Wolf's Vengeance (After the Crash) (10 page)

BOOK: Wolf's Vengeance (After the Crash)
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Chapter 6

Snake heard the footsteps of someone trying to be very quiet creep up to the barn door behind him. Capturing the sneak had been easy. With one hand he seized the shotgun barrel that poked through the door first, and then swooped around to wrap his arm around the intruder’s neck to put him in a choke hold.

His nose told him what his body already felt. It wasn’t a man sneaking up on them. It was a woman. He looked at his mate and saw joy blaze over her face.

“Mama!” she screamed.

Seeing her joy almost hurt Snake. She never looked that way for him.

“Let me go, you jackass!” the woman demanded.

His arm, already loosening, now fell away from the woman. He kept the shotgun, though. When she rounded on him with a glare, Snake studied her face. His mate said her mother was beautiful, but Snake didn’t see it. He saw a middle-aged woman with a face hardened by life, her mouth set in a bitter twist, and eyes full of sullen rage. Any woman captured and kept by woman stealers could be expected to be hardened. But would she have access to a shotgun?

“Mama!” Mel cried again, leaping toward them.

Snake watched while she threw her arms around her mother. He stepped forward to take her rifle from her then stood back, a weapon in each hand, while his mate did her best to squeeze her mother to death. Mike joined them, wrapping his arms around both women and clutching them hard. Snake wondered if they noticed how their mother’s stiff posture silently rejected their embrace. The older woman was a few inches taller than Mel and few inches shorter than Mike. She made no effort to hug them back. Neither did she struggle. She must be in shock, Snake decided, and who could blame her?

A movement beyond them snapped Snake’s gaze away from the family reunion. The man they followed to this barn took a step forward, but Stone blocked his way.

“Carrie,” the man said with something like resignation in his tone.

Mel and Mike finally stepped back from their mother. Mike’s hands were still occupied with his rifle, but Mel took her mother’s hands in hers. “You’re safe now, Mama. We’ve come to bring you back home to the ranch.”

Mike cleared his throat, probably because his tears had clogged it. “We’ll make sure you’re never in danger ever again. Do you have other children? We were worried…”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” his mate’s mother groaned, yanking her hands free from Mel’s grasp and shoving one through her hair. “No! You’re it.”

Snake was struck at the contrast between the woman and her children. Their clothes were ill fitting, worn, and patched, the colors faded from hard use and many washings. Their faces were brown from the sun, their hair ragged and unwashed from their days of travel. Her clothes were new and tailored to fit her like a glove, showing off a still-shapely figure. Her hair was perfectly cut and freshly washed, her face and hands pale and pampered.

“Which one are you?” the woman demanded. “Mordecai?”

Snake inwardly flinched in sympathy at Mike’s hurt confusion. “No, I’m Mike.”

“Yeah, I shoulda known,” the woman said. “You all take after your father, but I remember the middle boy’s eyes were a bit more blue, more like mine. Bart, come here,” she called.

Stone allowed the thin man to pass, and he stepped up beside the woman and put a tense arm around her waist. All of them were standing in a loose circle facing each other. Snake wanted desperately to hold his mate, but he stood between her mother and Mike. He kept his mouth shut and his eyes moving, alert for any danger to his mate.

The older woman put her arm around the man’s waist so they stood together as a couple. “This is Bart Jackson. My husband.”

There was silence, brief but heavy, until Mike spoke like a man floundering through prairie grass taller than he was. “You’re married?”

“Yes,” said Bart and Carrie together.

“Truth,” Stone murmured. Standing between Mike and Melissa, only a couple of yards from the older couple, he could easily catch from their scents.

Mike cast his mother and her husband a look of helpless uncertainty. “So, how did you come to marry him? Was he part of the gang that stole you, but he fell in love with you? Why didn’t you come home to the ranch?”

“I love Bart. I’ve always loved him.”


Mel barely acknowledged Stone’s quiet word, just shaking her head like a pup who just walked into a wall and needed to get her bearings back. “I don’t understand. Did he rescue you from the thieves?”

Carrie exchanged a look with her husband. She heaved her breath out in an explosive sigh. “I never thought any children of mine could be so stupid. No one stole me. I left to be with the man I loved.”

“What? But, the ransom…” Mel’s glanced went to her mother’s hand. “And your finger! They said they would keep cutting off pieces of you if we didn’t send the money!”

“This?” Her mother raised her left hand, showing the top two inches or so missing from the forefinger. “That was an accident. I was angry, and I wasn’t paying attention when I was cutting up chicken. It would have been a shame to waste the opportunity.”

Bart’s shoulders hunched. “It seemed like a good idea at the time,” he muttered.

Mel’s eyes were staring at them, but she looked like a blind woman, not really seeing what was in front of her. The need to hold her ate at Snake’s guts. “Wait a minute,” she said slowly. “You weren’t stolen? You weren’t raped and held captive by a gang of women thieves?”

“No, I wasn’t.”

Mel looked at Stone, who said with reluctance in his face, “Truth.”

“And we’ve sent money all these years to keep you safe when you were in no danger at all?” Mel sounded as though her words were coated in lead. “Why?”

Carrie looked at her daughter, mouth curled in an unpleasant smile. “I earned that money, every penny.”

Mike’s voice came out in an unsteady croak. “What are you talking about?”

“You really want to know?” Carrie threw off Bart’s arm when he tried to shush her. “No, they need to know about their pig of a father.” Her eyes blazed with fury. “Matthew Dirk was a bastard. I didn’t want to marry him. I never wanted to marry him. I was barely fifteen when he forced me into it. He raped me that night, and just about every night we were married except when I was pregnant. Marcus was born a week before I turned sixteen. I begged your father to let me go. I tried to repudiate him. I did everything I could to leave him, but I couldn’t get away. I hated him, and I hated living on that filthy ranch with him.”

Her children stood with white, shocked faces. Mike said, “Dad loved you!”

“Love? If that’s your idea of love, I pity your wife.”

“Now, Carrie,” Bart began.

“It’s the truth, every word!” she snarled.

Mike jerked his head around to stare at Stone, who nodded, looking almost as miserable as Snake felt. “Truth. At least, she believes it.”

“I’d known Bart all my life. I loved him since I was twelve years old. When Matthew died, I was free at last, free to marry the man I loved.”

A tiny note of anger crept into Mike’s tone. “Dad was dead. You could have married him if you wanted. You didn’t have to set up this plan to rob us! That’s what you did, isn’t it?” His tone pleaded with her to deny it. She remained silent. Only the derisive smile on her lips answered. “And every year we had to pay more. Why?”

“Rob you?”

The contempt in woman’s voice made Snake brace himself for something ugly.

“I earned that money on my back in your father’s bed. Me and Bart needed that money. When we lived here, on this dirt farm, we could make do. Bart paid all his savings to buy this place, but it was worse than the ranch. It sucked every penny we had right out of us, but what we got from the Flying D got us through.”

Mel glanced around the barn. “You live here? That explains the windows.”

“No, we don’t live here, not anymore!” her mother snapped. “I belong somewhere better than this place. Where we live now is none of your concern.”

“That must have been six years ago, when the ransom payments went up.” Mike tugged at his collar as if he couldn’t get enough air down his throat, as if his shirt was strangling him. “You could have married him and both of you could have lived at the D. You’re our mother. We love you! The ranch was your home.”

“I just told you I hated that place. All we needed was the money.”

“Let me get this straight.” Mel’s voice was flat, almost expressionless, but Snake could smell a roiling mess of emotions crushed beneath the flatness. “You ran away from us, and then pretended you were stolen, so we would send you money. You cut your own finger off to be sure we would pay.”

Snake tried to sense his mate’s mother’s emotions. Didn’t she care that her children were here? From Bart he could feel a hint of shame, but the woman’s reek was sourly defiant. It was an ugly thing that made Snake feel a little sick.

Carrie folded her arms over her chest and snorted. “It’s not like the grand and glorious Flying D couldn’t afford to spare some gold a couple of times a year.”

“No, we couldn’t spare it,” Mel retorted. “The drought dried up the water. We’ve lost cattle every year you were gone to disease and rustlers. We cut corners and pinched every penny, so we could pay the ransom to keep you safe. We did
for you! I married a man who turned out to be the devil, just so we would have money to keep you alive.” Her voice rose to a near scream. “
I sold myself to be a prize in a Bride Fight for you!

Then you know what it’s like, don’t you, Melissa Ann?”

Snake could tell the coldness of the reply hit his mate like a slap. His wolf whined deep inside. He couldn’t bite a woman, but the wolf wanted to.

Mike took half a step toward his mother. “We love you, Mom. Please, don’t be like this.”

“Like what?”

Mike’s arms waved helplessly. “So mean. So uncaring.”

“Someone has to care about me. I’m the best person for the job. It’s not like anyone else will do it.”

Snake was surprised Mel didn’t spit. She looked like she wanted to. “What do you call what we’ve done for you for the past six years?”

“Giving me what I deserve. You’re a fool, you and your brothers. You know what the Bible says about fools and their gold?”

“Now, Carrie,” Bart said again, weakly.

Mel’s hand slid down to her pistol butt to stroke it. “We worried about you. We imagined you were being raped and beaten by thieves. Almost every year, we worried we wouldn’t be able to scrape the money together. We were terrified we’d get another finger in the mail,” Mel said calmly, conversationally. “We stretched food as far as it could go, put patches over worn out patches instead of spending money on new clothes, all so we could put every penny aside for your ransom. And for what?”

“For me!” Carrie yelled back.

“Yeah, for you. Because we thought you were worth it.”

Her daughter’s scorn made Carrie hiss like an angry cat. “I
worth it. I was the most popular girl in Kansas, but I wasted my youth and my beauty on that damn ranch. Why shouldn’t I have what I need to live the life I deserve?”

Mike wasn’t quite as harsh as Mel, but he was firm. “You don’t have the right to bankrupt the ranch to have what you want.”

“If losing a few lousy strips of gold makes your precious ranch fail, I call it a good job.”

Mel snapped straight. “The Flying D will never fail. We’ve worked damned hard to keep it running, and we’ll do whatever is necessary to keep it that way.”

“Oh, sure, that disgusting piece of land is worth more than anything else in the world to a Dirk. You think your father loved me? A single blade of grass was more valuable to Matthew Dirk than the woman he married, as long as it grew on the Flying D. God, how I hated that ranch.”

“What about us?” Mike pleaded. “We’re your children. Do you hate us?”

She shrugged. “I don’t hate you. It’s not your fault your father was a bastard, and every time I look at you I see him.”

“Then you don’t have to look at us anymore.” Mel lifted her chin, but Snake could see her heart breaking, icy shards cascading through her eyes. He felt his wolf rake his heart with his claws when he saw how his mate suffered. “And you’ll never see another penny from the Flying D. Let’s go, Mike.”

“Wait,” said Stone. “Aren’t we going to kill them?” His gaze wavered when he looked at the woman. “At least him?”

Mel shook her head. “As far as I’m concerned, they’re already dead.”

Snake extended Mel’s rifle to her. He’d rather have picked her up and carried her away from the pain he saw behind her stony façade. “Let’s go home,” he said gently, putting all the love he felt into his voice.

Her mother sneered. “Is that your husband?”

“Not that it’s any of your business, but yes.”

Snake stood unmoving under her derisive scrutiny. “A naked savage? Really, Melissa Ann, couldn’t you do better than that?”

“Only my family is allowed to call me Melissa Ann.” Her voice could have been an ax, slamming through wood. “And no, I couldn’t do better. There is no one better than Snake. Good-bye, Mrs. Jackson.”

Snake’s heart grew three sizes as Mel walked past him. His mate thought no one was better than he was! His delight in her words tangled with his knowledge of her pain. As he hurried to catch up with her to defend her from any possible danger outside the barn, he heard Mike say stiffly, “Mom, Mel’s right about the money. We can’t send you any more. Mr. Jackson, where’s the money you took this morning?”

Snake didn’t hear the man’s reply. He walked after his mate, admiring the straight line of her spine and the way she held her shoulders. Learning the truth about her mother was devastating for her, but she stood proudly.

Chapter 7

Knowing Snake was right behind her steadied her. The look of pride she’d seen on his face when she’d gone past him gave her the strength to keep her tears back and her head up. Mel went back to the horses, unhitched hers, tightened the saddle, and mounted without putting her rifle away. She didn’t think her moth—
that woman
would follow, and even if she did, Mel didn’t think she could pull the trigger, but the weight of the weapon was a comfort. A few minutes later Mike appeared. His face seemed pale under its dark tan when he settled in the saddle and looked at her. Mel evaded his gaze. A part of her wanted desperately to cry, but she couldn’t. Tears were a luxury life burned out of her years ago.

BOOK: Wolf's Vengeance (After the Crash)
12.24Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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