Lonestar Homecoming by Colleen Coble

ISBN: 1595547347 Thomas Nelson $14.99
Trade Paperback
Copyright © 2010 by Colleen Coble

One

In a few minutes, she’d be a married woman. Gracie Lister tugged at the silk encasing her hips and drew a deep breath that did little to calm the flutters tapping against her ribs. San Diego traffic rumbled past her small rental house, but she blocked out the noise and focused on the way her life was about to change. Things would be better now. Cid had changed. She was sure of it.
Hope tugged at her hand. “Mommy, we should pray,” she whispered. The dimples in her round cheeks flashed before her expression turned serious again.
Gracie smoothed her five-year-old’s dark curls, so unlike her own fine blond locks. She might not love Cid, but her daughter did. She couldn’t disappoint Hope, who wanted him for her daddy. “Okay, honey.” God didn’t answer her prayers anymore, but praying would pacify the child. She sat on the edge of the bed and gathered her daughter onto her lap.
Hope folded her hands and closed her eyes. A smile tugged at Gracie’s lips as she did the same. “Jesus, you know Hope needs a daddy. And we both need a home. May this day bring the fulfillment of all our dreams. Amen.”
“Amen,” Hope echoed, her eyes popping open. “I have to potty.”
“Hurry, we need to meet Cid in fifteen minutes.” Gracie smiled when she saw her daughter hiking the hem of her ruffled pink dress before she reached the bathroom. “Shut the door,” she called. “Someone might come in.”
Gracie rubbed her perspiring palms together and wished the ceremony were over. Soon this dump would be just a memory. Hope would have a princess room with ruffled curtains in the window that overlooked a park. Their furniture would be better than this mismatched collection of things from the Salvation Army. Hope could hold her head high at school in new clothes that weren’t hand-me-downs.
When the knock came at the door, she glanced through the window and saw two men in suits standing outside. She lifted the hem of her dress off the floor. The dress rustled in a delicious manner as she went to the door. When had she last worn something so beautiful?
She opened the door. “Hello,” she said, smiling. “Can I help you?”
The tall blond man flashed a badge that identified him as Roger Hastings. “Federal officers, ma’am.” His gaze swept her dress. “We’d like to talk to you a moment.”
Every muscle tightened as her vision blurred. She stepped aside to allow them entry. “What’s this all about?”
The younger one glanced her way with something that looked like pity in his eyes, but Hastings kept his expression impersonal. “We’d like to talk to you about Cid Ortega.”
Goosebumps raised on her arms. “My fiancé. Can’t this wait? Our wedding is in just over an hour. I have several things to attend to before the guests start arriving.” The few guests would be Cid’s family and a few of her coworkers. “What’s this all about?”
“I’m afraid it can’t wait. Have you observed him transferring anything to others? A box, a briefcase, a bag?”
She needed to sit down. “No,” she said. “What is it you suspect him of doing?”
The two men exchanged a glance. “Think,” Hastings urged in a harsh voice. “Maybe in the park?”
“What is this about?”
“We have reason to suspect he is turning a blind eye to gun-and-drug traffic through his district.”
Gracie took a step back and put her hand to her throat. Cid had not changed after all. The fact that she didn’t spring to Cid’s defense told her more than she wanted to know about their relationship. Her main priority had been to make Hope happy, no matter the cost.
“We’ll know more when we talk to your fiancé. I suggest you let us take you into protective custody. When he’s arrested here, the cartel will assume you helped us and may retaliate.”
Protective custody. “But wouldn’t that make me look even more guilty in their eyes? The minute you let me go, they’d come looking for me.”
Hastings shrugged. “Then you’d better get out of town until this blows over.”
The news had been full of the Mexican violence that had spilled over into the United States. Beheadings, mutilation. The list was long and horrific. Every impulse told her to grab her daughter and flee now, but did she owe Cid the courtesy of listening to his side?
Tires squealed outside, and Gracie turned to peer out the window. “It’s Cid.”
Hastings pulled a paper from his jacket and headed toward the door. “Stay back, ma’am, in case it gets dangerous.”
“He doesn’t have a gun,” she protested.
“That you know of,” Hastings said. “Stand back.”
Gracie backed away from the door as the men exited and approached Cid’s car. With the door partially shut, she peered out into the street. Cid exited the car and turned toward the house. The younger agent pulled out handcuffs. A battered brown van veered to the curb with a shriek of brakes, but she barely noticed with her attention focused on the exchange between Cid and the federal agents.
When the first pop, pop, pop came, she thought a car had backfired. Then she saw three men, their guns smoking, spill from the van. The men weren’t familiar to her. She slammed the door and locked it, then peeked through the open window in the entry. Her gaze went back to Cid’s car. She didn’t see the agents at first, then she noticed a shiny pair of black shoes by Cid’s back tire. And a second pair of shoes. There was no sign of Cid. Was he dead too?
The men glanced toward the house. Gracie ran to the bathroom and grabbed her daughter’s hand as Hope exited. “Be very quiet,” she whispered. Keys, she needed keys. She snatched her bag from the top of the dresser.
Hope’s dark eyes were huge. “Mommy, what’s happening?”
Gracie put her finger to her lips. Her pulse stuttered as she led her daughter into the hall. Where could they hide? The voices grew closer. They’d be in the house any moment.
Her gaze fell on the steps to the attic in the hall. Maybe she could trick them. She yanked on the knob and left the door standing open, then hurried to the kitchen utility closet. If she had to speak right now, she’d never manage a whisper. The scent of pine cleaner and dust enveloped her as she stepped inside with Hope and hunkered down behind the closed door. She quietly listened.
Footsteps paused by the hall. “The attic,” a male voice said quietly. “Angel, you check the bedrooms. Niguel, come with me. Find the woman and kid.”
She pressed her forehead against the wood. Hope’s grip on her hand was painful, but Gracie squeezed her daughter’s fingers reassuringly. She waited until footsteps went past the kitchen and down the hall. Holding her breath, she stepped into the kitchen. The coast was clear, but it wouldn’t be for long. She and Hope rushed to the back door.
She put her hand on the knob. What if there was someone else from the van outside too? Biting her lip, she eased open the back door and peered outside. The yard was empty.
She tugged on her daughter’s hand. “Sh,” she said.
Staying as close to the old brick building as possible, she led Hope down the alley to where it exited onto the street. A quick glance up and down the crumbling sidewalk dissuaded her from stepping out. Teenagers with tattoos stood smoking in groups. They could be part of the neighborhood gang. It wouldn’t be safe to ask them for help.
She ducked back into the alley. Across the lane stood an old church, one she’d attended a few times with Hope. As far as she knew, its doors were rarely locked, even though it had been vandalized several times. The pastor had told her if someone needed what the church had that badly, they could have it.
“Let’s see if we can get into the church,” she whispered to Hope. The two of them dashed across the alley to the side door, which opened to her tug.
They stepped into a cool darkness that smelled of old wood and dust. The familiarity of the odor took her back to her childhood. She crept along with her hand on the wall until she reached the entry. The place had a deserted air, so she didn’t think the pastor was here. Stepping to the front door, she opened it and peered outside. The morning sun hid behind clouds, and she heard a train whistle a few blocks over.
She ducked back inside. An ancient black phone sat on the table by the door to the sanctuary. Her hand hovered over the receiver, then she snatched it away. She’d seen articles in the papers of what the cartels did to informers. Their tongues were cut out before they were executed. She had to get away, find a place to hide where they’d never find her.
The train whistle blew again. The train. She still had the tickets to Alpine that she’d bought a few weeks ago, before Cid talked her out of leaving. If she and Hope could get to the train, they could escape.
The teenagers ignored them as she and Hope ran across the street to the intersection. They hurried down busy Taylor Street. A few men whistled at her through their open windows, and she knew her wedding dress was an attention getter she didn’t need. The train platform was just ahead. The strong smell of diesel fuel burned her nose but the odor signaled her escape. Passengers stared down at her from inside the train as she hurried to the steps.
She dug through her purse past the wallet, lipstick, and gum to find the train tickets. With the tickets in her hand, she and Hope boarded the train. Her wedding dress raised a few eyebrows as she walked by the other passengers, but no one spoke. She pushed toward the back, where she could hide Hope if the men came looking. Two seats together were a welcome haven, and she sank onto the upholstery before her legs could give way.
Safe, at least for now.
Her little girl’s eyes were huge in her white face. “Are the bad men coming?” she asked.
Gracie embraced her and kissed the top of her head. “It will be okay,” she whispered. She licked dry lips and watched through the window across the aisle. Her muscles trembled and she knew if she’d been standing, her legs wouldn’t have supported her.
The conductor shut the door. They were leaving. A sigh eased from her lungs. The train lurched, then pulled away from the platform as a man came running down Taylor Street. He glanced up and down the street but didn’t look at the train.
Her last glimpse of him silhouetted in front of the platform showed the butt of a gun jutting from his jeans’ waistband. The train picked up speed, and she settled back against the seat. Though lulled by the clack of the wheels on the tracks, she knew the danger was far from over. They’d think about the train eventually.
I could go home instead of to Bluebird Crossing.
“No,” she whispered. “I can never go home.”
Hope burrowed her head into Gracie’s lap. Her long lashes fluttered, and Gracie smoothed her daughter’s delicate brows. “Sleep, little one,” she whispered.
Night was coming and there would be many stops along the way in the next day and a half. She glanced at her wallet. How much money did she have? She opened it and stared at the single five-dollar bill inside. They could drink water at the stops, and maybe she could buy a couple of apples for Hope. But then what? When the money was gone, how would she feed her daughter until she found out if she could get a job in Bluebird Crossing? Where could they live until she received a paycheck? She had a bit of money in her bank account, but the minute she touched it, they’d find her.
Her cell phone was in her purse as well, but she had no one to call for help. Her throat thickened, and she swallowed hard. Blinking fiercely, she told herself not to cry.

***

The fierce southwest Texas sun beat down on Lieutenant Michael Wayne’s face as he disembarked at the Alpine platform. Whoever invented train travel should be lined up in front of a firing squad. It had to be a hundred degrees out here, but he should be used to it after his stint in Iraq. He dropped his duffle bag at his feet and scanned the scant crowd for Rick Bailey’s face. Wonder of wonders, the train from El Paso had arrived a little early. At least he hadn’t had to ride the thing long. And he’d had a front seat.
The elderly gentleman, Zeke, disembarked and shook Michael’s hand. “It’s been good talking to you, Lieutenant. If I were you, I’d find a wife to help you raise those kids.”
“Easier said than done, sir.” The man’s statement heightened Michael’s sense of ineptitude. He was ill-equipped for the task ahead of him. What did he know about raising kids—especially a daughter? He grew up without a mother and knew how hard it was. He’d never dreamed his kids would have to endure it too.
Zeke released Michael’s hand. “Thank you for your service, son.”
“You’re welcome, sir.” Michael marveled at the fellow’s strong grip. Zeke looked like he was at least eighty.
His back erect, the gentleman grabbed his backpack and walked away with a spry step. More people followed him as the train emptied. As Michael turned to watch for Rick again, his gaze settled on a young woman who held a little girl of about five by the hand. What caught his attention more than the fragile beauty of her fine-boned face and full lips was the wedding gown she wore. It was creased and spotted as though she’d worn it several days. Her dark blond hair hung in wisps around her cheeks where it had fallen from a shiny clip.
The little girl glanced up with an appeal in her brown eyes. Her pink dress was all ruffles. A layer of dust dulled the shine on her patent leather shoes. “Mommy, I’m hungry,” she said.
“I know, Hope,” the woman said, her voice full of defeat. “I’m out of money.” She blinked rapidly, but a tear escaped and trickled down her pale cheek. She turned to a woman beside her. “Would you be going to Bluebird Crossing? My daughter and I need a ride.”
“No, dear, I’m sorry. I live here in Alpine. There’s my husband.” The woman waved at a craggy-faced man in a cowboy hat and walked away.
The young woman’s face took on more determination, and she turned toward the next person exiting the train. Michael started toward them, his hand going to the pocket that held his money clip. The woman swayed as her knees began to buckle. What little color remained in her face leached out. He sprang forward in time to catch her before she crumpled to the walk. As he lifted her in his arms and carried her to a nearby bench, he noticed how slight she was.
“Mommy, Mommy!” The little girl ran after them with tears streaming down her face.
“It’s okay,” Michael said, pitching his voice to a low, soothing murmur. He laid the woman on the bench, then pressed his fingers to the thin skin of her wrist. Her pulse jumped erratically beneath his fingertips.
“Hope,” the woman muttered, her lids still closed.
He glanced at the little girl hovering beside her mother. “Hope, has your mommy had anything to eat?”
Hope shook her head. “She only had five dollars when we ran away. She bought some apples, but she said she wasn’t hungry and I could eat them.”
“How long ago was this?”
Hope wrinkled her forehead. “We rode the train all day yesterday and slept on it last night.”
It was middle of the afternoon now, so Michael assumed the woman hadn’t eaten in two days. He wanted to ask why Hope’s mommy had run away from her wedding, but it wasn’t his business. “What’s your mommy’s name?” he asked Hope as he took out his water bottle.
“Gracie. I’m Hope. Hope Lister,” she said.
Gracie Lister. The name fit the delicate woman on the bench. Her nose had a dusting of freckles. Translucent eyelids fluttered, then opened wide, revealing eyes as blue as the cheery storefront behind them. A tiny scar gleamed on her forehead.
She started to sit up, but he pressed her back. “Easy. Here, have a sip of water.” He held the bottle to her lips and she swallowed a mouthful. “A little more,” he instructed.
She nodded and took another drink. “Thank you so much,” she said. “I don’t know what came over me. The heat maybe.”
He helped her sit, then pushed her gently forward until her head was down. “Sit up when your head clears. Take deep breaths.”
After a few inhalations, she straightened. “I feel much better,” she said.
“Hope says you haven’t eaten in two days.”
A delicate bloom of color stained her cheeks. “I’m fine.”
“I don’t think so, ma’am. I heard you tell Hope you had no more money. Where’s your luggage?”
Her hands twisted together in her lap. “I . . . I had to leave it behind.”
He saw the fear in her eyes, the way she couldn’t hold his gaze. Was she running from an abusive fiancé? A distasteful marriage arranged by her family? His gaze went to her left hand again. It was bare, so apparently she’d escaped before the marriage happened.
“Do you live here?” she asked, glancing around. Her pupils dilated when her gaze fell on the crowd moving past. The muscles in her throat convulsed, and she shrank back against the bench when a tall man came toward her. Her breath eased from between her lips when the man passed without another glance at her.
“No, I’m heading to Bluebird Crossing.”
Her head came up. “Could we catch a ride with you?”
“Why are you going to Bluebird?”
She wet her lips, and her gaze darted away. “I’m looking for a job.”
“In Bluebird? Ma’am, you’re not likely to find much there.”
“I—I have a contact there,” she said. “Someone to help me.”
While he knew the folks in his tiny burg were neighborly, he couldn’t see her finding any real job there. “I can give you a ride when mine gets here.” His gaze swept the parking lot. “I don’t think he’ll be here for another half hour, though.”
“I’d be so grateful,” she said, more color coming to her face.
“How about we get something to eat?” He held up his hand when objection gathered in her eyes. “My treat. Hope is hungry.”
The rebellion in her eyes disappeared, and she nodded. “Thank you.”
He nodded across the street. “A sub sandwich sounds good to me. How about you?”
“Hope loves turkey sandwiches,” Gracie said.
He took Gracie’s hand and helped her to stand. “You okay? Dizzy or anything?”
“I’m fine,” she said.
As he led her across the street, he noticed the way she glanced over her shoulder and the tension in her muscles. What was she running from? ❖
________________________________

Buy Colleen’s LONESTAR HOMECOMING at:

Amazon

Barnes & Noble

christianbooks.com

indiebound.org

Powells

___________________________________

Best-selling author Colleen Coble’s novels have won or finaled in awards ranging from the Best Books of Indiana, ACFW Book of the Year, RWA’s RITA, the Holt Medallion, the Daphne du Maurier, National Readers’ Choice, and the Booksellers Best. She is CEO of American Christian Fiction Writers an lives with her husband Dave in Indiana.

Website: http://www.colleencoble.com/

————————————————-

Advertisements

About Vicki Hinze
USA Today Bestselling and Award-Winning Author of 40+ books, short stories/novellas and hundreds of articles. Published in as many as 63 countries. Featured Columnist for Social N Worldwide Network and Book Fun Magazine. Sponsor/Founder of ChristiansRead.com & CleanReadBooks.com. FMI visit www.vickihinze.com.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

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

%d bloggers like this: