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Jerilyn Larch froze, one foot on the floor.
From the sagging motel bed, Earl Ray Pitts mumbled something, let out a snort and resumed snoring loudly.
Jerilyn released the breath she'd been holding and slipped out of the bed, knowing she'd called this one a little too close.
Gingerly she picked up each piece of her clothing from the grimy carpet and tiptoed into the bathroom to get dressed.
Jerilyn Larch hadn't just fallen on hard times. She'd hit rock bottom. While the Larch name had once meant something in this part of Arizona, it wasn't worth squat anymore.
The land was gone and so was the money. Worse, as her mother would have said, Jerilyn had hooked up with the wrong sort. She needed to get out of this ratty motelout of this townas quickly as possible and put some miles between her and the man still in the lumpy double bed.
Dressed, she peered out of the bathroom. Only a little of the gray dawn leaked through the cheap drapes. Earl Ray was still sleeping or at least pretending to. She could never tell for sure with him. The man had a mean streak that she knew all too well. He'd told her often enough that he'd kill her if she ever left himor at least make her wish she was dead.
For days she'd been looking for a chance to escape.
She glanced around for his keys and caught sight of herself in the filmed-over mirror by the door, shocked by what she saw: a woman who looked much older than forty-two, a woman with nothing to lose. Jerilyn silently made a promise to herself. Her life was going to get better, starting today.
Spying the keys on the bureau, she carefully picked them up and hesitated for a moment before she scooped up Earl Ray'swallet.
Slipping out, she hustled to his Buick parked in front of the room. The car was old, the rear panels rusted, a real embarrassment. She wished that if she had to borrow a car, she could at least get one that was worth a damn. But beggars couldn't be choosers, and she had the keys to this one.
Jerilyn climbed behind the wheel and made a quick check of the wallet. Earl Ray didn't have enough money to get her far. She tossed the wallet on the seat and felt herself panic as she considered what her options were with little money, a car that probably wouldn't get her past town and nowhere to run.
Earl Ray would be furious. He was mean enough, but taking his money and his car and then leaving him high and dry in some tiny sand-blown desert town would push him over the edge. As if he needed a nudge.
As she sat there, a realization began to set in. Once she started this car and made a run for it, she'd have to look out for herself. And that frightened her almost more than Earl Ray did.
Jerilyn had always latched on to a man and let him make all the decisions for her. Earl Ray was a bastard, but maybe being on her own was worse. She glanced toward the motel room, wondering if she could slip back inside without him noticing she'd ever left.
As if in answer, the door banged open, and Earl Ray staggered out looking like this side of hell. The look on his face when he spotted her sitting behind the wheel of his car told her there would be no turning back.
Jerilyn stabbed the key into the ignition and cranked up the engine. The radio blasted on, drowning out whatever he was yelling.
Throwing the car into Reverse, she hit the gas as he lunged for the Buick. He fell face-first onto the gravel as she sped backward, nearly taking out a palm tree.
Slamming the car into Drive, she barely missed Earl Ray as she took off, tires spitting gravel as the vehicle fishtailed.
At the street, she stopped, opened the window and, after snatching out the cash, tossed his wallet in the dirt.
She might have hit bottom, but Jerilyn Larch was no thief. The three hundred and seventy-eight dollars she'd taken was money earned from putting up with him.
As for the car, well, she'd call him once this was over and let him know where to find itno doubt abandoned beside some road where the engine had quit for good.
In her rearview mirror, she could see that Earl Ray was up on his feet and stumbling after her. Jerilyn hit the gas and didn't look back again. She knew he couldn't call the police to report the car stolen, not in his line of work as a thug between illegal crime jobs.
Maybe he wouldn't even come after her. Maybe all those threats had been nothing but bluster. Either way, she'd have to move quickly, staying one step ahead of him until she could escape the country.
She would ditch the car once she reached Montanaif the car made it that far. Otherwise, she'd hitchhike. It wouldn't be the first time. She just hoped it would be the last.
Montana. Jerilyn hadn't realized she'd made a decision where to go until that moment. She'd promised herself years ago that she wouldn't use what she considered her ace in the hole unless she was truly desperate.
Well, she was desperate now, she thought, as she reached into her shoulder bag and removed the small, beaded purse her grandmother had given her. Most of the beads were missing, the fabric beneath gray with age.
She nearly ran off the road as she unzipped the purse and pulled out the piece of yellowed paper.
She had to hold it for a moment just to make sure the note was still there and that she hadn't made it up like she had that rosy future she dreamed about all the time.
The writing had faded from age and too much handling, but as she held it up to the light, she saw with relief that she could still make out the words.
Guilt pierced her conscience, but she cast it aside as quickly as she had Earl Ray at the motel and the man before him. Jerilyn returned the note to her purse just as carefully as she had twenty-six years ago.
A male orderly had handed her the note the day she'd given birth. Sixteen and pregnant. Just a baby herself. Her hips were too narrow, and the doctors had to take the baby, leaving her sterile and scarred in ways that had never healed.
Her mama had made it clear from the start that she couldn't keep the baby. Jerilyn was too young, too immature, to raise a child.
"You'd just mess up the poor baby's life as you have your own," her mother had predicted. "I'm doing that baby the biggest favor of its life."
Jerilyn hated her mother for those words. She knew the real truth. Her mama didn't want the Larch name tarnished by some illegitimate baby. That's why she made Jerilyn go away to Montana before anyone knew she was pregnant.
After the birth, she'd gotten only a glimpse of the tiny pink toes peeking out of the blanket before her mama handed the infant off to some old woman down the hall.
That same night, there was another young girl in labor. Later, Jerilyn had heard her crying as if her heart was also breaking.
"Your baby is with a good family, a family with money and status, a family like ours was before you disgraced us all," her mama had said when Jerilyn begged for information about her baby. "The less you know the better. Just forget you ever had it."
As if her mama had ever let her forget. The Larch family seemed to be cursed after that. Her father made some bad investments and everything went downhill from there. Of course, her mother blamed her although no one knew about the tiny little baby girl she'd been forced to give up.
That was the first time Jerilyn had known heartbreak, but definitely not the last.
The adoption had all been done in secret. There was no paperwork and no chance of Jerilyn ever finding out what had happened to her little girl.
At least that's what her mama had thought until her dying day.
But her mama had no idea what she was capable of when she put her mind to it. Jerilyn had paid the sympathetic orderly to get her information, and he came back with a scrap of yellow paper.
On the paper was written:
Baby girl: Madeline "Maddie" Cavanaugh to Sarah and Roy Cavanaugh, Old Town Whitehorse, Montana.
Now Jerilyn was about to right the terrible wrong her mother had forced her to commit.
"I'm finally going to find my girl," she said as she steered the Buick north toward Montana. Jerilyn hoped that her mama had been right about one thingthat her baby had gone to a good family, a generous one with money and status.
Being a friendly family would help, too, but if not, Jerilyn imagined they would pay to get rid of her.
Jerilyn hated what she was about to do, but in a way she'd felt as if it was out of her hands, as if it had been destined since she was sixteen.
Earl Ray listened to the knock of his old Buick's engine as it faded away in the distance. What the hell was the woman thinking? No one was that stupid, were they?
He waited, hoping the car blew a rod before it disappeared from view, or that Jerilyn had the good sense to turn around and come back.
Otherwise there was going to be serious trouble.
Earl Ray accepted partial responsibility for the situation. Last night at the bar he'd seen a man he'd thought he recognized. Worrying that it was someone after him and the little black book, he'd slipped the leather notebook into Jerilyn's shoulder bag.
When he'd realized there was nothing to worry about, he decided to leave the book in her purse until he could retrieve it without Jerilyn being any the wiser. Jerilyn was the last person he wanted knowing anything about the bookor its contents.
Unfortunately, he'd let himself drink too much and had forgotten about retrieving it. Now the stupid broad had taken off with the book, not even realizing that she had it.
At least he didn't think she did.
Either way, she had something equivalent to a bomb in her purse. That book was his ticket out of this miserable existence he'd been living. There was only one problem. If the book fell into the wrong hands, he was a dead man.
Earl Ray let out a string of expletives. If he could have gotten his hands on Jerilyn, he would have wrung
her neck. The good news was that she couldn't get far in that pile of rusted junk.
As he started back toward the room, he realized he should have known she was going to take off. In the past when she became weepy drunk, she'd take out that little coin purse of hers and look at a scrap of faded paper. Lately, she'd been looking at it more and more.
The first time he'd seen her crying over the note, he'd waited until she passed out and dug the damned thing out of her purse, thinking the dumb broad was crying over some man.
It didn't take a genius to figure out what the note was aboutor where Jerilyn was now headed. This had been coming for some time, and Earl Ray prided himself on knowing women.
He limped into his motel room and closed the door behind him. Luckily, he knew where he could scrape up some money and help. He picked up the phone and dialed his associates Bubba and Dude, his anger ebbing a little as he realized the three of them could beat Jerilyn to Montana.
Earl Ray smiled. He couldn't wait to see her face.
"I say we settle this with a horse race."
"The hell we will," Dalton Corbett said, pushing his brother Jud out of the way in order to get to the bar in the main house on the Trails West Ranch.
Jud might have been the youngest of the Corbett brothersthree minutes behind his fraternal twin, Daltonbut in no way was he the smallest. Not at six foot three! The Hollywood stuntman was like all the Corbett brothers: tall and broad-shouldered, handsome as sin and wild as the West Texas wind.
Jud shoved Dalton back, and the two commenced pushing and jostling just as they'd done as boys.
"Hell, let's just shoot it out," Shane said. He stepped past the two to grab a glass and a bottle of bourbon from behind the bar before settling into one of the deep leather chairs. He looked out a bank of windows onto the rolling prairie of Montana. Only the purple silhouette of the Little Rockies broke the wide expanse of open range.
Shane wondered what the hell his father had been thinking, moving here. Grayson Corbett hadn't been thinking clearly, that was the only thing that could explain it. That and the fact that his father, at the ripe old age of fifty-five, had fallen in love again.
"The only fair way to do this is to have the oldest brother go first," Lantry Corbett suggested, since he was the second to the oldest and the divorce lawyer.
Russell stood up from where he'd been sitting. "We'll draw straws." He was the oldest of the five Corbett brothers and considered the least wild of the bunch, which wasn't saying much.
Jud and Dalton quit wrestling to look at Russell. "Straws?" they asked in unison.
"Why not beans?" Shane suggested, thinking of the Texas Rangers who were caught in Mexico back in the 1800s. "A white bean, you're spared. A black bean, you're not."
"Drawing straws is the only fair way," Russell insisted, ignoring Shane's sarcasm. "We leave it up to chance."
"Or destiny," Jud added.
"Destiny? You've been hanging out with those Hollywood types too long," Lantry said. He grabbed a beer from behind the well-stocked bar and pulled up a chair in front of the window next to Shane.
"What do you say?" Lantry asked him.
Shane was disgusted with the whole mess. He poured himself a glass of bourbon and downed it before he finally spoke. "This is emotional blackmail, and I don't want any part of it."
His brothers all looked at him in surprise.