C.J. woke up in the morning, to the stream of sunlight coming through a window where the curtain had parted. She sighed, as she felt the familiar aches from her muscles being punished on the way to getting stronger again. She'd been helping Jed and the other hands out on the ranch for a week now and quickly enough began pulling her weight.
Some things were never forgotten and working a huge spread like owned by Thea had defined much of her life after she first moved to Texas to live with her uncle after her parents died. She'd learned to manage her life with keeping the ranch going and working the rest of what mattered to her like her schooling around it. She'd get up before dawn to start her chores by feeding the horses and she'd return to the house after sunset after putting them up for the night. During the school year, she sandwiched her classes in between and managed to make honor roll for four years running in spite of her ranch work as her counselor had told her.
But no, she knew she made the honor roll because of all that time spent on the ranch. Now she'd come back full circle in a sense being back on a ranch. She'd promised Thea and Jed that she'd pace herself until she felt stronger again. After the night of the barn fire, she'd shown them what she could do mostly on rote because she hadn't been thinking much and after a week's more rest, she put on some of Thea's old clothing that hung a bit on her frame and a pair of faded, well broken in boots and a hat and went about her day with the rest of the hands.
Winter had hit the valley hard, but today the sun had thawed the drifts left by the latest storm. The lake remained frozen mostly but she knew that days like these where the sun came out were to be used wisely because soon enough the next storm would hit the valley, erasing any memory of the absence of winter.
She remembered not long after she woke up that she wasn't C.J. anymore. She was Kelly Reade, the name she'd taken when she'd gone into hiding from where she had escaped about two months ago. She'd filled out her lean frame where the weight had been lost, the bruises had faded even past yellow and her wrist only needed a light wrap.
But she also knew when she woke up, she didn't feel very well. It'd been like that for two weeks now in the mornings and she couldn't pretend anymore. She had to know.
That meant venturing into town and going into the general store and buying a test so she would know for sure. She'd put it off thinking that the tiredness and nausea was just a residue from the infection that had nearly taken her life.
The bandage over where it started on her shoulder had been removed before she'd been helping out. She'd been feeling better, stronger and her appetite had picked up but then more recently…she put her hand on her abdomen.
Time to get out of bed….she'd try to get some breakfast down and do some chores. She knew that Thea needed someone to pick up some groceries so she knew she'd volunteer. But as she got up out of bed and brushed her hair out to bind into a ponytail she looked at her face in the mirror, the faint pink lines above her eyebrows turning silver now above eyes that sometimes she didn't recognize.
Anymore than she recognized the woman behind him, the one living inside of her…she didn't think anyone who knew her well would recognize her either. On this morning like the rest, she thought of him.
Matt, who had taken off to go deal with his own heartache over his broken engagement to Elizabeth not long before…she closed her eyes…no she wasn't going to think about it now. She had escaped, she had gotten away from him and the prison he kept her in and she was now free.
It was only at night when darkness fell quietly over the valley that she knew that wasn't true. A large part of her still remained locked up with him.
C.J. as she tried to remember herself as got into the Land Rover to head into town to get groceries off a list for Thea who had just nodded when she offered to go to town. She hadn't ventured that far yet but the woman didn't ask questions. Jed and Reed were discussing some scourge among cattle in the valley that they hoped wouldn't reach their own herd.
She drove off the ranch to take the winding muddy road to the highway. Always looking around her for anyone or anything suspicious…she knew that men were looking for her. The man she escaped wouldn't let her get away from him…not ever. No doubt he hired the best and the deadliest men to find her, which is why Jonathan had chosen his mother's ranch as her safe haven. At least until the feds figured out what to do with her and the reality that the sex trafficking operation that had snared her was much larger than they'd imagined. The man who headed it had fixated himself on her for so long it seemed…before he'd decided to come after her.
No other cars were on the road which made her relax as she drove past the scenery which flashed by her of treed areas and flatlands with the snowy mountains in the background. Some brown showed amid the white as the snow had been melting.
She knew the town from what Thea had told her and from the little she remembered seeing on her way to the ranch. She had been driven from an airstrip not far away but she remembered only bits and pieces because she'd been so ill by that time.
The town's limits of Silver Lode approached and she drove down the main street. A few people were milling about dressed warmly but clearly enjoying the break in winter. She parked her car and after looking around her for anything that didn't fit she got out of the car and walked towards t he general store.
Bonnie was in charge of it, as Thea had told her. She'd met her the night of the barn fire and afterward at the ranch house when she'd been in the kitchen preparing hot food and drink for those who had worked for hours to save the horses. She'd been bundled up in a blanket by the fire when Bonnie had brought her some hot tea…with something in it that tasted like mint and made her sleepy. She had been a woman whose eyes sparkled beneath her curly hair and who liked to talk…a lot and to ask questions.
C.J. knew she had to find a way to duck them. And while she knew most of her purchases wouldn't attract much attention…her own not on the list given to her by Thea would. So what would she say? The woman barely knew her so maybe she'd just be curious. Maybe she wouldn't really care to know. But she knew she had to be prepared in case she had to say something. Jonathan had told her they needed to work on a cover story for her just popping up at the ranch and being so much a part of the fabric, a woman without a past it seemed in a valley where people often talked to pass the time especially during the cold, dark winter months.
Bonnie looked up at her from where she was reading a magazine.
"Hi there…Kelly right?"
C.J. nodded with a slight smile. She knew she had to play along with everyone even though she didn't like deceiving them. They'd been so kind to her but it was a matter of life or death for her. She couldn't let anything she did or said to anyone lead a trail back to her if he found out. He had sent men looking for her and she knew they would be the best; they could be slipping into the town's fabric right now unseen to her but watching.
"Yes…and you're Bonnie…"
"Here to do some shopping?"
C.J. nodded again.
"For Thea…some vegetables mostly…fixings for stew…"
Bonnie smiled, her eyes crinkling.
"Thea makes the best stew in the valley. Well, there's plenty of produce came in this morning…"
C.J. walked to the section of the store to pick up some vegetables to put into a small basket. She did that first. Then reached for some bottles of spices and seasonings to add to her cart…then more flour and shortening in small bags.
But she couldn't put it off forever and she tried to find the section of the store that sold the tests…but she couldn't see any. She bit her lip thinking about asking but then she decided to check in the baby supplies. There, she found them, two different brands both to be used first thing in the morning. She picked up the boxes and read the backs and they sounded simple enough.
"They both work…"
She looked behind her and saw Bonnie there stacking some toothpastes on the shelf.
"I just had a woman buy one last month…she's having twins."
C.J. didn't know how to respond to that. She just looked at one of the boxes in her hands, which were woven with scars similar to those in her eyebrows. A flash hit her of glass breaking, darkness, crickets chirping and the sound of rushing water.
"It's okay you know," Bonnie said, "It's practically a written law that store owners can't divulge what our customers buy."
C.J. just put the box back on the shelf.
"So you've got the signs?"
C.J. looked at her and then nodded.
"Most of them…I've never…but I've been tired…feeling sick in the mornings…"
"You were just very sick weren't you…could be that."
"It's different…I mean I could be pregnant. It's possible…"
Bonnie looked at her concerned.
"If I may say so, you don't look happy…"
"I'm not…It can't happen….not after everything…"
Bonnie paused…then reached her hand to put on C.J.'s shoulder. She had to keep from jumping when Bonnie did that.
"Is the man…that did that…would he…?"
C.J. looked away from her a long moment.
Then she looked back at Bonnie expecting more questions but the other woman just looked at her thoughtfully.
"Okay then…I recommend this test…it's easier to read," she said, "The other one's a bit of a pain."
C.J. picked up the test that Bonnie liked and put it in her basket. Easy enough…and she didn't even have to fall back on her cover story.
She couldn't sleep that night because she knew what waited in the morning. She'd eaten her dinner up well enough and even some apple pie for dessert. But after going to bed with the cat sleeping on the comforter at the foot of it, she couldn't fall asleep. She just watched the shadows dance on the walls.
If she were…she couldn't even say it. She had fought so hard to get away from him, nearly died in her escape yet if she carried a piece of him with her…after what he'd taken from her. She didn't know what she'd do. Every day she forced away the memories of what he'd done and somehow, she managed to shore them off enough so that they stayed buried…mostly. Her dreams at night….at least they didn't last forever and they weren't real.
Andre couldn't find her here like he could in her dreams. But if he'd impregnated her… then she'd be reminded of him forever…through the eyes of a child she would see her rapist. After dreaming most of her life of having a little girl who popped up as real as life in her sleep during times…when she'd been needed. Almost as a reminder of what awaited her if she found her way in life. She even had a name for her.
But this couldn't be it. Her own baby would be born out of the love of her parents…even as C.J. didn't know who the father would be. The dreams hadn't revealed that much but interestingly enough, her closest friend Matt had played a role in them.
Because he had been her closest friend since childhood…only now she didn't know where he'd be. He could be anywhere traveling around the world having adventures doing anything but wanting to be found. He'd never even tried to contact anyone in L.A. as far as she knew but then again, she'd been kidnapped in the office garage not long after he left…almost as if Andre had been watching and waiting.
He'd been waiting for her when two of his thugs brought her to his compound in Washington State. It hadn't taken him much longer…but no it couldn't be…she couldn't be pregnant as a result of such an act of ugly violence not to mention the ones that followed.
It couldn't be true. Her daughter's father had to be someone else.
She saw him sitting there on the porch by the house that his daddy had raised him in. They'd flown back together to visit his daddy after they'd gotten their business in L.A. off the ground. She knew Matt hoped his father wouldn't begrudge him not wanting to work in the family business. So far, so good…
"C.J…you're supposed to be resting."
She turned to see him join her bringing two glasses of iced sweetened tea.
"Houston…I'm resting and besides I had my appendix out for over a month."
He brushed her shoulder as he sat down and she caught his cologne which was her favorite.
"Yeah but it nearly killed you," he said, "and so that's why tonight we're going to just sit…well you're going to lie on the chaise and we'll watch for shooting stars."
"Okay then I can handle that but it's going to be okay…"
He slid his arm around her hugging her close to him. She remembered that dream she had when she'd been caught between life and death of how her daughter with those familiar looking eyes had saved her life in a burning building.
But they weren't his eyes he saw, not the man who had held her prisoner, who'd abused her until she escaped. Suddenly, the dream changed and they were in a field somewhere, the sky the shade of a robin's egg and grass blowing in the breeze like a wave.
She ran to him and she held onto him so tightly, her head against his chest as if she'd never let him go.
"Where are you Houston….I miss you so much…"
His voice turned husky.
"I'm right here…like always."
She woke up with a start and saw that the room had lightened so it was morning already. She felt rested and knew it was time to get her answer. So she went to get the test, removed it carefully from the box and went into the bathroom.
She heard the knock on the door as she leaned against the shower tub.
"You okay in there?"
Suddenly she didn't know and she knew she didn't want to be all alone right now.
"You can come in…"
The door opened and Thea in her robe walked inside and looked at where she sat.
"I'll know in a couple of minutes…"
Thea looked and saw the discarded box on the ground next to her.
"Ah…okay I'll wait with you," she said, sinking to the floor next to her, "shouldn't be much longer if I remember right."
C.J. glanced over at her.
"Oh when you got pregnant with Jonathan."
"Even before that…before my husband and I got together."
C.J. just looked at her.
"Yeah I was with a guy that cared mostly about himself but I was too caught up with him and the experience of it all to notice until…I found myself in the bathroom all alone waiting like this…to see whether a plastic stick was going to change my whole life."
"So what happened?"
"Nothing…it was the right color and I dumped the guy before he dumped me and soon after, the man I'd marry asked me out."
C.J. looked at her scarred hands.
"This is different…"
"I know…I know what that man did and I'm sorry."
C.J. rubbed her forehead.
"Yeah well, if I got pregnant because of it…I don't know what I'll do…I can't even face what happened….Mostly because I have to stay one step ahead of the men hunting me."
Thea rubbed her shoulder in a way that soothed her. It reminded her of Matt and how he used to do that when she was troubled about something. She didn't know what he was doing right now or if he really thought about or missed her.
"I know…but you're a strong woman and we're going to do whatever it takes to keep you safe."
C.J. smiled at her.
"I know that…you've done so much already and I'm so grateful…it's just that I can't do this…I can't get pregnant. I can't have a child that way and it's wrong to think like that…"
"It's human…after everything you've been through…I wish your family were here…"
C.J. shook her head.
"No…I can't contact them," she said, "They have to stay safe and that means as far away from me…"
She almost felt something break inside of her just at his name. Then she saw him inside her head like he'd been in her dream. Sometimes she wished…but…
"Especially him…in a way I'm glad they couldn't find him," she said, "Andre always knew where he was and had him followed so I'd know he could have him killed with one phone call."
"That's how he controlled me…"
Thea didn't say anything else as they waited for enough time to pass to read the test. C.J. kept thinking about Matt…she missed him so much it hurt but it'd hurt much more to lose him. It was bad enough that they might use him to flush her out of hiding but he must have somehow eluded them at some point or Andre would have tried that already.
"I guess it's time…"
Thea kept her hand on her shoulder, squeezing it softly as she reached for the stick wrapped in tissue paper, closing her eyes and saying a silent prayer. Then as she unwrapped it and saw the results, she closed her eyes and wept.
Somewhere out there was the man who someday would be Gracie's father but it wouldn't be the man who hunted her.