perfect setting on the showerhead. You couldn’t come just from listening to someone laugh, right? But damn did her puppies perk up and stand at attention when he spoke in that deep sultry voice.
“We avoid big cities and highways, travel at night, stick to the back roads, and obey the speed limits, mostly. I’m hoping we can still make it across the border in a day or two. But I think it’s best if you wear my helmet. With the changes in the law, it isn’t illegal for me not to. But there’s still a chance that some overly zealous deputy might pull us over just to make sure I have the proper insurance.”
“Especially if Kerr has the whole state looking for two people on a crotch rocket?” She used that term just in hopes of hearing another of those slow, low rumbles, and the man did not disappoint. She wondered if he would in other ways? Mercy doubted it.
He brought a couple of fries to those lips. Bet the damned cold things would taste better from between his lips. Damn, she needed to get her libido under control. Or did she?
“You don’t carry an extra one?”
He shook his head as he chewed. How could chewing food be fucking sexy as hell? “Nope, no one but me rides the Duchess.”
This time it was Mercy’s turn to laugh, “Good thing she ain’t a car, or you’d make me take off my shoes before you let me get in. Do you kiss her good-night too?”
He looked confused as he studied her for a long moment. “It’s a song,” she supplied. Okay, good to know the man was not perfect. Obviously, his tastes in music needed some adjusting. But nothing a true red neck woman couldn’t handle, right?
“I might have once or twice, but until today there wasn’t anyone else I’d want to kiss goodnight.”
Mercy did not miss that reference. So, she was right. He was feeling it, too. Whatever the fuck this thing was. That should make things easier, as she shoved the last bite of burger into her mouth.
“But, there’s one other problem, sweetheart.”
She stared at him and shrugged. Laura taught her that you did not talk with your mouth full. Sebida already watched them close enough; they did not give those people something else to talk about.
Although this time, Mercy supposed they all had. Laura was wanted for questioning in the McBride mess and her shooting Kerr. It would have been worth it if she had killed the bastard. Hell, even the needle would have been worth that shit.
He cleared his throat, and those smoky eyes met hers, “I’m afraid we’re going to have to rough it a bit. We can’t take the risk of stopping at a motel.”
Mercy finished off her milkshake and shrugged, “What part of red neck woman, don’t you understand? This is Texas. In the country, you can’t go more than a few miles without running across some old abandoned farmhouse or barn. I’ll survive. Probably better than you, city boy.”
He smiled as he handed her the helmet, “Okay then, my country girl. You ready to ride?”
This time Mercy took control. She grabbed the front of his jacket, pulled him close, and her tongue demanded entrance between those sexy lips. Not that the man fought her that hard. Especially when he wrapped his arm about her waist and drew her entirely against his body.
She knew they needed to get their butts on the road. But now that she had come to a decision, she wanted to make it unequivocal and give them both something to think about for the next few hours.
She slipped her hand between their bodies as she drew back. It did not entirely cover what was behind that zipper. Damn girl, good thing you never liked your bicycles with training wheels. Her fingers curved around it and squeezed. She hoped like hell that she got the pressure right. “I’m definitely ready to ride. But we need to get on the road and put a few more miles between Sebida and us before that, hot pants.”
He pulled her hand away from his cock and brought it slowly to those lips. He kissed the back of her hand, then turned it over and placed another kiss, or was it a lick, in the center of her palm. “Damn, now you tell me, woman? We need to work on your timing.”
That sweet roll of thunder sent more shivers from her girl bits to her nipples. She was glad that the helmet covered the eat-shit-grin on her face. Yeah, Kerr’s words had hit her hard. The idea that she might die a thirty-two-year-old virgin, or worse yet have something that she did not freely give sold to the highest bidder, then ripped away from her like it was some blue ribbon to be won at the county fair, had sent chills up her spine.
But Mercy knew it was more than that. She was not just throwing her virginity away to the first guy that came along. No, this was the right one. A guy that just might be better than her ‘book boyfriends.’ She’d find out soon enough. Although maybe not as fast as either of them wanted.