She’d learned to live in the shadows.
They became her refuge when her mind wouldn’t rest. When the pain reared up like an angry demon to thrash at her insides and make her bleed. Set her heart to pounding and her body shaking and her fears turning hauntingly real.
Like now. Late at night.
The pain always came then. When it was dark and she was alone. Forcing her body to crave the whiskey that was slowly killing her.
But her soul needed comfort, her memories needed numbing.
Her mistakes forgiven, most of all.
Another swig of rotgut helped her breathe, and she leaned her head back against the rough siding of the horse barn. The scent of fresh-cut wood surrounded her, soaked into the fragile threads of her awareness.
The timbers were new. So new they had yet to feel the pelting from a summer rain or be dressed in their first coat of paint. They came together to form a structure the likes she’d never seen, and the new barn, the grandest of gifts, would last a lifetime.
Like the C Bar C ranch and its legacy.
Her gaze lifted to the house sprawled in the distance, perched like a giant beast on the hill. Every window had a light shining through it, and the night carried strains of laughter and music.
A party given by Carina Lockett-McClure and her husband, Penn, to celebrate their daughter’s return from a summer spent in Europe. Folks from all over the Texas Panhandle came to see Callie Mae and welcome her back home, all the while flaunting their money, fancy clothes and high-society ways.
They wouldn’t know about pain and shadows. They wouldn’t need whiskey to help them survive.
She tried to feel contempt and failed. Her mistakes had always been her own.
She lifted the bottle again, but her tongue found only a trickle of liquor left.
It didn’t matter. She had more.
She was careful not to toss aside the empty container, evidence of her addiction. Instead, she tucked the bottle under her arm while using the other to brace herself against the side of the barn, her palm hardly aware of the roughness of the wood. Her gait was steadier this way. More sure. And she easily moved through the darkness toward the back door.
But suddenly, something didn’t feel right.
She froze, her senses sluggish, her mind working to figure out why.
The faint sounds of music and laughter were barely discernible now. She swept an uneasy glance around her, but the silence, the moonlight, revealed nothing.
Only the scent of so much lumber seemed real.
She shook off her unease and knew it was her guilt from the whiskey that made her feel that way. She kept moving down the side of the barn, and rounding the corner, she halted again, this time her attention caught by tiny flickering lights in the distance. A couple of dozen, at least. Torches spread out along a makeshift track.
The C Bar C outfit was indulging in some late-night horse racing, it seemed. This far from the main house, distracted by their guests, Carina and Penn wouldn’t see. If they did, they wouldn’t approve. Racing, drinking and gambling were against the rules. Most likely, the outfit was doing a little of all three.
Their secret would be safe with her. She’d enjoyed the vices a time or two herself in her younger days. Who was she to tell them it was wrong?
She shifted her attention to the door, unlocked as she’d known it would be. She fumbled with the latch. The new hinges squeaked from her pull, and the door swung open.
She slipped inside. The C Bar C horses hadn’t been stabled yet, but lighting a lantern would be a surefire way of alerting someone she was up to no good, and even drunk, she wasn’t that stupid. She knew where to go, the exact place where she’d hidden a brand new bottle of Old Fitz.
She left the door partially open, needing what little moonlight seeped inward to find her way. Gathering her courage, she veered left, down a narrow corridor toward a small apartment tucked behind the last stall. No light shown beneath the closed door, and cautious relief swept through her. She was foolish to be here, doing what she was doing. If anyone saw her, TJ especially . . ..
Behind her, the hinges squeaked again.
“TJ? Are you in here?”
Her heartbeat dipped at the young voice calling hesitantly into the darkness. The barn door opened wider. Moonlight spilled in. She pressed back against the wall, deeper into the shadows.
Danny McClure, Penn and Carina’s ten-year-old son, stepped inside, holding a lantern. He set the lamp down, then squatted, struck a match, and lit the wick. Golden lamplight flared around him, and he straightened.
He was still dressed in his grey knee pants and coat, white shirt and tie. Which meant he’d come straight from his sister’s party. All the way from the main house.
To see TJ?
Her whiskey-numb mind strove to figure it. TJ wouldn’t have asked Danny to come. Not like this. Carina would never have allowed it, besides, even to see one of the best wranglers in her outfit. Penn wouldn’t, either.
Which meant they didn’t know Danny was here.
“I can take you to him.”
She started at the unexpected voice, and Danny’s dark head whipped toward the sound, a low drawl sliding smooth through the darkness. Footsteps approached. Out of the shadows, a man appeared. Short, wiry. In no hurry.
A shiver of unease crept down her spine.
She knew all the ranch’s cowboys, had cooked for them down at the bunkhouse one time or another. If she didn’t know their names, she knew their faces.
And this one she’d never seen before.
At least, she didn’t think so.
He wore his hat funny. Down over his face. On his nose, almost. Even in the dark.
Her heart began a slow, troubled thud . . . while her whiskey-numb brain churned to place him.
Danny cocked his head. “Who are you?”
The man halted. He smiled.
“A friend,” he said.
His shoulder lifted in a careless shrug. “Something like that.”
“Where is he?”
“I’m a friend of your father’s, too,” the man said. He smiled again.
She didn’t like the looks of that smile. She’d seen it too often from the men in her life. Men who never meant the things they said. Who only smiled like that when they wanted something.
She swallowed and tried not to be afraid. For herself. For Danny. She didn’t want to listen to what the nagging voice in her head tried to tell her.
“The lady said he’d be here waiting.” Frowning, Danny took a sideways step, as if to check for himself the shadows behind the stranger.
But the stranger took a step, too. So he couldn’t.
“TJ’s not here,” he purred.
“He’s not?” Danny’s expression turned nervous. “Guess she was wrong, then, huh?”
He was trying to be brave, she realized, but apprehension threaded his words. She could feel his fear, building with her own. Higher with every pulsating second.
She didn’t want him to feel the fear. To see how ugly life could be. Danny McClure was only a child, his world fiercely protected. Filled with love and happiness.
“I’ll take you to him, Danny-boy. We’ll find TJ together.” The stranger reached toward him, slow and easy.
Her heart pounded harder.
The warning voice shouted louder.
Nobody called Danny McClure ‘Danny-boy’. Ever. He despised the nickname. He always had, and every cowboy on the C Bar C–every single one–knew it, honored it, and obeyed that one little rule.
Never call Danny ‘Danny-boy.’
The stranger broke the rule. Because he didn’t know. Because he wasn’t C Bar C. And if she didn’t do something to help Danny, if she didn’t listen to that voice screaming inside her head, insisting there was no one else, no one else, no one else . . ..
Oh, God. Oh, God.
She eased away from the wall, curled her fingers around the tall neck of the whiskey bottle tucked under her arm.
“Come with me,” the man said. “Let’s find TJ, Danny-boy.”
“No!” he shouted and leapt back, but the stranger was bigger, faster, and he grabbed Danny’s arm with a curse.
The rage broke free. She burst from the shadows with a wild shriek. “Leave him alone!”
The stranger whirled toward her.
Danny’s eyes widened in recognition, and if he said anything, if he called out her name, she didn’t hear it, not when she was driven by the raging voice of fear inside her.
“Let him go. Let him go!” She hurtled toward them, her arm lifting, her grip on the bottle desperate. The stranger twisted, shielding himself against her blow, but still she swung, hard, as hard as she could, and the glass crashed against his head. His hat flipped to the ground. He staggered back, and Danny broke free.
“Run, Danny!” she shouted.
The stranger bellowed, and he lunged for the boy, but Danny reacted, swinging the lantern to fend him off. The man’s arm came up, deflecting the blow. The lantern sailed to the ground and shattered.
“Go, Danny!” she yelled, frantic, insistent, and she came at the stranger again, throwing herself at him with all the strength she had. He knew her now, knew that she was there, and he pushed her off easily, as if she weighed nothing at all.
She catapulted to the ground with a jarring thud, but not before the jagged edges of the whiskey bottle still gripped in her fist slashed across his jaw. He blinked, momentarily stunned. The skin fell open, and a long line of crimson streamed down his face.
Flames exploded from the shattered lantern and licked hungrily at the nearest stall, their fiery hunger frenzied, insatiable, for fresh lumber.
She stared, horrified.
Until a flurry of movement pierced the horror. Danny running for the door, and the stranger going after him, snarling his rage.
She scrambled to her feet, flung aside the piece of glass, her fear for Danny tearing through her. She had to save him, or he’d be taken from them all, and she stumbled down the narrow corridor, swathed in firelight, to the small apartment and the shotgun she knew was there.
TJ always kept the only weapon he owned propped in the corner, and she found it easily, her fear building, giving her strength. The flames burned, blinding and fierce, yet somehow she managed her way through to the outside.
She ran until she found them, heading toward the main house. The shadowed shape of the stranger, giving chase to the boy. She’d never learned to shoot, not really, and oh God, it was so dark, but she had to try.
For Danny, she had to make the stranger stop.
She halted, took aim, her eye on the man’s back. Just then, he turned, a quick glance over his shoulder for anyone in pursuit.
Seeing her, his step faltered.
* * *
Time ceased to exist.
Her mind had lost its function, the ability to comprehend anything but the terrible mistake she’d made.
It was how TJ found her. Numb and mindless. On her knees in front of the unmoving shape. Guilty of one more wrong in her life.
TJ was the one thing she’d ever managed to get right, but he looked appalled at what she’d done. Stricken with grief.
Fear choked at her insides. She couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think. She knew only that she didn’t deserve to live.
From somewhere on the fringes of her comprehension, horses’ hooves thundered. Voices yelled. Flames roared into the sky.
Shadows hid her, but not for long. The darkness would never be her salvation again.
“Let me handle this,” TJ said. He dragged in air, his voice unsteady but his words rough with urgency. “Don’t say anything to anyone. Y’hear me? Don’t say anything.”
She whimpered and tried to understand, to know what he intended to do.
“Go,” he said and gave her a firm nudge. “Get away from here.”
Confusion swirled through her sluggish brain. “But–.”
“Go, damn it.”
The fear in her responded to his command, the need for him to take care of her when she was so weak, and trusting him, like she’d always trusted him, she fled into the night.