The wind shifted, sweeping the black smoke across his face and coating his body like a hot, suffocating blanket. Dean’s tired eyes began to water as he took a few steps back and turned away. The blaze from the brush fire heated his back, but he knew it was going to take a hell of a lot more than that to thaw out his insides. Underneath his gloves, his fingers were stiff, his knees, his legs, hell, his whole body was stiff from the cold. Not that he cared much. This was his land, and he intended to do whatever was necessary to take care of all two hundred acres of it.
As quickly as it had shifted toward him, the wind changed directions again, guiding the smoke away. He inhaled deeply, hoping to clear some of the pollution from his lungs.
He turned back to the fire, the heat stinging his dry face. The flames had increased with the wind; flicking and dancing against the dark sky, where the sun had just set. The horses took notice of the heat and took a few steps back, dipping their heads and fading into the background.
“Well, son, I think it’s about time for this.”
He turned and grinned at the flask in his father’s hand.
“Thought you’d never ask.”
Dean pulled off his gloves, unscrewed the silver cap and took a deep sip. Whiskey. Good ol’ whiskey—a dear friend that never let him down. He welcomed the burn down his throat as he handed the flask back to his father, who promptly took a swig.
He took a deep breath, tipped his head up to look at the sky. The stars were beginning to twinkle and the new moon was just showing its crest.
“We’ll let this one burn out and call it a night.” His father took another sip.
Dean nodded, gazing at the fire. A moment ticked by as he felt the stare of his father at his back.
“You know, son, it’s okay to be upset.”
Dean looked down for a split-second then looked back up, saying nothing.
“I’m here to listen if you need to talk.”
The fire crackled and hissed in front of him.
“There’s nothing to say, Dad. She left me for my best friend, that’s about it.”
“Your best friend since preschool.”
Dean's shoulders tensed.
His father stepped closer and handed him the flask. “Women . . . women are a mystery that men will never, ever understand. They come and go, each relationship serving its own purpose . . . although, it might take years to understand what that exact purpose was.” He paused and then continued, “And then one day, you're going to meet the one, and the second you see her it’s going to be like a dagger piercing through your heart. You’ll forget your name, all your pride, and she’ll be the only thing that matters to you.”
Dean took the flask, sipped and handed it back.
“You’ll know it in your gut, son. You’ll know when she’s the right one.”
He swallowed the knot in his throat and nodded. After a minute, he said, “Was that how it was with Mom?”
“Yes, sir. Right down to the dagger in my heart.”
He smiled. “It’ll be forty-three years tomorrow, right?”
“Yep.” His father looked past the fire to the house sitting on the horizon. “I’m the luckiest bastard on earth.” He looked back at Dean. “And, not just because of her, you know. Because of you.”
Dean looked over, surprised at the sudden outflow of emotions from his usually stoic father.
“The day you were born . . . my whole life changed. You gave me purpose. And a bond, an unbreakable bond that made me a better man. You’ve grown up to be one hell of a man and I’m proud of you, son. I couldn’t be prouder to be your daddy.” His voice cracked and Dean swore his saw the reflection of tears in his father's eyes. “Anyway, I love you son, I just want to make sure you know, and that’s that.” He cleared his throat. “Alright, I don’t know where the hell that came from. Just . . . don’t let some girl drag you down. Chin up.” He slapped Dean on the back, immediately shifting back to the emotionless man that Dean held on a pedestal.
“Thanks, Dad.” He smiled, unsure how to react, and took the flask from his father.
“I’m going to go close the back fence, you stay here with the fire.”
“You sure you don’t want me to come? We can do a quick perimeter check. Together.”
His father mounted his horse and settled into the saddle. “You mean, make sure those assholes aren’t trespassing again tonight? And stealing our damn horses?”
“Oh, don’t worry about that, I’ve got ol’ trusty with me tonight.” He reached underneath his jacket and patted the pistol on his belt.
Dean laughed. “Don’t go out in a blaze of glory, Dad.”
His father grinned, pulled the horse's bridal and set off. Over his shoulder he yelled, “Be back in fifteen.”
As the outline of his father faded into the darkness, Dean reached into his pocket and pulled out his cell phone. He clicked it on and squinted as the bright light shot like a beam through the darkness.
No call. No text.
He turned it off, slid it back into his pocket and was suddenly disgusted with how much he cared about a girl he’d only been dating a handful of months.
His father was right. Women come and go, and he’ll know when it’s the right one.
He shook his head, embarrassed with himself. He wasn’t going to waste another second brooding about some chick who obviously never gave a shit about him anyway. And his buddy? Well that son of a bitch can go to hell for all he cared. Honestly, he didn’t know who he was more upset with, his cheating girlfriend or his backstabbing best friend.
He took another swig of whiskey.
Whiskey always helps—wise words from his dad.
Sweat began to moisten the T-shirt under his coat and he took a few steps back. The fire was raging now; it’d be at least a few hours before it burned down. He bent down to pick up a stick when he heard voices in the distance.
His head snapped up. A tingle shot up his spine.
His eyes widened as he looked toward the shouts, into the darkness.
What the hell?
He tossed the stick and jogged over to his horse and jumped on.
“Come on, Dusty.” He pulled the reins when—
His heart stopped.
“Go Dusty!” He dug his heels into the horse’s side and took off like a bullet. His pulse raced as he grabbed the pistol from his belt. The cold air whipped past him as Dusty sliced through the dark night.
He strained to listen, but the night had gone silent. No more shots, no more shouting.
Panic began to bubble up.
He flapped the reigns. “Come on buddy, go.”
Dammit, it was dark.
Dark as hell.
Finally, up ahead, he spotted something running toward him—his father’s horse . . . and his father wasn’t on him.
Dean slowed Dusty and opened his arms as the horse drew closer.
“Whoa girl, whoa!”
The mare bolted past him, spooked by the commotion.
As Dean neared the back fence, his eyes darted around the landscape. He could barely make out the fence line, and just beyond the posts were thick woods that looked like one black mass in the dark night.
He slowed the horse to a walk.
“Dad?” He cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled, “Dad?”
Dread filled him as the seconds ticked on.
Suddenly, the outline of something laying in the field came into view.
His stomach dropped. Oh God, no.
He jumped off his horse and pushed into a jog. The sounds of the night were replaced by a buzzing in his ears. With each step, his heart pounded harder. His legs, suddenly weightless. The world around him became blurry as the lump began to take shape.
He dropped to his knees.
Panic seized him as he carefully flipped his father’s body over.
His breath stopped.
His heart stopped.
He looked down at his father’s lifeless eyes, and the blood trickling from the bullet hole in the center of his forehead.
Adrenaline flooded his veins, his whole body began to tremble.
No, no. His father wasn’t dead. This wasn’t happening. He was in a bad dream, a horrible nightmare.
No, his father wasn’t dead. His hero couldn’t be dead. Heroes don’t die, right?
He leaned in. “Okay, Dad, you're going to be okay.” Tears streamed down his face. “Okay, Dad? You’ll be okay, okay? Don’t give up, Dad.”
He positioned himself over his father’s motionless body and began CPR.
“Dad,” he sobbed, “Come on, Dad.”
His tears wet his father’s face as he pounded on his chest, knowing that it was pointless.
Finally, he stopped and looked down at the body of his father. His hero.
His dad was dead.
His dad had been murdered.
Rage shot like electricity through his veins.
Eyes wild, jaw clenched, he slowly stood and looked toward the dark woods. The ice-cold rage vibrated through his body as he raised his gun and began walking to the fence line.
A mad fury exploded through him, and he released a scream that carried through the wind like a crazed animal as he emptied fifteen rounds into the darkness.
Her heart raced as she stared out the dirty, smudged window. The full moon that lit the sky earlier was now blanketed by thick cloud cover. The late night was as black as coal and the temperature had dropped at least twenty degrees in the last hour. A storm was brewing. It was about to break loose.
She shivered as a gust of wind blew in through the open window. The metallic taste of blood seeped into her mouth where the gag had rubbed the corner of her lips raw. Her wrists burned from the zip ties. Where the hell were they taking her?
Wide-eyed and riddled with nerves, she glanced over at the driver, and then at the passenger. Not a word had been uttered since they’d kidnapped her from the parking lot. Not a single word.
She anxiously looked ahead, but could only see as far as the dim headlights would allow. The driver gripped the wheel with both hands, his knuckles as white as his face as he barreled down the old country dirt road.
Where the hell were they going?
She should have listened to her parents and never gone out for a jog past dusk. She should be at home, asleep in bed like most seventeen year olds. Dammit, she should have listened to her parents more often. She prayed she would have another chance to listen to them.
Lightning slashed the sky as tiny raindrops began to speckle the windshield. Her body jolted as thunder crashed above them. The musty, moldy scent of lakeshore filled her nose.
Finally, the car began to slow. Directly ahead, she saw a dilapidated dock, extending out into the water, and a small fishing boat tied to the side. The churning, angry lake was almost invisible in the dark night.
The car rolled to a stop and the engine cut off.
No one moved.
No one said anything.
Until . . .
“Make the call.” The passenger looked at the driver.
The driver nodded, pushed out of the door and walked to the front of the car. His body outlined by the headlights.
Her heart thudded wildly in her chest and despite the chill in the air, sweat beaded on her forehead. Who were they calling? What the hell did they want with her?
She looked at the passenger, who was staring straight ahead. Calm, cool and collected.
After a moment, the driver lowered the cell phone, turned and looked at the passenger through the windshield. His beady eyes narrowed and he shook his head, and something in her stomach churned.
And then, his gaze cut to her.
Her pulse spiked.
The passenger nodded and stepped out of the vehicle as the driver walked around and opened the back door. He leaned in and said, “Get out.”
Hot tears began to fill her eyes.
“I said, get out.”
Her legs felt frozen, her body stuck to the car seat.
He reached in, grabbed her arm and yanked her out the door. Her body fell like dead weight on the wet, muddy earth beneath her. Droplets of cold rain began to slick her hot skin. Her chest felt heavy, her whole body locked with fear. She took a deep breath.
Inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale.
Lightning lit the sky, followed by thunder. The rain began to pick up.
The front door slammed, echoing through the night, and the passenger looked down at her with an expression as cold as ice.
“Grab the cinder block and more rope.”
No. No, this can’t be happening. Oh, my God, this can’t be happening.
The driver opened the trunk and retrieved a small bag and a block.
“Get up, let’s go.”
He pulled her to a stance, and shoved her forward.
Her legs felt like lead as she walked down the path, her shoes sinking in the mud with each step. Rain poured down her face.
Please, please wake up from this nightmare.
The dock creaked and swayed as they stepped onto it.
“Get in the boat.”
Thunder boomed as she clumsily stepped into the boat as it was untied from the dock.
Her mind raced. This was going to be it; the end of her life. She had to get out of this boat. She had to do something. She had to get away. Now.
Like a flash of lightning, she spun on her heel and lunged toward the dock. The moment her foot hit the wood, a hot pain seared her side.
Pain shot through her and she felt warm blood trickle down her skin. She’d been stabbed.
“Dammit, why the hell don’t you listen?” The man yanked her backward and threw her on the boat floor. As she writhed in pain, the passenger grabbed a rope from the bag and began to tie it around her ankles.
Tears ran down her face. Any hope that she had was gone. This was it. She was going to die.
Through the gag she begged, “Please. Please don’t do this. Please, I won’t turn you in; I’ll never go to the police. Please just take me home.”
The engine rolled and smoke puffed out the back, clouding the passenger's face.
“We need to hurry.”
Lightning slashed the sky as the boat jolted forward and picked up speed. The rain felt like knifes pelting against her skin. The cold wind whipped through her hair and her whole body shivered in response.
Finally, they reached the middle of the lake.
The boat stopped, and the engine cut off. Dread for what was about to happen next paralyzed her.
“Where’s the cinder block?”
Her body seized with terror as the cinder block was tied to the rope that was tied to her feet.
The passenger gave instructions. “You get the feet, I’ll get the head.”
Oh my God, no.
She screamed until her tonsils felt like they were going to burst as she was lifted in the air. She looked up at the dark sky, her eyes mad with panic as rain poured down her face.
“One . . .” she was swayed back and forth, “two . . . three!”
Her body went weightless in the air as she was thrown from the side of the boat.
A bolt of lightning, like a witch’s hand, pierced the sky.
Her body hit the water, the cinder block splashing a moment later.
The water spilled over her face as she looked up at her captors, before being dragged down into the darkness.
The reflection from the hot, summer sun blinded her as she stepped onto the white cliff. The heat radiated through the bottom of her boots and sweat began to bead on her forehead. Careful to not smear the makeup she’d talked herself into applying, she dabbed her face with the back of her hand.
Damn, Arkansas's summers were hot.
She glanced over her shoulder into the woods for what seemed like the tenth time.
What the hell was she doing? This was crazy. She was crazy. But, in all honesty, she’d done crazier things in her life. Hell, her life had been so chaotic lately, this little adventure seemed to fit right in.
It had been years and years of ups and downs—the ebb and flow of life her sister would call it. Years of not knowing what her future held and dealing with the restlessness that came along with that. Years of not planning or preparing enough to make her future a bright, prosperous one, and accepting a mundane existence as a result.
Jenna Somers was known for her spontaneity and her ‘go with the flow’ attitude. But, as she got older, that simple flow seemed to have quite a few more bumps in it.
It had been an unwavering cycle of constant chaos.
Chaos, chaos, chaos.
She knew she needed a change. She needed to do things differently. She needed to turn her life around. Maybe she’d start today.
She glanced at her watch. Five minutes late. What the hell?
A hot, humid breeze swept up her back as she stepped to the edge of the cliff. Bluebirds fluttered through the air a few feet from her face. The welcoming and familiar sound of nature filled her ears as she looked up at the sky, the cloudless, sapphire blue sky.
She smiled. It was her favorite spot. She’d been to the cliff a hundred times but was still awestruck at the picturesque view. There was the quietness—stillness—that only being this deep in the woods provided.
Atop the highest peak of Berry Springs’s Summit Mountain, the massive rock sat high above a ravine that dropped down almost a thousand feet. A sparkling blue river cut through the bottom and on the other side was another steep, thickly wooded mountain. The beautiful Ozark Mountains.
It was postcard perfect.
She was lost in her own bliss when she suddenly heard leaves rustle behind her.
Nerves tickled her stomach as she turned to see him emerge from the tree line.
He looked nothing like she imagined. He sported a buzz cut that was thin enough to see his scarred, blotchy scalp. His features were sharp and defined. Despite the heat, he wore a red plaid shirt, tattered jeans and boots.
His eyes locked on hers and he slowly stepped onto the rock. She couldn’t explain the sudden unease she felt.
Relax, it’s just nerves, she thought as she glanced into the woods behind him.
A crooked smile cracked across his face as he said, “We finally meet.”
She ignored the warning bells in her head and faked a smile. “Yes, finally.”
He stepped closer. Almost instinctively, she scooted backward but stopped instantly when she realized her back was to the ravine.
Why the hell was she so jumpy? Why did this guy make her feel so . . . on edge?
She looked past him, into the woods, again.
A droplet of sweat rolled down the middle of her back.
He took a step closer.
Her pulse picked up.
“Beautiful day, want to sit down?”
“I . . . uh, I’m sorry, but I actually need to get back soon.”
His face dropped and something sinister sparked in his eyes. “I just got here. Why so soon?”
“Well, you’re late, and I . . . I’ve got a lot to do.”
He narrowed his eyes and cocked his head, “Something wrong?”
“No, nothing . . .”
For a moment he stared at her, making her feel like she was stark raving naked in the middle of Times Square.
Creepy. This guy was totally creepy.
“I’m sorry, I need to go.”
Get the hell out of here.
She took a step forward and he laid his hand on her arm.
Her stomach sank.
His dry pale lips narrowed and his voice lowered as he said, “What? Not impressed? I’m not good enough for you?”
Her eyes widened as she looked back at him. Evil. She saw the dark power of evil in his eyes as she snapped her arm away. “Get out of my way.”
He raised his eyebrows and grabbed her wrist. “It’s gonna be like that, huh?”
“Let me go.”
His black, dilated eyes locked on hers.
That was the moment. The moment her sixth sense, her natural born instinct took over, and every inch of her body knew that that she was in danger. Real danger. She couldn’t ignore it, couldn’t close her eyes and wish it away. It was there screaming at her that her life was in stark danger.
Her heart hammered in her chest. She took one last look into the woods. Where the hell was her sister?
As she started to take a step back, his grip tightened. Her survival instinct kicked in and a rush of adrenaline suddenly burst through her veins.
“I said, let go.” She raised her arms up to shove him backwards, but was blinded by a swift slap in the jaw. The metallic taste of blood seeped into her mouth as the pain vibrated through her head.
She gritted her teeth and reared back to reciprocate the hit, but was too late. He shoved her backwards and her heels hit just a few inches from the edge of the cliff.
They say that most people instinctively know when they are about to die. They mentally retreat to a place that the living will never know about until the time comes for them.
That was Jenna’s moment. That was the moment that she knew, without a doubt that she was about to die.
Blood dripped from her chin as she looked into his black eyes, which had gone from anger to wild, erratic. Bloodlust. His thin lips parted into a sneering smile as he reached down and grabbed the bulge in his jeans.
Her scream shattered the stillness of nature, moving through the wind like an animal being hunted.
“Shut up!” Charging her, he leapt forward.
Fight. Continue to fight. Fight until death.
As she crouched to leap forward, a gust of wind blew her off balance. Terror shot through her body as she shifted her weight.
Her heel slid off the edge.
The world around her seemed to stop as she began to fall backwards, her hands desperately grabbing at him. At anything.
For a brief moment, her fingertips caught his shirt and as if in slow motion, he slapped her hand away.
And then, as gravity pulled her body backwards, her last scream vibrated through the mountaintop as she tumbled off the cliff.
“And you’ve got the back-up in case this goes sideways?”
Pause. “I’ve got to go.”
The rain sounded like softballs pounding against the windshield. He glanced at his watch. Fifteen minutes past the arranged meeting time.
He wiped the sweat from his forehead and ran his fingers through his dark hair. Peering out the rain streaked window, he could see nothing but an occasional flash of lightning.
During the daytime, the park was a place of innocence and laughter, filled with giggling children and gossiping mothers. Tonight, it was desolate and pitch black.
His heartbeat turned into a steady pounding, his palms sweaty. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath and patted the brown manila envelope on his lap.
“Come on, come on,” he said to himself, tapping the envelope.
He thought of her. Her innocence. She was all he had left. Guilt fluttered his stomach. This would be it, the last time. He’d be done after this one. Yes, yes, this is the last one.
Suddenly, in his rearview mirror he saw two headlights cut through the darkness. His pulse spiked. The skin on the back of his neck tingled.
Here we go.
The car rolled to a stop behind him. The veins pulsated in his neck as the headlights turned off.
Gripping the envelope, he rolled down the window. Rain poured in, but that was the least of his worries.
A tall, dark figure in a hooded trench coat emerged from the vehicle. As if on cue, lightning struck, followed by a bellow of thunder.
The man walked up to the car and without preamble, he opened his jacket, revealing a wicked looking revolver, and lifted a small briefcase. Before handing it over, he reached out his arm, opening his hand. Rain pooled in the large palm.
Without words, the brown manila envelope was exchanged for the briefcase.
He watched the man tuck the envelope in his jacket and return to the black car.
Adrenaline pumped through his body as he looked at the briefcase sitting on the passenger seat.
Before starting the engine, he glanced in the rearview mirror and watched the car reverse out of the park and drive off into the dark night.
He released an exhale and pulled out his cell phone. His hands were still shaking as he dialed the number.