Rhea blinked rapidly and squinted against the sun, her eyes unaccustomed to the brightness. She peered out the window of the van and marveled at the people walking freely along the streets. The world had changed in the last fifteen years and left her behind. Her time in prison hadn’t been void of technological and social advancements, but her exposure was limited. Most of these people barely noticed each other, instead focusing their attention on electronic devices they carried in their hands, or they talked into their cell phones. Maybe that would make it easier not to be noticed.
Rhea stepped out of the transport van at the bus station and pulled her backpack across her left shoulder. She tugged at the strap with her right hand so that her arm crossed her chest and held a little of the warmth inside her plain blue prison-issue sweatshirt. She had a long walk ahead of her, and she needed to get moving if she was going to reach her mother’s house before dark.
She stopped and studied the square red-brick building where her fate had been settled fifteen years earlier. A bronze plaque still stood outside the Rhea County courthouse boasting of the building’s legacy as the location of the legendary Scopes Trial. As a child she’d marveled that her small Tennessee town had such a profound history, but she never imagined that one day she too would be on trial in this very place. She looked upon it now as the place where her town and her family had betrayed her.
Rhea took a step back and bumped into two women walking past her on the sidewalk.
“Excuse me. I’m very sorry.”
“Oh, that’s all right, dear,” the first woman said automatically.
Rhea glanced at the two women, recognizing their faces instantly. They’d been part of her mother’s church group when she was a girl. The woman who had spoken to her was Clara Spencer, the church organist. She hadn’t changed much in the time Rhea had been away. She was still short and plump, although her hair had changed from black to gray. The second woman was Mary Parson, a harsh woman with beady black eyes and a sharp tongue. She was also the sheriff’s wife. Rhea dropped her head as soon as she caught Mrs. Parson scrutinizing her.
“Do we know you?” Mrs. Parson asked.
“No. I’m just passing through town. Excuse me again, ladies.”
She hadn’t expected anyone to recognize her. She barely resembled the young girl with long hair and plump, rosy cheeks she’d been the last time they saw her. Rhea gripped her backpack and hurried away, hoping they wouldn’t figure it out.
“I swear that girl reminds me of someone, but for the life of me I can’t remember who,” Mrs. Parson said as she walked away.
Rhea groaned. The last thing she needed was for the town gossip line to reach her mother before she did.
The crunch of gravel under Rhea’s feet reverberated up her spine with each step. The place that had once been her home stood in the distance like a ghost, haunting her with memories of lust, lies, deceit, and betrayal. She stopped at the front of the ornate porch and squared her shoulders to defend herself against the cold gray eyes of her mother, who stood at the top of the steps with her arms crossed like a shield of impenetrable armor. Lines creased the once flawless face, and small round glasses created a false barrier between Rhea and the woman looking back at her.
Rhea swallowed against the lump of fear and anger growing in her throat. She’d known this would be hard, but she hadn’t expected to feel so vulnerable. She’d agreed to return home temporarily until she had work and other accommodations, to avoid going to a halfway house. Now that she was here, she was beginning to question if that had been such a good idea.
“I wrote to tell you I was getting out.”
“I read it. Your parole officer called here too. I told her this is no place for you. This is a small town and no one has forgotten what you did. No one wants you here.”
Rhea gritted her teeth against the venom in her mother’s voice. No, she didn’t expect anyone to forget what had happened, and she understood that no one here cared why she’d done what she’d done. In a small town like this, these things just didn’t happen…until they did.
“What about you, Momma?” Rhea already knew the answer but had to ask. In the fifteen years she had been away, she hadn’t seen or heard from her mother or her younger sister.
“You can stay in the barn for a few days to go through your old things. I had Tommy put them in the storage room. You can take your old Jeep too, Molly didn’t want it.”
A fresh pain stabbed through Rhea when her mother mentioned her sister. Molly hadn’t understood what she’d done and hated her for it. She had never believed Rhea was protecting her and, believing their mother’s lies instead, she’d turned her back on Rhea.
Rhea nodded. She understood how hard it had been for her sister. It was easier for everyone to believe Rhea was the evil one than to face the truth of what her father had done.
“Thank you for allowing me to take the Jeep and stay here. I have a place arranged, so I shouldn’t be in your way for too long.”
“The sooner the better. It’s hard enough around here without you stirring things up all over town. I don’t want anyone thinking I brought you back in after what you did.”
Tears stung Rhea’s eyes. “I had to do it. I couldn’t let him hurt her, Momma.” Rhea was surprised she had spoken the words out loud, but she wouldn’t make excuses or apologize for what she’d done.
“He was your father,” her mother snapped. “He was a good man. You had no right to destroy his legacy and our family name. Those were private matters.”
Rhea turned away from her mother for the first time, the words striking her like a slap to the face. She felt sick. This only confirmed that her mother had known what her father had done to her. She’d known and done nothing to stop him. Her father’s position in the community and the family name were more important than her own daughters.
“Why didn’t you do anything? Why didn’t you stop him? Why didn’t you protect us?”
“He was your father.”
Rhea blew out a breath. There was no use trying, there was no way to get through to her mother. Image and prestige were more important than truth.
“And you are our mother,” Rhea said with a bite to the words. “It was a mistake for me to come here. I’ll be in the barn.” Rhea slid her hands into the pockets of her jeans as she walked and pinched the skin of her thighs to stop the urge to scream at her mother. She thought the years had dulled the pain of her mother’s betrayal, but the wound was just as raw now as the day her mother had testified against her in court. She couldn’t believe she’d even tried to reason with her mother. Uncertainty plagued her, and after being free for only a day she didn’t know how she was going to make it on the outside. She had been gone too long. Prison was all she knew outside of this little town that was her namesake. Her mother was right about one thing: there was no way she could stay here. Anything would be better than being here.
Morgan looked up from the calf she was feeding to find her sister J.J. leaning against the gate. It was an ominous sign.
“Whatever it is, I’m not buying,” Morgan said playfully. As usual her sister was up to something. She only showed up without calling when she wanted something.
J.J. smiled. “Is that any way to talk to your big sister?”
Morgan laughed. “Considering the sister, I’d say it’s a definite yes.”
“You wound me,” J.J. said as she placed her hand across her chest and faked a pained expression.
The calf finished its breakfast and Morgan shooed it away with a playful pat.
“Tell me you’re not going to try to talk me into some scheme of yours, and I’ll take it back.”
J.J. ignored the stab and changed the subject. “New calf?”
Morgan nodded. “I’m supplementing his feeding because the mother isn’t producing enough milk.”
“Any other new additions to the farm?” J.J. asked.
Morgan stood. “We both know you aren’t interested in the animals or the farm, J.J., so why don’t you just tell me why you’re here. What are you up to?”
J.J. sighed. “You should hear me out on this one, Morgan. I could really use your help.”
Morgan straightened. This must be serious. It wasn’t like J.J. to ask for favors. “Are the kids okay?”
J.J. swiped her hand through the air as if brushing off a gnat. “The kids are great. Don’t worry, it’s nothing like that.”
Morgan studied her sister’s face and tried to measure the seriousness in the set of her jaw and the worry lines at the corners of her eyes. She had a feeling she wasn’t going to like this.
“Okay, I’ll listen, but no promises beyond that.”
“Fair. Let’s go for a walk and I’ll tell you a story.”
Morgan sighed as J.J. turned and walked out, leaving the gate open behind her. This had to be bad. J.J. wanted something and was stalling. Morgan dusted off her hands and followed J.J. and soon fell into step beside her. She walked in silence, knowing that if she waited J.J. out, she would eventually tell her what had her in a twist.
“You know you work too hard around here. You need some help,” J.J. said in a casual tone.
Morgan wasn’t buying her sister’s sudden concern for her farm and figured this would eventually lead to the point of J.J.’s visit.
“Do you still have the small engine shop?”
Morgan nodded. “I have a few pieces I’m working on but nothing too overwhelming.”
“But as summer comes on you’ll have more work, right?”
Morgan stopped walking and looked at her sister. “Where’s this going, J.J.?”
J.J. sighed. “I know someone who really needs a job and a place to stay. I was hoping you would hire her to help out around here.”
“I don’t need any help. I’m doing fine on my own.”
“Yeah, and that’s why the fence by the goat house is broken, the barn has three inches of dirt on the hall walk, and your gallery looks like it’s been abandoned.”
Morgan frowned. She didn’t want to argue with J.J., but she didn’t want some stranger barging in on her life either. “Maybe that’s the way I like it.”
“Come on, Morgan, won’t you at least give this girl a try? She’s really hard up and this would be perfect for her. You need help even if you don’t want to admit it.”
“Who’s the girl?”
J.J. looked away and Morgan knew she wasn’t going to like the answer.
“Well, I shouldn’t really call her a girl. She’s thirty-two years old and just needs a break. Hell, I’d hire her if I could. Maybe you could just let her work on a trial basis until you make up your mind. If things don’t work out then we’ll think of something else. Come on, Morgan, you could use the help. She could stay in Grandpa’s old cabin and you would hardly even know she’s here.”
Morgan laughed. “That cabin isn’t fit to live in right now, especially in winter. Anybody would be miserable living there. Besides, I gave up charity work, remember?”
“She won’t be here for a few weeks. I’ll help you get the place ready, and she can do most of the work herself. This is a win for you.”
Morgan raised an eyebrow and scrutinized her sister. “You’re going to help? What aren’t you telling me, J.J.? Who’s this girl? How do you know her?”
J.J. grimaced. “Promise me you’ll try?” she pleaded.
Morgan blew out a breath. She always had trouble saying no to her sister. “Okay, I’ll give her a job and she can stay in the cabin. Now, what’s the story?”
J.J. looked worried and wouldn’t look Morgan in the eye. That was a bad sign and Morgan figured she was about to regret her agreement.
“She’s one of my parolees.”
Morgan gasped, but before she could protest, J.J. launched into her argument again. “Wait. You’ll just have to meet her. She has a very troubled past and this is her one shot at a real life. I wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t important, and I believe in her.”
Morgan’s stomach twisted as if she was going to be sick. “You want one of your parolees to live here…with me? Have you lost your mind? You know I don’t tolerate that kind of life. If you haven’t noticed, I’m not in the business of saving people. I’m not fit for the job, or don’t you remember the last time—”
“She’s not like that.” J.J. cut her off before she could finish. “She was just a child when she got into trouble. The only way she’s going to make it is if someone gives her a chance.”
“Yeah, what did she do?”
J.J. looked away again.
Morgan laughed. “Oh, this ought to be rich. What? Did she kill somebody or something?”
J.J. looked up in surprise.
Morgan took a step back, shocked at the truth. “No way.” Morgan couldn’t believe J.J. would seriously suggest she bring a convicted murderer to live on her farm. “Seriously, you actually want me to hire and live with a murderer? Wasn’t what happened with Ashley bad enough? What do you think I can do?”
Morgan paced back and forth in front of her studio. Nothing could have prepared her for this. “What are you thinking?” she grumbled and sat down on the steps.
J.J. held her hands out toward Morgan with her palms up. “It isn’t as easy as that. She was a child and someone hurt her. Everything I know about this case tells me she was backed into a corner and did the only thing she thought could save her. Before this happened, she was an honor student in her high school, class president, hell, she was even the freaking homecoming queen. Nothing in her history suggested she would hurt anybody.”
“But she did,” Morgan snapped. “There’s always another way. I don’t want that kind of violence around me.”
J.J. sat down and put an arm around Morgan’s neck. “Please, Morgan, do this for me. Trust me on this one. It’s the right thing to do.”
Morgan groaned and wrapped an arm around her sister. “I don’t like it.”
J.J. tightened her grip. Morgan gave in but couldn’t shake the feeling she was making a huge mistake. But J.J. was her sister and her weakness. If this was important to her, Morgan didn’t really have a choice. She would try.
“When will she be here?”
J.J. bounced up and down, still holding on to Morgan with all her strength. “Thank you, thank you, thank you. She’ll be here the first week of February.”
Morgan leaned back and pinned her sister with her eyes. “You’ve got a lot of work to get done then if that cabin is going to be ready.”
J.J. smiled. “Deal.”
Rhea lay awake in her makeshift bed in the hayloft, listening to the sounds of the night. It was too quiet and too dark. She imagined she could hear the voices of women murmuring, some angry, some crying, some whispering lost prayers to a God she no longer believed in. But the voices were silent on this, her first night of freedom. She sighed at the irony. She would never be free from the betrayal of her father or the judgment of a world who continued to punish women and children for the crimes of their abusers. Her mother was proof enough that her life was condemned. She had to find a way out of this place. Prison was better than this new hell.
Rhea rose with the first glow of morning light and sat in the loft looking out over the fields. The winter morning glowed with orange light as the sun slowly climbed the mountain and peeked its head above the ridge, seeming to set the trees ablaze.
Rhea watched her breath freeze into a puff of white against the chill, crisp air. She drew her legs up and rested her chin on her knees. This was the first sunrise she had witnessed in almost sixteen years and it was more breathtaking than she remembered. For the first time since she was seventeen years old she was hopeful. The sunrise was her reminder that she could begin again. She was renewed and her determination solidified. She promised herself she would build a new life. She would never again be a victim. She swore that every day she would make her own fate and never again let anyone close enough to hurt her.
She lifted her face and let the sun kiss her cheeks. Her skin tingled from the touch of warmth against her cool skin. The sound of movement below got her attention and she stood and dusted herself off. She still wore the prison-issue sweatshirt she had been given and decided the first thing she wanted to do was go through her old clothes. Surely she had an old coat, some T-shirts, maybe some old jeans she could still wear if they hadn’t rotted away or been eaten by insects or rodents. She looked down at her sneakers and wiggled her toes. At least her boots would still fit. She had lost the softness of youth and replaced the supple curves of a girl with the hard, thin lines of a woman who never got enough to eat and spent her free time burning off pent-up energy with what exercise she could in her cell.
The barn was still dark, but Rhea didn’t turn on the lights right away. She stood still and took in the smell of old hay and dust. Horses murmured in their stalls, sensing her presence. She envisioned the long corridor lined with stalls as she’d last seen it. The memory of the feel of the railing sliding beneath her palm made her hand itch. These were once comforts. She wanted to pretend for a moment that her life had been a terrible dream, but those were childish wishes and she was far beyond fairy tales.
She flipped on the light and blinked as her eyes adjusted to the sudden brightness. She studied the long hallway that was just as she’d remembered. It was as if time itself had stopped the day she left. Everything stood frozen in her memory as if she was holding her breath and she only needed to exhale and her life would begin again. She blew out her breath. Let’s do this.
Three hours later Rhea heard a familiar voice murmuring in the distance and realized Tommy had come in to tend the horses. A moment later he was standing in the doorway, a sly grin on his face.
“Well, I’ll be. All that time away and you’re still the prettiest girl in town.”
Rhea smiled. “Hi, Tommy.”
Tommy nodded toward the box of things Rhea had been sifting through. “Ms. Daniels had me bring those things out here a while after you were sent away. I figured you’d be back someday, so I took care of a few things for you.”
“Thanks.” Rhea pointed to a box of dresses she’d put aside along with trophies, ribbons, her scholarship letter, and her high school yearbook. “I don’t think I’ll need these anymore.”
Those things hadn’t been real to her anyway. Her life had been an act, always pretending to be someone she wasn’t, always working to hide her secret life. There was no more hiding for her.
Tommy pointed to a small box on a shelf. “The keys to the Jeep are in there. Ms. Daniels said you’d be taking it with you. I used it for small errands for the farm just to keep it running, and the tags and all are good too.”
Rhea remembered the day her parents had brought the Jeep home for her sixteenth birthday. She had felt like she was walking on air because transportation was her ticket out, the first door opened to freedom. Even now a small thrill ran through her. That was one dream that would finally come true. She opened the box and slipped the keys into her pocket. She began to pack the few belongings she could use into a contractor bag she’d found in the tack room. It was fitting that her life had been condensed into one trash bag. She found her old seed coat and coveralls and her boots. The jeans were questionable but would have to do.
“I appreciate all you’ve done for me. Most people around here wouldn’t care.”
Tommy shrugged. “I suppose everyone has their own way of dealing with things. I knew you back then. You worked hard to please everybody. I believed you back then and I believe you now.”
Tears stung her eyes. Tommy was the only one who did believe her. “Thank you. That means a lot to me, Tommy.”
He nodded. “Well, I’ve got work to do. There’s coffee in the office. Give me a yell if you need anything.”
“Hey, Tommy?” Rhea called.
“Yeah,” he said, sticking his head back around the corner.
Tommy sighed. “Things were tough on her. She was real restless there for a while and gave your momma a hard way to go. She got herself into a little trouble here and there but nothing too serious. She wasn’t into the books and school stuff the way you always were. But by the time she hit high school she had a plan and fast-tracked her way into the air force. She seems to be doing real good. But she doesn’t come around but maybe every couple of years.”
“Does she hate me?”
“Aw, now, that’s hard to say. At first she was real hurt and mad. But as she grew up, I think she started to figure things out for herself. I’m not sure how she ever worked it out. She used to ask me questions about you and your daddy, but I didn’t know much. I think she eventually just wanted to get away from it all.”
Rhea took a deep breath and thought about everything Tommy had said. “The air force, huh?”
Tommy smiled. “Yep.”
Rhea smiled, and a moment later, Tommy was gone.
She looked around at the mess surrounding her and decided it was a good time for a break. She dusted herself off and headed for the coffee. She smiled. Hmm. The air force, how about that.
By early afternoon Rhea had cleared through all her things and managed to salvage a few essentials. She had expected her boots to be rotten, but Tommy had kept them oiled and they looked better than the last time she’d worn them. She had a few pairs of jeans and some old shirts she used to wear when working around the farm. Her coveralls and coat were still in good shape, but she could have done without the smell of mothballs. Thanks to the crappy prison food and the exercise routine she’d stuck to so she didn’t lose her mind, she was a bit smaller than she used to be.
Now the next order of business was food, and she still had to check in with her parole officer. Both would require contact with her mother. Rhea swallowed. She wasn’t ready for the next round with her mother, but she couldn’t put it off much longer. The sooner she took care of this business, the sooner she could leave.
Every step closer to the house filled her with dread. She climbed the steps to the porch and knocked on the door. She jumped back when her mother answered with a .410 shotgun in her hands pointed at Rhea’s chest.
“Jesus, Momma, what are you doing with that thing?”
“Get back. You aren’t stepping one foot inside this house,” her mother barked.
“Okay. I wasn’t going to come in. I just need to use the phone. I have to check in with my parole officer.”
“I’ll bring the phone out. You can wait in the yard.”
Rhea dropped her head and backed off the porch. She didn’t expect her mother to welcome her home, but the hostility was a bit much. Her stomach growled and was beginning to hurt. It was going on twenty-four hours since she had eaten and her body was protesting. Prison food wasn’t something she craved, but her body was used to eating at the same time every day and wasn’t happy she had already missed three meals. But after the reception she just got from her mother, there was no way she was asking for food.
Her mother stepped out onto the porch with the phone and a tray of bologna sandwiches and a pitcher of iced tea. Rhea’s head was spinning from the contradictions in her mother. One minute she was ready to shoot her and the next she was bringing her lunch.
“What’s all this?”
Her mother squared her shoulders and brushed a strand of loose hair from her face. “No one will ever say I let anyone under my roof go hungry.”
Rhea noticed her mother had cooked the bologna until it was black, the way she had liked it as a child. One small victory, she guessed, or an olive branch perhaps. Rhea would never understand her mother, but for the moment she was thankful for her twisted hospitality.
For just a moment the hard look in her mother’s eyes softened. Her mother shifted on her feet and twisted her fingers together. “Just leave the phone on the tray when you’re done. I’ll get it later.”
Rhea nodded and watched her mother retreat back into the house. She tried to imagine what her mother’s life had been like. What could have made her accept the deplorable? Rhea sighed. She had loved her father too. That had been the one thing he used against her to keep the secret. Had he managed to garner the same hold on her mother?
Rhea shivered. She didn’t remember it ever getting quite this cold in January. It had been raining all day and sleet was beginning to fall in heavy pellets that were quickly coating the trees and everything else in its path. She was nervous about setting out on her own in this weather, but the thought of spending one more night in the cold barn was enough to inspire her courage.
Tommy picked up the small box she’d put aside and set it in the front seat of the Jeep. “You sure you want to head out in this weather?”
Rhea looked out into the freezing rain. “I don’t think I have much choice.”
Tommy scuffed his boot on the ground. “Yeah. I guess I can’t blame you. It’s gotta get mighty cold up in that loft at night.”
“Yeah. That’s a big part of it.” She paused, then confessed, “I think everyone will rest a little easier once I’m gone.”
Tommy held up one finger, motioning for her to wait. “Before you go I have something for you.”
Rhea watched as the old farmhand rustled down the hall and disappeared into the office. She was shocked at how old he’d gotten. She could remember him teaching her how to spit when she was five and showing her how to bridle a horse when she was eight. He had been the one to teach her how to bait a fishhook. Rhea warmed at the memories, thankful to have something good to take away with her.
Tommy came back carrying a large box. He slid the box into the back of the Jeep and gave it a pat before shutting the door.
“What’s that?” Rhea asked.
Tommy shrugged. “I picked up some things I thought you might need until you can get on your feet. It’s not much, but I reckon you won’t starve.” He pulled a knit cap and a new pair of gloves out of his pocket and handed them to her. “And you could use something on that bare noggin of yours too.”
Rhea cleared her throat and fought back the tears that stung her eyes. “Thanks, Tommy. You didn’t have to do all that.”
He shrugged. “I know.” He put a heavy hand on her shoulder. “I’m sorry I didn’t know what your daddy was up to back then. I’m just sorry.”
Rhea swallowed and nodded. “That means a lot.”
He handed her a crumpled-up piece of paper. “That’s my number if you ever need anything.”
Rhea couldn’t take any more and threw her arms around Tommy and hugged him. His heavy hand came down on her back in an awkward pat.
“Take care of yourself, kid, and don’t let them get the best of you.”
As she rolled out, Rhea stopped the Jeep in front of the house and peered through the freezing rain at the dim light that glowed through the windows of her mother’s house. A figure passed in front of the window, and she could make out the image of her mother as she parted the drapes and looked outside.
Rhea held her breath, hoping for some hint of compassion from her mother. The curtain closed and the shadow of her mother faded. A moment later the porch light went out. Rhea choked back the sadness and disappointment. It was time to stop wishing for her mother’s love. Love didn’t exist. People just used others for what they wanted and disguised it as something else. Love wasn’t real.
The heavy clouds obscured what little light was left in the day. She needed to get moving if she was going to make her destination before dark. She put the Jeep in gear and turned to the open road. Night would fall fast in this weather and she still wasn’t used to driving. Uncertainty and fear stabbed through her and she stopped at the end of the drive. If she stayed, she wouldn’t have to brave the weather or the night. But if she didn’t leave, she would spend another night of bitter cold, haunting memories, and paralyzing self-doubt.
Rhea pulled onto the road. No fear was worse than that pain. She would face death itself not to spend another night here. She had at least a two-hour drive in this weather, but as soon as the view of her mother’s house faded, the tight grip around her heart eased and for the first time in days she drew in a deep breath. She was relieved when she passed the sign signaling her departure from Rhea County. Some of the darkness slipped away only to be replaced by a new doubt.
All she had were some directions and an address her parole officer had given her. She had a job and a place to live. That was more than she had hoped for and she was eager to get started. She wasn’t sure why her parole officer was helping her out, but she would take what she could get.
It was fully dark out now and the rain and sleet hammered against the windshield like rocks falling from the sky. It was as if Mother Nature herself was conspiring against her. The roads were twisted and narrow and the painted lines were barely visible in most sections of road.
It had been forever since she’d even seen a road sign and she wasn’t sure she was on the right road. Rhea took the next right onto a deserted dirt track that was covered with patches of ice and pools of water. The rain had turned to heavy snow and sleet and the road was covered, making it hard to see the washed-out areas and deep gullies.
Rhea turned a corner, and before she could react, a tree fell across the road in front of her. The best she could do to avoid it was to jerk the wheel to the left. An instant later the Jeep slid off the road and came to rest against the bank of the mountain. The horn blared and no matter what she did she couldn’t make it stop. Her seat belt was jammed and she couldn’t get out. Rhea slammed her palm against the steering wheel in frustration. Great, what else could happen?
She peered out the windshield and squinted through the snow. She was certain she could see light from a house just ahead. If she could just get out she might be able to get some help.
A minute later she saw a dark figure running toward her. Fear shot through Rhea and she became more frantic in her attempt to free herself. She couldn’t defend herself and she couldn’t run.
The passenger door opened and a woman with loose dark hair that clung to her face in wet waves poked her head inside. Relief instantly flooded Rhea, but her guard was still up. Just because it was a woman, didn’t mean she was safe.
“Hey, you okay?” the woman asked.
Rhea looked at her and tried to keep the panic out of her voice. “I’m stuck.”
The woman climbed halfway inside the Jeep and studied the problem. She put her hand on the seat belt and tried the release. The woman’s hand brushed against Rhea’s hip and she flinched and tried to move away. The woman pulled back and put her hands up, signaling she meant no harm.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to get in your space. This is quite a mess, isn’t it?” The woman gestured to the mix of snow and sleet outside.
Rhea forced a light smile, but fear had her heart racing like a trapped rabbit.
“Looks like you could use a little help here. Do you mind?”
Rhea shook her head.
“Okay. Let’s start by taking your foot off that brake.”
Rhea looked down at her foot mashed against the brake pedal. She shifted her foot and it hit the floor with a thud.
The woman reached across the cab and turned off the engine. When she looked back at Rhea she was so close Rhea could smell the lingering hint of orange blossoms mingled with fire and ash. Her dark hair was covered by a knitted cap and strands of wet hair were plastered against her face, but that didn’t hide the strong line of her jaw or the soft, pale skin of her face. There was tenderness in her eyes that calmed the storm of fear raging inside Rhea.
“You can let out the clutch now.”
The woman smiled at her. The smile was calm and gentle and Rhea wondered if she was real or if this was one of those stories she read about where people insisted they had been rescued by angels. The woman placed her hand on Rhea’s shoulder. The touch was soft and tentative but not threatening.
“Lean back and try the release again.”
Rhea did as instructed and to her surprise the seat belt snapped open. The relief was instant and she fought back the flood of tears that threatened. “Thanks.”
The woman pulled away allowing some space between them. “My name’s Morgan Scott and this is my farm. Let’s get you out of here and up to the house so we can dry out.”
Rhea let out a sigh of relief. She wasn’t lost after all. “You’re Morgan Scott?”
“That’s what I said.”
Rhea extended her hand. It didn’t matter how scared she was, politeness had been ingrained in her since the day she was born. “I’m Rhea Daniels.”
Rhea didn’t miss the hesitation or the brief frown that creased Morgan’s brow.
Morgan took Rhea’s hand. “You picked a heck of a time to show up. Were you trying to get yourself killed?”
Rhea didn’t miss the disapproval in Morgan’s voice or the lines that formed around the corners of her eyes as if she was trying to predict the sudden move of a snake. Morgan reminded her of the guards at the prison who challenged her every time she was moved to a new section or a new pod. It was a familiar language Rhea understood very well, and the protective defenses she’d developed over the years fell effortlessly into place.
“I said I’d be here. I’m here. You got a problem with that?”
Morgan appeared to consider this for a moment and then shrugged. “No. I guess you didn’t order the weather. I’m just surprised to see you. I didn’t expect you for a couple more weeks.”
“Yeah, well, my last place wasn’t working out and I was ready to move on.”
Morgan dropped her gaze and slid out of the Jeep, her boots smacking against the muddy road with a squish. “Well, you’re here now, so let’s get out of here before we freeze to death. I’m tired of being wet.”
“What about my Jeep?” Rhea asked.
Morgan glanced back at her. “Grab what you’ll need for now. We’ll come back down tomorrow and clear this tree out. There’s nothing we can do tonight without making a mess and freezing our butts off.”
Rhea considered her options and finally conceded that Morgan was right. At least Morgan hadn’t turned her away. But she wasn’t blind and she hadn’t missed the distrust in Morgan’s eyes. This wouldn’t be much different than staying at her mother’s. She’d been convicted on people’s opinions before, not the facts. That was the thing with opinions, everyone had one.
Morgan’s house was warm and cozy, and despite her earlier distance and disapproval, she invited Rhea inside. Rhea glanced around the big open room. She might have traded one farm for another, but this was nothing like her mother’s house. Her mother surrounded herself with expensive furniture, crystal, silver, and lace, all the things she thought made her look important. Morgan’s house was the complete opposite. The room was comfortable with few furnishings and the decor was functional and somewhat industrial.
Rhea put her bag down and was drawn to the large hearth where the heat of the fire was strongest. She turned back to Morgan and noticed the footprints she’d left across the hardwood floor. She looked down at her feet and, to her horror, saw the mud clinging to her boots. She quickly took them off and brought them back to the mat by the door where Morgan had stored her own.
“I’m sorry. Do you have something I could use to clean this up?”
Morgan glanced at the footprints marking her floor and nodded to her right. “The kitchen’s in there—I have paper towels by the sink.”
Rhea hesitated. She was uncertain what to do. She was in a stranger’s home and suddenly she didn’t know how to behave and the fear was quickly rising again.
“It’s okay, I’ll get them,” Morgan said with a pat to Rhea’s shoulder. “Go get warm.”
Rhea still hadn’t moved when Morgan came back into the room carrying paper towels and spray cleaner.
Morgan handed half the towels to Rhea and began cleaning up the mess. Rhea was stunned. Morgan hadn’t been angry or ordered her to clean up, and she was even helping. Rhea got down on all fours and went to work.
Morgan sat back on her heels and inspected the floor. “See, good as new.” She tossed the paper towels on the fire. “Would you like some coffee to help shake off that chill?”
Rhea was shaking, but it wasn’t from the cold. She wasn’t sure what she had expected. She hadn’t thought about anything beyond getting out of prison and then getting away from her mother. It hadn’t occurred to her that she had no idea what to do next. She’d spent almost half her life locked away like an animal in a zoo being told what to do every hour of every day. She didn’t know how to be normal.
“Do you have any sweet tea?” Rhea asked.
Morgan smiled. “This is the South, isn’t it?”
Rhea smiled this time and some of the fear slipped away.
“Come on, how about something to eat with that tea?” Morgan turned and walked back into the kitchen.
Rhea followed and tried to ignore the tension settling in knots between her shoulder blades as Morgan pulled a pot out of the refrigerator and put it on the stove.
“I’m afraid leftovers will have to do tonight.”
The air quickly filled with the aroma of real food and Rhea’s mouth watered. She’d eaten little more than bologna-and-cheese sandwiches for days and the smell of real cooked food almost made her weep. She shrugged her shoulders.
“If there’s enough, I don’t want to put you out or anything.”
Morgan pulled two bowls from the cupboard and retrieved two spoons from a drawer. “It’s no trouble and there’s plenty.” Morgan pointed to the island in the center of the room. “Sit. I’ll only need a minute.”
Rhea sat down and propped her elbows on the edge of the cold stone surface and watched Morgan. It was strange to be sitting in someone’s kitchen, sipping sweet tea, and anticipating a hot cooked meal. She kept expecting to wake up and this would all be a dream, and she would still be locked up behind heavy stone walls.
She could tell by Morgan’s initial reaction to her name that Morgan knew about her past, but since then, Morgan had been polite, kind, and welcoming. What was Morgan’s game? Her polite hospitality reminded Rhea of how her mother used to host dinner parties when she was young, and how her mother always talked sweetly to the women who belonged to the Catholic Church although in private she condemned them for not being Baptist. Was Morgan simply being kind to the enemy? Whatever her game, Rhea was grateful for the warmth of the room, the refreshing drink in her hand, and a chance to be on her own.
Morgan filled the bowls, placed them on the island, and took her seat across from Rhea. The girl looked like she wanted to jump on the bowl of stew as if she hadn’t eaten in days. A cold knot formed in Morgan’s throat when she realized there was a chance that this was true. J.J. had said Rhea had been in prison for murder, but the woman sitting across from her didn’t look like a killer. She tried to look tough, but Morgan guessed that was mostly distrust and fear. Rhea had a petite build and feminine features that softened her otherwise lean, toned physique that made her seem hard. Her dark hair had been cut close to the scalp in a buzz cut, but that didn’t take away from the sloping line of her face and the glow of her piercing blue eyes. Morgan noted the almost perfect symmetry of her face, with a narrow straight nose and prominent cheekbones punctuated by a perfect dimple in each cheek. Rhea was beautiful.
Rhea finished her stew quickly and glanced toward Morgan’s half-eaten portion. Morgan wiped her mouth with her napkin and picked up her coffee. “There’s more on the stove if you want it, otherwise it’ll be thrown out. I don’t keep leftovers for more than two days.”
Rhea looked down at her bowl and then to the pot across the room. She looked back up at Morgan and swallowed as if she was trying to figure something out. “Can I get you some more too?”
Morgan smiled. “Sure, just a little though.”
Rhea filled Morgan’s bowl and returned to her seat. This time she ate more slowly and Morgan was glad the ice had been broken. She didn’t like Rhea’s past, but she had agreed to take her in, and that meant she had to find a way to accept that there were some things she would never understand. So far Rhea hadn’t turned out to be anything like what she’d expected, and Morgan had the feeling she shouldn’t make any more assumptions without giving Rhea the chance to prove herself. Rhea had a hungry look in her eyes that said she shouldn’t be underestimated. Morgan just hoped J.J. was right and she wouldn’t end up regretting this.
The cabin was small but had everything Rhea needed. She could tell Morgan had done some recent work on the place by the smell of new paint and sawdust that still lingered in the air. The bed was bigger than she was used to and the old-fashioned quilts were soft and heavy. Morgan showed her how to use the woodstove. She was warm, but the silence was too much and grated on her nerves like an itch in her brain. She lay awake listening through the silence. She hadn’t made friends in prison and there was no one to miss, but at least she hadn’t been alone there.
In the beginning, the night sounds had kept her awake, holding her in a tight fist of fear. Over time she had found a connection to the broken sobs, bargains made with God or the devil, the sounds of sex and violence, and plots and plans made under cover of night. She had stayed quiet and that had kept her alive. She knew drug dealers, mules, gang members, thieves, and murderers like her. Desperation was the one thing she found they all had in common. She rarely met anyone who hadn’t made hard decisions in the face of what seemed like no choice or when the choice made was the lesser evil.
The women she’d met were hard because they had to be to survive. For most, prison was no different than living on the streets. They’d just traded one set of captors for another. But Rhea hadn’t fit in there any more than she had on the outside. Her survival had hinged on her ability to figure out the game being played and the part she had to play in it. As a child she had learned to do her best to be perfect. She got good grades, did as she was told, even appeared popular with the other kids in her school. But none of it had been real. At least it hadn’t felt real to her. Once in prison she quickly learned to be hard, to face a challenge head-on, and to never turn her back. Weakness wasn’t a quality you could afford when everyone was seeking their own pound of your flesh.
This was the first time in her life that she didn’t have to pretend. But without pretending, who was she? Rhea slid out of bed, pulled on her jeans and boots, and went outside. The snow had stopped late in the night. A thick layer covered the ground like icing on a cake and gave the air a luminescent glow. The first rays of sun glistened across the surface like diamonds scattered across the ground.
Rhea was restless without some direction or someone telling her where to go next. Routine was the one thing she could count on in prison and she felt lost and anxious without it. She needed to shake it off. She opened the door and closed it. Then opened the door and closed it again and thrilled at the freedom the small gesture represented. Would she ever get used to not having locks and bars dictating her every movement? She pulled on her coat and stepped outside. The crisp air stung her face and she took a deep breath, filling her lungs with fresh, clean air. Her boots crunched with each step through the fresh snow, which seemed oddly loud in the surrounding silence. She looked around at the open space before her and felt overwhelmed by the breadth of the world. The only boundary was the split-rail fence and the cobblestone wall that outlined the property. There was no chain link or razor wire, no one with guns preventing her from going where she pleased. She had the sudden urge to run, a surge of power so strong she was certain her heart would burst. So she ran.
The cold air burned through her lungs and her legs ached from the pounding of her boots on the frozen ground. Out of breath, she stopped at the top of a hill that overlooked the farm. She imagined what the fields would look like in summer when the wildflowers danced on the breeze. Rhea wiped her face and was surprised that her cheeks were moist with tears. The idea of crying now was absurd. She hadn’t cried in years. She began to laugh and was convinced she was losing her mind. Her laughter died slowly, replaced again by the silence and crushing knowledge that she was alone.
She turned in a circle and took in the world around her, longing for something to connect to, something she could hold on to that would give her a place in the world. A flicker of movement to her right drew her attention to the small barn at the edge of the field closest to the main house. Morgan walked out with two large bottles under her arm, and a young calf trailed behind her. Morgan sat on a stump and began to bottle-feed the calf.
This small act of tenderness struck a chord and Rhea watched Morgan closely. There was something about Morgan that was different. She didn’t carry the hard edge of pain that most showed in the depths of their eyes and the line of their lips. Morgan lived by different rules. Her eyes were soft and caring, her voice firm but guiding, her body strong but gentle.
The last thought shocked her. What was she doing thinking about Morgan’s body? When had she even noticed something like that? Morgan was certainly unusual and there was no doubt she was the only person Rhea had to rely on right now, but since when did she care what someone looked like? Morgan was her boss and there was nothing else to it. Rhea sighed. It was time to go to work.
Morgan looked up from the calf she was feeding to see Rhea walking toward her. Rhea smiled sheepishly and stuffed her hands in the pockets of her coat. She looked nervous. Morgan wasn’t ready to start sharing her space or her animals with someone and she resented the intrusion. But she had to admit she was curious about the girl. Rhea carried herself with confidence as if daring the world to challenge her, but when her guard was down uncertainty and fear lingered in her eyes like a haunted soul. What kind of pain could put such a tortured look in the eyes of someone so young? She had no idea what prison was like or what things had happened in Rhea’s life to send her there.
“Good morning, I didn’t expect to see you so early. Is everything okay with the cabin?”
Rhea nodded. “The cabin’s perfect, I just wanted to go for a walk. Do you need any help?”
“Thanks, but I’m pretty much done here.”
Rhea shifted from foot to foot and Morgan wondered what she wasn’t saying. Rhea looked like she could jump out of her skin at any moment, but Morgan waited her out. She gathered up the bottles and spread hay for the calf.
Rhea finally broke. “So what do you want me to do around here?”
Morgan took a deep breath and looked around before meeting Rhea’s gaze. Her eyes looked questioning…uncertain…nervous.
Morgan shrugged. “What do you want to do?”
Rhea frowned and considered the question. “I don’t know. You’re the boss. You get to tell me what to do.”
Morgan smiled. She guessed Rhea was used to people telling her what to do, and it would be easy to dump the chores she didn’t like on her, but something told Morgan that wasn’t the way to go.
“Well, I guess I could, but I’d still like to know what you want to do. This will work out better for both of us if you aren’t miserable, and I know I prefer to do what I like. When I do what I like, I get more done. I figure you’re no different.”
Rhea shrugged. “The thing is, I don’t really know what I like. What are my choices?”
Morgan grimaced. “That’s a long list.” Maybe if she played her cards right she wouldn’t have to see much of Rhea and she could get on with her work. Maybe this could work out for both of them. “Why don’t I just show you around and point out things as we go. There’s the farmwork, some small-engine work, the farrier work, and the gallery. I’m sure you’ll find something along the way.”
Rhea pushed her hands deeper into her pockets. “So you just want me to tag along and then I get to choose?”
Morgan shrugged. “Yep, that’s the plan.” She paused to reconsider. “Of course whatever’s left over, we’ll have to split.”
Rhea smiled. “I can do that.” Morgan had surprised her again and some of her defenses fell. Morgan wasn’t like most people she had encountered, and this was the first time someone hadn’t tried to control her. Everyone always had a game they were running, some kind of manipulation to get something from you. But Morgan was different and Rhea couldn’t find the hook. When she looked into Morgan’s eyes she couldn’t find the tell, some shift of the eye that would alert her to Morgan’s game. Morgan’s eyes were sincere and Rhea wasn’t sure what that meant. Maybe all this open air was getting to her. No one was that good. But if Morgan was going to give her a chance, she was going to take it.
Rhea studied everything Morgan pointed out to her. She was eager to please and wanted to earn her place. She wasn’t looking for a handout, and just because Morgan had been generous up until now, didn’t mean she didn’t have a price.
The farmwork was pretty routine and she could handle the chores, but it wasn’t her favorite work and reminded her too much of home. Home. The word didn’t fit, but she didn’t know any other word to describe the place where she grew up. Home, family, trust, honor…those were all words that didn’t belong in her world.
The small engine shop was where she was most comfortable, but it only took a quick look around the place to see Morgan didn’t focus too much attention there. The small shop was no bigger than three horse stalls wide, and the place was a total wreck. Tools lay willy-nilly around the room as if forgotten wherever they were last used. Oil stains and dirt marred the floor and the place reeked of gasoline and oil. If she was going to work in here, things would have to change, and that meant a lot of cleaning.
Rhea ran her finger through a sticky glob of goo on the worktable and made a face.
“What?” Morgan asked.
“I take it this is one of those areas where you don’t enjoy your work.”
Morgan glanced around the room as if unaware of the chaos in front of her. Rhea was certain this wasn’t normal for Morgan. Everything else she’d seen around Morgan said she was a woman of routine and order, but not this room.
Rhea picked up an oil-stained rag and held it out to Morgan. “Looks like you’re trying to burn the place down. I didn’t peg you as a firebug.”
She meant the statement as a joke, but the glimmer in Morgan’s eyes dimmed and her smile faded.
“No, of course not, I would never—”
“Relax, Morgan. It was a joke.”
Morgan didn’t have to say anything. Her reaction was all Rhea needed to be reminded that she was the ex-con and that was exactly how Morgan saw her.
“You’re right. I don’t particularly like the mechanic stuff, but it pays the bills.”
“Okay.” Rhea pushed on. “I can help you out in here, but I’d like to clean things up a little.”
Morgan shrugged. “It’s all yours. You know what you’re doing?”
Rhea squared her shoulders. She figured Morgan was going to flinch away every time she mentioned prison, but she learned a long time ago not to run from someone else’s fear. Rhea had worked hard to earn her tech certificate in the vocational classes she was offered in prison and she was proud of her skills.
“Yeah. I know what I’m doing.”
“All right then. We’ll work on these later and see what you can do. We have one more stop to make.”
Rhea followed Morgan to a building closer to the house that looked like an old general store. Antique metal signs were nailed to the front of the building advertising Phillips 66, Castrol Oil, and Coca Cola. Rhea stopped and ran her fingers along the rough iron gates that guarded the large wood doors. The metal had been worked into the pattern of wild ivy so delicate that it was as if it would come to life at any moment and wind its way around her hand.
Morgan slid a key into the lock and pulled the gates open. She held her breath as Rhea studied her work. It was like this every time someone saw her studio for the first time. It was like having her life, her emotions, the essence of her soul on display, and she waited with bated breath for judgment to be passed.
Rhea stepped inside and walked around the room. She brushed her fingers lightly against the metal statues and studied every detail of the curves and welds that made each piece unique. She turned to Morgan, her eyes bright and unguarded.
Morgan’s heart stopped. Rhea looked so innocent, like a child discovering something new in her world. The stern crease in her brow was now smooth, giving Morgan a glimpse at her youth. The tension usually present in her body softened, and in that moment Morgan felt like time stopped. She held her breath and hoped Rhea understood her work was more than cold metal.
Rhea spread her hands out at her sides and gestured around the room. “You did all this?”
Morgan nodded, still speechless. She was awestruck at the glimpse of the tender side of Rhea and the person Rhea could have been if she had made different choices.
“These are incredible.”
“I’m glad you like them.” Morgan didn’t want to move. She didn’t want to do anything to lose this moment. She didn’t know what it meant, but there was something special in the unguarded smile creasing the corners of Rhea’s lips. Morgan felt as if she’d been given a gift. She was confused about why it mattered so much, but it just felt good.
“I’m a blacksmith. Most of my work is with metal.”
“I’ve never seen anything like this. So if I take on more of the chores and the small-engine work, that’ll give you more time to do this stuff, right?”
“All right then.” Rhea glanced out the door. “Before we get started, can we get my Jeep out?”
Morgan nodded again. “Sure. I’ll get the chainsaw.”
Rhea stepped outside and Morgan was relieved and disappointed that they were moving on to less personal business. She would never get used to showing someone her work for the first time, but she was always grateful once she had. Rhea was no exception, but Rhea had made her feel like her work was special. Rhea had no expectations to blur her vision and impression of the art, and her expression had said everything Morgan needed to hear. A needling warning reminded her to keep her distance. Rhea might seem harmless, but Morgan already knew better. She’d learned the hard way that people didn’t change, and once a line had been crossed it was easier to cross the second time. And she couldn’t afford any more betrayal or disappointment in her life.
Morgan wielded the chainsaw like it was a butter knife as she cut through the gnarled branches of the old pine with precision and what appeared to be little effort. Rhea grabbed the discarded limbs as soon as they broke free and moved them to a pile in the back of Morgan’s truck. Once the road was clear, Morgan shut off the chainsaw and stowed it in the truck. Rhea watched her move around the Jeep, surveying the damage.
“Your Jeep’s in remarkable condition for its age. It looks like it could have been driven off the lot yesterday.”
Rhea shoved her hands in her pockets. “Well, it was kind of stored for me while I was away.”
Morgan looked away. “Well, it’s a nice one.”
“Thanks,” Rhea said, not missing the slight stiffening in Morgan’s shoulders. “What do we do now?”
“I don’t think it’s stuck too bad. You’re not on your side and all four wheels have contact. Let’s try four-wheel drive first and see if she’ll drive out.”
Rhea hesitated. “Do you want to do it? I’m still getting the hang of driving.”
Morgan stared at her as if considering something. “No, you go ahead. You can do it. All you have to do is take it slow.”
Rhea climbed into the Jeep through the passenger door and slid into the driver’s seat. She put the key in the ignition and took a deep breath. Her hands were shaking, and she was certain she was about to make a complete fool out of herself. She pushed in the clutch, put her foot on the brake, and held her breath as she started the ignition. So far, so good. She adjusted the lever to put the Jeep in four-wheel drive and sighed when a symbol appeared on the dash showing the four-wheel drive was engaged.
“Nice and easy now,” Morgan said, a few feet in front of the Jeep.
Rhea let out on the clutch a little too quickly and her heart jumped when the Jeep lurched forward and died.
“It’s okay. Just take your time and feel the clutch engage,” Morgan encouraged.
Rhea sighed and shook out her hands. This time she did as Morgan said and felt the slight pull when the clutch engaged, and she let off the brake and gave it a little gas. The Jeep shifted and started to move forward.
“Start to turn the wheel to the right,” Morgan instructed.
Rhea was more riveted to Morgan’s instructions than to the road ahead of her. Morgan’s encouragement began to bolster her courage and she was almost excited. The Jeep climbed out of the ditch with little effort and a moment later she was on the road again. Rhea was elated. She’d done it.
“Great job,” Morgan exclaimed and patted the side of the Jeep. “I knew you could do it.”
Rhea rolled down the window. “Thanks for that. That was awesome.”
Morgan flashed Rhea a full toothy smile. It was the first time Rhea had seen her smile since they’d met, and it was as if the sun had broken free of clouds. Rhea liked the smile and the idea that she had somehow been its cause.
“Doesn’t look like there’s any damage. Let’s get her up to the house and take a look.”
Rhea nodded. She waited for Morgan to get in her truck and followed her to the farm.
Morgan motioned for her to pull into an open area next to her as she stepped out of the truck, still smiling. “Come inside, it’s time for lunch.”
Morgan hadn’t put it as a question, so Rhea followed her inside, careful to remove her boots at the door this time.
“I didn’t ask how you slept last night. Was everything okay with the cabin?”
“Sure, everything was fine.” Rhea would have thought anything was better than prison or her mother’s barn.
“It still needs some work, but like I said last night, I wasn’t expecting you till next week. The windows still need to be resealed, and a few glass panes need to be replaced, and I was going to check out that old General Electric refrigerator. It’s been in there since the 1950s and I haven’t had a chance to make sure it’s working properly.”
“No problem. I think I can do most of that myself. If I need some help I’ll let you know.” Rhea stood at the counter uncertain what she should do next. “What do you need me to do?”
Morgan nodded to a cabinet above Rhea’s head. “You can get out the glasses and pour the tea. I’ll have these sandwiches ready in a minute. I hope you don’t mind tuna fish sandwiches.”
Rhea’s stomach rumbled. “No. That’s great, thanks.”
A couple minutes later, Morgan settled on a stool in front of Rhea and picked up her sandwich. “So, what do you think of the work so far? Thought of what you want to do?”
Rhea was grateful for the easygoing conversation. She knew Morgan had been less than happy she’d shown up at her door last night, and she didn’t seem too thrilled to see her this morning either. But both times Morgan had warmed up to her after a while and had a way of making Rhea feel at ease.
“I’d like to do the small-engine work, if you don’t mind. I can help out with feeding and cleaning up and I’m pretty handy with a hammer and nails. I noticed you needed some repairs as we walked through today. Of course anything else you want me to do is fine too.”
Morgan smiled. “That sounds like a great place to start. I probably won’t be around much. I’m usually out on a farm call or working in the studio. I wander around the farm at all hours of the day and night, so don’t think anything of it. I like to work when the mood hits me, so that pretty much means you set your own hours. I don’t care when you work as long as the work gets done and the animals are well cared for.”
Rhea nodded in understanding. Morgan was giving her room to prove or disprove herself and maybe even hinting at her need for space. “Not a problem.”
“Good,” Morgan said, taking a bite out of her sandwich. “Now eat up. I want to see what you can do with those lawn mowers before the day is out.”
Rhea smiled and took a huge bite, filling her mouth until her cheeks bulged.
Morgan laughed. “I said eat your food, not inhale it.”
Rhea took a drink of her tea and finished her food. So far she was having a great day. It was the first time she’d smiled in forever and Morgan was good company. Rhea drew in a deep breath, suddenly filled with a fierce desire to prove herself to Morgan. She could get used to a life like this, and she didn’t want to do anything to mess that up.
Rhea carried the last of the iron and steel in from the truck and stacked it in the room where Morgan showed her she did her welding. Morgan was in the studio putting together an order for a client and had left Rhea to work alone. Lost in her work, she was startled by the chug of a diesel engine that came to rest outside the studio. Rhea went to the door and watched Morgan walk to the entrance just as the truck door slammed shut. A bull of a man with a round bald head and caterpillar eyebrows stomped up to Morgan. His scowl left no doubt of his disposition. His left cheek bulged with the full plug of tobacco clenched between his cheek and teeth. He stopped at the door and spat at Morgan’s feet.
“Hello, Jeff. What can I do for you today?”
Rhea stepped closer so she could see the man more clearly. The instant he moved into view, the hair on the back of her neck stood up. Whatever this guy wanted, he wasn’t selling Girl Scout cookies.
“You got those gate latches ready for the Miller barn?”
Morgan nodded. “I do. Come on in and I’ll get the bill.”
Rhea slid behind a sculpture of a large grasshopper as Jeff walked through the studio. She wasn’t sure why, but she didn’t want him to know she was there. She had the urge to run out the door while he waited for Morgan, but the big man turned and spotted her before she could get away.
“Who the hell are you?”
Rhea clenched her teeth and glared at him.
“Jeff, what would your momma say if she saw you being rude like that?” Morgan said.
The big man cut his eyes back to Morgan and sneered. “I reckon she’d be damned disappointed I talk to the likes of you at all, Morgan, but this job left me no choice. Get those damned latches so I can get the hell outta here. I’ve no interest in you or your little skank.”
Rhea growled and took a step toward the man.
“Rhea,” Morgan called, “would you mind going into the back there and getting that crate off the bench? It’ll be marked with a horseshoe.”
Rhea took a deep breath and did what she was asked. She wasn’t used to backing down from anyone, and she didn’t like how this guy talked to Morgan, but the last thing she needed was to get fired or, even worse, get a parole violation.
“Yeah, sure, I’ll do that.”
Rhea didn’t want to leave Morgan alone with this creep, but Morgan seemed unfazed. She scanned the room and located the box Morgan wanted and hurried back out. She expected the guy to get his stuff and go, but Morgan opened the crate and unpacked every item. She inspected each piece in front of the big man.
“Any problems, Jeff? I wouldn’t want you to find issue with any of the pieces once you get back to the site.”
Rhea gave up a silent cheer and congratulations to Morgan in her cunning. Obviously Morgan was used to dealing with him and had anticipated a problem.
“They’re fine,” he grumbled.
“Good. I’m glad you’re pleased. Now if you’ll sign this, stating everything is in order, we can settle up.”
“You trying to accuse me of something?” The big man leaned across the counter in an obvious attempt to intimidate Morgan.
Morgan smiled. “Of course not. I know that sometimes things happen during transport, and I just want it to be clear I’m not responsible for damage once an item has been picked up. I’m sure you understand that, Jeff.” Morgan handed him a pen.
Jeff snatched the pen from Morgan’s hand and signed the paper. He grabbed the box and stormed out.
“What a jerk,” Rhea said, relieved to hear the truck pull away outside.
Morgan sighed. “He isn’t a very nice man, I agree.”
“Why were you so nice to him when he talked to you that way?”
Morgan shrugged. “Why would I rise to his anger? I choose not to be a part of his hate.”
Rhea glanced toward the door. “I wanted to clobber him.”
“Violence isn’t the answer,” Morgan said and turned to face Rhea. “His hate and anger are consuming him and I have no interest in adding to his pain. It’s my choice whether I let his anger become my problem.”
Morgan walked out without another word. Rhea scrambled to figure out what had just happened. What did she mean add to his pain? Surely Morgan wasn’t that soft. If so, she was certainly in for a world of grief. People would be lined up outside her door, waiting to take a piece of her. But not Rhea. She wasn’t afraid of a fight and she was nobody’s doormat.