SAGUARO RANCH

Walking into the dining the next morning after sharing her past, Emily was not sure what type of reaction she would get from Parker and Brett.  She also figured that her daughter would be calling her later that day after she had time to process everything and talked to her husband.  She just hoped that they did not ask too many questions as the telling of her story caused her to have a night of very restless sleep with all the memories popping in and out of her mind.

Seeing their mom, Parker, and Brett both got up and walked over to her, hugging Emily together.  This was something that they had not been done since they were little.  Emily automatically hugged them back, their heads touching.

Without releasing his hold, Parker said, “I am speaking for both of us, but we want to say we are proud of you mom for having the courage to leave him, especially with three small children.  It couldn’t have been easy.  We love you,”

“And we are thankful that you did not close your heart off to love and Jason.  He was an awesome step-dad, and I am happy we have his name.”

Emily pulled away and wiped at her eyes before saying, “I love you too.  Now go eat before your breakfast gets cold,”

They laughed and went back to their breakfast while she grabbed a cup of coffee and sat down.  Jenna came in a few minutes later with her breakfast.  Just as Parker and Brett were finishing up, Julie came into the dining room.  Parker eyed her up and down, then smiled at her.

“We are taking another trail ride today.  Want to join us?” Brett asked.

“Thanks, but I need to go into town, if someone is going that is,” Julie said.  “I don’t want to put anyone out so I can wait, if need be,”

“I’ll drive you in,” Parker volunteered.

“Aren’t you helping with the trail ride?” Brett asked, giving his brother a quizzical look because he had never seen his brother acting like that around a woman in a while.  Generally, Parker was quiet and never seemed interested in any woman after Brittnay, his ex-fiancée.

“Nah, I thought I would stick around and get things ready for the bonfire tonight,” he replied.  “That is not going to take long so I got time to take her,”

“I would appreciate it,” Julie said.  “It should not take me too long to eat and all I need is to go to one of the thrift stores in town,”

“Take your time.  I’m going out to the stables to help Brett get ready for the trail ride, so he doesn’t whine about having to do all the work. I will be back in about thirty minutes,”

“Thanks,”

When Brett and Parker were out of the house and headed to the stables, Brett asked, “Okay bro, what gives?”

“What do you mean?” he asked innocently.

“That knight-in-shining-armor thing.  And don’t play innocent with me,” Brett said. “I have never seen you even act remotely interested in a woman since your high school sweetheart left you.  And of all women to pique your interest is a stray that mom brought back with her to the ranch,”

Parker shrugged his shoulders before saying, “You got to admit she is kind of cute,”

“Maybe but she is still an unknown Parker.  And I am sure she is not going to stay around,” Brett said.  “And remember, mom said something about her being like her so she could even be married,”

“I will take your words under advisement,” Parker said smacking his brother’s arm.

“And for the record, I don’t whine,” Brett said.

Both started laughing and attempting to shove each other down as they made their way to the stable.

**********

DERRICK

The sun peeked through the small opening of the curtains in his bedroom hitting him in the face, causing Derrick let out a moan.  Derrick rolled over, burying his face in his pillow, trying to block out the light.  His head felt like drummers were banging around in there, his stomach churning from the large amount of liquor he had consumed after leaving Maria unconscious on the couch.  Damn, how much liquor did I consume last night?  Finally, Derrick managed to roll on his back again.  He pulled the pillow over his face to prevent the bright sunlight from hurting his bloodshot eyes and making his headache worse.

After a few moments of no relief, Derrick finally gave up and threw the pillow aside.  He slowly sat up on the edge of the bed, his head in his hands, and his feet firmly on the floor.  Even closing his eyes, the room seemed to continue spinning.  Sitting here like an idiot is not going to get me anywhere. Bracing his hands on the bed, Derrick pushed himself to his feet, wobbling as the room slowly stopped spinning.

Very slowly he made his way toward the bathroom.  Halfway there his toes hit something hard causing him to curse out loud.  Looking down he could make out a liter glass bottle that at one time had been full of whiskey.  Damn, I don’t remember drinking that much liquor.  Maria can pick it up when she joins me here later for some fun and games.  Walking around it, he continued toward the bathroom.

Stumbling into the bathroom, Derrick grabbed a bottle of antacids and shook a couple in his hand.  He popped them in his mouth and turned around to start the shower.  Getting it to the temperature he desired, he stripped off and climbed in, letting the hot water soothe his aching muscles.  When he got out, his mind was a little clearer, but he still had a headache.  Grabbing a robe from behind the bathroom door, he put it on and staggered down the steps to the empty kitchen.

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Not seeing Maria there, he bellowed, “Maria, get your lazy ass in here and fix my breakfast.  I need coffee now.”  Groaning and grabbing his head, he headed to the living room to stretch out on the couch.  As he stepped into the room the first thing he saw was her torn panties hanging off the coffee table.  A smile crossed his face as he relived the pleasure he had of ripping them off her.  Looking down, he saw her sandal.  Kicking it out of the way, he laid down on the couch, memories flowing through his mind of what had transpired the previous night.

Damn, I should have grabbed some aspirin before I laid down. He thought about getting up but decided that it was not worth the trouble.  Maria can get me some.  Next time bitch, you are going to be awake and enjoy what I am doing to you.  You are also going to suck my cock the way your mouth is meant to do.  Realizing that Maria had not answered him nor did he hear her in the kitchen, Derrick shouted again, “If you know what is good for you, you will get your lazy ass up and fix my breakfast…NOW!” groaning as his head throbbed worse.

**********

MARIA

She heard him yelling for her but continued to lie ridged on the bed, staring at the ceiling.  It seemed as if every time she moved a new ache manifested.  Maria had no idea that a body could hurt so bad in so many different areas at the same time.  Once again, she heard Derrick bellowing for his breakfast, but she could not get her body to obey her mind and move.

After several minutes of quietness, she heard the door rattle, and then Derrick angrily yelled, “Open this door!  You live in my house and there are no lock doors there.  Open it now or I will bust it in,”

“I am sick today Mr. Hartfield,” she told him in a timid voice, hoping he would believe her and go away.

“Sick my ass,” he said back.  “There are no sick days in your contract.  You only have Sunday off, and this is not Sunday.”

Watching the doorknob wiggling, Maria glanced toward the window, wondering if she could quietly open one and sneak out before he broke in.

“You are getting docked a day of pay if you don’t get out here and fix my breakfast,” he warned as he rubbed the front of his pants, a part of him wanting to bust the door down and continue where he had left off last night.  “Okay bitch, stay in there but you got to come out sometime and it is only going to be worse,”

Sitting up slowly in bed, Maria swung her legs over the side and then stood up.  Taking a deep breath, Maria forced her legs to move toward the door.  Halfway to the door, she heard Derrick stomping down the hallway, muttering to himself.  Maria gave a huge sigh of relief, realizing that she had just been given a reprieve.

Now to pack a bag and get out of here but where to go?  Do I involve Frank or just disappear?  No, I am not going to involve Frank.  I know he loves me, but I don’t want him to get in a fight with Derrick over me.

Having somewhat of a plan in mind, Maria went over to the closet and got out her suitcase.  She knew not all her stuff would fit as she had added to her wardrobe over the years.  She decided to take just what she needed and escape out the window.  How she would get to town Maria was not sure, but she would walk the ten miles if she had to.

**********

DAKOTA

When he woke up the next morning, he was still unsure what direction he should take to find Lacy.  Part of him wanted to tell Derrick he decided that he did not want to take on this case because he had no use for men who abused women.  Or for any abuser, be it man or woman, for that matter.  In addition to being an abuser, he was irked that Derrick had not been truthful with him.

After much thought, Kota knew that he could not let his own opinions get in the way of a job so he would finish the job Derrick hired him for but if he continued to lie, then he would step away.  Grabbing a travel mug, Kota poured coffee into it, finally deciding that the first business of the day was to go see Derrick and let him know what he had found out.  Before starting his truck, Kota gave Derrick a call.

“Derrick Hartfield,” a voice tinged with anger said.

For a moment, Kota didn’t say a word, then told Derrick, “I need to see you today.  Where do you want to meet?”

“At my home,” Derrick answered.  “Did you find Lacy or know where she is?”

“I will discuss all that with you when we meet,” Kota told him.  “Give me your address,”

Derrick rattled it off and Kota told him he would see him in ten minutes.  When he got to Derrick’s home, the gate was closed so he stopped at the gatehouse and hit the intercom button.  Instead of him answering, the gate swung open, letting him come in.  Parking his truck in the front of the mansion, Kota let out a whistle as he took in the home and surrounding grounds. When he walked up the steps, the door opened and Derrick was standing there, still in his robe, motioning for him to come in.

“Sorry I cannot offer you a cup of coffee but my lazy housekeep cook is in bed sick, but I can offer you a drink,” Derrick said leading him into the living room.

It is ten in the morning, and he already wants to start drinking? Kota thought to himself but said out loud, “Nothing thank you,” as he went to sit in the wingback chair Derrick pointed to.  As he sat down, out of the corner of his eye, he saw a sandal on the floor and then a torn pair of panties hanging off the edge of the coffee table.

Kota wanted to say something about them but decided that what a man did in his own home was none of his business, even if he was married.  He just hoped that the woman those panties belonged to was a willing participant in the game.

Seeing what had caught Kota’s attention, Derrick quickly swept them off the table and put them in his pocket, ignoring the sandal.  “Now what have you found out about Lacy?” he asked as he sat down on the couch.

Kota watched him getting settled on the couch, propping his bare feet up on the coffee table, folding his hands in his lap, shocked that Derrick had not gotten dressed when he knew he was coming over to discuss Lacy.  Oh well, I guess mega-rich folk don’t feel like they must get dressed for a business meeting held at their home.

Clearing his throat and getting his mind back on the subject at hand, Kota said, “I revisited the hospitals, talked to some people I know at the hospitals, and found out that Lacy was in the hospital on the night in question but then you already knew she was in the hospital, didn’t you?”

“How would I know that?”

“Possibly because you were the one who brought her into the ER unconscious,” Kota accused him although he was not for sure Derrick had.

Without thinking, Derrick jumped to his feet, yelling, “I did not dump her in the ER parking lot!”  Realizing what he had unintentionally disclosed, he clamped his mouth shut and sat back down.  “So, the bitch is alive,” trying to pretend that he did not just incriminate himself.

For several long minutes, both men sat in silence, just staring at each other, waiting to see who was going to speak first.  Finally, Kota broke the silence.  “You hired me to find your missing wife, but it is kind of hard to do that when you withhold information.  And judging from the police report, they don’t know this little tidbit of information either.  The question is why you dumped her and what actually happened to Lacy?”

“I told you she walked out, and I have no clue where she went.  Hellfire, she probably got accosted and some good Samaritan dropped her off at the ER.  It is not my fault I did not know she was in the ER.  Is she still in the hospital?”

At this point, Dakota wanted nothing more than to tell Derrick to go to hell and let him hire someone else to find Lacy for him.  “Cut the bullshit, Mr. Hartfield.  I am not going to be able to find Lacy if you are not honest with me,” as he stood up.  “On second thought, find yourself another investigator.”

“Wait,” Derrick said.  “I will double your fee if you stay on the case and find Lacy for me,”

Kota stood there for a few seconds thinking it over before answering, “No more bullshit,”

“Okay, now tell me what you have found out.  Where is she?”

“I am still looking for her,” Kota told him.  “I have a couple of leads I want to follow and will contact you on Tuesday.  And no, she is not still in the hospital, which you should have figured out without me telling you.  After all, she disappeared over two months ago.  I can see myself out,”

Kota turned and headed out the door, glancing around at the various artwork and sculptures in the entranceway.  Once in his truck, he sat there a moment, then started it up and headed out to the highway.  As he went out the gates, he saw in his rearview mirror them closing behind him.

Flipping on the radio to one of the popular country stations broadcasting in the area, he went over in his mind all Delana had been able to tell him and Derrick’s slip of the tongue. I just wish mom would have had someone to help her out when dad took his drunken rages out on her.

Suddenly, over the sound of a radio, a sneeze was heard.  “What the hell?’ as he tried to look over his shoulder, causing the truck to swerve.  Kota quickly grabbed the wheel and pull to the side of the road, stopping quickly causing the rocks on the side of the road to scatter.

**********

JULIE

As they made their way toward town, the radio playing softly in the background, Parker decided that this might be a good time to get some background information on Julie…if that was even her real name.  “Mom told all of us her story yesterday.  She said you were a battered woman but that was all.  So, tell me, are you running from a boyfriend, husband, or whatever?”

Julie swallowed hard, trying to figure out just what she should share.  “I am a battered wife,” Julie said.  “The last time he beat me, he left me for dead in the ER parking lot right in front of the entrance.”

Without thinking about his mom’s warnings, Parker reached over and gently took her hand in his.  Instantly Julie felt her body go cold and tense up.  The urge to snatch her hand away from Parker was so intense it took all her strength to not scream and try to get out of the truck, even moving at 55 mph.  Taking in deep breaths of air, trying not to hyperventilate, Parker realized what he had done, and quickly pulled over to the side of the road, releasing her hand.

“I am sorry Julie,” he apologized.  “Look at me.  Take some slow deep breaths.  Everything is okay.  There is no one here that is going to hurt you.  Relax,”

Julie forced herself to look at Parker.  Listening to his calm soothing voice, she soon found herself able to slowly calm down and not go into a full anxiety attack.

“I am sorry,” he repeated, mentally kicking himself.  “Mom told us not to suddenly touch you and I stupidly did.  Hope you forgive me,”

“There is nothing to apologize for Parker.  It was an accident, and thanks to you, you were able to talk me out of having a panic attack.  Thank you for doing that.”

Parker just smiled before asking, “Are you okay to continue our journey, or do you need a few more minutes?”

“I am okay,” Julie assured him forcing herself to smile even though her insides seemed to be jumping all over the place.

Parker looked at her for a moment and then merged back into traffic.  As they drove along in silence, he mentally cursed himself for what he had done but then he had never had to deal with anyone that had been abused before.

**********

DAKOTA

Once he managed to get the truck stopped, he unfastened his seatbelt and jumped out of the truck.  When he threw open the backdoor of his crew cab truck all he could do was stare.  There, huddled against the other door was a woman who appeared to be of Mexican descent, her eyes wide in fear.  Staring at her for a few moments, Kota did not know what to say.

“Senor, please do not take me back,” she begged softly, tears sliding down her cheeks.

“Take you back where?” Kota asked, his mind trying to figure out where she might have climbed in his truck.  “Did you hide in my truck when I was at Mr. Hartfield’s?”

“Yes,” she whispered.  “Can you please take me to the bus station?”

“Are you here legally?” he inquired.

“I was working on my citizenship but now I have to find another job before I can finish.  I do have a green card,” Maria said, still huddled against the door.

At this point, Kota was unsure what to do.  She did have a green card, so she was not actually illegal and for some reason this woman was afraid of Derrick.  Kota decided that it would be best to hear her story and then decide.

“There is no sense of you hiding so come on up and sit in the front seat.  I want to hear your story.  My name is Kota,”

“My name is Maria,” she said as she slowly stretched her legs out and scooted toward the open door, continually watching Kota.

As he watched her, he noticed a suitcase on the seat that he had not noticed until now.  Kota stepped back out of the way, offering his hand to help her but she refused to take it.  Once she was out of the backseat of the truck and into the sunlight, Kota could see that her bottom lip was swollen along with her cheek and one eye was puffy.  There were also fingerprints on her throat, placed the way they would be if someone were trying to choke a person.  Then it hit Kota; those torn panties and that sandal must have belonged to Maria.

That bastard, Kota thought to himself, feeling his anger starting to grow.  He was ready to turn around and go back and show Derrick what it was like to fight someone his own size.

Maria glanced at Kota and then down at the ground before walking around to get in on the passenger side.  After they were on the road for a few moments Kota decided to see if she would talk about what happened that night Lacy disappeared.

“Did Mr. Hartfield do that to you?” he inquired.

“No,” Maria said softly, too scared to tell him the truth.

Not pushing her to tell him the truth, he decided to change the subject and asked, “Do you know anything about the disappearance of Lacy?”

“Mrs. Hartfield?  No, I don’t.”

Ignoring what she said, he asked, “Did she leave on her own?”

“I do not know anything,” Maria insisted.  “I was not privileged to what went on in that house.  I just cooked their meals and did the cleaning.  I was a maid who also cooked,”

“Did you ever see Mr. Hartfield hit his wife?”

Figuring that he was going to keep asking her questions about Lacy and the night she disappeared, Maria clamped her lips shut and turned to look out at the passing countryside.  Glancing over at Maria, Kota gave out a sigh and turned his concentration on the road.  All he could hope for was that she would talk to him before they got to the bus station.

**********

JULIE

When they got to the thrift store, Parker told her, “Take your time.  I am just going to sit here and rest, maybe even get a nap in.  When we get done, I will treat you to ice cream before we head back,”

“Thanks, Parker,” Julie said smiling at him before she got out of his truck and headed into the store.

Parker watched her out the front windshield, enjoying the view of the way her butt filled out the jeans she was wearing.  Stop it Parker Randall Carmichael.  She said she is a battered wife, so she is taken.  Damn, I would love to get my hands on that asshole who did this to her.  Was mom this way too after she left our dad?  I may have to ask her.  It must be hell to live in a constant state of being afraid.

Tilting his seat back, Parker leaned back, tipping his Stetson over his face to block out the glaring sun.  Without meaning to, he drifted off into a light sleep.  After what seemed like only seconds but had been thirty minutes, he was jerked out of his sleep by the truck door opening and then the rattle of a bag as Julie got into the truck.

She looked over at him and asked, “Did you have a nice nap?”

Parker groaned as he struggled to a sitting position and readjusted his seat.  Moving his head around until his neck popped, he told her, “I did but I got a bit of a stiff neck.  Now that it has popped, it will be okay.  Are you ready for that ice cream?”

Although Julie wanted ice cream, she was aware of her finances and knew it was not a luxury she could afford.  She was down to her last twenty dollars, so Julie knew she had to get a job if she had any plans to move on.   “Thanks, but we should get back to the ranch.  You took enough time out of your day to bring me to town, but you have to get ready for that bonfire tonight,”

“Okay,” he told her as he started the truck.  “I am going to take the time to get me a shake if you are not in a hurry to get back to the ranch.”

“You are driving,” she told him fastening her seat belt.

When they got to the Ice Cream Shack, Parker pulled into the drive thru.  “What flavor do you want?”

“I don’t want any but thanks,”

“You don’t tell me what flavor, I am going to pick out the weirdest sounding mix of flavors on the board for you,” Parker warned her as they pulled up to the menu board.  “Your choice or mine,”

Not thinking Parker was serious, Julie kept her mouth shut.

“Welcome to the Ice Cream Shack.  What can I get for you?” a voice came over the speaker.

“I will have a chocolate peanut butter shake and for the lady, she will have a chocolate peanut butter mint bubblegum shake,”

“Wait!” yelled Julie.  “Get me what you ordered,”

Parker smiled at her, saying, “Cancel that last shake and make it two of the first one, both large,”

“Thank you,” she whispered, worried that Parker was going to reprimand her for yelling.

After paying, Parker handed her one along with a straw, then took his and put it in the cupholder.  Pulling forward into a shaded parking spot, he turned off the truck and opened his straw, putting it in his shake and taking a drink.

“This hits the spot,” he commented, looking over at Julie.  “And you are welcome,”

Julie glanced over at him before telling him, “I am sorry I yelled Parker,”

“No apologies,”

As they sat there in silence, the bit of breeze in the air going in and out the open windows Julie found herself wondering what it would have been like to be carefree and on a date with a man like Parker.  Thanks to dad and his lies, I will never be able to find out.  I traded my life for half of the company that was never going to be mine in the first place.  I should not have just trusted you dad and insisted that I be able to read that contract, or will, as you called it before I married Derrick.  I see now why you said it was not necessary because I would not have married him.

Parker sat there, watching Julie, wondering what was going on in her mind as she had that look of being deep in her thoughts.  Hopefully, she will stick around and learn to trust a man again.  It never crossed his mind that she was married and may never be able to get a divorce without giving her whereabouts to her abusive husband.

**********

DERRICK

After Kota left, Derrick sat there, mentally cursing himself for letting it slip that he was the one that had dropped her at the ER.  He knew that if that got out to the police, he would probably be under investigation in her disappearance.  Oh well, even if that smart-ass investigator tells the police that, it will be his word over mine…and mine pulls more weight.  I will just sue his ass for false accusations.

Jumping up off the couch, Derrick went in search of his cell phone, which he found on the nightstand in his bedroom.  Looking for Dakota’s number on his phone, he hit redial, waiting for him to pick up.

“Dakota Renfree,”

“Just wanted to tell you that what we discussed here at the house is confidential.  And if you go to the police and tell them I dumped Lacy in the ER parking lot, I will sue you for false accusations and defamation of character.  I hope I am making myself clear?”

Before Kota had a chance to say anything, he heard the dial tone.  “Asshole,” he muttered before turning it off and putting it in the holder on the dash.

Derrick plodded barefoot out of the bedroom and headed toward Maria’s room.  He was at the end of his rope with that ungrateful bitch, and it was time she got her ass out of bed and fixed him something to eat.  And then he was going to have her for dessert.  Just the thought of that made his cock stir.

Hell, I may even have dessert first, as he walked down the back hallway by the kitchen to her room.  Getting there, Derrick just stood and stared at the wide-open door.

Stepping inside, he saw the bed looked as if it had not been slept in and there were some of her clothes hanging out of opened dresser drawers.  “Maria, where are you?” he hollered although it was apparent she was not there.  What the hell?

He turned and hurried to his bedroom to get dress.  She hasn’t been gone that long, so I am sure she is still walking toward town.  When I get her back here, there is going to be hell to pay.