Excerpt for Deadly Thorn by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

THE DEADLY THORN



by



Betty Sullivan La Pierre




Copyright 2003 by Betty Sullivan La Pierre

Smashwords Edition


* * * *

TABLE OF CONTENTS


CHAPTER 1

CHAPTER 2

CHAPTER 3

CHAPTER 4

CHAPTER 5

CHAPTER 6

CHAPTER 7

CHAPTER 8

CHAPTER 9

CHAPTER 10

CHAPTER 11

CHAPTER 12

CHAPTER 13

CHAPTER 14

CHAPTER 15

CHAPTER 16

CHAPTER 17

CHAPTER 18


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* * * *

CHAPTER ONE


Sally Oliver stood at the bedroom window and watched her husband of three months climb into his pickup. When the dark green truck turned the corner and disappeared, her body sagged with relief. Shivering, she wrapped her arms around herself. The temperature inside the house matched that of the outdoors, but she didn’t dare ask Jimmy to light the furnace.

What had happened to the kind, sweet man she’d married? Her blue eyes clouded with tears. She turned from the window, wincing from the fresh bruises covering her ribs. “What am I going to do?” she moaned. She sat on the edge of the bed and buried her head in her hands.

Before their marriage, Jimmy had courted her with red roses, candy and gifts. He’d always been gentle and kind. But now the romance had disappeared along with the tender love-making. Now, he just satisfied his own sexual desires, and if she complained, he treated her with contempt, calling her frigid.

Glancing into the dresser mirror, she studied her reflection. She still had the same petite figure that he couldn’t keep his hands off before they were married. So, what had gone wrong? She sighed and turned away. But lately, it seemed she did nothing right – except earn a good wage as an accountant. And even that caused problems. When she told him she’d decided to have her checks automatically deposited into her own personal checking account, he exploded, which led to a bitter argument and abusive behavior. She trembled, recalling the fierce blows he’d inflicted. He not only wanted to control her money, but her very life. Hurt and confused, she paced, knowing she couldn’t take much more of this battering.

When the phone rang, she flinched, figuring Jimmy wanted to harass her more. If she ignored it, he’d make her pay later. On the third ring, she hesitantly picked up the receiver and took a deep breath.

“Hello.”

“May I speak with Mrs. Randy Oliver?

Hearing the feminine voice, Sally relaxed. “Speaking.”

“Are you alone?”

She knitted her brows not liking the sound of the question. At this time, she certainly didn’t need a prank call. “Look, I’m very busy.”

“Your life’s in danger. So please, don’t hang up.”

“What!” Sally exclaimed, entwining the phone cord around her fingers.

“I want you to listen closely. I’m Jimmy’s third wife and I want to tell you what happened to his first two.”

The cord dropped from her fingers. “Is this some sort of a sick joke?”

“Check the marriage records if you don’t believe me. Jimmy killed his first two wives.”

Sally sank down on the edge of the bed, gripping the receiver to her ear.

“He planned to kill me, but I escaped before he could follow through. If there’s an insurance policy on you with him as the beneficiary, you’ll be next. Here’s what happens.”

Nervously, Sally ran her fingers through her brown uncombed hair, trying to digest the horror story she was hearing. When the woman finished talking, Sally gulped a breath of air. “What’s your name?

The line went dead.

Grabbing the phone with both hands, she screamed, “Please, no, don’t hang up. Hello, hello.”

Her body trembled as she reluctantly dropped the receiver onto the cradle. The coldness of the room seemed nothing compared to the fear creeping through her veins.

* * *

Julia Evans stepped from the warmth of her white BMW into the crisp October morning. Ducking her head against the chill, she lifted her coat collar and held it tightly around her neck. A gust of wind whipped the stylish coat against her shapely legs when she hurried through the glass doors of the large office building.

Her heels clicked across the glossy tile of the lobby then sank into the thick carpet of an oak paneled hallway dotted with offices. She entered the All American Accounting Firm and smiled at the receptionist.

“Good morning, Tee.”

“Good morning, Ms. Evans. Plenty chilly out there isn’t it?”

Julia nodded, smoothing down her short cropped hair, then blowing on her hands. She picked up a handful of letters from her mail box and strolled over to the kitchenette to get a cup of coffee. Pausing at the door of Sally’s meticulous office, she stared into the empty room and frowned. That’s strange, she thought, Sally’s always here before me.

Still somber faced, she entered her own office next door, hung up her coat and listened to three calls over the voice mail: two clients waiting for their tax returns and old Mr. Hagar wanting a meeting.

An hour later, she buzzed Tee. “Sally in yet?”

“No.”

“Did she have an appointment this morning?”

She heard the rustling of pages while Tee flipped through her calendar. “No, nothing’s listed.”

“Thanks.” Julia tapped her chin with her forefinger. This is not like Sally at all. She’d have notified the office by now if she wasn’t going to show.

She dialed Sally’s home, but got a busy signal. This also puzzled her. They had call waiting. Sally didn’t have a computer at home to tie up the phone line so it must be out of order.

After two hours of trying to reach Sally without success, Julia pulled the directory from her bottom desk drawer and looked up the auto repair shop where Sally’s husband worked. She keyed in the number, tilted her chair back and waited, tapping her pencil on the desk. It took several rings before a deep masculine voice finally answered.

“Baker’s Garage. Jimmy speaking.”

She came forward in her chair. “Jimmy, this is Julia Evans.”

“Hey there, babe, what can I do for you? That Beamer giving you trouble?”

“The car’s fine. I’m worried about Sally. She hasn’t shown up for work. Is she sick?”

He hesitated a moment. “I don’t think so. Did you try the house?”

“Yes, several times, but I keep getting a busy signal.”

“That’s odd. Something must be wrong with the phone. I’ll see if I can reach her.”

“Please have her call work if you contact her.”

“Sure thing.”

“Thanks.”

Julia stared blankly into space. He certainly didn’t seem too concerned. Maybe I’m worried over nothing, she thought, drumming her red manicured nails on the desk, waiting for the phone to ring. She tried to focus her attention back on the Webster account, but couldn’t concentrate. With no word from Sally or Jimmy, she decided to leave a few minutes early for lunch and run by their house.

She wound around the streets of the modest residential area and parked in front of the small cottage that reminded her of a small white doll’s house. Jimmy had lined the walk leading to the front porch with crimson roses, giving the house a splash of color.

Gripping her coat tightly around herself, she hurried toward the front entry, dodging a couple of overgrown thorny stems. She rapped out the coded message that she and Sally had shared since they were kids, but no one responded. Impatient, she tried the door and found it unlocked.

She poked her head inside and called loudly. “Sally?”

Still no response. Stepping into the living room, she shivered. Good Lord, it’s cold in here, she thought, tugging her coat tighter around her slim body. Sally kept an immaculate house and everything appeared in order. She called out again. “Sally, it’s Julia. Are you here?”

She listened closely for any sound of movement and hearing none, headed down the short hallway toward the two bedrooms. The master bedroom’s door stood partially closed. “Sally, are you in here?” she asked, gently pushing it open.

Julia gasped, finding the empty room a disaster. The bed covers were piled in total disarray in the middle of the mattress. Clothes lay scattered all over the floor and dresser drawers hung open, stripped of their contents. Her gaze traveled to the closet. Jimmy’s clothes hung on one side, but where Sally’s suits and dresses should have been there were only vacant hangers.

The phone lay on top of the rumpled covers. Its receiver, beeping out it’s warning to hang up and redial, dangled over the side of the bed. Julie placed it back on the cradle and put the phone on the bedside table. Not knowing what to think, she stood in the center of the room, hands on her hips, biting her lower lip. Something was wrong. Obviously, Sally had left in a hurry. But why? What had happened?

As she left the bedroom, she glanced into the small bathroom across the hall and stopped abruptly. A broken bottle of make-up lay in the sink, the beige liquid dripping off the sides of the white porcelain. Julia’s anxiety grew. Sally would never leave a mess like that.

Rushing out the front door, she circled the corner of the house. The garage door stood open, but Sally’s pale blue Toyota Celica was no where in sight. Surely if there had been a family emergency, Sally would have at least notified Jimmy or called into work. A sense of apprehension crept over her. She headed for her car, looking once more toward the house before climbing inside.

Just as she started to drive away, a horn sounded behind her. She glanced into her rear view mirror and recognized Jimmy’s green pick-up turn into the driveway.

He hopped out and waved. “Is she all right?”

Julia stepped out of her car. “She’s not here. It looks like she left in a hurry. Is there a family emergency?” Still in his coveralls from work, he put his fists on his hips which reminded Julia of an angry little boy.

“If so, she sure as hell didn’t tell me.” He stormed across the lawn toward the garage, bellowing. “Goddammit, I’ve told her not to leave without locking up the garage. I’ve got hundreds of dollars worth of tools in there.” Yanking down the big door, he locked it, then marched toward the front of the house, motioning for Julia to follow. “Come on in. Maybe she left a note.”

Reluctantly, she complied, but stayed near the front door while he went through the house. Her gaze lingered on items in the living room when it suddenly dawned on her it looked different. She hadn’t been here for over a month and it took a minute before she realized it no longer had that warm feminine touch. The colorful prints she and Sally had purchased right after they’d gotten married, no longer adorned the walls. Only pictures of Jimmy hung in their place. How strange, she thought.

Startled by slamming doors, Julia glanced toward the hallway. Jimmy stomped into the living room. “There’s no note. I don’t know where she is, but she took most of her stuff.”

“Maybe she didn’t have time to call before she left.” Julia quickly stepped outside. “But if she gets in touch with you, please let me know.”

“Sure.” Wanting to get out of there, she barely heard the response as she hurried down the sidewalk toward her car.

While driving back to the office, her concern went out to Sally. But Jimmy’s conduct bothered her the most. She remembered his flirtatious ways toward her and other women before they were married, but his reaction just a few minutes ago really unsettled her. It brought back memories that she didn’t like to recall. She gripped the steering wheel, trying to shake off the feeling.

Pulling into her parking space at work, she let out a loud sigh and stared out the windshield at nothing. “Oh, Sally, I hope everything’s okay. Call me soon.”

She’d no more sat down at her desk when the thought struck her that Sally might have called her apartment. Quickly dialing her own number, she activated the answering machine. When Sally’s sobbing voice came over the line, Julia half rose from her chair, her hand flying to her throat.

“Julia, I won’t be at work for a while. Don’t tell anyone you’ve heard from me, especially Jimmy.” Her voice broke into a sob. “My life’s in danger. I’ll call you when I can.”


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* * * *

CHAPTER TWO


The next morning, Jimmy paced through the house, stopping only long enough in the bedroom to drop the damp towel from around his waist and dress for work. “Where the hell is she?” He glanced at the vase of wilted rose blooms on her bedside table. “You bitch. How dare you leave me.” He picked up the container of flowers and hurled it against the wall. Water and petals dripped down the wallpaper.

When he grabbed his shoes from the closet floor, he noticed his dusty suit hanging awkwardly from the wooden hanger. He frowned, yanked the jacket from the hanger and checked the pocket. When his hand folded over the key, he let out a sigh of relief. He’d lied to Sally, warning her never to mess with his desk as that’s where he kept a loaded gun. However, women were curious, so he went swiftly into the living room and unlocked the top drawer.

When he yanked it open, a smile curled his lips. The insurance policy and bank deposit books were still there, undisturbed. He frowned. Then why’d she leave? Maybe she’s mad because I hit her. His mouth twitched. But, she’ll come back, he thought, pocketing the key. If not, I’ll just have to find her. Everything’s got to go as planned.

He hurried back to the bedroom, grabbed his work jacket and left. Driving to his job, he hit the steering wheel with his hand. “Damn, I only needed a couple more weeks.” Then it occurred to him that Sally didn’t like missing a day at the office, because it put her behind. His mind churned on how he’d woo her back.

He took a detour off the main drag and stopped by the florist, where he bought a single red rose bud. Then drove down the road and pulled into All American’s visitor’s parking lot. He glanced into his outside mirror and ran his fingers through his collar length dark brown hair, straightened his shirt and jacket, then proceeded swiftly toward the big swinging doors. He strolled by the receptionist without a word and headed straight for Sally’s office.

Tee glanced up and half rose from her chair. “Mr. Oliver, wait.”

He ignored her. When he saw Sally office empty, he turned on his heel and rapped sharply on Julia’s partially closed door.

“Come in.”

Julia’s green eyes narrowed when he stepped inside. She dropped her pencil on the desk. “Hello, Jimmy.”

He ambled up to her desk with his shoulders high, making him look taller than his five foot, six. “Have you heard from Sally?”

She shook her head, her eyes shifting to the folder on her desk.

His gaze roamed over her short trendy hair-do and focused on her green eyes. She’d just lied to him. Somehow, he had to win her over. Putting on a serious expression, he brought out the long-stemmed red rose from behind his back. “I brought this for Sally, hoping she’d forgive me.”

Julia shot a look at him and raised a brow. “Oh? Forgive you for what?”

Dropping his hand to his side, he glanced down at his feet. She’s not going to be as easy as Sally, he thought, looking at her through his lashes. “We had a fight.”

“Do you know where she went?”

He shrugged. “No. But if you see her will you tell her I’m not mad. I love her and want her to come home.”

Julia stared at him, twirling a pencil between her fingers. “Do you have any idea as to where she might have gone?”

He threw a hand into the air. “Probably to her brother’s ranch.”

She glared at him. “What do you mean, probably? Didn’t you call and check?”

Jimmy shook his head. “Nope. Guess she’ll come home when she’s ready.” He glanced at his watch and smiled. “Hey, it’s almost noon.” His dark brown eyes sparkled. “Can I take you to lunch?”

She suppressed her thought of telling him what a bastard he was, instead replied, “No, thank you.”

“Then I’ll catch you another day.” He turned to leave and tossed the rose onto her desk. “Since Sally’s not here, you can have this.”

* * *

Julia felt a slow burn that started at her toes and worked up to the hair on her head. “What a scum bag,” she muttered through her clenched jaw. She picked up the rose with two fingers as if it were contaminated and hurled it into the trash can. She’d never understood what Sally saw in that man. Love definitely must be blind. All the more reason to avoid it.

The situation made her think of Sally’s frightened voice on the phone. It reminded Julia of her own mother. She’d never forget at college when her phone rang in the middle of the night. Her mother’s screaming voice saying that dad was going to kill her. It haunted her to this day, making chills slide down her spine. She never heard her mother’s voice again. Slamming the door on those unwanted thoughts, she forced herself back to work on the project in front of her.

That evening, when she pulled up to her apartment, it surprised her to find Sally’s brother, a tall, hazel-eyed cowboy waiting at her door with his hat in his hand. She threw her arms around him in a big hug. “Darren Lee Parish, I can’t believe it’s you.”

“Hey, Julia, nice to see you too. Can I come in for a minute?”

“Of course.” She unlocked the door and they went inside. “How are Ginny and the boys?”

“They’re great. Ginny sends her love.” He nervously combed his fingers through unruly brown hair.

Julia hung up her coat while studying his unusually serious expression. She touched his arm. “You’re here about Sally, aren’t you?”

He nodded, silently.

She frowned. “You’ve seen her? Is she all right?”

He took a breath. “Yeah. She’s okay.” He dusted his hat against his leg. “I guess. Wanted her to come with me when I came into town for supplies, but she refused. But she did ask me to come by and see you. Said she’s afraid her phone call might have frightened you.”

Julia raised her brows. “Yes, it did.” She motioned toward the couch. “Have a seat. Can I get you something to drink?

“No, thanks. I’m fine.”

“Do you mind if I have one? It’s been a rough day.”

“Hey no, go ahead. I’d join you if I didn’t have to drive home.”

She sat down in an overstuffed chair opposite him and leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees while clasping her drink between her hands. “I feel a lot better now, knowing she’s at the ranch.”

Darren sank back on the couch and let out a long sigh. “She’s not at the ranch.”

Startled, Julia straightened. “What? But I assumed she was staying at your place, from what you just said.”

He shook his head solemnly while twirling his hat between his hands. “She won’t stay with us. Says she won’t put my family in jeopardy. Whatever the hell that means.” He shot a look at Julia. “She also told me that she’s not going back to Jimmy.”

Julia thought back on the past two months and how Sally’s bubbly personality had changed drastically. It worried her, but Sally always assured her that everything was fine.

She set her drink down and went to her phone recorder. “Darren, I want you to hear this.” She punched on the voice tape of Sally’s call.

Darren listened and his back went rigid. “What the hell is she so scared about?”

Julia clenched her hands in front of her. “I wish I knew. But I have a suspicion it has something to do with Jimmy.” She slipped the tape out of the machine and replaced it with a new one, then sat back down in the chair.

He pitched his hat on the cushion beside him, slapped a fist into his other hand and mumbled. “If he’s done something to her, I’ll . . .”

Julia put a hand in the air. “Now, let’s not jump to any conclusions yet. Jimmy came to my office this morning looking for Sally. He said they’d argued. It could be nothing more than a newlywed squabble.”

Darren scratched the back of his neck. “Sally never mentioned an argument.” He leaned forward and rested his arms across his muscular thighs. “You know, I only met the guy a couple of times, but I didn’t like him then and I don’t like him now.”

Julia met his gaze, agreeing, but keeping her thoughts silent. “Jimmy thinks Sally’s at your place.”

He rubbed his large hands over his face. “Funny he never bothered to call and find out.”

She nodded. “I thought the same thing.” Looking Darren in the eye, she asked. “Where is she?”

“A motel in Yreka. You know, I’ve never seen Sally like this and I’m worried. She’s too scared to even talk about it.” He picked up his hat. “But I think she’d talk to you. If you’ll come out to the ranch this weekend, maybe you can talk some sense into her.”

“I’ll leave Friday as soon as I can get away.”

Darren stood. “Thanks, Julia. We’ll be waiting for you.”

She stood in the doorway and watched him disappear around the corner. Sally is definitely scared, she thought. So terrified that she’s willing to risk her job and too frightened to tell her brother. She closed the door and leaned her forehead against the hard wood, praying that Sally would confide in her.

* * *

Friday morning, Julia placed her duffel bag in the trunk of her car, planning to leave for the ranch straight from work. Arriving at the office, she greeted Tee with a smile. Julia had covered for Sally, feigning she had the flu and wouldn’t be back for several days.

“How’s Sally?”

“Doing better, but not up to par, yet.”

Then Tee turned quiet and sullen. Julia had known Trisha Teola for several years and knew this signaled something wrong. She stopped at Tee’s desk and folded her arms across her chest. “Okay, what’s bothering you?”

Tee peeked out from under her long lashes and sucked in her breath. “Oh, dear, I don’t know if I should shoot my mouth off or not. I don’t want to cause anyone trouble.”

Julia frowned and dropped her arms to her side. “That depends on what kind of trouble you’re talking about.”

Tapping a pencil in her hand, Tee rose from her chair and paced in front of the desk. “Well, last night I went to dinner at Jack’s Barbecue House then later to the bar for a drink.” She stopped and pursed her lips.

“Yes,” Julia prompted.

“Well, Jimmy happened to be at the bar, alone.”

Julia felt her gut tighten. “What’s wrong with that? Sally says he always goes there for a drink after work.”

“Yeah, but last night he flirted with all the women. He laughed and carried on like a single man.”

Julia raised one brow. “Well, that doesn’t surprise me.”

Tee fidgeted with her pencil and continued as if she hadn’t heard Julia’s last remark. “I only stayed a few minutes because I felt uncomfortable.”

This didn’t sound like Tee. She loved men and a good time. “I’ve never known you to be ill at ease at a party.”

Tee spun around. “Because, he flirted with me too. He asked for a dance and before I knew it, he had his hands all over me.” She blushed and turned her back toward Julia. “Damn, I probably shouldn’t have said anything. It makes me sound like a gossip. Especially, if he and Sally had a fight like he said they did.” Then Tee turned a questioning look at Julia. “Is Sally at your place?”

Knowing that Tee loved to gossip and had the reputation as the company’s biggest flirt, Julia shrugged. “Yes. She didn’t feel like staying at home and arguing. But that’s between the two of them.”

“Yeah,” Tee smirked. “Men can really be big babies.” She sat down at her desk. “I better get busy.”

At the end of the work day, Julia turned off her computer and stretched her arms above her head. Grabbing her coat and purse, she passed through the reception area where Tee was bent over an open file drawer. “I’m calling it a day. See you Monday morning.”

Tee glanced up with a file in her hand. “Have a good weekend.”

Julia climbed into her car and figured she’d be at the ranch by six. Taking Interstate Five south, she crossed the Oregon-California border, then took the Hornbrook turn-off to Ager Beswick Road. Darren had bought the ranch at an estate sale five years ago. The package deal consisted of a large five-bedroom house, a beautiful barn, meadows and hot springs. The land bordered the Klamath River, where he grazed a few head of cattle, some sheep and five horses. They had their own garden and even kept chickens. Julia loved the place and envied them their bit of paradise.

She passed Copco Lake and continued up river until the road narrowed where she veered off on a driveway that led to the house. Darren and his wife Ginny were standing in the front yard where the chickens ran loose, pecking the ground around their feet.

Ginny hugged her as soon as she got out of the car. “Julia, it’s so good to see you. About time you made it out for a visit.”

“I’d prefer it under different circumstances.”

Ginny patted her shoulder. “I know.”

Darren stood back, his thumbs hooked in his front jeans pockets, a grim expression covering his face.

Julia opened the trunk, pulled out her duffel bag and looked around the yard. “Where’s Sally?”

Darren took her luggage and headed for the house. Ginny looped her arm through Julia’s. “We thought she’d come out to greet you, but she refused.” They followed Darren up the steps of the large wooden front porch.

Julia glanced at him as she passed through the door.

“I should have called. But Ginny wanted to see you. Sally expects you at the motel later this evening.”

Julia noticed Darren’s face was hard and flushed. “What’s wrong?”

“She told us that if Jimmy called, we’re not to tell him we’ve heard from her.” He shook his fist and hissed through gritted teeth. “I don’t know what he’s done, but...”

The corners of Julia’s mouth turned down as she reached for her bag and followed Ginny upstairs to one of the guest rooms. Ginny opened the drapes, letting the soft evening light flood the room, then looked at Julia with soft gray understanding eyes. “I figured you’d want to change out of your work clothes. Come on down when you’re though and we’ll talk some more.” She closed the door softly behind her.

Julia dropped her duffel on the bed and gazed out the window for a few moments, taking in the peaceful view of the green meadow. Her thoughts went to Sally and she sighed. Then, she quickly changed into her jeans, freshened her face and hurried back downstairs to join Darren and Ginny in the kitchen.

“Did I give you Sally’s room number?” Darren asked.

“No, only the motel.”

He pulled a business card from his wallet and wrote it on the back. Let us know how she’s doing.”

“Thanks.” She headed for the door and had just put her hand around the knob when the phone rang. When she heard Ginny’s strained voice say, “No, Jimmy, Sally’s not here. We haven’t heard from her.” Julia immediately went back into the kitchen.

At that moment, Ginny abruptly pulled the receiver away from her ear and blinked her eyes. “He just slammed the phone down.”

Julia scurried to the door. “Something’s definitely not right. I’ll talk to you two later.”

It took her forty-five minutes to get to the motel in Yreka. She stood outside the door for a moment, not knowing what to expect. Drawing a deep breath, she softly knocked their secret code. “Sally?”

She caught the slight sound of movement just before the door opened a few inches.

“Are you alone?” a small voice whispered.

“Yes.”

The chain rattled and the door swung open only enough to let Julia enter. When she stepped inside, she tried to hide the shock at her friend’s appearance. Sally still had on her bathrobe, her long silky brown hair lay in tangles over slumped shoulders. Her eyes were swollen from what looked like hours of crying.

After locking the door, Sally threw her arms around Julia and sobbed. “It’s so good to see you.”

Julia took her by the shoulders and gently pushed her back an arm’s length. She gazed into Sally’s face only to be met with a quivering chin and eyes cast downward. Putting a finger under Sally’s chin, she pulled her face up, forcing Sally to look at her. “Honey, are you sick? Do you need a doctor?”

Sally shook her head and fell against Julia’s chest with wrenching sobs. “Oh God, I’m such a fool,” she cried, her voice muffled by Julia jeans jacket. “I’m so stupid.”

Julia wrapped her arms around the girl’s shuddering shoulders until the sobs quieted to whimpers. Then she guided Sally to the edge of the bed. “Honey, you’re not a fool and you’re not stupid. I don’t know what the problem is, but I’ll try and help you deal with it.” She studied Sally’s drained face and sunken eyes. “Have you eaten?”

“No.”

“I noticed a fast food place across the street. I’ll go get us a bite. While I’m gone, I want you to take a warm bath, put on some fresh clothes and comb your hair. Then we’ll have a nice long talk.”

When Julia returned, Sally was still in the bathroom. She knocked on the door. “You okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine,” she said, emerging from the steaming room, combing her hair. Julia gave her a warm smile.

Sally raised both her arms to release a tangle of hair and her robe fell open, revealing ugly bruises. She grabbed the edges to pull it closed, but not before Julia’s smile disappeared.

“What the hell happened to you? You look like you’ve been run over by a truck.”

Sally’s eyes welled with tears as she ducked her head and quickly tied the sash.

Julia’s green eyes flashed with anger. A familiar scene bolted through her mind. Her hands tightened into fists while her stomach knotted. The mystery of Sally’s flight was solved. “Did Jimmy do that to you?”

Sally nodded and closed her shame filled eyes. She turned away and moaned. “He’s going to kill me.”


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* * * *

CHAPTER THREE

Jimmy slammed down the receiver. “Don’t give me that shit about not seeing or her hearing from her!” he ranted. “Where the hell would Sally run, other than to her big brother, the cowboy?” He hit the wall with his fist. “They’re just protecting her ass.”

He recalled meeting Sally’s brother only once when he’d come into town for supplies and stopped by the house. A big guy with shoulders and biceps like a football player. He lived on a ranch somewhere across the Oregon border in northern California, not far from Medford. Sally talked so much about him that he slapped her one day so she’d shut up. Now he wished he’d paid more attention to her endless chatter about how to get to the damned place.

He had to find her. Couldn’t let the bitch ruin his plans. Damn, how he wished he hadn’t hit her before the policy took effect. But sometimes she made him so angry, she had it coming.

He paced. Need to find that ranch. Now who the hell could give him directions? He stopped and snapped his fingers. Of course, Julia Evans would know.

He glanced at the memory buttons on the phone and grinned. Had to hand it to Sally; she did a good job organizing a household. He pushed the button and drummed his fingers on the table. On the fourth ring, Julia’s machine recited her greeting. He straightened, searching his mind for the right words. “Julia, this is Jimmy Oliver. I need to talk to you about Sally. Give me a ring as soon as possible.”

He leaned against the wall for a moment, rubbing his hands together. Now there’s a babe. “A classy woman like Julia Evans on your arm would definitely get envious looks,” he said aloud. Chuckling to himself, he went to the mirror hanging in the hallway. He winked at the reflection, then ran a hand over his hair and smoothed down his beard. Pulling himself away, he grabbed his coat off the chair and headed out the door.

* * *

Julia’s rage burned deep inside her. Her fists clenched, she paced the small motel room. For twenty years, she’d witnessed her mother tolerate beating after beating from her father. If she’d only left him when it first started, she might still be alive today.

She couldn’t understand why women put up with that kind of abuse. Reining in her anger, Julia stared at Sally who sat on the edge of the bed with downcast eyes. “What provoked the beating?”

Sally’s chin quivered. “I had my checks electronically deposited.”

Julia glared at her in disbelief. “What?”

“I made the mistake of turning my check over to him when we first got married. I didn’t realize he’d been depositing them into his own personal checking account until the day I needed some money. That’s when I discovered we didn’t have a joint account. When I questioned him about it, he told me he’d handle the money.”

Julia’s eyes flashed and she put her hands on her hips. “You mean to tell me you don’t have access to the money you’ve earned?”

She shook her head. “Not until I had my check deposited into my own account. You can’t imagine how embarrassing it is when you can’t even buy lunch, much less a new outfit on the twenty dollars a week he gave me.”

Julia growled through her tightly drawn lips, then blew out a long breath, rippling the bangs on her forehead. She turned away so Sally couldn’t see her fury.

Sally continued. “His eyes raged with black fire like I’ve never seen before. I thought he’d kill me. I’ve never been so scared in all my life.” Her eyes welled with tears.

Julia sat down beside her and put an arm around her shoulders. “No woman should have to live with that kind of fear.” She thought of what her mother must have gone through and a lump formed in her throat. Her mom always gave the same pointless excuses why she stayed; because she loved him or he’ll change or some other stupid answer. It just never made sense to her.

Sally pulled away and went to the window. “I remembered your mother and it gave me the courage to leave.” She stood for a few minutes looking out before she spoke in a mere whisper. “But this is much worse, Julia. Jimmy plans on killing me.”

Julia’s head snapped up. “You said that earlier. What do you mean?”

Taking a deep breath, Sally sat down in one of the chairs facing Julia. “The morning I left, I received an anonymous phone from a woman who claimed to be Jimmy’s third wife.”

Julia’s mouth dropped open. “Third wife? You didn’t tell me he’d been married before.”

Sally shrugged and let out a hollow laugh. “I didn’t know myself. This woman didn’t know he’d been married before either. That is, until some friends of hers in Seattle recognized him from the wedding announcement. They mailed copies of newspaper articles to her describing how his first wife had died in a hiking accident in Washington and his second had accidentally drowned on a rafting trip in Oregon.”

“Oh my God,” Julia exclaimed, flopping back in the chair.

“Each wife had a hefty life insurance policy, which Jimmy collected as the beneficiary.”

“This is unbelievable. How come this woman is still alive?”

“When she found out about the deaths of his previous wives, she left him and changed her name.” Then Sally looked at Julia with a puzzled expression. “I can’t figure how she knew about me, unless she lives around our area.”

Julia stood and slid her hands into her back jeans pockets. “Or has the local papers sent to her so she can keep tabs on him. Did Jimmy have a policy on her?”

“Yes,” Sally said, picking at her fingernails. “She and Jimmy had taken out policies, naming each other as the beneficiary.”

Julia wiped her hand across her face. “What kind of a jerk is he anyway? How did he collect on her?”

“He didn’t. She had the marriage annulled.”

“What could this woman gain by telling you all this?”

“She said that the least she could do was warn me.”

Julia took Sally by the shoulders and gently shook them, peering into her eyes. “You’re sure this isn’t some sort of a cruel joke by a scorned woman?”

I thought that at first too, but I found an insurance policy in Jimmy’s desk. He’ll collect five hundred thousand dollars in case of my accidental death.”

Julia gasped and let go of Sally’s shoulders. She dropped down into the chair again. “When did you take this out?”

“I didn’t.”

“But you had to sign it. And what about a physical?”

“My signature had been forged. I don’t know how he did it, but he took the policy out three weeks after we were married. It takes three months for the policy to become active. I have only two weeks left.”

Julia’s expression turned grim. “Where is this policy? I want to see it.”

I left it locked up in his desk along with two bank deposit books. He’d told me some time ago that he’d locked his gun in his desk and hid the key in case there were any kids in the house. I think he just said that, because he thinks I’m afraid of guns. After the phone call, I found the key in his suit pocket.” She scoffed, her expression somber. “I would much rather have found a gun. That, I could have handled.”

Julia shook her head in disbelief. “What a bastard!” Then she looked at her with furrowed brows. What were the two bank books about?”

Sally clenched her hands together. “I’m sure it’s ‘blood money he collected from the so called accidental deaths of his first two wives.”

“How much?”

“Both accounts totaled close to a million dollars.”

Julia abruptly stood and pointed at Sally. “Get dressed. We’re going to talk to Darren and find a good lawyer.”

Sally raised her hands in defense. “No. Jimmy will still get me. You know how the law is at protecting women.”

“But he can help you go through the right channels to get Jimmy arrested or at least get a restraining order to keep him away from you.”

“No,” she said again, shaking her head vehemently. “I don’t want him involved in any way. This is my problem. I’ll handle it.” She looked sternly at Julia. “You’ve got to promise that you won’t tell him.”

Taking a deep breath, Julia ran her fingers through her hair. “I can’t promise, because I can’t stand what Jimmy’s done to you.”

Sally went to the window and stared into the darkness then wrapped her arms around herself. “I’m leaving this area. Jimmy knows Darren has a ranch, although I don’t think he knows how to get there. But, there’s no doubt in my mind he’ll eventually find it. I don’t want Darren’s family in any danger because of me.”

Julia took hold of Sally’s arm. “That’s why you’ve got to tell them. They have to be prepared. Because, just as I left the ranch, Jimmy called. Ginny told him she hadn’t seen or heard from you. And he hung up on her like a spoiled child. You can pretty well reason that Jimmy knows Darren is all you have in this world and the first place you’d go for help.”

Sally threw her arms up in despair. “What a stupid move I made when I married that man.”

“Forget about that,” Julia said, waving it off. “It’s water under the bridge. We need to think about what needs to be done now. Your first step is to cancel that policy. Then file for a divorce, or better yet an annulment.”

Sally snorted. “Jimmy will fight me all the way or make sure I’m dead before anything’s final.”

Julia raised an eyebrow then grabbed her purse. “I’ll be right back. Lock the door and don’t let anyone in.”

Fifteen minutes later, she returned and knocked with their secret code. Sally opened the door and Julia sailed through, swinging a small paper bag in front of her.

Sally stared at the sack. “What’d you buy?”

She pulled a disposable camera out of the sack and waved it in the air. “YOUR insurance.”

Tightening her robe, Sally shook her head. “No way, Julia. You’re not taking nude pictures of me.”

Julia chuckled. “Don’t worry, I won’t embarrass you. The body heals, so we need proof of what he’s done. Drop the robe down your back just enough to expose the bruises, but twist your head around and look at the camera so we know it’s you.”

After taking all the pictures on the roll, Sally dressed and they dropped the film off at a one-hour developing place. While waiting, they went to a local restaurant and had coffee. They picked up the pictures and went back to the motel.

Julia spread the photos across the bed. “They turned out really clear. Write the date on the back when this happened. Then I’ll store them in my safe deposit box. Also make a log stating what he said during the abuse. And why he hit you. Write down everything you told me.”

Sally drew back and grew silent. Her eyes showed a definite hurt.

Julia noticed her reluctance. “He’s done this to you before, hasn’t he?”

Sally nodded. “But this is the worst.”

Frustrated, Julia took her hand and knelt in front of her. “Why the hell didn’t you leave the first time it happened? How could you stand to let him hurt you over and over?”

“He always apologized and promised he’d never hit me again.” She shrugged. “I guess I was a real sucker, praying he’d change.”

“Yes, you were,” Julia whispered sharply between her lips. “Those excuses sound just like my mom’s. And you know what happened. You’re lucky you’re still alive.”

Lowering her head, Sally spoke softly. “I know. I’ve often thought of her these past few months.” Her eyes narrowed. “But Jimmy plans to make it look like an accident. I don’t know what he has in mind, but there are a few things he doesn’t know. He may be in for a surprise.”

A smile of acknowledgement spread across Julia’s face. “Are you saying he doesn’t know that you’re a crack shot and have held the ‘Women’s Marksmanship title for the past three years?”

Sally’s back straightened and the corners of her mouth twitched. “That’s right. He was always so preoccupied with telling me about all his accomplishments in Vietnam and his high status in the martial arts that he’d cut me off when I tried to tell him of my achievements.”

“But didn’t he question you about your guns?”

“He never saw them. I left them at Darren’s.”

“So Jimmy thinks you’re a cowed little country girl?’“

Sally nodded. “Probably.”

Julia started laughing. “I’m sorry, Sally, I know the situation isn’t funny, but when I think about him not knowing that you’ve competed with top ranked shooters and could knock the head off a pin, I just find it ironic.”

“You know I never really thought of it in that light. But it makes me feel better.”

“You’re damn right. It should. I’m so jealous I could burst.”

“I don’t believe that.” Sally grinned at her. “You’re as good a shot as I am.”

“Then how come you always beat me?” Julia stuck her hands in her jeans pocket. “Back to the subject at hand. What are your plans?”

“After I pick up my gun at the ranch I’m moving on.”

Julia frowned. “What’s that mean? Moving on where?”

“Like I told you, I have to get out of here. I’m going to Seattle. The woman on the phone indicated that Jimmy’s first two wives were from there. I’m going to do some research. Hopefully, he’ll never get to spend that blood money.”

That night in bed, Julia tossed and turned, thinking about Sally making the Seattle trip alone. Well after midnight, she made a decision and finally fell asleep.

The next morning, they went to breakfast at the small restaurant next door. They didn’t say much to one another until after they’d had a cup of coffee and their meal served. While spreading jelly over her toast, Julia glanced at Sally. “I’ve been thinking about you going to Seattle by yourself.”

“Don’t worry. I’ll be all right.”

“I know. I’m going with you.”


Back to Top


* * * *

CHAPTER FOUR


Sally’s mouth flew open. “Are you serious?” Then she lowered her voice. “You know I may get fired? I can’t let you put your job at stake too.”

Julia raised her hands and shrugged. “Look, it’s the slowest time of the year. I’ll give Sam and Earl a call, get them to cover for us. Tee can get the files they need from our offices.”

“But what excuse will you give for our not being there? You can’t tell them the real reason.”

Julia pursed her lips. “I’ll think of something.”

Sally remained silent for a moment, not believing her friend would put so much at risk for her. “I can’t let you do this. Jimmy’s dangerous.”

Julia reached across the table and touched her arm. “Why do you think I decided to go? You can’t face that maniac alone.”

She glanced at the occupied tables on both sides, then leaned forward and whispered. “We both have permits. So we’ll carry our guns.”

Wide eyed, Sally stared at her. “You have yours with you?”

“I always carry my Baretta when I’m on the road alone.” Julia patted her purse.

Sally pushed her hair behind her ear and looked into her friend’s eyes. “You’re sure this is what you want to do?”

“Yes.”

She knew Julia well enough to know you don’t argue with her once she’d made up her mind. Even though happy to have her company, she worried about the circumstances. It put a whole different light on things. She scooted out of the booth. “We’d better get on our way. First we’ll make a stop at Darren’s so I can pick up my gun. Then, I guess I better let him know what’s going on.”

Julia smiled. “I think that’s an excellent idea.”

They went back to the motel and Julia sat on the edge of the bed watching Sally gather up her things. “Let’s take my car.”

Sally continued packing clothes into a suitcase. “I know my Toyota doesn’t look the greatest, but it’s reliable and would make the trip.”

“I don’t doubt that. But the BMW is newer and more comfortable, not to mention less apt to give us trouble. Maybe Darren would store yours in that big barn.”

“You’re probably right. I’m sure he wouldn’t mind storing it for a week or two. That barn is so big I doubt he’d even notice it.” She put her hands on her hips. “Okay, we’ll take your car. But I’m going to pay for the gas.”

Julia waved off the suggestion and picked up the phone. “I better call Tee.”

Sally cocked her head and wiggled a forefinger in front of Julia’s nose. “Careful what you tell her.”

“Don’t worry, I know she’s the office gossip. I’m just going to give permission for Sam and Earl to take the files they need out of our offices. As far as she’s concerned, we’re going out of town on business.”

The phone rang several times, but Julia never reached Tee before they left. She opted not to leave a message on her machine in hopes of catching her later. Instead, she called Sam and Earl, who agreed to help them out.

After loading Julia’s car with their luggage for the trip, they piled Sally’s unneeded items into her car, then headed for the ranch. Ginny and Darren were elated to have Sally there, but their mood changed listening to her story.

Darren paced the kitchen, hitting one curled fist into his other hand. “I’ll kill the son-of-a-bitch if he comes around here. He’s a nut.” He whirled around and pointed a finger at the two women. “Jimmy wouldn’t hesitate to kill you both.”

Sally knew her overly protective brother would react like this. She gently put a hand on his arm. “Not if he can’t find us. Also, we’re both carrying our guns.”

“Lot of good that’ll do when he finds out what you’re up to. He’d just as soon run your car off into some damn ravine.”

“You’re the only one who knows where we’ll be. We haven’t even told the office. Hopefully, we’ll still have our jobs when we come back.” She hesitated a moment and glanced at Julia. “But we’ll keep our eyes open for his ugly truck.”

His cheeks flushed, Darren glared at Sally. “I don’t like it. I think you should call the cops.”

She shrugged. “What can they do? Slap his wrist and order him to leave me alone? I want to put him away for good. Prove he killed two wives.”

He enfolded her in his big arms and patted her head. “You call me every night. You miss one time, I call the cops.”

She hugged him back. “Okay, big brother, I promise.”

“When are you leaving,” Ginny asked.

Sally headed for the den. “As soon as I get my gun.”

Darren followed and unlocked the gun cabinet. He stood back while she unfolded the fanny pack holster and clasped it around her waist. She removed her 32 cal. Smith & Wesson from its case, removed the trigger lock, checked the safety and slipped it into the holster.

He handed her a box of shells. “Don’t hesitate to shoot him if he threatens you.”

She nodded while adjusting the fanny pack around her waist. “Don’t worry.”

They walked back into the kitchen, Darren mumbling, “The bastard ought to hang for what he’s done.”

Julia was on the phone talking to Tee. “An out-of-town business deal has come up requiring Sally and me to be gone about a week. Yes, Sally’s fine. I’ve talked to Sam and Earl, they’re covering for us, so give them access to our files.” Julia turned toward Sally and gave her the thumbs up sign. “Great. I’ll check in periodically to see how things are going.” She hung up and brushed her hands together. “Finally caught her at home. So we’re all set. Let’s hit the road.”

The two women pulled out of Hornbrook onto north Interstate Five, at two o’clock Saturday afternoon.

* * *

Once the girls were out of sight, Darren turned to Ginny. “Throw some of my clothes into a duffel bag. I can’t let them do this thing alone.”

Ginny frowned. “It will make Sally angry if you interfere.”

“She won’t know I’m there. I’ll just keep an eye on them from a distance.”

“What about the children and me? What if that maniac decides to come to the ranch?”

“Call me on the cell phone if you hear from him.”

Darren hadn’t been on the road more than an hour when Ginny called in hysterics. “Jimmy called and threatened to come and get Sally. Said she better be here.”

He knew he couldn’t leave Ginny and the children now. He pulled off the freeway and headed home. The girls would have to take care of the son-of-bitch on their own.

* * *

Later that same day, frustrated because Sally hadn’t come home, Jimmy again called the ranch, this time threatening to come and get his wife. He knew he’d scared the hell out of the cowboy’s woman, which satisfied him for the time being. Equally angry because Julia hadn’t returned his call, he stormed out of the house and sped down the highway, straight for Jack’s Barbecue House.

At the bar, he’d just finished a Jack Daniels and coke, when a group of loud, laughing people entered. He grinned when he spotted Tee among the group. Sneaking up behind her, he put his arm around her waist. “Hey there, Tee.”

Surprised, she raised a brow and smiled. “Jimmy! Fancy meeting you here. How’s Sally?”

Making a face, he shrugged. “Don’t know. Haven’t seen her in days.”

Tee climbed onto the next bar stool and ordered a gin and tonic. When the bar tender served her drink, Jimmy tossed a ten dollar bill on the counter. “Here, sweetheart, let me get that for you.”

She tipped her head and batted her long lashes. “Thanks.”

He put his arm around her small waist and pulled her toward him. “Come on, baby, let’s dance.”

She hesitated for a moment, but he knew he could persuade any woman to do his liking if he looked into her eyes long enough. When she finally relented, they went onto the floor and danced a slow, romantic ballad. He hugged her so close that every inch of her slim body molded into his. After several drinks and more slow dances, Tee melted into the grooves of his body.

As the evening progressed, they ended up at a small isolated table in the far corner of the bar. Tee’s low cut dress exposed her voluptuous bosom and Jimmy took advantage of the moment. He kissed her neck and trailed his tongue down to the soft flesh on each side of her cleavage. His hand found its way under the short skirt and caressed her thigh, his actions hidden by the table.

Tee groaned. “Oh, Jimmy, I’ve got to get home. I have to go to work in the morning.”

“CPA’s don’t work on Sunday.”

“I’ve been helping out a secretary who’s been ill and now I’m behind. I want to get everything caught up before Monday.”

She stood, putting her hand to her head as her body swayed.

Jimmy grabbed her, one hand cupping her breast. “I better follow you home,” he whispered in her ear.

He guided her to her car, then jumped into his pick-up and tailed her out of the parking lot. When she finally weaved into her driveway, he parked behind her, jumping out and opening her door before she had time to find the handle. She tried to push him away, but reeled against the car groping for support. He pulled her into his arms, rubbing against her pelvic while fondling her breasts.

Still tried to get away and slurred. “Jimmy stop it. You’re a married man.”

“Yeah, married to a cold cucumber. Come on, baby, give me just a little bit. I need it.”

He’d managed to get one of his hands under her dress and played with the elastic of her panties. Tee finally broke away. “I can’t, Jimmy, I can’t.” She fled into the house, leaving him standing beside her car.

He watched until the porch light went off, a sly smile curling the corners of his mouth. Climbing into his truck, he chuckled. “You’ll soon let me have my way, you pretty little whore.” For a minute he got lost in the past. “I’ll show you, mama. Women want me. They don’t care if I’m not tall and big like a football player, cause I’ve got charm. Why, they don’t even care if I’m married.” Shaking off the disturbing memories, he revved up the truck and went home.

Having boozed it up most of the weekend, Jimmy rolled over and groaned when the alarm went off Monday morning. He stumbled through the messy bedroom into the hallway and flipped on the heat. In the kitchen, he brewed himself a cup of strong coffee, then carried the mug to the bathroom. Moisture collected on the walls and window as he let the steaming hot water flood over his body for several minutes. He took his time dressing, then called work, reporting he’d be a few minutes late. No sooner had he dropped the receiver onto the cradle than it rang.

“Hello.”

“Hi, Jimmy. This is Tee. Sally there?”

He smirked. “Well, hello, sweetheart. Of course, she’s not here. I told you she’d left me.”

She snickered. “I thought that’s what you’d said. But, I’d had too much to drink to remember for sure.”

He recalled the pleasure of fondling her curves. Making love to this little tart wouldn’t be bad at all. His thoughts went to planning a future venture. “You at work already?”

“Yeah, just heard from Julia.”

“Isn’t she coming in?”

“No. She and Sally have some out-of-town business.”

Jimmy stiffened. “Where are they?”

“I don’t know, didn’t ask. She just needed to give me some instructions on an account.”

His breath came in spurts. “Don’t you have caller ID on that phone?”

“Well, yes, but I didn’t pay any attention. It’s none of my business. She’ll tell me if she wants me to know.”

He gripped the phone tighter trying to control his voice. “You should have some idea in case of an emergency or you need to get in touch with them over some business matter.”

“Yeah, you’re probably right. I’ll find out when she calls again.”

Not wanting to sound too eager, Jimmy changed the subject. “If I can find the time, I’ll drop by and see you later today. But right now I’ve got to haul to work myself.” He felt pressure in his neck from holding his jaw so taut and massaged the muscles with his curled fist. Tee would eventually tell him where he could find Sally, but he mustn’t act too anxious and make her suspicious. A red rose just might sway her, he thought, slamming the door behind him.


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