Authors: Jennifer Ryan
For my mom. I love you.
For Aunt Jean, who loves her boys, including her very own Justin. Thank you for all your love and support.
For all the mothers out there, loving and caring for the children in your lives, whether they are yours or not.
San Francisco, California
Home late from her shift washing dishes at the Jade Palace, Gillian pounded up the two flights of stairs as fast as her legs allowed. She hit the landing and turned right, racing down the hallway past her apartment's open door to Mrs. Wicks's unit at the end of the hall. She'd heard the screams from outside. Not the first time she'd answered that call, but so help her God, if her father touched one hair on Justin's head, she'd kill him.
“I'm calling the police,” the babysitter, Mrs. Wicks, threatened loud enough for her voice to carry down the hall.
“Damnit, woman, he's my blood,” Gillian's father bellowed.
Gillian rushed into the apartment and spotted Justin with his arm cradled in his hand and pressed to his chest, tears shimmering in his eyes but otherwise appearing unharmed. She looked her father up and down, assessing the situation in a glance and the odds on talking him down from whatever ludicrous idea had taken root in his shadowed mind. Dressed in the same clothes he'd left in four days ago, his hair an oily mass hanging lank to his shoulders, he reeked of whiskey, cigarette and pot smoke, and acrid body odor. The wild look in his bloodshot eyes told her he hadn't slept in a good long while. Riding a meth high, he'd probably binged for days. Soon he'd lose all sense of reality and need more of the drug, which wouldn't give him the high he needed, since he'd overloaded his system. He'd crash, his body shutting down and putting him into a deep sleep for a day, or two, or three before he woke up miserable, needing more of what put him in this psychotic state in the first place.
Frustrated and angry, but resigned to this same worn-Âout routine, she shored up her resolve to get through this night, like she'd done too many times in the past, trapped raising a child with little money and even fewer choices. None of them good.
Her father paced, his movements jerky. He scratched at his arm, his legs, the back of his neck with his grime-Âfilled nails. He slapped at his thigh, then bit at the tips of his fingers. A hint at how far he'd fallen down the rabbit hole. Not good.
“Dad, come on. Let's go home. I'll make you something to eat,” she coaxed, keeping her voice calm.
A powder keg of roiling rage, he could blow any second. You never knew what would set him off.
Justin cowered in the corner of the couch, his eyes wide and watchful. He didn't move, afraid of drawing her father's attention. Even at six, he knew the rules of this twisted game.
Mrs. Wicks moved into the kitchen, leaving Gillian to handle getting her father out of there and back to their place. She'd done it before. Usually, he'd come looking for her, but she'd been held up at work, and he'd found little Justin alone. Gillian never left Justin with him if she could help it, especially over the last year, when her father spent more time strung out and paranoid on meth than comfortably numb with booze and pot, like he'd been every day of her life.
The last two weeks had been hell. Gillian's patience had worn thin days ago. If she could hold on, get her father out of Mrs. Wicks's apartment and into theirs, she could take Justin and crash somewhere else for a few days until her father came down and leveled off.
Then, joy, they could start this whole thing over again.
I wish Justin and I were anywhere else.
Inside, the pressure built. How good it would feel to open her mouth and unleash a string of curses, insults, and blame for what her father put her and Justin through day in and day out. She hated him for spending his life drowning in a bottle and doing drugs, his life going up in smoke. Her life went up with it. Justin's too. She wanted it to end. One way or another, just end.
Her father swatted at some imaginary bird, or butterfly, or dragon for all she knew. Only he saw the tormenting hallucinations. If he was this far gone, he was even more volatile and dangerous than usual.
“Dad, come on. I'll make you a burger and get you a beer.”
“We have to go.” His words came out rushed. He swatted at the air again, this time spinning around to the right before he stopped and turned the other way again, tracking his imaginary flying devils, waving his arms over his head to swat them away.
She shook her head, frustrated and tired of dealing with him. This. Everything. She wanted to run away, but where would she go? It was all she could do now to keep a roof over Justin's head and food in his belly with the diminishing help her father supplied. Out on the streets, or in a shelter, they'd be vulnerable to even more horrors. What kind of life would that be for Justin? Better than this one? Maybe. Maybe not. Still, she needed to find a way to give Justin better than she'd had growing up with a volatile drunk who could barely keep a bartending job and supplemented his income selling drugs to support his own habits.
“We have to go. We have to go. We have to go,” her father chanted, getting agitated, hitting the side of his head with one hand and scratching at his leg and the imaginary bugs crawling under his skin with the other.
Fed up, she stepped toward him to grab his arm and lead him back to their place. He jumped out of her reach and laughed. The sound held no humor but a touch of hysteria in the odd shriek. Her father pointed at her, shaking his head side to side. “No. No. No. No. No.” Again, his ominous giggle sent a chill up her spine.
Her father grabbed Justin's arm and yanked him off the couch. She stood her ground in front of him. No way her father left here with Justin.
“Let him go. He needs to finish his homework.” She made up the excuse, hoping her father released Justin and she got the boy out of there.
“He's mine. He'll keep them away. He's got the light that turns them away.”
Paranoid, delusional asshole.
She sighed, knowing just where this was going and not liking it one bit. Soon her father would spiral into a psychotic delusion no one could talk him out of.
Please, just pass out already.
Not that lucky, she tensed and waited to see what came next. Her father pulled Justin in front of him, held him by both arms, and turned him this way and that, a shield against an enemy only he could see.
“Ow!” Justin cried out when her father's fingers dug into his thin arms.
“Keep them back.” Her father tugged on Justin again. Hurt and scared, Justin planted his feet and pulled away, trying to get free. Her father held tighter and spun Justin around to face him. When Justin fell to the floor, tears spilling from his eyes, Gillian couldn't take the ache in her heart. Her anger exploded.
“Keep them back.” Her father shook Justin again.
Gillian lost it. “I warned you, if you ever touched himÂ .Â .Â .” She lunged for her father, striking him in the arm, breaking his hold on Justin. She shoved her father two steps back, and Justin ran for Mrs. Wicks in the kitchen. She rattled off the building address to the police on the phone. Not the first time someone called the cops on Gillian's father, and it probably wouldn't be the last. No way they got here in time to stop him now. Whatever happened next, Gillian would sure as hell make sure her father never got anywhere near Justin again.
Her father came after her in a drug-Âhazed rage that gave him strength and sent him into a mindless attack. All other thoughts disappeared behind the fury filling his mind. Her father only knew how to hurt. She'd been through this too many times to count and braced for the impact when his fist came at her, straight into her eye. Pain exploded in her head. She shoved him in the chest, but he came back with a slap to her jaw that stung something fierce. She kicked him in the shin and shoved him again. He fell back two steps, his hand coming up from behind his back. Momentarily stunned, she didn't move, but stared down the gun's black barrel in disbelief that he'd actually pulled a weapon on her. She didn't know where he'd gotten it, only that this added a whole other level to what had seemed like just another rotten night in her life.
Her father held the gun steady, even when he swatted the imaginary devils pestering him. His eyes narrowed on her, and in that moment she joined him in the madness she saw swirling in his gaze.
You or me?
One of them wasn't leaving that room alive.
Justin needs me.
She rushed him, grabbed the gun, and spun her back into his chest, the gun in both their hands pointed to the window. He tried to wrench it free, punching her in the ribs with his free hand. She jerked on the gun again and again and scratched his hand to get him to release it, until he finally let go and the gun thumped onto the floor and skittered across the scarred hardwood. He shoved her from behind. She stumbled forward, scooped the gun off the floor, and turned to face him.
Never turn your back on a psycho.
He leaned forward and charged her like a wounded beast, murder in his eyes and a guttural yell that made the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end.
She swung the gun up and fired. Once. Twice.
Mrs. Wicks screamed.
Blood bloomed on his chest. Still he kept coming. His hands fisted in her T-Âshirt. He lifted her off her feet and shoved her backward into the window. Her back and head hit the glass with a crack a split second before it shattered. Glass tore and bit into her skin, but she didn't feel the pain past the one thought in her head.
Justin screamed, “Gillian, no!”
She flew through the window.
Her father's dark form stood in the opening, highlighted by the lights behind him. He literally dropped to the floor out of her sight.
Be safe, Justin. Be happy.
Her body slammed into the roof of a car with a sickening thud. Everything went black.
Three Peaks Ranch, Montana
lake Bowden tossed a flake of mixed grass into Bingo's feed holder. He pet the Thoroughbred on the neck and walked out of the stall.
Dee rushed down the aisle, ignoring the horses sticking their heads out to greet her. Her brow creased into worry lines. She kept her steady gaze locked on him. “You have to do something. I've never seen him like this. He's on his third shot of whiskey.”
Blake caught the urgent tone, and his insides knotted with tension. Something terrible must have happened to get his old friend drinking the hard stuff. The man barely had more than a beer or two in a given week.
“He's in his office. He won't speak to me.” Dee's eyes filled with fear and worry. She twisted the dish towel in her hands. Blake had never seen her this out of sorts.
He touched his hand to hers to reassure her. “Okay now, I'll go up and see what I can do.”
Blake rushed up to the house, Dee hot on his trail. She stopped in the living room and held her hand out to indicate her husband, sitting in his study, his head bowed. Blake walked in and stood in front of Bud's desk. Bud didn't look up but continued to stare at the newspaper. A bottle of whiskey sat on the desk by his elbow, next to a half-Âfilled tumbler. The desolate vibes coming off him filled the room and nearly stole Blake's breath. He'd known Bud since he was a kid, long before Bud made him a partner in Three Peaks Ranch. He'd never seen the man this miserable in his life.
“Bud, what happened?”
Several long moments passed, but finally Bud's gruff voice broke the eerie silence. “He's dead.”
Dee gasped behind Blake. He turned and met her watery gaze. Her hand pressed to her open mouth.
Blake knew all about Ron, the man who convinced Bud's only daughter to run off with him when she was just eighteen. Wild and unruly, they spent years moving from town to town, from one dead-Âend job to the next, drinking and doing drugs. Bud lost track of them years ago, until one day he received a letter from the coroner's office asking him to claim his daughter's body. Bud hadn't caught up to her, but the drugs had. By the time Bud picked up Erin's ashes, Ron had split town with their daughter. No forwarding address as usual.
“What happened?” Blake figured he'd finally up and died from an overdose.
“She shot him.”
“My granddaughter. Gillian. Twice. In the chest.”
“Back up. How did you find out? Did she contact you?”
Bud shook his head, but he never took his eyes off the paper. “I had some time to kill at the airport in Denver, so I went into the bar and ordered a beer and a burger, thinking I'd pass the time before my flight watching a ball game on TV. Guy sitting next to me swore and said, âSome Âpeople deserve to get shot.' ” Bud smoothed his hand over the paper and the photo Blake couldn't really see. “He got up and left, but didn't take the paper. I slid it over to see what he'd been talking about.” Bud sucked in a deep breath and traced his finger over the photo.
Blake stepped closer to the desk. Bud spun the
San Francisco Chronicle
and scooted it toward Blake. The photo showed firefighters and police kneeling on top of a car, helping someone who'd obviously fallen onto the roof. Blake read the caption under the photo. “ âAfter an altercation with her father, Gillian Tucker was thrown through a second-Âstory window. She survived. Her father, Ron, died at the scene from gunshot wounds to the chest.' ”
Fate's a tricky beast.
It could bring you something you most desired or dump you on your ass. Bud had been handed his ass on a platter.
The picture was black and white, an up close view of the gruesome scene. The only part of Gillian Blake she could see was her feet. She'd been wearing a pair of well-Âworn canvas shoes with a hole near the toe. Two firemen, paramedics, and a police officer blocked the rest of her, swallowed by the now-Âconcave roof. Blake couldn't take his eyes off her tiny feet hanging from the top of the car.
The image transposed with the nightmare in his mind of another woman's feet tangled in the limbs of a felled tree. But that was the past. Maybe the confusion in his mind between the past and the present explained his surging need to help that poor girl. Not that it would make up for what he'd done.
Bud's voice rang out like a gunshot exploding into the silent room. He spoke in his normal tone, but the room, the house, seemed so empty, as empty as the man sitting behind the desk. “I called the San Francisco Police Department. I wanted to be sure it was him. I had to be sure it was her. She shot him after he beat her. She fired twice into his chest. Completely out of his mind on drugs, he still had the strength to grab her and shove her through the window before he died.”
“Did they arrest and charge her with murder?”
Bud took a sip of the whiskey and continued to stare into nothing. “They're still investigating, but it looks like a clear case of self-Âdefense. The neighbors in the building confirmed this wasn't the first time he'd hit her.”
Bud downed the last of his drink. “I changed my flight and went to San Francisco last night. She refused to see me. I never even got a look at her. I tried again this morning, but she didn't change her mind. The doctor said she needed her rest. She'd be there several more days, so I came home. What the hell could I do?” He slammed his fist on the desk. “He nearly killed her.”
“What did the doctor say?”
“Nothing specific. Her injuries are extensive, but she'll survive. I wonder, BlakeâÂhow much has she survived already that she had to shoot her own father to stop him from killing her?”
Blake wondered the same thing. “The point is, Bud, she did survive. What are you going to do now?”
“Anything I have to in order to get her here. Since she refused to talk to me, the doctor will speak to her on my behalf. I'm waiting for him to call me back.” Bud fell silent again, staring at the wall, waiting for the phone to ring.
Blake eventually left to find Dee in the kitchen. She turned the pieces of fried chicken in a cast-Âiron skillet. Cooking to cope. She and Bud married long after Erin left with Ron and several years after Bud's first wife passed. Dee's sympathy was for Bud, not the man who spent the last years making Bud's life a misery of worry, regret, and hope that one day the guy would clean up his act and bring his granddaughter home. “How long's it been since Bud heard from Ron?”
“Years. He hasn't seen Gillian since she was a toddler. Since I married Bud, long before then, actually, Ron's never called or come back to town.” Dee set the metal tongs on the counter and turned to face him. “He blames himself.”
“Bud had nothing to do with this. Erin and Ron made their choices.”
“Yes, and that poor girl paid the price.” Sadness infused Dee's words and filled her eyes with concern.
“We don't know everything that happened. The article is very brief. Yes, he hit her, and she shot him, but beyond that we don't know anything about what her life with him has been like,” Blake pointed out.
“Bud tried to find her years ago now. He never felt right leaving her with Ron. What if she doesn't want to come? What if he never gets a chance to make this right?”
“She shot her father. Maybe she needs time to recover and come to terms with what she's done.”
“Do you think she did it on purpose?” Dee's eyes filled with worry and uncertainty.
“If someone hit me in the past and hit me again, and I had a gun in my hand, I'd sure as hell shoot the bastard.” The anger roiled in Blake's gut for the man who pushed his daughter too far.
Dee pressed her lips together and nodded, silently agreeing with him.
Blake didn't feel bad for speaking his mind. Ron turned out to be the worst sort of man. You do not hit girls. You certainly never beat your child. The drugs had warped Ron's mind, or maybe he was just rotten to the core. Either way, Blake hated him for treating Gillian so poorly.
“Well, I guess we'll get the whole story when she gets here.”
Blake headed back out to the stables and his beloved horses, haunted by thoughts of the woman with the tiny feet lying atop the car's smashed roof. He hoped she was okay, because he knew after a fall, whether from a window or a horse, everything changes.