Authors: Rachel Branton
Tags: #lds, #Christian, #karen kindgsbury, #Romantic Suspense, #ariana, #Romance, #Suspense, #a bid for love, #clean romance, #dee henderson
“Don’t get your hopes up,” I warned, startled at the happiness in her voice.
“I know. But still.”
“Yeah.” After hearing my mother in the barn, I knew only too well how Lily felt.
“So, is everything going okay?” Lily asked me.
“Yeah. I don’t want to go into details right now, but there’s proof Gage is innocent, and we’ve talked to the police about it. They’re helping to find out what really happened. It might be drug related.”
“Good. Not about the drugs, but about you maybe not being with a convict. I’ve been so worried. I can tell how much you like him.”
“You don’t need to worry. I told you I’m here with his sister and nephew. Anyway, I’ll be seeing you soon.”
“I can’t wait to meet him.”
I closed my eyes, trying to block the hurt. “Sure. Hey, I gotta go.” Easier than explaining that she would never meet Gage.
“Okay. Love you, Tessa.”
“I love you, too.”
I stared at the phone for a minute before remembering my original purpose for hiding out in the bathroom. I dialed quickly.
“Is this Bailey Norris?”
“Yes. Who’s this?”
Which told me she either didn’t have caller ID, or she was buying time. “Tessa Crawford, I mean, Tessa Braxton now.” I felt like a liar adding Gage’s last name.
“Hello, Tessa.” Her voice cooled notably.
I plunged in. “When we met at the police station earlier, I got the feeling you believe Gage is innocent, too. I’d like to come over and talk to you about that, see if you have any ideas to help him.”
“Help him what?”
“I don’t think he did it, and he shouldn’t have to suffer the rest of his life for something he didn’t do.”
“Why should I care?”
“I know you love him.”
Silence. I could feel it wasn’t going to be enough. If she was guilty of hiding something, she wasn’t stupid. I needed something more, and unlike Gage, I didn’t care if she went on with her life, not if it was at the expense of his.
“Look, you were right about me and Gage,” I said. “Our marriage isn’t real. In fact, in a few days, I’ll be out of his life completely. He was just trying to help me, and now I want to help him.” You and him, my tone implied. “If we can connect Skeet to drugs or something, it may be enough to clear Gage.” I didn’t mention her brother and had no intention of doing anything but to steer her toward talking about him long enough for me to know if he’d been in town that night. I would also remind her that clearing Gage would mean he’d be free to have a family, which might make her willing to confess what she knew. Ridge and the police would have to take it from there.
“Okay,” she said, her voice warming slightly. “You can come over and—”
Whatever she’d been about to say was drowned by a banging on the bathroom door. “Tessa, are you still in there? Goodness, woman, Mia’s cooking never affects
“Hold on,” I whispered into the phone. “Go away,” I called to Gage.
“Sorry, no can do. Dylan wants to play hide-and-seek, and you’re supposed to play with us. He’s outside hiding now, and I’m going to start counting. You get until one hundred before I come to find you. If I do, you’ll be it.”
He was impossible. “I’ll be out in a minute,” I said.
“Okay, but I’m timing you for two minutes, and then I’m starting.”
Ignoring him, I reached over and flushed the toilet. I waited until I couldn’t hear anything on the other side of the door before saying to Bailey, “What’s the address?” I typed it onto my word processing program. “I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
“I’ll be waiting.”
We hung up without saying good-bye.
In the room, I found a pen, jotted the address on the inner side of my arm, and shut the laptop. I started for the door, but on second thought, I took the card Ridge had given me the day before and slipped it into my pocket.
I found Gage alone in the kitchen. True to his word, he’d started counting without me. “Fifty-three, fifty-four, fifty-five.” He grinned. “Better hurry. Not much time left.” He looked so normal, so attractive, so much a part of me sitting there that I wanted to go up and put my arms around him and hold him. I wanted to see him smile like that every day. To play hide-and-seek with his own children—even if they weren’t mine, too.
He’d stopped counting and was staring at me. I felt his gaze like a touch, and I shivered. “Tessa,” he began.
I shook my head because it hurt too much. “You’ll never find me.”
Out the door and to his Jeep in the driveway, hurling myself inside and praying he wouldn’t hear the engine.
Halfway to Bailey’s, I began to worry about Charlie. Where did he stay when he was in town? If he was at his sister’s, he might be suspicious of my questions. No, I’d be careful.
I pulled up to Bailey’s house—a one-story, white affair that obviously needed a new coat of paint. The yard was meticulous, though, and I suspected a lot of Bailey’s tan was real and not canned.
I sat in the Jeep for a while, feeling apprehensive. Maybe this wasn’t a good idea. Maybe I was getting into more trouble than I could handle. Yet I had to do something. Talking to Bailey was the right thing—I just needed a backup in case things went wrong.
Pulling out my phone, I placed a call to Ridge Harrison. His voice-mail picked up. “It’s Tessa Braxton,” I said. “It’s about Gage. I don’t know if Mia told you—I don’t remember her telling you yesterday—but she said Skeet had a large amount of money on him before the fight, but that after the murder it was gone. I think Charlie Norris was there that night, and I think he killed Skeet with a poker just like he did his own father in California. You should look up the case—no way that’s a coincidence. I think Bailey Norris covered for her brother that night like she did when her father was killed. I’m parked in front of her house now. I’m going to ask her if her brother was in town that night.”
I hung up. I might be wrong, and if I was, I could apologize later. However, the fact that two people connected to Charlie had died from an attack with a poker was too coincidental. Even if Ridge didn’t believe me, his sense of honor would force him to look into the matter, especially if something went wrong tonight with Bailey. I forced a laugh. It’s not like she’d make me disappear or anything. Still, there was nothing wrong with telling someone where you would be.
I went up her cement stairs and knocked on the door, painted a startling emerald green that contrasted with the white house but somehow didn’t look hideous. Bailey opened the door, a fake smile on her lips. She’d changed her off-white outfit for a red tank, black skinny jeans that showed off her long limbs to advantage, and matching high heels with sharply pointed toes. As in the police station, her eyes ran over my jeans, which were the worse for wear after my adventures of the day, and the T-shirt that showed a blotch where once again I’d dropped a bit of my last meal.
She was good at intimidation, I’d give her that.
“Come in,” she said.
I hesitated, wishing I could stay outside and talk, but she’d opened the door, and I didn’t see her brother around, so I went inside.
The interior was lovely, with nice furniture and numerous decorations that went well together. I didn’t know much about style, but I knew what I liked, and we had similar taste. Leading me into a sitting room, she indicated that I should sit on the leather couch. She took the love seat opposite. I noticed she had a fireplace, but it was a gas one and wouldn’t need a poker.
“So,” she said. “How can I help you?”
“It’s more like how you can help Gage. As long as he has this murder hanging over him, he can’t go on with his life.”
“Looks like he’s gone on quite nicely to me.”
I snorted. “Well, he hasn’t.”
“You said on the phone that your marriage wasn’t real.” There was an eagerness in the way she asked the question, an eagerness that tore at my heart and increased my resentment.
“That’s right. I was engaged to someone else, and I found out he was unfaithful, but I needed to get married for financial reasons I don’t want to go into now. Gage helped me out.” I couldn’t bring myself to tell her the actual wedding had been fake.
“I knew there had to be something.” She grinned in triumph.
“Why?” Because she couldn’t imagine him loving someone like me?
“He was adamant about not marrying, of not having children who would grow up in the shadow of a murderer like he did. I thought that feeling would fade over the years, that it wouldn’t matter in the end.”
“But it hasn’t.”
She shook her head slowly. “No. He broke things off before he went to prison. He wrote at first, and I thought we’d be okay, but prison made it worse. He stopped writing. It was . . . difficult.”
“You knew he was innocent,” I prompted.
“I believed he was.”
“Why didn’t the police look further? Why didn’t you speak up?”
She shook her head. “I don’t know. It all happened so fast.”
The trial had gone on for months, so that wasn’t exactly true.
“I was stunned,” she continued, her voice growing ever more faint. “Everything was falling apart, and nothing I did helped. I expected the police to find the truth, but they didn’t. Losing Gage . . . I never got over that.”
I could sympathize. All those months he’d hidden behind that beard, and I hadn’t cared enough to really get to know him. I had only myself to blame for the emptiness I’d feel when I had to leave him for good.
“It must have been really hard for you,” I said. “Your brother must have been a big support to you during that time.”
She froze, her eyes digging into mine before she made an obvious attempt to relax. “My brother wasn’t here. He was in the navy.”
A lie. Charlie had only been in the navy for a year before they kicked him out.
“He didn’t come home to help you once he heard?”
“I didn’t tell him.”
Yet Charlie had told us outside Mia’s how devastated Bailey had been after Gage had broken things off. “Oh, I’m sorry. I got the impression you were close.”
“We are. I know my brother has some substance abuse issues, but he’s a good person, and he always takes care of me.” She crossed her arms in front of her, and I was wondering if she was thinking of the torment she’d suffered from her father.
I switched tactics. “Why do you think Gage is innocent?”
“Because he wouldn’t kill someone in cold blood.”
“Not even a man who raped his sister?”
She showed no surprise. “No.”
“Then it has to be someone else. Mia said Skeet had a lot of money on him before the fight, but afterward it disappeared. Someone took that money. If the police start an investigation into anyone who received a chunk of money at that time, we might find some answers. It might be related to drugs.”
Bailey stood and paced to the fireplace. “It’s been too long to track that sort of thing. Besides, anyone taking the money wouldn’t be that stupid, I wouldn’t think.”
“Then what can we do?” I arose and went to stand beside her. “You know as well as I do that Gage’s future is gone unless we can prove his innocence. Someone else was there that night. I know it. If you care about him, you’ll help me find the real killer.”
She turned toward me. “There’s nothing either of us can do. He’ll have to get over it.” Her voice was bitter and desolate, and that’s when I knew for certain I was right. She might not be happy about it, but she was covering for Charlie. “There’s no evidence anyone else was there.”
Nothing for it but to confront her straight on. “Skeet was killed with a poker, just like your father.”
Her eyes narrowed. “So? I told you—Charlie wasn’t in town.”
“Wasn’t he?” I looked at her pleadingly. “A poker is a pretty odd coincidence, don’t you think? Look, I know Charlie protected you from your father, but you can’t let Gage suffer like this. You love him. How long are you going to trade his life for Charlie’s?”
She didn’t reply, but I saw the answer in her face. She would do it forever.
“Never mind,” I said. “I’ll see myself out.”
As I started for the door, she came alive, her hand reaching out to grab a statue of two children from the coffee table. She came at me fast.
The last thing I knew was a terrible pain slicing through my skull.
hat have you done?” The male voice penetrated my unconsciousness, forcing me awake. I was lying on the floor in Bailey’s sitting room, my cheek pressed against the tan carpet. Something was wrapped around my head.
“Me? It’s all your fault! You’re the one who got me into this mess!” It was Bailey’s voice, weepy and desperate. “If you hadn’t killed Skeet, Gage would never have gone to prison!”
“What are you talkin’ about? I didn’t kill anyone.”
I knew the other voice now. Bailey’s brother, Charlie, but without the alcohol slurring his speech. Ridge must have worked miracles in the hours since I’d seen him and Bailey at the police station.
“Yes, you did. You killed him, and you took Gage away from me! I had to sacrifice him for you, and I’ll never, ever forgive you for that.”
I opened one eye and saw Bailey in her brother’s arms, hitting his chest. He was barely taller than she was and slight of build, but he was holding his own.
“Is that what you’ve been thinkin’ all these years?”
“You had the money—I saw it!” She hit him again.
“Yes, I went there and took the money back. Why shouldn’t I? It was ours. That jerk had drained us long enough.”
“But he had the poker! What if he’d given it to the cops?”
“After all these years, I doubt it was even the same poker. There certainly wouldn’t be prints on it after so much time. It’d be our word against his. Anyway, I didn’t kill him. I wouldn’t do that to you. I wouldn’t.”
“It wasn’t your decision to make!”
I was testing my body as they argued. Everything seemed to work, though the side of my head pounded horribly, and my hands were secured behind my back.
“Mine every bit as much as it was yours,” Charlie said. “I took care of it all, didn’t I? And whatever happened with Gage, you owed me.”