If you missed the prologue, you can read it here.
November 24, 1AE
The Farm, California
Hurrying through the mud and drizzle toward the stable proved detrimental to both staying clean and staying dry. Wet earth squished beneath each footstep, and I couldn’t help but wonder why we hadn’t moved our excess canning supplies out of the house sooner. Only a few steps from the sliding stable door, my right foot slipped in the mud, and it was all I could do not to face-plant in the muddy gravel with an armful of empty jars. “Shit,” I mumbled, letting out my held breath in relief as I regained my balance.
“That’s a bad word,” Annie observed behind me. “We’re not supposed to say bad words.”
I glanced back to find her half lost in concentration with each careful step, her little red rain boots spattered with mud. Muddy boots were better than muddy clothes, which Dani had made me promise to keep clean. Sam only shook his head.
“I know, no bad words,” I said, straining as I used my foot to slide the stable door open wide enough for the three of us to scramble through and out of the rain. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to say it.” With an oomph, I managed to push the door open, and Annie shuffled inside, Sam and me following behind her.
Although it was chilly inside the stable, it smelled of leather and hay, a pleasant surprise since many of the horses had opted to remain cooped up in their stalls most of the week.
“Why are we bringing the jars in here?” Annie asked, her tiny voice taut as she crept inside. I passed her in search of a place to store our armfuls.
“Over here,” I said, using my chin to point at the table stacked with Vanessa’s tattered and soiled clothes—the few items she’d allowed us to remove from her to be cleaned and mended. It was the table Chris and Carlos had put in Vanessa’s makeshift room during their daily visits to the last stall on the left.
Hearing Annie grunt, I looked down at her and smiled. Each of her steps was strategic and determined as she drew closer to the table, holding the four jars she’d insisted on carrying, like boulders too big for her tiny arms. As always seemed to be the case when I was around cute little crazy Annie, my heart melted a little.
“Why are we putting them in here?” she asked again.
“Because,” Sam grumbled, “we all have to eat inside again.” He set his case of jars on top of mine. “We need the kitchen table for dinner tonight because of the stupid rain.”
“It’ll stop soon,” I said, but I wasn’t sure that was true. We’d been mostly indoors for a couple of days, and none of us were sure when the weather would let up or for how long the break would last once it came, not even Tavis.
“But why aren’t we putting them in the shed,” Annie rattled on, “with the jellies and the pickles and the—”
Sam cut her off. “We’re just storing them in here until Jason and Grandpa Tom can fix the roof on the shed,” he said, sounding bored. “They have to wait for the rain to stop again.”
“Oh, Sam,” I said, nudging him with my elbow. “It’s just a little rain…okay, maybe a lot of rain. But it’ll let up soon.”
With a grunt, Annie finally stopped in front of the table, squeezing the jars so tightly I could hear glass grinding against glass. I held my breath, waiting for them to crash onto the hay-scattered cement floor but hoping they wouldn’t. Vanessa was chatting happily away to herself in her stall, and I didn’t want to send her into a spiraling fit.
Naturally, Sam reached out to help Annie unload her jars, but she turned away from him, her wild blonde hair bouncing despite its damp tendrils. “I can do it,” she said primly.
Sam’s palms flew up, and he stepped away from Annie’s accusatory glare. “Sorry.”
Carefully, Annie placed one jar on the table, her brow furrowed in concentration. She set down another. “They’re all wet and slippery,” she grumbled, smearing a water drop on one with her fingertip.
“That’s what happens when it’s raining,” Sam retorted, ever the older brother he’d seemed to become. “I told you I’d carry them.” Although Sam often feigned annoyance with Annie, I knew she amused him, and like with the rest of us, she often made him smile despite his grumpy mood. She was contagious that way.
With a derisive sound, Annie scrunched her face. “I don’t like the rain anymore,” she said, sounding like Sam, but I knew it wasn’t necessarily true. Annie didn’t like that she had to stay indoors when it rained, but she thoroughly enjoyed the overabundance of puddles that popped up all over the property. More mud meant more fun, at least where Annie was concerned.
Wishing I’d been in less of a hurry and grabbed my jacket, I ignored the visible puff of breath I exhaled as my fingertips felt for the small cubes protruding from my back pocket.
“Tavis should make the rain go away,” Annie said, adamant as she placed the last canning jar expertly on the table. She grinned, triumphant.
“Tavis can’t send the rain away just because we don’t like it, Annie,” I tried to explain.
She looked at Sam, scrunched up her face again, then looked at me. Her bright blue eyes narrowed, but she listened without argument.
“Don’t you like curling up on the couch, reading your animal stories with Mr. Grayson?” Despite how much Annie groaned about having to stay indoors, I knew she loved story time almost as much as she enjoyed romping around with Cooper and Jack in the dirt. And Mr. Grayson, old Bodega Bay’s infamous history teacher and captivating orator—or Daniel, as some called him—was the best man for the job.
Annie huffed, an exaggerated, impatient sound. “Yeah, but—”
“But what? We need the water in the wells and to fill the pond, munchkin. And we need it for our winter garden,” I explained. As if on cue, the encroaching storm above us worsened. Raindrops fell harder, echoing on the stable roof, and a gale of wind made the structure shudder and groan.
Shadow stirred in his stall a few doors down, and when Annie noticed my hand was in my back pocket, she grinned from ear to ear.
“I thought we weren’t supposed to give sugar to the horses,” Sam said wryly. Though he was going for disapproving, I knew he enjoyed our clandestine snack times with the horses as much as I did.
I brought my index finger to my lips. “Dani just said in moderation.” I walked over to Shadow, deciding he might like the company since he was cooped up indoors like the rest of us. Little pattering feet followed, and Annie giggled.
When Shadow’s head bobbed up and he anxiously approached the opened stall window, my grin widened. He looked like an oversized mountain pony with his shaggy, onyx coat, longer from the cool winter weather, and his unruly mane.
“Hey, boy,” I said softly as he stuck his head through the window. Shadow’s eyes were opened wide and bright, and I knew that meant he was growing anxious and ready for exercise. “Sorry, buddy, not today.” A notion suddenly dawned on me. I looked back at Annie. “He’s going to roll in the mud the first chance he gets, isn’t he?”
She simply giggled.
“I knew it.” Patting the side of his face, I put one of the sugar cubes out on my flattened palm for Shadow’s greedy lips to find and gave the rest to Sam and Annie. “It’ll be our little secret.” I winked and pointed toward the other stalls. “Just be careful of the last one,” I said. Annie and Sam both looked at Vanessa’s stall. They nodded, familiar with the drill.
Unfazed to have a Crazy living in our stable—one who’d “cared” for Annie to the best of her mentally unstable ability before Dani had stumbled across them back in Tahoe—Annie giggled and pranced from stall to stall as she and Sam visited each of the horses. Just as they were finishing petting Brutus, Sam squinted beyond me, toward the tack room. I knew that look.
I glanced behind me and saw nothing, though I wasn’t surprised. I’d grown used to Sam hearing things the rest of us couldn’t.
“Kitty!” Annie sang, then she trotted past me to the corner of the stable, where one of the three two-month-old kittens meowed to life and stretched in the doorway of the tack room.
All of us smiled, unable to resist the brown kitten’s sweet mewing while she traipsed toward us in want of attention; her brown fur, blue eyes, and bobbed, fluffy tail looked like—to Annie at least—the Mr. Potato Head doll Ky had given her right before the incident. “Ky liked Mr. Potato Head, and he would’ve liked this name,” Annie had said when she’d named the little kitten Miss Potato. No one had argued with the determined little fireball, even if it was a painful memory. It didn’t matter that Jason had been forced to shoot his best friend in self-defense, to kill Ky—the Monitor the General had placed on him. It was a day we all wished we could forget.
“She’s getting bigger,” Sam said, smiling as he watched Miss Potato spastically frolicking and squeaking as she played in the straw.
Unlike Sam and Annie, my mind was shadowed by darker times. Thinking of Ky made my heart ache, then burn with guilt and regret as my thoughts jumped to memories of Sarah’s suicide. I thought about Biggs and the twins, whom we hadn’t seen in almost six months. They were all gone because of me, because of the tangled, messy web of lies my life consisted of.
Annie giggled and gently stroked Miss Potato’s tawny belly as the kitten flopped and played at her feet.
“Where are the others?” Sam asked, peering back at the tack room, the cats’ secluded safe haven during our coastal storm.
“Bubbles is coming,” Annie explained. “But Doodle is getting a bath.”
With hands in his front pockets, Sam leaned back on his heels and let out a deep exhale, one that exuded incredulity, like he might never be able to completely wrap his mind around Dani and Annie’s animal-speaking Abilities.
“Look who I found crying outside the door,” Tavis said, striding into the barn. His dirty blond hair was matted, and water dripped from his nose as he held out a nearly drowned, squeaky black kitten.
“Bubbles!” Annie exclaimed.
Sam chuffed. “I thought you said she was inside?”
Annie ran over to Tavis and the drenched kitten. “No, I said she was coming.”
“What was she doing outside?” I asked. I made my way over to Tavis and the kitten. “She could’ve gotten washed away.”
Annie greedily snatched Bubbles from Tavis’s hold. He grinned at me and stepped aside to let Annie fawn all over the kitten. “She was exploring, and then it started raining,” Annie explained. “She got scared.”
“Well, I’m glad Tavis found her then,” I said, and crouched down to pet the matted black mess.
I saw a flicker of something in Tavis’s mind, a memory of the past that sent a wave of longing through him—not lustful longing, but something lonelier. He glanced at me.
“Zoe,” Annie said.
I looked down to find her holding Bubbles close to her chest.
She glanced from the crying kitten to me, a mischievous look on her face. “Your hair is the same as Bubble’s is.” She smiled widely, a gaping hole where her right front tooth would’ve been.
“Yeah?” I eyed the kitten’s soggy black fur, dabbled with streaks of white and gray. “I hope not exactly like hers,” I muttered.
I barely heard Sam’s amused grunt over the sound of the dinner triangle clanking and ringing outside. Annie jumped up, startling the kittens when she shouted, “Food!”
“I’m going to eat it all before you get there,” Tavis taunted with a wink in my direction, then he rushed back out into the rain, egging Annie on in their daily bout of catch-me-if-you-can.
“You better hurry,” I goaded her, “or there’ll be nothing left for dinner!” With peals of laughter, Annie handed me the kitten and ran out into the rain, toward the farmhouse. “Stay out of the puddles!” I called after them, hoping the amusement in my voice didn’t drown out my authoritative tone completely.
I set Bubbles and Miss Potato back in the tack room with Mama and Doodle, then stalked toward the slightly opened stable door, anxious to get out of the cold and back into the warm house.
The moment I stepped outside, rain pelted me mercilessly, or at least it felt that way as it soaked what seemed like every inch of me. Quickly I pulled the sliding door shut, squinting through wet lashes toward the house. Apparently my authoritative tone needed some work, because, as I’d expected, Annie seized every opportunity to jump in the puddles on her way to the porch. Tavis smiled at me, winked, and ushered the kids inside, and all I could do was hope that Dani didn’t kill me when she saw how muddy Annie had gotten, despite my best efforts.
After latching the stable door shut, I jogged toward the house.
Heavy, quick footsteps squished behind me, and I couldn’t help the knowing grin that parted my lips. It was Jake. We were connected on so many levels now; I could sense his presence and his mind better than anyone else’s. He was no longer the mystery he’d once been, with walls and armor that kept him distant and apprehensive. Now, he was the warmth to my cold, the strong to my weak. He was the second half of me I had never realized was missing until I’d known what it felt like to lose him—to lose myself and become someone who had no memories at all. At least Gabe, genius that he was, was able to help me get my mind back, the memories that made me me.
“Evening stroll?” Jake asked as he jogged up beside me, squinting into the rain. He lifted part of his flannel jacket to shield me from the downpour.
“Yeah, it’s been such a beautiful day.” I wrapped my arm around his waist, and together we hurried to the shelter of the porch. His heat steadied my cold, trembling bones. He’d become a protective cocoon; I would never grow tired of the warmth and vitality he exuded, always making me feel loved…making me feel safe. With him, I could lose my inhibitions and my fears and, on my favorite occasions, let loose my desires.
“What are you doing out here?” I asked, letting go of him when we reached the porch steps. The wood creaked beneath our urgent footsteps. I stared down at my dirt-splattered jeans and mud-caked boots. “Shit.” Using the edge of the step, I tried to scrape the chunks of mud off the bottom of my right boot. I could picture Annie now, running around the house and rolling all over the furniture, covered in far more mud than I was.
“I was checking the leaks in the shed,” Jake said as he shook out his hair. “The tarp’s holding well enough for now.” A gust of wind picked up, and I shivered. As I scraped the mud from the bottom of my other boot, Jake shrugged off his jacket.
Laughter, dishes clanking, and amiable chatter emanated from inside as everyone no doubt gathered around the dinner table, just as we’d done most nights since the winter weather had worsened. It was a tight fit to have all fifteen of us together—seventeen when Mase and Camille were around, visiting us from the Re-gen homesteads in Hope Valley—but we made it work. We were growing used to it. In the darkening gloom, I could make out bustling silhouettes illuminated behind the thin, drawn curtains.
“Not that meteorologists were right very often,” I said, “but it would be nice to know when the rain is coming and how long it’s planning to stay. A little preparation time would be appreciated.”
“Are you sure the storm wasn’t summoned?” Jake muttered.
I ran my fingers through my damp hair, the shorter strands no longer a shock as they’d grown out a little. “What?” I precariously wiped the water from under my eyes. “Why?” I momentarily opened my mind up to his, wondering his meaning and hoping to catch a glimpse, but then he glanced down at my chest, my gaze following his, and I didn’t need to know what he was thinking; it was written clearly on his face.
Jake handed me his jacket. The front of my white, long-sleeved shirt was wet, leaving to the imagination only what was hidden behind my peach-colored bra.
I glowered at him as I donned his jacket, my head tilted in a silent scold for insinuating that Tavis had brought the rain. “I’m pretty sure he had nothing to do with it,” I said dryly.
Jake’s left eyebrow rose, mirroring my expression, and his mouth quirked at the corner. “Lucky me then,” he said. He stepped closer, and although I’d planned on a reproachful response, the intensity of the base desire that bruned somewhere deep in my belly whenever he was around, prevented the chiding remarks from forming on my tongue.
“I think this is the first time I’ve gotten you alone all week,” he said, his voice quiet while his mind swirled with tantalizing thoughts that made me forget about cold and hunger and our waiting friends inside the house. He wrapped his arms around me, his heat enveloping me, and he pulled me into him. Chills raked through me, making me shiver with pure anticipation.
“What about this morning?” I whispered, vaguely remembering the feel of his lips on my temple when he woke me before the sun was even awake. My eyelids flitted closed as his lips softly brushed against mine. I couldn’t remember the last time we’d been together. Everything had been so crazy, and we’d been so exhausted, it had become a rarity when we were able to lie in bed and lose ourselves in each other’s arms.
Despite the plip-plop of rain on the porch awning and the cacophony of voices inside, I began to give in to my desperation to be alone with him. Just for a little while. His hands were rough but gentle, his lips firm but pliant against mine. His stubble tickled and teased my mouth and cheeks, the sensitive nerve endings tingling to life. A small moan escaped me as his arms tightened around my waist.
“Zo,” Dani’s voice whispered in my mind. “Your dad just asked me where you are. Please don’t make me tell him you’re making out with Jake on the porch…assuming he doesn’t already know.”
With a groan, I leaned my forehead against Jake’s shoulder. “We’d better get inside,” I said and let out a thwarted breath. “Apparently they’re waiting for us.”
Reticent, I pulled away from him and opened my eyes to find Jake’s silhouette washed in a crimson haze. I blinked a few times, encouraging the desirous fog to dissipate, until I could finally refocus. I grinned. He was staring at me with lust-filled eyes, and images of us, upstairs together…alone…filled his mind.
Anxious for what was to come later, I leaned in for a final, promise-filled kiss and entwined my fingers with his before leading him into the house to join the others.
My bedroom was bright and open, the sunshine pouring through the window illuminating my toy-cluttered floor. Hunger rumbled inside my belly. Setting my doll down on my princess comforter, I climbed off my bed, humming as my tummy rumbled again.
Tugging down the hem of my sundress, I walked into the hall and plodded down the stairs on little legs, heading for the kitchen. The carpet tickled the bottoms of my bare feet, making me smile. I didn’t hear the usual clanking of pots and pans that I usually did whenever Daddy was in the kitchen.
“Daddy?” I stopped in the kitchen doorway, expecting to find him fumbling around inside. But he wasn’t there. Still humming, I turned and walked into the living room. He wasn’t in his recliner in front of the television either. “Daddy?” I wondered if he’d gone to pick up Jason. Fear flittered through me, and I wondered if Daddy left me home all alone.
Then I heard angry voices coming from the back porch.
Noticing that the sliding glass door was slightly open, I walked over and peered outside. My humming ceased, and I froze. Daddy was standing on the porch with a pretty woman. Her hair was long and black, like mine. Her face was pink, and she rushed around like she was scared or upset.
Suddenly, I was standing outside with them. The woman was staring at me and looked like she might cry as she reached for me. “Come here, Zoe,” she said.
I tried not to flinch away from her touch, but I couldn’t help it. Scared and confused, I looked up at Daddy. He looked sad, too.
“You look so pretty in your dress,” the woman said. She tried to smile, and I found myself hesitantly smiling back at her. I liked her eyes. They were special and seemed familiar.
“I knew you’d come back here,” a man said. I jumped when I heard his voice, but the woman didn’t seem surprised. Her hands flew to her stomach, and I wondered if she was hurt.
I blinked, and then the man was standing next to me, like he appeared out of nowhere. He had a mustache and a smile that didn’t seem happy.
Daddy looked angry and afraid. Something didn’t feel right, and I wanted to disappear.
“They didn’t know I was coming here, Gregory,” the woman started to say. “I just needed to—”
But the man with the mustache held up the palm of his hand. “Shhh,” he said, staring only at me. I wasn’t sure why I felt scared, but I was trying not to cry. “Look how big you’ve grown,” he said and crouched down before me. He smiled a big smile, his slightly crooked teeth evoking a sudden panic that made my throat tighten. “And you’re beautiful, just like your mommy.” He looked back at the woman gripping the patio table. Her eyes were shimmering, and I noticed her holding Daddy’s arm tightly with her other hand, like she was holding him back.
“Don’t you dare touch her,” Daddy said, and the smile on the man’s face fell a little. I saw something in his eyes that unleashed the tears I’d been trying not to shed. Something bad was happening, I could feel it.
“Daddy…” I began to sob. But it wasn’t Daddy who picked me up, it was the scary man.
“There, there, little Zoe. It’s okay.” He patted my leg and smiled at Daddy and the woman. They said something to him, but I was too stunned to listen. For the first time, I noticed men lining the fence of our backyard. They appeared out of nowhere, like the scary man had. There were a lot of them, but only a few had big guns. Their faces were mad and mean.
I cried louder. I wished Jason was home.
“I told you what would happen if you ever left, Anna. Did you think I was bluffing? That I wouldn’t notice…again?”
Through a veil of tears, I peered back over at Daddy and the woman. Daddy was frowning, angrier than I’d ever seen him. I called for him again, but the man’s grip on me tightened. I shrieked in pain.
“I will kill your son if you hurt her,” the woman growled, and she pointed to her tummy. “I will end your legacy.”
The man’s fingers dug into my leg, and I hit at his hand without thought, trying to get him to let me go. When he finally set me back on the ground, I ran to Daddy.
“You will not harm them, Gregory. Or I won’t hesitate to kill this child. I promise you that.” I stared at her belly. I didn’t see a baby, but her tummy was big.
“You won’t kill an innocent child, Anna,” the man said. “Me, on the other hand…” He stared at me again and smiled. “And then there’s the boy, too.”
“You leave him out of this!” Daddy shouted, and I could feel his body shaking.
The scary man’s face hardened, and I noticed his body stiffen. “Watch yourself, Sergeant. My compassion only goes so far.”
The woman pulled a needle like they used at the doctor’s office from behind her. It was the kind that always poked my skin and pinched me, but just for a minute. “So help me God, Gregory. If you hurt my family, I will kill yours.”
The scary man looked at all of us, and his voice was angrier than before. “Then there’s not much of a reason for me to keep any of you around, is there?”
“I’ll come back with you,” the woman said, reaching for him. “If you’ll just leave my family alone.”
The man pounded his fist on the patio table. “I’m your family!”
“Not if you hurt them,” she said. The woman looked angry, but she still sounded scared.
Daddy bent down to me. “Go inside, sweetheart.” He leaned in for a hug and whispered, “Hide. Until I can make it go away…hide.”
I nodded, not understanding what he meant, but wanting to hide all the same.
I didn’t know why the scary man wanted to hurt us. I didn’t understand why the woman wanted to kill the baby I couldn’t see either. But I knew the man with the mustache was evil, and I was afraid that if I looked away, Daddy would be gone, and I would never see him again.
The scary man shook his head. “I thought we agreed last time that your family was as good as dead if you ever came back. Yet here you are, again.” He clenched his fist. “I trusted you. I thought your word was worth your freedom. Apparently I was wrong.”
The sad woman took a step toward him. “I was just scared, Gregory,” she said, rubbing her belly. “You don’t understand how dangerous this is for me. I just needed to see them, needed to say goodbye.” She wiped the tears from her eyes. She didn’t look scared anymore. “I promise, once I leave, I will never come back.”
The scary man’s eyes narrowed, and he glanced from her swollen cheeks down to her belly. “You have one more chance, darling. If you even try to leave again, if you do anything to undermine me and my mission, or our family…” He glared over at me.
“Go inside, Zoe!” Daddy yelled.
I ran toward the house, but stopped inside the door and listened, waiting. I didn’t want to leave Daddy.
“Regardless of what you do in the future, measures will be taken now,” the scary man said, and when I peeked around the doorframe, the woman looked relieved. “Monitors, in fact. And if you do misstep, even in the most minimal way, I will hurt your children and make Tom, here, watch, and you might never even know it. That, my dear, is my promise to you.”
When my eyes met Daddy’s, wide and sad, everything suddenly faded away. I was in my room, crying in his arms. His familiar eyes were empty as he stared at me. Gently, he brushed a tear from my cheek, and then everything changed again. The memory of the scary man faded away. Then the sad woman started to change. Her special eyes disappeared, her features vanishing one by one until she was faceless and frightening…until she was completely gone, too.There were no men in the backyard, and Daddy wasn’t upset. There was no reason I could think of for why I’d been crying or why Daddy would look so sad.