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Authors: Sheri WhiteFeather

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BOOK: Once a Rebel
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When he returned to the living room, Susan was awake, sitting up in bed, gazing at the empty hearth. He knew she was thinking about Lily. He could see the sadness in her eyes.

“It will be okay,” he said.

She shifted her gaze, looking directly at him, making his heart pound. He wanted to climb back into bed and hold her all over again, to try to take away the pain.

She clutched her pillow. “I keep telling myself that it will be okay. But then I think about Jason and the awful things he's done.” Her breath hitched. “What if Ryan dies without ever seeing Lily again? What if she's lost forever?”

Ethan didn't know what to say. He wasn't a grief counselor. Although Susan probably had that kind of training, she was too close to the situation to comfort herself.

“Our prayers are going to work,” he finally said. “They have to. Ryan and Lily need each other.”

She gave him a small smile, thanking him for the comfort. “You're a good man, Ethan.”

He smiled, too. “You wouldn't say that if you knew what I'd been thinking about when I first woke up.”

“I can only imagine.”

She threw her pillow at him, and he caught it and tossed it back at her. All three dogs stirred, wondering what the heck the grown-ups were doing.

“I'll fix you some breakfast,” Ethan said.

“Cereal and milk?”

“How'd you guess?”

“You're a bachelor.”

“Not today. I've got you and the kids.”

“You've always got the kids. You're a single dad.” She smoothed her prim and proper nightgown. “Is it all right if I take a shower before breakfast?”

“Sure.” He couldn't help but grin. “Want some company?”

She threw the pillow at him again, and they both laughed. He was glad he'd been able to lighten her mood. It made him feel like the protector Ryan had called upon him to be. He decided to leave the bed as it was, a reminder that she'd spent the night with him.

While she bathed, he let the dogs out and brewed a pot of coffee. Then he placed the little sugar and creamer packets on the counter. Next he took inventory of his cereal, hoping she liked the nonfrosted kind.

Twenty minutes later she emerged from the bathroom, looking like a Texas mermaid, with damp hair, a seashell-printed T-shirt and slim-fitting jeans.

She met him in the kitchen. “The coffee smells good.”

Ethan poured her a cup, and as she doctored the heavy dark brew, he leaned over to smell her hair. Apparently she'd brought her own shampoo. The scent of lemons drifted to his nostrils like a sun-warmed orchard.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“Nothing.” He stepped back, nearly bumping his head on a cabinet.

“Were you looking down my shirt?”

“What? No.” He wouldn't dare admit that he'd been sniffing her hair. That sounded more perverted than peering down her top. “Are you hungry? How about that cereal?”

“Very clever. Changing the subject.” She scolded him with a teasing look. “But I'll take a bowl of whatever you're having.”

They ate in front of the TV, on the unmade bed, and Ethan switched channels with the remote control, waiting to see what sparked Susan's interest. She reacted to a vintage cartoon, where Wile E. Coyote had just ignited a stick of dynamite.

She smiled at the screen. “I used to watch this when I was a kid.”

“Me, too.” As Road Runner beep-beeped his way past the singed and scorched coyote, Ethan remembered how his mom used to plunk him in front of the TV and ignore him for the rest of the day. Even as a boy, he knew the difference between the kinds of moms his friends had and the one fate had given him.

He cleared his mind, refusing to continue his walk down memory lane, to let it consume him. His dad had spent too many years traveling that shaky road, obsessing about his ex-wife.

He looked at Susan and wondered if she would ever get married, or if her career would keep getting in the way. At least she was honest with herself. She didn't pretend to be something she wasn't.

She turned and looked at him, too. And for a moment they stared at each other. They were only a heartbeat away from a kiss, from letting their emotions go.

But they didn't. She broke eye contact, and they gazed at the TV as if their lives depended on a cartoon.

When the program ended, she reached for their bowls. “I'll do the dishes.”

“Don't worry about it.” He'd left plates and silverware in the sink from previous meals, but he'd become accustomed to the clutter. “I can deal with it later.”

“I don't mind. I like to keep busy.”

So did he, but not with housework. A trait he must have inherited from his nondomestic mom.

Susan insisted on tidying up the kitchen, so Ethan decided to take a shower, to clear his senses.

Standing in the narrow stall, he let the water pummel him, hitting his body like a fast-driving rain.

Afterward he realized that he'd forgotten to bring clean clothes into the bathroom. He dried off, then wrapped a towel around his waist.

When he entered the main room, he walked over to the armoire. Susan was still in the kitchen. “Don't come in here,” he called out. “I'm getting dressed.”

“I can't even sneak one little peek?” she called back.

By now she was scrubbing his stove. He could see her, but her back was turned. She couldn't see him.

He grinned and dropped his towel, knowing damn well she wasn't going to turn around. “It would be more like a big peek,” he told her, wondering if she would catch the double entendre.

She did. Immediately. “How big?”

He chuckled and slipped on a pair of boxers. It felt good to flirt, to combat their attraction with humor.
“Mucho, mucho grande,”
he said, and heard her laugh.

“You wish.”

“Feels like it when I'm around you.” He zipped into a pair of threadbare jeans and pulled a plain white T-shirt over his head. “I'm decent now.”

“Then I'll be there in a minute.”

Since she decided to finish cleaning the stove, he opened the front door and stood on the porch, checking on the dogs. They were romping through the grass, having a high ole time.

The phone rang, sending Ethan back inside. The man on the other end of the line announced who he was.

Special Agent Jamison. Jason's FBI brother.

His pulse raced. “Is this about Lily?”

“Yes, it is. Ryan asked me to call, to give you an update. An audiotape arrived at the house this morning with a message from Jason. He claimed Lily is alive, but he refuses to offer proof.”

“Did he say anything else?”

“He requested a ransom, but he didn't arrange for a drop-off. He's supposed to send a second tape to the house with more information.”

“When?”

“He didn't specify.”

Ethan glanced at Susan. She was no longer in the kitchen. She'd caught wind of his conversation and was coming toward him. “So all he did is give Ryan a chance to gather the money?”

“That's right.”

“How is Ryan?” Ethan asked. “Is he holding up okay?”

“He's doing the best he can, under the circumstances. He's with Patrick. They're on their way to Fortune-Rock-well to get the cash. An agent is with them, as well.”

When the call ended, Ethan reached for Susan's hand. She looked into his eyes and he filled her in, repeating what Emmett had said. Then he asked her to go to the storage facility with him.

And search for the amulet that had once belonged to Lily.

Nine

S
ecurity was still tight. No one on the ranch could go anywhere without checking with the FBI first, which, of course, Susan and Ethan had done.

So here they were, getting ready to tackle their quest. She couldn't see beyond the boxes that were stacked above her head. She waited on the sidelines while Ethan brought some down to her level. But she didn't mind. She understood his urgency, his need to find the amulet.

Especially today.

In spite of Jason's claim, they had no way of knowing that Lily was still alive. They were running on hope, on fear, on emotions that tangled like vines.

She stood, with her back to the sun, recalling the
wind that had howled throughout the night. The weather had softened, giving way to a mild breeze.

“Do you remember where you put the amulet?” she asked. “What was marked on the outside of the box?”

“It should say ‘bedroom,' but there are lots of those. I'm trying to find all of them.” He heaved another heavy load. “I wasn't very organized when I was packing.”

Susan glanced at the pile he'd separated. “Is it okay if I get started?”

“Sure. Go ahead.” He stopped for a moment, then adjusted his hat, pushing the brim up and revealing his eyes.

They were exceptionally blue, she noticed. A stark contrast to his tanned skin. If she looked deep enough, she might be able to see the Indian in him, but she knew that didn't matter. This wasn't about his distant ancestors. This was about Lily and the gift she'd given him.

Susan used Ethan's pocketknife, opening the first box, then realized she had no idea what she was searching for. “What does the amulet look like?”

“It's small,” he responded. “A piece of pine, shaved very thin and carved, a bit roughly, into the shape of a person.” He paused, making a thoughtful expression. “But you won't be able to tell if it's male or female. The only distinguishing marks are lines that represent lightning.”

She glanced up. “Are they painted on?”

“No. They're incised in the wood. I wouldn't have known what they stood for if Lily hadn't told me.” He found another “bedroom” box and placed it beside her. “The charm is supposed to have special power. Lily said that Apache men and women used to wear them. Children, too. They even tied them onto their babies' cradle boards.”

Susan sighed, her voice fading in the breeze. “I wish Lily had been wearing one.”

“Me, too. But maybe if I start wearing it, it will transcend to her.” He frowned, as if he'd never been superstitious before now.

Of course, neither had she. She relied on logic, on a library of textbooks, on psychological theories. But she relied on empathy, too. On trying to heal the human psyche.

“If you believe it will help protect Lily, then it will,” she said.

He smiled, thanking her without words, without making a sound. Suddenly her heart did a demonstrative flip, an Olympic-size somersault right to her throat. She wanted to kiss him, to put her mouth against his, to comfort the ache in both of their souls.

Time seemed to stop, like a thousand clocks suspended in space, refusing to tick, to advance to the next second.

She looked at her watch, just to be sure, and he turned away, resuming his work.

When every ounce of air in her lungs whooshed out, she decided, right then and there, that she was going to make love with him.

Tonight, she thought. In the shelter of his cabin.

Anxious, she shifted the knife in her hand and saw the blade flash in the sun. Should she say something to him? Admit that she was going to…

Going to what? Seduce him? It wasn't as if he hadn't made his hunger clear.

Not that he looked particularly lustful now. He was
concentrating on finding the amulet, the way she should be doing.

She set down the knife and sorted through the first box, discovering a hodgepodge of items. Most of the contents were coats and jackets, but she came across a few books, some worn-out boots and a Western hat tin. She studied it, assuming it was an airplane carry-on, something a man like Ethan would consider a vital part of his luggage.

The next box was just as jumbled: more old clothes, a portable CD player, a collection of silver snuffboxes that had probably belonged to his father. From what she recalled, his dad had chewed tobacco.

She wondered if he'd kept anything that had belonged to his mother, if he was sentimental about her. When they were teenagers, Susan had asked him about his mom, and he'd told her that she'd been gone a long time. Gone meant dead, or so she assumed. To her, his father had always seemed like a widower, a tough yet tender ranch hand who'd secretly grieved for his dead wife. At the time Ethan's family had seemed sadly poetic, filling her imagination with hearts and flowers.

Steeped in memories, in the crush that had fueled her youth, Susan looked up at him. He was wiping his hands on his pants. Everything in his storage unit had been locked away for several months, gathering dust, collecting residue from a sixty-day escrow that had yet to close.

She slid her gaze down the length of his jeans, where the seams frayed. A horizontal-shaped hole formed at one knee, white threads stretching across the fabric. Even the material around his fly was beginning to wear.

Lost in the moment, she stared at his zipper, at the slight ridge that—

“Susan?”

She teetered on her feet, blinked, readjusted her gaze. “What?”

“Any luck?”

“No. Not yet. Did you find all the ‘bedroom' boxes?”

“I think so.” He picked up the pocketknife and sliced the seal on the cardboard container in front of him.

She watched him, her skin a bit too warm. Was she getting in over her head? Would being intimate with him make her long for more? For something deeper? Or would she be able to adopt his attitude and take in stride the affair he'd been campaigning for?

Why not? she asked herself. She wasn't a desperate teenager anymore, substituting sex for love. She knew the difference.

“I found it.” He lifted the amulet, dangling the leather cord in his hand.

Susan moved closer, checking out the necklace. It fit his description, right down to the tiniest detail. Curious, she touched the charm, tracing the carved form.

“It's made from wood that was struck by lightning,” he said. “That's what makes it so valuable to the Apache.”

“I wonder how old it is.” She studied incisions, the decorative lines that gave the primitive amulet an artistic quality.

“I have no idea.” He waited a beat, then slipped it over his head.

She could tell that he was barely breathing. Susan
held her breath, too. The necklace fell against his shirt like an idol god.

The charm looked right on him, she thought. Strong. Potent. As chiseled as his features, as rough as the unshaven texture of his skin.

She wanted to put her hands all over him, but she didn't. Instead she reached for the tape they'd brought, closing the boxes they'd opened, thinking about the promise she'd made to herself.

To make love without getting attached.

 

The day had gone from mild to gloomy, creating an overcast hue in Ryan and Lily's bedroom.

Susan joined her cousin in the sitting area, taking the spot next to him on the sofa. He'd returned from Fortune-Rockwell with the ransom in tow. For now it was in a floor safe, waiting for Jason's next instructions to arrive.

“The FBI doesn't think he's going to contact me again until tomorrow,” Ryan said. “Or maybe even the day after.”

She looked at his disheveled appearance, the way he'd ransacked his hair and skewed his shirt. Making the Fortune patriarch agonize over his wife was part of the kidnapper's ploy. “I know. I'm sorry.”

“He didn't even let me hear her voice. Am I supposed to trust him that she's still alive?”

“Yes, you are.” Susan leaned her head against his shoulder, giving him the comfort of human contact, of family. “You have to stay strong for Lily. We all do.”

“I'm trying. I swear I am.” He put his arms around her, holding on to her like a lifeline.

They stayed like that, silent, connected, giving each other hope. She thought about the amulet, praying that Ethan's attempt to help protect Lily was working.

Finally Ryan let go, his chest heaving with a labored breath. She could see how exhausted he was. In between bouts of tears and the ever-constant fear, he was still fighting a brain tumor.

“The FBI is analyzing the tape at their forensic audio lab,” Ryan said. “Trying to identify background noises, trying to figure out where Jason was when he recorded it. In a house, in a car, outside somewhere.” He paused, his voice cracking. “They're searching for signs of Lily on the tape, too.”

“If she was breathing in the background?”

He cleared his throat. “Yes.”

Susan looked at the fireplace and noticed a picture of Lily on the mantel. An unframed photograph that depicted her when she was a teenager, a snapshot Ryan had removed from one of Lily's photo albums and placed there.

“What about the envelope the tape arrived in?” she asked. “The FBI must be analyzing that, too.”

“They are, and they know that Jason used a courier service in Houston and that he was in disguise. But he won't go back to the same city next time or use the same disguise.”

“What about Lily's truck?”

“They think he's been changing the plates, doing whatever he can to camouflage it. But for the most part he's been lying low, hiding out somewhere.” Ryan shifted on the couch, grabbing the decorative pillow on
the other side of him. “He insisted on hundred-dollar bills.”

“What?” The change of topic jarred her.

“That's the ransom. Two million in hundred-dollar bills. The FBI says he chose larger bills because the money weighs less that way.”

“Light enough for him to carry?”

Ryan nodded. “He wants the cash divided into two duffel bags. All those damn demands. No consecutive serial numbers, no marked bills, no new bills, no tracking devices.” His voice cracked again. “All I care about is getting my wife back.”

“I know. Me, too.” She glanced at Lily's teenage photograph, at her long raven hair and dark eyes. “I can see why you fell in love with her.”

“Those days were bittersweet.”

“Young love always is.”

He turned to face her, tilting his head, studying her. She sensed he was going to change the subject, direct the conversation toward her.

And Ethan.

“Where's your young man?” he asked, right on cue.

“I was with him this morning, but he's working now, examining a bull the foreman wants to purchase. Doing a semen check and all that.”

“Are you going to see him later?”

She nodded, inhaled a gust of air into her lungs. “I'd like to stay with him again tonight.”

“That's fine. I'd feel better knowing that he's looking after you.”

“I know, but—”

His eyes questioned her. “But what?”

She took another deep breath, preparing for the impact of saying it out loud. “I want to get romantic with him this time.”

Ryan sat back, mulling over her words. She recognized his paternal look, the care and concern he'd always expressed for her. “Are you asking for my permission?”

“No. I just wanted you to be aware of my decision.” Susan shifted in her seat. She still hadn't told Ethan about her plans, yet she'd spilled her gabby-girl guts to Ryan.

He took her hand, holding it gently in his. “I've always wanted you and Ethan to get together. I've always thought he would be the perfect mate for you.”

A mate, she thought. A long-term relationship. Ryan was thinking with his heart. “I'm not talking about love.”

“Of course you are.”

“No.” She snared his gaze, imploring him to understand. “I'm not.”

“Hogwash.” He made a determined face, like a sweet, stubborn old goat. “Sooner or later you two are going to be walking down the aisle.”

“That's not going to happen, Ryan.”

“Yes, it is.” He refused to take no for answer, to dismantle the castle he'd just built. “And I know darn well Lily would agree with me.”

Susan sighed. She couldn't keep challenging him, not now, not like this. Not after he'd brought Lily into it.

Unsure of what else to do, she put her head on his shoulder again, letting him know that she was still his, the little girl who adored him.

He wrapped his arms around her, returning her affection. “I won,” he said.

Yes, Susan thought. But only by default.

“You're going to marry him someday. I can feel it.”

She let him keep his fairy tale. Then she closed her eyes and wondered if he was planning her nonexistent wedding in his mind, envisioning himself and Lily by her side.

 

Lily awakened from a dream that had kept her safe, with Ryan holding her close. And then darkness swarmed over her, the reality of where she was.

Tears clogged her eyes, burning behind the blindfold. The blanket draped over her body smelled like Jason. Cigarette smoke clung to it, the odor making her stomach roil.

She did her best to knock it away, even if she couldn't use her hands. She wasn't cold. The walls and the floor seemed irregular, like rocks and gravel. But the air was clean and the temperature constant. If she were outside, wouldn't the weather change? Wouldn't there be sounds from nature? Crickets chirping at night? Birds singing in the morning?

Every so often she thought she heard a faucet dripping, but that made no sense. Wherever she was, there was no indoor plumbing. Jason had forced her to use a bedpan or some sort of portable device. Much to her humiliation, he'd removed her underwear, baiting her with crude remarks, leaving her naked beneath her nightgown.

Lily's body ached and her lips were parched, but Jason had only been giving her sparing sips of water.
And on top of everything else, the binding around her hands and wrists felt like iron.

BOOK: Once a Rebel
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