Losing everything has Lexi clinging to her daughter. Hell is determined to loosen her grip.
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NEVER LET YOU GO
By ERIN HEALY
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2010 Erin Healy
All right reserved.
Chapter OneFor seven years, Lexi Solomon had been as cold as the wind that raced down the mountain above her home. She was not ice-in-her-veins cold, or I'll-freeze-you-with-a-glance cold, but numb with the chill that came from being uncovered and abandoned.
Only the love of her daughter, a warm and innocent love that was so easy to return, had prevented her from dying of exposure.
At the back of the Red Rocks Bar and Grill, Lexi checked to make sure the rear stoop wasn't icy, then exited and pulled the kitchen door closed. The blustery elements had spent decades huffing and puffing on the backside of the local haunt with nothing to show for the effort but a tattered awning and a battered screen door. The stalwart cinder block, painted to match the russet clay dirt that coated Crag's Nest, was as stubborn as the snow that refused to melt before midsummer at this altitude. And it was only March.
At her throat Lexi clutched her ratty down jacket, the same one she had worn since high school, while she fumbled with the restaurant keys in her other gloveless hand. She'd forced her only pair of gloves into her daughter's coat pockets that morning because Molly had lost hers coming home from school.
Which could only mean she hadn't been wearing them. Chances were, Molly hadn't worn the gloves today either. Well, she was only nine. Lexi smiled at that and thought she might get them back. If only she could be a kid again, oblivious to weather and wet.
Lexi shoved the key into the cheap lock and turned it easily. That hamburger grease coated everything. Above her head a yellow bug light shone over a cracked concrete slab. Her tired breath formed a cloud in the night air and then a fog on the wire-threaded glass of the door.
It was 2:13 a.m. Thirteen minutes later than Lexi usually locked up, thanks to the frozen computer that she had to reboot twice before she could close out the cash drawer and lock the day's receipts in the safe. Thirteen minutes gone from the precious few she got to spend with Molly, curled up next to her in their one flimsy bed. Between Lexi's two jobs and Molly's school days, she figured they had an average of ninety-four minutes together, awake, per day. It wasn't enough.
Lexi closed the restaurant every Monday, Thursday, and Friday night. Restaurant was too generous a word for the greasy spoon a half mile off the main tourist drag, too far off to draw many out-of-towners. But the staff was familylike enough, and the locals were loyal and tipped fair, and the extra fifty dollars she got for being the last to leave three times a week didn't hurt. Every little bit put her and Molly that much closer to a better situation. A better home in a better part of town. A more reliable car. Warmer clothes.
Molly needed new shoes, and once Lexi got caught up on that past-due utility bill, she thought she'd have enough to buy the pair with sequins stitched onto the sides. Maybe for Molly's birthday. She'd seen her daughter bent over a picture of the shoes in the Sunday circulars left out by their roommate, Gina.
After jiggling the locked kitchen door for good measure, Lexi turned her back on the glare of the naked bulb and headed toward her Volvo. The sturdy old thing was parked on the far side of the sprawling blacktop, fender nosing a swaying field of tall grasses, because that was where the only operating lamppost stood, and Lexi was no idiot when it came to vacant lots and late-night lockups.
The wind cut through her thin khaki pants, numbing her thighs.
She fingered the can of pepper spray on her key chain as she passed the shadowy Dumpster behind the kitchen. A large man could squeeze between it and the trash can's cinder block cove easily enough. The dishwasher Jacob did this on his breaks to catch a smoke, because the manager wouldn't tolerate cigarettes, not even outside.
A dark form darted out, leaping over the long shadow of her body cast by the gold light behind. She flinched, then scolded.
"Scat, Felix." The resident alley cat carried something in his mouth. Lexi guessed a chicken bone, but it might have been a mouse. He jumped the wobbly wood-slat fence between the restaurant and the dry cleaner next door.
The grasses in the field, as tall as her shoulders, whispered secrets.
She stepped from the slab onto the asphalt lot. The spotlight over her dull silver Volvo, which tilted to the left due to a weak strut, went out for a second, then hiccupped back to life. It was only a matter of time before the lamp finally died, then weeks or months would probably pass before the property manager got around to resurrecting it. Each time she locked up, she found herself hoping the light would last one more night. She weighed whether she ought to start parking closer to the kitchen. Just in case.
Just in case what? Tara had been murdered in a bright shopping mall, in a bustling crowd. Maybe where a woman parked in the darkness of night didn't matter as much as she hoped.
Lexi's soft-soled shoes made an audible, squishy noise on the cold blacktop as she quickened her step, eyes sweeping the lot like some state-of-the-art scanner. Her keys sang a metallic song as they swung against the can of pepper spray. There was an extra can in the book bag slung over her shoulder. Another one in her glove box. A fourth buried in the planter outside her kitchen window at home, right by the front door. Lexi wondered for the millionth time how old Molly should be before starting to carry some in her backpack.
Glimpsing the dark glass of the car's rear doors, she wished again that she had one of those key fobs that could turn on the interior lights from a cautious distance.
The parking lot light gasped again and this time faded to black. The steady yellow light behind her also flickered once and died, stranding Lexi in black air exactly halfway between the restaurant and car. She stopped. A second later, two at most, the light over the Volvo staggered back to relative brilliance.
She gasped. The thin air knifed her throat. The grasses had fallen silent, and the winds were as still as if God had stepped between them and the earth.
All four doors of her car were flung wide. Two seconds earlier they had been sealed shut, but now they gaped open like Lexi's disbelieving mouth, popped open with the speed of a switchblade, with the flip of an invisible lever, the flick of an illusionist's light.
A heavy hand came down on her shoulder from behind. Lexi yelped and whirled out from under the palm.
Her hand was at her throat, her pulse pounding through the layers of the thin jacket, her breathing too shallow for her to speak.
A slim white envelope fluttered between the restless fingers of the man's left hand. A tattoo peeked out from under his T-shirt sleeve on the left, filling most of his upper arm. It was a set of keys, skeleton keys, hanging from a wide round ring.
He was middle-aged, sallow skinned, and his dark hair needed a trim. Oily strands flipped up in little curls that stuck out the bottom of a knit cap. The scrappy T-shirt looked thin across his narrow chest and sinewy arms, but he did not shiver in the low temperatures.
He said, "I half expected you'd be out of town after all these years."
Lexi's fright came off its startled high and settled into unease. She took a step back, glancing involuntarily at her car. Years ago, Warden Pavo had taken adolescent delight in pranks. She wondered how many people would have to be involved to pull off one like this.
"Why would I leave Crag's Nest if I thought you'd never set foot here again, Ward?"
"Yeah. I forgot."
He smirked. "How's the family?"
"Your mom's still globe-trotting?"
Lexi stared at him, finding his interest in her family new and strange, and perhaps offensive.
"Any improvement in dear old dad?" he asked.
"What do you want, Ward?"
Lexi crossed her arms to hide their quivering.
"What?" he said. "I heard that your old man fell off the deep end, and I've been worried about you."
"You've never worried about anyone but yourself. Besides, that happened years ago."
"After that whole thing with your sister. What a tragedy. Man, I'm really sorry about that, you know."
Ward removed a nylon lanyard from the pocket of his jeans. A small key chain weighted the end of it. Twirling the cord like a propeller blade, he wound it around his wrist, wrapping and unwrapping it.
Lexi looked away. "It's behind us now," she said.
"Is it? Von Ruden's up for parole. I assume you heard."
She hadn't. A shiver shook her shoulders though the wind had not picked up again. Up for parole after only seven years.
Norman Von Ruden had killed Tara, Lexi's older sister. He knifed her in a food court at lunchtime during the Christmas rush, when there were so many people that no one noticed she'd been attacked until someone accidentally whacked her crumpled form with a shopping bag. After Tara's funeral, Lexi's father raised the drawbridge of his mind and left her with her mother on the wrong side of the moat.
"Why is it that whenever you show up, I can expect bad news?"
"Aw, that's not fair, Lexi. I'm only here to help you, as always."
"One finger is too many to count the ways you've helped me."
"I am. You could have helped me years ago by refusing to sell to Norm."
"C'mon now. You know that's not what happened."
Lexi turned away and moved quickly toward her gaping Volvo.
Ward's voice chased her. "Norm was Grant's client, not mine."
Lexi kept walking. Ward followed.
"If you blame anyone, gotta blame Grant." Ward's keys clanked together as they hit the inside of his wrist. "You can blame Grant for a whole lotta your problems."
"I'd appreciate you not bringing Grant up," she said.
It was true that Lexi's husband had not paved the streets of her life with gold. The same year Tara was killed, Grant drove their only car out of town and never came back. Lexi, having no money to pay for a divorce, never received divorce papers from Grant either and sometimes wondered whether abandonment laws alone made their separation official.
Beyond that, she 'd managed to prevent her thoughts from chasing Grant too often. Only Molly was worth Lexi's wholehearted concentration. For Molly's sake, Lexi had made a vow to be more clearheaded than Grant ever was.
Lexi reached out and slammed the door behind the driver's seat. The metal frame was warm to the touch, sun-baked without the sun. The unexpected sensation caused her to hesitate before she walked around the back to the other side and slammed the other rear door. It, too, was unnaturally heated. She wiped her palm on the seat of her pants.
"If that's all you came to tell me, good night."
"But it's not."
Ward stopped twirling the lanyard and stood at the driver's door. She glanced at him across the roof of the Volvo and took new notice of the envelope he held and extended toward her.
"Picked up your mail for you."
"Intercepted the mailman."
"Save you the trouble."
"Seeing as it's no trouble, please don't do it again."
"You really could be more grateful."
She leaned against the car and lay her arm across the roof, gesturing that he give the envelope to her. He dangled it above her open palm. She snatched it out of his fingers.
"Thank you," she said, hoping he would leave. She lifted the flap of her book bag, intending to cram the letter into the side. "Open it."
"I will, when I get home."
"Now." Ward's keys cut the air on that whirling cord again. Rather than irritate her, the motion threatened. Those keys were weapons that could inflict serious pain if they hit her between the eyes with any momentum. She thought she saw them striking out at her and jerked back, then felt embarrassed.
"I read my mail without an audience."
"Add a little excitement to your life. Do it differently tonight."
"It's not a suggestion."
Lexi closed the third door and made her way back around the rear of the car to where Ward was waiting. She focused on maintaining a confident voice. "Ward, it's late. I'm going home. My daughter-"
"Molly. She's all grown-up and fresh to be picked by now, isn't she?" Heat rose up Lexi's neck. "I saw her at the school today. They're a bit lax over there about security, in my humble opinion."
The tears that rushed to Lexi's eyes were as hot and blinding as her anger. That level of offensiveness didn't deserve a response. In two long strides she reached the open driver's side door and, still holding the mystery letter, placed her left hand on the frame to balance her entry.
Ward's lanyard snaked out and struck her wrist, knocking her hand off the door, which slammed shut. The paper fluttered to the ground. She stared at it stupidly, not comprehending what was happening.
He stooped to pick it up. "Read the letter, Lexi, then I'll let you go home."
Her wrist bone ached where the keys had struck it. She took a step away from Ward, then turned the letter over to read the return address. The envelope was from the office of a neighboring county's district attorney. It quivered in her fingers. She held it under the light of the lamppost for several seconds. The beam flickered.
"The postmark on this is more than a month old," she said.
"Yeah, well, I didn't say I picked up your mail today."
Her perspiring fingers were tacky and warped the linen stationery slightly. Lexi tapped the short side of the envelope on the roof of the Volvo, then tore a narrow strip off the opposite side and let the scrap fall to the ground. She withdrew a piece of heavy folded paper, then spread it flat on the hood.
She thought it was a notice of Norman Von Ruden's parole hearing. She saw, at a glance, phrases like your right to participate and verbal or written testimony. But a red scrawl like a kindergartener gone crazy with a Sharpie obscured much of the text. A balloon poked by half a dozen arrows surrounded the date and time. Stick figures at the bottom of the page depicted a man coming out of an open jail cell, and a happy woman waiting for him.
Ward was breathing across Lexi's ear. She felt his body too close behind her.
"Isn't that nice?" he said, pointing. "That's Norm, and that's you!"
Lexi looked at the backside of the envelope to see if he'd tampered with the letter but it was still securely sealed. He knew. How could he know? She pushed off the car and shoved him away from her, leaving the letter behind. She snapped at him so that he wouldn't hear the fear she felt.
"You're sick, Ward. I'm going home."
"I'm entirely well, though I appreciate your concern. Aren't you going to ask me what it means?"
"It means you haven't changed one bit since the last time I saw you. I don't have time for your pranks."
She pulled the door open and dropped onto the seat without taking the book bag off her shoulder.
Ward picked up the letter and turned it over, holding it out to her. He propped his forearms on the open door and lowered the sheet, scrawled with another juvenile drawing, to her eye level. A red figure that looked like a child with x's for eyes was visible through the glass door of an oven.
"No prank, Sexy Lexi."
Lexi felt blood rush out of her head. She took a shallow breath and lowered her voice.
"Okay. What does it mean, Ward?"
"War-den. Warden. Get it right."
There was no sarcasm in her voice now. "Warden. What does it mean?"
"That's my girl. It means-if you love your daughter like I think you do-that you are going to show up at Norm's hearing next Friday and testify on his behalf."
"Because you love your daughter."
"I can't do that."
"You can't love her?"
"No! I can't ... Norman Von Ruden? He's insane."
"Don't do that. They diagnosed him with something."
"Nothing a fine shrink and a few bottles of pills couldn't handle."
"No." She shook her head. "No. I hate him."
"You loved him once. I'll wager there 's still whore in you."
Lexi lashed out, clawing the letter out of his hands and scratching the skin of his knuckles. His keys fell onto the blacktop.
"How dare you!"
Ward seized both her wrists easily and shoved her back down onto the seat of the car.
"He killed my sister! He wrecked my family! My parents-"
"Will be mourning the loss of little miss Molly as well if you don't come to the party. So be wise about it, or I'll tell your secrets to everyone you love-and plenty of people you don't."
"Why are you doing this?"
Excerpted from NEVER LET YOU GO by ERIN HEALY Copyright © 2010 by Erin Healy. Excerpted by permission.
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