Regretting Redemption – Book 4 – Sneak Peek

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Regretting Redemption

She’s the outlaw’s daughter, he’s got a British accent and a Montana tan, neither is what they seem until the secrets come out…

Mary’s never been completely honest with anyone – especially herself.

The man she’s supposed to marry reminds Mary of her father in ways she’s suppressed for years – controlling, abusive, and manipulative. She fights the reputation of being his daughter every minute of every day.

Ian is determined to make his American ranch work. Growing up on the farm after his own parents died in England, Ian took on the family land – his mother’s side – and refused to lose his home. Meeting Mary convinced him he really did belong in the States and she became as important as his roots in the land.

When Ian enters the picture with his charming smile and protective ways, Mary starts to question her past and her loyalty to a father who took away all her chances at true happiness.

Mary has to break free from the emotional restraints of her father’s diabolical past or risk losing true happiness and love with Ian.

Chapter 1

Mary

Mary hadn’t heard from Edward yet. Her silent phone unnerved her, and she checked the screen more than her rearview mirror, which was just as blank.

Colby would be up ahead in only a number of miles, according to the highway signs. Why hadn’t Edward texted or called by now? He couldn’t be so upset that he’d write her off, could he? He still wanted to marry her, right?

She lifted her phone and pushed the home button, in case he’d tried but she’d missed the call. She glanced at the phone then up at the road. Both were clear.

The hour drive passed slower than tumbleweeds in a whispering breeze.

Tucking a dark curl behind her ear, Mary tapped the face of her phone. Come on, Edward, call me!

Heading into the meeting with Lisa Trinkett wasn’t high on her list of enjoyable things to do. Growing up, the girls had been friends but only because of necessity and, well, because they’d been lumped together by other children because of their similar coloring and rumored similar parentage.

Oh, sure, Mary had heard the rumors growing up. She’d been taunted behind hands and behind her back.

Yet never, and this was serious, never was she taunted to her face except for the one time when she was five and she’d been called an outlaw’s daughter. The little boy also pulled her bow from her hair. She’d told her daddy when she’d gotten home. He’d nodded slowly, asked for the name of the boy, and hugged Mary when she’d given it to him.

The boy and his brothers and sisters hadn’t returned to school the next day – or any day after.

Her dad was her knight in shining armor.

Unfortunately, he was also the reason Mary didn’t have boyfriends, or even normal friends growing up.

Except for Lisa. Always Lisa.

Mary adjusted the petite gold watch dangling daintily from her small wrist. She’d inherited her small frame from her mother. Something which had always bothered her dad. He’d made comments often about no strength in small people and weak little girls. Even with all that, he’d never pushed Mary away or been harsh to her.

He loved her.

Called her his precious treasure.

Edward just called her his.

Mary grunted at the memories. She wasn’t allowed to have much of an opinion, but she was an opinionated person who had always smothered her voice. Plus, who would want a girl with her background and a mouth?

The town of Colby came and went like a puff of smoke. Suddenly there was the exit Lisa told Mary to take to get to Rourke Ranch when they’d spoken on the phone the day before.

Oh, mercy, why was Mary doing what Lisa wanted? Again? Nothing good ever came from Lisa’s plans.

More importantly, Edward had warned Mary to stay away from her. Something about her being controlling and manipulative and he didn’t like Lisa’s influence on Mary.

Okay, Mary could meet with Lisa. But Mary had to be mad. She hadn’t wanted to come. Mary hadn’t wanted to see what Lisa needed. She didn’t want to do anything. She didn’t want to know anything about what Lisa was so ambiguous about.

Yes, dang it all, she did want to know. If she was completely honest with herself, she’d admit that curiosity consumed her. What would make Lisa call her after so long and ask to meet with her? Lisa wasn’t the humblest of women and Mary had known her long enough to realize that she was desperate, if she was calling Mary.

Why should Mary let anything go? Mary tossed her hair off her shoulders and growled. Startled at the vehemence in her display, she glanced around quickly to see if anyone had caught her, laughing nervously. “There’s no one to hear you, Mary dear. You’re alone in a car on an empty road, turning onto an even emptier street, surrounded by fields and forest.” She pulled a crazy face and stuck her tongue out just to prove she wasn’t crazy.

The dashboard didn’t laugh.

Wait. Her actions could prove she was crazy.

She was working on silly, when she had to get mad. Get mad. Get ready. She could do it. Lisa hadn’t hinted at the meaning behind their meeting. The only thing that Mary remembered as being mildly annoying about Lisa was she’d never had anything nice to say about Daddy, so Mary had to constantly stick up for him.

He was a good guy, just rough around the edges.

She turned the car onto a long drive, pulling up to a rancher with a faded but well-kept log exterior. Other vehicles parked alongside the voluminous barn suggested she follow suit, but Mary had to stand her ground. She had to make sure everyone knew she wasn’t a push-over. She nodded her head sharply, leaving the car in the center of the driveway.

As if in slow motion, Mary turned off the car. The realism of the situation crashed around her. She’d always wondered if the rumors about Lisa and her were true. They looked a lot alike. Same hair and eye color.

So many times Mary had heard people whisper that they were sisters from the same father. What if Mary’s dad wasn’t her father? What if her mom had cheated on him?

The possibility that there would be a talk between Lisa and Mary had always haunted Mary in the back of her mind. What if Lisa was going to say they were sisters? Mary didn’t want to know for sure. She’d always been an only child. Secretly she’d wanted a sister, secretly had hoped for one.

Even with all her wishing and dreaming, she didn’t want that sister to be Lisa.

Not when Lisa knew her shame.

Not when Lisa knew her.

Opening the door, Mary pushed from inside her Subaru, pressing her wildflower-print skirt down her legs. The thing always bunched up. What she wouldn’t give to be able to wear jeans and capris and even shorts. But Edward would never allow anything so masculine.

Heck, if Dad hadn’t died, he’d never allow it either. Women belonged in dresses and skirts, not pants or anything else.

Dust lingered in the air from her drive up, and Mary wiped at her forehead. She shut the door, her phone clenched tightly in her fingers.

Still no sign of life for such a large ranch.

Glancing around in case Lisa had some sort of cruel surprise in store for her, Mary stepped away from the security of her car and headed toward the front door.

A strong vibration jerked in her hand.

She stopped, catching her breath. All of her taut nerves collected together, straining, near to snapping.

Edward had finally texted her.

She swiped the screen, grinding her teeth. Was she in trouble? She hadn’t asked him, she’d left a brief note on the counter, hoping he wouldn’t mind.

Where are you?

Hunching over the screen, Mary texted him back.

I’m up in Colby. I left you a note. I won’t be gone long.

She winced at his reply.

Get back here. Now.

Nodding, as if he could see her, Mary sent him a message back.

Okay. Leaving now.

Mary turned back to the car, shoulders slumping at the prospect of dealing with his anger when she returned. He didn’t hit her or anything, but sometimes she wished he would, just so she wouldn’t have to sit and bear his quiet condemnation or his yelling or even his rude comments until he felt she’d been punished long enough.

He was high class. His family had a great reputation two counties over and he was a manager at a hotel. He had prestige. No other men would ever consider her for marriage, especially with her last name.

A positive spin on leaving would be that she wouldn’t have to deal with being confronted by Lisa. She didn’t to deal with things she’d rather leave alone. Yeah, that was it. She could go back to her simple life and tell Lisa she wasn’t interested. Even though she was.

Mary climbed into her car and turned the engine over. Suddenly spurred on by the overwhelming desire to get out of there, she shifted into reverse, then drive.

In the rear view mirror, three women – two blonde and one brunette – hurried down the steps toward her.

“Where were you when I got here?” Mary wasn’t having it, she turned out of the driveway. The ranch disappeared in her rear view mirror. “Too little, too late.”

She had to get home because Edward told her to.

The text messages rolled in. Mary checked the first few as she drove. Each message angrier than the last, until Edward finally used only capitals and exclamation points. One from Lisa asking where she’d gone and to come back.

Chewing her bottom lip until it bled, Mary panted, glancing in her rearview mirror and to the side, gauging how fast she could go without getting in trouble. She couldn’t go any faster than she was or she’d be ticketed.

Barely above the speed limit through Colby, Mary tapped the wheel as she glanced around, continuing toward home. The sleepy town had changed since the last time she’d been up that way to visit her mom’s new place. A department store manned the end of Main Street. Specialty shops including a delicatessen dotted the storefronts. Wide sidewalks planted with lush green trees and bushes almost took more road than the street itself.

The enticement of the town left a small ache in her chest. She didn’t know her own town that well, the one where she’d grown up. Colby was an entity she’d heard so much about. What would it be like to walk the streets of Colby and say hi to the other townspeople? And none of them would care about her last name or who she was.

About a mile outside of Colby, a three-way fork in the road required her to stop and yield to oncoming traffic. A large white diesel truck with dually-tires pulled a long matching horse trailer in front of her.

Painstakingly slow.

Please, turn down another one of the roads. Come on. Please. Mary switched from chewing her lip to her inner cheek. Slight perspiration dotted the back of her neck. Edward wasn’t going to let her forget today.

The solid yellow line down the middle of the road prohibited her from passing. But she swerved to the side to see around the street-yacht. Nothing. Nobody. She could pass and safely.

She pulled back behind the truck and counted to three, catching her breath. She hated passing. The last time she’d done it, she’d almost run into the ditch. She yanked the wheel and pressed the gas.

Almost into an oncoming truck.

Shrieking, she veered back into her lane, laying on the horn. What was she doing?

Her phone buzzed and beeped. Buzzed and beeped. She reached over and turned off the cell. She wasn’t answering while driving and he would soon resort to calling.

Why couldn’t the truck go any faster? A fine coating of sweat dotted her forehead and moistened her palms. She breathed deep, trying not to go all road-rage about it, but it was hard with every second passing and she wasn’t getting that close to home.

Another stop sign and the trailer’s brake lights glared offensively at her, almost at eye level, the blinker indicating that he was going right.

Thank Heaven! She was going straight. He’d be out of her way and she could zoom on by. A small wave of relief relaxed the tight tension between her shoulder blades. She leaned her elbow on the closed window seal and rested her head on her hand. Only a couple more seconds.

But the truck didn’t pull forward. The driver had pulled into the middle of the road, readying himself for the tighter turn. He didn’t leave enough road on either side for her to pull around.

What was he doing?

Panic gripped her. What was she going to do? The loss of control as the situation unraveled sent a headache between her eyes. Oh, heck no. This was unacceptable. People can’t just stop in the middle of the street. Plenty of shoulders dotted the roads. He should have used one of them so other vehicles could pass.

But again, what could she do? She was just a girl.

In the rear view mirror, far off in the distance, a dot became a bigger dot and more recognizable as a car. Nope, scratch that, not a car, Lisa’s truck.

Well, Mary didn’t have any more time to sit there bemoaning her sex. She was going to make the truck get going, that’s what she was going to do.

She shoved the car into park and pushed open the door, wishing – not for the first time that day – that she’d worn some kind of pants, even if they had been dress pants. She didn’t feel very strong or empowered in a dress. On a day where so much assertiveness was necessary, a woman should’ve had the right to wear whatever the heck she pleased.

Slamming the door shut, Mary stomped around the side of the trailer. She couldn’t release her frustration onto Lisa and she had to get out of there before Lisa got there. For some reason, Lisa always knew what to say and do to win an argument. Mary couldn’t confront Lisa, but by golly, she was going to confront the driver on his slow driving and frustratingly rude stopping patterns.

Maybe.

 

Chapter 2

Ian

Thuds from the horse trailer carried over the rushing air into the truck cab.

Ian turned his head to listen closer, slowing further as frantic neighing reached him across the short distance through the open back window.

The last stop sign before he reached his place appeared as if an oasis, and Ian slowed further, coming to a stop. The car behind him could either go around or wait. Something was scaring his favorite horse and Ian wouldn’t be rushed.

He left the high rig and climbed the ladder to the tongue access of the trailer. He’d placed Peanut Butter closer to the front for a smoother ride, but that section of the trailer blocked out most of the light, making his efforts difficult to see what might be the problem.

“Hey, there, girl, whoa. You’re okay.” Ian spoke soothingly, hands out as he opened the door wider for more light and fresh air. The windows were open in the top but only afforded a breeze when they were moving.

Peanut Butter’s blindfold had fallen off.

Ian grabbed a hold of the reins dangling from the mare’s neck and glanced around the flooring of the trailer. The black material wasn’t in view, searching made more difficult by the increased dimness.

Reaching up to lift his hat and fan his neck with the brim, Ian puffed air upward over his forehead. What was he going to do? Peanut Butter hated traveling and a blindfold helped with the panic for the short twenty minute drive from Lonely Rivers Ranch where the veterinarian worked on her teeth and did the vaccines. Her normal fear combined with the light sedation didn’t make for an easy ride. Ian needed a blindfold and he needed it desperately.

Gravel crunched outside, each footstep in quick succession. A sharp rap on the side of the trailer next to the doorway announced the new arrival before Ian could stick his head out and apologize for holding everyone up.

Dark curls surrounded petite features which he couldn’t miss even in the artificial shadows. The woman narrowed her eyes. “You’re blocking the entire road. Could you pull to the side so I can go, please?” She added the please as if out of habit, because nothing in her snippy tone or crisp movements as she crossed her arms suggested she intended to be polite.

Replacing his hat, Ian patted Peanut Butter’s neck, humming low in his throat for a full minute to his horse while contemplating the spitfire standing in a demure dress at the door.

She backed up as he stepped closer to the doorway, watching him even as she glanced at the thinnest watch on her wrist. Ian could imagine her standing there with a toe tapping in time with the second hand. Her eyes were hypnotic and she glanced back repeatedly in the direction of her car.

He stepped down from the trailer, careful to release the reins and hold his tone steady. There’d be hell to pay if his horse lost her cool after a simple procedure only minutes from home. “Ma’am, I’m sorry ‘bout holdin’ up your day. My horse is fretting and I was obliged to make sure she’s more comfortable. Can’t have her more scared while I drive, now can I?” He tilted his head her direction, as if asking her permission to proceed.

The woman’s eyes widened and she pressed a hand to her throat. “I’m sorry, I, uh, I don’t… I’m just…” She cleared her throat, her blue eyes darting left and right and then focusing on the dark square behind him. “Is she okay? What’s wrong?”

Ian sighed. “Her blindfold somehow fell off. I don’t know where the blasted thing is and I need it. I’ll hurry, but I can’t make any promises.” He lifted his foot and placed his well-worn cowboy boots on the aluminum ladder rung, half-turning toward the trailer entrance.

The woman shook her head, fingering the scarf at her neck. Who in their right mind wore scarves, even decorative ones at that, in the summer heat? Some women…

Before Ian could stop her, she stepped forward, unwinding the scarf from its intricate knot and holding out the swath of lavender and navy-blue material. “Here, you’re welcome to use this. I’m so sorry, about my manners. Of course, your horse is important. I didn’t mean… I’m sorry.” She offered a sorrowful smile, tremulous at the corners, but strong in the middle.

Would her lips be as firm and giving in a kiss? “I can’t take your scarf, ma’am. She’s just a dusty ole mare.”

“My name’s Mary, and I insist. I feel terrible I unloaded on you like I did. It wasn’t even… anything that important.” She lifted her eyebrows, biting the bottom side of her lip.

He chuckled, accepting the scarf and winding the soft material in his hands. “You call what you did ‘unloading’? I’d like to see your idea of a good ole fashioned cussing-out.” He winked, unable to help himself. He’d never met someone who’d intrigued him so quickly.

She held herself back, her passion, like tying all of her emotions into a neat little bow. What would happen if he reached out and softly tugged at the strings? Would she lose her cool further?

The temptation was strong. Ian opened his mouth to ask more, but a truck screeched to a stop behind her car, just past the corner of the trailer.

Another brunette rushed toward Mary, calling out. “Mary, stop. Why’d you run off?”

Mary glanced at Ian and then at the new woman. “Look, Lisa, I’m in a hurry. Edward was texting me and telling me to get back. He told me he wasn’t going to wait.” She shrugged, glancing at the ground and then lifting her chin and meeting Lisa’s gaze. “We’ll have to try to meet another time.”

The fact that another man told her he wasn’t going to wait made Ian sick. He didn’t care what the drama between Mary and Lisa was. He didn’t care about the drama between Mary and Edward either. Something about Mary drew him in, but he struggled to get himself out.

Even with all that, he couldn’t help tugging just a little on her control strings.

Ian stepped closer to Mary, pushing between the two brunettes. He lowered his voice, bending his head to put himself within inches of her face. “No self-respecting man would rush you, darlin’. You’re worth waitin’ for.” He held her gaze for a long drawn out moment, until her lashes fluttered and she glanced down again. A distinct flush covered her cheeks.

Satisfied he’d left her sufficiently flustered, Ian turned and left the two women.

Without another word, Ian returned to Peanut Butter and carefully covered her rolling eyes with the fashion scarf. He couldn’t wait to see what Nana Nell thought of the blindfold when he got home. Almost immediately, Peanut Butter calmed and stopped stomping her feet.

Backing out of the trailer, Ian avoided the silently standing women and offered the slightest wave. “Thanks again, Mary.” He nodded, climbing into the front of his truck and revving the engine.

Her big blue eyes watched him as he turned to the right. She disappeared behind his trailer.

The drive passed quickly, visions of Mary’s eyes and ceramic skin flashing in his mind.

Pulling up to the house and barn, Ian unloaded Peanut Butter and relocated her to her stall in the barn. A few extra handfuls of oats and some carrots soothed her further and Ian draped the scarf from his shoulder. The scent of strawberries and cream wafted over him. The aroma was unexpected amongst the normal fresh hay and manure scents.

Getting her off his mind would be harder now that he knew what she smelled like. She smelled like a dessert and looked like one, too. How would he return the article of clothing to Mary? He hadn’t gotten her last name and judging by her skirt, she most likely wasn’t from around there. Most women in Clearwater County wore jeans because nothing else was sensible.

Trodding across the long drive, fingers hooked in the feminine scarf, Ian opened the front door and called out. “Nana Nell? I’m back.” He hung his hat on the hooks by the front mirror and slipped his boots off. It’d be a snowy day in the Nevada desert before he’d get away with wearing shoes in the house, especially if they were worn and dirty work boots. A rule his Nana Nell had had since before he’d come to live with her fifteen years before.

Calling from the kitchen, she glanced around the corner of the door frame. “That was fast. Everything alright with Peanut Butter?” She ducked back into the kitchen, probably stirring something on the stove or putting something together to go into the oven. The woman didn’t know when or how to stop feeding people, especially when that “people” was Ian.

“Oh yeah, that mare’s probably going to outlive me.” He twiddled the edge of the scarf and entered the kitchen area, claiming a seat at the counter. “I lost the blindfold for Peanut Butter.”

“Oh no. I bet she was scared.” Nana Nell clucked her tongue, folding eggs into a white fluffy mixture in a big red bowl on the counter. Her gray curls bobbed free from pins and she rubbed at her shoulder, leaving behind flour and a doughy-looking smudge.

“Yeah, she was. I stopped to look for it and a woman, Mary was her name, stopped and gave me her scarf to use.” Ian still couldn’t make heads or tails of her actions. He hadn’t been mad at her frustration. He understood it. But she’d given him the scarf like she was trying to buy his forgiveness.

She’d gone from angry vigilante – albeit mild and not dangerous at all – to an overly repentant princess in seconds.

“Oh, that’s pretty. You’ll need to return it. Did you get her last name and phone number? I know! You should take her out to dinner and thank her properly.” Nana Nell’s eyes twinkled and she reached both hands into the bowl and kneaded the dough.

He shook his head, softly chuckling. “No, she only said Mary. I’ll have to ask around.” And he would, but where did he start?

If only those women hadn’t shown up, Ian might have been able to get her to talk more, engage more. Spending time with Mary wouldn’t grow boring, that’s for sure. If they tired of things to talk about, he could stare at her eyes for hours.

Would he get the chance to see her again?

He completely ignored the fact that she’d mentioned some guy. If the guy wanted to keep her, he wouldn’t make stupid demands of her.

That much was obvious to Ian.

 

Chapter 3

Mary

What was Lisa doing? Mary grimaced as she realized the good-looking man with a twinge of a British accent was going to think she was insane – aided by the fact that she got out of her car to ask him to move on a street at a stop sign.

She was never going to forgive herself for being so impatient and worried that she could’ve endangered a horse. Edward’s anger would peak and she’d deal with it, like she always did.

His eyes. Wow, the green couldn’t be more intense. Or the tight angle of his jaw and the curve of a deep dimple in his cheek. Yeah, Mary couldn’t stop staring. She was engaged, not dead. Plus, she’d never see him again, so what was the problem with acknowledging how good looking he was?

Edward had succeeded in controlling her actions, but not her thoughts. Not yet, anyway.

He turned toward the trailer, and in a few minutes drove off, leaving Mary alone with Lisa in a very uncomfortable setting. The trailer had left Mary and Lisa’s vehicles in plain sight and two women waited beside them. Just perfect. Lisa had brought the other women with her.

Slapping her hands together in frustration, Mary turned, pacing from Lisa a few feet and then back, glaring at the taller woman on the return trip. “What do you want? I don’t have time for this.” She thrust her fingers toward the two women. “And what do you hope to accomplish with an audience?” Her stomach roiled, knotting and quivering. Her embarrassment at trying to redirect her anger toward a stranger compounded her frustration with the entire situation and she focused her shaking energy toward Lisa.

“You have no time, huh? But you had time to get out and chat with Ian Dawson? Nice, though. He’s one of the most sought-after bachelors in the county. And he’s British… I know how you like those accents.” Lisa arched her eyebrows and crossed her arms. “Sure you’re not trying to secretly get away from your fiancé?”

Mary huffed, lowering her voice as the two new women walked closer, one of which seemed to be on some of a walker or something. “Look, I don’t know what game you’re playing at, but making insinuations about my relationship with Edward isn’t funny. What do you want?” She bit the last four words like hard taffy.

Lisa stepped closer, her eyes blazing. “Rosie, Sara Beth, and I are in deep trouble. We need your help. You’re in this, too, but hopefully Agent Mendez doesn’t find you on his own.”

Mary jerked back, confusion twisting her tone. “I spoke with Agent Mendez last week. I told him I don’t know anything.” She stamped her foot, glaring at Lisa. “Which I don’t!” The FBI agent had been excessively vague about what he wanted. All he’d asked about was the origin of her trust as well as her relationship with her mother. He hadn’t mentioned Lisa or anyone else. Mary would be hanged before she’d offer any of that information to Lisa.

“You don’t even know what I’m going to ask you. What did he say? What did you say?” Lisa grabbed Mary’s bicep and squeezed, desperation hard in the narrowing of her gaze.

Yanking from Lisa’s grasp, Mary rubbed at the sore spot. “I just told you. Look, you need to stop. I’m sorry you’re in trouble, but your problems have nothing to do with me. We stopped being friends a long time ago.” She bit her tongue on the lie, but Mary didn’t want to need anyone, let alone Lisa. Admitting they were friends wasn’t on her agenda when her self-esteem was already taking a beating by being late getting back to Edward and embarrassing herself in front of Ian Dawson.

Her day had taken the sharpest turn for the worse and she didn’t want to deal with it anymore.

Any second her phone would probably explode from Edward’s missed calls and messages.

Lisa gasped. “I never stopped.” She glanced over her shoulder, then back at Mary, studying her with sorrowful blue eyes. She dropped her hand, grimacing with the truth. “Okay, fine. We may have stopped being friends, Mary Caracus, but you can’t stop being my sister.”

Mary froze. She’d danced around the possibility, the most-likely fact, but she’d never even voiced her suspicions. She couldn’t. Not when everyone whispered behind her back. Not when having Lisa as her sister meant something she didn’t believe her mom was capable of was actually… fact.

Lisa studied Mary, as if waiting for some kind of grateful reaction.

But Mary couldn’t. She just… couldn’t. She shook her head and whispered. “You can’t be my sister. You’re… I mean… Your father isn’t… my father. My mom never had an affair. She couldn’t have. Why would she?”

“My father? Did I grow up with a dad, Mary? You’re the one with a dad, not me. If your mother had cheated on Devlyn Caracus, she wouldn’t have lived to raise you.” Lisa leaned in until her cheek was beside Mary’s and her lips near her ear. “We have the same father, Mary, but the cheater was Devlyn and he got more than just your ma and mine pregnant. Even as you try to deny the truth – there are at least three more besides us.” Lisa motioned over her shoulder at the other two women who had closed the distance between them to a paltry ten feet. “Here’s two of them now.”

Three more? Besides Lisa and herself? So five Caracus daughters? How was Mary supposed to assimilate what Lisa was telling her?

How could she believe it? The truth had become foggy and gray. Mary shook her head. “I don’t… I always suspected you, Lisa, but… I can’t have the same dad as you. My dad loved me. He gave me his name. He wouldn’t steal or hurt people. Or not tell me about sisters. My dad wouldn’t lie to me.” She ended on a whisper, but lifted her chin, adamant Devlyn Caracus wasn’t things the world wanted her to believe he was.

Lisa stared down at her fingers. She turned her hands over and picked at a cuticle. Glancing up at Mary, tears bright in her brilliant blue eyes, she whispered, “You’re the lucky one. Because he did all those things to me and my mom. He was all those things. Except he never loved me. He never loved them. He only loved you.” She sniffed, offering the briefest smirk. “Imagine how that was to see you at school or to hang out with you and always know you were better than me. So much better in fact, that our dad only loved you, never hurt you?”

Her scars bared, Lisa didn’t look away from Mary who shifted uncomfortably at the bald honesty of the display.

Mary didn’t know how to respond to Lisa’s emotions.

Growing up with Devlyn Caracus as a father had left Mary confused about other people and usually alone. The comments he’d made about other people not measuring up, not being good enough to be friends with his child, had grown more intense over the years. Mary had never been able to understand the differences between herself and other children, just that, according to Dad, they were there and very distinct.

He’d even favorited Mary over Mom.

Brushing her passion for the topic aside, Lisa wiped at her eyes and held her hand out toward the new arrivals. Emotionless, she spoke to Mary without really looking at her. “This is Rosie and Sara Beth Scott. Devlyn Caracus’s daughters as well.”

Mary couldn’t focus on their faces at first. These women were non-entities and as such, fair game to assess what they might be as sisters. Mary didn’t look at Lisa. Her childhood friend. Her only friend. More her sister than the other women she’d introduced to Mary.

But because of Devlyn’s contempt for Lisa and her mother, she was the one person Mary had never been allowed to love. She’d held Lisa at arm’s length even though she was the only person who wanted to be her friend all through school.

Dust swirled around them from the dry road. Mary watched the two blonde women as Rosie held out her hand to be shaken. Mary obliged, unsure of what to do. Rosie nodded, her smile welcoming and judgment free. “Nice to meet you. I’m sorry, this is all…”

“Surprising?” Sara Beth laughed, the musical tinkling appeasing the uncertainty in the air. She bore her weight on a walker, its wheels struggling over the gravel in the road. “We couldn’t agree more. We’ve been looking for the three of you for quite a while.” She bounced on the balls of her feet, her weight obviously supported mostly by her arms.

“Three?” Mary glanced at Lisa who stared into the distance. But there were only two – Lisa and Mary. Who were the new sisters talking about?

Nodding, Rosie held up five fingers. “There are five of us – as far as we know, anyway. Sara Beth and myself, Lisa, you, and a woman named Jenny. Do you know a Jenny Ellsbeth?” All three women turned and studied Mary, like she was livestock at a fair.

Another one? Jenny? Mary drew in a long breath, her shoulders lifting and lowering. She blinked rapidly. “Let me get this straight. I have four sisters from Devlyn Caracus. You’re telling me you’ve found all of us but one?” She shook her head. “I’ve never heard of any of you… except for Lisa.”

Swallowing, as she studied each woman, Mary tried not to drown under the weight of revelation. She cleared her throat. “I’m sorry. This is a lot to take in right now. I need to get home before my fiancé loses it. I don’t think I know anyone named Jenny. And…” She glanced at Lisa who hadn’t fully turned to look at Mary again. “I don’t know how to help you. This isn’t my problem. It was nice to meet you all.” She offered a polite smile and pushed past them to her car.

Where she would normally rub the ends of her scarf or other neck accessory, Mary didn’t even have that to comfort her. She worked at her lip, not surprised at the small burst of copper flavoring on her tongue.

Sitting in her car and starting the engine, she touched her finger to her torn flesh, pulling the tip back and huffing at the red spot.

She had to stop harming herself like that when she was stressed.

Pointedly ignoring the cellphone on the seat beside her, Mary pulled the car forward, past the women she was supposedly related to, and toward home.

Because wasn’t that what this was? A game of supposedly? They hadn’t offered any proof that she was their sister, that Devlyn was the way he was. All they had was a “he said, she said” kind of thing going.

Deep down though, Mary refused to consider she might have four sisters – four sisters she’d always wanted. She refused to consider the possibility… because ignoring the truth was easier than fighting it.

How could she deny the relationship when looking into their eyes had been like seeing her dad all over again? Especially Sara Beth. Mary shook off the chill at seeing the exact shape of their dad’s eyes when Sara Beth had studied her.

How had Sara Beth become handicapped? Was she hurt or had she been born with the disability? If she’d been born that way, Mary could see Devlyn rejecting the child and the entire family. Hadn’t he constantly pushed perfection? Only allowing Mary to go to school when Mom had rid Mary of her lisp?

Betrayal wormed its way into Mary’s heart, but she redirected the hurt from Devlyn to Lisa and Mary’s mom. Nothing was making sense. She blinked hard at the passing road signs.

One thing for certain – if she didn’t get home to Edward immediately, he might not have her.

And men didn’t want a Caracus girl.

At least not without something in exchange.

Kindle

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