Authors: Liza Street
“What about Reno?” she asked.
“I think we should wait until tomorrow morning, so we’re not driving at night.”
“I thought it was only fifty miles.”
“It’s sixty. And fifty of them are curvy mountain roads. It takes at least a couple hours.”
She nodded. “Okay.”
So she could listen to sense. That was good to know. “Mav’ll take care of the mess, let’s get going.”
Mav growled. Blake sent him a little finger wave. It felt so good to pick on his little brother.
“You need me to slow down a little?”
His voice was dark and husky. It made Hera think of the bedroom. No, don’t go there, she told herself. She had too many things to get done. “Your driving’s fine. I know I’m not the one in charge, because you offered to drive me and all, but I really want to be in Reno by tomorrow.”
“No problem, we’ll leave first thing in the morning.”
“Okay.” She leaned her head back against the seat. Her arm was throbbing. Maybe she should have taken that ibuprofen anyway.
Blake sped around another curve, and she gripped the edge of the seat with her good hand. No, she’d rather have pain than puking. She closed her eyes, willing the trip to be over soon.
“What do you hope to accomplish by this?” she asked.
“Prove to you, and me, that it was the Strickets who left the mess, not whoever’s after you.” She could hear the question in his pause, before he even asked it. “Do you want to tell me who’s after you? Or what’s in Reno?”
She sighed. May as well. “If you were looking for my wallet, you probably found the folder.”
“Guilty,” he said.
She tried not to think about whatever underwear she’d packed. He’d probably seen that, too. In fact, guessing from the smug smile on his face, he definitely saw it.
“The man in all of them, he’s my ex-fiancé.”
“I guess he’s passing around drugs?”
“That’s right. I thought he was cheating, and I hired a PI to follow him. The PI sent me the photos, and then disappeared. I don’t know if he was killed, or if he thought to get away for his own safety.”
“For his own safety?” Blake looked puzzled. “And why didn’t you turn in the photos to the police?”
“My ex-fiancé,” she said, “is the Chief of Police.”
“Shit,” Blake breathed.
“And at least two of the people he was dealing with were officers. I know they’re not all corrupt, but I don’t know who to trust there, and he could be making up stories about me already, he’s probably already put fake evidence in my apartment for some crime or another…” She could hear her voice getting more hysterical by the second.
He reached toward her, then let his hand fall on the seat between them. Was he going to hold her hand? She wanted him to. Would that be weird?
It’s not like we’re on a date, for goodness’ sake.
She didn’t care. It would make her feel better to hold his hand. She reached out, tentatively, and set her fingers against his. He turned his hand over and linked their fingers.
“Better?” he asked.
She couldn’t speak, so she nodded. It had been ages since someone offered her comfort like this. She and Tobin had broken up shortly after Hera hired the private investigator. The photos hadn’t arrived until months later. And in the meantime, there’d been heated arguments with Tobin over the phone and in person. She didn’t have any friends in Winston. Nobody had sympathized with her, nobody who knew what was really going on, anyway.
“Anyway,” she said, “that’s why I’m going to Reno. It’s out of the county, and my best friend is there. I figure, I’ll turn in the evidence to people who know what to do with it, and stay with Emma for awhile so I can figure my life out again.”
She hadn’t even been able to tell Emma her plan. She was afraid her phone line was tapped, or her house bugged, or something. It didn’t feel safe. Nothing did. She’d been living in paranoia for too long.
They came into the town of Findley just as it was getting dark. The old false-front buildings were supposed to look charming and historic, but Hera thought they just looked sad. Blake parked in front of one that read Strickets Saloon.
“This is the place,” he said.
She regretted that he had to let go of her hand, then berated herself for caring.
He’s just a nice guy. It was hand-holding, not third base
But it had been so long since anyone seemed to care about her.
She followed him to the door. He’d changed out of his torn Star Wars shirt and was now in something with a logo she didn’t recognize. Maybe a super-hero of some kind. Fitting.
He pulled on the door handle, but it didn’t budge. “Hmm,” he mumbled.
“What is it?”
“Well, it’s Friday night. They should be open. Come on,” he whispered, “we’ll go around back.”
“I don’t know—” but she followed him anyway.
This was the same behavior that made her stay with Tobin so long. Not listening to her gut.
As they rounded the corner of the saloon, Hera halted in her tracks. Blake stopped, too. “What are you looking at?”
She pointed. There was the red truck, parked in plain sight right outside the saloon.
“All right,” Blake whispered, “now I’ve gotta get to the bottom of this. Do you want to wait in my truck?”
“No,” she said. Was he stupid? “They know your truck, you idiot. And I’d piss myself with fear waiting for you to come back. We’re in this together.”
And if something happened to her, she could only hope his brothers would be smart enough to take the folder out of state, get it to Reno and far from Tobin’s reach.
“Okay, come on.” He led her to a yellow, frosted-glass window, propped open by someone who’d hoped to let in the cooler evening air, she suspected.
Hera heard a man’s voice coming from inside. “We don’t wanna get involved.”
“That’s old Matt Stricket,” Blake whispered.
The harsh voice inside spoke again. “Involved or not, someone told us you’d know more about the guy driving that white Ford pickup.”
“It’s Blake, Blake Fournier,” Matt said.
“Where’s his place?”
A pause, then a smacking sound.
“Don’t hit him!” a slightly younger voice called out.
“That’s his son, Evan Stricket,” Blake explained. “They must have them both.”
“I’m gonna tell you, I just had to think!” The voice was indignant, tinged with panic. “He and his family of freaks live offa Old Goat Road, down the highway that way.”
“Someone said you just came from their place. Did you help them out with anything? Collect any people? Packages?”
“No, no,” the young guy said. “We just left some shit on their fence. A prank.”
Blake motioned for Hera to keep low and follow him. They walked back toward his truck.
“We heard all we need, right?” Blake asked.
Hera nodded. She kept her eyes on the sidewalk, desperate to keep her footing and keep quiet. Her heart was pounding so fast she could barely hear Blake over it.
Just as she stepped up to the truck door, two gunshots rang out from inside the saloon. She nearly peed her pants.
“They shot the Strickets,” Blake said, a hard look on his face. “They’re coming out. Let’s get out of here.”
He started the engine but left his lights off. Hera was quiet next to him, her cheeks wet. He wished he’d made her wait in the truck; she didn’t need to hear that, to know about it. And nobody should die without dignity. Sure the Strickets hated Blake’s family. They’d always thought there was something off about the Fourniers. Worse, Matt’s daughter had been in love with Jude in high school, and when Jude had broken up with her, things got ugly.
Blake reached out and took her hand, letting go when he had to shift, but otherwise holding it tight.
, he wanted to say.
I won’t let anyone hurt you
. But he barely knew her, he couldn’t say those things out loud. So he let his hand do the talking.
Finally she spoke. “How can you drive like this?”
“Um, with your headlights off? I can’t see the road at all.”
“Oh. I have really good night vision.”
She was quiet again, and he could almost feel the questions building up between them.
“What did he mean, about your family of freaks?”
He’d worried she would pick up on that. He cleared his throat. “They don’t think we belong around here. My family’s new to ranching compared to them—we only came here a couple generations ago, and the Strickets have been here since the beginning, or that’s what they like to tell everyone, anyway. So some of our practices are different, and they don’t like it when our results are just as good or better than theirs.”
“So they’re jealous.”
“Yeah, that’s most of it.” Not all of it, but he wasn’t allowed to tell her about the other things.
There were headlights a ways behind them. Hopefully just some other rancher out late, or a fisherman who’d stayed out on the lake too long. Blake sped up. With their lights off, the other car wouldn’t see them.
The car was going fast. Shit. It was up close enough that the back of his truck would be illuminated by their lights. Hera looked behind them when his truck cab got washed in the other car’s headlights.
“No, duck down,” he growled. “If it’s them—”
He didn’t need to finish the sentence, because she’d already ducked. Her fear was a palpable thing in the cab. She was practically shaking. He kept his right hand holding her left, tracing reassuring circles against it with his thumb. That, combined with adrenaline, had his cock stirring. He loved a fight, he loved a fuck. Two in one night would be glorious.
He shook the thought away. First survive. If these were the goons—and they still didn’t know that—then he’d get away from them first. Easy enough. Except—they knew where he lived, now.
“Can you grab my phone? It’s next to my leg on the seat.”
Hera reached over and picked it up.
“Great. I need you to dial Jude for me. We can’t go home—”
“But my bag. The evidence—”
“I know. I’m going to have Jude take it somewhere for us. And he and Mav have to get out of there.”
He told her the number, and Jude picked up. Instead of hello, Jude asked, “Is the girl still with you?”
Blake held in a sigh. “Yeah. We need a favor.”
Jude’s swear word wasn’t kind, but Blake hoped it was quiet enough Hera hadn’t heard it.
“The Strickets left the guts on our fence, just like we thought. But we need Hera’s duffel bag, and I could use a change of clothes. You guys should head out. There are some other guys out there who might show up.” They’d all go into cat form, he was sure of it, and watch to make sure the interlopers didn’t hurt the cattle or the property in any way.
“Looking for the girl,” Jude guessed.
Hera mouthed the words, “I’m sorry.”
“Where are you guys going?” Jude asked.
“The woods. I’ve still got my camping gear in my truck.”
He and Jude arranged a drop place for the bag, and they hung up. He resumed the lazy circles he was making against Hera’s hand. She was so soft, he never wanted to stop touching her.
He looked in the mirror to check on the car behind them, and the headlights flashed in his eyes. Hera gasped.
“Your eyes—they reflected the light. It was—different.”
“Birth defect. I don’t like to talk about it.”
Shit. She was watching him too closely. Part of him was glad about this—it meant she was just as attracted to him as he was to her. He could smell it, too, her faint feminine scent. She filled his truck and he just wanted to roll into her. But it also meant her scrutiny could lead to her finding out too much about him, too much about his family. They didn’t let humans in, they never had. And she’d already gotten to him in so many ways.
Now that the other vehicle was close enough, he could see—it was the red truck, and they were right on his tail. Fuckers.
Just as Blake turned the steering wheel for a hefty corner, the red truck shot forward and rammed Blake’s truck. The wheels spun out, skidded, and then he and Hera were careening down a steep hill, hitting saplings like his white truck was a pinball.
His voice was fuzzy, but she was glad to hear something. “Yeah. I’m okay. You?”
“Mostly. Good enough to get out of here. The truck’s totaled.” He was reaching in through her window. She gripped his hand and scrambled from the truck.
In the faint moonlight coming down through the trees, she could make out the damage to his truck. There was no way this pickup could be brought back to life. She patted its dented hood in sorrow.
The ground felt uneven, and she swayed until Blake put his arm around her. “Can you walk?” he asked.
She took a step forward. “Yeah. Yeah, I’m fine. How long was I out?”
“It’s just been a couple of minutes.”
His forehead was bleeding, and she reached up. “You’re injured.”
“Good,” she said, “because we should probably go. They won’t stop now.”
“Hera!” a voice called from the road. “Are you alive down there?”
Tobin’s voice. She shivered. She could’ve fallen over with fright, but no way. She’d gotten this far, she wasn’t giving up now.
“Don’t answer,” Blake whispered.
“I wasn’t going to,” she snapped. She should never have even dated Tobin. He was too smooth, always said the right thing at the right time. And getting engaged…she was tired of picking the wrong men.
“Sorry,” Blake said. “I know you’re not stupid. I’m just—”
“Being careful,” she finished for him. Tobin never apologized. No matter what. “Sorry for biting your head off.”
He pulled a giant backpack from behind the truck’s seat, squishing it through the window she’d come out of. “Let’s get out of here. Quietly.”
“Hera!” Tobin shouted again. “Just come talk to me. It doesn’t have to be like this!”
She followed Blake away from the truck. He had the better night vision, after all.
“Wait,” she said. “Your phone.”
“What about it?”