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Rachel Presley was suffocating.
"I told you I'd never let you go."
Her ex-husband's sinister voice made her body convulse with fear. Rex had found her.
"No," she whispered in a raw voice. "Please " She tried to pry his hands from around her neck, but his grip tightened, and his fingernails dug into her throat, closing off her windpipe.
She jerked awake, trembling. Her hands felt clammy, her throat raw, her stomach heaving.
It couldn't be real. She was dreaming again. Having another one of the terrifying nightmares that had dogged her since she'd left Rex.
But a wet tongue trailed a path down the side of her face. A very real wet tongue. "I'd forgotten how beautiful you look when you're sleeping, Rach."
Nausea flooded her. How had he found her this time? She'd covered her bases, changed her name again, hadn't left a paper trail behind
But the acrid scent of sweat and whiskey breath told her that she hadn't been smart enough.
Rex's heavy weight pressed her into the mattress, and stirred her panic to a frenzy.
"Just tell me you're sorry and come back to me, Rachel." Another swipe of his tongue and he ground his crotch into hers. "You want me," he murmured into her hair. "I can feel it."
"No," she whispered. But her efforts to escape were cut off as his hands tightened around her throat.
"Yes, you do. Say it." He kneed her legs apart with his and rubbed the rough stubble of his jaw against her face. He'd always thought it was funny to hear the rasp of his whiskers scraping her delicate jaw. And he'd taken pride in the whisker burns he left behind. He liked to mark her, brand her like a piece of cattle, so any man who looked her way recognized that she belonged to him.
"Our son needs me, too," Rex murmured. "And I intend to be there for him. To teach him how to be a man."
Over her dead body.
Ever since she'd left Rex, she'd been prepared for him to find her. Attack her. Beat her up. Try to kill her. He had once before.
That was the reason she'd run. And bought a .38.
"After we make love, you can whip us up a batch of pancakes," Rex said. "Kenny will be happy to see me, won't he, Rach?"
The thought of Rex touching, fathering her precious son sent rage through her, and she summoned every ounce of strength she possessed. Kenny would never be subjected to Rex's violent mood swings.
But Rex had gained weight and he was even heavier than she remembered. She had to use her wits to gain advantage long enough to retrieve her gun.
"Rex, please you're choking me." She lifted her hips slightly as if she was warming to his touch, and in the moonlight streaking the room she saw a slow lecherous smile spread across his face. Rex was such a narcissistic man that he still believed she'd fall for his charms.
"That's it, baby. Show me you still love me." His hands slid down her throat to her breasts, then he shifted slightly, ready to shuck his jeans.
Taking advantage of the moment to strike, she raised her knee and slammed it into his groin, then shoved him backward with all her might. Rex bellowed in pain and shock, and she reached sideways below the mattress and grabbed her gun.
He lunged at her, but she flicked off the safety and pointed the barrel at his chest.
"Move and I'll shoot."
Shock made his eyes bulge. "You wouldn't, Rachel. You're too soft."
"You changed that," she said sharply. Keeping the gun trained on him, she slowly pushed herself up on the bed and slid off the side. He started to move toward her, but she shook her head and cocked the trigger, then yanked open the drawer to her nightstand and removed a pair of handcuffs she'd bought at a pawn store.
"One inch," she said. "And you're dead."
His jaw hardened to steel and he froze, but the menacing look in his eyes grew fierce and deadly.
"You wouldn't shoot the father of your son," he said, although his voice had a tremor to it this time.
Good, let him know what it felt like to be afraid.
"Now sit down in that desk chair," she said between clenched teeth.
His eyes narrowed, but he gave a cocky shrug as if he thought it was a game. Then she pressed the gun to his temple and tossed the handcuffs into his lap. "Handcuff yourself to the chair. Now."
He shot blades of steel from his eyes and cursed violently, but did as she said.
"You're going to regret this," he growled.
"The only thing I regret is marrying you." Still keeping the gun aimed at him, she tugged on her jacket, grabbed her purse, then ran to get Kenny, tucking the .38 in her handbag so he wouldn't see it. He was asleep in his bed and looked so innocent and cozy snuggled with his blanket and stuffed puppy that she hated to disturb him.
But they had to go.
He stirred as she lifted him in her arms. "Mommy?" He blinked and glanced around his room, confused.
"It's okay, sweetie. We're taking a little trip. Go back to sleep."
She wrapped him in the blanket, tucked his stuffed animal under his arm, then ran toward the den. The chair clanged against the floor in the bedroom, then Rex's grating voice shattered the air.
"I'll kill you when I find you, Rachel. You'll never get away from me. Never!"
Rachel's throat clogged with fear, but she forged ahead and ran out the door. A breeze kicked up, stirring leaves and dust around her as she settled Kenny in the backseat and buckled him in. Just as she climbed in the driver's side and shut the door, Rex ran onto the front porch, dragging the chair behind him. His arms were still chained to the wood, and he was cursing and raging like a bull tied in a pen.
Grateful she'd kept a suitcase for her and Kenny packed in the trunk, she cranked the engine and stepped on the gas. Then she gunned the engine and ripped down the dirt road, praying she could outrun him this time.
If he caught her again, there was no doubt in her mind that he'd kill her.
Johnny Long had to make one more attempt to help his old friend Carter Flagstone clear his name.
He just hoped to hell Carter didn't refuse to see him as he had the last time he'd tried to visit the jail.
The sprawling ranch faded in his vision as he headed toward the state prison, and his thoughts turned back to the meeting with Brody Bloodworth, the founder of the Bucking Bronc Lodge. The ranch was designed to give troubled boys a second chance through working with animals, ranch hands and cowboys, and reminded him of how he, Carter and Brandon Woodstock had all grown up.
He admired Brody and his plans and appreciated the fact he'd given his sister, Kim, a job, yet Johnny had sworn never to put himself in the limelight again. And spearheading the rodeo Brody wanted to raise money for the summer camps would do exactly that. Worse, using his name could backfire in all their faces.
Still, the idea of a rodeo for a bunch of needy, troubled kids, kids like he had once been, sent an adrenaline rush through him that he hadn't felt in a long time. If it hadn't been for the rodeo, he might never have pulled himself out of the gutter. But fame and fortune came at a price.
And the events of that last year, the way the media had turned on him, had almost destroyed him. Still, as a kid, channeling his anger and energy into penning, roping cows and riding had saved his life.
That and his friendship with Brandon and Carter. They had been like the Three Musketeers, growing up.
All from poor, dysfunctional homes. All roughhousing boys who liked to ride and cause trouble and skirt with the law. All had sorry daddies who'd beaten them. Mothers who'd done just as much damage by walking away, finding home in a bottle or just plain ignoring the abuse.
So they'd found each other, had watched each other's backs for years, even taken beatings for one another.
Until five years ago when everything had gone wrong.
When Carter had been arrested, he and Brandon had taken a good hard look at their own lives and decided it was time to grow up. Sure, they'd had bad childhoods. Lived in hellholes. Never had a family who gave a damn.
But they'd made a pact to show the world they weren't the white-trash losers the rich rancher kids had dubbed them.
Yet Carter had still wound up in jail. Not that Johnny believed he was guilty of the murder he'd been locked up for. Well, maybe he'd had a few doubts, but he really didn't think Carter was a cold-blooded killer .
Only, Carter had refused to talk and had begged him and Brandon to give him an alibi. A phony alibi.
If he wasn't guilty, why had he asked him and Brandon to lie?
Their refusal to commit perjury, circumstantial evidence, incompetent lawyers and a lowlife judge who might have been paid off had cost his friend his freedom.
Even worse, Carter claimed he and Brandon were getting revenge for his short fling with Johnny's sister, Kim. Brandon had dated Kim first, much to Johnny's consternation, then he'd broken her heart, which had caused tension between him and Brandon. On the rebound, she'd fallen into Carter's arms, which had ended badly for everyone, causing a rift between Brandon and Carter.
But Kim had suffered, as well, and Johnny had had to work to contain his own bitterness. His sister had been off-limits and both his friends had crossed the line.
But that wasn't the reason he hadn't lied for Carter.
Still, Carter had refused his visits and letters over the years.
Didn't Carter know that it hurt them to see him locked up? That they wanted justice, too?
He had to give it one more try.
But he fought a sense of guilt as he parked his pickup in front of the prison and reread the news article about Carter's father's death. How was Carter handling the news?
Ten minutes later, he'd made it through security, his nerves spiking as memories of being arrested needled him. He'd come so close to being locked in jail himself that he still half expected one of the rangers to snap a pair of handcuffs on him and throw him in a cell.
His stomach churned as he slid into the vinyl seat in the visiting area. It seemed like hours, but finally the metal door screeched open, and Carter shuffled through the door in handcuffs, his face pale and bruised, his lip busted, fresh scars on his arms. His eyes looked dull, his jaw set firm as he dropped into the seat on the other side of the Plexiglas. For a moment, Johnny didn't think he was going to look at him, then Carter leveled a sharp stare at him that felt like a knife piercing his gut.
"What do you want now?" Carter ground out.
Johnny swallowed and tried to control his anger. If Carter had just talked to him and told him the truth years ago, maybe they could have helped him.
Instead of rehashing that, though, he gestured to the news article. "I'm sorry about your old man."
Fresh pain and fury flickered across Carter's face, then he released a sarcastic laugh. "You know I didn't give a damn about that mean old cuss."
With good reason. The bastard had put plenty of bruises and scars on Carter. "He's still your old man."
"He was a drunk who hated my guts." Carter gripped his hands together and leaned closer to the microphone. "But he had a nice piece of ranch land, once." Carter's eyes narrowed suspiciously. "Is that why you're here? The rich and famous Johnny Long planning to buy up my old man's spread to add to his empire."
Johnny ground his teeth. "No, Carter. I came as a friend."
"I don't have any friends," Carter snapped. "I lost them years ago."
"That's not fair, Carter."
"What's not fair is that I've been stuck in this pit watching my daddy's spread go down the toilet while you and Brandon built your fortunes."
Johnny understood his need to vent, but he was still Carter's friend whether Carter liked it or not. "Is the property going into foreclosure?"
The chair clanked as Carter stood. "So you are here to see about buying it?"
"No," Johnny said quickly. "But I do have money, Carter, and if you need me to do something to keep the property from going into foreclosure, I will."
"I don't want your charity."
"Then what about a loan? We can come up with some kind of payback plan for when you're released"
"For when I'm released?" Carter hissed. "Don't you get it, Johnny? I'm never getting out." Carter's voice was cold, but Johnny detected fear underlying it.
"There's parole," Johnny argued.
A look of defeat settled in Carter's eyes. "Even if I did make parole, I've got nothing. No way to keep the land. And no one in Texas is going to hire a convicted murderer."
Johnny started to say that he would, but before he could voice the thought, Carter shook his head in warning.
"Don't you dare," Carter snarled. "I don't want your pity. And I would never work for you." He turned and strode toward the door, the chains around his ankles rattling.
"I'll hire another attorney," Johnny said. "I'll find the best, Carter"
Carter slowly turned around, his expression bitter. "Go to hell, Johnny."
Johnny silently cursed as the metal doors banged shut behind Carter. Damn. What good was having money if he couldn't use it to help his friend?
Johnny stood, frustrated, his stomach tied in knots. Maybe he couldn't do anything for Carter now, but there were kids at the Bucking Bronc Lodge who deserved his help. To hell with worrying about the press putting a negative slant on him.
Brody and the ranch needed him. He was going to start organizing that rodeo as soon as he got back.