excerpt – One Last Chance

Chapter One

“Shane, no—stop!” Rachel darted behind the smallish kitchen table, her eyes never leaving her boyfriend. At least the barrier would give her some protection against his rage. Very little, though. This wasn’t the first time he’d chased her around the table, stretching his grubby hands across the top to grab her. Sometimes she got away. Sometimes she didn’t.

A glazed look filled his bloodshot eyes. Good… maybe he’d pass out soon. Five, maybe ten minutes. She just had to hold out until then.

She rubbed her throbbing cheek, the sting from his hand still fresh.

Shane lurched across the table and wrapped his thick fingers around her wrist. Even though her skin throbbed, she tried to yank her arm away. He just squeezed harder, pain radiating up her arm. She pulled and struggled, but she couldn’t free her hand from his vice-like grip.

“You bitch. Where’s my goddamned beer?”

“I didn’t do anything, I swear. You drank the last one this afternoon.” Please believe me. She’d convinced him before that he’d just forgotten, but the times that she hadn’t, he’d blown up. Each time worse than the previous one.

He raised his fist, keeping her wrist clamped in the other. The harsh smack of his palm burned her cheek. Her hand flew to her face. The table rocked and Shane pitched forward, still holding her. She stumbled and struggled to wrench away from him. Tears welled in her eyes but she wouldn’t let them fall. Tears just pissed him off.

Where was loving Shane she’d met and started dating? When had he turned into this monster? And why did she stay with him?

She didn’t deserve any better—that was what she’d told herself when huddled under the blanket at night, feigning sleep so he wouldn’t reach for her. So she focused on trying to meet Shane’s definition of “good” and steer clear of him when he was in a mood.

But just being “good” wasn’t cutting it. Not anymore. She’d had enough. She deserved better, no matter what her mind tried to convince her. She had to get out before he killed her.

Her cell phone sat on the counter. If she could get over there, she could call one of her brothers or even 9-1-1. Only once before had she tried to call during one of Shane’s attacks. She hadn’t been able to reach Joey, and Shane had slapped the phone away before she could talk to someone at the bar. No one came. Not until the next day, after Shane had thrown her against the wall and sprained her wrist. What if no one came again? His attacks were getting worse.

His fiery gaze darted to her phone and his eyebrows rose. “No way, bitch. This is between us.”

Damn, he’d seen her. But she was determined to get to the phone. She darted around the table and dashed to the counter. Shane’s strong arms snaked around her waist. Almost there. She stretched for the phone. When her fingers brushed the cell, it went skidding to the floor. Shit. She lunged but couldn’t reach the one lifeline from a beating. Shane yanked her away, threw her against the couch, and followed her down. His fingers dug into her arms. His putrid breath turned her stomach, and she clenched her teeth so she wouldn’t vomit.

“Is this what you wanted?” He slammed his mouth down on hers. She clamped her lips shut. How could she ever have thought she loved this man? He kissed her again and she didn’t fight him. If she acted like she wanted to be with him, he’d release her and she could scramble to the phone. That was her only hope. Without moving her head, her eyes darted to where the phone had landed on the floor. Only a few steps away.

She let her body go limp and he released her. “That’s better. See? We’re good together, baby. Aren’t we?”

“Yeah.” She cleared her throat, putting more force into her words. “We are.”

He kissed her again and she squeezed her eyes shut. A little bit longer and she might have an opening.

“Come on.” Shane stood and stomped toward the bedroom.

Finally. She crept closer to the phone. With his back turned, he couldn’t see when she bent to retrieve her cell. And he also didn’t notice when she flipped it open. She pressed 9-1-1.

“What in the hell are you doing?” Shane roared and rushed to her in two huge strides.

As she pressed Send, Shane smacked the phone from her hand, and it clattered to the floor. Please let the call go through. She couldn’t take much more of this.

He shoved his hand into her hair and twisted his fingers in the stringy strands hanging lifelessly down her back. She shuddered.

This was the final straw. As soon as she got free of his grip, she was leaving. Please, someone, please come help me.

Shane yanked her head back and hung his face right over hers.

She clawed at his hands. “You’re hurting me!”

“Who’d you call?” Spit flew out of his mouth and splattered on her face.

She cringed. Swiping at her face just pissed him off even more than the tears. “Nobody. I swear. I wanted to check the time.”

“Who cares about the fucking time? You got somewhere to go?”

Fire swirled in his eyes, his square jaw clenched, and her stomach dropped. She had no hope of getting away from him now. The asshole was just getting warmed up.

With his hand still wrapped in her hair, he dragged her toward the bedroom. She yelped and he tugged harder. Tears rolled down her cheeks but she couldn’t hold them back any longer. She’d hidden her feelings for months. What Shane wanted always mattered more. He came first. That’s what he always said. But she did matter. She did count. Her tears proved there was still something worth saving buried deep inside her.

She was taking back her life. This would be the last time she would ever let him beat her, to force her to do what he wanted. She may not have his muscles, but she could fight back.

She dug her heels into the carpet and grabbed the edge of the counter. No way would she let him drag her into the bedroom. He could screw a hole in the wall for all she cared.

He released her hair. Thank God. But her relief was short-lived. He pinched her arm and pried at her fingers that gripped the counter. She couldn’t let him pull her away. She clung harder to the wood and braced her feet. Only a few more steps to the front door and she could dash into the yard. She’d have to keep running, though. The trailer sat a long way down a deserted dirt road. They didn’t have any neighbors close by. If she had to, she’d find a place in the woods to hide. Anything to wait Shane out. Eventually he’d pass out. He had to… it was her only hope.

Shane had burrowed himself into her life as he was burrowing into her fingers now. She didn’t have any friends left. Her family had given up on her. What she wouldn’t give for one of her brothers to come knocking on the door right about now. They’d tried to help her, repeatedly, but she hadn’t believed she needed them. Or anyone.

But Shane had never been this bad before. The wrath in his eyes made her heart lurch. For the first time, she questioned whether she could break free of him or whether she’d be alive tomorrow to tell someone about his attack.

With his jaw clenched, lips pursed, and brows furrowed, he stared a hole straight through her. Pure evil filled his eyes. Had his hatred always been there, hiding until he chose the right time to reveal his true self? After she was trapped with him, with nowhere to go?

Shane finally pried her fingers off the counter and she fell back. He towered over her, his hands on his hips, and spit on her. She swiped at her cheek, wobbled, and smacked against the hard floor, butt-first.

She brushed his revolting, beer-filled saliva off her face. Bile rose in her throat but she shoved it down. She refused to give him the satisfaction of knowing exactly how revolting she found him.

He always poked her, prodded her, figured out how to hurt her the most. He made her question her own actions time and again. On the floor, she was at his mercy. She couldn’t get her feet beneath her to stand. He usually didn’t actually grab her… just threatened to. That was how Shane operated. The mere threat of his wrath was usually enough to keep her in line.

But she’d had enough, and she would fight back. With her hands behind her and her feet beneath her, she scrambled backward like a crab. What would he do? He could try anything, but each crawl took her a bit closer to the door and freedom.

With each of her backward lurches, he took one step forward. One, then another, matching her movements toward the door. “You think you can get away from me, bitch? Think again.”

Together they inched closer to the door where the phone lay open and the lights on the keypad shone bright. Maybe she had connected the call to 9-1-1 after all. Help had better be coming, because she couldn’t keep holding Shane off. And if she couldn’t…

Somewhere in the distance, sirens wailed. Please let them be coming for me. Hopefully Shane hadn’t heard them yet. He wasn’t afraid of the deputies, and why should he be? He’d talked himself out of worse situations than this one. Had his Daddy get him out of the stickier jams. Of course, her unwillingness to speak up for herself helped his cause. Why had she refused the help that her brothers… and Sawyer, their friend… had offered her so many times?

She crept closer to the door. Only a few more steps and she’d reach freedom before he grabbed her.

The sirens grew louder. Thank God. With no one else in the area, they had to be coming for her. Shane lifted his head and scowled before he snapped back to her, fire in his eyes.

“You bitch.” He kicked her in the side. All the air in her lungs escaped, and she crumpled onto the floor. But only for a moment. Ignoring the pain, she rolled onto her stomach and scrambled toward the door. Her fingers clawed at the carpet, the stink-ridden fibers and layers of dirt getting under her nails.

Shane’s big arms gripped her around the waist. He pulled and she slid against the carpet.

“Shane, stop. Let me go.”

“No way. You’re mine. And you always will be.”

 


Chapter Two

Sawyer’s cruiser bounced over the ruts and holes in the road. If you could call it a road. It was more of a crappy dirt path. But it was the only way to get to Rachel. Each time his car bottomed out, his body slammed against the door. His pulse raced, and the siren wailed from his dashboard as he rushed toward Rachel’s trailer. He’d been catching up on some paperwork at the station when the call had come in, a garbled connection followed by several piercing screams. The dispatcher didn’t have to tell him who was calling. He’d just known.

He slammed his hand across his desk and scattered papers on the floor. After securing his handgun in one holster and his Taser in the other, he crashed through the door and jumped into his cruiser. When he shoved the car into gear and slammed the gas pedal to the floor, squealing tires punctuated the blood rushing in his ears.

With two deputies behind him, they tore through town. He careened around a sedan and gritted his teeth so he wouldn’t scream at the driver. Rachel was in trouble. She’d finally called. She was counting on him to save her from a bastard with a terrible reputation of abuse. Shane Buckley had a long history of skirting free of charges—longer than the dirt road leading up to his trailer.

With each second that ticked by, Sawyer’s speed built until he pinned the speedometer.

Just then, Shane and Rachel’s voices rang out loudly through Sawyer’s radio speaker. Maureen had patched the emergency call through to his radio, so he could monitor the situation while on the way. Rachel sobbed and Shane bellowed. Sawyer leaned forward in his seat. Come on. Come on. His tire slammed into another rut, and his head hit the roof. Screw the pain.

Lights from the trailer appeared ahead. Only a couple thousand feet until he could get to Rachel. Maybe this time she’d listen and leave the dirt bag.

“You bitch,” rang through the speaker.

He willed his car to move faster. He couldn’t stand to hear a woman screaming for help. Especially when that woman was Rachel. Finally, he skidded into the pine-needle covered area in front of the trailer and slammed the cruiser into park. He flung open his door, and, with his hand firmly on his holster, he sprinted to the trailer. He yelled as he leapt up the stairs. “Sheriff’s Department. I’m coming in.”

Shane’s furious bellow was the only response. “Get the hell out of here. No one wants you here.”

“We received a call from this address. I’m coming in.” Thank God Maureen was recording the call. She wouldn’t stop taping until Shane Buckley was in handcuffs.

Sawyer threw open the door and his heart lurched as he took in the scene in front of him. Rachel lay sprawled on her hands and knees, her fingers clawing at the carpet. Shane’s huge hands clamped around her waist. As the big man wrestled her, his thick muscles bulged beneath his shirt. Although her tiny form was dwarfed beside Shane’s, she struggled and fought against him, scrambling toward Sawyer.

He quickly assessed the situation. If Shane had a weapon, Sawyer couldn’t risk Rachel getting hurt, or worse, being caught in the crossfire.

An ugly red, raised imprint flamed on her cheek, and shadows darkened the skin beneath her fear-filled eyes. Tears streamed down her face. A crushing weight landed on Sawyer’s chest. Damn him.

With her gaze fixed on his, Rachel opened her mouth but nothing came out.

Sawyer shook his head quickly. If she spoke, Shane would get angrier. Sawyer could reason with Shane, try to get him to release her before he hurt her even worse.

Sawyer raised his hands and crept into the trailer. “All right, Shane. How about you let Rachel go and we’ll talk?”

Shane dragged her tight against his chest. “Get the hell out of here. She’s my girlfriend. This ain’t your goddamn business.”

Rachel had been Sawyer’s business for a long time. As much as he wanted to go off on Shane, Sawyer had to stay calm and cool. He had the upper hand. But Rachel’s grunts and squeals threatened the quiet demeanor he prided himself on. He forced the corners of his mouth into a weak smile. “Rachel, do you want to be here?”

She eased her head from side to side, her eyes darting to Shane. Her tears slowed and she squared her shoulders. After all this time, she knew how Shane operated. Unfortunately. All that meant was he’d been this way before. But after tonight, she wouldn’t have to deal with the bastard anymore. Sawyer wasn’t leaving without her, whether Shane agreed or not.

Shane slid his scowling face right up beside hers, and she flinched. “See, man, the bitch wants to stay here.”

Sawyer took another step, his hands still raised in front of him. His Taser was tucked safely on his belt, close enough to grab when needed. If only he’d released the holster latch before he’d opened the door, he could’ve had Shane writhing on the floor in seconds. Now that Shane was using Rachel as a shield, Sawyer couldn’t get a clear shot.

“Shane, we don’t want this to get out of hand. It’s clear Rachel doesn’t want to be here. Let her go and we’ll talk about this.”

Footsteps stomped on the porch. He couldn’t let the other deputies inflame this situation. He waved his hand behind him for them to stay back, keeping his eyes focused on Shane the entire time.

With each step Sawyer took, Shane crept away, pulling Rachel with him, until he reached the kitchen counter. With one hand still wrapped around her waist, he fumbled behind him.

A metallic taste filled Sawyer’s mouth. Whatever Shane was reaching for, he’d just escalated things. Sawyer flipped open the snap on his holster and rested one hand on his weapon. He held out the other hand in front of him and inched forward. “Don’t make this worse for yourself, Shane.”

Shane rooted behind him and let out a strangled yell. He whipped his arm around, but the knife he’d been grasping for went flying across the room. “Shit!” he screamed as he tightened his grip on Rachel’s neck. “She’s mine. Whadda ya gonna do to stop me?”

Rachel’s chest heaved as she struggled for breath, clawing at Shane’s hand.

Sawyer had seen enough. Talking got him nowhere except Shane’s hand squeezing the life out of Rachel.

Sawyer pulled his weapon and pointed it at the two of them. Sheer terror flashed across Rachel’s face, and fresh tears poured down her cheeks. Tears of relief or fear, he wasn’t sure. But Sawyer would free her from Shane for good this time. As long as she stayed calm for a little bit longer. Sawyer shifted his eyes to the floor and back to Rachel.

His heart raced and he flexed his muscles. Even after two tours in Afghanistan and eighteen months with the Sheriff’s department, he’d never been this scared. Not that Shane would ever know that. No matter what, Sawyer wouldn’t step back and let one of his deputies take over. This was his situation to solve.

“Shane, this can only end badly at this point. How about you let Rachel go and I’ll put my weapon away?”

Shane yanked Rachel’s head to the side and dug his fingers into her arm. Angry, red welts formed on her delicate, pale skin. “I’m done talking, asshole.”

Again Sawyer shifted his gaze to the floor and back to Rachel. Her chest heaved, her mouth formed an O, and she nodded. He’d better be reading her right or this would get really bad, really fast. All he needed was a clear shot. As soon as Rachel got away from the bastard, Shane would be toast.

Sawyer gave the situation one last chance. He advanced, one hand raised and the other pointing his weapon toward the floor, but at the ready. “Come on, Shane, you don’t want to do anything you’ll regret.”

Shane eased back and bumped into the counter. Sawyer took another step forward. After a quick nod from him, Rachel lifted her foot and drove it into Shane’s boot.

He howled and fell against the counter while Rachel collapsed. Good girl.

Sawyer raised his weapon and pulled the trigger. The prongs of his Taser shot out and caught Shane on the neck. He jerked and his arms flailed.

“Rachel, get away from him,” Sawyer yelled, his hands firmly squeezing the trigger.

She crawled toward the door.

He released his finger, and the jolts stopped flowing through the Taser’s threads. Shane fell to the floor, screaming. He wouldn’t be moving for some time. Sawyer couldn’t muster the energy to care.

He shouted to the two deputies in the yard. “Come on in, guys. He’s all yours.”

Rachel huddled near Sawyer’s feet, knees drawn to her chest and back against the wall. Sawyer sank to his haunches and placed his hands over hers. She lifted her head, tears streaming down her cheeks. What he wouldn’t give to toss his uniform and show Shane exactly how Rachel felt. More than once. Until Shane was laid out flat on the floor unconscious.

She didn’t need his anger right now, though. He softened his voice. “Are you okay?”

She nodded.

How had she gotten to this point? She’d become sullen and withdrawn the past few months, not the happy girl—with a bounce in her step and a kind word for everyone—he’d known growing up. He’d find that girl again. Soon.

Leon Watkins and another deputy scrambled into the room. They yanked Shane’s hands behind him and snapped the handcuffs on his wrists. While he bellowed obscenities, they hauled him to his feet.

“I’ll get you for this, bitch. This isn’t over. Not by a long shot.” With his brows slashed and his lips pursed, Shane spit the words at Rachel. Veins popped on his neck, his face red.

“Shut up,” Deputy Watkins said as they dragged a struggling and still-screaming Shane toward the door.

When the three of them passed Sawyer and Rachel, Shane took a swipe at Rachel with his foot. Sawyer threw himself across Rachel, using his body to shield her. She squeaked.

“Get that scumbag out of here,” Sawyer ordered. “I’ll be in later to make my report.”

The two deputies finally wrestled Shane out the door, his ugly words hanging over Sawyer and Rachel.

Rachel shook beneath him. Damn it. In trying to protect her, he’d probably scared her as much as Shane had. After all this time, she’d become a frightened mouse.

Sawyer sat back on his heels and stroked her arms. “Sorry about that. I didn’t want him to hurt you again.”

“It’s okay.” Her voice cracked, the words barely above a whisper.

“No, it’s not okay. What he did to you, what he’s been doing to you, it’s not okay. Thank God I got here in time.”

“I don’t know what I did to set him off, but he’s never been this bad before.”

That was so typical of a victim—believing they’d done something wrong to deserve a beating. Sawyer wished he’d been around before she’d gotten mixed up with Shane. But this wasn’t about Sawyer and his feelings for Rachel. It was about getting her somewhere safe. Somewhere she could heal, physically and emotionally.

He tucked his finger under her chin. “Rachel, look at me.”

She raised her head.

“This is not your fault. You didn’t set him off. I don’t care what you did. It’s no excuse for him to lay a finger on you.”

She sighed.

“Tell me you understand.”

She nodded.

He didn’t really believe her, but that was good enough for now. Next step, get her out of this trailer and to the hospital. Sawyer stood and extended his hand. “Do you think you can stand?”

She placed her hand in his light grip and rose. Unlike Shane, Rachel would never feel a rough touch from Sawyer. After she got her feet underneath herself, her hand flew to her head and she swayed.

He caught her just before she fell, and she flinched.

Just when he’d promised himself he’d be gentle, he scared her again. He’d sworn to serve and protect the residents of Oak Grove, but with Rachel, protecting took on a whole new meaning. No one would ever hurt her on his watch again. He would protect her with his dying breath, if only she’d let him.

After Shane, trust for any man would not come easily for her. They had a long way to go before Rachel would be over the damage Shane had inflicted. In the meantime, Sawyer had more pressing matters. “Do you think you can walk?”

“Yeah. I got it. Give me a minute.” She swiped her purse off the counter and bent toward her phone.

“Let me get it.” He seized the phone and brought the cell to his ear. “Maureen, you still there?”

The sweet words of his dispatcher rang through the handset. “The entire time. We got every word.”

“Okay. I’m hanging up now.” He closed the phone and tucked it into Rachel’s outstretched hand. With his arm around her waist, he eased her out of the trailer.

Stacey and Lucas, two paramedics with Oak Grove Fire and Rescue, hustled forward from where they’d been waiting.

Rachel stopped, buried her face into Sawyer’s shirt, and grabbed at the fabric. “No. Please don’t make me see my brother right now.”

Sawyer rubbed her back, the gentle stroke calming his racing heart as much as it soothed her. “They need to check you out, honey. To make sure you’re okay.”

“I can’t… I just… I can’t see Lucas right now.”

Sawyer leaned in, his mouth beside her ear. “It’ll be all right. How about instead of them checking you out, I take you to the Emergency Room? I’ll stay by your side the entire time.”

Her shoulders fell. She gave in way too easily. No doubt because of Shane. He’d turned the strong, bubbly girl he’d known into a mouse, doing whatever he said, so he wouldn’t hit her. “I guess. I just can’t face Lucas.”

Sawyer waved the paramedics off, and they stepped back. “I’ll take care of her,” he mouthed to the two of them. The tight set of Lucas’s jaw didn’t relax, and the fire in his eyes didn’t fade, but he jerked his head in a nod. The paramedics waited while Sawyer led Rachel to the passenger side of his car.

She groaned.

“Let me help you in.” He placed his hand on her elbow and eased her into the seat. “Give me just a minute, okay?”

She nodded and swung her legs in, and he closed the door softly behind her.

He turned his back, tried not to clench his fists, and sucked in a deep breath. From across the yard, the racket of Shane screaming in the back seat of another cruiser filled the air. And standing right outside the cruiser, with his arms crossed and a scowl on his face, was Deputy Leon Watkins.

Damn, it had to be Leon that followed Sawyer on this call. He hadn’t even heard who dispatch sent with him. He’d been so focused on getting to Rachel. But this call had been by the book, so what in the hell did Leon have up his ass about Sawyer? Watkins’s eyes bored into Sawyer, but he didn’t flinch. Watkins always dredged up any reason to make trouble for Sawyer when it meant advancing Leon’s own pitiful career. Sawyer was sure to hear about his breach of protocol by putting Rachel in his cruiser as soon as he walked into the station tomorrow.

Sawyer scowled at Watkins, and the guy climbed in his own cruiser and took off. Sawyer’s lungs burned and he released the breath he’d been holding. The fresh air was a welcome change from the stench of cigarettes and stale beer that had permeated the trailer. A couple more deep breaths and his heart finally slowed from the frantic pace it had reached since the moment he stepped inside the trailer. Rachel did not need to see his anger. She’d already witnessed enough to last a lifetime. His anger was reserved for Shane.

Now that the danger had passed, Sawyer’d created a new problem all his own. He shouldn’t have offered to take her to the hospital. There were people better equipped to deal with women in Rachel’s situation. None that had his history with her, though. None that had cared for her from afar for a good part of his life. So he’d take her to the ER, get her settled for the night, and leave her to the experts. Men and women who could help her find the happy woman she’d been before Shane.

Sawyer rounded the ambulance to find Lucas sitting on the tailgate, his head in his hand. “Hey, man.”

Lucas raised his head, and his eyes reflected the emotions swirling through Sawyer right now. “How is she… really?”

“Okay, I think. It was touch and go for a bit. She definitely has bruises and her neck is swelling where Shane squeezed. Other than that, I think she’s okay. It’s not her physical injuries I’m worried about. She has a long, hard road ahead of her. She’s going to need all of us, er, you. But for now, she didn’t want you to see her like that.”

Lucas sighed. “I guess I understand. I don’t have to like it, though.”

“I’ll make sure she gets checked out. You can follow us to the hospital. I’ll talk to her about letting you come back.” After all this time, she needed her family more than ever. No matter what she thought.

“I already called Joey. He’s on the way.”

“Good.” Maybe Sawyer could convince Rachel to see Joey. Those two had always been close. Until recently. Something had driven her away from her friends and family and into Shane’s abusive clutches.

“And Sawyer…”

“Yeah?”

“Tell her we love her, okay?”

“I will.”

After a slap on the back from Lucas, Sawyer returned to his cruiser.

Rachel rested against the seat, eyes closed, but her brows were furrowed and jaw was tense.

He itched to reach across the car and place his hand over hers, but victims of abuse often didn’t want anyone near them. Space was imperative or they cringed, sobbed, or lashed out. He knew the clinical description of victims after an attack, but it was hard to think professionally when it was Rachel sitting beside him, looking weak and frail.

He kept his speed down as they drove away. Even taking it slow, each bump and pothole made him cringe. From time to time, he’d sneak a peek at Rachel, whose brows narrowed after a couple of larger bumps.

She was a lot stronger than she gave herself credit for. Why had she let herself sink so deep into this relationship, especially after Shane started hitting her? But she’d finally called 9-1-1, and thank God for that. Had Sawyer not gotten there when he did, she might not be alive. He was sure of that.

Bile rose in his throat. The adrenaline must be wearing off. Who was he fooling? Now that the danger had passed, fear built in his gut. For a moment in the trailer, losing Rachel had become a real possibility. One he couldn’t bear to think about.

After the interminable drive, during which Rachel didn’t say a word, he pulled up to the Emergency Room doors.

Rachel opened her eyes, her body tensed and she clawed at the door handle. “What are we doing here?” Her words were harsh and filled with panic.

“You need to get checked out, honey.”

“No, I’m fine. Please, Sawyer, don’t make me. This was nothing. A few bruises. I’ll be fine. Please take me home.” But after she said those words, she collapsed against the seat. “What am I gonna do? I don’t have a home anymore. I don’t have anywhere to go.”

He didn’t have a good answer for her. He reached over and tentatively covered her hands. “You’ll be fine. Right now, the doctors are just gonna check you out. You have a lot of people who care about you.” Including me.

Her eyes dropped to their clasped hands. He squeezed again.

“Please don’t make me go with my brothers. They don’t understand. They never did.”

“They love you.”

“I know they do, in their own way. They just… there are things they don’t know. Wouldn’t understand.”

“What about your parents?”

Her eyes widened and a new panic filled her eyes. “No, I can’t go back home. Not now.”

This was definitely not the Rachel he’d grown up with. That Rachel loved her brothers and thrived on spending time with them. If it was the last thing he did, he’d make sure she became the happy girl she’d been before Shane. The one he’d fallen in love with all those years ago. “Okay. We’ll figure something out… I promise. I’ll call the shelter about getting you a bed for the night. They’ll know how to take care of you.”

“Don’t bother. I don’t need to be taken care of. All I need is a place to stay for the night until I can get things settled.”

Boy, if the fire in her gaze was any sign, she meant business. During his domestic abuse training, the instructor had emphasized one should aid the victim, not agitate them. What could he say to help her now? It was hard to focus on his training. He couldn’t be objective when the victim was Rachel. “That’s fine. I’ll still call. But for now, you need to get examined. Okay? Can we do that?” He used his gentlest voice. They’d been friends growing up, before his time in the army had turned him into a bitter, shut-off man, and her relationship with Shane turned her into someone he barely knew. “For me. Please.”

For the longest time she glared at him. Then the tight lines around her eyes softened, and her lower lip trembled. She licked at her swollen mouth and faced him, giving a quick nod.

Thank God. This was a big step for Rachel—letting someone help her instead of scuttling out of the car and dashing off into the night. Helping her also meant he could spend time with her. Hell, he’d even find a way to break through the walls he’d built around his own life if it meant a chance with her. His walls kept him safe, kept the hurt away, but for her, he’d take them down, brick by brick.

 


Chapter Three

“Do you wanna tell me what happened, honey?” Although the plump, older nurse spoke in a hushed, sweet voice, Rachel kept shivering. How many times would she have to explain what Shane had done to her? How could she explain that she hadn’t seen how he slowly broke her down, convincing her she was nobody without him? She was embarrassed enough that she’d let herself get caught up in the drama about her parents that she’d fallen into Shane’s trap. She’d slowly started believing it to be true. Even when Lucas, Joey, and Sawyer had come by the trailer a couple months back, she’d convinced them she didn’t need their help.

She’d been wrong. She’d been lying to them or lying to herself, and she didn’t know which. Probably both.

When the nurse tried to take her blood pressure, Rachel’s arms shook. She’d spent the past year hiding her own feelings, and she didn’t have the strength to do it any longer.

The nurse patted her hand and pressed it to the mattress while she inflated the cuff. “It’s all right, sweetie. It’s all over now.”

Maybe, maybe not. At first, Shane’s abuse had been verbal. He yelled and screamed, called her worthless. Enough times that she started to believe him, her foundation already shattered by the secret she’d discovered about herself. Shane had somehow sniffed out her vulnerability and taken advantage of her.

Even worse, she’d let him. Once or twice in the past, he’d gotten physical but had always apologized for hitting her—as soon as he sobered up, at least. She’d hidden the injuries as best she could, but makeup only went so far. She hadn’t fooled anyone, especially Joey and his girlfriend the first time Shane had turned his anger toward her.

Tonight was different, though. Shane’s rage had bubbled over, his words harsher, his grip tighter. She hadn’t cleaned the trailer, she’d ruined dinner, he didn’t have any beer… He didn’t need an excuse to yell at her.

“The doctor will be in shortly, hon. You lie back and relax for a few minutes. You look like you need it.” The nurse paused. “That handsome officer in the waiting room has been driving all of the nurses crazy. Can I send him back?”

Her old self would have shouted, “Yes!” but she wasn’t that Rachel anymore. What she’d let herself become was her private shame. To be lying in a hospital bed, bruises on her arms and neck, huddled under a thin gown…could it get any worse?

Yes, it could. Having her childhood crush waiting to see her after he’d rescued her from Shane in the first place. Having him witness her biggest embarrassment. Sawyer had saved her life and she’d never be able to repay him, but she couldn’t bear for him to see her like this. Fear had filled his big brown eyes. She’d done that to him, this resilient man, the guy who’d remained strong and unaffected by two tours oversees and eighteen months in the Sheriff’s office.

At least her brothers and parents weren’t flying into the room to demand she tell them what had happened. Not that her parents would, anyway.

It was just Sawyer… she could handle him. “Yeah, it’s okay. Send him back.”

The sooner they finished and she could go home, the better. Wherever home was now.

“Knock, knock.” The warm timbre of Sawyer’s voice accompanied his tap on the exam room door. “Can I come in?”

“Sure.” She tugged the sheet over her body, the thin fabric shielding her from his prying eyes. If only she could hide her humiliation as easily.

He crossed the room, pulled the armchair from beneath the window, and slid it beside her bed. He wouldn’t look her in the eye. After lowering himself into the chair, he clasped his hands in front of him and cleared his throat but didn’t speak. Why wouldn’t he talk to her? Did he have more bad news?

She could at least start the conversation. “Thank you.”

He raised his head, a tortured expression in his eyes. His thick brown hair was ruffled, poking out in all directions, and deep shadows circled his eyes.

What time was it? He’d probably been on duty for hours and needed a good night’s sleep. He certainly didn’t need to be sitting here with her. The further he stayed away from the train wreck that had become her life, the better. “You didn’t need to stay. Really. You should go home and rest. You look beat.”

He huffed out a laugh. “Thanks, I think.”

Heat rose on her cheeks. “I didn’t mean it like that.” She couldn’t say anything right to anybody these days.

He covered her hand. It had been a long time since a touch had warmed her heart and wrapped her in a sense of security. Recently, Shane had only touched her when he was mad. And that was just to grab her or hit her. Or when he wanted more from her.

“I know you didn’t. It’s been a long night.”

This was certainly the last place she’d expected to find herself when she’d woken up this morning. But no matter what, Shane was out of her life for good. “You’re telling me.”

He straightened in the chair. “Do you feel like talking about it?”

The soothing strains of his voice vanished, and his authoritative deputy-speak took its place. So much for having even a moment to forget what had happened to her. How many times would she have to tell this story? Expose her stupidity for everyone to see? The sooner she got this over with, the sooner she could move on. Whatever that meant. She had nothing. No job. No friends. No home. “There’s not much to tell. Shane got drunk… again. I don’t know what set him off, but he came at me. I couldn’t talk him down like before.”

She explained, as best she could, exactly what had happened, before and after she called 9-1-1, up until the moment Sawyer arrived and Shane tried to strangle her.

Sawyer’s jaw tightened and his hands clenched into fists. Her heart raced as she kept her eyes locked on those fingers. Living with Shane had taught her to always pay close attention to his fists, to deflect them when they came her way.

Why did men do that? Shane clenched his fists in anger and so did her brothers. And now Sawyer. Always ready to throw a punch. She squirmed to the other side of the bed. Sawyer’s hands were smaller than Shane’s, but a fist was a fist when raised in anger. Deep down, she knew that Sawyer would never raise his hand to her… or anyone. If only she could convince her head and body of that fact.

Color rose on his cheeks. He relaxed his hands and wiped them on his trousers. “You’ll need to file an official report, but that can wait until tomorrow. My statement as well as the two other deputies should be enough to keep him locked up for a while.”

“Thank you. I find myself saying that to you a lot.”

“I’m glad I got there in time. If I had been even a minute later…”

He didn’t continue. He didn’t need to say anything else. She knew, they both knew, what could have happened if he hadn’t shown up when he did.

“I called Joey and your parents. They’re on the way. Lucas followed us in and is in the waiting room.”

“I wish you hadn’t done that.” She didn’t want to face her family. They’d begged her, over and over, to leave Shane, and instead she’d repeatedly defended him. But her brothers didn’t know the full story about their parents. They hadn’t grown up the odd man out in their family like she had. “I don’t want to see them.”

“You know Lucas and Joey. There’s no way they’ll leave before they see you.”

“What am I going to tell them?” What could she tell them? Hey, you guys were right. But they didn’t have demons battling for control of their self-worth like she did. She didn’t belong in her family, not like the three musketeers—Michael, Joey, and Lucas. The three of them… and then her. The mistake who shouldn’t be here.

“You don’t need to tell them anything, except you’ll be okay.”

“They’ll want me to stay with them.”

“It’s probably a good idea.”

Her blood pulsed a rapid rhythm in her neck. Sawyer’s face grew fuzzy. Just the thought of having one of her brothers hovering over her churned her stomach. She thumped her head back on the bed and closed her eyes. “I can’t. Lucas is about to get married and Joey has a new girlfriend.”

“What about your parents?”

She clenched her fists. Okay, maybe it wasn’t just men whose first inclination was to fight. And maybe, just maybe, Shane hadn’t driven all the fight out of her. She had a bit left. She jerked her head side to side and spoke through gritted teeth. “No.”

“I’ll call the shelter then. It’s probably better if you go there anyway. They’re equipped to help you.”

“I don’t need help. I’m not one of those women, Sawyer. I just need a place to stay for the night.” She shouldn’t have snapped at him. He didn’t deserve her anger. Why did everyone think she needed taking care of? That was how she’d ended up with Shane in the first place. After years of being the outcast, of being alone, he’d given her a soft place to land, lent an ear to her troubles. Most of them, anyway. He’d taken care of her, all right. Taken care of her to the point that she had nothing and no one else.

She let out the breath she’d been holding. If she didn’t have somewhere to go, her brothers would steamroll her into going home with one of them … or with her parents. Mom and Dad’s house wasn’t an option, not after what they’d hidden from her.

“The shelter is a place to stay for the night,” Sawyer said gently.

He was right. The shelter was the best choice. “Okay.”

Sawyer squeezed her hand. Although he smiled, his eyes failed to brighten. Pity, that was what he was giving her. What everyone gave her. Poor Rachel. Yuck. No more. That woman was gone. Strong Rachel was back and here to stay.

“Let me go get Lucas and Joey.” Sawyer strode out of the door.

Rachel flopped her head back on the pillow. Pain hissed along her arms and legs, needling sensations coursing through her body. Now that the danger had passed, her body was protesting Shane’s attack. She raised her hand to her head and closed her eyes, bracing herself for the onslaught.

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