Authors: Sloane Kennedy
“Miss Dane.” Silence. Devlin watched with growing irritation as she went to the various cat cages and started pulling out the dishes and tossing them in the tub. “Miss Dane, we need to talk.”
“Look, Mr. Prescott, I appreciate your taking the time to come and tell me about this in person but if you are looking for some kind of insight into Amanda’s life or what kind of person she was or whatever, then I’m sorry because I can’t help you. The truth is that we were never that close.” Casey struggled to maintain her nonchalance as she began to clean the dirty dishes.
“She has a child.”
Casey stopped scrubbing the tattered plastic bowl in her now shaking hands. A child. Amanda was a mother. Amanda had always wanted children – she had even picked out the names for them – two boys and a girl. Casey had known it even back then that Amanda would be a good mother. She had always been kind hearted and full of love. Amanda’s dolls had always been perfectly cared for with clean dresses and neatly braided hair. Casey’s, on the other hand, had always managed to have some type of affliction whether it was missing chunks of hair, a lopsided eye or layers of dirt smudges. With only two years separating the girls, they had been as different as any two sisters could be. But they shared a mutual, unwanted bond that neither of them could escape. Casey nearly smiled – Amanda had lived her dream. Despite it all, she had found her dream.
“A daughter. She’s four. Her name is…”
“Isabel,” interjected Casey.
Devlin was caught off guard. “Yes, that’s right.”
“She always wanted a little girl named Isabel.” Casey stared blankly at the bowl in her hand for another moment before she resumed her scrubbing.
“Amanda left a will-” Devlin continued. But he stopped when Casey suddenly dropped the bowl she was cleaning and disappeared into the kennel room. Biting back a curse, Devlin followed her. He was immediately greeted with the loud, high-pitched barks of several dogs. Casey had reached the far end of the room and collected a stack of large bowls in the corner. Devlin had to shout to be heard above the noise. “It’s given me temporary custody but it’s informal.” Casey walked right back past him and out of the room. Unperturbed, Devlin strode after her.
“So it won’t hold up in court.”
Casey dumped the dishes on top of the ones already in the tub. She tried to make as much noise as possible as she cleaned them. Devlin’s temper finally snapped.
“Stop calling me that! My name is Wilkes! Casey Wilkes!” she shouted as she abandoned the dishes and glared at him.
“Miss Wilkes,” he began again.
“I can’t take care of a child Mr. Prescott.”
“Amanda didn’t leave Isabel to you – she left her to me.”
“Then what the hell do you want from me?” She began rinsing the dishes and tossing them on a nearby towel covered countertop. She ignored the spraying water from the broken nozzle.
“I want you to come back to New York with me.”
She let out a nearly hysterical little laugh. “No.”
“Hear me out.”
“No – I’m not going anywhere with you. Now please get out of my shelter.” Casey was at the end of her rope. She dropped the hose and hurried past him to open the swing door to the front lobby. It was a clear message but he didn’t take it.
“If I don’t get her, your parents will.”
She didn’t respond but Devlin saw her fury quickly become replaced with confusion and indecision. He pressed on. “Your mother and stepfather are contesting the will. They want full custody.”
Casey released the swing door but didn’t move from her spot. She also refused to look at him.
“They’re arguing altered mental state – that Amanda wasn’t mentally fit when she made the decision to leave Isabel in my care.”
“My sister wasn’t crazy,” Casey said softly.
“No, but the accusation and the informality of the will are enough to have it thrown out. Without the will, I can’t win. But with you I can.”
She glanced at him, her expression one of desperation and utter confusion. “I told you, I can’t take care of a child.”
“You won’t have to. I need your support so I can legally adopt her and your parents can’t touch her. I need you to testify about what they did to you. After that you’re free to go on with your life.”
Casey shook her head. “I don’t understand this. I don’t understand any of this!” She appeared to be nearing a breakdown. She turned to leave through the swing door but his next words stopped her.
“I know what they did to you. They’ll do it to her to.”
She hesitated for a long time and then looked at him desperately as if she needed him to understand something she couldn’t vocalize. But he didn’t understand – he couldn’t. And she couldn’t get the words to come out. Several long seconds hung in the balance until she finally shook her head and softly said, “I’m sorry, I can’t help you,” before leaving the room.
Casey heard the limo pull away but she didn’t move. Rushing past the car only a few moments earlier, she hadn’t noticed much about it other than it was dark and big; a fitting car for the man who had just shattered her safe little world by bringing reality back into it. She wiped at the damp tears that slid down her face and leaned back against the wooden boards of the stall. Slumped in the corner of the stall, her body cushioned by a mound of soft hay, Casey smothered another round of sobs. A large, gray horse stood over her, almost as if he were protecting her from some unseen evil.
The old barn that served as home to the horse and two ornery donkeys had a roof that leaked and siding that allowed the bitter winds to seep in. But to Casey the tiny barn was the safest place she had ever known. It was here that she often sought refuge when the nightmares ripped her from her sleep. Wiping her grubby sleeve across her face, Casey glanced at the horse’s leg. His massive hoof was only inches from her own foot but she knew better than to worry. In all the times she had sought comfort in the big horse’s shadow, he had never once hurt her. Her gaze roamed up the horse’s leg and came to rest on his battle-scarred body.
At nine years old, Jack should have been in his prime. Bred for the show ring, the well-built, elegant thoroughbred had given everything in him to please his owner, the young, spoiled son of a prominent businessman who owned a vacation home in Ashland. But Jack’s loyalty had been rewarded with brutality. His once flawless gray coat was riddled with scars and his fastest gait was an uneven walk, the result of a shattered kneecap. Even his beautiful face hadn’t been spared. Scars lined the side of his muzzle where the harsh steel bit had cruelly cut into his soft mouth. His left eye sported a long lash mark over the eyelid while the right eye was glazed over by blindness. It had taken Casey ten long months to gain Jack’s trust. Considering she had never even been allowed to own a goldfish as a child it was an accomplishment she was quite proud of and for which she had been greatly rewarded. Besides Jonas, the horse had become her only friend and protector. He followed her around the paddock as she did chores and even kept the two cantankerous donkeys in line during feeding time. His refusal to accept any other people had earned him a home as a permanent resident of the shelter.
Casey ran a hand down the horse’s long leg, pausing only briefly at the misshapen kneecap. Her thoughts drifted back to her sister. It had been five long years since she had said goodbye to her sister on that terror filled night. In the back of her mind, she had always believed that she would see Amanda again – that they would someday spend the rest of their lives together as most sisters did. But it was never to be. Like Jack, Amanda had been struck down in her prime. But for her there would be no second chances.
Casey’s thoughts drifted to Amanda’s daughter. She wondered if the little girl possessed her mother’s pale blond curls and sky blue eyes. Devlin had said she was four and that he had custody of her for now. That meant Amanda had gotten away. She had escaped and found her way into Devlin’s home. So Isabel was probably okay…they hadn’t been able to get to her yet. And Devlin Prescott appeared to be a powerful man in his own right. It had probably taken a good deal of money and determination to find her since she had been so careful in hiding her true identity. If anyone could stop her parents from getting Isabel, it would be him. But guilt ate at her as fresh tears threatened to spill forth. Her sister was dead and Casey couldn’t even find the strength to help save her child’s life. She had abandoned Amanda to a cruel fate and was leaving her niece’s future in the hands of a man who might be just as ruthless and cruel as her parents.
“Case, you in here?” Jonas asked from somewhere near the front door of the barn.
“Yeah,” Casey responded as she hastily dashed away her tears and struggled to her feet. Jack snorted and moved protectively to her side as Jonas made his approach and stopped in the stall door.
“Come on now Jack old boy, what’s all this about?” The horse eyed him warily but made no other move. Jonas gave him a patient smile and turned his attention to Casey. It struck him again as it always did when he saw the pair together. They were so much alike. Beautiful and strong but scarred beyond the physical. Horse and girl shared a bond that he and few others would ever understand. “You all right?” he asked her.
She wouldn’t meet his gaze as she forced a smile to her lips and pretended to be preoccupied with the rack holding the water bucket off the floor. “Of course. I was just making sure this bucket was staying put this time.”
Jonas wasn’t buying any of it but he didn’t call her on it. “Mr. Gorgeous said to tell you that he’d be sending a car for you tonight at eight so you could finish your discussion. You’re supposed to send the car back if your answer is still no.” Jonas waited for a reaction. None came. “No to what?”
Casey didn’t hear him. He said her name again but she still showed no response. “Casey.” He saw her jump at the sound of his voice. A brief moment of fear flicked in her eyes before she snapped out of her daze. Hurt lanced through him as he realized she had been afraid of him, even if it had just been for a moment. Knowing she hadn’t even realized how she reacted he pushed the pain away and smiled lightly.
“What?” she asked him in confusion.
“No to what? What does Mr. Gorgeous want?”
“Oh, nothing. Just some business thing.” She knew she wasn’t making sense but she didn’t want to tell Jonas the truth about Amanda yet. “I’ll tell you about it later.”
Jonas hesitated but then decided against pressing her. Casey did things her own way. Control over her life was the only thing she had left…the only thing that kept her from coming apart at the seams. Pushing at that would only fracture their relationship.
“Okay. You need help with that?”
“No, no – I’m almost done.”
“Well, I’m gonna get started on the lunch shift, okay? You gonna feed these guys?”
“Yeah, I’ll take care of it. Thanks.” She watched him disappear from the barn. Releasing her steely grip on the bucket rack, she stepped back. Her shoulders came in contact with Jack’s side. Leaning against the horse, she stared at the empty door Jonas had disappeared through. Shame slammed into her as she realized that she had done it again. She had been afraid of him and he had known it. He had been her closest friend for three years and she had repaid him by treating him like a common stranger. When would this end? Sickened by her treatment of Jonas, Casey left the stall and went about the chore of feeding the three inhabitants of the barn.
Jonas glanced at his watch as he closed the shelter door and locked it. Only five o’clock but darkness had already begun to fall as a light wind blew across the yard. A few snowflakes lingered in the chilly early November air as Jonas made his way across the driveway towards the house. His thoughts returned to Casey. He had befriended her a few years ago but hadn’t known at that time that she would become his savior.
At seventeen he had seen and done things that would put most kids his age to shame. He glanced around his surroundings as he walked. A smile drifted across his lips. If only his former friends from his private boarding school could see him now. As he passed the barn, he noticed that Jack stood in the corner of the paddock, his gaze directed at the house.
Casey’s progress with the horse and her complete faith in him that he wouldn’t hurt her had stunned Jonas. He had thought her crazy when she started working with the horse. It had taken four men to force the crazed animal from the beat up horse trailer into the paddock. They had left muttering curses and suggestions that the horse be put down but Casey had ignored them. She had looked at the horse in a way that no one else had. And she had proved them all wrong in the end.
Jonas made his way up the stairs of the rickety porch. The house was more than a hundred years old and looked like it would fall over with the next stiff wind but somehow it hung on. The porch, which wrapped around the lower half of the house, was missing a few posts here and there and the faded paint had chipped and peeled in some places to reveal the old gray wood underneath. Several dark green shudders were either dangling from the side of the windows or missing all together and the gutter along the far side of the roof was hanging precariously by a few pieces of weakening metal. The rest of the grounds were in similar condition including the overcrowded shelter itself, a tiny tool shed behind the barn and a detached garage where the shelter’s rickety old blue pickup truck was kept.
Jonas turned and surveyed the property with satisfaction as he made certain everything was secure for the evening. Pride welled in him as he studied the grounds. He was a part of something…something good. For a long time, he hadn’t believed it would be possible but here he stood. And what didn’t seem like much to the everyday passer by meant the world to him. Even though he wasn’t actually living the life he had always dreamed of, he had a future now and he wouldn’t risk losing it again for anything. He waited another long moment, then turned and went into the house. That’s when he heard the first scream.
She couldn’t breathe as the hands that held her down were like steel bands biting into her flesh. She flailed and struggled but, as always, her strength was no match against that of her tormentor. She couldn’t see his face…she could only feel. She screamed again.
He was yelling her name and shaking her hard. She screamed again and pushed at him with all her might. Her effort left her with a free hand which she quickly used in her defense. She heard a grunt of pain and then saw light everywhere. She pushed herself away from her tormentor and slammed into the headboard behind her. The contact caused her to still and look around. She was in her own room, on her own bed. Several lights were on in the room as they always were. Nothing was out of place. Her eyes came into contact with Jonas who sat on the end of her bed, his hand pressed to his face.
“Oh God, Jonas.”
“Casey, it’s okay.”
Casey put her hand to her mouth as she realized what she had done. A small trickle of blood ran down the side of Jonas’s cheek where her nails had left three long slashes. He removed his hand from the ugly wound and moved closer to her on the bed.
“Casey, look at me.” She forced her eyes to meet his. “It was an accident. You didn’t mean it. Okay? I’m fine.”
His words penetrated her brain and she nodded her head. She finally moved into action and reached for his arm. She led him to the bathroom where she ran a washcloth under cold water and pressed it to his cheek. He tried to hide his wince but she saw it.
“Don’t,” he said gently. “There’s nothing to be sorry for. It was a nightmare, nothing more.”
She nodded past the lump in her throat. “Next time, just throw some water on me, okay?”
Jonas laughed and nodded his head. “You got it.”
Casey spooned another large helping of macaroni and cheese on Jonas’s plate. “Case, no more.” She ignored him and filled his glass with more soda.
“Would you just sit down please?” he asked as she continued to nervously move around the kitchen. She had been on edge since the encounter in her bedroom. Refusing to stop her fussing over him, she had carefully cleaned and bandaged his wound and then made him lie down on the couch while she fixed dinner.
Casey finally sat down across from him and reached for her fork but stopped when she looked at his plate. “Bread. We need some bread.” He put his hand on hers to stop her from getting up.
“Casey, please, just stop. I don’t need any bread, okay? I just want you to eat something.” She pulled her hand free but his concerned expression was enough for her to relax in her chair and force a forkful of food in her mouth. Her eyes kept drifting back to his face. She had done that to him. All she had wanted was to take a nap to escape from the hellish day and the result had been this. Jonas had woken her from her nightmares countless times but she had never struck out at him. God, what was happening to her?
Jonas watched the emotions play out on her face. He hardly noticed the scratches on his face but to her they were a brand of sorts. He wished them away with every ounce of his being because he knew she would torture herself with guilt every time she looked at him.
“Tell me about the man who was here this afternoon.”
Casey snapped her gaze from his cheek to his eyes. In her guilt she had nearly forgotten all about Devlin Prescott.
“He’s from New York.”
“What’s he doing here?”
“He came here to see me.”
“How do you know him?” he asked curiously as he took another bite of his food.
“I don’t. He knew my sister. He came here to tell me that she’s dead.”
Jonas nearly choked on his food. He knew little about Casey’s past but enough to know that she had had a sister she’d once been close to.
Casey nodded and tried to focus on the food in front of her as she told him the rest of the story. She kept the emotion out of her voice and finished quickly. When she was done Jonas made a move to comfort her but she quickly stood and excused herself.
Casey left the house and walked towards the barn, pulling her tattered coat on as she went. She slowed her stride when she heard Jack’s soft nicker. The horse watched her approach, his huge head hung over the side of the fence. She stroked his nose and then went to the barn. She returned moments later with an armful of hay which she threw over the side of the fence. As she watched Jack go to work on the pile, headlights illuminated the paddock. Jack lifted his head and snorted. Casey gave him a reassuring pat and turned to face the limo which had come to a stop in front of the shelter door.