Authors: Lynda Chance
"I'm glad you're home," he said in his deep voice.
"Thanks. So am I."
"You got a few minutes?"
"Sure. Come on in." Katie closed the top drawer of her dresser and sat down in the middle of her bed, getting comfortable.
Josh snagged the chair in front of the desk and sat down, straddling it backwards. "Did your tests go okay?"
"Yeah, I think. I'm not panicking or anything."
"Good," he answered distractedly.
Katie watched him, the pensive tone of his voice worrying her a bit. Josh knew all of her deepest secrets; he'd been there for her when she couldn't stand the thought of burdening her parents with what she'd gone through. "What's up?"
"I hate to lay all this on you the minute you get home, but it can't wait."
"Okay?" She prompted him with a sinking feeling. She knew this was going to be bad . . . she knew it was going to be about a subject she didn't want to discuss.
Josh's shoulders stiffened. "You already know it was too close for comfort when Mandy Thompson escaped from Jesse Whitaker before he could rape her. It's too damn bad it wasn't enough to prosecute him for." As Josh made that announcement, guilt rose up within Katie. Yeah, she already knew all that. She also knew that if she'd had enough courage to go to the police after Jesse had hurt her, then the sheriff's daughter never would have been caught in the situation she'd been in. The guilt Katie felt was so strong she felt almost sick with it. She nodded her head as Josh continued, "You know he's been dating Rebecca Sutty." Katie nodded again. "She came to me yesterday and told me that she's scared shitless. He's physically hurting her, Katie. She's scared he's going to kill her. I realize that Rebecca's a bitch, but nobody deserves what he's dishing out."
Katie swallowed as misery engulfed her. "You're right," she managed in a weak voice, hating the coward who seemed to be living within her now.
"No more bullshit, Katie. Somebody's going to wind up dead. You're going to go the sheriff tomorrow and make a statement, got it?" He held her eyes and his tone gentled. "I'll go with you, and hold your hand the entire time if you want, but it's happening. I swear to God, you'll thank me later. You want some girl's rape or even death to be on your conscience?"
Katie closed her eyes as the blood drained from her face. "No, I don't."
Josh stood up and enclosed her in a tight hug. He lifted her chin and looked into her eyes. "It'll be okay, I promise."
Katie knew this had to be done. And then after it was over, she'd have to tell her parents what she'd been through. There would be no way around it. After she made her statement, Jesse would be picked up and eventually there would be a trial. Her parents had to know. Distress engulfed her as she thought of the pain this would cause them, but she stiffened her spine and reminded herself that this wasn't her fault. It was Jesse Whitaker's fault and he deserved to be punished for what he'd done. She took a deep breath and cleared her throat.
Had Josh really meant what he'd said?
"Will you go with me and promise to stand beside me?"
His arms tightened around her. "Yeah."
Katie pulled back and looked at him with determination. "Okay, we'll do it tomorrow."
The next day sucked. It was obvious to Katie that Sheriff Thompson already knew what had happened to her, so he tried to make it easy on her. Giving the statement to him went smoothly, much better than telling her parents. That afternoon, her mother cried, and her father looked as if he wanted to commit murder. They both coddled her the rest of the day.
Katie breathed a huge sigh of relief that it was all over and thought everything was all good until Josh slammed into the house and announced that the sheriff had picked up Jesse and taken him into custody, but not before he'd cornered Hannah alone and scared the crap out of her.
Horror bled through Katie. This time she couldn't convince herself that it wasn't her fault, and tears came to her eyes. Jesse should have been in prison a long time ago. And he would have been, if she hadn't been so cowardly. "Is she okay?"
Josh looked fit to be tied, and who could blame him? She'd figured out that Josh and Hannah were more than friends, although he never talked about personal stuff. And she never questioned Hannah about Josh, because for some deep-seated reason, Katie didn't want to be in on their secret.
She didn't know why she'd been so slow to get it, at first. Josh was a loner for the most part, but he had two good friends, Ethan and Ty. When Hannah and her friend Ava began hanging around Josh, Katie had thought it was because Ty was Ava's brother. But it was plain for everyone to see that Ava had a massive crush on Ethan, and Katie suspected that Hannah felt the same about Josh. But she'd sincerely believed that her cousin was too smart to get involved with Zachary McIntyre's little sister. But obviously, she'd been wrong.
"She'll be okay. He pulled a knife on her but he didn't have time to hurt her. I got to her first, and then the sheriff showed up." Josh pulled a water bottle from the refrigerator and turned to Katie's mom. "I'm going to her house now. Her parents are more shaken up than Hannah is."
Katie's mom looked frazzled. She bit her lip and agreed, "Okay, sweetheart. Let us know if we can do anything to help."
"It's going to be okay now. He's behind bars and he'll stay there until the trial." Josh turned to Katie with approval in his eyes. "You did good."
"No, I didn't. He couldn't have hurt or even scared anyone else if I'd done the right thing a long time ago."
"Katie, don't beat yourself up about this. Everybody heals in their own way. Nobody, and I mean
, blames you for anything."
She felt twin tears spill from her eyes. "Thanks."
He walked toward her and lightly caressed her hair. "No problem."
"Where. . . where did it happen?"
"At the high school. In the gym."
"Does Zachary know?" Katie voiced the question before she could stop herself, but neither Josh nor her mother seemed to think anything of Katie asking about Zach McIntyre.
Her cousin clenched his jaw. "I doubt it. He's in Dallas and about to leave for the Middle East from what I understand."
Katie let that information sink in. "Tell Hannah that I'm glad she's okay and I'll see her soon, okay? I still haven't seen her since her grandmother died. I didn't even know she was back from Shreveport."
Josh's expression turned grim. "She got home this morning."
Josh slammed out of the house on a mission and Katie took another sip of the hot chocolate her mother had fixed for her.
The New Year came and went, and with it, the trial that Katie had dreaded. With the support and testimony of both Hannah and Mandy Thompson, the trial hadn't been as bad as Katie had feared. But it wasn't something she cared to relive. Ever.
By spring break things were on a more normal footing. Katie had been blissfully lazy the last few days, and the new knowledge that Jesse Whitaker was finally in prison made going into town much less stressful. On this particular day, she was sitting at a booth in the diner with Hannah, Ava Anderson, and Mandy Thompson.
Katie knew that Ava had experienced several losses in her own life lately, and watching the younger girl's colorless face and the dark lines of fatigue and stress under her eyes made Katie afraid that she might break in two at any given moment. Katie refused to take sides, and in fact, she didn't know enough of the situation
take sides, but at the moment, a small, feminine kernel of heat made her want to kick Ethan Jackson's ass. Just as quickly as the thought came, Katie realized she might be judging Ethan unfairly. Katie had known Ethan her entire life, well, since kindergarten, anyway, and Ethan was a stand-up guy. She
he'd loved Ava, it wasn't a secret, the entire town knew of both their love and their heartbreak.
What the town didn't know of was their story, or what had happened to put the fine lines of stress around Ava's mouth and the sadness in her eyes.
Not wanting Ava to see the pity that might be in her eyes, she turned her attention to Mandy. Katie and Mandy had graduated together, and Mandy was home from college for the break as well. "How do you like U of H?" Katie asked Mandy.
"It's huge. Houston
the sheriff's daughter replied
"You live on campus though, right?" Katie asked.
"Yeah, and I try never to leave."
"Yeah, I know what you mean. UTA is fairly massive, too. It's a major dose of reality after being raised in a small town, isn't it?" Katie knew she was making small talk, but she didn't know exactly how to broach the subject with the other girl that she really wanted to talk about. She'd already had a few long talks with Hannah, and now she wanted nothing more than to apologize to Mandy; she hadn't had a chance during the trial.
"Yeah, I know, right?" Mandy agreed. "Redwood Falls will always be home, but it's a different experience in a major city."
While Hannah and Ava listened, Katie nodded her head and took a sip of her Diet Coke. She set the glass down and took a deep breath. "Mandy--"
Katie paused and the other girl watched her intently from across the table. "Yes?"
"I want to tell you how sorry I am--"
Her words were cut off when Mandy interjected,
"Don't you dare
. Don't you dare apologize to me. I wasn't hurt and you're not to blame anyway."
Katie worried her bottom lip between her teeth. "I feel like it's my fault."
"It's not. Hannah and I didn't go through even half of what you went through and the last thing you need to do is apologize. Right, Hannah?"
"Right. I already told her that," Hannah said with a worried tone.
Mandy smiled at Hannah and Katie could tell the girl was trying to change the direction of the conversation, and she was grateful. "I can't believe that Josh was there to rescue us both."
When there was a moment of silent agreement around the table, Ava said quietly, "Josh is quite the guy."
Katie quirked her lips in a small smile. "I'm pretty sure we're all in agreement about that."
Mandy looked across at Ava. "So let's talk about something more pleasant. Tell us about your
Katie was relieved when color highlighted Ava's face; the poor girl almost spit her drink out. "Yuck."
Katie laughed. "It may be yuck to you, but trust me, the girls here in Redwood Falls think your brother's hot."
Ava rolled her eyes. "Ty's been in North Dakota for a couple of months now already. He got a job fairly quickly, and he was living in one of those man camp things. But he couldn't stand living there so he saved his money and bought a travel trailer. He's doing pretty well. He's making good money and he's saving most of it, from what I understand."
"Does he have a girlfriend?" Mandy asked, a bit slyly.
"I don't think there are many women up there where he's at. It's mostly oilfield workers really. If he's found anyone, he's not talking about it, at least not to me." Ava glanced at Hannah. "Has Josh mentioned anything? Does he know if my brother's found a girl?"
Hannah shook her head. "Not that I know of. All Josh has said is that Ty is making shit-tons of money."
Mandy snickered. "Too bad I'm in Texas and he's up there. I always wanted to go out with him."
Ava rolled her eyes again. "You and everyone else." And then Ava and Hannah shared a look. "Except for Hannah, that is."
"Hey," Hannah complained softly.
Mandy grinned at Hannah. "Don't worry. We all know that you can't see past Josh."
Katie felt both amusement and foreboding when Hannah looked only slightly disgruntled as she answered, "Well,
and I'm not going to apologize for it."
Redwood Falls, The Bar M Ranch
It was two in the morning when Zach pulled into his parents' driveway. He'd been out of the country for almost two months, and when he'd picked up his car at DFW, he'd had every intention of driving to his apartment. But when he'd hit the Interstate, in a move he couldn't explain, he'd boarded the freeway in the direction of Redwood Falls.
His body and soul ached for the Bar M Ranch.
Not even bothering to grab his carry-on from the backseat, knowing that his stepmother kept everything he'd need in his old bedroom, he let himself into the house on silent feet. It was his intention to slip into his room without waking anyone, but as he walked past the media room, he saw a light shining from the door that stood ajar.
He walked inside and found Hannah curled up on the couch with her cell phone in her hand. She was smiling at whatever she was reading and as he watched her silently from the doorway, she clearly began answering the last text she'd received.
"Hannah," he announced his presence in a low-pitched voice.
Startled, she jumped an inch from her seat.