Chapter Five before the edits
(*NB* THIS passage was edited off the final version of the book.)
The bright lights of Nashville dropped from view as the night-shrouded hills fell further behind them. Black clouds bruised the evening sky as Chase drove them straight into the heart of the evening squall. Wind began to whistle at the windows. It whipped over the rectangular fields around them, causing the unharvested crops to shudder as the darkness grew complete.
“Are we going to drive through the storm or stop somewhere?” Sarah asked, hearing worry in her own voice. She didn’t like the look of the clouds enfolding them. An occasional flicker of lightning cast an eerie green glow over the terrain.
“See any place to stop?” Chase countered dryly.
He had a point. In the last sixty miles they’d traversed, they’d seen nothing but cultivated fields and wasteland dotted with scrubby pines.
“If it storms hard, I’ll pull over,” he added, flashing her a reassuring smile.
She liked that about him. He acknowledged her agitation and responded to it. He did the same for Kendal, who for the last two hours had wanted to talk and talk and talk. He’d come out of his shell, thanks in part to Jesse who’d nudged him until the boy played with him. Sarah noted the change in Kendal with relief.
Revealing his fascination for animals, Kendal asked Chase what cows ate and what hoof and mouth disease was. Would it affect cows in the United States ? Why did people eat baby cows?
Chase had answered each question as it came, never once showing signs of impatience. He’d surprised Sarah by knowing a lot more about cows than she ever knew. “Did you have a cow growing up?” she’d asked him.
“Nope. Just pigs.”
“How do you know so much then?” she asked.
” Reading ,” he said. “Documentaries on T.V.”
His answer surprised her. She hadn’t thought of Chase as the literary sort. “What do you like to read?”
“Like what?” she prompted.
“Nonfiction, mostly.” He shrugged. “How ’bout you?”
“Fiction. I like to escape when I read,” she said.
“I like books on animals,” Kendal piped up predictably.
Chase smiled in a way that sent a flood of warmth through her. Startled by it, Sarah jerked her gaze out the front window. It was then that she realized their headlights were dimming.
Chase noticed at the same time. “Sh–!” He caught himself from swearing and downshifted as the darkness seemed to swallow them. “Hold on,” he warned, easing them off the road onto the invisible shoulder.
The right tires dropped several inches as blacktop gave way to loose dirt. There were no other cars on the road. Sarah didn’t know if that was good or bad. At least they hadn’t caused a hazard by pulling off so swiftly.
For a moment they sat in darkness, motor running. Chase popped open the glove compartment and pulled out a penlight. “Stay in the car,” he instructed, unbuckling himself.
Sarah lost sight of him as the hood went up, blocking her view. He pointed the light into the engine. Seconds later, the hood slammed shut with enough force to make her jump.
He got back into the car and turned the motor off, his movements jerky. Sarah stared at his forbidding profile, keenly aware of the energy, born of frustration, coming off of him.
“I’m thinking,” Chase finally said. “You don’t have to hold your breath.”
She exhaled with relief.
“The alternator I got back in Norfolk had been rebuilt. Apparently it still has problems. I’ll need a new one.” He reached into his rear pocket and pulled out a cell phone. He turned it on. Angling the antenna in several directions, he slapped it shut again and slipped it into his pocket. “No service,” he said.
He reached over her legs and pulled an atlas from the pocket on the side of her door. Sarah felt his male energy like the jolt from a cardio resuscitator. He must have felt her response to it, because he flicked her a look before shining his penlight on the atlas and thumbing through it.
Outside, the dark clouds surged closer. Thunder rumbled like an approaching army. “Where are we?” Sarah asked.
“Right about here.” He pointed to a strip Highway 70 with no landmarks anywhere. “Fifty miles east of Little Rock . Closest town is Dagmar, a mile or so in that direction.” He flicked the penlight out the driver’s side, then opened the car door to contemplate the terrain. The electric window wouldn’t work.
The road was flanked with squat pine trees and parched ground. Not a single car had passed them since they stopped.
“First we’ll get the car off the road,” Chase decided. “Don’t want any cops asking questions. Then I’ll run to Dagmar, see if they have an auto parts store. Won’t take me long at all.”
Sarah jumped out to help him. Though Chase shot her a look like, I got it covered , he accepted her help all the same. They concealed the car in the pines, trying not to scrape the paint job on the needles and cones.
Thunder shook the ground under Sarah’s feet.
Chase strode around the vehicle to address her. “Sit tight and I’ll be back before you know it.”
She was filled with sudden foreboding. “Can’t we come with you? Please?”
“Sarah, it’s going to pour rain any second now. A mile is not that far. I’ll be back soon.” He spoke with utter confidence.
“How will you find us again?” The thought of losing contact with him terrified her. She was in the middle of nowhere, responsible for her son, with just a few hundred dollars to her name. And her picture was probably plastered on the wall of every police station in the country.
“I have a compass on my watch,” he assured her.
He struck her as so dependable, then, so crucial to her wellbeing that she wanted to throw herself at him and hang on for dear life. The reality of her helplessness rocked her like the humid wind that rattled the pine boughs all around her. She didn’t want him to leave.
She threw her arms around him and hugged him hard. “I’m afraid,” she admitted through clenched teeth. He felt as solid as a wall and very warm. His arms went around her slowly, enfolding her in his cedar-like scent. His goatee tickled her cheek. She felt safe.
“The sooner I go, the sooner I’ll get back,” he reasoned in her ear. With a squeeze, he disengaged himself. “In you go,” he said, opening the passenger door.
The penlight in his hand illumined his face as he swung the door shut. She was startled to glimpse a banked desire in his gaze. But then he turned away, and she told herself she’d imagined it. At the rear of the car, he lifted the hatch.
“Stay, Jesse,” he commanded. “Keep watch.”
“You should take the dog.” Sarah twisted in her seat to speak to him. “He needs the exercise.” She figured Chase could use the company, too, as he ventured into unknown territory.
All she saw was Chase’s broad shoulders and the holster he was strapping to his chest. “What do you need that for?” she asked, her heart beating faster. It disturbed her that her son was also watching him arm himself.
“I always wear it,” he said easily. “Jesse, you want to come with me?” The dog bounded out. Chase shut the hatch, thumped twice on the car and disappeared.
Sarah and Kendal shared a look. “He’ll be back,” she reassured her son. They sat in silence for a while, eyes glued to the dark windows. The sky overhead flashed, illumining the little forest around them as brightly as if it were day. It also clearly outlined the roof and chimney of a house just a hundred yards or so from their vehicle in the direction opposite to that which Chase had taken. Sarah’s mouth dropped open.
A dozen possibilities occurred to her, and she nearly got out of the car to call Chase back, but she couldn’t see a single light in the house, so she decided to forget it. Chase had said to sit tight, and so they would. She had no desire at all to step foot into the storm that was just now pelting the car with hard drops of what appeared to be hail. She winced, thinking of Chase bearing the brunt of it.
The storm broke out in earnest. The little pine trees swayed and creaked, brushing the top of the Z with their claw-like needles.
“What if a tree falls on us?” Kendal asked, putting her own fear into words.
“They won’t,” Sarah assured him. “You want to play twenty questions?” she asked to distract him.
Thunder rumbled loudly enough to interrupt their game. Lightning sizzled and arced this way and that. It seemed a miracle that a bolt didn’t strike them dead on.
Just as suddenly as the storm had hit, it abated, bumping off toward the east. As the window wouldn’t work, Sarah cracked the door, letting in a cool, moist breeze, sweet with the scent of pine sap. She wondered if Chase had made it to Dagmar yet. It wasn’t clear to her how a compass would help him find his way back.
She reclined the seat and talked in hushed tones with her son. An owl hooted, prompting a soliloquy on Kendal’s part about the feeding habits of owls. Sarah shivered as he described their carnivorous appetites and their ability to swoop down on their prey with silent stealth. His words began to slur and she realized he was tiring. She suggested he close his eyes and sleep.
It was then that she saw headlights piercing the trunks of the trees around her. Her first thought was that Chase was back, returning, perhaps, with a tow truck. He would have trouble finding her in the dark. She stepped quickly out of the car, easing around the screen of pines that shielded them.
The headlights were indeed from a truck. They glared across the open expanse of land, jiggling up and down on the rough terrain.
The truck slowed down. She realized that the occupants had caught sight of her, and she waved tentatively, struck by an awful thought. What if it wasn’t Chase?
The truck braked, emitting a throaty rumble as it sat there seeming to stare at her. At last, a door swung open on the passenger side and out jumped a man. The breath froze in Sarah’s lungs. The lean, gangly stranger bore no resemblance at all to Chase.
He began to walk toward her and she backed up mistrustfully. “Howdy,” he called out. “You lost, lady?”
What had she done? Belatedly, she realized that the truck had been heading up a dirt road toward the house she’d glimpsed earlier. Now she’d gone and alerted a stranger to her presence. With a sound of dismay, she shook her head. “Sorry,” she said. “I thought you were my husband. He’ll be back any minute.”
She gave herself a start calling Chase her husband, but at the same time the words were reassuring.
“You got car trouble?” the man asked, approaching steadily. The wet ground squished beneath his boots. Another man got out of the truck and joined him. In contrast to his companion, he was short and thick.
“No, we’re fine,” she answered. She could hear the fear in her own voice and she didn’t like it. Better to sound confident. “Like I said, my husband will be back any minute with a part.”
“Well, there’s no need fer you to sit out here in this crummy weather waitin’ fer him to git back,” the gangly man reasoned. In the gloomy light it was hard to see the expression on his face, but the silkiness in his voice was enough to make her mistrustful. “Come on up to the house with us,” he invited. “We’ll fix you up somethin’ to eat and take real good care o’ you, till yer husband comes back.”
Sarah had inched her way back to the car. She fumbled for the door handle and yanked it open. Scrambling inside, she tried to close the locks, but with no source of electrical power in the car, the doors wouldn’t lock.
The stranger yanked the door open, bending over to leer at her. “You turnin’ down my hospitality?” he said with mock offense. He grinned at her, and there was just enough light for her to see that he had several missing teeth. And he reeked of whiskey.
At the man’s rough inquiry, Kendal startled awake. He gave a scream at the sight of a stranger leaning over his mother.
“Leave us alone,” Sarah demanded. She was furious. Running away from Garret was supposed to mean that she would never be jerked on a chain again. Her blood went from frozen to boiling in a split second as she prepared to fight him physically.
To her horror, the stranger laughed and reached for her, grabbing a fistful of her spiked hair. Darts of pain pierced her scalp. “C’mon over, Paul,” he called over his shoulder at his robust companion. “This here lady’s decided to accept our invitation. An’ she’s got a little boy for ‘ee.”
Oh God! Sarah went for his eyes with both hands. She raked her fingernails across the stranger’s face, gaining momentary release. He came back for her, cursing profusely as he grabbed her by the arms and dragged her from the car. Sarah fell on the wet ground where a pinecone gouged her forearm.
“Mommy!” Kendal cried.
“Don’t worry, kid. Yer comin’ too.”
With a ruthless grip on her hair, the stranger dragged her to her feet. She tried to claw him a second time, but he held her at arm’s length and his arms were far longer than hers.
“You’re making a very stupid mistake,” she hissed, flinching from the sour stench of him. “My husband is a SEAL. You’ll have hell to pay if you harm us in any way.” It gave her a thrill to say it because she knew it to be true–except, of course, that Chase wasn’t her husband.
“Yeah, well I’m a sea lion,” he retorted, forcing her to turn so he could draw her arms behind her back. For someone as whipcord thin as he was, the stranger’s grip was amazingly powerful. She could feel the strength seeping out of her, and she ceased to struggle, quivering impotently as she waited a more opportune time.
But then the man called Paul reached into the car and pulled a squirming Kendal out by his feet. Her son’s frightened cries gave Sarah a renewed burst of strength. She lifted her knee and brought her heel back and down, making sharp contact with the stranger’s shin. He released her a second time.
Sarah attacked him with blind rage, pulling his hair, beating him with her fists. A familiar pain exploded by her eye, and she reeled away, stunned by the force of his slap. She tottered sideways and tripped. A knobby root bruised her thigh so badly that it left her temporarily immobile and gasping to overcome the pain.
Slim Jim, as she silently dubbed him, yanked her to her feet. She amazed herself by not only standing but kicking him hard in the groin with her good leg. She’d done it purely by instinct, congratulating herself on her accurate aim as he doubled over, groaning.
“Fucking bitch!” the man exclaimed, his voice at least an octave higher.
She was at the point of going after him again when Paul marched by with a screaming and squirming Kendal in his arms. “We got yer son,” he taunted over his shoulder. “You want to keep him, better come with us.” He glanced dispassionately at his partner. “You’re stupid,” he added.
With helpless horror, Sarah watched Kendal being carted away under the man’s beefy arm. She searched frantically for any sign of Chase’s return and wondered briefly whether he had left the second gun in the back of the Z. Not that it’d do her any good. She didn’t know how to fire it. And she certainly didn’t want it falling into the hands of these miscreants. Chase had taught her that lesson already.
The truck started up with a roar. She could hear Kendal crying for her from the cab. Without a single look back for the man still bent double, she took off after it. The truck backed up, then proceeded along the rutted track to the house on her right.
Sarah broke into a run to cut it off, lungs straining to meet the demands of her fast-pumping heart. This isn’t happening, she repeated to herself. This can’t be happening.
Maybe she was being punished for leaving Garret. It was one thing to suffer at her husband’s hands. It was a hundred times worse to know her baby was in danger.
Chase stalked around the perimeter of the car, his mouth dry, his senses alert. Jesse whined and pranced around him, sniffing frantically. The bright moon shed just enough light to illumine the wet ground and the footprints gathered at the passenger door.
At least two men had paid Sarah and Kendal a call. There had been a struggle, given the puddles of water and displaced mud.
Chase detached himself from the scene, the way he was trained to do. But fury and possessive rage bubbled just beneath his self-imposed calm. He moved to the back of the car and checked to see if the MP 5 submachine gun was still in place. It was. For the time being, he would leave it there. He tossed the new alternator into the back, recovered the keys from the ignition, amazed to find them still dangling.
He bent over, scooped up a handful of mud and smeared it on his face.
“Jesse,” he said, hearing a familiar coldness in his voice. It was the warrior speaking. “Find Kendal.”
The dog shot off in the direction of the disappearing tracks. Chase emerged from the copse of low trees. In the field to his right stood a house with a truck parked in front.
“Fuck,” he whispered. Damn him for a blind idiot for not seeing the building in the first place! But the hope that Sarah and Kendal were still nearby took the edge off his self-blame. A feeble light leaked from windows, telling him that the occupants were hoping to remain unnoticed but unwilling to sit in the dark, either.
Chase whistled for Jesse who was sniffing the ground in confusion.
As they cut diagonally toward the house, Chase felt a depression beneath his feet and looked down. It was a shoe print, about three-quarters his size. Sarah had come this way. And given the depth of the print, she’d been running.
Thinking of her fear, his rage heated to a boil. He immediately shut down his feelings of empathy; they did nothing but give the enemy power over him. To be of value to Sarah and her son, he needed to remain in absolute control.
As he crept up to the clapboard home, he took in its state of disrepair. The front stoop sagged. The paint, which used to be white, was a sickly gray in the moonlight. Boards had been hammered over most of the windows.
He made himself walk around the entire structure, taking note of possible points of entry, straining his ears for sounds within.
Discipline had never come harder. What he really wanted to do was to smash through the front door with his gun blazing. But he couldn’t take the risk. Sarah or Kendal could be struck by a stray bullet. And the sound of gunfire traveled at amazing distances. He didn’t need any help from the cops right now.
The sound of Sarah’s frightened voice, followed by a wail from Kendal, drew him up short at the corner of the house. She was downstairs, near the back door. Jesse whined.
“Quiet,” Chase warned him. He edged back the way he’d come and peered into the corner of a half-boarded window. There she was, sitting on the edge of a tattered couch, her ankles bound with rope. She was plastered in mud, and the halter top he’d tugged on that morning was coming off one shoulder. She fought to hang on to her son, who sobbed in protest as a short, heavyset man struggled to pull Kendal away. Another man sat across from them, shot gun propped by his feet. He chuckled at the tug of war going on in front of him.
Chase took note of the weapon. He eyed the rear door that gave access to the room. Backing up a few steps, he headed toward it at a run. He flew soundlessly up the three steps, driving his shoulder into the solid wood. With a loud crack, the door flew open, one set of hinges giving way, so that it toppled onto its side.
The occupants of the room were caught completely unawares.
“Chase!” Sarah cried in relief.
Chase snatched up the shotgun before its owner even thought to reach for it. Pointing his SIG Sauer at the fat man’s head, he said in his coldest voice. “Release him.” With his left hand he emptied the rifle of its ammunition while the redneck gaped at him from his chair.
The fat man released his grip on Kendal, who fell to the floor. The boy scrambled up again and wrapped himself around his mother.
“Don’t move,” Chase warned as the first man made to get up from his chair. He tossed the shot gun through the open door and reached into his boot for his grandfather’s knife. The deadly blade was fixed into a haft made of buffalo horn.
He offered the haft to Sarah, hearing Kendal’s gasp of fear. “Cut your legs free,” he instructed. “Careful. It’s sharp.”
He turned his glare on the men, daring them with a look to move an inch, which they didn’t.
Sarah sliced the rope with hands that trembled so badly he was afraid she’d cut herself.
“Take Kendal out the front door,” Chase instructed, taking the knife back. He tried to make his tone sound normal. He could sense that Kendal was still terrified–of him now. Maybe he shouldn’t have smeared mud on his face.
“Come on, sweetie,” Sarah urged, drawing Kendal with her as she fled down the hall toward the front exit.
Chase waited for her to close the door behind her before he moved. He planted his foot in the fat man’s midsection, sending him into the wall with a crunch. The thin man surged from his chair. Chase threw his elbow into the man’s cheekbone, knocking several teeth loose and sending blood spraying from his mouth to spatter Chase’s T-shirt. The man staggered away, howling.
Chase wanted to kill them-especially the short man whom he suspected was a pedophile given the way he’d been trying to draw the boy away. It would give him great satisfaction to speed that bastard to hell, but he couldn’t afford a police investigation when he was already breaking the law.
He allowed himself a roundhouse kick to the man’s head, which knocked him out cold and would give him a headache for days to come. Chase grabbed the lanky man by the scruff of the neck and hauled him closer. “You don’t mind if I borrow a few tools, do you?” he inquired.
“No-no,” the man stammered, blood dribbling down his chin. “Whatcha need?”
“Set of sockets.”
“They’re out in the truck. I’ll get ’em for you. Just don’t hurt me again,” he whined.
“Show me.” Chase propelled the man down the hall and out the front door.
Sarah looked up as Chase hauled Slim Jim down the sagging steps of the front porch. He’d seemed so savage and cold, she was certain he would kill both men. It was a surprise to see one of them alive, unhurt.
“It’s okay, sweetie,” she murmured to Kendal, who’d yet to let go of her, not even to greet Jesse who nudged him reassuringly.
With a wary eye, she watched Chase lead Slim Jim to the truck that was parked in a puddle of moonlight. “Hurry up,” he said, and the man lifted a box that was in the bed, pawing around to find what Chase apparently needed.
Without warning, the man shone a flashlight into Chase’s eyes and tried to bolt.
Chase grabbed him by his hair. With a growl of disgust, he slammed his face into the tailgate of the truck. Slim Jim collapsed, melting face down onto the sodden earth.
Sarah gasped at the brutal swiftness of Chase’s reprisal and pressed Kendal closer. She could feel his heart hammering against her side. Chase snatched the flashlight off the ground and beamed it into the back of the truck. After a moment, he produced a small toolbox.
“Let’s go,” he said, his voice no longer cold but still abrupt.
It was then that she saw blood on his T-shirt. “Are you okay?” she asked him.
He cut her a look then glanced down at himself. “I’m fine,” he said. “Come on.”
They followed him across the squishy field, all the way back to the car.
Sarah could sense the adrenaline still pouring off Chase in waves. She feared he was angry at them for leaving in the car, for getting themselves in such a predicament. Maybe he was worried that Slim Jim would rouse from his faint and call the cops. Had he killed the other man or not? She waited for a better moment to ask him.
“Get in the car,” Chase instructed, not unkindly, but still brusquely. He opened the hatch and lifted out a plastic bag. The dog jumped in.
Closing the hatch, Chase moved to the front and hoisted the hood. Sarah saw the flashlight strafe the car’s innards. He was going to work on the engine now. How could he even function after what had just happened?
She sat sideways in the passenger seat, still hugging Kendal who pressed himself between the seats to get closer to her. It worried her that he hadn’t uttered so much as a word yet. “It’s going to be all right, honey,” she soothed, stroking his buzzed hair.
His troubled gaze was locked dead ahead, fixed on the hood of the car, which blocked their vision of Chase. Sarah got the impression that it was Chase he feared. Her suspicion was confirmed when Chase closed the hood and joined them. Kendal squeezed as far away from him as possible.
The car started with a healthy purr, the lights beamed brightly over the glinting bows of the pine trees, and soon Chase was backing them out of their hiding place.
It had been the most bizarre episode of Sarah’s life, even considering her violent marriage to Garret. She had no idea how to begin to process it or how to thank Chase for coming to their rescue.
They shot along the deserted highway at 90 miles an hour. Chase still seemed very much preoccupied. Silent and grim, he was frightening to behold with mud streaked on his face and blood spattered on his shirt. Sarah realized she wasn’t in much better shape herself. Her clothes were caked in mud. It was even in her hair.
After half an hour of silence, she couldn’t bear it any longer. “I’m sorry, Chase,” she apologized.
Her words splintered the awkward stillness. They seemed to jerk Chase out of a trance, and he looked at her sharply. As they were just passing a neon streetlight, his look of incredulity wasn’t hard to see. “You’re sorry?” he repeated. ” You’re sorry,” he said again, emphasizing the first word instead of the second. “Jesus, Sarah, you shouldn’t apologize for that. That was altogether, one hundred and ten percent my fault. I deserve to be strung up by my toenails for that one. Chris t, I can’t believe I left you alone without protection, for even a short time.”
His self-directed fury disconcerted her. “But I got out of the car,” she explained. “I thought you were coming with a tow-truck, and I flagged you down.”
He kept silent at her explanation. A second later, he struck the steering wheel with the palm of his hand. She knew he still blamed himself.
“We need to stop somewhere and get all this mud off us,” she volunteered, wanting to lesson the tension and distract Chase from his self-recrimination.
” Little Rock is just ahead.”
She could see the city lights now, lending a warm glow to the horizon.
Sarah replayed the night’s events, trying to put them into perspective. “You didn’t…kill the other guy, did you?” she asked thinly.
He took his time answering. “No,” he said.
But his hesitation first made her wonder, just as his terseness kept her from asking anymore questions. It wasn’t so that she feared him the way she feared Garret in one of his rages. Rather, she sensed the answer was more complex than a simple yes or no could convey. As for Kendal, she would speak with him later and reassure him that Chase had done the right thing in preventing those men from hurting them.
Buildings began to crop up all around them, and soon they entered the city limits. Chase pulled into the parking lot of an ordinary-looking motel. As he had night before, he found a deserted corner of the parking lot, killed the engine and secured the brake.
The next instant he was gone.
Sarah waited tensely in her seat. Was it just last night she’d begun to feel relief for having escaped the violence of her past? Tonight she felt burdened by the events of the evening. Above all, Chase’s stormy mood frightened her.
Seeing him through Kendal’s eyes, she had to wonder if she hadn’t escaped one monster only to fall into the grasp of another.