Authors: Rachel Branton
Tags: #lds, #Christian, #karen kindgsbury, #Romantic Suspense, #ariana, #Romance, #Suspense, #a bid for love, #clean romance, #dee henderson
Gage appeared in the doorway. He took one look at my face and grabbed the phone from my hand. “Who is this!” he demanded. “Well, stop calling. Tessa is
You will leave her alone or deal with me.” A pause and then, “Gage, Gage Braxton from Kingman. Google me and you’ll know why you should stay far away from her.” He shut the phone.
I rolled my eyes.
“What?” Gage handed me back the phone.
“You don’t have to defend me. I can handle it myself.”
“Oh?” He put one finger to my cheek and came away with a tear. His voice became so soft it was almost a whisper. “Should I call him back for you?”
“Good. So are we getting out of here, or should I tell Calvin we love this place so much that we’re staying another night?”
I wished I hadn’t agreed to go with him to his sister’s. I didn’t like the anger in his voice or the look in his eyes when he’d told Julian that I was his wife, as though I was his property. I’d also begun thinking that if whatever had happened in Gage’s past was serious enough to be on the Internet, I might have made a huge mistake.
* * *
We reached Kingman shortly after noon. I was feeling stiff and sleepy from the ride on the bike, but I’d enjoyed being close to Gage, even if I’d never admit it. There was something secure about him.
I noticed he didn’t drive through town, but kept to the lonely back roads once we’d left the freeway. He probably didn’t want to be recognized more than necessary. Behind us, I saw a white sedan that looked similar to one that had followed us on the freeway. An unease touched my mind, but I pushed it away. No one knew where I was, and no one had a reason to follow us.
After several more blocks, we turned down a narrow road that soon became dirt. The sedan didn’t follow, and I breathed a sigh of relief. Now only the occasional house popped up awkwardly out of the desert, a bit of unexpected organization in the sprawling landscape. Dust rose in a cloud behind us, and I found myself yearning for a drink of water.
At last Gage stopped in front of a single-story house with a wide porch, surrounded by a grove of green trees. Like an oasis in the desert, the place was as different from its distant neighbors as if it had been transported from another place or time.
“It’s so . . . refreshing,” I said. Also surprising and quaint, but I didn’t want to gush.
He grinned and helped me off the bike, slinging his duffel over his shoulder. “There’s an underground river going through the property. One in a million. Our neighbors think our water bill is outrageous, but you can follow the line of the river if you try.” Sure enough, a line of brush and trees stretched out behind the house, and ran alongside the road in front as well, where a thriving bunch of weeds were taking advantage of the moisture.
The house itself was a small, tan, stuccoed affair that looked on the new side. The porch had rough-cut beams for support, and hanging from the outer crossbeam were three large pots spilling an array of colorful flowers and greenery. More flowers lined the walkway and filled the narrow flowerbeds. There were even a few cacti.
“My sister has a green thumb.” He paused before we began up the walk. “Look, about Mia, she’s . . . well, she’s . . .” He ran out of words.
I took the fake gold ring from where I’d shoved it into my pocket at the hotel and put it on my finger. “Don’t worry. I’ll be nice.”
He didn’t even crack a smile, and suddenly he was a stranger, not the man who’d let me win at cards all night long. He reached for my backpack, but I took it myself.
We weren’t even up the steps when the door pushed open and a woman appeared, dressed in jeans and a frilly apron. My first impression was one of innocent beauty. She had lively green eyes like Gage, but there the resemblance ended. Her hair was dark enough to be called black, and it was long and glossy and held in a careless ponytail. She was small, delicate, almost childlike, and her freckled nose turned up at the end. She flung herself at Gage, and he hugged her tightly.
The moment they separated, Mia’s hands and arms were moving fast, almost a blur, betraying her excitement. Realization dawned on me—Mia was deaf.
Gage held up a hand. “Wait,” he said, signing the words as he spoke. “Tessa doesn’t know sign language.”
Mia grinned at the expression on my face. “You didn’t tell her,” she said, the words awkward but recognizable. To me she added, “I am so pleased to meet you. I can’t believe he didn’t tell me you were getting married.” She added something in sign to Gage and then laughed.
Gage looked at me. “She can read lips pretty well—and guesses at the rest.”
“Nice to meet you,” I said. I was of average height and on the slender side, but I towered over her and felt like a giant in comparison. “Sorry about the surprise. It was sort of . . . well . . . it surprised everyone, even us.”
Mia smiled at me, and I smiled at her. Gage rocked on his heels and didn’t meet my eyes. No one said anything until Mia finally waved us inside. “My husband is traveling,” she said. “You will have to meet him another day. But my son will be home soon.” Some of her pronunciations were odd, and her voice had a nasally sound, but it wasn’t unpleasant.
“Dylan’s a great kid. You’ll like him,” Gage assured me.
Mia said something I didn’t understand, and she motioned to Gage to translate. “She’s made us lunch,” he said.
“Thank you.” I was starving. Something about being on the run had affected my appetite. At this rate, I’d end up as chubby as Lily, and without a baby to show for it.
“It’s chicken noodle soup,” Mia said. “Gage says you love it with the big noodles.”
I glanced at Gage, who looked uncomfortable. This was the third time he’d remembered something I must have told him in the pasture. Either he had a good memory, or he’d been stalking me. “I do love it,” I told Mia a little too loudly.
She smiled and then pointed at my backpack. “I’ll show you where to put this.”
We followed her to a guest room. It was smaller than my room at home, but bigger than the room at the hotel. A plush couch sat in front of the bed and an armoire with a TV inside was opposite. There was a small dresser, but the closet looked more than large enough for the little we’d brought.
The little I’d brought, because there was no way Gage was sleeping in here with me. He’d have to tell his sister something.
“Gage added the bathroom when he did the stucco,” Mia said. “I always keep this room for him. And for you now. I hope you’ll make him visit more often.”
Gage’s face showed a fleeting remorse, but before he could speak, Mia turned to him. “Why don’t you go pick up Dylan from school early? He won’t want to miss you.”
Features hardening, Gage signed something vigorously to Mia, and she signed back with equal fervor. A silent argument that when right over my head.
“I’m just going to wash my hands,” I said. Good thing we were only staying here one night.
When I emerged from the bathroom, Gage was gone, and Mia was in the bedroom waiting for me on the couch, her eyes bright with unshed tears. “He’s so angry,” she said. “I’m sorry for making everything sad.”
“Don’t worry about it. He’s worried about being here, cutting his beard. I don’t think he wants to be recognized.”
“That’s why he doesn’t come. Only when Aiden is out of town and I need him. He doesn’t want the kids to torture Dylan about having an uncle who is a murderer.”
“A murderer?” I said slowly, but she wasn’t looking at me and couldn’t read my lips. Thoughts raced through my head—Gage telling me about prison, the women in the restaurant, my own belief that he hadn’t done anything serious. Of course it wouldn’t be the first time I’d been wrong about a man.
“I never thought Gage would marry,” Mia continued. “Not after what happened. I—” She broke off, hesitating a second before rushing on. “It was hard for us as kids living under that shadow, but more for him. I was a girl, and besides, I couldn’t hear what the kids said.”
I sat down next to her. “I don’t understand.” And not just because her words were garbled with tears.
Her watery eyes met mine. “Our father killed a man when I was a baby. He went to prison and died there. More than anything, Gage wanted to prove he was different.”
I was beginning to understand. The son of a murderer would have carried that stigma all his life, and school in a small town would have been torture. But that didn’t explain what Gage had done.
“No matter what he told you,” Mia continued, “Gage didn’t hurt anyone.”
“But he was convicted of murder.” I said the words without making them a question, made sure she saw my lips. My heart pounded in my ears.
Mia shook her head. “He didn’t do it.”
“How do you know?” If he’d been convicted, there had to be proof of some kind, didn’t there? Forensic evidence?
“Because I was there.” She took my hand, and her next words chilled me. “The only reason Gage went to prison was to save me.”
age came in at that moment, and we both started guiltily. “I’m sorry, Mia,” he said, signing the words as he spoke. “I didn’t sleep much last night, so I’m a little out of it.”
Mia smiled at him, her tears already vanishing. She grabbed her brother’s hand. “Come. You need to eat.”
Her chicken noodle soup was better than I usually made, but I’d lost my appetite. The pancakes I’d eaten that morning curled in a sodden mass in my stomach, and my unanswered questions weighed even more heavily inside my brain.
“So how long have you known each other?” Mia asked.
“Since Christmas,” I said at the same time Gage said, “Thanksgiving.”
Thankfully, she could only look at one person at a time, and she was looking at Gage. “Thanksgiving,” I repeated thoughtfully. Maybe he was right.
“Yeah. The week I moved in.” His eyes met mine, but I looked away. At the moment, Gage both fascinated and repelled me, and Mia . . . well, I didn’t know what to make of her.
“When did you know she was the one?” Mia looked at her brother, then at me, and back again, as if to be certain she didn’t miss anything.
“The first time I saw her on Serenity,” Gage said.
Mia nodded and smiled at me. “Gage told me about your horse. I would like to see her someday.”
I opened my mouth to agree, before I remembered that I wasn’t likely to see her again, this childlike woman who was as quick to laughter as she was to tears. Was her anger just as volatile? Had Gage been protecting her or covering for her when he’d been sent to prison?
“And you?” Mia asked me. “When did you fall in love with my brother?”
The noodles in my mouth tasted like ash. I should have never agreed to come here.
Gage scooted his chair closer to mine. “Yes, tell her, sweetheart. When did you first know that you were in love with me?”
I was blushing, probably a bright red, but two could play at this game. I reached over and set my hand on his, my eyes on his face. “I knew the minute he ran into that light pole. Did he tell you about that? He couldn’t keep his eyes off me, and he just ran into it.” There had been no light pole, of course, but if he wanted Mia to have a story, I’d give her one.
Mia laughed. “Oh, so she was the woman that day. But I thought it was a fence you ran into, not a light pole. Wasn’t it a fence?”
“I don’t know what either of you is talking about,” Gage muttered and went back to eating his soup. He didn’t meet my gaze. Had he really run into a fence? I wondered if it had been my fence.
“So where are you going for your honeymoon?” Mia asked.
Neither of us answered, and then Mia was off and signing again, rapidly, in what I recognized as yelling in sign language. Her face was bright and indignant.
Gage turned to me. “Uh, she’s saying it’s thoughtless of me not to have thought of a honeymoon, or at least stopped and bought real wedding rings instead of the ones we’re wearing, which she is sure are fake, and I told her she wasn’t helping any by insisting that we come here right now, and she said I should have invited her to the wedding or had it here. Apparently, I’m an unromantic, self-centered jerk.”
There was an unspoken plea in the words, and I began to feel sorry for him, despite the fact that he hadn’t exactly been forthcoming about the reason for his prison term. I held my hand up for Mia to stop signing. “It was really all spur of the moment,” I said. “He was lucky enough to get the day off work. But he took me out for a wonderful dinner last night in Vegas, and we saw a show I’ve always wanted to see.” I told her everything we’d done that night before, including the dresses, the dancing, and the man who’d attacked us. By the time I was finished, Mia was beaming again.
“Okay,” she said to Gage. “You’re off the hook. But you will take her somewhere nice as soon as you can get off work. And get a real ring. Promise?”
Gage was saved from further examination when a twelve-inch console on the wall near the kitchen doorway began blinking wildly, changing from color to color, casting a faint rainbow over the entire kitchen.
“Excuse me,” Mia said. “I need to get the door.”
I smirked at Gage when she was gone.
“What?” Gage said.
My grin dissolved into laughter. “This is nuts. Where are you sleeping tonight, anyway?”
“I think the better question is where are
sleeping?” He tried to leer but failed miserably, and we both burst into laughter.
Mia returned to the kitchen, her expression a little lost. She signed something to Gage.
“Let her come in,” he said. All the laughter was gone now, and his muscles bunched beneath his shirt. “Maybe she would like some soup.”
“Who?” I asked, as Mia disappeared again.
He sighed. “A woman who was my fiancée once. A long time ago. Look, I know this is asking far too much, but could you pretend a little harder? She’s really bright. It’s been over between us a long time, but I think she doesn’t believe that. It would do her a favor if we could help her go on with her life.”