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“Nope and double nope. I’m not going to do that for you, and I’m even more surprised, or pissed off you might say, that you even asked me to. Where do you get off asking me to...? I do not kill animals because someone is tired of them. Nor do I know anyone that might if I don’t. Christ man, what if that were a child?” Mercedes went to the door and opened it for the man and his dog. “Get out. And if anything happens to that dog, and I do mean anything, I’m going to have you brought up on charges.”
“For a dog? Fuck woman, it’s a dumb animal. Nobody gives a shit if they get hit by a car. And if you think I give one shit about what kind of charges you think you can put on me, then you’re way stupider than I thought you were.” He jerked the dog along behind him as he made his way to the counter. With a short nod, Mercedes knew that her receptionist would take care of the man. And the dog.
Closing the door behind the two of them, Mercedes sat down on her chair and closed her eyes. This had been one hell of a week and it was only Tuesday. When her phone rang, she didn’t even bother moving to answer it. She knew that someone would pick it up. As she sat there, Mercedes thought of her life so far.
She was a nearly thirty divorced mother of a ten-year-old little girl. No house, no car, and she was still paying off her ex-husband’s debt like she’d had a thing to do with it. When she’d gotten her divorce from him he’d put a great many credit cards in her name and maxed them out. Nash hadn’t been too happy that she’d been upset about him beating her to shit all the time. Go figure.
While she had a good job, there was little in the way of income that was free and clear for her, and she doubted even if she lived to be ten thousand that she’d ever see that day. She didn’t have a car, no money for extras like socks or a thick winter coat, and some months she didn’t even have enough food for both her and her daughter to eat.
When a knock at the door startled her to sit up, she nearly begged to be left alone. The bundle that came in the open door made her feel like she was queen of the world. Seeing Bonnie changed her mood just like that.
Bonnie was her life, and the fact that her father had had to give up all parental rights to her was the best thing that had ever happened to either of them. Holding Bonnie in her arms as she told her about her day, Mercedes wondered what the hell had happened to her to land her in such a state?
“You’re not listening to me.” Mercedes told her that she’d had a day and a half. “You work too hard. When do we get to go on that vacation? Soon, right? Can we leave tomorrow instead of Friday? I don’t have any homework to turn in because of it being nearly Thanksgiving and all.”
“It’s not a vacation, but a job interview. I told you that.” Bonnie nodded and handed her the things from her backpack. “This farm that we’re going to, it might not be anything that we want. Or something might go wrong and I’m not good enough for them.”
“Never going to happen. You’re the best.” Mercedes wished she had half the confidence in herself as her daughter did. “I’ve got my things all ready to go. And I even
washed up your jeans for you so you could pack. I just have to put them in the dryer when we get home.”
“Our ride isn’t to arrive until Friday morning. So no, I don’t think we can leave earlier. Besides, we have to close up the apartment before we go, and since I’m working late tonight, we’ll have our work cut out for us tomorrow as it is. You can wait the extra day.”
There was a car coming for them. Mercedes wasn’t really sure what that meant for their travel plans, but Palmer had assured her that they were a very nice family with a great many horses that would need her help. Mercedes wondered how she and Bonnie were going to survive a trip all the way across the United States in a car, but they’d endured a lot together and this would be just one more thing. And Bonnie thought it was going to be an adventure.
Milly, the receptionist, came to the door to tell her she had a phone call. After telling Bonnie to keep it down, she answered the phone. She was both surprised and nervous to hear Palmer on the line.
“Hello, darling. I do hope you’re ready for this trip. I know that everyone here is excited to meet you. I’ve told them so many good things about your work ethic.” She told him that she was. “Good. Good. The car will pick you and Bonnie up at nine on Friday. Then you’ll be taken to my plane and brought here. I’m sure you’ll love it as much as I do. And we’ve put you two up in the bed and breakfast. You’ll be the only ones in it, and I’m sure you’ll give us some feedback on that as well. It’s new to the area. One of the families that you’re going to be working for owns it.”
“I thought we’d be driving.” He said that would take too long. “I see. And when we get there, what if things don’t work out? I mean, this is just an interview. I want to be able to come back if there is a problem.”
Palmer was quiet for some time, and she wondered if he was going to tell her that there wasn’t an interview any longer, but they were bringing her out anyway. When she said his name, he asked her to hang on a moment, as he had someone in his office.
“Are we going to fly out?” She told Bonnie that it looked like it. “I’ve never been on a plane before. Do you think they’ll have movies and stuff?”
“You’re taking your things with you so you can watch what you want anyway.” The line clicked again, and she started to ask Palmer if everything was all right when a woman spoke.
“Yes, everything is perfect. Hi, I’m Susie Douglas. My husband and I own the Douglas Ranch. I think there’s been a mistake.” Mercedes felt her heart break, and she told her that she understood. “Now don’t be getting your panties in a twist. I didn’t mean to say that you’re not going to come out, but I think we forgot to tell you that we’ve already hired you. Palmer said you were the best and, to be honest with you, we sure could use the help. While most of the horses aren’t sick, some of them are breeding and it’s been a little hard on us getting to them in time.”
“How many horses are we talking?” Silence on the other end made her think that there was more than the dozen or so she’d thought were there. “Mrs. Douglas? How many do you need me to come and see to?”
“See to? Not that many, a couple of hundred I guess. Not that many are breeding, but we need to get them a clean bill of health so they can be sold, and that’s been hard on Jimmy, the local vet, to do. He isn’t all that nice to the ponies either, so that doesn’t help. But there are quite a few of them that are sold, and we need someone to come out and say they’re healthy before they leave.” Mercedes asked her daughter to go see Milly as Mrs. Douglas talked about what they needed.
“I don’t think this is going to work out.” Mrs. Douglas asked her why not. “Because I won’t sign off on a health questionnaire knowing that you’re selling less than healthy animals. I might be down on my luck, but I won’t lie to help you make money.”
“Good.” Mercedes frowned at the phone and started to ask her what she meant by that when she spoke again. “I didn’t ask you to sign off on their health records, did I? Nope. What I said was, I needed the paperwork to say they were healthy. Now to you that might sound like the same thing, but I will tell you that I can tell when a horse is sick or not a hell of a lot faster than you’d ever be able to. And as for you being down on your luck, I understand that as well. But I have no intentions of selling off our good name for a few extra bucks.”
“I’m sorry.” The woman at the other end laughed. “I think we might have gotten off on the wrong foot here. I’m not sure what’s going to happen there, but if you’ve changed your mind then I can—”
“You’re coming. Now, if you want. As far as I’m concerned you’re hired, and we’ll put you to work tomorrow if you want to get on that plane tonight and get here. We’re about done in here. And with the number of horses we have, you might want to quit anyway.” Mercedes asked her again how many she had. “At any given time there are as many as four thousand horses here. Double that in cattle, and we’re bringing in a few extra animals to help out with the children as well.”
Ten thousand animals? What the hell were they running out there? A breeding ranch? But Mercedes remembered that Palmer had told her that they were running a racehorse ranch, where men who had more money than brains came to buy stock.
“I have a daughter, you know that, right? She’s all I have in the world and I have to see to her needs first and foremost. We don’t know anything about the area or schools. I have no transportation either. Then there is housing and where we can live. Are there doctors in the area that are trustworthy?” Mercedes was making herself notes. A big dollar sign made her pause enough to ask about her salary. “I have to make enough money to get us settled. We have bills and we’ve been trying to pay them off.”
“Hang on a second.” When she was put on hold again, she thought that the woman was going to tell her that she’d have to make due. But Mercedes had already determined that she needed to make more than she was here or there was no point in leaving to move them across the states. “Okay. My husband and I are coming to you. Tonight. I know that you have to work until around five and that you’re probably getting ready to pack and shit, but we’ll come out there and talk to you. Bring the contract you can have looked over too.”
“I don’t have an attorney, Mrs. Douglas. And I can’t afford to find one to look over this contract. I’m trusting you won’t screw me over, because Palmer said I can trust you.”
She laughed, and Mercedes wanted to tell her again that she didn’t think this was a good idea.
“We’ll be there around four-thirty. Someone is making us reservations at the hotel and we’ll have dinner. Palmer said he’d come, too, just to break the ice.” Mercedes told her fine, but she wasn’t making any promises. “No worries. And my name is Susie. Mrs. Douglas is too formal. We’ll see you in a bit.”
After putting down the phone, she sat there for a few minutes. The woman was like a tornado, and Mercedes wondered what it would be like working for her. More than likely she’d be swept up in whatever she had going on. If she worked for her, Mercedes thought there would never be a dull moment.
Susie hated to fly. And even more she hated to meet with new people. But this woman, for all her problems, was going to come and work for them. Susie had no idea why it was so important to her, but she needed Mercedes there on the ranch to help out. Looking over at the family that had come with her, Susie wondered if this had been a bad idea. She decided this was the best way to scare the poor woman to death if she wasn’t already afraid of them.
“You should see her little girl. That Bonnie is a sweetheart. And something of a gifted child. That’s another reason that she’s so far behind on things. Putting Bonnie in that private school is costing her big time.” Susie only nodded at Palmer. There was more to it than that, but she was going to wait for Mercedes to tell them. Gerard had had someone look into the woman before she’d agreed to hire her. “She doesn’t like the shortened form of her name, by the way. I’m not sure what that would be, but she won’t answer to anything but Mercedes. I think her ex called her anything but her first name and made it sound like a curse rather than an endearment.”
“He’s not going to be happy with this. I have a feeling that he’s sort of possessive of his ex-wife and tries to rule her regardless of the papers that say he can’t.” Gerard leaned back in the seat they were in as he continued. “The man has to be loving that Mercedes is getting him out of debt. And the fact that he can go by her place once in a while to let her know what a disappointment she was to him. The man is going to have to learn to live without his punching bag sooner or later.”
“He’s going to be no problem as far as we’re concerned. And if he makes a nuisance of himself, we’ll take care of him.” Mason nodded as he handed them a file. “There are some things on our new vet that I want to make you all aware of. First and foremost, she’s good. Damned good, as a matter of fact. Top of her class in college. No problems from any of her clients. And the firm that she works for thinks a great deal of her. But that could be because they run her into the ground for little to no extra help in the financial department. She wants to be partner and they know it, so they fuck her when they can.”
Susie glanced at Gerard and when he nodded, Susie spoke quietly. “I want to also make you aware of the things going on in her personal life. Her ex-husband is hurting them more than just with him coming by her place and knocking her around a little. He’s somehow gotten access to both her place she’s staying and her bank accounts. I think that he has someone watching her for him when she’s at home. And more and more lately, he
dips into her money when he finds that she has more than he thinks she should. He has buddies at the bank. Also, he’s hiding funding from her. He gave up all rights to his daughter, but he’s not paying child support to her because he claims he has no money.” Palmer asked her how she knew this. “I’ve seen her. Once. I traveled out there to have a little talk with her to try and feel her out, and I never got past the first touch of her. Her problems aren’t going to go away soon.”
They were aware of what she and Gerard could do. Not all of it but a great deal. Some of it was just too fucking scary to share. Like the fact that they could touch a person and then know the people that they’d had contact with, the ex-husband being one of people that Mercedes had been touched by that day. The man was going to be an issue whether she moved out where they were or not.
“Do you think he’s going to be a problem then?” Susie nodded, and Mason leaned back on the seat again. “A police problem or a leap problem?”
“Both,” Gerard told them as he continued with the information they’d gotten from her. “He’s not going to be happy when he finds out that she’s moving. He likes her under his thumb. And he does have her there. Mercedes is afraid that he’ll take her daughter from her and that he’ll hurt her. Not legally, but simply to take her because he knows that it’ll hurt Mercedes. He doesn’t want her either, but he likes having control over Mercedes. The only reason she was able to file for divorce was because he was in jail just long enough for her to get a judge to grant her one, and when he got out, he was fucking pissed.”
“And the money that she owes, is it because of the divorce or something more?” Palmer didn’t look like he needed anyone to answer him, and when he spoke again, she was sort of proud of him. “He tried to ruin her. Or has he?”
“Close to it. She lost her house, her car, and can’t get a loan. When she told me that she couldn’t afford an attorney to go over the contract we’re taking her, she wasn’t kidding. They have nothing. Less than nothing. Next month the school that her daughter goes to is going to tell her that they can no longer carry her. She knows this, but can’t stand the thought of losing it for her little girl. It’s not only a good school, but a safe place for her too.”
“We’ll bring her back with us.” Susie nodded at Palmer. “If I have to pack her up myself, I’m bringing her back with me.”
“We all will. But I think we’re going to have to go at this slowly. Think of her like a skittish horse or cow. She’s terrified to trust anyone anymore, and when this ex finds out she’s flown the coop, he’s not going to lay back and just let her go.” Mason asked her what she meant. “He’s a man used to getting his own way. He’s Nash Crosby.”
Palmer didn’t have any idea who that was, but Susie knew that Mason did. And so did Ed. Ed Clarke was the one that had told her and Gerard about him when she’d asked him about the divorce papers that she’d had sent to her. Crosby wasn’t just bad news, but he made her own father look sort of saintly.
“Nash is...how should I say this? He is a man who is used to getting his own way, but it’s more than that. He’s a thug. And the worst kind of one. When he was younger, there was speculation that he might have been involved in the car accident that took both
his parents’ lives and that of his sister. Six months after they were gone, his grandmother died in a house fire.” Ed looked at his notes as he mopped his brow with his handkerchief. “Then about eleven years ago, he married Mercedes Gillespie. Her family had some money, but not a great deal. Mercedes was in her last year of veterinary college and making a name for herself even then. By all accounts, Mercedes didn’t care for the man, had on several occasions gone to the police about him. Then one day there was an article in the paper that they were to be wed. Six months later, Bonnie was born.”
“You think he raped her, got her with child, and then forced her into marrying him? That might have worked some years ago, but not now.” Mason looked at Palmer when he laughed nervously. “Please tell me that I’m wrong about this.”
“You’re not. And she might not have married him had her father not been ill at the time. His death happened a few months after they said their vows. We think he might have been hurting her father, and that might be the reason that he got her to say yes. I guess we won’t know for sure until she tells us.” Susie didn’t even look at them as Mason continued. She knew, but it wasn’t her story to tell.
“So we’re here to bring her to safety, not hire her.” Mason told Palmer that they were going to hire her, had already as far as he was concerned. “Then I don’t understand. Why all this cloak and dagger stuff? I really like this woman, but why do we need to know about her personal life like this?”
“She’s going to be living on one of the ranches and we don’t want anyone hurt. We have to consider what sort of baggage she’ll be bringing with her in the form of that ex of hers.” Gerard continued as Palmer agreed with him. “And if she’s not happy, the horses and the cattle will know it. We can’t have her stressed out when the horses have enough of that on their own.”
As they were landing, she sat next to Gerard again. Susie had only touched the woman once, but it was enough to bring her to tears over what she was going through. Not only was the woman in desperate need of a break, but she was on the verge of losing even her home if her ex had anything to do with it. Nash was going to be a problem for them all.
The hotel was nice, and she wished that Darin had been able to come with them. He’d been hitting all the B&B’s around the country to find out what he wanted in theirs. The construction was nearly finished on the building, and the decorators had already finished up on three of the floors. In about a month, less she thought, they’d have all the rooms ready and Darin would have Douglas House up and running.
The restaurant, too, was nearly complete, and the new chef had been thrilled to death to take over the lower level for his own. Susie was still trying to keep herself from freaking out every time a bill came in, and finally, Gerard had told her not to open them anymore. It was expensive to start from scratch, and he assured her that they would be fine.
The business was going much better than they’d ever hoped it would, too. They were selling horses almost faster than she could train them. Several ranches had made the trip to their ranch to not only buy, but to place an order for other horses as well. Their monthly income was by far more than most people made in a lifetime.
They had expenses too; huge straw and hay bills, vet bills in the five figures weekly. Grain and feed was being delivered daily, and they still had to supplement that with an extra truck once in a while. But she was doing something that she loved, and they were doing well with it.
As soon as they were settled in their room, she called Darin to let him know about the room, even sent him a few pictures. Calling the doctor to ask her where they could meet, Susie was surprised when the little girl answered the phone. After telling her who she was and why she was calling, Bonnie started to cry harder. The noise in the background had her reaching for the others as the little girl sobbed in the phone.
“My daddy is here now, and he said that we weren’t going anywhere. I don’t know how he figured it out, but he’s really mad at us.” Bonnie cried harder when something sounded like it broke behind her. “Can you please come here and get us? Hurry, please? I don’t want him here.”
“They’re coming. Where are you? Can you see them?” She told her that her mommy had told her to hide. “Good girl. You stay on the phone with me, and my family will take care that he goes home. Then you’re going to come here with us and we’re going to go to my house. We have a lot of ponies, and they’re excited about you coming out.”
Susie thought it important to keep the child on the line. She was afraid, and so was Susie. When another crash sounded very close to the phone, Susie brought up the trip again.
“Mommy said that we’re going to fly away if we can.” Susie told her that would be wonderful. “And that I can see the cows and horses that she’s gonna take care of. If you hire her.”
“She’s already hired.” There was a scream and then a man yelling for the little girl. “Don’t go to him, Bonnie. Your mommy won’t like it if he takes you from her.”
Bonnie screamed, and the line went dead. Before she could reach for Gerard and the others, Gerard said they were there, and for her to call the police. She picked up the phone again with shaking hands and dialed the number. They said that they were on their way and that someone had already called them.
“There’s a little girl in the house. She’s ten and terrified. I think someone is trying to hurt her.” The dispatcher told her that they were on the way, and would be there soon. “I hope so.”
Susie was just going to go to them when she heard from Mason. He used the phone to contact her, and that terrified her more than she could have thought. When he spoke, his voice was calm and even, but she knew that he was beyond pissed off.
“I’d like for you to meet us at the hospital. The bastard has...we’re still trying to find the little girl, but the woman is beaten to shit.” Susie said she was leaving now. “Have our things packed up by the staff, and everything taken to the airport. We’re not hanging around to see if he comes back to finish the job.”
“How bad is she?” Mason said that the medics were there now, but she was talking to them. “She’s gonna be worried about the bill. Tell her that she’s insured as of three days ago when we hired her. And have the bills sent to our house.”
“I’ll take care of it.” She thanked Mason and asked to speak to Gerard. “He’s talking with the police, honey. As soon as he’s done...he’s fine, but he got hurt too.”
She felt her legs shake, then she had to sit down. As she slid to the floor, she felt his touch, Gerard’s touch, and his love as it surrounded her. Susie knew that Mason was still speaking to her, but the only person she cared about right now was the one in her heart and head.
I’m fine. It’s a good thing that he hit me. She asked him how. Because he assaulted me, and even if our vet doesn’t press charges, I’m going to. This way he’ll be in jail still by the time we land at home.
So you’re telling me you took one for the team? He didn’t say anything. How badly are you hurt? And so you know, I’m going to do ten times worse when I see you.
Only a black eye and maybe a broken nose. She growled low at him. If you want, I’ll let you beat me a little before I take you hard on the floor. After, of course, I eat you.
I dislike you very much right now. He laughed. Come here to me, Gerard. I need to see you for myself.
I love you as well. When we’re done here. Meet us at the plane. We’re out of here. She felt his anger. Sharp enough that she could almost taste it. We have her. She came out when her mom told her to. The little girl has been hurt too. I’m going to kill this bastard.