DERRICK

After dressing, he picked up his phone and called Frank, his chauffeur.  “I need the car in front of the house now,”

“Yes sir,” Frank answered.  Wonder what has gotten his tail in a knot?  Hope he hasn’t gotten a lead on Lacy.  Frank had never liked the way Derrick treated Lacy and lately he was beginning to wonder about Maria and if she was safe in that house with him.

Within five minutes Frank pulled up in front of the mansion to find Derrick pacing back and forth.

“About time you got here.  Time is of the essence,” Derrick snapped as he got in the car before Frank had a chance to get out and open the door for him.  “Head toward town,”

“Yes sir,” Frank said as he headed down the driveway and out to the highway.

As they drove along, Derrick kept his eyes peeled for Maria trudging along the side of the road but to his surprise, he did not see her.  By the time they got to the outskirts of town, Derrick was livid.

Where could that bitch be?  I wonder if she went to Frank’s house to hide out and I interrupted him before he could take her to town?

Tapping on the partition until Frank lowered it, he asked, “Have you seen Maria this morning?”

“No sir,” he answered, questions starting to churn in his mind as to why Derrick would be asking that.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, I am sure,” Frank assured him, fear creeping over his body, wondering if something had happened to her last night.  Did he do something to Maria and then dump her body somewhere without my assistance and now he is trying to pretend he is worried because he cannot find her?  Wracking his brain, Frank tried to remember if any of the cars looked out of place or had been moved during the night, but he could not remember. He had been in such a rush to pick up Derrick that he did not pay attention to the cars in the garage.

Derrick sat there deep in thought, wondering if he should demand to be taken back to the small carriage house that Frank lived in to see for himself that Maria was not there but then decided against it.  He knew that Dakota probably suspected he had something to do with Lacy’s disappearance because of that tongue slipup he had made so he didn’t want to arouse Franks’s suspicions about Maria.

“Where do you need me to take you, Mr. Hartfield?” Frank asked breaking into his thoughts.

“Ah…to the office,” he quickly said.  Derrick figured that he would spend an hour in his office and then go home.  He thought about calling Regan and demanding that she come into the office, that some important documents needed to be done before the board meeting on Monday but then decided against it.

“Yes sir,”

When they got to the office building, Derrick said, “I can open the door myself, Frank.  You have an hour before you need to pick me up so if you need to do some shopping or want to grab something to eat, do it.  Just be back here on time,”

“Yes sir, thank you,” Frank replied, figuring that as soon as he could find a place to park, he was going to call Maria to make sure that she was okay.

**********

MARIA

As they made their way to the bus station, she wrestled with her thoughts.  On one hand, she wanted to tell Kota what she knew about Lacy but on the other hand, she did not want to give any information that might cause him to find her and return her to Derrick.

“Do you want to stop for some lunch?” Kota asked.  “I am a bit hungry as I didn’t take time for breakfast.”

“No thank you,” Maria told him.  “I just want to get to the bus station,”

“Maria, if Derrick did that to you, you know you can go to the police,” he suggested quietly.

“No police!” she yelled.

“Okay, calm down.  I won’t take you there if you do not want to.” Kota assured her, as his mind suddenly clicked on Delana.  Wonder if she is working today?  I know she would be able to help Maria. “Ah… I have a friend who helps women in your situation, and I would be happy to contact her,”

“I have no situation,” Maria insisted.  “You can just drop me off here at the corner and I will walk the rest of the way to the bus station,”

“You do not have to walk.  And besides, you are still a couple of miles from the bus station.  That is a long way to walk dragging a suitcase,”

Before she had a chance to say anything, Maria felt her cellphone buzzing in the pocket of her skirt.  She quickly pulled it out, saw it was Frank, and returned it to her pocket.  Seeing Robertson’s fast-food restaurant, Kota pulled off and found a parking spot.  Figuring that he was wanting her to get out and walk despite what he had just told her, she reached over to open the door.

Kota quickly reached out, gently touching her forearm.  “You do not have to get out Maria.  I am just going in to grab myself a sandwich and something to drink.  While I am gone, you can take care of that phone call you got in private.  Are you sure I cannot get you anything?”

“Thank you but no,” Maria told him, figuring that the way her stomach was churning now that anything she ate would not stay down.

Kota hesitated for a moment to give her a chance to change her mind, then he opened the door and hopped out, heading into the restaurant.  Waiting for him to return, Maria felt her phone vibrate again but she ignored it.  After it went off two more times, she turned it off.  She felt that it was for the best that she not involved Frank.  Suddenly she felt the need to use the restroom, so she unbuckled her seatbelt and climbed out of the truck to run into the restaurant.

**********

FRANK

After the phone went to voice mail for the fourth time, he started to panic.  He knew from experience that if she were busy, she would let it go to voicemail but would call him back as soon as she could.  For her not to do this made him wonder if her not answering her phone and Derrick asking about her was connected.  He glanced down at his watch, seeing that he had at least forty-five minutes before he had to be back to pick up Derrick.  He decided to stop at Robertson’s to get him a cup of coffee.  Frank pulled into the drive-thru lane and up to the speaker.

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“Welcome to Robertson’s.  What can I get for you?” asked a pleasant voice.

“I just need a large coffee, black,” he told her as his eyes suddenly caught the sight of a woman hurrying across the parking lot and going inside.  That looked like Maria, but it can’t be…or could it?

“That will be $1.50,” the woman said as he pulled up to the window.

Frank handed her the money, took his coffee, and decided that he would try to find a parking spot near the entrance so he could see the woman he thought was Maria when she came out.  When he could not find one, close enough to see the door, he parked, got out, and walked up to the open area where there were tables the patrons could sit and enjoy their meal.  Just as he sat down, the door to the restaurant opened.

To his surprise, Maria walked out next to another man.  From the expression on her face, he could not tell if she was with him voluntarily or if she was a kidnap victim.  As he stood up to go over to her, she spotted him at the same time.  Frank just stared at her in shock, his coffee slipping out of his hand, splattering on the ground and the bottom half of his jeans.

“Frank,” was all Maria could get out.

Kota stopped in his tracks, turning to look where she was looking.  The man that had caught her attention was muscular, about 5’8” with light brown hair cut in a buzz cut, with hazel eyes that kept darting between the two of them.  Kota could not figure out from Maria’s body language if this man was friend or foe.

“Hello Maria,” he said.  “I have been trying to call you.  Can we go somewhere to talk?  I have about twenty minutes before I have to pick up Mr. Hartfield,”

At the mention of Mr. Hartfield, Maria suddenly felt a bit light-headed.  “I have to go out of town on a family emergency.  We can talk when I get back,”

Frank walked up to her and gently tilted her head back while Kota stood there, ready to interfere if necessary.  Kota knew that someone had beaten and choked Maria, but she would not tell him who, so he wanted to be ready if she needed help.

“Who did this?” Frank asked before looking at Kota with anger in his eyes.

“Kota did not do this,” Maria quickly said.  “He is the investigator that Mr. Hartfield hired to find Lacy.  He picked me up on the road to town,” not bothering to say she had actually stowed away in Kota’s truck.

“Did Mr. Hartfield do this?” Frank asked, trying hard to hold onto his temper.

Not giving him a direct answer, Maria said, “I will heal.  Now I do not want to keep Kota any longer than necessary.  He kind enough to give me a ride to the bus station,”

Glancing down at his watch, Frank realized that he was going to be late to pick up Derrick, so he asked, “Please, go to a hotel tonight.  I will pay for it.  We are both off tomorrow and I will come to see you and we can talk.  Please,”

Maria thought a moment and then said, “Alright.  Call my cell phone when you get a free minute and I will tell you where I am,”

“Thanks,” Frank said as he took out his wallet, giving Maria all the money he had in there.  “Thank you, Kota, for watching out for Maria.  I am sorry that I thought you would do that to Maria.  May I call you tomorrow?  I may have some information on Lacy.”

Sitting his stuff down on a nearby table, Kota took out a business card and gave it to Frank.  “I will make sure she gets to a decent hotel, Frank.  And thanks for talking to me,”

Frank gave her a quick kiss and took off to his car.

Once Frank was gone, Maria held out the money that Frank had given her.  “Give this back to Frank and take me to the bus station as planned,”

**********

DERRICK

When Derrick walked out of the office building, he was surprised not to find Frank waiting for him.  Where is he?  I bet he is with Maria, telling her that I am asking about her.  I wonder if she told him what happened?  No matter, I will deny it.  After pacing for several minutes, he finally saw Frank coming down the street.

“Sorry, traffic,” Frank said as he got out of the car and came around to open the door for Derrick.

“Sure,” Derrick said as he got in the back seat.  “I will let it slide this time but don’t let it happen again,”

“Yes sir,” he told him.  “Where to now?”

“I want to go home.  I want to see if that no-account help is back.  She better have a good reason for not working today.  If not, then I may just fire her…even see about getting her deported,”

Frank forced himself not to say a word except to agree with Derrick.  He wanted to hear what Maria had to say before he confronted Derrick.  Frank realized just how powerful Derrick was and that if he fought him or went to the police on Maria’s behalf, he could very well end up with the short end of the stick.  He just had to be careful and make sure he had all the facts first before he did or said anything.

As Frank went to put the partition up, Derrick told him, “Leave it down.  I want to ask you something,”

“Yes sir,”

“How is Maria?”

Caught off guard, it took him a few seconds before he answered.  “I have no idea, Mr. Hartfield.  I told you I have not seen her or talked to her.”

His hesitation in answering him told Derrick all he needed to know.  Frank knew where Maria was.  All he had to do was get Frank to tell him.  Maybe if he has a couple of drinks in him, his tongue will loosen up and I will find out where she is.

When they pulled up in front of the mansion, Derrick waited for Frank to come around and open the door for him.  Derrick asked, “After you put the car away, come join me on the patio for a drink.  I hate to drink alone.”

Turning, Frank said, “Thank you for asking but I don’t drink,”

“Not even if I ordered you to join me in one?”

“Sorry but I am a recovering alcoholic, and I don’t drink, even if you order me too,”

“Alright,” Derrick said, trying to figure out how to get Frank to talk since he didn’t drink.

“Anything else?” Frank asked.

“Not at this time,” he said heading into the house.

Frank knew something was up and even if he did drink, he was not going to do it with Derrick.  He didn’t trust him.

**********

THE SAGUARO

That evening Julie was invited to go to the bonfire.  She tried to beg off, but Emily told her that she needed to socialize some, that it would do her good, so Julie decided to go.  Watching the children of the families staying there trying to roast marshmallows, Julie could not help laughing.  Some of their marshmallows dropped off into the fire while others were charcoaled and almost inedible, but they were having fun.

“Have one,” Parker said holding out a perfectly roasted marshmallow to Julie.

“I kind of think that this entire thing is backward.  Thought you were supposed to eat roasted hotdogs before you ate dessert?” she asked taking the marshmallow off the stick, plopping it into her mouth before licking her sticky fingers.

“Normally that is the way it works but the children were clamoring for roasted marshmallows so the parents said they could do a couple and then it was hotdogs,”

“Cool parents,”

“So, tell me, do you want some char on your hotdog and what do you want on it?” Parker asked.

“I can fix my own,” Julie insisted.  “I am not a baby.”

“I know but I was just being nice and offering,” Parker told her.

“Wow, this is a first,” Brett called out.  “Mark it down in the record books that Parker is being nice,”

“Shut up,” Parker yelled back throwing a sticky burnt marshmallow at his brother.

Before Brett could retaliate, Emily stood up, saying, “Okay you two.  Throwing marshmallows is not setting a good example for these impressionable children,”

The children stopped and looked at Emily, then at the twins before they went back to roasting marshmallows.  After a couple of more poor attempts at roasting edible marshmallows, Parker and Bret began to roast hotdogs for their guests.  After they had several done and the guests were starting to eat, Parker took the time to fix Julie and his mom a couple.

“Anything on your hotdogs ladies?”

“Ketchup on mine,” Emily said getting up to get each of them another soda.

“Same,” Julie told him.

When Parker handed Julie her plate with the hotdog and chips on it, she suddenly felt her stomach doing flip-flops.  She quickly took a drink of her soda, which was almost her undoing.  What the hell is going on?  My stomach did not react to the milkshake I had earlier.  Damn, I love roasted hotdogs but that one stinks.

Despite her queasy stomach, Julie forced herself to take another bit of the hotdog, hoping it would not come back up faster than it went down.  As Emily took a bite of her hotdog, she noticed the face that Julie was making as she chewed the bite in her mouth.  OMG, I know that look as Emily’s heart dropped to the pit of her stomach,

**********

MARIA

As they pulled into the parking lot of the bus station, Kota found an empty parking spot and pulled in.  He shut off the engine and took off his seatbelt.

“Are you sure you want to do this Maria?” he asked.  “That Frank fellow seemed like a nice guy so are you sure you do not want to reconsider and let me take you to a hotel?”

“Getting out of town is the best thing to do,” Maria said as she opened the door and got out.  When Kota attempted to get out, she said. “There is no need to get out.  I can handle the suitcase on my own.  Thank you for the ride and I hope you find Lacy but if you do, please do not tell Mr. Hartfield where she is.  And thank you for getting the money back to Frank,”

Before Kota could say anything else, she had her suitcase out and heading across the parking lot.  Taking his phone, he pulled up a document and then made a phone call.

Maria immediately went up to the ticket board to see which buses were leaving soon and to where.  She didn’t care where they went, she just wanted one leaving soon and heading too someplace far away.  One thing Maria realized was that she needed to find a job and continue to work on her citizenship.  Letting out a big sigh, she went over and had a seat, still staring at the board.  I must make my decision fast before Frank realizes I ditched him.  I cannot allow him to find out the truth and go after Derrick.  He could get hurt.  I am used goods and not worth fighting over.

After a few more minutes of deliberation, Maria decided that she would head back to Florida.  She was not afraid of hard work and had worked in the orchards for a year when she first got to the United States.  We should never have left Florida.  We had a great job with decent lodging and an awesome boss, but we just had to see if there was more out there.  We also wanted to experience the winter season.  We both got good jobs but then it turned sour for me.  Maybe Roberto will be hiring again when I get back there.

Maria went up to the ticket counter and bought a ticket to Miami.  According to the board, she still had a thirty-minutes before the bus would leave.  She chose a seat near the boarding door with her back to the wall, watching the people who came in and out, ready to try and run if danger appeared.

**********

JULIE

She managed to choke down her hotdog but declined Parker’s request to get her another one.  As soon as everyone was fed, they all settled down and Brett began to tell ghost stories.  Parker put a folding chair next to hers and sat down.

“Do you mind if I sit here?” he asked.  “I want to be able to protect you from any ghosts that Brett conjures up,”

Julie had to force herself not to laugh and spoil the spooky mood that Brett had cast over the children.

“I am not afraid of ghosts,” she whispered. “Maybe your mom might need protection though,”

“Need protection my ass.  Hell, when she dies, she will be the one that ghost stories will be about,” Parker said chuckling.

Without thinking, Julie reached out and smacked him on the leg, “Be nice,”

“And ruin my bad-boy reputation?  No way,”

Before Julie could issue a comment, she felt her stomach grumbling, and once again she because queasy.  Julie took in several deep gulps of air before she stood up and headed for the house without saying a word.

Wow, I am batting a strikeout here. Parker thought as he watched her hurry to the house, unbeknownst to him that he was not the only one watching her.  His mother also was.

**********

MARIA

Sitting there, fight the urge not to tap her foot nervously on the floor and attract attention, Pulling out her cell phone, she saw she had a missed call from Frank.  Maria was glad she had turned the ringer off because she liked Frank, but he deserved better than her.  Glancing up at the clock, Maria let out a huge sigh.  Only ten minutes had passed, and she still had twenty minutes to go if the bus was on time.

Holding the strap of her suitcase in one hand, she held her purse tight against her stomach.  Leaning her head back against the wall, she closed her eyes, lost in thought.  I knew I should not have let Regan talk me into going north with her, but she was bored picking fruit and wanted something different, like working in an office.  Now here I am, tucking my tail between my legs and running back to Florida.  I guess I should call her and let her know I am going back to Florida and the warm sun, but I am afraid she will ask me why and offer to help.

“Is this seat taken?” a deep voice asked, breaking into her thoughts.

Maria jerked and quickly sat up, her heart beating erratically. There, standing in front of her, was Frank.  “What…. what…how….”

“What and how is not important Maria.  What is important is that I am here to keep you from making the worse mistake of your life,” Frank told her, taking a seat beside her, reaching out to touch the top of her hand.

“No Frank, go back to your life, your job, and forget you ever knew me,” she told him looking at the floor.

Frank sighed and said, “Talk to me, Maria.  I love you,”

At his declaration of love, her head snapped up, her eyes brimming with unshed tears.  There was so much she wanted to say but she could not get her thoughts together to form a cohesive sentence.

“You just think you love me,” Maria declared.  “We have only had a couple of dates.  That is not enough time to fall in love,”

“For me, it is,” he assured her.  “Now, come home with me, please.”

The thought of going back to where Derrick could have easy access to her almost sent her into a panic attack.  Breathing deeply for several seconds, Maria finally forced herself to say the hardest thing she had ever said before.  Looking Frank straight in the eyes, Maria told him, “I do not love you Frank.  Please go back to your home and find someone to love because it is not me,” and with that, she stood up and went over to the boarding door to wait.

Frank sat there, his mouth slightly open, as she walked away.  Part of him wanted to get up and leave but another part of him wanted to go to her and make her listen to him.  Whatever he was going to do, he would have to make up his mind quickly.

**********

DAKOTA

Arriving back at his cabin, he sat for a few minutes in his truck, trying to decide what to do.  He knew he should work on trying to trace Lacy down but then it was Saturday.  Maybe if I am lucky, I can get a hold of Regan and take her out to dinner and then back here for some fun between the sheets.  Before he could put that thought in motion, his cell phone rang.

Picking it up from the console between the seats, he checked and saw that it was an unlisted number.  He started to ignore the call because most unlisted numbers were from telemarketers but decided on the third ring to answer it.

“Dakota Renfree Investigations,” he answered.

“About time you answered your damn phone,” said an angry voice on the other end.

Kota immediately recognized the voice as belonging to none other than Derrick Hartfield.

Tamping down his anger, he asked, “Did you remember something else in regards to Lacy and her disappearance?”

“This call has nothing to do with her because you have the information to find her,” Derrick said.  “This is about another missing person I would like to hire your services to find,”

Although Kota was sure who Derrick was referring to, he decided to play along with the game.  “Who is missing this time?”

“My lazy housekeeper,” he stated.  “I just found out she is here illegally and when I confronted her, she ran out of here.  She also took money from the household fund I gave her for groceries and such.  I want her found so I can have her deported and charged with theft,”

Hearing the lies that were coming out of Derrick’s mouth, it took all his willpower not to laugh in his face and call him a liar.  Instead, he said, “What does she look like and what is her name?”

Derrick quickly rattled off the information Kota wanted and hung up before Kota had a chance to say a word.  Derrick did not even ask his fee or if he was even going to take the case.  He just figured that when he gave an order, the person did it without questions.

Kota shook his head as he put the phone back in the console.  I sure don’t have to look very far to find your missing person Mr. Hartfield.  And I am sure that the reason she ran is not that she is illegal but because you beat her…like you did your wife.  I am starting to really not like you one bit.

**********

JULIE

Once she made it to her room, she flopped down on the bed, her thoughts going in every direction.  I wonder if Emily would loan me a hundred dollars so I could take the next bus out of here if I promised to pay her back?

“Julie are you okay?” a voice asked from the other side of the closed door.

Sitting up, she said, “I am fine Emily.  You did not have to leave your guests and come check on me, but I appreciate it,” as she went over and opened the door.  “I just have a headache, that is all but since you are here, would you step inside for a moment.  I have a big favor to ask you,”

Emily stepped inside and Julie closed the door behind her.

“What do you need?”

“I have this feeling that I need to move on but I am a bit short of cash so I was wondering if you could lend me a hundred dollars…or fifty dollars.  I promise as soon as I get a job and get some money saved, I will send it back to you with interest,” Julie said, looking down at the floor, embarrassed she was asking this kind woman for a loan, but she felt she had no choice.

“I would be happy to lend you the money, but I have a better solution,” Emily told Julie.  “We are going to be busy for the next couple of months so how would you like to work for us?  I know Jenna can always use help in the kitchen or you could help with cleaning the cabins.”

“What would your sons think about you offering me a job?  Shouldn’t you ask them first?” she asked, too shocked to believe her good fortune.  She would love to be able to stay on the ranch and work, knowing that she would always have a place to stay and food to eat.

Thinking a moment, Emily carefully stated, “I don’t know what type of background yours is but looking at your hands and the way you act, you come from a privileged life, and doing any of those jobs are beneath your standards but…”

“No Emily, I would be happy to do either of them,” she interrupted.  “I do know how to cook and clean so if it is okay with your sons, I would be happy to do either one.  I will also move to the women’s hacienda.  You need this room for paying guests.”

“Okay,” Emily told her not bothering to find out any more about her upbringing or background.  She remembered how private she was when she was on the run.  “Think about it overnight and you can tell me which you prefer.  And don’t worry about Parker or Brett.  They will go along with what I say,”

Emily reached out and hugged Julie before she left the room, shutting the door quietly behind her.  I am glad I thought of this.  I feel better if she is here during this trying time, especially in the coming months.

Once Emily left the room, Julie began to dance around the room, hardly believing her good luck.  I like to cook but I have done some cleaning, but which do I want to do. Suddenly Julie could feel her stomach lurching before she ran to the bathroom.