By Julie Kenner
Tempest Rising, Episode 1
Copyright 2015 Julie Kenner and Dee Davis Oberwetter
Published by Evil Eye Concepts, Incorporated
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights.
This is a work of fiction. Names, places, characters and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination and are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or establishments is solely coincidental.
By Julie Kenner
Rising Storm, Episode 1
Secrets, Sex and Scandals …
Welcome to Storm, Texas, where passion runs hot, desire runs deep, and secrets have the power to destroy… Get ready. The storm is coming.
Nestled among rolling hills and painted with vibrant wildflowers, the bucolic town of Storm, Texas, seems like nothing short of perfection.
But there are secrets beneath the facade. Dark secrets. Powerful secrets. The kind that can destroy lives and tear families apart. The kind that can cut through a town like a tempest, leaving jealousy and destruction in its wake, along with shattered hopes and broken dreams. All it takes is one little thing to shatter that polish.
Ginny Moreno didn’t mean to do it, but when she came home to Storm, she brought the tempest with her. And now everyone will be caught in its fury…
Julie Kenner (aka J. Kenner) is the New York Times, USA Today, Publishers Weekly, Wall Street Journal and #1 international bestselling author of over seventy novels, novellas, and short stories in a variety of genres.
Praised by Publishers Weekly as an author with a “flair for dialogue and eccentric characterizations,” JK writes a range of stories including super sexy romances, paranormal romance, chick lit suspense, paranormal mommy lit, and, with Rising Storm, small town drama. Her trilogy of erotic romances, The Stark Trilogy (as J. Kenner), reached as high as #2 on the New York Times list and is published in over twenty countries, and her Demon-Hunting Soccer Mom series (written as Julie Kenner) has been optioned by Warner Brothers Television for the CW Network.
A former attorney, JK lives in Central Texas with her husband, two daughters, and several cats. One of her favorite weekend activities is visiting small towns in the Texas Hill Country. Visit her website at and connect with JK through social media at ,
, , and as @juliekenner on Instagram.
For more information visit
Caress of Darkness
Find Me in Darkness
Find Me in Pleasure
Find Me in Passion
Caress of Pleasure
Demon-Hunting Soccer Mom Series
Demons Are Forever
The Demon You Know
Demon Ex Machina
Blood Lily Chronicles (urban fantasy romance)
The Blood Lily Chronicles (boxed set)
Protector Superhero Series
The Cat’s Fancy (prequel)
Aphrodite’s Charms (boxed set)
Dead Friends and Other Dating Dilemmas
Writing as J. Kenner
Stark Ever After novellas
Play My Game
Stark International novellas
Stark International Trilogy
Say My Name
On My Knees
Under My Skin
Devil May Care Series
(with Dee Davis)
Raising Hell (Julie Kenner)
Hell Fire (Dee Davis)
Sure As Hell (Julie Kenner)
Hell’s Fury (Dee Davis)
For Dee. Who rode the storm with me.
And for Liz and MJ, for helping the storm to brew!
Dear reader –
We have wanted to do a project together for over a decade, but nothing really jelled until we started to toy with a kernel of an idea that sprouted way back in 2012 … and ultimately grew into Rising Storm.
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Rising Storm story
Storm Season: Ginny & Jacob – the Prequel
by Dee Davis
Pounding rain battered the roof of Ginny Moreno’s twenty-year-old Toyota Camry, and she tightened her grip on the steering wheel even as she leaned forward, as if that would somehow help her see through the impenetrable sheets of rain. A flash of lightning illuminated the dense trees that lined this section of the country road, turning them temporarily into grasping skeletons. A crack of thunder shook the car and Ginny jumped, then cursed herself for being so on edge.
Beside her, Jacob took his feet off the dashboard. “Want me to drive?” he asked gently.
“I can drive my own damn car,” she snapped.
He held up his hands as if in supplication. “Sorry. I just thought…”
He trailed off with a shrug, but Ginny knew exactly what he’d been thinking. Jacob Salt had been her best friend since forever, and he knew how much she hated thunderstorms—and why. He’d been at her house the morning that Dillon Murphy, then just a deputy, had come to the door and delivered the news. An eighteen-wheeler had lost control on the rain-slicked surface of Interstate 10 in San Antonio. Her parents had been coming home from a concert.
They’d died instantly.
So, yeah, Jacob got it. And even though Ginny might be pissed at him right now, she knew that he was only trying to help.
“I’m fine,” she lied. “I just want to get past Bryson’s Creek before it floods, okay?” That was the trouble with the Texas Hill Country. It might be absolutely beautiful, but with the latticework of creeks and rivers, flash flooding was a common thing, especially in the summer when rain clouds tended to roll through on a daily basis.
Bryson’s Creek intersected the country road just past the Storm city limits, and right then, all Ginny wanted was to be home. She wanted to see her little brother Luis. And, yeah, she even wanted to see her older sister Marisol, who was half parent and half pain-in-the-butt.
For the first time since she’d started at the University of Texas, Ginny was excited about coming back home for the summer. The year had been weird for a lot of reasons, mostly because of men she had slept with even though she probably shouldn’t have. And, yeah, “men” included the guy sitting next to her, otherwise known as her best friend and The Guy Who Should Have Been Off Limits.
So, yeah. She needed a breather. She needed Storm.
And, yes, she knew she was being bitchy. But that was only because he’d been such an ass lately.
“We probably should have left earlier. Avoided the storm and gotten home before dark.” He spoke casually, as if he had no clue that anything other than the storm was bothering her. Then again, wasn’t that the problem? Ever since that night, he’d acted like there was absolutely nothing filling the space between them.
“I had to work,” Ginny said. “Some of us have jobs at school. And you didn’t have to drive with me. You have a car, too, you know.”
He popped a CD into the player. “Max wanted to borrow it,” he said, referring to his roommate. “It’s not like I need it in Storm,” he added, his voice rising a bit to be heard over George Strait, whose soothing, sexy voice now filled the car, competing with the timpani of the rain on the roof.
It was The Chair, the same song that had been playing the night they’d sat on the roof drinking tequila. The night they’d done so much more than just talk.
What the hell was the matter with him? Was he intentionally rubbing it in?
“Can you turn that down? It’s already loud enough in the car with the rain pelting us.”
“We should have stopped in Fredericksburg,” he said, referring to the popular Hill Country tourist destination about an hour east of Storm. He leaned over and turned down George. “We could have crashed at one of the motels on the outskirts and then finished the drive in the morning.”
She took her eyes off the road long enough to gape at him. “Come on, Jacob. Really? I mean, really?”
In a flash of motion, he slammed one Converse-clad foot against the dashboard, making her jump. “Dammit, Ginny, what is going on with you? You’ve been a total bitch for a while now.”
“Gee, I wonder why? Maybe because you’ve been a total prick for the same amount of time?”
He stared at her, that perfect boy-next-door face reflecting total confusion. Then he tilted his head back and exhaled loudly, looking suddenly sixteen instead of twenty-two. “Oh, hell, Gin.” He sounded tired. “I thought we were cool. I mean, we talked about it.” His voice was low. Gentle. “I thought we were okay, you know?”
She blinked frantically, willing herself not to cry. “It’s been weird,” she said. “You’ve been weird. You’ve bailed on me twice when we’d planned to go see movies, and then when we were supposed to have brunch at Magnolia last week, you canceled again. You’re avoiding me, and I don’t like it, and you’ve always been my best friend, and I’m really, really afraid that we screwed something up when we—”
“Oh, shit, Gin.” He bent forward and dragged his hands through his hair. “No. No. You are my best friend. I wasn’t avoiding you. I was studying—organic chemistry’s been kicking my ass, and I needed to ace it. I can’t screw up my chances of getting into a top-tier med school.”
“But you never have to study.” She knew the second she said the words that they were idiotic.
“Believe me, I know. I’m not used to getting papers back with C’s and D’s.” He sucked in air. “It wasn’t you. I was just a complete head case.” He reached for her hand, and she let him take it. Because that’s what best friends did.
“You should have told me.”
He shrugged. “I’ve got my brilliant valedictorian persona to guard.”
“You don’t have to put on an act around me. You know that.”
He cocked his head. “Do I? You’ve been a little off lately, too.”
She pressed her lips together and nodded, feeling like a complete loser. God, she’d been so unfair. He hadn’t been weird. She’d been the one who’d gotten freaky after they’d gotten naked.
The night had started out okay. Jacob had been all sad and lonely because he’d broken up with Whiny Wendy. And Ginny had been a basket case because she’d been sleeping with the wrong guy—and even Jacob didn’t know about that massive secret. It had started out all hot and exciting, but it didn’t stay that way. And Ginny hated the fact that it wasn’t real and that he was married and that she’d been so stupid, stupid, stupid to get involved with someone that far up the food chain.
So she’d gone to Maggie Mae’s with Jacob and Max and Brittany in part to console him about Wendy, but also because she’d needed to cut loose, too. And when she’d talked to Jacob, everything had felt better. They’d known each other forever. They’d loved each other forever. And they’d drunk too much, and even though they’d shared a bed dozens of times since middle school, this time when they’d returned to the house he and Max rented, one thing led to another and to another.
She should have stopped it. She knew that.
She should have told him that he was just feeling sad about Wendy.
She should have said that they’d regret it. That if they slept together, then everything would change, because didn’t sex change everything?
But she hadn’t said a word. Because, dammit, maybe she’d secretly wanted things to change. She’d been best friends with Jacob Salt since he gave her his peanut butter and banana sandwich in grade school. And maybe, just maybe, she’d wanted more.
So when George Strait had seduced them into bed, she’d gone with it. It had felt good. It had felt right. Like maybe they were going to get a fairy tale ending.
And how stupid was that? Because Ginny Moreno knew better than anyone that fairy tales never really ended well. The witch ate Hansel and Gretel. The wolf devoured Little Red Riding Hood. And all Rapunzel got was one hell of a headache from all that damned hair-pulling.
“So are we okay?” he asked now, his voice underscored by the battering rain. “I don’t want everything to change because we got drunk and stupid one night.”
“Of course we’re okay,” she said as they finally passed the sign she’d been waiting for: Welcome to Storm, Texas. A Hill Country gem. “And nothing’s going to change.” Except that was a lie, too. Because things had already changed. And Ginny knew that sooner or later she was going to have to own up to the fact that she didn’t want that night to have been drunk and stupid. She wanted it to have been earth-shattering and magical.
But if she couldn’t have that, at least she could have her best friend back.
“Good,” he said. “Great. Except…”
He trailed off, and she shifted in her seat to look at him. “What?”
“Nothing,” he said, but now there was a definite teasing tone in his voice.
“Oh, God. What is it now?”
“It’s just that it really was pretty awesome. There’s still time to cut back to Fredericksburg and get a room at that—”
She reached over and punched his arm. And just like that they were past the weirdness. “Jacob Salt, you are a complete ass,” she said happily as lightning illuminated the sky.
“Hell, yeah, I am. That’s why you lov—shit! Ginny!”
He lunged for the steering wheel, then tugged it sideways even as she slammed on the brakes, her mind whirling in confusion as she registered a deer that had leaped in front of the car.
She felt the thud of impact, then the wash of nausea as the car began to spin.
And when her head exploded and she tasted blood, all she could think was that they were never going to be okay again.
She hurt, and the pain was black and red and spiraling all around her.
And she was cold, so cold that her body shook constantly, shivering in a futile search for warmth. Needing heat. Needing comfort.
So cold. So lost.
Dark fingers seemed to pull her back, away from the red-hot knives that cut through her. The shards of glass and metal that sliced her.
But she couldn’t go—she couldn’t leave. She needed to open her eyes. She needed to help Jacob.
She needed to find him.
She needed to save him.
But all she could do was fade.
All she could do was sleep.
“Next of kin…authorization…”
“No parents…her sister…find Marisol…”
“Fetal heart rate…one-fifty…”
“No signs…placental abruption…monitor…”
“Doctor, her eyes…”
“Ginny? Ginny, it’s Doctor Rush. You’re safe. You’re in the hospital. Can you open your eyes for me? Can you come on back to us now?”
“She’s scared. It’s okay, baby. Your sister is here—go get Marisol—everyone’s worried about you, but you’re doing fine. You’re doing just fine. All you need to do is wake up. All you need to do is come back.”
The words floated around her, and Ginny tried to grab onto them. She wanted to come back, but she was scared. Too scared.
Because memories were coming with the voices, and as the black faded to gray and the gray gave way to images, she saw what had happened. Right there in her head like a movie. She saw the deer. She saw the car slide in a full circle, then go off the road.
She remembered the sensation of flying. Of being upside down. The expression on Jacob’s face. Shock. Fear.
And then the bright, liquid red that bloomed across his chest.
Her throat had burned, and she realized now it was from screaming.
And she didn’t want to wake up. She didn’t, she didn’t, she didn’t.
Because she knew what she would find when she did.
She knew that Jacob was dead.
Most days, Sheriff Dillon Murphy loved his job.
Today wasn’t one of those days, and yesterday had been a crapload of shit, too.
He’d been the first on scene last night after a passing motorist had seen the old Toyota upside down in the ditch. He’d been an hour away from going off shift, and he’d been walking around the square, chatting with the local business owners as he did every night before he wrapped up for the day. He’d been just about to pop into his dad’s bar to grab a cup of coffee—the stuff at the station ran toward swill—when the call had come in.
He’d beaten his brother, Patrick, and the rest of the fire and EMT crew there by barely three minutes, and while he’d managed to get Ginny Moreno out of the car, there’d been nothing he could do for Jacob Salt. The poor kid was DOA, and that was a goddamn shame.
As soon as Patrick and the rest had arrived, Dillon took over the duty of determining the cause of the wreck. Not hard to figure out.
A deer and the storm and some bald tires that didn’t surprise him, considering Ginny and Jacob were both college kids.
Christ, he’d known them since they were in diapers, and it had been just over ten years ago on another stormy night that he’d gone to the Moreno house and told Marisol that her parents were dead. Ginny had only been about ten and Luis even younger. They’d sat like little statues at the Formica table. Marisol had looked like someone had ripped her guts out.
He guessed he had.
She’d been barely twenty, and in the space of a heartbeat she’d become a parent to her siblings. And he could remember seeing the spark of youth and innocence fade in her eyes as the news sunk in.
Yeah, that had been a truly bad day.
At least last night he’d been able to tell her that Ginny was alive. With the girl still unconscious, though, that was only a small blessing. She’d suffered severe head trauma, and although Dr. Rush had told him that Ginny had miraculously avoided any serious breaks or internal injuries, until the girl woke up, she wasn’t out of the woods.
But at least with Ginny, there was hope. With Travis and Celeste Salt, the conversation had been much more painful. He’d knocked on their door just after ten and his gut had twisted when Celeste had flung the door open, laughing and saying that it was about time. Her face had turned wary immediately, with that kind of prescient awareness that he’d seen all too often in parents. She’d said nothing, and it had killed him to keep his expression pallid. To ask if Travis was home because he wanted to speak to both of them. And then to deliver that horrible, crushing blow.
It was bad enough for a cop in a big city like Austin to deliver the news of a child’s death. In a town like Storm, where most folks knew each other, it was gut-wrenching.
They’d wanted to see Jacob right away, of course, but Dillon had put them off. Told them there were procedural things that needed to happen, when really he just wanted to give the medical examiner time to make the body presentable.
They’d agreed reluctantly to wait, and had arrived at the hospital just a few hours ago. It was already well past noon, and Dillon couldn’t even imagine the kind of hell they’d been suffering as the hours ticked by.
Right now, he was standing by the admitting desk. Storm boasted an excellent, but small, hospital, and the desk served as a center point for pretty much everything that went on within the sturdy limestone and granite building. The north hall lead to the ER, ICU, and Ginny. The east to the labs and morgue. Rooms for patients not needing critical care lined the west hall. And the southernmost part of the building boasted the vending machines, a small coffee and sandwich cart, and a half-dozen tables where visitors could grab a bite, gather, and catch their breath before going back in to check on their loved ones.
From his vantage point, Dillon could see Marisol sitting at one of the tables. He knew she was a tall woman, but today she seemed small, like a child, as she kept her hands curved around a Styrofoam cup filled with bad coffee.
During the entire time he’d been standing there, she hadn’t taken a single sip. It wasn’t about the caffeine, but the warmth. Marisol, he imagined, was cold to the bone.
His shoulders sagged, and he walked over to her, then took a seat. “Need me to refresh that coffee for you? That stuff you’re drinking looks like crude oil. Hope you didn’t pay too much for it.”
It was a bad joke—the coffee was free, with the pot perched next to a jar labeled donations. The fact that the jar usually had less than five dollars in it was some explanation for the wretched coffee.
She looked up at him, and despite everything, she smiled. That was Marisol—always keeping it together. “It’s fine, thanks. I just wanted something to hold on to.”
“Any news on Ginny yet?”
Marisol shook her head. “Dr. Rush says all her vitals are good. But she hasn’t woken up, and I can’t help but be afraid that—” Her voice broke. “I just hate seeing her in that bed. All small and fragile.”
“She’s a strong girl, Marisol. A real strong girl. How’s Luis doing?”
“He doesn’t know yet.” She licked her lips. “I—I didn’t want to tell him. If the worst happens… I mean, we’ve already lost our parents and—” She sucked in a deep breath. “He’d gone to the movies with Jeffry. I called and asked Payton if he could sleep over. She’d already heard about it from Layla,” she added, referring to Dr. Rush, “but she promised she wouldn’t say anything, and she kept him there today telling him that it was good to give me some time alone.” She made a self-deprecating noise. “Honestly, alone is the last thing I’m needing right now.”
Dillon nodded, wishing there was something tangible he could do for her, but glad at least that she didn’t have to worry about her younger brother. The Rush family was Storm royalty, and Payton Rush was the current queen, being that she was married to Texas State Senator Sebastian Rush, who also happened to be Dr. Rush’s older brother. Jeffry was Payton’s son, and Dillon recalled that he often saw Luis Moreno and Jeffry Rush hanging out on the square or in front of the local movie theater.
“It’s good he has a place to go,” he said. “And soon enough you’ll be able to call him to come see his sister, and you’ll be able to tell him that everything is just fine.”
“Thanks, Dillon.” She took a sip of the coffee and made a face.
“Now I really am gonna get you a fresh cup.”
As he stepped over to start a new pot brewing, he saw Travis and Celeste approaching from down the east hall. Travis had his arm around his wife’s shoulder, and even from that distance, Dillon could see the shock and grief on their faces. They moved past him, holding each other, and he was about to call out to them when Celeste saw Marisol and hurried that direction. Marisol rose, and Dillon’s gut twisted as the dam that had been holding back her tears burst. She clung to Celeste, who held on just as tight, as Travis stood behind them, his face ashen and his eyes rimmed in red.
Finally, they all three sat in their silently shared grief, and as soon as the coffee was streaming into the pot, Dillon snagged three cups. He put them on a tray and headed to the table. He didn’t want Travis driving just yet, and he knew the man was too damn proud to leave his car there and accept a lift.
“Thank you, Dillon.” Celeste took his hand. “Thank you for letting us see our little boy.”
“Celeste.” He felt his own eyes sting. “I’m just so damn sorry.”
“He was like a brother.” Marisol’s voice was thick with tears. “I can’t imagine him not being around. Not playing those horrible video games with Ginny or—or—” She closed her eyes, visibly gathering herself. “I’m just so sorry.”
“How’s Ginny?” Celeste licked her lips, and Dillon realized that he’d never before seen her without her lipstick. The woman was always put together, just like her sister, Payton. Not so, today.
“Still unconscious,” Marisol said. “She hit her head pretty bad and has all sorts of abrasions. But she’s alive and the ba—” She pressed her lips together, then took a deep breath. “She’s alive.”
“Thank God.” Celeste released Dillon’s hand to reach out to her. “Can we see her?”
“She’s not awake yet.”
“I don’t care. I need to see her. I need to be able to tell Jacob that she’s okay. She was his best friend. They were so close. Do you remember when she had chicken pox and he snuck over so that he’d get them, too?”
“And it worked.” Marisol actually smiled. “God, they were both pink with Calamine lotion.”
Celeste tugged her hand free and pressed it to her mouth even as Travis slid an arm around her shoulder and pulled her close, then gently stroked her hair.
Dillon hadn’t grown up with either of the Salts. Celeste was a Storm native, but she was almost ten years older. Dillon had been in high school when she’d come back with Travis after college. Even so, Dillon knew enough to know that Travis was always good in a crisis. And he was relieved to see that trait was holding fast today, which was surely one of the worst days of each of their lives.
When they’d first arrived at the hospital and he’d escorted them to the morgue, Dillon had been worried that Travis might pull away. Might close off into himself and not be there for Celeste, who’d always struck him as sweetly fragile in that porcelain doll way that so many wealthy Southern women seemed to project. Some were steel magnolias. But others were brittle twigs, and if bent too far, they really would snap.
His fears about Travis weren’t entirely unfounded. There were two people in every small town who always got wind of the local gossip—the sheriff and the bartender. Dillon had the first locked up. And considering his family owned the local pub, he got a peek at the Storm underbelly from that side too.
So while he knew nothing specific, he’d seen enough to know that Celeste and Travis’s marriage wasn’t the pillar of strength that many in the community thought it was. Travis didn’t talk about himself much, but he did come to the bar just a little too frequently, staying away from home until prudence required him to leave.
Maybe there was trouble between them, and maybe there wasn’t. If he had to guess, he’d come down on the side of financial issues. But he’d never tried to make that guess. At the end of the day that really wasn’t Dillon’s business. But part of his job was comforting victims, and he was glad to see that whatever relationship woes the Salts might be suffering, Travis was still there for his wife.
He looked up to see Francine Hoffman, the attending nurse, hurrying toward them from the north hall. “Marisol,” she said. “Sweetie, Ginny’s awake.”
The relief that swept over Marisol’s face was enough to make Dillon’s chest tighten, and she pushed back from the table, almost knocking over her coffee as she did. Travis grabbed it, then stood up and steadied her. “You’re okay, honey. Go see your sister.”
Celeste rose as well, then turned pleading eyes on Francine. “Can we come, too? I need—I need to see that Ginny’s still here. Jacob needs to know that—”
Francine took her hand. “Of course you can. You may need to go in one at a time, but we’ll talk to Dr. Rush. We’ll make it okay.”
She caught Dillon’s eyes, and he nodded. He’d dealt with Francine more times than he’d like to remember, bringing in accident victims, drunks, kids with playground injuries. She was always steady. Always calm. And Dillon had been relieved when she’d come on duty earlier in the day.
She started to lead Marisol and the Salts away, and he followed, hoping for his own update on Ginny’s status. They were a few yards down the hall when the metal doors that separated the hall from the ER opened behind them.
There was no real reason for Dillon to turn back and glance that direction, but he did. And his breath caught and his heart squeezed just a little.
Her head was bent, her usually gleaming blonde hair hanging limp around her face. She had her right arm clutched to her chest and was holding a tightly wrapped wrist with her left. He couldn’t see her face, but everything about her stooped posture and hunched shoulders suggested that she was in pain.
Her asshole husband Hector had one arm around her waist. In his other hand, he held tight to her discharge papers. They crossed the hall, heading to the small window that served as the service counter for the in-hospital pharmacy.
Dillon froze, his attention entirely on Joanne. His focus on not exploding right then and there.
He didn’t have proof. He didn’t have evidence. But he was goddamn certain that Hector had done this to Joanne. That he’d done it before.
And that the bastard would do it again.
Nurse Francine’s voice drifted over him, and he forced his attention back to the group.
“Are you coming?”
He hesitated, knowing that he should catch up. Instead, he shook his head. “You all go on. I’ll be along in a minute.”
And then, without waiting for Francine’s reply, he turned and started off after Joanne.
Ginny’s head didn’t hurt, but she felt like it should hurt. Like there was pain hidden underneath all the cotton and fuzz that seemed to have replaced her skin and her blood, turning her into this floating, numb creature with wires taped to her and tubes inserted in her.
But at least you’re alive.
She winced. Because rather than being a comfort, the voice in her head sounded like an accusation.
She was alive, yeah. But Jacob—
God, she hated even thinking it.
She blinked up at Dr. Rush, who was standing beside her looking at a clipboard.
“He’s really dead?”
She knew what the answer would be. She’d asked the question at least a dozen times so far—sobbed hysterically at least as many times—and the answer never changed.
“He died on scene, sweetheart. He didn’t feel a thing.”
Ginny nodded, grateful at least for that small blessing. “I was driving.” Her lips and throat were so dry the words were barely a rasp. “I killed him.” The words hurt—her throat, her head, her heart. “Oh, God. I killed him.”
Dr. Rush hurried to put her clipboard on the bed and take Ginny’s hand. “No, honey, no. I’ve talked with the EMT guys and with the sheriff. It was an accident. A horrible accident. You hit a deer, and with the rain and the slick road it was—well, it was all over very, very quickly. It wasn’t your fault, honey. It wasn’t anybody’s fault. Do you understand?”
Ginny nodded, but only because she knew Dr. Rush expected it. No matter what anyone said, Ginny knew the truth. And the truth was that Jacob was dead.
After that, no other truth much mattered.
“Where’s my sister?” Ginny asked.
“Coming? When? And Luis?” Panic was rising inside her, and her voice was climbing. And she knew it—she could hear it—but she couldn’t stop it. And her heart was pounding so hard in her chest that all the machines around started beeping louder and faster and—
Dr. Rush took her hand. “I’m right here, Ginny. Marisol’s coming. Luis is coming. You’re safe, and we’re going to get you better. Okay?”
Ginny just lay there, trying to breathe.
“Can you look at me? I want to see that you’re okay.”
She moved her head to the side, saw Dr. Rush, and managed to nod.
“I need to tell you something before they come in. Your sister knows. We had to tell her in order to take care of you.”
A riff of fear seemed to skitter over Ginny’s skin. “Tell me what?”
Dr. Rush shifted so that she was holding Ginny’s hand in both of hers. “Honey, did you know that you’re pregnant?”
The word hung meaningless in the air as Ginny tried to wrap her head around it. Pregnant?
“Wait. Pregnant? You mean, like, with a baby?”
To her credit, Dr. Rush didn’t even crack the slightest of smiles. “Yes. With a baby. About nine weeks. You didn’t know?”
“But that can’t be right. I can’t be pregnant.” She was in college. She was a good girl. She never got in trouble—had never gone in the bleachers with boys in high school. And yes, sure, she had maybe done some things she shouldn’t once she moved to Austin and was away from home and in college, but a baby? No. That just wasn’t possible.
“Have you ever had sex, Ginny?”
“I, yes. I mean, I’m twenty-one, so—”
“If you’ve had sex, sweetie, you can be pregnant. And although I can see that this is a shock, I assure you that you are. Trust me. I’m a doctor.”
Ginny swallowed. “I heard—earlier—stuff about fetal heart rates and placentas.” She turned her head and saw the second line showing a heartbeat faster than her own. And when she pushed down her blanket she saw the wire hooked up to her belly. “I’m really pregnant.”
“You really are. And the trauma put the baby at risk. But we’ve run tests and everything looks okay. You didn’t wonder when you missed your period?”
“I—I’ve never been regular.”
“Are you on the pill?”
She shook her head.
“When you had intercourse, did you use birth control?”
“Condoms,” she said, but it was a lie. When she’d slept with the senator in Austin, he’d said he didn’t wear condoms and hadn’t since high school. And Ginny had told him she was on the pill the first time, then after that, she’d used a diaphragm. Mostly. Sometimes he’d grab her the moment she stepped inside the hotel room and insist that he had to have her. Like right then, and he was so hot for her there wasn’t time to go do the whole mess with the diaphragm.
With Jacob, they’d been so drunk—on alcohol and on each other—that they hadn’t even thought of using a condom.
“As I said, your sister knows because I had to tell her out of medical necessity. But what you do now is up to you.”
“You mean I could—” She closed her eyes. She couldn’t even think the word.
“You’re a healthy, young woman. There’s no reason to think this pregnancy won’t go smoothly.”
But Ginny understood what the doctor wasn’t saying. If she wanted an abortion, now was the time.
“Do you know who the father is?”
Ginny nodded, because nice girls always knew who the father was.
But did she? Did she really?
It had to be the senator’s. They’d been fucking like bunnies until she’d broken it off, her shame finally getting the best of her. And fortunately he’d let her walk away without question. Over. Final.
Except now maybe it wasn’t.
There’d only been the one time with Jacob. And, yeah, it had been just a little over two months ago. But still—it had only been once. And the odds were really not in his favor.
But, oh, if only the baby was Jacob’s. It would be almost like having him back. Almost like maybe she hadn’t destroyed everything.
“I’m keeping the baby,” she said firmly, suddenly realizing that at some point she’d placed her hands protectively over her belly.
“Then we need to make sure you get the proper care. But we can talk about that later.” Dr. Rush nodded toward the glass walls that identified this room as part of the ICU wing. “Looks like you have some visitors.”
Beyond the glass, Ginny saw Marisol standing with Jacob’s parents, Celeste and Travis. Suddenly, her throat filled with tears again, and then—as if there were just too many to hold inside—the tears spilled over her lashes and down her cheeks. “Please,” she said. “Can they all come in?”
Dr. Rush pressed her lips together, and Ginny understood why. She’d never been a patient in a hospital before, but she’d seen movies and she knew that she was in intensive care, and she knew that visitors were limited. But she had to see them. Had to know that they didn’t hate her because she was alive and their son was dead.
“Please? For just a minute?”
“All right. But not for very long.”
The nurse—Ginny thought her name was Francine—had stepped just inside the doorway. Now Dr. Rush motioned to her, and Francine held the door open as the three visitors filed in.
Marisol was first and fastest, and she swooped down on Ginny like an attacking bird, then pulled back at the last minute before throwing her arms around her sister. “Oh God, I don’t want to hurt you.”
“I’m okay.” Ginny held out her arms to receive a gingerly hug, then watched as Marisol stepped back, her hand over her mouth.
“He’s with Jeffry. But I called just a minute ago, and he’s on his way.”
She nodded, wanting her brother there. Needing to hold on to him just the same way she was now reaching out to cling to Marisol’s hand.
At the foot of the bed, Celeste stood with Travis. She’d known Jacob’s parents for almost her whole life. The Salts had been the perfect family. Everything she’d lost when her parents were killed. A mom and a dad. Regular dinners on the table. Dollars that didn’t have to be squeezed so tight they screamed.
She’d always been welcome there, and although she loved her brother and sister so, so much, she’d craved what Jacob had and what she’d so violently lost.
Jacob. Oh dear God, he was really gone.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, and the tears just started pouring out again.
“Oh, baby, oh, Ginny.” Celeste hurried to her, then held her hand tight and stroked her hair as Ginny drowned herself in her tears and a stream of I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so, so sorry. “It was an accident, honey, we know that. We know. And we are so grateful that you’re safe. Jacob adored you, and he’d be so glad to know that you weren’t badly hurt. If there’s anything you need, you just ask us.”
“That’s very kind, Celeste,” Marisol said. “But you don’t need to do that.”
Ginny glanced between the two of them, and as she did, she saw Luis and Jeffry standing outside the glass—and Sebastian Rush was standing there with them.
Senator Sebastian Rush.
The senator she’d slept with.
The senator whose baby she was probably carrying.
Was he there now to see her? To tell her how worried he’d been? To squeeze her hand in a silent, secret moment of compassion?
“For Jacob’s best friend?” Celeste was saying. “For Ginny? Of course we’ll do whatever we can.”
Ginny barely heard the woman. Instead, she was focused beyond the glass, on where Senator Rush pressed his hand on Luis’s shoulder. Ginny’s breath hitched and she stiffened, preparing for the moment he walked through her door.
But he didn’t.
He just took one more quick glance at her through the glass, then turned away and disappeared down the hall, not even bothering to ask if he could come in and say hello.
Jeffry hung back, then said something to Luis before the two guys hugged and Jeffry went off after his father.
Finally, Luis poked his head in. “Can I—can I come in?”
Marisol urged him over, and he hurried to Ginny’s side, looking way, way younger than his sixteen years. He hugged her then stood up, his lips pressed together before he put his arm around Marisol. He was the man of the family, after all.
“I was just thinking about the garden you two planted in the backyard.” Celeste’s voice was thick with emotion. “We sodded over it after y’all left for college, but just last month, some cucumber plants started peeking through the grass. I think I’m going to let them grow,” she added, her voice breaking at the end.
“Does Lacey—I mean, have you told Lacey yet? About Jacob?” Lacey was Jacob’s younger sister and about a year older than Luis.
Celeste shook her head. “She’s spending the weekend at a friend’s house in Fredericksburg. We—we don’t see any point in telling her just yet. Better to get ourselves together first, I think.” Tears fell again, and she wiped them roughly away. “Damn it,” she said, and Travis stepped up and put a hand on her shoulder.
“It’s okay, Cee,” he said, his voice gentle and soothing. “You just go ahead and cry.”
She nodded, then turned and pressed her head against her husband’s chest.
Ginny sighed, letting herself be soothed as well. That’s how the Salts always were. She could remember Travis helping Jacob with everything from learning to ride a bike to learning how to drive, and being so easy and encouraging. For so much of her life, Ginny’d had no one to help her. And the way Celeste had always been so motherly with Lacey. There’d always been cookies and milk when she came home from elementary school. Ginny and Jacob used to steal them, then race back upstairs to do their own homework.
The first few times, Ginny was afraid they’d get in trouble because, according to Celeste, cookies and milk were for the little kids. But then Jacob pointed out that Celeste always made too many cookies. She knew what they were doing, and the cookies were like her secret gift.
Their house had always felt warm and comfortable and perfect. And although Marisol had tried, everything at the Moreno house was always slightly off. Like it was running without a full set of wheels.
And now so was the Salt’s house. Ginny had made it horrible for them. And she’d never be able to fix it. Not ever.
“You’re looking tired, sweetie,” Celeste said, finally getting herself back under control. “We should go.” She looked at Marisol. “You’ll let us know when she’s out of ICU?”
“Of course. Dr. Rush said it would probably be tonight,” she added, and Ginny realized that the doctor had slipped out of the room at some point.
Celeste and Travis started to do the same.
“I—I’m pregnant!” Ginny blurted out the words without thinking, then gasped, almost as surprised as Celeste and Travis looked when they turned back to face her. Beside her, Marisol was biting her lower lip, and Luis was staring at her, his big, brown eyes huge.
“I didn’t know. I just found out. I never thought that—at any rate,” she continued in a rush, “it’s Jacob’s.”
“Oh!” The word slipped from Celeste, and Ginny saw a glint in the older woman’s eyes that she thought was pleasure.
“Are you sure?” Marisol asked.
Ginny didn’t look at her sister. She kept her eyes on Celeste. On the glow that was starting to fill her eyes. “I’m sure. I haven’t—you know. There hasn’t been anyone else.”
It was a lie. A horrible lie. And for just a moment she thought that she should take it all back.
But then Celeste reached for Travis’s hand and held it tight. And she was so happy. And Senator Rush didn’t even care, so why shouldn’t Ginny let Jacob be the father?
“It’s a miracle,” Celeste said.
And as Celeste thanked God for sending them this miracle even in the middle of their pain, Ginny told herself that it couldn’t possibly be a bad lie if it made two people so very, very happy.
Dillon leaned against the wall in the north hallway and watched as Joanne stood behind her husband at the pharmacy window. Hector was arguing with the clerk about whether or not their insurance covered the cost of Joanne’s pain meds. No surprise there; Hector was always riled about something.
“It’s a crock of shit is what it is,” Hector said. “All you damn bureaucrats in bed with the insurance companies, and all I want to do is get some fucking meds for my wife. Take a look at her.” He stepped aside so the clerk had a full view of Joanne. She immediately stepped back, shoulders hunching even more in her pale yellow dress as she looked down at her scuffed espadrilles.
Dillon realized his hands had clenched into fists, and he did his damnedest to unclench them. It wasn’t easy.
“She’s in pain, dammit. I’m trying to help. And you and your co-pay crap aren’t doing shit.”
“I—I’m sorry, sir. I’m just the cashier. I could call the admin office. Or maybe—”
“Fuck it. You’re costing me an extra fifty bucks so I can take care of my wife.”
He slapped a credit card onto the counter, and as Dillon watched, the clerk swiped the card at pretty much the speed of light. He dropped the bottle of pills into a bag, stapled the receipt to it, then handed the purchase to Hector.
“Are you an idiot? Didn’t I just tell you she was in pain? Christ almighty.”
He turned his back on the clerk, who looked about ready to cry, then ripped open the bag and the bottle before tapping a single pill out into his hand and giving it to Joanne.
She looked up at him with a small smile. And as she did, Dillon saw the faint bruise rising on her jaw.
Goddamn Hector all to hell.
Fury pushed him forward, and as Hector put his hand on her back and started to lead her toward the exit, Dillon couldn’t resist calling out, “Joanne.”
She turned, her eyes going wide with surprise.
“Dillon! I—Oh—” She swallowed, then tilted her head up to look at Hector, whose expression was nothing short of thunderous.
“Sheriff.” Hector smiled, but it didn’t quite reach his eyes. The truth was, Hector was the kind of asshole who had the looks to make even smart women swoon. Hell, even in high school he’d been more good-looking than he’d deserved, and though all the teachers had adored him, Dillon had always seen through the sheen to what he was. A selfish, narcissistic prick who’d put stars in Joanne’s eyes and now held her trapped.
Even right now, standing there in his grease-stained coveralls, the guy looked like he’d just walked off a movie set, and it made Dillon’s stomach curl to see the way Joanne clung to him.
Dillon reached up and tapped the edge of his Stetson in greeting. Honestly, he’d rather have flipped the man the bird. “Everything okay, I hope?”
He asked the question to Joanne. It was Hector who answered.
“Took a spill off the back porch stairs. Landed hard on her wrist and banged up her face on the sidewalk.”
Dillon studied Joanne for a moment, though she didn’t once look up at him. “That’s a shame. What made you trip?”
Again, it was Hector who answered. “Clumsiness.”
“Funny. I could have sworn I asked Joanne.”
She lifted her head then, and it seemed to Dillon that her green eyes were pleading. But whether the plea was for help or for him to drop the subject, he really didn’t know.
Goddamn her. Didn’t she see what she’d done? Didn’t she understand what she could have had? What she’d destroyed when she’d run off with Hector?
Hector put his arm protectively around Joanne’s shoulders, and she leaned against him, the movement making Dillon’s skin crawl. “Come on, baby. We need to get you home.”
She nodded, and her eyes met Dillon’s briefly before she looked away.
Christ, it took every ounce of strength in his body not to follow them down the hall and arrest the son-of-a-bitch right now, but he didn’t have one damned iota of proof that Hector had laid a hand to his wife. All Dillon had was instinct and the past and what he saw in Joanne. And what he saw was that the light he’d seen throughout their childhood was fading fast. She’d always been so vibrant. A woman so bright and alive that she drew people to her like a flower.
A woman he had wanted desperately for years, and had never worked up the courage to ask. Would things be different if he had? Would she be safe now, if only he’d managed to find his courage back then?
She’d gone and run off with Hector right after high school—eloped all the way to Vegas. They’d come back to settle in Storm, though, and suddenly Joanne Grossman had become Joanne Alvarez. Dillon could remember the scandal like it was yesterday, especially the brouhaha when Robert Grossman—Joanne’s father and one of the local attorneys—publicly and loudly disowned her.
Her name wasn’t the only thing that changed in Joanne, either. At first, she’d seemed fine. Happy even. But then slowly her light began to dim. She turned clumsier, or so she said. And she spent all her time at home or at the florist shop where she worked.
Dillon knew that money was tight, especially with three kids. He tried to tell himself that it was just stress that had stolen the light from Joanne. The pressure of being a working mom. Of having a husband who drank most of the paycheck he earned as a mechanic/attendant at the gas station on the edge of town.
He told himself that, but he didn’t believe it.
And, goddammit, he was going to do something about it.
Dakota Alvarez frowned at the handwritten sign on Cuppa Joe’s front door that announced that the bakery and coffee shop was closed due to a family emergency. What the hell? Marisol really needed to hire someone other than Lacey if she was going to have to close up the shop anytime someone got a case of the sniffles.
And Dakota had really, really wanted one of Marisol’s fabulous gingerbread cupcakes. She’d just done serious damage to her credit card at Pink, the cute little dress shop that had finally moved onto the square and actually sold decent clothes. Not that Dakota wasn’t always looking for an excuse to go into Austin, but it was still nice to have a place that was local.
One day, though…
One day she would be completely done with Storm and she wouldn’t care about the stores on the square. She’d get out, and she’d get out in style, on the arm of a man who could take care of her. A doctor, she thought with a little smile, picturing a certain future doctor’s deep brown eyes. Jacob Salt might not know it yet, but he and Dakota were going to be very, very happy.
She swung her shopping bags as she strolled down Cedar toward Second Street, pausing only briefly in front of the Hill Country Savings & Loan. She looked through the windows at the long wooden counter behind which she sat every goddamn day taking deposits and handing over other people’s money when they didn’t even pay her well enough for her to have a decent account herself.
She gave her shopping bags a little shake. Her mother was always telling her that she needed to save, but honestly, what was the point? She barely made enough every two weeks to buy a few nice outfits. It’s not like the couple of hundred she just spent would make a dent in a savings account. It wasn’t going to get her a high-rise apartment in Austin or a big sprawling house in Westlake.
Might as well enjoy it while she could.
She made a right onto Second Street, following the perimeter of Storm’s town square, and headed to the entrance of the Bluebonnet Cafe. As much as she wanted to shake free of Storm, she couldn’t deny that her hometown had charm. And, thankfully, at least a few good places to eat.
Right now, Dakota was positively starving.
Through the glass, she saw Jeffry Rush sitting by himself at a booth. At eighteen, Jeffry was two years younger than her and still in high school. But with his dark blond hair and athlete’s body, he was definitely worth looking at.
Truth be told, he looked a lot like his dad, Senator Sebastian Rush, which really wasn’t a bad thing. Not that Dakota had had a piece of that yet. Senator Rush had made it clear that he was very, very interested, but Dakota was looking for a permanent fix for her Storm-seclusion, and a married man didn’t seem like the smartest ticket out.
Still, even though she’d called him an old pervert, she’d been flattered. He was a senator, after all. And, to be honest, a really hot senator at that.
Now, she hesitated before entering the cafe, taking the time to use the window as a mirror. Despite the summer humidity, her blonde hair still hung in soft waves around her face, with no signs of frizz. She wore a black T-shirt that dipped to a V to show off not only the cleavage that she inherited from her mother—thank God she only got the boobs and not the milk toast personality—but also a hint of lace from her bright red bra. She’d ended the outfit with shorts that made the most of her legs and her ass, and she’d paired it all with heels that gave her a needed three more inches in height.
For the most part, Dakota liked the way she looked—no body issues for her like so many of her friends had. But she really wished she were just a few inches taller.
Then again, men liked to feel big and strong, and being petite only helped that illusion.
She headed to the door, added a bit of swing to her step, and swept into the cafe like she owned it.
From behind the counter, Rita Mae Prager, one of the actual owners, waved at her, her elderly face breaking into a smile. “Dakota Alvarez, as I live and breathe. How’s your brother, sugar?”
“Just fine, ma’am.” Marcus used to work for Rita Mae and her sister, Anna Mae. He helped at the cafe and at their bed and breakfast—Flower Hill—on the outskirts of town. He’d left town without even saying good-bye right after high school. Dakota had been pissed and hurt, and even though he’d later called to tell her that he’d left because of their dad, that didn’t make it better. She loved Marcus, sure. And she missed him desperately. But she never did understand the bullshit between him and their father. Daddy was the best, after all. There wasn’t a thing he wouldn’t do for Dakota, and it just pissed the hell out of her when her mom and brother and little sister got all weird around him.
But whatever. Other people’s problems were just that—other people’s.
Right now, she wanted a slice of chocolate pie and company, and so she slid into the booth across from Jeffry and aimed her best smile at him. “I was going to just settle for a cupcake at Marisol’s bakery, but this is better. I get Rita Mae’s pie and your company.”
She frowned. He sounded positively morose.
She tried again, making her smile brighter. “Of course, it’s hard to beat those gingerbread cupcakes. Have you had them? I wonder why Marisol closed up on a Saturday. That’s one of her busiest days.”
Jeffry stared at her like she was wearing bright purple eye shadow or something.
“What?” she demanded.
“You haven’t heard.”
“I—” She licked her lips, suddenly not sure that she wanted to hear. Jeffry wasn’t the kind of guy who walked around with a cloud over him. “What haven’t I heard?”
“There was an accident last night. During the storm. Ginny and Jacob—they were coming home from Austin for the summer, and—”
Dakota grabbed Jeffry’s wrist. “What? What happened? Is Jacob okay?”
“Ginny’s in the hospital. She’s messed up, but my aunt says she’s gonna be fine.”
“What about Jacob?” Dakota couldn’t keep the panic out of her voice, and the longer she looked at Jeffry, the more afraid she became.
“He’s dead, Dakota. Jacob’s dead.”
She let go of Jeffry, yanking her hand back as if she’d been burned.
He couldn’t be dead. He was hers, goddammit. Hers. Not fucking Ginny Moreno’s.
He was hers.
He was her way out.
And now he was dead and fucking Ginny was alive and Dakota would be trapped in Storm forever.
Celeste had to keep moving.
She had a rag in her hand and the Murphy Oil Soap in the other, and she was going over every piece of wooden furniture in the living room and den. Because she couldn’t let things slide. Not now, when they could so easily get out of control.
And she couldn’t let her daughters, Lacey and Sara Jane, think that she wasn’t handling it. This horrible thing that she couldn’t even think about because it just hurt too much. Too damn much.
Goddamn this stupid china cabinet! Why had she let her mother talk her into buying it? The curving woodwork was like a magnet for dust, and no matter how much she tried she couldn’t get it clean even if she scrubbed and scrubbed and—
She hurled the spray bottle of cleaner across the room, accidentally upsetting the little box of coasters on the coffee table. They tumbled off, clattering on the hardwood floor.
As if the noise was a stage cue, Celeste collapsed to the floor as well, her knees just giving out.
She buried her face in her hands and cringed as she heard Travis’s footsteps, then felt his hands on her shoulders.
She jerked away. “I’m okay. I’m okay.”
“Celeste, sweetheart, you’re not.” His voice was gentle—more gentle than she’d heard it in a very long time—and she squeezed her eyes tightly shut, certain that she would start crying again. But no tears came. How could they when there were no tears left inside her?
“How are we going to tell them?” she asked as he pulled her up, then helped her to the couch. “Veronica’s mom is driving Lacey home right now—I told her we’ve had a family emergency. But she’s so young, Travis. Seventeen is just far too young to lose somebody so dear, and she loved Jacob so much. She—”
She had to swallow because her throat was thick with the grief.
“She’ll get through it,” he said. “It will be hard and it will be horrible, but you’re here for her.”
Celeste nodded. “And there’s the baby. Travis, it’s such a miracle.”
She still couldn’t wrap her head around it. She knew that Jacob was gone—that pain stabbed her in the heart each and every minute—but to know that there was another little life out there. Another little piece of him that she could hold and love and watch grow. A grandchild that she’d never expected, and certainly not like this.
She hoped it would be a boy. She hoped—
“She’ll let us see him, won’t she? Ginny?”
“Of course,” Travis said gently. “That’s why she told us.”
“But what if—” She cut herself off, not even sure of what scared her. Just knowing that she needed Ginny near. She needed the baby near.
A baby. Jacob’s baby.
Another thought slammed through her, and she frowned. “What about Lacey and Sara Jane? What if they don’t understand? What if they think that having Jacob’s baby around is too painful? What if—”
“Sweetheart, calm down. You’re overwrought.”
“Of course I’m overwrought,” she snapped. “My son is dead. Dammit.” She squeezed her eyes shut and forced herself to breathe in, breathe out. When she opened them and looked at Travis, he was looking back at her with concern, his posture strong, his eyes firm and loving. He was her strength right now, and she let that new, strange reality settle over her.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m just—I just don’t want to have to tell the girls.”
“I know. Believe me, I know. But they have you to help them. And Celeste, you’re so good with the kids.”
She managed a wry smile. “Am I?” He used to tell her she focused too much on the kids. But how could she not? Family was what mattered after all, and wasn’t that what she’d been trying to do her whole life? Build a family?
She’d never understood his protests that she spent too much time working on the kids’ school projects with them, or being the room mother for each of their grades, or heading up the PTA. She always managed to get dinner on the table, didn’t she? Always made sure his clothes were washed and pressed and the house was clean and the kids’ lunches were packed every morning.
He used to complain that she did too much and they should spend more time going out. Taking walks. Driving the Hill Country. And sure those would be lovely things, but they’d started a family and had responsibilities. And how much more would he complain if he had to go run their pharmacy in a wrinkled shirt? Or if he got a call from one of the kids begging for lunch money because she’d slept in and not bothered making it?
Then he stopped complaining and she’d been relieved because that meant he understood. At least she’d hoped that he understood.
And now here he was telling her right out loud that she was good with the kids, and wasn’t that exactly what she’d been wanting to hear practically since Sara Jane was born? And it took a tragedy—it took Jacob dying—to make him say it. To make him sit beside her the way he was now, just holding her.
“I don’t want to have to tell them,” she repeated as he pulled her close and she leaned against him.
“You don’t have to do it alone. I’ll be right there with you.”
She tilted her head up, seeing a side of her husband that she’d missed. She’d thought he’d lost the strength that had attracted her to him so many years ago. Now that she was seeing it again, she couldn’t help but wonder if it had been there all along and she’d just been too blind or too busy to see it.
“Sara Jane will seem to take it better than Lacey,” she said softly. “She always appears so level—she’s like you, Travis. She can hold it all in. But inside, she’s going to be all ripped up.”
“You called her?”
She nodded. “She’s in San Antonio. Went with that new music teacher for a drive in the country and then dinner on the river.” Sara Jane had just finished her first year as a special ed teacher at the elementary school, and Celeste was so proud of her daughter. “He’s bringing her right back. I didn’t tell her, either. Just that she had to come home. She’s disappointed—I think she likes him. What’s his name? Roger? Ryan? I’m not sure.”
“Hush, sweetheart. We’ll tell them when they get here. We’ll both tell them. Right now, you just rest. Are you cold?”
“No. Yes. I don’t know.”
He got up, then tucked a blanket around her. With a sigh, she tilted her head up to look at him. “You’re taking care of me.”
“Of course I am.”
He said it as if it was the most normal thing in the world, but it wasn’t normal at all.
“I tried,” she said. “You know that I tried, right?”
“Tried what, sweetheart?”
“To keep us all together. To keep our family together.”
“Of course you did. You did a wonderful job.”
“I did everything I could.” Tears streamed down her face because she really had. And in one little twist of fate, the family she’d built had been broken forever.
Mallory Alvarez heard the front door open and immediately pushed the button on the remote to mute the television. Her dad hated to have the television on when he came home from work. And as much as Mallory liked to go a little crazy sometimes, it was really crazy to piss off her dad.
“Mom? Mal?” Dakota’s voice filled the house—not surprising because Dakota was about as loud as it got. She’d moved into a tiny garage apartment just off the square two years ago when Mallory was fourteen, and the place had been way more quiet ever since.
That was just one of the reasons that Mallory had been happy to see her go. Another was the fact that Dakota was a spoiled princess who was always ragging on their mom and sucking up to their dad. And Mallory hated that shit. Of course, her older brother Marcus had gone first, and Mallory had truly been sad when he’d left. And now she was left alone in the house with her parents, and most of the time that really blew.
She shot Luis, her boyfriend, a defiant look, then pushed the button to unmute. After that, she slowly cranked the volume all the way up. As she’d hoped, Luis smiled—although only just a little. He’d had a horrible day, what with his sister being in the hospital and Jacob being dead.
Mallory hadn’t known Jacob very well, but she’d known Luis forever and had been in love with him for at least that long. He had the long, lean body of an athlete and curly dark hair that she used to imagine twirling around her fingers. Now she could do that whenever she wanted, because as of the spring dance—when she’d finally gotten up the nerve to ask him—they were officially a couple.
Today, his angular face looked tired and his hair hung just a little limp. She wasn’t surprised. Luis’s sister Ginny had been Jacob’s best friend, so of course Luis was shaken. He’d come over in a funk after going to the hospital, and they’d been self-medicating with really bad reality television and beer. Her mother, Joanne, would give her shit for the beer since they were both only sixteen, but the day called for it, so there you go.
“God, what the fuck?” Dakota shouted as she came into the living room. “I’ve been screaming at you to turn that down.”
Mallory cupped her hand to her ear. Dakota snarled, then grabbed the remote and turned the whole system off.
“Hey! We were watching that. Luis needs to de-stress. It’s been a shitty day.”
To Mallory’s surprise, Dakota actually teared up. Then Mallory felt pretty shitty herself because she’d been thinking about Luis, and not about Dakota. Because, honestly, when did she bother thinking about Dakota?
But today, she should have. Because even though Dakota never did much about it or said much about it, Mallory knew she’d had a crush on Jacob since, like, forever. And even though her sister was a huge bitch, Mallory would never wish this on her.
“You heard?” she asked gently.
Dakota opened her mouth, but no words came out. Instead, she swiped at her eyes and nodded.
“Oh, man.” Mallory leaped to her feet and threw her arms around her sister, who hugged her back tight, something she did less than never.
After a minute, Dakota pulled back then looked at Luis. “Ginny’s okay?”
He nodded. “Yeah. She’s—” He shook his head. “Doesn’t matter. But she scared the shit out of us. She’s okay, though.” He pulled Mallory over for a kiss on the cheek. “I’m gonna go. Marisol’s been sitting with her, but I should spell her, you know?”
“You okay to drive?” Mallory asked. “Want me to go with you?”
He shook his head. “Thanks. I’m good. Only drank half of one. Nothing much tastes good?”
He gave her another quick kiss, then headed out, leaving Mallory alone with her sister. “So what’s up? You hardly ever come by anymore.”
Dakota lifted a shoulder. “I wanted to see Daddy.”
“He’s at work.”
“Really? It’s almost six.”
“He took Mom to the hospital this morning. She hurt her wrist.”
Dakota rolled her eyes. “Thank God we didn’t inherit her clumsiness, right?”
Mallory just stared at her, wondering if her older sister could really be that stupid. “She’s not clumsy. He’s a drunk.”
“Pot calling the kettle,” Dakota said, pointing at the beers.
“He’s a mean drunk.”
Dakota lifted a hand. “We’re not even talking about this shit. Daddy works his ass off to take care of her, and we both know it. I figure if he wants to chill with a beer or two, what’s wrong with that?”
Mallory shrugged. It wasn’t the beer so much as what came with it. But she wasn’t going to get into that with her sister. God forbid you said anything bad about King Hector in front of Princess Dakota. And it wasn’t like Mallory knew what to say anyway. Every time she’d even hinted at it with her mother, Joanne just changed the subject. And surely if Hector was really being horrible, she’d do something to stop him, right?
That’s what it seemed like, and she didn’t know what to do, and she hated thinking that way. And the truth was that she’d been thinking that way for a while, but just hadn’t wanted to say it out loud. Mostly, she spent her time out of the house because it was easier to be gone. She could hang out behind the feed store and drink beer and be with her friends and it was easy. But she was starting to really worry about her mom.
At the end of the day, Mallory had learned only one good lesson from her parents—marriage was for suckers.
For about the millionth time, she wished Marcus was around. He’d know what she should do. Dakota wasn’t any help at all.
“So where’s Mom, then?” Dakota asked.
“Grocery store. Dad told her he’d be starving when he got home, what with putting in later hours.” Her mom should be asleep with all those pain meds in her. And Mallory had offered to go to the store for her. But Joanne Alvarez was proud, that much was for sure.
The purr of the ancient Oldsmobile’s engine caught both their attention, and they hurried to the screen door that opened off the kitchen. The floor sloped just a bit there—the house was old and Hector never seemed to get around to fixing it—and so Mallory felt even more off-kilter as she waited for Joanne to come inside.
She had a bag in her left hand, and Mallory saw her struggling to carry everything with her injured wrist. “Oh, shit,” Mallory said, then trotted outside to help her mom.
“Thanks, baby,” Joanne said. “Help me get dinner on?”
“Sure. You can sit at the table and I’ll do it.”
“No. Your dad likes the way I do it.”
“What are we having?”
“Tacos. Quick and easy.” Soon enough, she was in the kitchen and working on the meal. She dumped the ground beef into the cast iron skillet and started adding spices from the rack on the back of the stove. “Can you girls put away the rest? He’ll be home soon, and it took longer at the store than I’d thought.”
She didn’t meet Mallory’s eyes, and Mallory knew that the reason for the delay had been her wrist and not a flood of people at the local H-E-B.
Dakota looked up from where she was seated at the round Formica table. “Mom, I need some extra cash.”
Joanne frowned at her, and Dakota stood, suddenly interested in helping to put away the groceries. Mallory almost rolled her eyes at her sister’s transparency.
“You’re a bank teller, sweetheart. You make a decent wage.”
“Decent? I make a crappy hourly rate. And I have to cover my rent.”
Joanne tilted her head. “I’ve seen your paychecks, Dakota Alvarez. What are you doing with that money if it’s not going for rent?”
“Jesus, Mom, am I a naked, starving monk? I have to eat. I have to wear clothes. And, guess what, I like to go out and have some fun sometimes.”
Joanne pursed her lips together. Mallory turned away in case she laughed out loud.
“I don’t have any money. You know your father fills up the household account only on the first of the month.”
“Yeah, but you could lend me just a little bit of your money, right?”
“Dakota. I don’t have it.”
Dakota rolled her eyes. “You work at the florist. And, hey, you’re a Grossman, Mom. Give me a break. I mean, Grandma’s practically rolling in money.”
Mallory had been putting away the vegetables, but now she turned back to gape at her sister. Mentioning their grandparents really wasn’t done, especially around Hector.
For a second, Mallory almost wished Hector was home so he could see that his little princess was really Princess Bitch.
At the sink, Joanne froze while rinsing a head of lettuce, then said very slowly, “You know my father doesn’t speak to me since I married your dad.”
“He shouldn’t punish you for who you married.”
“I couldn’t agree more.”
“Grandma still comes by.”
Joanne drew a deep breath. “But she’s not going to give me any money.”
“Then I’ll ask Daddy. He’ll give it to me.”
Joanne spun around, the head of lettuce still in her hands. “Dakota, don’t you ask that. Your father needs every—oh!”
The back door slammed open and Mallory jumped as Hector strode in, stinking so much of beer she could smell it from all the way at the table.
“Just now getting dinner on the table? Christ, Jo. Can’t you do anything right?”
Mallory cringed, but the princess seemed oblivious that Hector was being such an ass.
“Daddy, I need money for rent. Just an extra hundred. I’m just a little short.”
“’Course baby. Can’t let you fall behind.”
She eased up against him and kissed his cheek, making Mallory want to gag. “Thanks, Daddy.”
“Hector…I don’t think…”
“Is it my job to provide for this family?” he snapped at Joanne, who seemed to be shrinking right in front of Mallory.
Joanne kept her eyes down, focusing on the ground beef. “Yes.”
“Is it your job to serve up the food that my earnings buy?”
“Then until you get your job handled, don’t be telling me my job. Okay?”
Joanne nodded. “Okay.”
And suddenly Hector was all smiles. He crossed to Joanne, kissed her cheek, then smacked her lightly on the bottom. “That’s my girl.” He took a deep breath. “Well, it may be late, but it smells damn good.”
And then her mom turned to him and actually smiled. And it was warm and genuine and happy.
Mallory didn’t get it.
Not any of it.
Not her parents. Not marriage. Not one little bit.
From the outside, the Salt house looked the same as it always did. A Victorian charmer a few blocks off the square that had been ramshackle back in the day, but that Celeste and Travis had lovingly restored. Mostly with Celeste’s elbow grease and Travis’s checkbook. Celeste had spent countless hours sanding floors, stripping wallpaper, priming and painting. She’d spent a year with grout under her nails and callouses on her knees. But it had been worth it.
The house had been a battered mess when they’d purchased it before Sara Jane was born. But they’d transformed it from an eyesore into a home that was always featured in the Christmas Tour of Lights.
The lawn was tidy, the flowers bright. Even the picket fence had been recently repainted.
So there wasn’t a thing about the house to suggest that anything was wrong inside.
Celeste was grateful for that small favor. At least her daughters had enjoyed a few extra minutes of blissful ignorance before the truth fell into their laps.
And fall it had.
They’d arrived within minutes of each other, and now they were seated at the round dining table with Celeste and Travis, both of them in the chairs they’d claimed when they were just toddlers. With one chair disturbingly empty.
Both girls had a tall glass of homemade lemonade with a slice of strawberry, a shared favorite from childhood, but neither had touched it once Travis had delivered the blow.
Thank God it had been Travis who’d told them. Celeste was seeing a side of him she hadn’t seen in a long time. A strength and a purpose. A sense of being with the family. And though she was grateful, it saddened her to know that it took tragedy to restore that closeness she’d been missing lately.
She reached over and squeezed Lacey’s hand. Her sweet baby girl looked like she’d just been through a war. “Honey?”
Lacey just lifted her shoulders. “I can’t believe it. I just can’t believe he’s gone.”
“I just talked to him on Wednesday,” Sara Jane said, her voice raw from crying.
“And Ginny’s really pregnant?”
Travis nodded, then reached for and took Celeste’s hand. “Your mom and I think it’s a miracle. A gift from God. We never thought—” He bowed his head, his words echoing what was in Celeste’s heart. “We never dreamed.”
“I didn’t even know they’d started dating,” Lacey said. “I mean, Ginny’s been like a sister.”
“I can’t believe he didn’t say anything.”
“Ginny says they were going to tell us when they got here—that they were dating,” Celeste clarified. “Ginny just learned about the baby, too.”
“Still, it’s weird, right?” Lacey said. “I mean, they’ve always just been buds.”
“That’s the best kind of relationship.” Celeste took Travis’s hand in her own. “Friends first, then lovers. It makes for strength in a relationship, and in a family. Isn’t that right?”
“That’s right.” Travis squeezed her hand, then looked at the three of them in turn. “We’re going to get through this, ladies. We’re going to be strong together. As a family.”
Pushing Up Daisies had been a Storm establishment for close to fifty years and had occupied the limestone and brick building on the corner of Main Street and Pecan since Hedda Garten had opened the store after her husband was killed in Vietnam.
Despite the name, the store did weddings and parties at least as much as they did funerals.
Today, however, it was the latter that was on everybody’s mind.
The store opened at one on Sundays, as did most of the Storm establishments on the square. The hours allowed for family and church time, while still playing to the economic realities of Hill Country tourism. In other words, most folks driving the Texas Hill Country did so on the weekends. Storm was a bit farther from both San Antonio and Austin than the more common Hill Country destinations like Fredericksburg, but it still got its share of weekend shoppers. And in the economy of small-town tourism, keeping stores open when customers were present was a big part of the game.
Travis had asked Celeste if she could go alone to talk to Kristin Douglas, who not only planned parties but helped the bereaved choose the proper arrangements. And she’d said yes, because this was something that had to be done, and she couldn’t keep clinging to him. He could keep the pharmacy closed for a while, but the bottom line was that he had to be there to fill prescriptions. People needed him, not just her. And Celeste tried very hard not to be a selfish woman.
But then they’d arrived downtown and had parked in front of Prost Pharmacy, just as they had so many times when she joined Travis at work.
It was an easy walk. She’d made it a hundred times.
Up Pecan and then across the street to the florist, sometimes just because she wanted to pop in and see Travis, and then get some fresh flowers to take home.
But today, her feet wouldn’t move. At least not until he took her hand and fell in step beside her. “Why don’t I go with you after all?” he’d said quietly. “You shouldn’t have to do this alone.”
And now she still clutched his hand, even though they’d been chatting with Kristin about the flowers for at least ten minutes.
Or, rather, Celeste had been chatting. Because Travis was uncharacteristically quiet as Kristin told them how sorry she was for their loss and that she would be happy to take care of the flowers for them, coordinating with the church and funeral parlor.
“Lilies, please,” Celeste said, and realized it felt good to be making a decision. “And baby’s breath. And something with a hint of yellow. I know it’s not original, but he was so young and so innocent. And he was like a little bit of sunshine whenever he entered a room.”
“I think that’s a beautiful sentiment,” Kristin said. “I’ll put it together and call you to get your okay. You don’t need to worry about a thing.”
“Thank you,” Celeste said, releasing Travis’s hand to shake Kristin’s. Beside her, Travis wiped his hands on his pants, not even noticing that Kristin had held out hers to shake.
Celeste cleared her throat, and Travis glanced up, looking confused, and then settling into calm.
He took Kristin’s hand. “Forgive me. I’m a little off-kilter. I—I thought I was doing okay. But being in here has—well, it’s affected me.”
“I completely understand.” She looked at him with so much compassion it made Celeste’s heart twist, then Kristin smiled sadly at Celeste as she released Travis’s hand. “He was an exceptional boy. I’m so sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you,” Celeste murmured. Travis said nothing. But he looked a little shell-shocked as they turned toward the door.
“Are you okay?” she asked once they were back on the street. They walked the short distance to the corner and paused for the light to change so they could cross Pecan.
“I think it’s just sinking in.” He frowned. “Everything’s going to change.”
Celeste drew in a long breath. The light turned green and the little box started flashing the image of a pedestrian in motion. But she didn’t move, and she tugged her husband’s sleeve when he started to walk because she’d caught a glimpse of familiar reddish blond hair.
The young Lutheran minister turned toward the sound of his name, his expression shifting to sympathetic when he saw who had hailed him.
“Celeste. Travis. I’ve been praying for you.” They’d seen Pastor Douglas—Bryce—late Friday. Sheriff Murphy had been kind enough to ask the pastor to pay a visit a few minutes after he’d gone. And, yes, it had helped.
“Thank you. Are we keeping you?”
The pastor shook his head. “I like to walk the square after the second service. It’s relaxing, especially on a pleasant day like today. I usually grab a muffin then pop in and see my sister at the florist.”
“Kristin,” Travis said.
Pastor Douglas nodded. “But no muffins. Today, I’m trying to lay off the carbs.” He patted his stomach. “How can I help you?”
“Do you believe God still performs miracles?” Celeste asked.
She saw the flicker of emotion pass over his face. Surprise. Uncertainty. She wanted to reassure him that she wasn’t expecting her son to rise from the dead. But before she had to do that, he answered.
“And if you witnessed a miracle, then it would be foolish to look away. To not acknowledge it. Maybe even try to help facilitate it?”
Both his and Travis’s brows furrowed. “Celeste, forgive me, but what’s on your mind?”
But she wasn’t ready to talk to him about it. Not yet. “Nothing. Just silliness. Just the kind of big thoughts that enter your mind in a crisis.” She smiled. “Thank you for indulging my curiosity.”
“Of course,” he said.
“But would you?” she asked.
“Would I what?”
“Ignore a miracle.”
An unfair question, she supposed. Because a man of God could hardly say he would look the other way. And yet without knowing her motivation, he couldn’t possibly know whether he should encourage her or not.
But he was a man of God, and that meant he would answer honestly. And that meant he would give her the answer she wanted.
And that meant she would have ammunition.
“No,” he finally said. “It is not in my nature to ignore a miracle. But Celeste, you should take care not to confuse good fortune with the miraculous.”
“Of course, Pastor.” She tried not to smile too triumphantly. “Thank you so much. We shouldn’t keep you from your sister.”
He hesitated, looking between the two of them as if unsure whether he should go on. But then he nodded and wished them a pleasant day before continuing on his way.
“What was that about?” Travis asked.
The light to cross Main Street changed, and she tugged him that direction—heading for the courthouse and the famous Storm Oak tree instead of to Pecan Street and the pharmacy. “Five minutes,” she said. “Just sit with me. Please.”
He eyed her warily, but he sat.
“The baby’s a miracle,” she began. “We both know that.” She paused to let him comment, and when he didn’t, she continued on. “And we need to make sure it’s healthy and safe and well taken care of.”
Again, he stayed quiet.
“I want Ginny to move in with us.”
“I want our grandson’s mother to be in our care. To have a room in our house. I want to help her with medical bills and with decorating a nursery.”
“Celeste, sweetheart, I don’t know—”
“But you do, Travis.” She could hear the plea rising in her voice. “We both know what a miracle this is. To have a child of Jacob’s, that’s miracle enough. But to be blessed with it even as we’ve lost him—neither one of us would ever have believed that could happen, but it did. And I think it’s our responsibility and our pleasure to help that sweet girl out.”
“She has a family.”
“She does, of course. And I don’t want to take her away from her brother or her sister in spirit. But she’s going to need help and care. Marisol’s done right by that child, but she’s not Ginny’s mother. She won’t be the baby’s grandmother. I think she would welcome the help. Welcome knowing that someone is home with her pregnant little sister—with her sister and her nephew after the baby is born. She works such long hours just making ends meet. It can’t be easy. You remember all the talk—their parents had no life insurance and everything fell on that poor girl’s head. I want to help her with that burden.”
Travis was smiling.
“Nephew? Not niece?”
Celeste felt her cheeks heat. “The baby’s a miracle, Travis.”
“But the baby’s not Jacob and never will be.”
She licked her lips and looked down at the well-tended grass that surrounded the courthouse. “I know that. I do. But I still want him near me. Don’t you?”
He sighed, then looked across the street, his attention on the florist shop where they’d just picked out the flowers for their son’s funeral. Where the pastor who’d told them that miracles do happen had just stepped inside. “You need this, Celeste? This will make you happy?”
She took his hand and clung tight. “Yes. Oh, yes.”
Another moment passed. “All right. We’ll leave it up to Ginny. You ask her, and if that’s what she wants, then she’s welcome in our home.”
Celeste felt the tears welling in her eyes. “And that’s what you want, too?”’
Travis’s shoulders rose and fell. “I want Jacob back. But if that’s not possible, then I want to do everything I can for his child. And,” he added as he lifted his hand and gently stroked her cheek, “for you.”
Joanne perched on the stool behind the counter at Pushing Up Daisies and watched as her friend Kristin leaned against the table that formed the centerpiece for the store. Today it was topped with an extravagant arrangement of tropical flowers—an arrangement that Hedda had put together before bidding the younger women a happy Sunday and taking off to putter in her own garden.
“Are you okay?”
As she watched, Kristin’s shoulders rose and fell as if she was breathing hard. “Yeah.” She drew herself up, then turned to Joanne. She looked put together as always, in a light blue sheath dress that highlighted her blue eyes and contrasted her russet hair. But right now, those eyes looked cloudy. And her usually shining face seemed dim.
Joanne frowned. “Are you sure?”
Kristin held up a hand as she visibly pulled herself together. “I do funerals—it’s part of what I do. But in a town this size, there just aren’t that many. And when it’s the death of someone so young…” She trailed off, wiping a finger carefully under her eye.
Joanne was about to reply, but the little bell above the door jingled and Bryce—or, rather, Pastor Douglas—came in and walked straight to his sister at the center table.
From her vantage point behind the counter, Joanne watched Kristin with her brother. She had become close to Kristin since they’d both worked at the florist shop for several years now, and she couldn’t help but think of him by his name, especially since Joanne had never been one to go to church.
Together, they looked like a set of dolls, both with blue eyes and reddish hair and all-American good looks.
Folks had never called Joanne all-American. She was too built. Too blond. And she’d always thought that her green eyes made her look just a little bit devilish. She’d never acted that way, though. She’d always been a little too shy, and she’d hated that about herself. Then Hector had swept her off her feet during senior year, making her feel like she was the queen of the world.
He’d wanted her to be better—he still wanted her to be better. And she knew that she frustrated him sometimes when she messed up. And so she tried very hard not to mess up, because he worked relentlessly to keep a roof over their head, and she knew that if she just did better he’d be less stressed and things would be the way they used to be.
So she tried—she really did. But it was just so hard.
“—you don’t mind?”
Joanne blinked, realizing she’d been lost in thought. “I’m sorry. What?”
Kristin cocked her head toward the metal swinging door that led to the back area. “I’m going to show Bryce something in the back. You’ll watch the front?”
“Of course.” She slipped off the stool and was about to walk out onto the main floor when the bell jingled again, and Hannah walked in looking more or less like she’d just rolled around in a haystack. Knowing Hannah, she probably had. Her sister was a vet, after all, and like so many small-town vets, her practice included domestic and farm animals.
To be fair, though, today she looked much tidier than usual, with her jeans and button-down shirt open over a tank top. Her long blond hair was pulled back in the single braid that she was in the habit of wearing, and she wore one of her many pairs of cowboy boots.
Not for the first time, Joanne wondered how they were sisters because Joanne owned exactly one pair of cowboy boots, and they’d been a Christmas present from Hannah.
“I was hoping you were working today,” Hannah said. “Isn’t it horrible? I wanted to get some flowers for the service on Thursday.”
“It’s a tragedy,” Joanne agreed. “Mallory spent some time yesterday with Luis. He and Marisol are so relieved that Ginny’s okay, but it’s so horrible about Jacob.” She turned to the refrigerated case behind her. “Do you have something in mind, or would you like me to just put together an arrangement for you?”
“Would you? You know I suck at that kind of thing.”
Joanne nodded because her younger sister did suck at that kind of thing. If it didn’t involve animals, Hannah was pretty much clueless.
“Thanks. Just send a bill to the office, okay? Or you can bring it to lunch tomorrow.”
“Are we doing lunch tomorrow?” Joanne frowned, afraid she’d forgotten something.
“You have Mondays off, right? Mom thought you could come by. Visit for a little bit.”
Joanne’s stomach twisted at the thought. “I don’t know. What if Daddy comes home?” Her father had told her that if she married Hector, she was no longer his daughter. At the time, she’d thought that he was just spewing invectives. Her father had always adored her—had adored both her and Hannah, really, but with Joanne there was a special bond.
But he’d meant it. And ever since she came back from Vegas married, her father didn’t even acknowledge that she was alive.
She told herself it no longer hurt, but that was a lie.
“That’s the thing,” Hannah said. “He’s out of town tomorrow. So we can catch up.”
“I—I can’t,” Joanne said. “I’m working. My hours changed.” That part was true. What she didn’t say was that she could easily change her hours if she wanted to. Kristin would cover, or Hedda would come in for a bit—she liked to pretend that she was retired and had “her girls” to run the store, but Joanne knew how much she loved to still be a part of the daily life at Pushing Up Daisies.
But she didn’t say any of that, because the truth was that it just wasn’t worth it. Her mom was awesome, true. And she’d kept in touch despite Joanne’s father’s stern instructions not to. Debbie Grossman had helped care for Joanne’s kids, snuck money to her when the grocery budget ran tight, and just generally been there.
And Hector hated that almost as much as Robert Grossman did.
So maybe Robert was out of town, but Hector wasn’t. And Joanne really didn’t see the point in getting on her husband’s bad side. Not when his bad side was so bad. Of course, his good side could also be so very good.
“Maybe some other time,” she said. “Maybe we can go to a restaurant.” That wouldn’t bother Hector as much. He knew that Joanne saw her mother. But going to the house—doing anything that put her in Robert’s circle—pissed him off royally.
Hannah looked at her, frowning. “What happened to your wrist?”
Joanne turned back to the refrigerated case and pulled out a rose. “Tripped. Stupid, really.”
“You’ve gotten to be such a klutz,” Hannah said, her voice deceptively level. “You never were clumsy when you were growing up.”
Joanne turned back around with a shrug, then bent down to pull out a sheet of tissue paper, the action hiding her face. “Well, I’ve had kids. Maybe they threw me off-kilter.”
“Is that a metaphor?”
Joanne looked at her sister, then shook her head fondly. “Yeah. Your nieces and nephew are enough to throw anyone out of whack.”
As she’d hoped, Hannah grinned. “True that.”
“Here.” Joanne passed Hannah the single rose wrapped in tissue. “Put it in your office. You need some color in there—not just stainless steel and leather. And I’ll call you later about the arrangement, okay?”
Hannah took the rose and bent her nose to sniff it. Then she looked up at Joanne. “Jo—” She shook her head. “Never mind. We’ll talk later. Okay?”
Joanne nodded, more relieved than she should be, then she came around the counter and walked her sister to the door. As Hannah left, Joanne looked out across the street to the square and the lovely old courthouse. Her eyes were on the view at first, and then she noticed the man on the sidewalk, just standing there looking at the store.
The sheriff stood in his jeans and uniform shirt, his Stetson pushed back a bit so that she could see his face and a hint of his thick black hair. She couldn’t see his eyes, but she knew them. Deep and blue and as bright as the sky, and just thinking about them looking at her made her shiver despite herself.
As she watched, he reached up and brushed the rim of his hat in greeting, and all the while his eyes stayed firmly on her.
She felt the blush touch her cheeks even as her stomach did a few funny little jumps, and before she could talk herself out of it, she lifted a hand and waved.
Oh, man. She shouldn’t have done that.
But why not? He was the sheriff after all, and she was just being polite.
“Who’s there?” Kristin asked as she and Bryce returned from the back. Bryce kissed his sister’s cheek, then left the store as Joanne hurriedly turned away from the window, barely even responding to Bryce’s parting words.
“Joanne?” Kristin pressed.
“Nobody.” She cleared her throat and forced herself to stay level. “Just the sheriff.” But even as she spoke the words, Joanne knew that Dillon wasn’t “just” anything. Not to her. And she wasn’t just any girl to him.
It was a nice feeling. A sweet, secret little feeling.
But also a very, very dangerous one.
“Hey, listen,” Kristin said, her words bringing Joanne back to reality. “I couldn’t help but overhear you and your sister.”
Joanne looked at her, then walked deliberately away toward the counter.
Kristin was not deterred. “If you really did trip, that’s one thing. But I have to be honest, Jo. I’m worried about you.”
“A lot of bruises. A lot of falls.”
“Joanne, dammit, you should talk to someone.”
“Really?” Joanne didn’t mean to snap, but it was all just building up, and God knew she couldn’t snap at home. “Really? I need to talk? Maybe you need to talk. I’m not the one having an affair with a married man.”
She knew the arrow had struck home when Kristin’s face turned dead white. “What are you talking about?”
“You know exactly what I’m talking about.”
“How do you— Who—”
“Don’t worry. It’s not gossip around town, and to be fair, I don’t even know who he is. But I know it’s true—and if I didn’t before, I do now. So dammit, Kristin, leave me alone. People in glass houses, and all that, right?”
Kristin licked her lips, then nodded. “We should both probably talk about it,” she said softly.
Joanne sighed. “Maybe,” she admitted. “But we’re not going to.”
Ginny hated when everybody left and she was all alone in the room with nothing but the television, a book, and all the beeping machines.
But she was out of the woods now, so that was something. And they’d moved her from ICU to this regular room last night. Dr. Rush said that everything looked great and that normally they’d go ahead and release her, but because of the baby, they were being cautious.
She still hadn’t quite gotten her head around it. She was going to have a baby. She was going to be a mother.
She barely even remembered her mother, so how on earth was she supposed to manage that?
Maybe she’d hit her head harder than they all thought because what had she been thinking when she said she’d keep the baby? Of course, she wouldn’t have an abortion—she didn’t think she could do that—but she could give it up for adoption. Probably should. Because she’d been on the five-year plan at UT, what with her work-study schedule, and with a baby she’d be pretty much on the twenty-year plan.
How the hell was she going to make a living without a college degree?
And how was she going to get a degree if she had to take care of a baby?
Why, oh why, weren’t Marisol or Luis here? Someone to talk to. To take her mind off all of this? The baby. Jacob.
She squeezed her eyes tight and told herself not to cry again. But she missed him so damn much. And if it was his baby—and she was going to just keep saying that it was over and over in her head until she really believed it—then it broke her heart that he’d never get to see it.
That was the part that made her sad.
The part that made her scared was that if Jacob were here and the baby was his, he’d marry her. He loved her—and even if he didn’t really love her like that, the sex had been awesome and they were best friends, and that was better than most marriages, right?
So he’d marry her and they’d raise Little Bit together. He’d get student loans for med school and they’d live in cheap housing, and she’d do some sort of work-at-home job so that she could raise the baby, and then he’d be a doctor and everything would get easier, and when they were old they’d look back and laugh about how they had to scrimp and save when they were young and had a baby.
Except Jacob was never going to get old.
She pressed her hands over her belly and closed her eyes, hating the way it just kept sneaking up on her. So far, she hadn’t had nightmares. The counselor who’d come in to talk to her had told her to be prepared for them, but if she talked about it and didn’t try to hold in her grief, she might not suffer in the night. Either way, she was better off just letting herself feel bad, and not trying to push it away.
Well, no problem there. She felt bad. Bad that she’d survived and Jacob hadn’t. Bad that she’d been driving the car. Bad that she was having a baby that might—okay, it was a very small might—be his and that he’d never see it.
And bad that she’d lied to his parents by telling them that the baby was Jacob’s. But the look on his mother’s face had broken her heart, and when she’d learned about the baby, she’d lit up.
She grimaced. Somehow that thought had circled her all the way back to the brutal reality. She was about to be a single mom with only a high school diploma.
“We can do it, Little Bit.” She rubbed her belly and whispered to the baby. She didn’t know that she believed the words, but she wanted the baby to believe them.
And maybe it all would work out. Marisol kept telling her over and over that everything would turn out okay. Hadn’t they survived after their parents had died? If they’d held together as a family through that, then they would all pull together through this new addition.
And that was all well and good and Ginny knew that Marisol loved her and meant every word, but Marisol wasn’t exactly the Chef Ramsay of small-town bakeries, and the baby was going to be one more mouth to feed. Ginny so wanted her baby to have a whole family. To have everything she’d missed out on. A mom and a dad. Grandparents. The whole Norman Rockwell small-town American dream.
She’d missed out on it, and now her baby was going to miss out on it, too.
She was reaching for the remote so that she could watch something mind-numbing on television when Celeste walked in, her face an odd mixture of sadness and hope. “I’m so glad you’re out of ICU. And the baby is doing well?” She stood by Ginny’s bed, her hand poised over the blanket on Ginny’s tummy. “May I?”
“Sure,” Ginny said because she could see how happy the thought of a baby made Celeste. “But I think it’s too early to feel anything.”
“But we know,” Celeste said, cupping her hand over Ginny’s stomach. “You and me and the baby. We know that he’s in there and that he’s safe and that he’s a little part of Jacob, too.”
Ginny stiffened at the words and hoped that Celeste didn’t notice. She liked Celeste. Loved her, really. The Salts had always treated her like one of their own, and it was because Ginny loved them—because she’d felt so horrible about Jacob being dead and her being alive—that she’d told them the baby was Jacob’s.
It was like she was giving them Jacob back.
But now, it felt less like a gift and more like a lie, and the guilt of that lie was weighing heavy on her.
“Wait one second,” Celeste said, interrupting Ginny. But that was okay because in the end she wasn’t entirely sure what she wanted to say. She knew what she should say, but she wanted to hold on to the fantasy a little bit longer, too. “There’s something I want to talk to you about.”
“Oh.” Fear swirled inside her. Surely Celeste didn’t know about the senator?
“You must be very excited to go home tomorrow.”
Ginny nodded, unsure where this was headed, and Celeste pressed on.
“And the truth is that I’m sure Marisol and Luis are going to be so happy to have you back. But sweetheart—” Now she leaned forward, grasping Ginny’s hands and holding tight. “—they aren’t going to be able to give you the attention you need and deserve. Luis is a teenage boy, and he needs to be out with his friends. And Marisol—bless her heart—can’t take time away from her own business, no matter how much she might want to.”
“I know,” Ginny said. “I don’t expect them to. I’m—we’re—used to being on our own a lot.”
Celeste nodded sagely. “Of course you are. And that’s a sad thing for a child—for you. For your brother. And for your sister who—like you—got responsibility handed to her far earlier than she deserved.”
Ginny frowned. Everything Celeste was saying was true, but she wasn’t really in the mood to hear how much tomorrow was going to suck and how alone she was going to be.
“I realize this may sound a little strange, but Travis and I have talked about it, and—well, the truth is that we want you to move in with us.”
Ginny sat up so fast she upset the cup of ice she had tucked in by the bed rail. “Leave it, leave it,” she said, when Celeste bent down. “What did you say?”
“We’ve worked it all out. You can have Jacob’s old room and we’ll turn Sara Jane’s into the nursery. And once the baby’s born if you feel like you need more room for yourself, you two can move into the apartment,” she added, referring to a small two-bedroom cottage that had once been a stable but that the Salts had converted into a small rental property that they offered to tourists for a week at a time.
“I don’t—” It was coming at her so fast. “Are you sure?”
“Sweetheart, you need family near you. We’re family now, too.”
A home. A real house with real parents and supper on the table every night and the kind of security that she’d never known, but for which she’d so envied Jacob.
It was like a gift.
“And we want our grandchild nearby, even before he’s born. It—it will make it seem like a little bit of Jacob is there with us.”
And there it was. The guilt.
She had to tell them. They had to know.
But oh, dear God, how she wanted that life. That cocoon. That safety net as this baby grew inside her.
She didn’t know what to say, and so she didn’t say anything, and Celeste’s smile was so gently maternal that Ginny almost cried.
“Don’t answer just yet,” Celeste said, then reached forward to press her soft hands to either side of Ginny’s face. “You just think about it, okay? And talk to Marisol. And I’ll talk to Marisol, too, if that’s okay with you.”
Ginny nodded, a little awed, a little amazed. And still a whole lot guilty.
“Whatever you decide, you know we’ll be there for you. You’re family now, sweetheart.” Celeste stood, then bent down and kissed Ginny on her cheek, just like her mother might have done once upon a time.
And though it was hard, she managed to hold it together until Celeste left the room. But once the door clicked closed behind her, the tears began to flow.
“You on a stakeout, son? Because I wouldn’t have pulled that Guinness for you if I’d known you were still on duty.”
Dillon took another sip of the stout in question, then turned away from the window and faced his father across the bustling bar. “Just keeping an eye out for someone. I was hoping to have a word.”
Aiden Murphy, Dillon’s father, narrowed his eyes as he pulled a pint for Zeke Johnson, a local rancher who also happened to be the mayor of this fine town—and a regular at the bar. Him and a lot of other folk. There was no disputing that Murphy’s Pub was the most popular watering hole in town, with its fine mix of Ireland and the Lone Star State. And that wasn’t just family prejudice talking.
The main room had the look of an Irish pub but boasted a selection of beers to make any Texas cowboy happy. Not to mention a wine list filled with offerings from local Texas wineries—and the less interesting California and French selections, just to round things out. And, of course, all the various hard liquors were well represented. High-end liquors that also included local offerings like Tito’s Vodka, Balcones Single Malt Whisky, Dulce Vida Añejo tequila, and Deep Eddy Ruby Red vodka, to name just a few.
There were peanut shells on the floor of the back room and enough space for two-stepping on a Friday night. The back room boasted its own entrance, too. And on unfortunately rare occasions, someone like Lyle Lovett or Willie Nelson might drop in and be persuaded to sing a song or two.
“A word,” Aiden repeated thoughtfully. “Would this be with a suspect in one of your many cases or with a person of the female persuasion?”
“You stick to pouring drinks. I’ll stick to what I do.”
Aiden chuckled but didn’t argue. He passed Zeke the pint, then went back to stacking the tray of freshly washed glasses.
Dillon watched his father fondly for a moment—the old man was in his element, that was for sure. Then he let his gaze track over this bar that had been practically a third living room for him growing up. Right now, early on a Monday evening, nothing that interesting was going on inside the bar. And that was fine with Dillon. He was all about what was going on out there on the street. He kicked his booted feet out, tilted back his hat, and continued to look out the window.
Half a pint later, he saw her.
It hadn’t taken him any time at all to realize that Joanne was a creature of routine. The Sheriff’s Department was housed in the courthouse that sat smack-dab in the middle of the town square. The annex—which the Sheriff’s Department shared with the local police—was on Pecan, right across from Pushing Up Daisies. All of which meant that Dillon spent a lot of time near Joanne’s workplace.
Joanne parked in one of the city lots just off the square, and she daily made the walk north on Main Street, then left on Cedar—and that path put her in view of the annex, and sent her right past both the courthouse and Murphy’s Pub.
Dillon hadn’t needed to stalk her. All he’d needed in order to know her routine was to not be blind or stupid.
Since he was neither, he’d known that she’d be coming along soon enough.
And now that she was here, he intended to have a word.
He waited until she passed the doors of the bar, then said his good-byes to Aiden and Zeke before stepping onto the sidewalk himself and falling into a rhythm behind her.
She wore a cotton blouse and a pale green skirt that moved around her lovely legs and clung enticingly to her rear. He wanted to hold her—hell, he wanted to protect her.
And it pissed him off that not only did he not have that right, but that the man who did didn’t deserve her. Didn’t even come close.
Hell, the only thing Hector Alvarez deserved was a long stint in a cold cell.
She reached her car—an Oldsmobile so old he knew it didn’t have airbags—and shoved her key in the lock. She was pulling open the door when he said, slowly and gently, “Joanne.”
She jumped, spinning toward him, her hand going to her throat, as she cringed back against the frame of the car.
Dillon forced himself not to clench his hands into fists—but goddammit, he wanted to. Yeah, she should have been paying more attention to her surroundings, but this was a woman who was too jumpy by half.
“Dillon! You about scared the life out of me.” The sweetest red blush started to creep up her neck, and although Dillon longed to believe that was a result of her proximity to him, he had to admit that it could be plain, old-fashioned embarrassment.
“I’m sorry—I am. But a woman alone should pay more attention to her surroundings.”
Her smile flickered like the sun peeking out from the clouds. “It’s Storm, Sheriff. And it’s hours before the sun goes down. If I’m not safe right now, then you must not be doing your job right.”
He had to laugh. “Well, you’ve got a point there.”
“Besides, I promise you that I’m very aware of my surroundings.”
The bloom in her cheeks deepened. “For instance, just yesterday I was aware of you standing across the street from the shop, just looking at the windows. Or were you looking at me?”
Was she flirting? Or was she pissed? It was probably a testament to how long it had been since he’d been on a date that he couldn’t tell the difference. But why date when there was only one woman he was interested in, and she was standing right in front of him?
He took a step toward her, wanting her to understand how he felt even though he couldn’t tell her. Couldn’t cross that line. And yet she needed to know that she had a safety net. People who cared about her. Who loved her.
And that if she would just walk away from Hector once and for all, she would survive.
“You,” he answered simply. “I was looking at you.”
“Oh.” She licked her lips. “Why?”
Oh Christ. He felt his skin heat. His hands go clammy. He took another step toward her and saw the way that she nervously bit her lower lip. “You know why.” A beat, then another, but he couldn’t say it. Not so boldly. Not yet. Instead he said, “I worry about you.”
Her smile was tremulous, and she didn’t meet his eyes.
He wanted to yell. He wanted to curse. Instead he spoke softly and gently, just the way he would with any victim. “Joanne, sugar, I need to know. Does he hit you?”
She looked at her hands. And she picked at her cuticles.
When she looked up, her eyes were defiant, and her lips were pressed tight together. She angrily held his gaze for a moment, then shifted to look at something over his shoulder.
“Joanne. Does he hit you?”
“Why are you doing this?”
Her voice was so soft he almost couldn’t hear her.
Tenderly, he took her chin in his hands and turned her head so that she had no choice but to look at him. “Because it kills me to think that he’s hurting you.”
“He’s my husband,” she said, the word seeming vile on her lips.
“That’s not what I asked.”
She shook her head, and the single tear that trickled down her cheek was answer enough for Dillon.
“He’s my husband,” she repeated, and her next words cut him to the core. “And I love him.”
The Morenos lived only a few blocks off of Main Street in a small, blue-trimmed bungalow. The house had a tin roof and a wooden porch that boasted two rocking chairs that Ginny and Marisol had refinished together the summer before Ginny left for college.
Honestly, Ginny couldn’t wait to see it. The porch, the tiny kitchen, and the bedroom she’d painted pink in a fit of middle school insanity, and then never bothered to repaint.
Soon, she thought as Nurse Francine pushed her in the wheelchair to the small receiving area for the hospital, where Marisol waited by the car, ready to take her home.
“I can walk, you know.”
“Two things about that,” Francine said. “Rules, and I’m a stickler for rules. And even more, there are only so many times in life when people pamper you. Being rolled out of a hospital is one of them. Sit back and enjoy it.”
Ginny grinned. She liked Francine. The nurse was probably in her fifties, but she had a youth to her that made her seem younger. More than that, she really cared about her patients, and Ginny had been so appreciative of the times Francine would come into her room just to chat and check on her, even after Ginny had left the ICU and Francine wasn’t officially assigned to her anymore. “Thanks for everything.”
“You’re going to be just fine, honey,” Francine said as they moved out through the automatic doors to where Marisol stood, practically vibrating with emotion.
“Oh, sweetheart!” She helped Ginny out of the wheelchair, then hugged her so tightly that Ginny had to hold her breath. “Let’s get you home.”
“Good-bye, sugar. Don’t be coming back until that baby’s ready, okay?”
Ginny grinned. “Deal.”
Marisol bustled her into the car, then actually leaned over and checked Ginny’s seatbelt. Normally, Ginny would have rolled her eyes and slapped her hand away. Today, she put up with it. She knew that Marisol was a little freaked.
And the truth was that Ginny was about to freak her out a little bit more.
Once they were in the car, Marisol headed down Main Street toward her bakery, Cuppa Joe, and the square. “Can we stop?”
“At the shop? I just came from there, and although I need to get back pretty soon, I’d rather not make folks think we’re open right now.”
“You’re closed? What about Lacey?”
Marisol turned sad eyes to her. “I gave her the week off, honey. If she’s at work, everyone’s going to just come in to give her condolences. She’ll have to think about it—remember it—all the more.”
Ginny nodded, feeling stupid, because of course Lacey would be beat up, too. Jacob was her brother, and she was probably feeling as numb as Ginny was.
“I wasn’t actually talking about the shop. I wanted to go to the square.”
Marisol’s brows lifted.
“Just for a minute. We used to—you know—hang out there.” Now that she was saying it out loud, she felt stupid. But she and Jacob used to bring blankets and homework and spread out under Storm Oak, the massive five-hundred-year-old oak tree. Or they’d hang out on the gazebo and watch the tourists and locals go in and out of the shops. They’d had all their best conversations there, and maybe it was sentimental and strange, but Ginny was sure that if she went, she’d feel Jacob.
And then maybe she could decide what she should do. If she should keep her secret. If she should move in with Celeste. If it made her a horrible person because she so desperately wanted to just hold the baby—hold Jacob—tight and pretend like Senator Rush never even existed.
More than that, she wanted to talk to Marisol on neutral territory.
For a second, she thought that Marisol would argue. She’d say she needed to get to work. That she wished she didn’t have to, but that they needed the money and she couldn’t afford to keep the shop closed over the lunch hour, which meant she had to be back and behind the counter in just over ninety minutes.
But her sister surprised her. She gave a quick nod, then pulled into one of the fifteen-minute slots. “We can’t stay long,” she said, and Ginny could hear the apology in her voice.
“That’s okay. Come with me to the gazebo?”
From where they’d parked, they couldn’t see the structure, hidden as it was on the other side of the courthouse. But as they walked toward the ancient oak, past the courthouse on their left, it came into view. They turned to the left, then strolled over the well-tended lawn. The sun shone down on them, making the gazebo’s white paint gleam and the courthouse sparkle just a bit from the granite that made up most of its facade.
“Celeste came to see me,” Ginny said as they walked.
“Of course she did. She misses Jacob, but she’s always adored you, and I know she’s happy that you’re safe. And there’s the baby, of course.”
“That’s mostly why she came.” She chewed on her lower lip as they climbed up the gazebo steps, then sat in the shade that did little to fight the Texas heat that would only get worse as summer progressed. “She asked if I wanted to move in with her.”
Ginny tried to read Marisol’s tone and face, but couldn’t quite manage it.
“She said I’d have a room and the baby’d have a nursery, and they wanted to be close to their grandson. She said that we’re family now.” Ginny didn’t look straight at her sister. She was simmering in a stew of guilt, and not just about claiming the baby was Jacob’s, but now making it seem like poor Marisol hadn’t been family enough.
Her sister turned to her with a big smile that looked a little too forced. “Honey, no. It’s okay. She’s right. We are all family now. I think it’s sweet of them to suggest it.” She rubbed her palms down her jeans, a sure sign that she was uncomfortable. “What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know. I—I wanted to know what you thought.”
For a second, she thought Marisol would really talk to her. That she’d give her the kind of advice that their mother might have shared. But then Marisol just smiled again and hugged her tight and said, “Baby, whatever you decide, you know that I’m there for you.”
Ginny looked down at the whitewashed planks under her feet. “You don’t think I should?” Was that good? Did that lessen the lie if she didn’t move in with them?
Marisol stood up. “I’m sorry, but I have to get back to the shop.”
Ginny grabbed her sister’s hand and held her in place. “Marisol—come on. Talk to me.”
Her sister tugged her hand away, then shoved both into the back pockets of her jeans as she studied one of the gazebo’s posts. “I’ll just miss you if you go,” she said.
And while Ginny knew that was true—and that she’d miss Marisol, too—she still didn’t know what to do.
Marisol squirted some Windex on the glass case inside Cuppa Joe and started to shine the glass. As she did, she caught Mallory’s reflection, hovering somewhere over the pumpkin spice cupcakes. “There’s still a little coffee in the pot, Mallory, if you want it. But drink up because once I’m finished doing this and tomorrow’s prep work, I’m out of here.”
“Thanks for letting me hang, Ms. Moreno.”
“Marisol, and you’re welcome.” She glanced at the case, saw that an even dozen assorted cupcakes were left over to end the day. And she knew just how tight money was at the Alvarez house. “You want to do me a favor and take eight of these home with you? If I take them all, we’ll just eat them, and trust me when I say that my family gets more than enough in the way of cupcakes and muffins.”
“Come pick your flavors.” She put together a pastry box, lined it with tissue, and gestured for Mallory to go behind the counter and help herself.
“Okay. That’s really awesome of you. Thanks.”
“You’re very welcome.” She’d already locked the door, and was surprised to hear a tap on the glass. Cuppa Joe was popular, but people rarely demanded entrance.
She headed that way and opened the blinds, then hurried to unlock the door when she saw who it was—Celeste Salt.
“Celeste. Come in.” She ushered her inside, and the two women hugged, and Marisol was struck by how easy it was to bond over shared grief. She’d known Celeste forever, of course, but it had been Ginny and Jacob who were tight. The rest of the family members had drifted along casually.
“Is something wrong?”
“No, no. Am I interrupting?”
Marisol shook her head. “I’m just cleaning. I close the shop at five on Tuesdays. The crowds thin out during the evenings until the weekend.”
“Of course,” said Celeste, though it was clear she couldn’t care less. “I was just—well, I wanted to talk to you about something.”
Marisol froze because she knew what was coming. But she pretended she didn’t. “Sure,” she said brightly. “Of course. Do you want coffee?”
“No, no.” She pointed to a table. “Can we sit?”
“Oh. Sure. Yeah.” They each took a chair at a small round table, and Celeste clasped her hands together.
“Well.” She cleared her throat. “I suppose I should just dive right in,” she said with a small laugh. “You see, Travis and I would like Ginny to move into our home.”
“Oh. I see.” Marisol licked her lips, not sure why she was pretending like Ginny hadn’t already told her. Maybe she wanted to hear it from Celeste. The what and the why of it. Maybe if Celeste wanted to take away Marisol’s little sister, then Marisol wanted to hear all of it straight from Celeste.
She wasn’t sure, but she said nothing else as Celeste continued, talking about having someone at home to take care of Ginny during the pregnancy, about Jacob and wanting to feel close to him, about being part of the family now and the baby having a nursery and how Celeste had already talked to Ginny but feared that Ginny didn’t want to hurt Marisol. And on and on and on until Marisol was just sitting there feeling numb.
“I’ve overwhelmed you.”
“I’ve angered you.”
“No! Really. I’m just—” What? What was she?
She blinked, then grappled for something to say. “What about Lacey? Won’t it be strange having Jacob’s best friend in the house?”
Celeste sat back. “Well, this has all been hard on her, of course. But she’s my steady one. And the truth is that she’s always felt like she was part of your family—you’ve always been so sweet to her that I know she thinks of you as a big sister.”
“Really? She’s a great kid.”
“She is,” Celeste agreed. “And she adores Ginny.”
“She wouldn’t resent her? Or the baby? Lacey is going to need you and Travis and Sara Jane now more than ever.”
“I promise you there’s no resentment. And Travis and I have enough love to go around. Lacey’s always been such an adult. You know. Responsible. Smart.” She nodded firmly, almost as if she was sealing a bargain—or maybe convincing herself. “This is a good decision, for the entire family. And you, Marisol, are part of our family too now.”
Marisol drew in a long, slow breath, trying to process it all. Everything Celeste said about Lacey was true. Goodness knew Marisol had known the girl for years, both through Jacob and from the part-time work she did at Cuppa Joe. And although Marisol had always feared that Lacey Salt was the kind of girl who might go a little wild when given the chance—like when she finally went away for college—Marisol knew that maybe she was just projecting her own life onto the seventeen-year-old. Because Marisol had never had the chance to go wild, and there were times when, in her fantasies, she pretended that she hadn’t shouldered the world. That she’d shrugged instead and let the responsibilities roll off her.
But she hadn’t. She’d survived—hell, she’d thrived. And Lacey would too.
Still, as hard as Marisol had worked, it had never been enough for her shattered family. Wasn’t the fact that Celeste was sitting there now proof of that? She felt her throat thicken and cursed, because she’d done enough crying over the last few days to last a lifetime. “I’ve tried so hard to give Ginny and Luis everything, but I can’t give them what you’re offering.” She felt the tears sting her eyes. “And I know I should be grateful to you and Travis—I do. But at the same time, I just can’t help but feel like I failed.”
She blinked hard, determined not to cry.
“Oh, Marisol, no.” Celeste was on her feet and pulling Marisol up from her chair in an instant, her arms going tight around Marisol. “I told you—we’re family now, too. And as family, I think I’m allowed to say that you’ve done an amazing job with both the kids. Carried a terrible burden. And now it’s time to let someone else help shoulder the load.”
And that was all it took. The tears flowed like a faucet. And for the first time in a long time, Marisol felt like a child again, being held in the arms of her mother.
“I’ll talk to her,” Marisol said when the tears slowed enough that she could speak. “It’s up to Ginny, but I’ll tell her that I don’t mind. And that I think it’s probably even a good idea.”
“Do you?” Celeste pulled away, her brow furrowing as she looked Marisol over.
“I’ll miss having her at home, but now it’s not just about Ginny. It’s about the baby, too. So yeah. I do.” She reached out and took Celeste’s hand and squeezed hard. “Jacob adored you and Travis, you know. I guess—well, I guess now I see why.”
It wasn’t until after Celeste left that Marisol remembered Mallory. She flipped the lock on the door and turned back to the counter to see the girl sheepishly rising.
“I didn’t know what to do. It was all so serious, and I didn’t want to interrupt. I’m sorry I heard everything.” She licked her lips. “I didn’t know Ginny was pregnant. Luis didn’t say.”
“Don’t blame him. I asked him not to. Not until Ginny was ready.”
Mallory nodded. “I get that.” She hooked a thumb toward the door. “I should go,” she said.
She came out from around the counter, the box of cupcakes in her hand. “Um, Marisol? Are you okay?”
“Sure. I’m fine.” Marisol forced a smile and tried again. “I’m just fine,” she repeated, and wondered if she said it often enough if it would somehow, someway, turn out to be true.
Joanne jumped, startled out of her thoughts. Which, frankly, was a good thing, as she’d been thinking about Dillon since he’d approached her yesterday. And thinking about Dillon was a dangerous thing.
She put the iron down and leaned sideways so that she could see Dakota as she burst through the front door. “In here!” she called from where she had the portable ironing board set up on top of the kitchen table. She’d told Hector she would be done with all the laundry by the time he got home. He hated it when the kitchen wasn’t tidy and her housework was scattered everywhere.
But today was hard, as she’d ended up staying at work past closing just to help get all the orders organized and ready for the funeral in two days. She’d been happy to help, but now she was running behind.
“Look!” Dakota demanded, indicating a nasty brown blob on a white linen shirt.
“Oh, sweetie. What happened?”
Her oldest daughter frowned, even as Mallory trotted in from the living area where she’d been playing some very loud video game on the system that Jeffry Rush had lent her. Joanne hated that they couldn’t afford to get Mallory a system of her own, but at least she had a good circle of friends.
“What’s going on?” Mallory asked.
“You, take over this,” Joanne said, handing Mallory the iron. She pointed to Dakota. “You, take off the shirt.”
It would be close, she knew. Mallory wasn’t nearly as fast or as good at ironing, but Joanne wasn’t going to turn Dakota away, especially when the girl so rarely came to her for help, preferring to curl up at Hector’s feet. She’d always been a Daddy’s girl, and that was fine. But sometimes Joanne felt invisible around her daughter.
Dakota stripped, not the least bit self-conscious. Not that she should be. As a mother, Joanne was proud of how lovely her daughter had turned out. And, as a mother, she often wished that Dakota would keep some of that loveliness hidden beneath more modest clothes.
Today she was reasonably modest, having obviously come straight from the bank.
“So why’d you spill?” Mallory asked as Joanne went to the small laundry closet to find some stain remover. “Just clumsy or did you freak when you heard the news?”
“What news?” Dakota pulled out one of the chairs and sprawled at the kitchen table. Joanne pushed aside a pile of clothes waiting to be ironed and went to work on the shirt.
“Ginny Moreno is pregnant. And it’s Jacob’s baby.”
If Joanne hadn’t been looking, she might have missed the quick, horrified expression that crossed Dakota’s face. It was gone in an instant as the girl gathered herself, and Joanne supposed that she really shouldn’t be surprised. Dakota and Jacob had gone out a few times in high school, and though her daughter never talked about boys with Joanne, it had been easy to see that Dakota had been head-over-heels for the boy. So much so that Joanne couldn’t help but wonder if his move to Austin and UT hadn’t been the driving force behind Dakota’s semi-regular diatribes about how she was going to get out of Storm and find a better job in the capital city.
But whenever Joanne had seen them together, Jacob had always seemed polite and sweet to Dakota, but he’d never given Joanne the impression of a man desperately in love.
“That’s bullshit,” Dakota said. “They’re buddies. Ginny Moreno is like Jacob’s best guy friend.”
“Yeah? Well, you’re an idiot, then, because she’s knocked up.”
“Mallory,” Joanne snapped. “Don’t speak that way to your sister.”
Mallory grimaced. “Sorry. But Dakota’s being a twit. They were always together. I mean, it’s not hard to do the math.”
“No fucking way,” Dakota said, grabbing one of Hector’s shirts from the pile of ironed laundry and shoving her arms through the sleeves. “I’m never going to believe those two screwed.”
“Were you raised in a barn? Watch your language, Dakota Alvarez.”
“Believe what you want. It’s all true. Ginny’s even going to move into the Salts’ house.”
Dakota opened her mouth, then closed it again. And though Joanne may have been mistaken, she thought she saw her daughter’s eyes glisten with tears before she leapt to her feet and turned away, ostensibly to stare into the refrigerator.
“If you’re not getting something out, shut the door,” Joanne said automatically.
A few moments passed, and then Dakota pulled out a Diet Coke and one of the cupcakes Mallory had brought home.
She popped the top, then sat back down. “It’s not true,” she said defiantly.
Mallory shrugged. “Whatever. But I was in Cuppa Joe when Marisol was talking about it to Celeste, and I think Celeste would know.”
“God, Mal. You can be such a little bitch. Why don’t you just take your—Daddy!”
Dakota jumped up and Joanne flinched as Hector burst through the screen door behind Joanne. He hugged his daughter, then shot his wife an irritated look even as Mallory put down the iron and slid quietly back into the living room to turn off Assassins Gone Wild or Bloody Zombie Mania or whatever game she’d been playing in there.
“Christ, Jo.” He held one arm around Dakota’s shoulders, and Joanne was suddenly remarkably, fully, completely happy that her daughter had come by. Right then, she needed the buffer. “I work a long day and have to come home to this shit?”
He was standing a few feet away, but she could smell the oil and gasoline on his coverall. Along with the beer.
“Sorry. I was helping Dakota.”
“Honest, Daddy. I got her all off schedule.”
“Well, then I guess we’ll have to let this one slide.” He bent to kiss Dakota’s upraised cheek, looking entirely like the loving father and strong, sexy husband that she wanted…and worked so hard to have.
But he’s not. And people are starting to see that.
Flustered, she untied her apron, then started to refold the already folded laundry.
People like Dillon.
“Mallory!” She forced herself to focus on the house. On getting tidy. On getting dinner.
It was her ticket out of this house. This moment.
“Clear the table and start cutting up some potatoes to boil.”
“What’s for dinner?” Hector said.
“A surprise.” She kissed him on the cheek. “But I forgot one thing. I need to run to H-E-B, and then I’ll be right back.”
She took advantage of the fact that he wouldn’t lose his temper now, not with Dakota clinging to him. She grabbed her purse and her keys and ran the opposite direction out the front door, just so she wouldn’t have to squeeze past her husband to get out the back.
That meant she had to walk all the way around to get to her car in the driveway, but that was okay. And even though she saw him standing in the doorway looking curious and a little steamed, she didn’t stop. She just got in the car, backed it out, and drove and drove and drove until she was all the way to the outskirts of town.
Christ, she wasn’t even sure where she was going or what she was doing.
She had to hit H-E-B on the way home, that was for sure. But other than that…other than that she was a mess.
She tasted salt and realized that she was crying.
And then she realized that she was just a few blocks from Dillon’s house.
No, no, no.
What was she thinking? What was she doing?
She slammed on the brakes, then just sat in the road, her hands tight on the steering wheel.
And then she breathed in and out and told herself she was a fool and that she needed to get to the grocery store.
Somehow, though, instead of ending up at H-E-B, her car ended up outside the big Grossman house. One of the larger mansions on the outskirts of town, it had been bought and paid for back when her dad had raked in some serious money doing contingency work as one of Central Texas’s leading plaintiff’s attorneys.
Finances had gotten tighter, sure, but the Grossmans were still among the town’s elite.
Joanne, however, was no longer part of the clan.
She sat on the road in her shabby Oldsmobile and thought about everything she’d given up and the man she’d given it up for. He loved her. She knew it. He just had a temper. And she just always seemed to be triggering it. But if she could just do better…
She needed to be more understanding. More helpful. More calming.
With a sigh, she started to put the car back into gear. But the door opened, and she saw her mother, Debbie, hurrying down the sidewalk toward her, looking perfectly coiffed despite probably spending the entire day inside.
“Sweetheart,” she said once she’d hurried across the street and Joanne had rolled down the window. “What are you doing here?” She kept her voice a whisper. As if Robert Grossman could hear every little thing said in his corner of the world. “Is everything okay?”
“Sure, Mom. Everything’s great. I was just—I don’t know. Melancholy, I guess.”
“Do you want me to meet you somewhere?”
Joanne pressed her lips together and shook her head. She wanted to go in and sit at the table she’d sat at so often as a child. But she wasn’t welcome inside anymore.
“So, can I ask—I mean, Daddy did some bad stuff, right? I mean, he hurt you. A lot. When he walked away from me, I mean. And with him ignoring my kids. Pretending like none of us exist.”
Deborah nodded slowly, a little hesitantly. “He did. He hurt me a lot. He hurt both of us.”
Joanne licked her lips. “But you’re still with him.”
“Well, I love him. I love you, too, baby. That’s why I still see you, even though I know it would make your father angry.”
“But he was wrong. He just shut me out, and that was horrible.”
Her mother sighed, her eyes full of torment. “What he did was wrong, but I understand why he did it. Joanne, if this is about Hector…” She trailed off with a shake of her head. “We both know he drinks too much. And you can say what you want, baby, but you were never a clumsy girl.”
“He loves me, Mom. And he’s never hurt me. Not really.”
But her protests were no use. She could see in her eyes that Deborah didn’t believe her.
Worse, Joanne was starting to wonder if she even believed it herself.
Ginny stood by the brass plaque that designated the magnificent Rush Mansion as a National Historic Registry home and wondered what the hell she’d been thinking.
At the time, it had seemed perfectly reasonable to tell Marisol that she’d go pick up Luis from Jeffry’s house. Even though Jeffry’s house also happened to be Senator Rush’s house. In Ginny’s apparently pregnancy-addled brain, she’d thought that because she was so totally over him that it wouldn’t be completely insane to be in his house. To possibly bump into him.
Stupid, stupid, stupid, and she blamed her raging idiocy on her hormones. She didn’t want to see him. She didn’t want to talk to him.
And what the hell would she say if he asked about the baby?
She told herself to calm down. He wouldn’t say anything. For that matter, no one was saying anything.
If people knew she was pregnant—which they must, because this was Storm and it was like gossip central—they were keeping quiet. At least around her.
Frankly, she was glad. And she figured that was about the only perk of being in the accident, too. So long as she still had the bandage on her cheek and forearm, she was probably safe from the gossip mill.
And goodness knew the senator would keep quiet, too.
“Miss Ginny!” Carmen, the Rush’s housekeeper, opened the door and ushered her inside. “I am so glad to see you looking so well.” Carmen had moved to Storm from Laredo when Jeffry was a baby, and so Ginny had known her almost her whole life, as she’d been in the park with Jeffry whenever Ginny was there with Luis.
“Thanks, Carmen,” she said, stepping inside and accepting the matronly woman’s bone-crushing hug. “I’m supposed to fetch Luis home. Marisol went all out with the cooking.”
“Well, good for her. She’s got a knack for pastries, I must say.”
“She’s good with a steak, too. And she splurged on ribeyes.”
“Well, then we do need to get you home. Come on. Come on.”
Ginny knew the house well. Brittany Rush was one of her closest friends, and she’d been in the Rush house hundreds of times. Being here now gave her a little pang because usually Jacob was with them. She wished that Brit were back from Austin, but her parents had made her stay at school to finish out finals. Brit had been pissed as hell, and they’d cried on the phone together, but in the end, Sebastian and Payton had won out.
Ginny understood that Brit couldn’t toss aside a full year of college—really she did—but she longed to have her friend by her side. Especially now. In this house. His house.
With a sigh, she followed Carmen through the foyer with its vaulted ceiling and dark colors, past the living room, and then into the massive game room filled with everything from old-fashioned freestanding video games to an electronic descending screen for the massive projection entertainment center now displaying a wild car chase.
Jeffry looked up from the game controls, then nudged Luis. On screen, Luis’s Ferrari spun out of control and crashed into a concrete barrier. “Hey! Oh—Ginny. We gotta go?”
Luis stood up and shrugged. “It’s okay.”
Ginny almost smiled. Despite everything, it amused her how conciliatory her little brother was to her lately. And all she’d had to do was lose her best friend and have her life turned upside down.
They followed Jeffry back toward the front door, and as they were walking, Senator Rush stepped out of his office, calling for Carmen. “Oh—Jeffry. I didn’t realize you had company.”
“Ginny just came to pick up Luis.”
The senator inclined his head. “Ginny. I’m so glad to see you’re looking well after your accident. Horrible tragedy. Horrible.”
“Yes, sir,” she said, managing to unclench her jaw. The man wasn’t even looking her in the eye. He was looking at a spot just over her ear. And he had that fake politician expression of concern.
“My wife will be sorry she missed you.” Was it her imagination, or had he overemphasized the word wife? “She was asking your brother earlier how you were doing.”
“Please tell Mrs. Rush I’m doing pretty good, all things considered.” She forced a pleasant smile. “Luis, we really should get home. Marisol’s waiting.”
Senator Rush didn’t even say good-bye. He just turned back the way he’d come and disappeared into his office.
Only when they were in the car did Ginny breathe regularly.
“He just makes me nervous. Senator Fancy Pants.”
“Yeah,” Luis said. “You and Jeffry both.”
“Really? Jeffry’s scared of his dad?”
“Scared? I dunno. Intimidated, I guess. Not much of a dad, you know.” He dragged his fingers through his curly black hair. “I think about Mom and Dad sometimes when I’m over there with the senator and Mrs. Rush. I mean, I miss them so much. And I think they would have been awesome parents. Not intimidating like your Senator Fancy Pants.”
“He’s not my senator,” Ginny said firmly as she started the car.
And he wasn’t going to be her baby’s either.
Dillon approached it like a case.
Joanne was a victim.
He was the investigating officer.
And goddammit, he was going to investigate, which he did with gusto.
He went first to talk to Joanne’s sister, and he stood like a true Texan in the barn while Hannah performed a well-check on a pregnant cow out at Zeke’s ranch. That, frankly, was a first for him.
“Look, Sheriff, I know the score and so do you. But neither one of us has proof, and Joanne’s not going to be any help there. And I get that. I’ve read the articles about women in abusive relationships. But I don’t know what to do. How to help her. I mean, I thank God she’s never had a broken bone—but I’m certain he slaps her around, and I know he treats her like his little wife-bitch. Sorry. It just pisses me off.”
“It pisses me off, too.”
She stepped away from the cow, her boots making a sucking noise as she moved through the muck. She wiped her palms on her jeans. “Honestly, I feel as useless as I do when I’ve got an animal I have to put down. I want to help, but I don’t know how.”
Dillon nodded. “Be there for her. Pay attention. And keep a record of what you see. And you tell me. If you see him raise a hand to her, you tell me.”
He was certain she would. Hannah Grossman loved her sister, but like so many family members of abuse victims, she didn’t want to believe it was really happening, and if she did believe, she wasn’t sure what to do about it.
And whether she wanted him to or not, Dillon was going to help Joanne.
He got back in his cruiser and left the ranch, speeding down the winding county road with the oaks and barbed wire lining the path, and cows and goats and horses grazing on the green summer grass that would turn brown in the Texas heat soon enough.
He told himself he was doing the right thing. That he had an obligation to help. He wasn’t sticking his nose in where it didn’t belong. He was the law, goddamn it. And just because he didn’t have the kind of evidence to take to court didn’t mean he didn’t know that the evidence was out there. Know that he had to somehow, someway, convince Joanne to talk to him.
As soon as he hit the town proper, he slowed down, maneuvering through the streets lined with houses accented by lovely, shaded lawns. He headed farther north until he reached the area just outside of old town. Here, the houses had just as much potential as those within the tourist circle, but most of the owners had neither the time nor the money to fulfill the hidden potential.
He ended up on Houston Street, then slowed as he approached the Alvarez house. Tidy, but rundown. A lot of the fading beauty of that house could easily be fixed if Hector Alvarez got off his ass and did some work instead of guzzling beer at Murphy’s Pub and then heading home to guzzle some more.
He parked the cruiser, then got out and started walking up the sidewalk toward the front door, but the sound of voices from the back caused him to shift direction. He cut across the lawn, then started up the crepe myrtle-lined driveway.
“I’m sorry, Hector. I guess I opened my door too fast. I didn’t mean to—”
“Dammit, Jo!” They were standing between Joanne’s piece of shit Oldsmobile and Hector’s polished and babied—and now scratched—Buick. As Dillon approached, Hector lashed out, slapping Joanne hard across her cheek even as Dillon shouted for him to stop.
“It’s all good, Sheriff,” Hector said, stepping back and raising his hands in supplication as Dillon pulled his weapon and kept it on Hector.
Joanne had buried her face in her hands. She was looking at the ground. Not at him. Not at Hector.
Her shoulders were shaking, and right then Dillon wanted two things. To comfort her. And to blow the head off the fuckwad standing in front of him.
Right then, he couldn’t do either.
“Hands behind your head, asshole.”
“Sure thing, Sheriff.” Hector moved slowly, all polite sugar now. “This here’s just a misunderstanding.”
“Misunderstanding? I don’t think so. I think it’s assault. And I’m pretty sure that hospital records are going to show a pattern. You’re a good-looking man, Hector. I think you’ll be very popular in prison.”
Hector didn’t say a word, but Dillon saw both fear and hate in the other man’s eyes.
“Please.” That one soft word came from Joanne. “Please, Sheriff. Just leave it be. Please.”
“Joanne. This has to stop.”
She lifted her head, finally looking at him. “It’s not what you think. And it’s not your business. It’s not.”
“The hell it’s not. I’m the sheriff here,” he said, even though what he wanted to say was that he loved her. That when Hector hit her, he’d felt it as violently as a blow to his gut. But that wasn’t the point. Or maybe it was, but he knew enough not to tell her that. Not yet.
“You can’t arrest him, Sheriff. You just can’t.” Her pretty face was flustered. Maybe a little bit scared. But because of him or Hector, Dillon wasn’t sure.
Dillon shifted his weight from one foot to the other as he considered his options. He ought to cuff Hector. Take him to the courthouse and toss him in jail. But Joanne was so fragile he feared she’d shrivel up when the gossip started to flow.
That option was risky, too. He’d seen Hector hit her, and hospital records should prove a pattern of abuse. But in truth he wasn’t as confident of the outcome as he’d pretended just now. Dillon had no control over the jury, the sentence, or the term of incarceration. Hector could end up on probation, and wouldn’t that be a pisser?
If Dillon walked away right now with a warning, Hector would rein himself in for a day or two, but after that the gloves would come off again. That’s the way it was with serial abusers. And next time it would be more than a slap on the face or a sprained wrist.
That meant Dillon needed to go with door number three. Joanne wouldn’t like it, but she didn’t have to know. And the truth was, it was Dillon’s job to protect the people in his jurisdiction. Even if they didn’t want protecting.
And even if his methods crossed over into the gray side of the law.
It rained on the day of Jacob Salt’s funeral. The kind of wild Texas thunderstorm where the clouds roll in like gray balls of cotton pushed across the sky by an angry wind. The trees swayed. Old newspapers blew across streets. The sky turned eerily green, and once the rain began to fall, a curtain of steam rose from the sunbaked asphalt.
Inside the Lutheran Church, there was a different kind of storm. An emotional battering as Pastor Douglas spoke to the packed pews about the destruction of youth and the shattering of dreams. “Jacob Salt lived a full life in the time that he had. He had family and friends who he loved. He was a calming presence in the center of a town that has seen its share of storms. And while we mourn his passing, we are grateful for the time that he had, and our lives are enriched in having known him. We go forth knowing that he is with us, a piece of Jacob goes on in memories, in family, in love.”
Pastor Douglas looked at Ginny as he spoke the last, and she met his eyes, calmly accepting the truth of his words. She and Marisol had decided that they would remain quiet about the pregnancy for at least a few more weeks, but that didn’t change the fact that most everyone in Storm already knew. By the time they were willing to talk about it openly, they probably wouldn’t have to tell anyone.
As the pastor wrapped up the service, telling the mourners that Jacob’s parents would be going across the street to the square to scatter Jacob’s ashes under the Storm Oak that he loved so much, Ginny glanced around the standing-room-only crowd. Everyone from town was there. Some she’d known her whole life, and some she just recognized in passing. Surely they all had secrets, too. Lies they’d told. Quiet guilt that they held close, because to reveal it would cause an even bigger hurt.
Because it would. She was certain of it.
And, yes, she’d finally made up her mind.
Across the aisle, Ginny saw Dakota Alvarez standing near Senator Rush, and she hugged herself tight. She was so over Senator Rush it wasn’t even funny. Ginny didn’t care who the biological father might be; in her heart, her baby’s daddy was Jacob. And that’s just the way it was going to be.
Marisol and Luis were on either side of Ginny, keeping her steady. And even though Ginny wasn’t even interested in looking the senator’s way, she appreciated the small smile of solidarity from Jeffry Rush and his mother, Payton. Ginny’s best friend, Brit, was there, too, having arrived back home in Storm less than an hour before the service began. Her eyes shone with tears, but she held Ginny’s gaze for a moment, giving her silent strength.
Travis and Celeste were in the pew in front of her, clutching each other’s hands in support. They were flanked by Lacey and Sara Jane, and although they’d invited Ginny to sit with them, she’d turned them down. She would be part of their family soon enough. Today she was content to look at them. At this gift of family that Jacob had left her. One more small miracle carved out of the most horrible tragedy.
The Salts started to file out of the pew and down the aisle, but Celeste paused beside Ginny, then held out her hand so Ginny could join them. They walked together out into the storm, which was miraculously letting up and had actually stopped by the time they reached Storm Oak.
Travis kept his arm around Celeste’s waist, giving her his support until the rest who were joining them beneath the tree arrived. As it turned out, that was everyone.
And then, with the crowd gathered around, Travis released his wife. She kept her hand pressed against his back as he opened the bronze urn and scattered their son’s ashes beneath the ancient oak tree.
“We love you, son,” Travis said. “And we miss you.”
It wasn’t profound. It wasn’t religious. It was simple and heartfelt, and not one person who’d heard those words had a dry eye.
Slowly, the crowd broke up. Some remained, huddled together to chat. Others headed on to Murphy’s Pub, where the local restaurants were offering up a potluck for mourners and where Aiden Murphy was supplying free beer.
Ginny went to Celeste and Travis. “I wanted to say thank you. And—if you still want me—then I do want to move in. This is Jacob’s baby as much as mine,” she added, determined to make the words as true as they could be. “And we want to be with family.”
Celeste pulled her into an enthusiastic hug. And Travis’s, though more subdued, was no less genuine.
“We need to get you settled.” She frowned. “But we need to go to Murphy’s. After?”
Ginny nodded, content to follow Celeste’s lead. Travis held up his phone. “Just got a text. I need to pop into the pharmacy for about half an hour.” He pulled them each close, then kissed each of their foreheads.
Then as he walked one way and they walked the other, Ginny paused and looked back at the tree. As she did, the sun peeked out from behind the remaining clouds and wide beams of sunlight burst down through the tree’s thick canopy, illuminating Jacob’s ashes and lighting the way to a new beginning.
Travis Salt walked as fast as seemed prudent across Pecan Street to his store, Prost Pharmacy. The closed sign was still in the window, the shade on the front door pulled down. Everything was just as he’d left it when he’d closed up that morning and then made the short walk to the church to meet Celeste and the girls.
He knew Celeste had been frustrated that he’d gone to work that morning, but as the town’s only pharmacist with the exception of Thom, who worked full time at the hospital, there were things he had to do.
Which was true, but also a crock of shit. He’d needed to be alone. He’d needed time to breathe.
Now, though, alone wasn’t what he wanted at all.
His hand shook as he put his key in the lock. Such a simple task and he could hardly manage it. Could hardly manage his own goddamn life anymore.
Jacob was dead. His son was dead.
He felt numb. He felt lost.
Once inside, he closed the door behind him, saw that the alarm had already been disengaged, and reset it. If anyone came through that door, he damn sure wanted to know about it.
The lights were off except for the row of fluorescents he kept illuminated, so that everything was in full view through the big display window that fronted the square. Passersby could see the merchandise in the front of the store, as well as the old-fashioned soda fountain that ran parallel with the left wall.
He knew the shelves were tidy, full of everything from over-the-counter meds to basic office supplies to candy and cards.
He knew the soda fountain’s red Formica bar top gleamed and the chrome trim on the bar and stools sparkled.
Today, he didn’t care about any of that. Instead, he hurried to the back. To the pharmacy proper.
He lifted that hinged section of counter, walked past the cash register, then the shelves of pharmaceuticals, then past his workstation, which was hidden from customers’ view.
Finally, he reached his private office, a small room with a tiny window that overlooked the pharmacy and the shop beyond. The window had blinds, and right now they were shut tight.
As a rule, he left the office locked. He tried the door, then smiled when the knob turned easily.
He pushed open the door, stepped inside, and felt the weight of the world slip away when he saw her sitting on his small sofa. Kristin Douglas stood, then walked to him, her red hair practically crackling with the force of the emotion he saw on her face and in her sad blue eyes.
“I’ve missed you,” she whispered as she slid into his arms, and that was all it took to break him.
The sobs he’d been holding in burst free and he clung to her, his body wracked with grief. “I haven’t—I couldn’t—” He sputtered the words, wanting her to understand. Knowing that she already did. “I’ve had to be so strong. But I’m not strong. Oh, God, Kristin. How can he be gone?”
“Shh. It’s okay, sweetheart. And you are strong, and the death of a child would destroy anyone. But you stayed steady. You helped them, and that’s good, but let me help you now.”
He nodded, clinging to her, letting the sobs fade, knowing that she was there for him. His secret strength.
Finally he pulled back, then searched her eyes. “God, but I’ve missed you. I need you, Kristin. You know that I need you. What would I do if I didn’t have you to come to?”
He saw pleasure flicker in her eyes, shining past the grief. “You’ll never have to find out,” she said.
And then, because they both needed it, he drew her close, then kissed her hard, letting himself forget everything but this woman, this moment. Letting the passion between them grow wilder and more frenzied until clothes were coming off and skin was touching skin. Until he couldn’t wait any longer to have her, and they both lost themselves in each other, and they left the horror and pain of the last few days far, far behind.
Dillon wasn’t surprised that Hector wasn’t at Jacob Salt’s funeral. More than that, he considered it a perk.
It let Dillon enjoy the luxury of watching Joanne, her eyes misty as she listened to Pastor Douglas and then, by the tree, to Travis.
But he didn’t talk to her. Not today. Not when he was about to do what he was about to do.
When the crowd on the square scattered—most heading to Murphy’s Pub for shared grief and beer—Dillon got back in his cruiser. No one would question his absence. As sheriff, he often missed out on town gatherings. That was part of the job, after all. Being out there in the world protecting and serving.
Right now, he intended to do a little of both.
He got in his cruiser and headed to the Alvarez house, hoping that Hector was still there. If he’d decided to come back to the square for the drinking part of the afternoon, this was going to be a very short trip.
But no, his car was still there. And he saw as he walked down the driveway to the backyard that the paint scratch that had bent Hector so out of shape had already been buffed out and polished.
And just that one small thing—that Hector obviously cared more about his Buick than his wife—added extra fire to Dillon’s determination.
He moved quietly up the back steps, then entered the house, not surprised to find it unlocked. Hector wasn’t the kind of man who worried. Today, he should have.
Dillon found him in the living room, and after staring at him for a second, Hector leapt to his feet.
“Get the hell out of my house, Sheriff.”
“No, Hector. You’re the one getting out of your house. So go pack whatever shit you can’t live without, get in that car you love so much, and get the fuck out of Storm.”
Hector barked out a laugh. He took a step toward Dillon. “Fuck. You.”
“Fair enough,” Dillon said, then hauled back and punched the asshole right in the face.
As he’d expected, Hector cried out, recovered quickly, and then delivered a return punch that rattled Dillon’s skull and had him stumbling backward.
Dillon drew his weapon and held it on the other man. Hector had been moving forward for another blow, but now he stopped cold, his hands in the air.
“Whoa, whoa, man.”
“You’re leaving, Hector. You’re leaving now.”
Hector shook his head, then took another step toward him. Dillon cocked the revolver. He’d brought the revolver specifically because cocking the hammer had a definite psychological impact on the person at the other end of the gun’s barrel. A nice little benefit you didn’t get with a Glock.
“You can’t shoot me. You fire your weapon, it has to be examined. Anybody who’s seen a crime show knows that.”
“You’re more clever than I thought. But you missed two points. First, I’m the sheriff. If anyone can manage to circumvent those rules, it’s me. And two, that applies to service weapons. This is from my own personal collection. My service pistol’s in the gun safe at home.”
Hector shook his head, and Dillon was gratified to see he looked a little nervous. He lifted a hand and rubbed his aching cheek and jaw, already swollen from Hector’s bashing. “Now go,” he said. “Go pack.”
“You can’t make me leave. Not like that.”
“No? Then how about like this: I came by to ask you a few questions about some vandalism at the square.” Apparently some middle school kids had gotten their hands on some spray paint. Not exactly the crime of the century, but it served Dillon’s purpose well enough. “You invited me in. Following me so far, Hector?”
Hector said nothing.
“Once I was inside, you jumped me. I defended myself. You came at me again. I shot you in self-defense. You fell to the ground, then died. I tried to stop the bleeding, but it was too late. As I was helping you, I discovered a bag of heroin in your jacket pocket, which explained why you’d jumped me, as a vandalism charge didn’t seem worth it. The internal investigation goes away because not only is the situation squeaky clean, but because no one bothers to look too hard. After all, you’re not a popular guy, Hector. Not anymore. And what’s one less asshole drug dealer in the world? We don’t put up with that kind of shit in Storm.”
Hector’s face had turned a sickly gray. “You motherfucker.”
Dillon just smiled, thin and determined. “Leave, Hector. Pack a bag. Toss it in your car. And leave. Do it in the next five minutes, and that story is just that—a story. Don’t, and it becomes an unpleasant reality.”
Hector left. He bitched and swore and said he loved his wife and his kids, but in the end, he loved being alive more.
He packed light, but pulled what looked to be several thousand dollars out of the very back of his bedside drawer. Dillon watched him pack—watched him like a goddamn hawk—just in case Hector had his own gun stowed away. Just in case Hector intended to use it.
But no. After five minutes, Hector was tossing his duffel in his back seat, then pulling out of the driveway.
Just to make sure, Dillon followed him out of town. And then, just to be even more sure, he followed him for another hour, all the way to San Antonio.
Dillon took his time coming home, and the sun was setting as he got back to Storm, the sky vibrant and alive with the wild colors that always illuminated the sunset after a day of storms.
He went back to the square, then sat in the gazebo. Just sat there as the sky shifted from blue to orange to a deep, deep purple.
And as night fell, Dillon stood up and walked to the courthouse and his office.
Soon it would be a new day. He damn sure hoped it would be a good one.
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Rising Storm story
Storm Season: Ginny & Jacob – the Prequel
by Dee Davis
Where passion runs hot, desire runs deep, and secrets have the power to destroy…
Nestled among rolling hills and painted with vibrant wildflowers, the bucolic town of Storm, Texas, seems like nothing short of perfection.
But there are secrets beneath the facade. Dark secrets. Powerful secrets. The kind that can destroy lives and tear families apart. The kind that can cut through a town like a tempest, leaving jealousy and destruction in its wake, along with shattered hopes and broken dreams. All it takes is one little thing to shatter that polish.
Rising Storm is a series conceived by Julie Kenner and Dee Davis to read like an on-going drama. Set in a small Texas town, Rising Storm is full of scandal, deceit, romance, passion, and secrets. Lots of secrets.
Get ready. The storm is coming.
Click to purchase.
Rising Storm, Season One
[+ Tempest Rising+] by Julie Kenner
Ginny Moreno didn’t mean to do it, but when she came home to Storm, she brought the tempest with her. And now everyone will be caught in its fury…
[+ White Lightning+] by Lexi Blake
As the citizens of Storm, Texas, sway in the wake of the death of one of their own, Daddy’s girl Dakota Alvarez also reels from an unexpected family crisis … and finds consolation in a most unexpected place.
[+ Crosswinds+] by Elisabeth Naughton
Lacey Salt’s world shattered with the death of her brother, and now the usually sweet-tempered girl is determined to take back some control—even if that means sabotaging her best friend, Mallory, and Mallory’s new boyfriend, Luis.
[+ Dance in the Wind+] by Jennifer Probst
During his time in Afghanistan, Logan Murphy has endured the unthinkable, but reentering civilian life in Storm is harder than he imagined. But when he is reacquainted with Ginny Moreno, a woman who has survived terrors of her own, he feels the first stirrings of hope.
by Larissa Ione
Marcus Alvarez fled Storm when his father’s drinking drove him over the edge. With his mother and sisters in crisis, Marcus is forced to return to the town he thought he’d left behind. But it is his attraction to a very grown up Brittany Rush that just might be enough to guarantee that he stays.
[+ Take the Storm+] by Rebecca Zanetti
Marisol Moreno has spent her youth taking care of her younger siblings. Now, with her sister, Ginny, in crisis, and her brother in the throes of his first real relationship, she doesn’t have time for anything else. Especially not the overtures of the incredibly compelling Patrick Murphy.
[+ Weather the Storm+] by Lisa Mondello
Bryce Douglas faces a crisis of faith when his idyllic view of his family is challenged with his son’s diagnosis of autism. Instead of accepting his wife and her tight-knit family’s comfort, he pushes them away, fears from his past threatening to undo the happiness he’s found in his present.
[+ Thunder Rolls+] by Dee Davis
In the season finale …
As Hannah Grossman grapples with the very real possibility that she is dating one Johnson brother while secretly in love with another, the entire town prepares for Founders Day. The building tempest threatens not just Hannah’s relationship with Tucker and Tate, but everyone in Storm as dire revelations threaten to tear the town apart.
Rising Storm, Midseason
by Lexi Blake
In the wake of Dakota’s revelations, the whole town is reeling. Ginny Moreno has lost everything. Logan Murphy is devastated by her lies. Brittany Rush sees her family in a horrifying new light. And nothing will ever be the same…
by Larissa Ione
As Sebastian and Marylee plot to cover up Sebastian’s sexual escapade, Ginny and Dakota continue to reel from the fallout of Dakota’s announcement. But it is the Rush family that’s left to pick up the pieces as Payton, Brittany and Jeffry each cope with Sebastian’s betrayal in their own way…
Rising Storm, Season Two
[+ Against the Wind+] by Rebecca Zanetti
As Tate Johnson works to find a balance between his ambitions for political office and the fallout of his brother’s betrayal, Zeke is confronted with his brother Chase’s return home. And while Bryce and Tara Daniels try to hold onto their marriage, Kristin continues to entice Travis into breaking his vows…
[+ Storm Warning+] by Larissa Ione
As Joanne Alvarez settles into life without Hector, her children still struggle with the fallout. Marcus confronts the differences between him and Brittany, while Dakota tries to find a new equilibrium. Meanwhile, the Johnson’s grapple with war between two sets of brothers, and Ian Briggs rides into town…
[+ Brave the Storm+] by Lisa Mondello
As Senator Rush’s poll numbers free fall, Marylee tries to drive a wedge between Brittany and Marcus. Across town, Anna Mae and Chase dance toward reconciliation. Ginny longs for Logan, while he fights against Sebastian’s maneuvering. And Hector, newly freed from prison, heads back to Storm…
[+ Lightning Strikes+] by Lexi Blake
As Ian Briggs begins to fall for Marisol, Joanne and Dillon also grow closer. Joanne’s new confidence spreads to Dakota but Hector’s return upends everything. A public confrontation between Marcus and Hector endangers his relationship with Brittany, and Dakota reverts to form. Meanwhile, the Senator threatens Ginny and the baby…
[+ Fire and Rain+] by R.K. Lilley
As Celeste Salt continues to unravel in the wake of Jacob’s death, Travis grows closer with Kristin. Lacey realizes the error of her ways but is afraid it’s too late for reconciliation with her friends. Marcus and Brittany struggle with the continued fallout of Hector’s return, while Chase and Anna Mae face some hard truths about their past…
[+ Quiet Storm+] by Julie Kenner
As Mallory Alvarez and Luis Moreno grow closer, Lacey longs for forgiveness. Brittany and Marcus have a true meeting of hearts. Meanwhile, Jeffry grapples with his father’s failures and finds solace in unexpected arms. When things take a dangerous turn, Jeffry’s mother and sister, as well as his friends, unite behind him as the Senator threatens his son…
[+ Blinding Rain+] by Elisabeth Naughton
As Tate Johnson struggles to deal with his brother’s relationship with Hannah, hope asserts itself in an unexpected way. With the return of Delia Burke, Logan’s old flame, Brittany and Marcus see an opportunity to help their friend. But when the evening takes an unexpected turn, Brittany finds herself doing the last thing she expected—coming face to face with Ginny…
[+ Blue Skies+] by Dee Davis
As Celeste Salt struggles to pull herself and her family together, Dillon is called to the scene of a domestic dispute where Dakota is forced to face the truth about her father. While the Johnson’s celebrate a big announcement, Ginny is rushed to the hospital where her baby’s father is finally revealed…
Rising Storm Episode 2
By Lexi Blake
Click to purchase.
Secrets, Sex and Scandals …
Welcome to Storm, Texas, where passion runs hot, desire runs deep, and secrets have the power to destroy… Get ready. The storm is coming.
As the citizens of Storm, Texas, sway in the wake of the death of one of their own, Daddy’s girl Dakota Alvarez also reels from an unexpected family crisis … and finds consolation in a most unexpected place.
Read on for a teaser from White Lightning, Rising Storm, Episode 2
“A pretty girl like you should see the world. You would love New York and London. I’m sure you’d do well in Paris. Where are you going to college?” Sebastian took his hand off the glass and nodded. “Just a sip.”
It was actually kind of nice that he was looking out for her. No one ever did that. Most boys would be encouraging her to drink as much as she could. Dakota took another sip, managing not to choke this time. After a second the warmth settled in again. She was glad she’d come in here.
“I would love to see all those places. But I’m not in college.” She’d scored well on her SATs but not well enough to get a scholarship. “I have a job. I’m working at your savings and loan.”
“Ah.” His arm slid around the back of the booth, just brushing her shoulders. “And do you like this job? Or are you looking for something else? Something more challenging?”
She found herself cuddled up against him. He was actually pretty muscular. And he had a handsome face. Yes, he was a little older, but maybe that was a good thing. She thought briefly about the fact that this man had a wife, but let it go. If Sebastian was out instead of at home with his wife, it was likely her fault. She probably didn’t keep the man interested. “Definitely something more challenging. It’s just there aren’t a lot of jobs in Storm.”
“No, you’re certainly right about that.” His words were whispered against her ear, and she could feel the warmth of his lips there. “You should think about going to Austin. A smart girl would make friends who can get her places.”
Her heart rate skittered. His hand found her thigh and her mind was whirling. She was allowed another sip, a heartier one this time. She might not be used to the powerful liquor, but she thought she could learn pretty fast.
A smart girl knew how to work the system. Senator Sebastian Rush was the most powerful man in Storm. Could he get her out of this town? Could he find her a job with prospects?
She didn’t protest when he brushed his lips against her ear. She sighed because between the liquor and the little spark of hope she’d found in his words, she was feeling nice and warm.
“You are a beautiful young lady,” he whispered as his hand crept up her thigh. “You’re certainly the most beautiful thing in Storm.”
“Thank you.” She leaned back and looked up at him. Why had she thought he was old? He was mature, but still hot, still sexy. What did she want with a boy anyway? “Are you going to be staying here in town for a while?”
She wasn’t going to be some cheap one-night stand. If he was headed back to Austin in the morning, then she would have to rethink her position.
His lips curled up in a decadent smile. “I’m here all summer, baby girl. How would you like to spend some time with me?”
“Maybe that could be arranged.” It wasn’t like she had anything else to do.
“Hey, maybe when the summer is over, I can find you a job that’s more worthy of you.” One finger teased between her thighs. He was being aggressive, but somehow she found it sexy. “I’ll just have to study you and find out what your strengths and weakness are.”
She giggled and covered her mouth because she hadn’t meant to do that. The liquor was really going to her head.
He chuckled. “First though, we’ll get you some food. I don’t want you sick in the morning. I’ll go see if they have any kind of a kitchen. If not, maybe we can find a place that’s still open somewhere around here.”
“What do you mean?”
“Why would you care if I get sick tomorrow?”
He ran a single finger along her jaw and then brushed his thumb over her lips. He was staring at her like she was truly beautiful. “Because I like to collect the stunning things of this world. I’m a man of taste, Dakota. You’re simply the finest thing in this town. Someone should take care of you.”
Welcome to 1001 Dark Nights… a collection of novellas that are breathtakingly sexy and magically romantic. Some are paranormal, some are erotic. Each and every one is compelling and page turning.
Inspired by the exotic tales of The Arabian Nights, 1001 Dark Nights features New York Times and USA Today bestselling authors.
In the original, Scheherazade desperately attempts to entertain her husband, the King of Persia, with nightly stories so that he will postpone her execution.
In our version, month after month, each of our fabulous authors puts a unique spin on the premise and creates a tale that a new Scheherazade tells long into the dark, dark night.
For more information about 1001 Dark Nights, visit www.1001DarkNights.com.
Liz Berry, M.J. Rose, Julie Kenner & Dee Davis would like to thank ~
The Dinner Party Show
and Simon Lipskar
Secrets, Sex and Scandals … Welcome to Storm, Texas, where passion runs hot, desire runs deep, and secrets have the power to destroy… Get ready. The storm is coming. Nestled among rolling hills and painted with vibrant wildflowers, the bucolic town of Storm, Texas, seems like nothing short of perfection. But there are secrets beneath the facade. Dark secrets. Powerful secrets. The kind that can destroy lives and tear families apart. The kind that can cut through a town like a tempest, leaving jealousy and destruction in its wake, along with shattered hopes and broken dreams. All it takes is one little thing to shatter that polish. Ginny Moreno didn’t mean to do it, but when she came home to Storm, she brought the tempest with her. And now everyone will be caught in its fury…