A Little Piece of Heaven, Ch. 25 & 26

Chapter 25

While Emily was in the shower later, Jeremy cornered Derrick and got Michael’s phone number.  There were just too many things he didn’t know to pull this off on his own. With some reluctance Michael agreed to meet Jeremy the next morning in town. So Jeremy decided he would beg off morning chores and head out as soon as Emily left. It wasn’t a great plan, but it was so hard to see how this could ever work anyway, it was worth the risk.

 

He spent the evening with Emily sitting on the front porch glider, looking at the stars, and holding hands.  It was all Jeremy ever wished for in life from this point forward. His only prayer was that when all was said and done, he would get the chance to simply be sitting here with her again someday.

***

Emily had spent so much time with Jeremy in the past six days that when he said he had to run into town Thursday morning, her heart did a little slam-dance. Of course she told him to go, but as she put the feed out for the horses, her mind started telling her how truly important he had become in her world, and that was more than a little disconcerting.

 

She was finishing up in the tack room when she heard the barn door squeak. The voice accompanying it slammed her to a stop with one word.  Brock. Her head spun as she assessed whether he could see her and whether he was headed to the tack room. The lights were off, so she slid backward into the shadows as he went instead to the gun case.

 

“Freddie? Yeah, I’ve got a live one,” Brock said into his cell phone. “Yeah. Tonight. We’ll need the Jeep. I’ll need you to put the food out on four, three, and seven about dark.  Yeah, we might end up doing a little target practice first. Nah, don’t worry.  This one’s so clueless he offered me ten g’s for one head. What’s a few wasted shells…? Yeah. Okay. Later, dude.”

 

He clicked the cell phone off, checked over the guns, slid the glass door closed, locked it, and walked out. It took five minutes of silence for Emily to breathe again.

***

“Are you out of your mind?” Michael hissed over the little restaurant table. “That’s suicide.”

 

“He doesn’t know me,” Jeremy said, feeling the terror of being in way over his head slither across him, but he pushed it down under the determination.  “He thinks I’m a complete idiot, and I’m going to let him keep thinking that until I can bust him.”

 

Michael’s scowl deepened as he leaned across the table and glanced around the all-but empty cafe. His near whisper told Jeremy way too much about Michael’s concern. “What about Em? Does she know about this?”

 

“I haven’t told her. I wanted to see what you thought first.”

 

“Don’t tell her.”

 

“Don’t?”

 

“No.” Michael was spitting the words like nails. “He’s done enough damage to her already.”

 

Jeremy considered and then nodded. “Well, that much we agree on.”

 

Michael sized him up for a long minute. “So you know then?”

 

“Yeah, she told me.” Jeremy took a breath and plunged forward. “Look, I’m afraid of what will happen if I don’t do something now. She is bound and determined to come back here when she graduates and take him down herself.”

 

“She said that?”

 

“It was implied.”

 

Michael nodded. “I was afraid of that.” He thought for a moment and then sighed. “Okay, so what do you need from me?”

 

“Info and maybe some back up depending how it goes.”

 

“What kind of info?”

 

“The kind that would get Brock nailed for good. What’s legal? What’s not? What things should I watch for or ask about?”

 

It took a long moment for Michael to get comfortable enough with Jeremy’s motives to start talking. Finally he shifted forward. “Well, hunting right now’s illegal anyway, so there’s one. If you hit anything other than a buck, that’s two.”

 

Jeremy pulled himself closer to the table. “We’re going out tonight. Does that tell you anything?”

 

“Night hunting?” Michael’s scowl furrowed. “That’s illegal as all get out.”

 

“And have you ever heard of… umm…” Jeremy tried to pull the word up in his mind. “Spotlighting?”

 

Michael’s eyes widened full-bore. “Spotlighting?” He set his jaw and then let out a disgusted exhale. “Yeah, I’ve heard of it.” After a moment he realized Jeremy was still clueless. “It’s when you take a high powered light and shine it at the deer so they freeze.  Deer in the headlights?  That kind of thing.” Michael shook and then scratched his head. “He’s gotta be nuts doing that.  That could mean serious jail time. Plus, you get your license yanked permanently for doing that stuff.”

 

“Oh, and I don’t have one.”

 

Michael looked at him in confusion. “One?”

 

“A license.”

 

Understanding drained over Michael’s face.  His exhale was slow. “He’s so busted.” Then seriousness overtook everything else. “Okay now, you listen to me, if Brock finds out what you’re up to…”

 

Determination steeled in him. “He won’t.”

 

“Well, he better not or we’ll be burying you on account of an accident in the woods, and that won’t do you or Em any good.”

 

Jeremy nodded feeling the seriousness of this undertaking drain into him. “But you’ll help me then?”

 

It took a moment of decision but only that. “Yeah. I’ll help.”

***

Emily’s heart leaped for joy when she heard Jeremy’s little SUV pull into the gravel drive. Lunch was ready. Whatever he’d gone to do sure took a long time. She strode to the front door to meet him, but when he stepped in, concern fell over her. He hadn’t looked so worried and unsettled since he’d gotten here.

 

At his side, she took his hand. “What’s wrong?”

 

He tried to smile, but that just pulled more concern into her. “Nothing.” He leaned over and kissed her lightly. “Just trying to get things ready to go back on Sunday.”

 

Sunday. She hated that thought.

 

“Lunch, kids!” her mother yelled from the kitchen.

 

“Come on,” she said, pushing all the thoughts of anything other than this minute away from her. “It’s chicken sandwiches. Even better than at the Student Union.”

 

His smile never really made it that far. “Sounds awesome.”

***

Midway through lunch as Jeremy fought to act normal while his insides snaked themselves into very unhealthy positions, Mrs. Vasquez turned to Emily.

 

“Sweetheart, I was supposed to clean church today, but I’m swamped. What’re your plans this afternoon?”

 

Emily sighed. “I was going to finish up my paper, but…” She looked over at Jeremy. “I think we could swing it.”

 

We?  Any other time that word would’ve sent his heart soaring; however, at this moment there was too much weighing it down for that.  He had planned on using the entire afternoon to worry and plan, but that was apparently out.

 

“You interested?” Emily asked him, suddenly looking anything other than sure.

 

With great effort he got a small smile to his face. “Sure. I’m in.”

***

How the little church could hold so much peace, Jeremy still wasn’t sure. It wrapped around him in ways he couldn’t fathom nor describe.  For the first two hours he followed Emily around, dusting, vacuuming, and polishing, but then she started arranging flowers. That was more out of his league than dusting, so he opted to sit in the third pew back and just take it all in.

 

They hadn’t turned on any lights, but the sun coming in from the stained glass windows afforded plenty of light.  As he sat, the coming hours drifted through his mind. He knew as well as Michael did that he couldn’t do this on his own, yet he’d decided not to tell Emily, and there wasn’t anyone else who could help. Fear filled his chest. He didn’t have the courage nor the knowledge to do this, and he knew it.  He closed his eyes as the hopelessness rained through him. “God, what have I gotten myself into?”

 

Defending against the worst case scenarios flooding through his brain was useless.  They were there, and hours out, he didn’t have enough immediate concerns to focus on to keep them at bay.  He opened his eyes, and his gaze snagged on her, up front, sitting on the floor in her white capris arranging and rearranging the basket of flowers.

 

“God, I just want her to be safe. That’s all. You get that, right?” He let out the breath in his lungs. “I want her to be free to live the life she wants without this hanging over her head.” The whispered prayer traced through him as his gaze settled on her once again. “She doesn’t deserve this, God. She doesn’t. She doesn’t deserve any of it. You have to know that.  Please help me to make the peace in her be real.”

 

He let out a frustrated breath. “Look, God, I know this is right. I know it is, but I can’t do it alone. I can’t. I know that as well as You do.” Thoughts and memories traced through him. All those years hating every second of church, hating every Christian he came in contact with. The evidence against him was surely damning. “I know I haven’t been the most faithful guy on the planet. I know there’s plenty in my past to make You mad at me, but God, I need really Your help with this one. Please help me. For her even if it’s not for me.”

 

At that moment Emily stood and reset the plant in its position. Wiping off the back of her pants, she turned to him, stepped down the three steps, which made her high ponytail swing at her ears. Without pretense, she walked right to him and plopped down by his side. Gently she reached over and took his hand in hers even though her gaze was only on the altar at the front. She seemed to soak in the aura of the place. “So what do you think?”

 

“Gorgeous.” He nodded although his gaze was as much on her as the church. A question that had been plaguing him drifted through his consciousness, and just as she started to stand, he got the courage to ask it. His gaze followed her halfway up. “Mind if I ask you something?”

 

She stopped, looked at him, and sat back down. “What’s that?” There was such happiness about her, he hated to bring it up, but still he wanted to know. He needed to know.

 

At first her gaze was only interested, but slowly the increasing intensity of her gaze on him brought his defenses crashing to the ground. He looked at her, formulating the question in his head. He tried to hold her gaze as he asked, but it was difficult. “I was just wondering how you got through everything after… well, after what happened.”

 

It was as if she couldn’t think about it and look at him at the same time. Her gaze fell to their hands resting on his knee. He hated the memories that wafted across her face.

 

“Well, at first I did a lot of crying, and for a long time I just let myself go numb on the inside. I walked through life, going through the motions, but it was like it wasn’t really real. Like life was happening somewhere out there. You know? Then, for awhile I tried to put it behind me and go on with life, but that didn’t really work either.” Her gaze slid from their hands back up to the high altar in front. “I finally realized that hating him wasn’t getting me anywhere.

 

“They’d talk about forgiveness in church, but as much as I wanted to, I couldn’t get there. I couldn’t do it by myself.  It hurt too much, and it was just so big. Then we had a youth retreat during my senior year. By that time he was gone, and I wasn’t having to face him every day, which was a good thing.  I went to the retreat because Audry was going. I didn’t plan on telling anyone, but there were some really great counselors there, and they were asking a lot of questions that for me kept coming back to forgiveness.

 

“Like what’s holding you back from God?  What things have you hidden from even Him?  What things have you buried that need to come out? During one of the sessions I completely lost it. I broke down, and one of the counselors talked with me for like an hour. Half the time I was crying so hard I couldn’t even talk. But I finally told her what happened, and whatever I thought she was going to do, she didn’t.  She held me, and she let me cry. She told me it wasn’t my fault, and that God could heal me if I let Him.”

 

The words stopped for a long moment.

 

Emily smiled softly. “But even then, it wasn’t easy. It took a long time for me to really come back, but I finally got to the place where I knew God didn’t blame me for what happened.  I knew He grieved over it as much as I did.” She dragged in a ragged breath. “I knew He loved me even if I didn’t love myself very much.”  She closed her eyes. “I guess that’s when I learned that He’s not out to get us. The truth is He loves us more than we can ever imagine—more than we love ourselves even… if we’ll let Him.”

 

Her strength and courage amazed Jeremy. He was falling more in love with her with every word although ten minutes before he hadn’t thought that was possible.  “Okay. So explain the whole you want to come back here to run the hunting on the ranch thing.  Is that revenge or what?”

 

She laughed in that way she had of laughing without really making much of a sound.  “No. It’s not revenge.” For a moment she didn’t go on. Instead she took in a long breath as she considered the question. Her glance at him was just that. “When I’ve seen the helpless animals Brock has killed with no regard for them at all…” The words slipped to a stop. Her face crumpled over her thoughts. Finally Emily shook her head and regathered her composure. “Somebody’s got to stop him. Somebody’s got to stand up to him and expose him for all the misery he’s caused.”

 

“But why you?” Jeremy asked although he could hardly breathe through the question.

 

Emily shrugged. “Why not me?  Brock may be Goliath, but I really feel like God is with me in this fight. He’s going to protect me, and He’s going to see me through it.”

 

“But how do you know that? How can you be so sure?”

 

“Because He already has once.” A moment and Emily stood. “We’ve got to get. I’m making supper tonight. Burritos. Yippee!”

***

The burritos should have been good, and they probably were except Jeremy couldn’t taste them.  He had already formulated his excuse to leave, and he’d given himself a when-dinner-is-finished deadline. When that deadline came, his insides curled over the tension of the task before him.  Watching Emily joking with Nathan as they finished dinner, Jeremy had the distinct impression that he might not ever see her this way again—happy, whole, at peace. At that moment, his resolve solidified. He would protect her. She would have that life–even if he got taken down in the process.

 

“Well, that was wonderful,” he said, standing from the table. “Thank you, Mrs. Vasquez.”

 

Everyone at the table looked up at him in surprise.

 

“Why thank you, Jeremy,” Mrs. Vasquez said. She looked over at Emily and then back at him. “Are you going somewhere?”

 

He ducked his gaze to cover the lie. “I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve got a paper due on Monday, and well… I haven’t gotten as much of it done as I thought I would.  I thought about going down to the barn to work. It’s quiet down there.”

 

Mrs. Vasquez’s smile told him the lie had worked. “Peace and quiet. That I understand.  Good luck with your paper.”

 

Jeremy let his hand fall to Emily’s shoulder. She gazed up at him, her dark eyes sparkling with the love he knew she now felt. With one millisecond of a smile, he let her gaze go and dropped his head next to her ear. “I’ll be back.”

 

Her smile sliced through him. “Can’t wait.”

***

Dark fingers of shadows stretched across the valley as Jeremy pulled through the gravel drive and up to the barn.  Brock’s Jeep was already sitting outside. With a breath and a prayer, Jeremy shoved out of the SUV and strode to the barn.  This night would require a dangerous mixture of arrogance and ignorance on his part, and he wasn’t sure which he was more concerned about.

 

“About time you got here,” Brock said when Jeremy stepped into the barn.

 

“Yeah. I had trouble getting away. Sorry about that.”

 

“Here.” Brock thrust a rifle in Jeremy’s hand.

 

The weight and responsibility of the gun dropped on Jeremy like ten ton truck.

 

“That’s yours. This is mine.” Brock yanked another gun from the case, and it was abundantly clear who got the better one.

 

“Let’s go, or we’re going to completely miss them.” Brock shut the case that still held four guns.

 

A feeling of how surreal this moment was encompassed Jeremy as they stepped from the barn into the ever-darkening evening.  He felt in his pocket for his recorder.  Thankful for all the times he had practiced over the years, he hit the record button, and as they got into the Jeep, he slid it next to him in the seat.  It was insurance that it wouldn’t be his word against Brock’s. However, he was under no illusions that it could just as easily become an indictment that sealed his fate should Brock discover it.

 

Brock stowed his gun in the back and took a small paper sack from under the seat. He unscrewed the top of the unseen bottle and tipped it up for a long drink. Jeremy watched him without watching. Terror slid into his system.

 

“Oh, my bad,” Brock said, wiping his mouth. He tilted the sack toward Jeremy. “You want some?”

 

“Oh, uh. No thanks.” It took one whiff from two feet away to know the sack contained a bottle of something that would seriously alter his thinking ability if he accepted.

 

“Suit yourself.” Brock screwed the cap back on and pushed the sack under the seat. He started the vehicle with a rev for emphasis.

 

For ten seconds they were on the main road, and then they weaved off it and onto a small trail.  As the Jeep pitched and bumped over the rocky terrain, Jeremy couldn’t help but feel how easy it would be to kill someone and dispose of their body out here. The trees themselves seemed to blind the rest of the world to the fact that anyone was even around. Lest his fear get the best of him, he plunged forward with the plan. “So where are we going anyway?”

 

“Rock Ridge. There’s a meadow up there.  We can do some practice rounds.”

 

He had to clear his throat to keep his voice from squeaking. “Practice rounds?”

 

Brock snorted and shook his head. “City boys.”

 

The taunt went through Jeremy, but he reined in his anger. “I thought we were just going to get a buck.”

 

“What’s the fun in that?  One shot and it’s over. You want some action, don’t you? Well, I’m giving you action.”

 

“Oh,” Jeremy said, wondering just how much action he wanted.

 

As the Jeep bounded through the brush and onto a flat spot, Brock braked to a short stop. In a breath he killed the engine and grabbed his gun.  He was out of the vehicle before Jeremy knew what was happening.  As Jeremy fumbled out, Brock reached under the seat, took another swig, and replaced the sack.

 

“Is… is that safe?” Jeremy asked, careful to hold the recorder both out of Brock’s sight and in range. “Drinking and hunting I mean?”

 

“What do you think, I’m in kindergarten?” Brock checked his gun, slammed the chamber open then closed. Then he turned up the trail. “You coming or what?”

 

“Oh, uh. Yeah.” This had to be the stupidest thing he’d ever done in his life.

 

“Hey, grab that spot from the back, will you?” Brock asked.

 

“Sure.” Jeremy went back to the Jeep, yanked the spotlight out remembering Michael’s words about this practice. One thing was for sure Brock had no respect for the law. Steeling his resolve, Jeremy turned and followed Brock up the hill.  He wasn’t sure if his heart was thudding from the effort or from utter fear. Chill was setting in over the mountain, and he felt it through the leather jacket.  He looked around, trying to get his bearings as they crossed through a thicket of trees, but the darkness coupled with the trees made that impossible. In fact, just staying on his feet was becoming a major challenge. He slipped and slid up the incline behind Brock, willing his feet not to pitch him gun-first onto the ground.

 

At the top of the hill, Brock motioned for quiet over his shoulder.  Jeremy obeyed. His gut twisted as he crested the hill.  There, grazing in an open meadow, stood at least fifteen deer.  They didn’t seem to hear the approach of the hunters.  They were too intent on eating.

 

“Good,” Brock said softly. “Perfect.”  He set up behind a set of boulders. His gaze never left the deer.

 

Jeremy followed his unspoken instructions.  On the ground he set the spotlight beside him, and he pulled the gun to him with both shaking hands.  Somehow he was pretty sure this would be different than hunting with the X-Box.

 

“Okay. I’ll spot them, and you’ll have your pick,” Brock said.

 

Nerves bombarded Jeremy. “H… how do I know which ones are the bucks?” It was a stupid question even for him, but the truth was his mind was no longer functioning properly.

 

“Jeez, don’t go getting all technical on me here.  Just get something.  Aim and fire.  Hit whatever you can. We’ll wait to bag something ‘til later.  For now, worry about getting something on the ground.”

 

That did nothing to settle his nerves at all. “Oh, okay.”

 

“Count of three, I’ll spot ‘em, you shoot ‘em.”

 

Jeremy nodded, unable to get so much as a breath out.  This was it. His only hope was that he could shoot badly enough to miss everything in the vicinity.

 

“K.” Brock readied the light. “One. Two. Three.”

***

It was strange how empty the house felt without Jeremy. For some reason Emily’s mind kept reminding her of that. Before this week, it had never occurred to her that he would ever even see this place, and now being here without him seemed completely weird.  The phone rang, and she answered it to give herself something else to think about. “Hello?”

 

“Em, oh, good. You’re there.”

 

She laughed. “Where else would I be, Michael?”

 

“Listen, is Jeremy around?”

 

“Jeremy?” That was weird. What was Michael doing asking for Jeremy?  They hardly knew each other. “Uh, no. He went down to the barn to get some studying done. You know how loud this place can be.”

 

Silence. Utter and complete silence. Concern twisted through her.  Speechlessness had never been one of Michael’s most prominent qualities.

 

“Is there something wrong?” she asked, not being able to keep the worry from her voice.

 

“Uh, no. Not really. Umm. Can I talk to Dad?”

 

“Dad?  Uh. Sure. Hang on.” Emily took the phone to her father in the living room. “It’s Michael.”

 

Her father’s glance drilled the concern deeper into her as he took the phone from her. “Hello?”

 

Emily shifted feet but stood watching the lines of worry creep across her father’s face.

 

“Tonight? Are you sure? Why didn’t you tell me this?”  He cleared his throat and looked up at her as the footkick on his chair came crashing back to its resting spot. Clearly he wanted her to leave, but she wasn’t moving. “Yeah.  Yeah. You’d better come over here.  We’ll decide what to do then.”

 

When the phone call ended, Emily fought to breathe. “What’s going on?”

 

She hated the look her father gave her, the one that said everything was horrible, but he would never tell her that.  It was the same look he’d had when he came home from the hospital when her grandmother’s final illness took a turn for the worst. It was the same look he’d had when the first kill had been found.

 

“Nothin’, Pumpkin,” he said slowly. “It’s nothing. Why don’t you go on and finish that paper you had? I’ll take care of this.”

 

Emily understood the balance of power in this conversation, so she turned and started for her room. However, she had no intention of letting it go.  Whatever it was, she would find out.

***

“I cannot believe you missed that shot!” Brock practically yelled, sending the last of the deer scurrying into the trees and up the hills.  “Nobody’s ever had a better shot in the history of hunting.” He lowered a scowl on Jeremy. “I thought you said you’d done this before.”

 

“I… I have.” Jeremy’s soul was still ringing from the blast of the rifle.  His ears would never be the same.  He shook his head without really moving it to get the explosion to stop sounding in his head. “It’s just been a long time, and I’ve never gone at night before.” He blinked to regain his bearings.

 

“Well, when they freeze right in front of you like that, that’s the best shot you’re ever going to get.” Rage marred Brock’s countenance. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were trying to miss.”

 

Jeremy put on his best nonchalant, city boy swagger, but it didn’t come as naturally as it once had. “No, man.  Are you kidding?  I said I wanted one, and I do.”

 

Brock yanked their meager possessions from the ground and started back down the hill toward the Jeep.  It was full-on black night by now, and the sounds surrounding them did nothing to settle Jeremy’s spirit. As he stumbled down the trail after his guide, he wished fervently for some source of light—something because the moonless space surrounding him was becoming eerier by the second.

 

“So what now?” he asked, desperately trying to keep himself together long enough to make it off this mountain in one piece.

 

“Now we go up aways and try to get you another look.”  Brock came abreast of the Jeep and hoisted his gun and the spotlight into it. “Not that that will do you any good.”  He got in and started the vehicle as Jeremy fumbled to get himself and the gun in it without firing the thing.

 

The amount of arrogance Brock’s eyes held was hard to imagine as he looked over at Jeremy. “Did anyone ever tell you, you shoot like a girl?”

 

Jeremy absorbed the insult as the Jeep bounced backward. “No.  I can’t say they have.” His senses snapped into the understanding that by missing the shot and saving the deer, he had put not only the plan but himself in greater danger.  Trepidation trounced through him as Brock reached under the seat and swore when it took more than a second to locate the sack.

 

The understanding that the edge of nowhere was just beyond the roadway to his right screamed through his alarm system.

 

“Well, listen to me.  You get one on the next shot, or I’ll be the one taking the shot at that buck.  I ain’t gonna let some punk-nosed, brat-pack, city boy weasel me out of 10 g’s.  Not when I’ve wasted all this time taking you up here and everything.”

 

The understanding that Brock was a little baking time short of toast began to dawn on Jeremy.  He’d better get what he needed fast because Brock losing patience could not be a good thing.

 

“You know,” Jeremy said slowly. “I really do want that buck, and it really has been a long time since I’ve done this. Maybe it would be better if you just shot me one.  I get my prize. You get your cash. Everybody wins.”

 

Acrid annoyance bled through Brock’s glance as he took another swig. “You’re such a wuss.”

 

Well, that was better than being dead. His heart arched through the thought. “Honestly, I really don’t care who shoots it, so long as I get something.”

 

The Jeep tilted suddenly to the side, and Jeremy grabbed on to the dashboard as the ground sped by so close he could touch it.  Weeds whacked the running board right at his feet. Breathing was becoming harder by the second.

 

Brock shook his head. “Well, at least that way you wouldn’t go wasting anymore of my shells.”

 

“See,” Jeremy fought to keep his voice calm, “everybody wins.”

***

“That’s crazy. Is he out of his ever-loving mind?”

 

It wasn’t difficult to hear her father’s booming voice from down the hall by her room. Michael had arrived only moments before, and already they were hunkered down over the kitchen table discussing the reason for his visit. Emily quietly stepped out of her room and padded down the hall.

 

“He wants to protect her,” Michael said. “Not that I blame him. I should’ve done something about that jerk a long time ago.”

 

“What does she have to do with this?” her mother asked, and Emily heard the fear.

 

“Well, you know Em’s wanted to take Brock down for a long time now. It’s why she went to school for wildlife,” Michael said as if that was common knowledge.

 

Fear slapped her hard. What was Michael doing? He was going to mess everything up. Pressing herself flat against the wall, Emily moved down it until she could see Michael in the sliver between the two walls going into the little dining room. He stood there, hands planted on hips with as much anger in his eyes as she had ever seen. It twisted her heart to see him like that.

 

“But why now?” her mother said in a voice, pitched high with worry. “Why would he think this was a good idea now?”

 

“Because Brock’s here, and apparently Jeremy made a deal with the devil that was too good to pass up.”

 

Fear, anger, and humiliation drained through Emily.  What were they talking about, and what in the world was Jeremy’s name doing in the middle of this conversation?  Her mind snaked through all the possibilities—none of which she liked at all.

 

“Do you have any idea where they are?” her father asked.

 

“No, Jeremy didn’t know where Brock was taking him when I talked to him earlier.”

 

In that flash, Emily knew how to find out where they were, and she knew she knew. Fury that Jeremy had gone behind her back laced over her. Stepping into the room, she cut Michael’s words in half. “I don’t know where they are, but I know someone who does.”

 

All three gazes snapped up to her. She anchored her arms over her stomach in defense against them. She wanted to run, but this time she held her ground.

 

“Pumpkin, what do you know about this?” her dad asked with a quaver in his voice.

 

There was only one, small breath to steady herself. “I didn’t know who he was talking about, but I heard Brock on his cell phone today when I was in the barn feeding the horses. He told Freddie Martinez to put food out on three, four, and seven.”

 

“Food?” her mother asked uncomprehendingly.

 

“You mean bait,” Michael said with disdain dripping from the word.

 

Emily tilted her head in acknowledgement.

 

“What does three, four, and seven mean?” Her father stood from the table.

 

She shrugged. “I figured it meant the sites they have staked out to hunt when it’s off limits.  It wouldn’t be the first time.”  Her voice was so matter-of-fact that her parents looked at one another.

 

“How much do you know about all of this?” her father asked slowly.

 

“I know that Brock’s a jerk who’ll take what he wants and throw away whatever he doesn’t.  I just don’t understand why Jere…”  She looked at Michael, and suddenly she understood perfectly. He was trying to protect her from Brock. She closed her eyes praying that it wasn’t what she thought. “Oh, no. Michael, he didn’t…?”  However, when she looked again at her brother, there was no questioning the look on Michael’s face. “Are you kidding me? How could you let him…?” Guilt for putting him in this situation in the first place dropped on her. Jeremy was indeed taking on the devil, but he had no idea how dangerously stupid that could be. “Hello, what are we standing around for? We’ve got to go.”

***

How far away they were from civilization, Jeremy had no idea; however, when they stopped and Brock downed two long swigs, standing in the middle of New York City wouldn’t have helped his nerves.  He ducked his head to get his gun, saying prayer after prayer that they would get this thing and go home—alive and in one piece.

 

“So is all this your dad’s property?” Jeremy asked.

 

Brock shrugged as he put the sack back. “His.  Someone else’s. What’s the difference?”

 

The thought that he could add trespassing to the long list of offenses they were racking up occurred to him.  He slid out of the Jeep. “We going to try for a buck this time?”

 

A snort wafted to him through the darkness. “We?” Brock started up the trail. “Bring the spot.”

 

“Yeah. Sure.” With a yank he had the spotlight out.  Small rounded rocks lay all over this trail which angled up and through a knot of trees.  Jeremy’s feet kept sliding out from under him, and he wished he had thought to ask Derrick for hiking boots.  Thoughts of Derrick brought thoughts of Emily. If Brock was anything that night like he was this one, she hadn’t had a prayer. Softly Jeremy asked God to be with her—wherever she was.

 

“Awesome,” Brock said when they broke free at the top.

 

Jeremy couldn’t disagree, but for different reasons.  A herd of deer stood grazing peacefully in the meadow beyond. Across it led to another hill covered with trees.  He set the spotlight down and slid to the ground. Next to the tree, Brock readied the gun.  His eyes were dull and wild as he looked at Jeremy.

 

“This is going to be fun.”  He lifted his chin.  “You spot them. I’m going to see how many I can take out.”

 

Evil webbed itself over Jeremy.  He was about to be an accomplice in a cold blooded murder.  His spirit sent out a silent prayer. “Oh, God. Help.”

***

“I heard you talking to him, Freddie,” Emily said as she stood ringed by her father, her brother, and the sheriff. “They’re out there, and you know where they are.  You’d better tell us where, or I swear I’ll…”

 

“It’s real simple, Freddie,” the sheriff, a big man who had just been appointed acting sheriff due to an investigation into the former one, said. His voice brooked no argument. “You tell us what we want to know, or you spend the next six months in jail for aiding and abetting a felon.”

 

Freddie, a young ranch worker, looked on the verge of a nervous breakdown. “I… He just said… they were…” His eyes widened on the understanding that either way he was in serious trouble. “Umm, they’re probably on seven by now.”

 

“Seven? What’s that?” her father asked.

 

The young man with the thin arms and long, deep tan face considered the question. “It’s up on the ridge, Sir.  In the meadow across from the Jameson Ranch.”

 

Emily’s breath left. “At the drop off?”

 

Freddie looked at her for a long moment and then simultaneously nodded and offered her an apology with his eyes.

 

Her father wasn’t standing around waiting for more. “You got any backup we can call?”

 

The sheriff reached to his collar and spoke into his radio.  Emily’s mind spun with the instructions. Two to the Wycliff residence.  Four to the drop off and be aware that the criminal was armed and dangerous. Armed and dangerous. Those words clung to her like sandburs.

 

“Okay,” the sheriff said. “Let’s get up there.”

 

Pushing the fear back, she started to the door with them.

 

“Emily, honey.” Her father turned to her. “Why don’t you go on back to the house? We can get this.”

 

She shook the hair from her eyes and lifted her chin. “No, I’m going. This is my fight too.”

 

They stood like that for a moment. Eye-to-eye, toe-to-toe. Then, in breath he surrendered. It was the first time she had ever seen her father back down. He nodded in understanding and pushed the door open for her to exit.

***

“This is it.” The stench of alcohol drifted over Jeremy from Brock who lay a foot away.  There was no question Brock was under the influence. Jeremy had been there enough times to know the signs. “You spot them on three. One. Two. Three.”

 

With a breath to pray this was all just a horrible dream, Jeremy twisted the knob.  Then, for one single second he looked right into the soft, bright almond eyes of a young doe.  She looked up from her meal and froze. The blast from next to him shattered the calm of the night, and Jeremy gasped from the reverberations.  As if in slow motion, the deer convulsed and collapsed to the ground.

 

“That’s one.” Brock leaped to his feet even as he reshelled the gun. He took aim at the scurrying animals that were desperately trying to get to some shield. The second explosion rocked the night around Jeremy as a second deer dropped within ten feet of the first one.   “That’s two.”

 

And then they were gone. Tears stung the backs of Jeremy’s eyes, but he fought them off as he stumbled to his feet.  He wanted to get out of here, to go home to sanity. “Did you do it?  Did you get a buck?”

 

Brock shrugged. “I think the second one was, but it was a little thing. You want something bigger.  Let’s go.”

 

Jeremy couldn’t get his mind to work through the fact that they’d just killed two beautiful animals, and they were leaving them with no further thought.  “Aren’t we…?  I mean… Hmm.”  He cleared his throat. “Aren’t we going to take them with us?”

 

“They’re trash,” Brock said as they descended the rock-strewn path. “Kind of like your girlfriend.”

 

Hate.  It was the only word that came close. As they started down the trail, Jeremy realized that with Brock ahead of him, he could knock him down and have the advantage without much trouble.  Then he thought of the gun in his hands.  It was loaded.  An accident in the woods.  Yes, they were hunting illegally.  Yes, he would go to jail for a long, long time, but the idea of Brock hurting even one more innocent creature twisted the boiling rage in him to the point of who really cared?

 

I finally realized that hating him wasn’t getting me anywhere.  Emily’s sweet voice drifted through the hate and yanked Jeremy from his murderous thoughts.  Just as Emily had said, Brock was Goliath, arrogant and heartless.  But hate would not defeat such an enemy.  God would.  Emily had learned that, and as Jeremy approached the Jeep and watched Brock tip the bottle up, he vowed to take her lead.

 

It was nothing he had ever fully done before, and letting go of hatred wasn’t even something he thought he could do prior to this moment. But this, this required him to trust Someone much bigger than himself one hundred percent. His life depended on it and so did Emily’s. Softly he turned his thoughts to God and whispered that this was out of his hands and now fully under God’s command.

 

It occurred to him then as Brock got in the Jeep and swore when he fumbled with the keys how out of control Brock really was. In the next second Jeremy felt himself calm. If he held onto sanity, he would have the upper hand.

 

“God,” he prayed as he stored the gun and spotlight in the back, “I need You here. Show me what to do.”  Carefully he got into the Jeep, watching every move Brock made.  His movements had become jerky, unsteady, and clamorous, totally different than the arrogant smoothness of before.

 

“So we’re going to a different field?” Jeremy asked, amazed that his voice was so calm.

 

“Yeah. Last one.”

***

“God, please, please, please be with Jeremy,” Emily pleaded as she looked out the window into the darkness.  Jameson Ranch was on the extreme edge of the Wycliff Ranch. Only the drop off separated the two.  It was a ten mile drive to the base of the trail that would take them up another 15 minutes through trees and rocks. Every inch the pickup rumbled, Emily breathed through the prayers. Their father was in the police car ahead of them, guiding the trail of vehicles.  They were second, with Michael at the wheel of their dad’s worn-out work pickup.

 

Gently Michael reached across the seat and put his hand on her shoulder. She turned sad, scared eyes on him, fighting the tears and panic.

 

“Jeremy’s smart,” Michael said, barely getting the words to the air. “He’ll be all right.”

 

Emily nodded, but her gaze fell. She really hoped so.

***

“Okay, now this is it,” Brock warned as they climbed so high the oxygen began to thin.

 

Jeremy’s lungs and legs screamed for relief, but he forced himself to follow the hunched figure lurching through the trees ahead of him.  The strength in his arms had faded long before now, but he willed them on just a little longer. Just a little higher.  It was almost over. He had no way of knowing what they would find at the top of this climb, but he was pretty sure it would look much like the last meadow, minus, of course, the two dead deer now lying in it. He pushed that thought from him.

 

He wanted to ask how they would carry this one back down, but he didn’t have the lung-capacity for that.  Questions would have to wait as well.  Right now he had to concentrate on how to get what he needed to seal Brock’s fate so this night would be the last one he would be prowling these mountains.  It was clear from the amount of noise Brock was making that the alcohol was seriously affecting his judgment.  That could be a good thing. It could also be a deadly thing.

 

After what seemed like hours of climbing, Brock turned to him, his hair disheveled, his eyes wild. He put a finger to his lips. “Shh.”

 

Jeremy wanted to tell him that he wasn’t the one making all the noise, but he didn’t dare.  Instead he put his head down into the effort of climbing.  Steep would’ve been a blessing.  His feet slipped and slid somewhere in the darkness beneath him.  Just then Brock slowed, slowed further, and then stopped.

 

Everything in Jeremy told him to turn around and run for his life, but he forced all of those things down.  He had come here on a mission, and he would finish that mission. He owed her that much.

 

“Beautiful,” Brock breathed. “Perfect.”

 

Jeremy didn’t even want to look.  He slid to the side of the tree where he stood, and then angled his shoulder around it. The sight took his breath away.  Unlike the other venues, this one looked like it led clear off the edge of the earth.  There were no trees ringing it on the other side.  He was having a hard time getting a full breath.

 

“Well, this is it,” Brock said. “Pay dirt.  You line ‘em up, and I’ll take ‘em out. So simple it should be illegal.”

 

“You know, Brock.  I don’t know…”

 

Death dropped into Brock’s eyes. “What do you mean you don’t know? You’re not going to slide on me now.” The evil flowed from him and slithered over Jeremy. “Oh, I don’t think so.”

 

“No. No. That’s not… that’s not what I meant. I just…” Jeremy glanced again at the deer.  How could he get out of this without hurting any of them? At that moment there was a snap in his pocket. It jerked his attention down to it before he thought better of it.

 

Brock’s gaze followed his in confusion. “What was that?”

 

Jeremy didn’t answer. He couldn’t.

 

“I said, ‘What the hell was that?’” The malevolence in Brock’s eyes dropped a whole octave.  He stepped over to Jeremy who had frozen to the spot. Roughly, Brock stuck his hand into Jeremy’s pocket and pulled out the recorder. Confusion drained over his face.  He held it up two inches from Jeremy’s face. “What is this?”

 

Swallowing was impossible. “It’s… it’s nothing.  Really.  I was just working on my paper. I forgot it was in there.”

 

“Oh, yeah?” Brock took a moment to finger the recorder.  Then he snapped the rewind button.

 

Jeremy, who had left his gun on the ground by the tree, held up his hands in surrender. “Brock, really. Shouldn’t we get to hunting? I mean the deer…”

 

“You line ‘em up, and I’ll take ‘em out,” Brock’s voice from the recorder traced through the night. With a jerk Brock hit the off button. The devil couldn’t have looked more livid. “Your paper, huh? You writing a paper on hunting or what?” He slung the recorder to the ground where it cracked against a tree. His hands came around the rifle at his hip which he lifted.

 

Jeremy was backing now not so much because he thought it was smart, but more because it was all his body wanted to do. He held up his hands. “Look, Brock, this isn’t what you think, man. I just… I wanted…”

 

“You set me up.  You little… I cannot believe you set me up.”

 

Backing as Brock bore down on him, Jeremy was now fully exposed in the clearing. “Seriously, man. Why would I set you up? What do I have to gain from doing that?”

 

“It’s your girlfriend,” Brock said. His voice hinged toward madness with the words. “She put you up to this, didn’t she? That little witch. I knew I should’ve taken her out when I had the chance.”

 

Utter terror cracked into Jeremy.  What was to keep Brock from shooting him and going down to find Emily?  She and her family wouldn’t have a prayer.

 

Jeremy tried to laugh it off. “Hey, man. Emily had nothing to do with this. Really. It was all my idea.” At that moment his heel snagged on something unseen in the darkness at his feet. In the next breath he was falling, and with hardly time to catch himself, he fell with a crack against the hard, cold ground. His shoulder caught him, sending pain shooting through his head and neck. He heard the noise of his scream echo across the world, and in the next second he heard the deer running for their lives. Pushing up from the sparse grass, Jeremy watched them scatter.

 

Brock’s gaze went out to them as well. Both watched as they disappeared down the mountainside. He cursed, then took an anger-laden breath, and retrained his gaze to Jeremy.  Venomous abhorrence dripped down into Brock’s countenance. “So what were you planning to do with the tape, huh?  Did you have a plan, city boy?”

 

The fact that the rifle was between them was not lost on Jeremy. The world in fact seemed to hone to that one single item dropping across Brock’s hands. “I… I wasn’t… I didn’t…” Words and air failed him. He was still backing although he couldn’t even find enough sanity to get back on his feet.

 

“You should’ve left well enough alone, pretty boy.” Brock brought the gun higher, aiming it next to his swaying frame. “Trying to play hero will get you killed up here.”  The gun was now aimed right at Jeremy.  He could see it as if the spotlight was on it. From point blank range, Brock could hit a raindrop on a blade of grass.

 

“I…” Jeremy swallowed, praying his final prayers even as he fought to think of something that would deter this madman.  “Come on, man. This isn’t going to work.  You kill me, you’ll be sent away for a long time.”

 

Brock just laughed, and the sound sent chills scattering through Jeremy’s body. “I was never here. You were up here by yourself, hunting illegally with some buddies of yours.  You told them you could get them some trophies. I heard you in the barn.”

 

Horrified disbelief sank into Jeremy’s chest. “And they shot me for it?”

 

The shrug was barely that. “It was an accident.” Brock was looking down the scope. “Accidents happen.”

 

A noise in the brush by the trees yanked Jeremy’s attention to it, and for the longest second of his life he forgot all about Brock.

 

“Brock, no!” Emily’s scream stabbed through the night, echoing through the canyon below.

 

In horror Jeremy watched as Brock spun around, the gun still aimed and ready. There was no thought, no time to second guess anything. In one motion Jeremy launched himself from the ground and nailed Brock right in the back hurling them both to the ground.

 

The report of the gun exploded between them, and he heard Emily scream. Utter chaos descended on him as his body snapped into reaction mode. It was fight or die as far as he was concerned, and dying wasn’t an option.  He landed his fist on Brock’s nose, cocked and hit his chin. From under him, the blows coming back at him knocked all sanity away. Although he’d never been in a fist fight before, instinct kicked in. He was simply an animal fighting for his life.

 

“Jeremy! Brock! No!” Emily screamed from somewhere far outside his consciousness, but he wouldn’t stop. He couldn’t. If he did, Brock might take another crack at her.  His fist rammed into Brock’s face, sending his head careening to the side like a punching bag. Brock fought back, kicking and shoving at Jeremy, grabbing his collar and ripping it forward, he tumbled them over one another.

 

In a heartbeat Jeremy was on his back as Brock’s fury rained down onto him. The blows shook sanity from him even as he struggled not to completely lose control. Jeremy knew better than to let Brock have the upper hand. He had no idea where the gun was, but it was a sure bet if he gave Brock half a chance, he’d be staring down that barrel again, and this time he wouldn’t be so lucky. As blow after blow smashed into him, Jeremy kicked with all his might, sending them spiraling over each other again.  They were rolling body over body through the clearing—yanking, clawing, punching, tearing.

 

And then, as if it had all been a dream, Brock was suddenly lying on the ground somewhere far below him. Jeremy fought against the forces that held him fast, pulling him away.

 

“Jeremy! Man! Jeremy! Stop it! It’s over! It’s over, man!”

 

How long it took for those words to fully sink into his understanding of the world, Jeremy didn’t know, but when he finally obeyed and let the fight go from his body, he looked up and found Michael’s eyes and fear-filled face mere inches away. “It’s okay, man. It’s over.”

 

Chapter 26

“Emily.” It was the first thought that went through Jeremy when sanity took hold. “Where is she? Is she okay?”

 

“Jeremy?” Her voice sounded behind him, and the fear screamed through it.

 

He turned to her, and he watched her face crumple over the relief. In a breath she was in his arms.

 

“Oh, my God. I was so scared.” Tears streamed from her eyes and words as she clung to him. “I thought you were dead. I thought he had…”

 

“Shh. Shh,” Jeremy soothed, stroking her hair. “I’m fine. I’m fine. I’m okay.” However, his gasps of breath said otherwise.  Adrenaline flooded his system, making him quake with its fury. For a long moment he closed his eyes and let himself simply hold her. Then he pulled back and put his hands on her face. His eyes searched hers for answers. “Are you okay? You scared me to death.”

 

Her tears slid over his fingers. “I saw him with that gun pointed… at you. I didn’t know what else to do.” She was shaking with the emotions.

 

Thanking God for bringing them through, Jeremy drew her into his arms and held her there. He closed his eyes and breathed in being alive. It felt better than he had ever realized it did.

 

From across the meadow, he heard the commotion of voices and turmoil. It was only then that he realized there were others besides Emily and her family in the clearing.

 

“I didn’t do it!” Brock yelled. “It was him! He tricked me. Man, it wasn’t me.”

 

Rational began to reassert itself in Jeremy’s head. “The recorder.  We’ve got to find it. Please God, I hope he didn’t destroy it.”  He started to let her go, but when Emily squeaked her protest, he pulled her to him and started across the clearing with her tucked securely under his arm.  “He threw it over here into the trees.”

 

However, at the trees the understanding of just how dark it was came back to him.  He let go of her to commence his search and had only started when one of the deputies called, “Hey, would this help?”

 

At that the area was bathed in blessed, soul-soothing light. The spot. He’d forgotten about that. Jeremy dropped to his knees. “Yeah, man. Bring it over here.”

 

“Why aren’t you handcuffing him?” Brock asked with vehemence as he struggled against the two men who held him fast. “I’m telling you, I didn’t do anything.”

 

“Shut up, Brock,” a tall man with no uniform and no real connection to the situation that Jeremy could see said. “You’re in enough trouble the way it is.”

 

Digging under the brush, Jeremy slid his hands first to one side and then the other. He had to find that recorder or it really would be his word against a madman’s.

 

Emily gasped and darted from his side. “Is this it?” She lifted the small gold rectangle from the forest floor near a tree next to the one Jeremy was searching.

 

“Yeah.” In a heartbeat he was on his feet, examining the object in her hands.  It was smashed, but when he hit the eject button, the lid popped up. “The recorder’s history, but it looks like the tape is okay.”

 

“Okay,” the husky man in the dark uniform said to those gathered. “Then it looks like we’ll all be taking a little trip to the police station.”

***

Never in her life had Emily wanted to be this close to someone. Had she been able to melt right into him, she would have.  Strangely she didn’t really care who saw them together or what anyone else would think.  By the grace of God, Jeremy was safe, and all she wanted to do was hug him and remind herself of that fact forever.

 

In tandem with the group, they started down the mountain. However, ten steps down it became apparent that descending a mountain arm-in-arm was hopelessly dangerous. Reluctantly she let him go, but he held her hand tightly as he stepped in front of her, descending first, and helping her down.

 

“Watch out, there’s a rock here,” he said, pointing it out as if she could see it.

 

“Okay.” She pushed the hair over her ear and forced herself to be careful. The last thing they needed at this point was to go tumbling down the mountain.

 

Half the group was below them, half above them, but they were in their own little world. The trip down seemed ten times longer than the trip up had, and she breathed a sigh of thanksgiving that she hadn’t wasted one precious second of that time. Her mind stumbled on what might have happened had she gotten there only a minute later, and the tears sprang again to her eyes.  She pushed them back. He was safe. Everything was all right. In her hand, his was warm and firm. She had never been so grateful for a hand in her life.

***

At the smattering of vehicles parked at the bottom, Jeremy once again wrapped her to him. That flash of a moment when she was in Brock’s sights would haunt him for a very long time.

 

“Why don’t y’all come with me?” Michael asked.

 

Jeremy nodded, afraid to trust his voice. Across the way, Brock was screaming curses like Satan himself.

 

“Yeah. Let’s get out of here,” Emily said, and he heard the emotion.

 

He helped her into the pickup and crawled in beside her.  Even here, with her brother right there, she huddled into Jeremy, no hesitation whatsoever. It was all he now asked from life.

***

The longer Emily was with Jeremy, the more determination and peace flowed through her.  He was crazy to try to take down Brock like that, but if he was in this fight, then she was ready to come out swinging.

 

“Can we stop by the house?” she asked.

 

“The house?” Michael turned a scowl on her. “What do you need from the house?”

 

The decision settled in her heart. “Evidence.”

***

Armed with a box full of things that Jeremy didn’t even want to ask about, they walked into the police station.  It was a little six room building—hardly worth the name, but it would have to do.  The others were already assembled in the little waiting area.

 

“Sir, I think you should take a look at this,” Emily said, striding right through the middle of them to the sheriff.

 

“Whatcha got there?”

 

Jeremy wasn’t sure if it was fear or pride that was filling his chest. Either way he willed his strength into her. He watched as slowly, piece by piece Emily pulled what by the end was a mountain of plastic bags out of the box.

 

“What’re these?” the sheriff asked, lifting one to examine it.

 

Emily wound a piece of hair over her ear. “I’ve been collecting them for five years now.  Every time there was an unexplained kill, I went out to the site and gathered all the evidence I could find.  I got empty shotgun shells, rifle shells, deer food, along with pictures of the area where the animal was shot and killed.  There are pics of the animals too—the ones that were still there when I got there.”

 

Her father grunted and shifted on his feet, but she never slowed down.

 

“There are dates and times as to when the kills were found along with a notation of if Bro… I mean Mr. Wycliff was home at the time.”

 

“Jack, what’s this going to prove?” the un-uniformed man said, standing.

 

The sheriff stared at him hard. “Kelvin, I think your son’s in enough hot water as it is. Don’t make this any worse.”

 

Son? Kelvin. Wycliff. The KW Ranch. Pieces clicked into place.

 

Mr. Wycliff retook his seat with a snort as Emily continued.

 

“I also know the name of a young man I suspect was on his last expedition in December. His name is Zack Harris. He goes to Princeton. I think giving him a call would be a good first step.”

 

“He’s a nobody!” Brock yelled, struggling to free himself from the two armed men on either side of him. “We’re the Wycliffs! You can’t do this to us! You have nothing on me! Let me go!”

 

The sheriff turned a disgusted look on Brock. “Get him out of here.”

 

For several moments the deputies battled to get him out. Then the door closed, and there was silence.

 

The sheriff nodded. Then he turned his gaze on Jeremy. “Mr. Stratton, may I see you in my office, please?”

 

Dread traced over him as he straightened from the others. “Do I need a lawyer?” It was a serious question.

 

“If you would prefer to do this with a lawyer, we can wait until morning.”

 

Jeremy considered as he looked around at everyone looking at him.  He knew what his dad would say, but he also knew Emily had just put all her cards on the table to back him up. He looked right at her. “Let’s do it.”

***

It was all Emily could do to keep from collapsing into tears as she sat down on the little bench beside her father. Exhaustion, relief, hope, and dread somehow formed as one in her heart. She watched Jeremy follow the sheriff into the little room, and ache slid over her. His beautiful face, framed by the flattened strips of disheveled and dirty hair, was marred with cuts, bruises, and streaks of blood.  He’d taken the beating of a lifetime and almost lost his life because of her. Only now was it sinking in just how much he’d almost lost out there.

 

Gently, her father put his arm around her and bent his head to kiss her hair. “I’m proud of you, Pumpkin. That took guts.”

 

She breathed. “Yeah, well, let’s hope it’s enough.”

 

Her father nodded. “It will be.”

***

Jeremy’s mind was still reeling by the time Emily snuggled into his arms on her parents’ couch three hours later.  She pulled the Indian blanket around them and settled next to him. He closed his eyes and laid his head back on the cushion. The soft light from the end table lamp draped the room in golden light.  Warmth began to seep into his still-chilled bones, and quiet slid over him.

 

Sleep drifted through his tired mind, pulling him down into it.

 

“You didn’t have to do that, you know,” Emily said so softly he could well have dreamt she said it.

 

When Jeremy opened his eyes, he found her gazing up into his. Sad tenderness wafted over her as she reached up and ran a finger over the cut running from his temple to his cheek. He’d seen it. It wasn’t pretty.

 

Questions traced across her face, and it was clear she was fighting the tears. “Why? Why did you do that? You could have been killed.”

 

The answer to that question was so simple, he smiled. “Because I love you. That’s why.”

 

There was every sign that she wanted to protest, but Jeremy didn’t give her that chance. Instead, he traced his finger from her neck under her hair, lowered his head, closed his eyes, and brushed across her lips.  At that moment there was no question that every moment to get to this one had been more than worth it.

***

“’Bye,” Emily said as she hugged her parents on Sunday morning. Standing next to Jeremy’s SUV, she felt the understanding that she was no longer a young girl, but sometime in the last week, she had truly stepped into being an adult.  Something in her whispered that this scene, her standing with Jeremy saying good-bye to her parents, would be the touchstone of her life from this point forward.

 

“You take care of my little girl,” her father said to Jeremy as they shook hands.

 

Jeremy nodded his acceptance of the responsibility. “Yes, Sir. I will.”

 

“Good luck with graduation, Jeremy,” her mother said as she hugged him. “We’ll be praying for you.”

 

“I appreciate that,” he said.  Then it was time to go. He opened Emily’s door, made sure she was in and secure before he slammed it.  In seconds he was right next to her, and together they waved as they drove out to the highway.

 

Watching him without being too obvious, Emily saw him look in the rearview mirror and exhale. Gratefulness for him being on the planet at the same time as her drifted into her spirit. “What’re you thinking?”

 

He turned out onto the highway, lost in thought, and then he looked over at her. There was no smile, only dead seriousness. “I think I’ve finally found where I belong.”

 

Her heart tripped over itself as her breathing slammed to a stop. “Oh? Where’s that?”

 

His glance at her was filled with words she could hardly read for the emotion contained therein. “Here. With you. In the mountains.”

 

Concern slid through her as her gaze dropped. “But I thought…”

 

Gently he reached over and took her hand. “Yeah, I did too.” He glanced out the window as the sheen of spring rolled out before them. “But now I’m not so sure.”

 

“What would you do out here?  You’re not exactly horse material.”

 

“Well, there’s a little bank in town. I saw it when I went through.”

 

Now the concern was deepening. “What about your dad?”

 

Jeremy laughed softly. “It’s not about my dad. It’s about me.” His glance took her breath away. “And you.” He pulled her hand up from the gear shift between them. His lips brushed across it sending her heart flying. Laying it back but holding it just the same, he drove a moment as she tried to get her heart to stop hammering in her chest. “So what time’s Bible Study on Wednesday?”

 

Her eyes widened, and there was no silencing her heart. “Bible Study?  I didn’t think you did Bible Study.”

 

The smile was easy and genuine. “Yeah, well, that was before God told me to climb a mountain and He’d have my back.” He looked so much the same, but he seemed so very different.  “That kind of changes things, you know?”

 

Yeah. She knew. She knew very, very well.

***

“Emily!” the squeal from the open door made her spin full around. In the next second she was in the midst of an all-out hug.

 

“Becca, hey! I went by your room, but Holly said you weren’t back yet.”

 

Dressed in jeans and her normal yellow T-shirt, Becca’s eyes shone from behind her dark rimmed glasses. “Yeah, I was at Eric’s waiting for you.  We figured you guys would come in together.”

 

Together. There was something about that word that did funny things to Emily. She pushed a piece of hair over her ear. “Yeah, well, we did, but Jeremy had some things he needed to take care of when we got back.”

 

Rebecca stopped her excited rush and surveyed Emily slowly. “Wait. What happened anyway? You look different?”

 

So it wasn’t just Jeremy. “Do I?”  She breathed in the thought. “Well, I guess being rescued on a mountaintop will do that to a person.”

 

“Rescued? What?” Rebecca dragged her to the bed and forced her down. “Tell me everything, and don’t leave anything out.”

***

“No wonder,” Eric said when Jeremy had finished the recounting of his Spring Break. “Are you sure Emily’s all right?”

 

Jeremy shrugged. “Brock’s being held without bail. They figure he’s a flight risk, and I’m sure at some point we’ll have to go back and testify.”

 

“Go back?” Eric’s brows furrowed. “You? In the country? On a horse? I can’t see that.”

 

“Yeah, but you should see that place.”  Jeremy drifted away on the memories. A field of new green stretched before him, and his heart floated back to lying in the midst of it with her in his arms. “No cars, no horns, no 50 thousand people. Just trees and fields and peace.”

 

Eric snorted as skeptical drained over his face. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you liked it there.”

 

Jeremy smiled. “Yeah, I think I do.”

 

“Do? As in…?” For a long moment Eric surveyed his friend. “So what does Em think of all this?”

 

The smile widened, filling Jeremy’s heart. “She’s right there with me.” Gratefulness so deep, it yanked tears to his eyes crowded through him. How could he ever be thankful enough for her?

 

Understanding streamed across Eric’s face. “So when are you going to ask her?”

 

There was no need to lie. “Right after graduation.”

Copyright Staci Stallings 2006

Advertisements

About Staci Stallings

Staci Stallings shares her heart for God with her novels, articles, and conversations. She loves making new friends, writing, and playing piano and guitar.
This entry was posted in A Little Piece of Heaven, Novels and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s