Stacey stared up at the stars as she leaned against the wooden rail of the deck. Sebida. She was back in her trailer in Sebida. How many times in the past six weeks had she doubted that would ever happen? So, what was wrong? She should be happy.
Laura, Ryan, and baby Chloe had taken up residence once again in her teacher’s house in the center of town. Of course, Ryan never let her daughter or granddaughter out of his sight. But she understood and admired that, especially since Stewart Childress had not been apprehended.
Mercy and Will should be back in a couple of days. Both had to stay in quarantine in Laredo because they were exposed to someone who had died of that new virus. Of course, Will was still recovering from the gunshot wound to his shoulder, too.
Even Elena, Brad, and Rehab would be back in a few days. They had finally located them and got word that it was safe for them to return. Though she heard the reluctance in her son-in-law’s voice, she had pointed out the importance of bringing her daughter back home where Elena and the baby could have the best medical care – before her daughter was too far gone in this pregnancy to travel.
She felt the hands on her shoulder and leaned back into Reb’s embrace. She had been frightened that coming back here would set off old memories, that she would not be able to…
She turned her head, her lips meeting his. Nope. That bit still worked. Though neither of them had felt the need to push the boundaries of this thing between them beyond these kisses and cuddles. As he had told her in the desert, perhaps they never would. And surprisingly, that was alright with her.
“How’s he doing?”
She saw the frown on his face and could almost feel the guilt running off her man in waves. No matter how much she or his father had told Reb that he was not to blame for Mason’s condition, he still damned himself.
“Give it some more time. The swelling might still go down now that the doctor’s removed the bullet.” But she knew that each day that passed without feeling or movement decreased the likelihood that the man would ever walk again.
Of course, Mason was not the only one still suffering the aftermath of their ‘adventures.’ Their guests were, too. Her three-bedroom double-wide was overflowing with the refugees. While his friend had returned to East Texas, Chad, Rose, and Grace were staying for a few more days until her friend was stronger. Stacey was not sure who she was more worried about. Rose was not just weak from the beating, but she could tell something else was going on. She recognized the PTSD and depression that she had lived with for…
“What is it?”
She went still in Reb’s arms. When had that happened? When had she stopped counting the minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, and years since that first rape? Her mind automatically began to reach for that comfort, starting to recalculate. But she stopped herself. No more. She was not going to live the rest of her life defined by that night. Not anymore.
She looked out toward the country dirt road. If she tried hard enough, she could probably make out the mailbox. He was still at large too. They had not caught Sheriff Earl Kerr. One of their other guests was his wife. Wanda was a wreck. The only thing that kept the woman sane was looking after the girls.
Grace was as withdrawn and traumatized as her mother. Though Stacey was confident, there was more to it than that. The girl blamed herself for what happened to her mother. That, combined with discovering that the man you thought was your father, wasn’t, could not be easy for a fourteen-year-old.
But it was the sixteen-year-old that she worried about most. Stacey, better than anyone, knew what multiple rapes did to your mind. What bothered her most was that the girl sloughed it all off. She pretended like nothing had happened, helping to cook, clean, care for the others, even reaching out to Grace. While she hid from her own pain.
Stacey knew the price for that one too. But the girl was not totally oblivious. She would not speak to or about her cousin. She never even asked how Will was recovering or if he was ill. Though she did inquire about Mercy.
Her heart ached for the man that she knew would become her third son-in-law. He had lost both his grandparents, who had raised him. He did not even communicate with the woman who had birthed him. He had lost the career he had worked so hard to build.
Thankfully, J. T. Tyler had dropped the charges for the whole McBride thing. Rose had confirmed his story about the five grand, going so far as to produce the money. So, Tyler had no case when it came to accepting a bribe. But the black mark for dereliction of duty meant Will would never work in law enforcement again.
On the other hand, Tyler had begged and pleaded with Ryan to come back, even offering him the supervisor role once filled by another traitor. But he and Laura had agreed they wanted to remain in Sebida, wanted Chloe to have the stability of growing up in a small town.
And her? Soon, all three of her girls, both her granddaughters and the two Elena and Mercy carried, would be back here. While Sebida was filled with narrow-minds and malicious gossip, it had been her home for her entire life.
She frowned; no, it was not. It never had been. This place was her prison. Her cage. But she had not even realized that until…
But Reb felt the same way about…
Unlike her, though, he had run away. As far and as fast as he could. He had only gone back there to protect her. But now that the danger was past, would he? Would he consider going back to the only place that had ever felt safe, brought her spirit peace? Could he bring himself to do that for her? Did she have any right to even ask? It wasn’t like they were a couple even. Not like Chad and Rose, or Ryan and Laura, or Will and Mercy. They were just…
Despite their conversation in the desert, Stacey was still not comfortable with this strange relationship. They were more than friends, surely? But what were they? And where did that leave her? Would this man hop into Elvira and just drive off to his next job? Just keep drifting? Would he ask her to go with him? Did she want to?
Where did she belong? Her girls were grown. The past six weeks had proven that they had their own lives to lead, relationships to build and nurture, little girls of their own to raise. Honestly, she was probably standing in the way of that. She could see that. Every time her daughters had an argument with their husbands, she would be there, telling them that they didn’t need…
She felt the chill against her cheek. That was when she realized that she was crying. How long had she been crying? And what had happened to…never let them see you cry? Hell, this man had probably seen more of her tears than her smiles. Though most of her life, those smiles had been fake.
She was almost fifty-eight years old, and she honestly did not know who she was or where she belonged. Not anymore. Reb squeezed her tighter. Once, she would have fought. Once, that would have scared her. But no more. That was one thing she did know. She belonged with this man. Wherever he chose to go. She could only hope he felt the same way.
Reb felt the tension in her body. He had known that coming back here was a mistake. And he had watched this woman shrink since the moment they crossed the county line. But he understood too that she needed to do this. Her girls were gathering here, and she needed to be here for that. For them.
But once they were happy? What then? Would she choose to stay here? Go back to working crappy jobs just to get by?
And the fear? What about the fear and pain that she had lived with for so long? Never told anyone else about? He wished like hell they had caught Kerr. No, he wished the man had been one of those killed. Or did he? How many times over the past few days had he heard Wanda Kerr whispering those words, ‘we’ll never be free, not as long as he’s alive.’ Did he believe them?
Scratch that, Reb was not sure that even the man’s death would free his woman. It was this place. He understood that. It was all she had ever known, and none of it good or happy. A miserable childhood with an abusive and tyrannical father. A shitty marriage with a man almost old enough to be her father, that turned out not to be a marriage at all. A lifetime of struggling to make ends meet, put food on the table, and care for her girls. And the whole time, a town that, despite its ‘Christian’ veneer, would rather gossip behind your back than lend a helping hand.
No, she did not belong here. But what did he have to offer her? Life sleeping on an old mattress in the back of a truck? Moving from place to place, from job to job? Sure, he had enough money in the bank to buy them someplace, somewhere. Maybe not in one of the big cities where houses were expensive. But another small town, perhaps. They could start over. Fresh. Together.
But somehow, that did not feel quite right either.
Agartha. He had watched her shine like one of those stars in the sky there. That group his mother and sister ran, it was probably why she tolerated his touch now. That she had kissed him that first time.
He remembered his father’s words on the phone tonight. Barry had almost pleaded with him to come back. Told him how desperate they were for his expertise. Sure, even if Mason never walked again, the man could run security there. These days, a few cameras and monitors were more powerful tools than manpower. At least as the first-line defense. And the team that the man had built there was impressive, even to him. The trouble was not Mason’s legs but his head. He was spiraling into depression. Reb could understand that. He could. All too well.
The question was… Where did he stand with his mother and sister? Indie just assumed that one day she would take over from their mother. His baby sister almost acted like it was some entitlement. He knew for sure that their baby brother would swoop in from across the Atlantic at the first sign of frailty in their mother. The boy would push to develop the land into another mega-resort.
But Reb could not get that conversation with his father in the desert out of his mind. Agartha was his birthright. He was the one whose vision it had been. Not his mother’s or his sister’s. He was the one who had chosen the place. Or had it chosen him?
And the dreams? He still had it. This woman – covered in blood and soot, flames raging around them. But there had been no fire. Hell, Stacey had not been in any real danger in Mexico, caring for the girl while he and the others had gone to the main house.
The guilt stabbed him again. It was his call that had cost Mason so much. Not that he could have known what would have happened. But shouldn’t he have? Why had the dreams failed him? Not warned him of the dangers to Mason. While still blaring false alarms about her? That was what always frustrated him – he had no control over the damned things. He never had.
He pulled her tighter as he stared up at the stars. The questions raced through his mind, jumbled like a ball of yarn the kittens had stolen from his mother’s knitting basket. They wrapped about him, confusing and tripping him so that he did not even notice the small, lone figure that sneaked around the corner of the trailer. It was not until he heard the hum of Elvira’s engine that he tore himself from those ‘what ifs’ and watched as his truck drove off down the country lane…without him.
“What the fuck?”