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Mojave Desert, California Present day
Jethro Jefferson Fox the Thirdor J.J., as he was more commonly knownwas in a surly mood. This, despite the fact that the weather was predicted to be sunny and the temperature to top out at around a balmy seventy-five degrees. And, after the past week's rain, there were still lingering patches of green on the hillsides and even some flowers hanging on, which he happened to know was about as good as it got in the Mojave Desert of Southern California.
However, having grown up in the verdant hills of North Carolina, J.J. was pining forno, grieving forgreen. All the sweet soft shades of green, of roadsides and cow pastures emerging from the dead brown of winter, of new-leafed hardwood trees and deep dark piney woods and underneath in the developing shade, the snowy white of dogwood blooms and lavender-pink of redbuds.
Helluva place for the son of southern Appalachian moonshiners to wind up, he thought, where the green happened in the middle of winter and if you blinked you missed it, and the nearest thing to shade came from spiky clumps of Joshua trees.
The image glaring back at him from the half-silvered mirror over the wash basin in his cramped trailer-sized bathroom gave him no joy, either: hair sun-bleached and crawling well past his collar; facial hair grown beyond the fashionable stubble look and rapidly approaching Grizzly Adams; blue eyes developing a permanent squint in spite of the aviator shades he nearly always wore. The hair and beard had probably originally been some sort of rebellion against his exile to this hellhole, but as it turned out, nobody in the department seemed to give a damn what he looked like, and with the springtime about to turn into summer it was too damn hot anyhow. Time for the shrubbery to go.
He picked up a razor and was contemplating where best to begin mowing, when his radio squawked at him from the bedside table where it spent most nightsthose he wasn't out and about on San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department business. He picked it up, thumbed it on and muttered a go-ahead to Katie Mendoza, on morning duty at the station desk.
First, he heard a nervous chuckle. Then: "I wasn't sure I should call you with this, Sheriff."
"Well, you did," J.J. said, returning the baleful stare of the dog sprawled across the foot of his unmade bed, head now raised and ears pricked, awaiting developments. "Might as well tell me."
"I thought it was a joke, first call I got. Then 911 dispatch got one. So I figured I better"
"Spit it out." J.J. was thinking, Not much chance it's a dead body, not with a lead-in like that. He didn't feel too much guilt at the fact that such a thought would cross his mind, either. He could only hope
"You're not gonna believe it," Katie said with another nervous laugh.
"Try me," said J.J., trying not to grind his teeth.
"Well, okay." Some throat clearing came across the airwaves, followed by a semi-professional-sounding monotone. "Sheriff, we've received several reports of a person walking through the desert, out in the middle of nowhere, an undetermined distance from the highway, off Death Valley Road. No sign of a vehicle anywhere in the vicinity."
"Uh-huh." J.J. waited, figuring there had to be more.
After another episode of throat-clearing, it came. "J.J., swear to God, I am not making this up. This personitsheappears to be a nun."
Beverly Hills, California
Approximately twelve hours earlier
"He's going to kill me."
Even as she said it Rachel thought, People say that all the time. My mom, dad, boyfriend, husband so-and-so is going to kill me. It's just a saying. It doesn't mean anything.
Rachel meant it. Now she waited to see if she would be believed. She closed her bedroom door and leaned against it, breath held, waiting. Hoping.
"I'm sure he plans to," Sister Mary Isabelle stated matter-of-factly, drawing back to examine the bruises on Rachel's cheek and jaw. Her brown eyes narrowed but she didn't comment. She crossed the room and seated herself on the bed, carefully arranging the folds of her habit around her. "You know too much. And" she nodded in the direction of Rachel's bulging belly "once your baby's born, Carlos won't need you any longer."
Rachel let out her breath in a gust and realized she was dangerously close to tears. To be believed was an almost overwhelming relief. She gazed at her oldest and dearest friend in affectionate awe and took refuge in laughter. "Izzy, sometimes I can't believe you're a nun. You're way more worldly than I am."
Sister Mary Isabelle gave an un-nunlike snort. "I'm sure I amalthough technically, you know, I'm a 'sister,' not a nun. Why wouldn't I be? Here in the Delacortes' family enclave you're more cloistered than I have ever been. Plus, I'm a doctor, dear heart. My clinic is located in a part of the city that sees more of the bad stuff of life than you ever willgang violence, drugs, domestic abuse, teen pregnancy. A habit doesn't shelter me from all that, you know."
"Yes, and speaking of that," Rachel said, as the fact registered belatedly, "why are you? I don't think I've ever seen you wear one before."
Sister Mary Isabelle smiled, making her cheeks look like round pink apples within the confines of the wimple. "I have my reasons, which will become clear shortly." She took Rachel's hands in both of hers and squeezed them. "I've been worried about you, you know. I thought you were making a huge mistake when you left in the middle of your first year of internship to marry"
"And you've told me so," Rachel said dryly. "More than once."
Sister Mary Isabelle was silent for a moment. Then she touched Rachel's bruised cheeka feather's touch, but still Rachel jerked away from it as if from a slap. "Did Carlos do this?"
"Of course he didand I know what you're thinking," Rachel said angrily. "Nicky would never have hit me. Never. He wasn't like that. He was nothing like Carlos."
"Chelly Nicholas was Carlos's son. He grew up with a father who hits women. You know the odds are"
"Nicky was nothing like his father." Rachel repeated it as she had so many times in her mind. Willing herself to believe it. She had believed it. Until.
"You were in love," Sister Mary Isabelle said sadly, "and you wanted to believe he would have been able to break away from his father's organization. From his influence. Maybe he could haveonly God knows. The fact that he was killed before he had the chance to try is tragic. But," she added sternly, "the fact that two federal law enforcement officers were also killed in that shootout is even more tragic." She paused to give Rachel a penetrating stare. "You know that, don't you?"
Rachel nodded silently. She'd been living with that knowledge, that guilt, for months.
"The fact that you happened to be pregnant when Nicholas died bought you some time," Sister Mary Isabelle went on, her voice grave. "But you must know Carlos Delacorte will never trust your loyalty. And" her eyes twinkled with humor "he's never really liked you, anyway, has he?"
Rachel managed a wry smile in response. "What's not to like? A nice girl from a Catholic school, on her way to becoming a doctor"
"with a moral compass, a conscience "
Rachel sighed. "Well, yes, there is that. Carlos does hate me. And I think he actually blames me for Nicky's death."
Sister Mary Isabelle gave another snort. "He can't live with his own share of fault in getting his son killed, so he needs someone else to dump it on."
Unable to sit still, Rachel began to pace, steps jerky and uneven, one hand on her tight belly. "I'm sure he sees this baby as his second chance. It's Nicky's child. His own flesh and blood. Carlos can't wait to get his hands on it." She suddenly had to hold on to the edge of the tall dresser as fear weakened her knees. "Izzy," she whispered, "I think he plans to take my baby away from me the moment he's born. That's probably when he'll do it, you knowkill me. While I'm out of ithelpless. He'll figure out a way to make it seem like complications of delivery, or something. Not that he'd do it himself, of coursehe'd probably let Georg or Stan have the privilege of smothering me with a pillow. They'd enjoy"
She was enveloped in the crisp folds of Sister Mary Isabelle's habit. It smelled of soap and starch, and an arm was firm and strong around her middle.
Through the rushing sound in her ears she heard Sister Mary Isabelle's voice, calm and firmher physician's voice. "Hush. That's not going to happen. And right now you are going to stop this drama. The last thing you or your baby needs is for you to panic."
Knowing she was right didn't help much. "I don't know what I'm going to do," Rachel whispered as she allowed herself to be settled on the edge of the bed. "They watch me every second, Izzy. I feel so trapped. It's gotten much worse since I got the letter.. "
Sister Mary Isabelle straightened, instantly alert. "What letter?"
Rachel wiped her eyes. "It came two days ago. By special courierI had to sign for it personally, with my I.D. Carlos wasn't here, otherwise I doubt I would ever have gotten it. Even then, Carlos's watchdogs wanted to take it away from me, but I opened it and read it with the courier standing right there. There wasn't much they could do about it, short of killing both of us on the spot." She paused to gulp back a laugh she was aware could easily spiral into hysteria. "I'm sure they would have enjoyed that, too, but it would have been a little hard to cover up."
"The letter?" Sister Mary Isabelle prompted.
Rachel caught a quick, shallow breath; these days deeper ones were becoming harder to manage. "Yes. It was fromyou're not going to believe this, Izzymy grandfather."
"Youroh, you mean the eccentric billionaire? The one who"
"abandoned my grandmother and didn't even come to the memorial service when my dadhis own sonwas killed? And never once tried to get in touch with me after Grandmother found me in that Manila orphanage and went through all kinds of hell to bring me to America? Yeah, that grandfather. Sam Malone. He wrote to me, can you believe it?"
"What on earth did he want?" Sister Mary Isabelle's eyes were shining now with interest. "I didn't know he was still alive. He must be.how old?"
"Very old. I'm not sure exactly, but in his nineties, I think. Maybe even a hundred. I don't know what he wants, to tell you the truth. Something about an inheritancewhich I certainly don't want. Seriously. I don't want a thing from that man." Rachel curved her hand over her lower abdomen and the envelope affixed there with surgical tape gave a faint crackle. She felt the baby roil as if in response. Her brief flare of anger had already faded, leaving her once more feeling frightened and vulnerable.
So, she'd managed to protect the letter, big deal. Now what? She'd never felt so helpless.
She took another shallow breath. "I don't want anything from Sam Malonenot for me. But maybe it'syou know the fact that it came just now, when I've been wondering how in the world I can get away from here I've been thinking, maybe it's not a coincidence."
"I don't believe in coincidence. Sometimes God works in mysterious ways," Sister Mary Isabelle said serenely. Then, with her customary practicality: "What did you do with the letter? Did Carlos take it?"
Rachel shook her head and smiled a fierce, defiant smile. "It's here," she whispered, rubbing her belly. "The letter. I taped it to my stomach." Sister Mary Isabelle gave a whoop of laughter, and Rachel gulped down a giggle. "Yes, and when Carlos demanded that I turn it over to him, I told him I'd hidden it where he'd never find it." She sniffed. "Not even Carlos would dare to violate me there."
"Clever girl. Good for you." Sister Mary Isabelle immediately grew somber again. Her always expressive eyes darkened with sorrow as she lifted one hand and cupped Rachel's bruised cheek. "But he did lay a hand on you. Was that when he hit you?"
Rachel nodded, remembering pain and outrage. And fury. "When I told him I'd hidden the letter where he'd never find it. It was out of sheer frustration, I think." Her lips tightened bitterly. "He's been so careful up till now."
Sister Mary Isabelle suddenly leaned closer to whisper in her ear. "Are there surveillance cameras in this room?"
The question didn't surprise Rachel; it was one she'd asked herself often enough. She shook her head and whispered back, "I don't think so. I've looked."
"What about bugs?"
She gave a humorless laugh. "I don't know why Carlos would bother with bugs when I don't have access to phone, internet or, with the exception of yourself, visitors. But when I want to be sure of at least some privacy " She took two steps toward the door and reached for the light switch. "There," she whispered as the room was plunged into darkness. She punched a button on the clock radio on her bedside table and a Bruce Springsteen song filled the silence. "Now, what did you want to tell me?"
"Good for you." Sister Mary Isabelle's chuckle came from the shadows. "I've come to spring you. It's time you got yourself and that baby of yours out of this Hell you're inand being Roman Catholic, I do not use that term lightly."
At the first words, Rachel had smothered an involuntary cry with her fingertips. Now her gaze jerked to the windows, where, as the room behind her darkened, the panorama of the lights of Los Angeles had come into view. The world out there.how many times had she gazed at that incredible vista, stretching from the mountains to the sea, and felt like an animal in a cage. Trapped.
"How?" she whispered. "Can you work miracles?"
"I'm a sister, not a saint." Izzy sounded amused.
In the near darkness, the deeper shadow that was Sister Mary Isabelle moved and rustled mysteriously. Rachel waited in suspense, breath held. Then warm hands clutched her cold ones, and somethinga bundle of fabric that smelled of soap and starchwas thrust into her arms.
"ShushI told you I'd explain the habit. It's for you, of course. I'm wearing my regular clothes underneath. Here," she added, when Rachel stood motionless, stunned, "I'll help you put it on."
Sister Mary Isabelle explained in a whisper as her hands turned and tugged Rachel this way and that. "Leave your own clothes on, of course. So you can ditch the habit as soon as you're safely away from the compound. Good thing I'm shall we say, generously built, hmm? You'd be way too tiny and this would be a tent on you under normal circumstances, but with that nine-month baby bump, plus the clothes you're wearingthere, how does that feel?"