Authors: Becky McGraw
With a heavy sigh, Zack eased her off his lap and crawled to his blue jeans. He dug in the pocket and pulled out his phone. He glanced at the display, frowned then sat down to answer it. “Hey, Rex, what’s up?” he asked, shooting her a worried glance.
Sickness boiled in her gut as Heather sat up, crawled over to sit beside him, her heart pounding in her ears. She leaned closer trying to hear what was being said, even though she didn’t want to hear. The prosecutor hadn’t dropped the charges, because the crime was against a police officer. She was being charged as an adult, and they had a trial date in three weeks.
Not able to stand to hear another word, Heather pushed up on shaky legs, slapped a hand over her mouth and stumbled toward the bathroom, because she was definitely going to be sick.
Zack finally got Rex off the phone, and he didn’t blame Heather for wanting to vomit. He felt the same way as he pulled on his jeans and t-shirt, before he walked down the hallway to find her. He pushed open the bathroom door, and there she was sitting with her head on her knees, a bottle of mouthwash clutched in her hand as she sat against the wall shaking like a leaf.
Right then, he wanted to go find her goddamned stepfather and kill him. He was past the point of wanting to hurt him. “Aww, baby,” he murmured, hurrying inside to sit down beside her on the floor. His heart squeezed painfully when she dropped the mouthwash bottle, turned her face into his shoulder, fisted his t-shirt and sobbed. Her hot quick, minty breaths burned through his shirt, just like her misery burned into his heart, as he dragged her onto his lap and hugged her tight. “Shh…I’m with you, angel. I’m going to fight for you until I don’t have any fight left. That bastard is
going to win,” he growled into her hair.
“He already won, because I’m scared again,” she whispered, as a tremor shook her body.
Her words lacked any spark of fight at all. Zack was not letting her give up, or give in. And he couldn’t fight for her without her help. “I need you to file charges against Jack. Rex asked again if you’d do that, he thinks—”
!” she wailed, her body shaking harder.
Zack wrapped his arms around her tighter, squeezed her until she stopped shaking, but then he pushed her back to grab her chin, force her to meet his. “You
going to file charges. For one, that bastard needs to be stopped, and secondly, it will probably convince the prosecutor and judge to drop the charges. We’re going to Tulsa next week to do that.”
“I don’t have the money to go to Tulsa early,” she said, her lower lip trembling, her eyes filled with so much despair he almost couldn’t stand to hold her gaze.
Zack shored up his determination to get her agreement. “I have the fucking money, and I can’t think of a better way to spend it,” he growled.
“I can’t take any more of your money,” she said, pulling her chin from his grasp.
His arms closed around her when she tried to get up. She settled with a huffed breath, but didn’t meet his eyes. “You can and you
,” he argued, and held her tightly, even when she tried again to break his hold. “I owe you three week’s pay, the money I agreed to pay you for working for me here. You’ve earned every penny, because you’ve worked your ass off. Even Momma said so, and I know it’s true.”
This house was cleaner and more organized than it had ever been. Zack hadn’t seen her doing it firsthand, but he sure noticed the results. When he mentioned it, his mother laid every ounce of credit right at Heather’s tiny feet. And she’d put up with his cranky, sneaky ass for two weeks. What he owed her was worth that alone.
Heather squirmed in his arms, twisted her body so she straddled him. Her green eyes sparkled like fiery emeralds when she grabbed his face in her hands. “You put up
dollars to get me out of jail!” she screeched, her cheeks regaining color. “You’ve risked enough for me, saved me enough times.” Narrowing her eyes, she finished fiercely, “You don’t owe me a
thing. My problems aren’t yours, and you’ve got enough to worry about with that herd coming at the end of the week. You can’t leave here now, Zack. I’m going to Tulsa alone.” Her lip trembled a second, and she sucked in a breath. “And it’ll probably be a one-way trip, so when I leave, just forget about me.”
Fear shot through him to constrict his chest—there was no fucking way he was letting her go alone. He was going with her to make sure it wasn’t a one-way trip. Heather obviously wasn’t thinking clearly, because she also missed an important fact. She was broke. Twyla gave the last of her money to Rex as far as Zack knew. She might not want his money, but she needed it. That gave him the bargaining power to make her agree to let him go with her.
“Where is the money to get yourself to Tulsa coming from if not from me?” he asked hotly, his heart pounding in his ears.
Heather sucked in a gulping breath, and blew it out. “The rodeo still owes me that check for the night I performed. I’m going to call tomorrow to see where the hell it is. I haven’t recharged the minutes on my phone, so if they sent it to Glen, he has no way to get it to me since I moved. And truly with all that’s been going on, I forgot about it.”
That was news to Zack, and his chest tightened more. If she had the means to leave without him, she would. She would go to Tulsa alone without a chance of coming back, because she refused to file charges against Jack Thomas. She’d go there, have a public defender and get crucified. His fingers dug into the sides of her thighs, and fear like he’d never known, not even on the rankest bull, squeezed his gut.
“You need me,” he said firmly, then a thought hit him. “And I’m still taking the chance you’re going to run, if you go alone. If you don’t show up at court, then I lose my ranch.” He shook his head, and his chest loosened a notch. “Not happening, angel.”
Heather’s eyes darkened with what looked to be hurt. “I’m trying to save you from yourself here, Zack Taylor.” She blew out a breath and looked down at his chest. “I’m not going to run, I know what you’ll lose. If you go with me, spend money you don’t have to help me, you’ll lose your ranch anyway,” she said sadly.
If he didn’t go with her, he’d lose her.
He’d rather lose the ranch
Where the fuck had that thought come from? Good God, she was right, he was losing his mind. He’d worked all his life for the damned money he’d invested in this ranch, in the herd. Losing it would be the end of his life.
No, living with the knowledge she was rotting away in prison would. That he could’ve helped her and didn’t. He’d be right there in that cell with her.
Panic squeezed his throat, so he had to force out the words, “I’m going with you, and you’re going to let me help you,” he said firmly, and her eyes flew back to his.
Heather grabbed his face in her hands again, pinched it between her palms, then not-so-gently slapped one side a few times. “Wake
, cowboy—you need to help
for a change!” she shouted, then took several heaving breaths. Her body deflated as she exhaled. “Why the hell won’t you do that?” she asked weakly, her eyes imploring him to listen.
Emotion shot up to choke him, and he swallowed several times, but it built inside his head like a pressure cooker. His fingers dug into her hips as he sucked in several agitated breaths, but he couldn’t force himself to tell her.
Because I love you, and the thought of never seeing you again scares the shit out of me
. Instead, Zack shoved his hand into her hair, and drew her to him, his mouth met hers, and the pressure inside him finally eased when her body wilted into him, her arms slid around his neck, and all was right in his world again.
This kiss wasn’t about sex—Zack used his mouth to show her exactly how he felt about her. It was chickenshit, but he wasn’t ready to say the words to her yet, and he didn’t think she was ready to hear them either. Too many hurdles stood in front of them right now. When she was free from her problems, she’d be ready, and he would shout it from the mountaintops. If she didn’t feel the same way about him then, he’d let her go. He wouldn’t like it, but at least then he wouldn’t have to worry about her, wonder if she was okay.
The kiss ended on a sigh from Heather, and she put her forehead to his. “Cowboy, you always make me feel better, but I still don’t want you to do this.”
“Help me help you, angel,” he said, pecking her lips. “File those charges, and I will be by your side every damned minute until he’s in jail. I won’t let him get within ten feet of you, so there’s nothing to be scared about.” He pecked her lips again when she opened her mouth, before she could speak. “I won’t ever let him—let
—hurt you again, I promise. I’d die first, baby, and I proved that to you outside the arena.”
“I don’t want you to die for me, Zack,” she whispered, her voice trembling. She sat up to meet his eyes, and put her hand in the center of his chest. “I’m not scared he’ll hurt me anymore. I just don’t want to rehash all that in court.” Insecurity filled her eyes, her voice, as she said, “They’ll rip me to shreds, because I’m not an angel either—I’m
a good girl—you of all people know that.” Her hand dropped, she dragged her eyes to the wall and huffed a breath. “He’ll get off, and I’ll go through all of that for nothing.”
His finger tipped her chin toward him. “You’re right, you aren’t a good
, sweet thing,” Zack said, and her eyes simmered with anger, but he had her attention now. “You are the best
I’ve ever met, the most courageous. It’s time for you to get pissed, and do something about Jack before he hurts another girl who isn’t as strong as you are. If that happened, you would blame yourself for not stopping him when you could.” Zack would blame himself too, if that happened because he couldn’t convince Heather to face her demons and slay them. “I’ll be right by your side, angel. You’re not alone anymore.”
She sank back on her heels to look at the ceiling, and Zack saw tears pooling in her eyes. “Why in the hell do you have to lay that guilt on me too?” she asked, her frustration a tangible thing as a single tear streaked past the corner of her swollen mouth. A ragged sigh shook her body, as she looked at him again. “Okay, I’ll file charges.”
Relief and victory washed through him in a tsunami-like wave. Zack yanked her to him and hugged her so tight, the muscle in his right arm felt like it would snap. He hugged her until she mumbled against his chest, “Zack, I can’t breathe.”
Pushing her back, Zack grinned at her. “Look out Tulsa—trouble is coming to town riding a bull, so you better lock up the fucking China shop.”
Heather smiled, and his chest loosened. “That sounds like a country song waiting to be written,” she said with a chuckle.
His life was a country song waiting to be written, and this woman was the one who was going to do the writing. Just as soon as he helped her slay her demons.
“Let’s go call Rex right now, and get the ball rolling, then I’m cooking you the biggest steak I have in the freezer and opening a bottle of whiskey. We’re going to celebrate.”
Heather pushed up to her feet. “What are we celebrating?” she asked, reaching her hand down to him. “We haven’t won anything yet.”
Zack took her hand to stand then brushed his hands on his jeans, before meeting her eyes. “I won a helluva lot—I think I just coaxed Haley Morgan out of the closet,” he announced proudly, dropping his arm over her shoulders. “I’m nailing that bitch shut, just as soon as I can fist a hammer again.”
Heather couldn’t believe that Glen Parsons wouldn’t return her phone calls. The rodeo office said they’d sent the check to the man who called himself her agent the week after her performance. The check had been in Glen’s name, and according to the rodeo office it had been cashed. Their agreement was he’d pay her in cash. That cash was in his pocket now, and probably spent. How could she be so stupid to trust that skeevy bastard?
Yeah, her cell phone was out of minutes, but she’d left Zack’s number for him too, left it at the rodeo office in case Parsons called there, so there was no excuse for him not returning
damned messages. It was a blinking neon sign that said she wasn’t going to get the money he owed her. Now, because of him, she had no money for this trip, and she felt terrible as she stood near baggage claim at the airport, watching Zack hand over his credit card and license at the rental car counter to rent them a car.
Heather told him they could take a taxi, but Zack insisted they needed wheels. He’d spent too damned much already on the plane tickets, hotel reservations, her new high-priced local attorney and the
he insisted she needed. The fitted black dress with the little gold belt in loops right above her waist she’d put in this morning made her feel feminine, but it also felt very strange hitting her at mid-thigh, especially when paired with costume pearls. The other outfits Zack made her buy, five-hundred dollars worth, almost an entire new wardrobe, were similarly conservative. Very far removed from her comfort zone in clothing.
The only thing he’d let her buy that fit her personality were five-inch heels, instead of low-heeled pumps. Because he said they made her ass and legs look amazing. That comment made the young shoe store clerk,
Heather blush, because the look on his handsome face backed up his words. So did his immediate need to kiss her and
her ass. Right. There. In. The. Shoe. Department. Heather bit back a laugh remembering.
Zack Taylor was what was amazing.
Heather fell a little more in love with the man with every minute she was around him. Although that wasn’t a problem now, she’d accepted this small window she had to love him because she didn’t have any choice, and knew it was probably the opportunity she’d have to love someone before she spent her life in prison. She also knew when this situation was over—one way or another—she was going to have a very hard time forgetting him. It was a damned good thing she wouldn’t need her heart in prison, because she’d be dead.