©2018 by the SIDE HUSTLE

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Soft Wild Ache - new chapters

These new chapters start right after the old epilogue to Soft Wild Ache and take you right up to the moment His Secret Heart starts. 

Rachel

Beau didn't want me to come with him to the police station. I pushed him, and when he still refused, we had our very first argument as a couple. 

 

"I'm going to be your wife!" I shouted at him through confused tears. He'd looked startled and I understood his surprise because I'd felt shocked too. I'd never shouted at anyone before. I'd never dared. Beau's love made me feel safe and secure enough to let my true feelings come out. And they were coming out in a thick torrent of pleading. "I don't want you having to go through this by yourself," I pleaded. "I need to be there with you. For you." I hiccuped and knuckled away a fresh tear. 

 

All at once, Beau looked defeated. "Rachel," he sighed, coming over to me and cupping my face with his hands. "My sweet angel." He pressed a soft kiss to my forehead, but I didn't close my eyes, and I held his gaze when he pulled back and looked at me. 

 

Deep purple shadows ringed his grief-stricken hazel eyes, making them look bruised. He'd been trying to hide his sleeplessness from me, but it was written all over his face. His new beard was growing in wild and untrimmed, shadowing his newly hollowed out cheeks. They'd slimmed down from a steady diet of black coffee... and little else. 

 

I knew full well what he was going through. He didn't need to explain. But since he was, well, him - since he was Beau King, the man I loved more than I could fathom - he attempted to put it into words anyway. No matter how badly he was hurting, he still put everyone else first. "Listen to me," he said now, with a heavy sigh. The storm had passed, our argument forgotten. "If something... happened." At that, his Adam's apple bobbed and he blinked before rushing to finish speaking. "I need you to be the strong one. If you're there with me when I get the news that -.”

 

"You're going to try to take care of me," I finished for him. It was my turn to cup his face with my hands. His gaze had lowered as he disappeared into his worry, but I lifted his chin so that he had to look me in the eye again. I searched his face, then nodded. "Okay," I relented. "You go. I'll be right here when you come back."

 

He shivered when I said that and I wanted to kick myself. "I will," I repeated. "You're not going to lose both of us."

 

He nodded and then pressed a fierce, desperate kiss against my lips. I could taste his grief and fear and I wanted to fling my arms around his neck and cling to him. But there was something else too. "And someone needs to be here all the time, right?" I whispered against his neck as I rubbed reassuring circles on his strong back. "In case he shows up?"

 

"Right." Beau pressed his forehead to my shoulder before straightening back up. The strained, "gotta-stay-positive" smile he'd returned to his face. It was the same one his mother had been wearing, and Jonah too. Gabe had worn it for about a day before it had slipped into an anxious scowl. Claire hadn't bothered with it for more than an hour before succumbing to a fierce, ranting furor. And Mr. King had slipped almost immediately into a terrifying, distracted silence.

 

We were all eaten up with conflicting emotions, veering from anger to fear to sorrow. And without answers, there was nothing to do but speculate.

 

So when the chief of police had asked the King family to come into the station, we all jumped at the prospect of news. "That would be just like him, wouldn't it?" Beau went on. "Waltzing in through the door right now and getting mad at us for being mad at him?" He shook his head with a far-off look in his eyes. "Fucking Finn," he said finally. "What the fuck?"

 

"Go." I squeezed his hand. 

 

He lifted it to his lips and brushed a kiss across my knuckles. His lips lingered on the ring that sparkled there. Then he turned and rushed out the door. 

 

I knew he wouldn't look back, so I didn't head out onto the deck to watch him pull out. Instead, I headed back into the living room and sat on the couch, turning away from Finn's beat-up old easy chair. His absence had lingered in the air all week. Like a whiff of a far-off bonfire carried on the early autumn wind. But now it was a heavy, pressing thing that was impossible to escape by staying busy.

 

So I didn't even try. I sat and waited for the news. Fearing the worst and hoping for the best. 

 

And a few times I found it in me to pray. 

 

I was in the middle of my whispered entreaties when I heard the sound of wheels on the gravel. The fear that I'd tried to keep at bay hit me like a punch to the gut. 

 

I was so breathless I couldn't stand. So I was still sitting there on the couch when Beau walked back in again. 

 

The slump of his shoulders had me fearing the worst. But the expression on his face was not sorrow. 

 

It was rage.

 

Before I could ask, he shook his head. "They closed it."

 

"What?" I couldn't make sense of the words. It was like he was speaking a foreign language. "Closed what? What did they close?"

 

Beau took another step into the room and then sagged against the wall. 

 

This got me moving. I was up and rushing to his side, slinging his arm over my shoulder, then guiding him over to the couch. He dutifully sat down, but his body was too taut with anger to relax. He stayed perched at the edge of the cushion, his elbows on his knees as he rubbed his palms together over and over again. "The missing persons' case. They closed it."

 

"But he's still missing!" 

 

He rolled his eyes. "He's a grown man who shows every sign of leaving of his own accord," he parroted, clearly quoting what he'd been told. He nodded at my openmouthed shock. "That was my face too, believe me."

 

"His car is still here. His clothes? You guys just bought this house together, how do they figure he left?"

 

"Because the bus is gone." 

 

He dropped his head, his gaze fixed on his shoes. His shoulders rose and fell so fast I feared he was crying. 

 

Until I saw the white-knuckled way he was clenching his fists.

 

He was furious. I had never seen him so furious.

 

The old me would have quailed and shrunk away, terrified. But I wasn't that girl anymore. I'd cut myself free of that fear when I'd sliced through my thick braid with a biker's Bowie knife. In one stroke, I'd cut the ties with my past as a meek and mild daughter of the God's Chosen compound. My braid had been a tether, keeping me anchored to the terror of what I now knew was a cult. When I hacked it off, I'd made a promise that I'd never live in that kind of fear again. 

 

I had nothing to fear from Beau. I trusted him with every fiber of my being. 

 

So I didn't hesitate to reach out and take his clenched fist into my hands. "Take a breath." He blew out a long exhale as I nodded. "What bus?" I prompted. 

 

"Our old tour bus." He shook his head but squeezed my hand as he relaxed. "From back when we were playing. The thing is tricked out. We used to live in it for months at a time."

 

"I never saw it."

 

"Well, there's a good reason for that. We stored it at the Knights' garage."

 

I blinked. I'd heard of the Knights, though only in whispers. A rough, close-knit family prone to using their fists to solve their problems. "Why would you store it there?" Mr. King helped out at his friend's garage all the time. "Why wouldn't you leave it at Chuck's?"

 

Beau gave a helpless shrug. "They gave us a good deal?" It came out as a question and I knew he was kicking himself. The Knights were so secretive. I couldn't help thinking of them as their own little enclave. Sort of like a biker branch of The Chosen. "Gabe made the case that since Chuck was so close to the family, it wouldn't be a big leap for any super fans who wanted to track us down to head right to Andolino's garage.” 

 

"And the Knights wouldn't do that." I nodded slowly. 

 

"They have space out of town. And it's heavily guarded - you need a key code just to get in. And getting one of them to talk - about anything - is like pulling teeth. Gabe used to ride dirt bikes with Rocky...." He gave a helpless shrug.

 

"They say Finn took the bus?"

 

"Signed it out. It was his signature too."

 

"But why would he do that?" My voice was rising. "Without telling anyone? Without telling you?"

 

Beau opened his mouth. And then his beautiful face just... collapsed. 

 

"Shit. I'm sorry. Come here." He let me pull him to me until he lay cradled against my chest. I stroked my fingers through his hair and over his face, tracing the swirls in his beard. He sighed and closed his eyes, his hurt and anger at his twin brother's betrayal too enormous for him to even move 

 

Beau did for those he cared for. It was how he showed his love. He loved through doing. Through action. 

 

And I loved him. Breathlessly. Body and soul. 

 

So I said nothing. There was no word, in any language, that I could speak clearly enough to express my love for him. My sorrow for him. My loyalty and my devotion to him. 

 

I had to show him instead. 

 

I traced the spiral of whiskers just under his cheekbone, then let my finger brush down to his lips. As I traced their shape, I felt them relax under my fingertip. The grim set line of anger softened further as I bent to trail my lips behind my finger. 

 

His mouth was warm and supple under mine. I kissed him slowly, patiently, feeling him yield by degrees. Until finally, with a rough sigh, he reached up to me, clinging to the back of my neck the way a drowning man would. 

 

Our lovemaking was a practiced dance by now. We moved together with the fluidity of two people perfectly in tune. I slid over the top of his body as he rolled over onto his back, but we never stopped kissing. Not even when my hands sought at his zipper. 

 

I'd started out wanted to do this for him. But somewhere between that first slow kiss and this frantic tugging at his jeans, it had become for me too. I needed to feel his skin against mine. I needed to lose myself in the oblivion of him sliding inside of me - that first thrust and then the slow movement as we found our rhythm. I needed to feel his heart thudding under my hands as I pressed them against his chest, bracing myself to take him in deeper. I needed to feel that moment of union, where we were so connected I wasn't certain where I ended and he began. 

 

Beau came alive underneath me. I'd always loved the way he watched me when I was on top. The worshipful parting of his lips, the blaze of pure lust in his eyes. It inflamed me, which inflamed him too, sending us both into a frenzy that had me crying out in seconds. He sat up and I wrapped my legs around his waist the way I knew he liked it. I groaned into his shoulder as he delved his hands into my hips, urging me deeper. His growls and groans were almost animal-like in my ear and he seemed impossibly hard inside of me. But I matched him, taking everything he had until he let out a ragged, gasping noise and his whole body went stiff.

 

"Watch me," I whispered as his eyes flew open. And then I lost myself in the sensation as we both clung to each other in a bid to keep the sorrow at bay. 

 

Beau closed his eyes and tilted his forehead to rest against mine. His breathing slowed by degrees, ragged gasps deepening until he was drawing slow steady breaths. 

 

Only then did I kiss his forehead and gently nudge him back. I saw his mouth tug a little at the corner as he realized what I was doing, but he let me guide him until he was lying back down on the couch. I tugged a cushion over to pillow his head and then brushed my fingertips over his eyelids. 

 

"Rach -?"

 

"Sssh." I hushed him before sliding free and tugging one of the throw blankets up to his waist. Then went to the bathroom to clean up.

 

Just as I'd hoped, he was asleep when I came back out again. 

 

I stood for a moment, watching the man I was going to marry. The slow, regular sip of his breathing stirred things inside of me, things that were fiercely protective and desperately in love. Betraying a man like Beau was not just unthinkable to me, it was impossible. 

 

What the hell was Finn thinking?

 

I shook my head and tried to push the anger back down again. My rage wasn't what Beau needed. I didn't want him to think he had to console me or worry about me. Right now, the only thing I wanted him to think about was Finn. 

 

I grabbed my keys off the hook and tucked them into my bag. I would make things easy. I'd start by taking over the cooking tonight. I would serve him his favorite comfort food - that thick potato soup he liked. And a side of the potato bread I could make in my sleep. 

 

I'd loved him through sex. 

 

Now I'd love him through carbs. 

 

Nodding to myself, I wrote a quick note explaining where I was in case he woke up and panicked that I was gone. Then grabbed my keys and headed out.

Rachel

The drive back into Crown Creek was one I could do in my sleep by now. The twisting road wound through cornfields and pastures that gleamed gold in the slanting sun. Autumn was sniffing around the edges of late summer. Even though it was still warm, the oak trees were wearing scarlet red crowns at their very topmost branches. So I knew the warm weather wouldn't last.

 

It was the rhythm of the seasons I knew well. I'd grown up in the thick of them, out in the fields of the compound. 

 

I knew that my childhood looked idyllic to outsiders. After all, my family was close-knit. I had scores of younger siblings, and a heap of cousins to play with. We were always running in and out of each others homes, playing tag and begging treats. With our longs skirts swishing and our long braids flying, we even looked like a page in a storybook. A fairy-tale.

 

No one knew it was actually a nightmare. 

 

A little shiver crawled up my spine, raising goosebumps along my arm. I couldn't figure out why I was dwelling on this. The compound was behind me. The Chosen were behind me. I should have been thinking of Beau. Worrying about Finn. Worrying for the rest of my new family. The Kings were where my mind should have been. 

 

Maybe it was the familiar whiff of cow manure in the air. Maybe it was the slant of the light through the just-changing trees . But something was dragging me back to the horrors of compound life. 

 

I shook my head to clear it and then yelped. "Holy shit!" I screamed and slammed on the brakes as hard as I could. 

 

I'd nearly slammed into the back of the car in front of me. A car that was stopped dead in the middle of the road where no car had ever been stopped before.

 

"What the - ?" I let go of the steering wheel and shook out the nerves from my trembling hands, " - hell?" I craned my neck, trying to see what the hold-up was. 

 

But I couldn't see anything beyond a sea of brake lights. The smell of autumn leaves and car manure was now replaced with exhaust. The minutes ticked by and I tapped my fingers against the steering wheel as we crept into town at five miles an hour. Like the world's strangest parade. "This is... weird," I said aloud. 

 

Ahead I could see the line snaking into town. I caught sight of a few of classic cars. Behind me pulled up an armada of motorcycles revving their engines as loud as they could. I needed to go straight through town, but everyone else was making a right at Five Corners. 

 

Why? There was nothing I could think of that would warrant that kind of traffic up Johnson Street on a Friday afternoon. "Okay then," I said, shaking my head once I was clear of the snarl. What should have taken me ten minutes had now taken a half an hour. I hoped Beau was still asleep. 

 

I pulled into the IGA and rushed in, hurrying through my mental list of Beau's favorites. 

 

Standing over the dairy display, I debated between Muenster or Colby Jack - he liked both. I was so absorbed in the mental pros and cons that I nearly jumped out of my skin when someone called my name. I pasted a polite smile on my face and turned, expecting to see one of Claire's friends. 

 

A young woman with a narrow face and terrified eyes was standing there, far too close to me. She'd pressed her hand together, as if in prayer. 

 

"Rachel?"

 

I didn't recognize her at all. 

 

"Hi?" I said, stepping back. 

 

She blinked, looking hurt. Then her face registered understanding and she looked down. "I guess you wouldn't recognize me in these clothes." She was wearing an ill-fitting oversized T-shirt and corduroys so long the hems dragged on the ground. I looked back up at her face and then her hair.

 

Someone had roughly chopped her ashy blonde hair into a lank bob. Someone who was working fast and didn't have the right kind of tools. Someone who knew her long hair would mark her as an outsider in the secular world.

 

Someone a lot like me. 

 

Someone who grew up calling herself one of God's Chosen.

Rachel

My first instinct was to run. Drop my potatoes and cheese and sprint as fast as I could. Get away from this apparition, this ghost from my terrible past. 

 

For a second I could almost believe I'd never left the compound. The reassuring white noise of the grocery store fell away. All at once I was in the meetinghouse again, sweating in the suffocating heat, my steps hobbled by heavy skirts. I swallowed hard and tried to remember I was safe from all that. "Ruth?" 

 

She nodded, still looking down at her clothes. "These are so hard to get used to," she muttered.

 

"Ruth, what are you doing here?" I darted a look behind me, waiting for - what? One of the Elders to leap out from behind the canned soup display? What was I so terrified of, really? I tried to steady my voice. "What's going on?"

 

"I'm so glad you're here." She dared to lift her gaze to mine and I knew what it cost her to do that. Who knew what vile, awful things she must have heard about me? The stories told at meeting of my disgusting sins? The lies they must have told about me to justify my defection? "You have to help me."

 

In spite of the chill of the dairy case, I was sweating. I felt a pain in my hands and realized I was clenching my fists so hard my nails were digging into my palms. I unclenched them, finger by finger. "Of course," I said, as steadily as I could. "But what is this? You're out?" 

 

"I am."

 

"Since when?"

 

"Since?" She looked around. "This morning, I guess?" Her voice bubbled with suppressed hysteria. "Since you left, maybe? Since I realized it was possible to leave?"

 

"Oh, Ruth!" I shook my fear loose and wrapped my arms around her. She was stiff at first, then clutched at my clothes. "I'm so proud of you," I whispered in her ear, but my mind was reeling. "Is it just you? Are there others?"

 

I heard her swallow next to my ear. "There've been three, that I know of. Susanna went first."

 

"Susanna?" That was a shock. Susanna Baker had barely spoken to me, barely spoken to anyone. But shyness doesn't always mean cowardice. I knew that well. 

 

Ruth looked over her shoulder again and she and I both stepped closer to each other. I kept my hand on her arm. "It's a whole network now," she mumbled, looking down and barely moving her lips. "Girls are leaving in the middle of the night."

 

"How?"

 

"A car comes and picks them up behind the dairy barn." There was a rutted pitted road, little more than a path, that led from the barn to the road. I'd thought only Chosen knew about it. "It's supposed to take them to a safehouse."

 

I felt dizzy. "A safehouse? Who's running it?"

 

Ruth shrugged. "I don't know. No one does, I don't think. In case someone talks. It's better, they say." She reached up to tug at her braid and jerked her hand back in surprise when it wasn't there. "That's where I was supposed to go today but... but it was closed."

 

"Closed?" I echoed. 

 

She clutched at her arm, hugging herself. I wrapped my arm around her shoulder and pulled her close as her fear made her words tumble over each other. "The driver honked the horn, gave the signal. I guess the gate was supposed to open, but it didn't, so he got out and told me to get down." Her body shook with tremors. "We were late getting out, it wasn't dark enough, it was my fault, my husband - ,” she spat the word and I jerked in sympathy. I hadn't realized she'd been married off. "He was up half the night coughing. I thought I was going to miss my chance. But the driver waited for me until it was near dawn. He was so angry with me though, Rachel." She was shaking harder now, and I swallowed hard to see her terror in the face of angry men. "And then when it was locked, he wanted to take me right back again."

 

"No…,” I breathed. To have that chance and have it snatched away would be unbearable. 

 

She shook her head. "No. I wasn't going back. I had no place else to go, but I wasn't going back to Zacharias.” She shuddered again and her fingers played around her neck in a way that made my stomach turn. "I made him drive around until we found a place that was open. He wouldn't stay with me, said it wasn't safe for us to be seen together. So I've been here since this morning, trying to look like I blend in." She snorted softly and touched her ragged hair. "I thought, somehow, if they find me, it's better if I'm around people, right?" She looked at me, pleading. "Right? If they come to find me here, someone will see have to see me. I won't just disappear."

 

"They're not going to find you," I declared. "No. You're coming with me."

 

She let out a soft cry and fell against me. "Shh," I whispered. We were no longer alone. The old woman who carried her little dog everywhere was watching. She looked like she was about to greet us but thank God and all his angels her dog chose that moment to attempt a leap for freedom. It gave me cover to hiss, “No, none of that now," to the sobbing Ruth. "You get your head up, okay? Look, you're my cousin, got it? You're helping me do the shopping. Here." I grabbed a brick of cheese and put it in her hands. She looked down at it like it was a bomb, but nodded. "Right, now let's go get you a pint of ice cream, help you get over that asshole," I declared, loud enough for the dog-carrying woman to overhear. "No more crying over a cheater, you hear me cuz?"

 

It was an Oscar-worthy performance that I sort of wished Beau, or even Claire, was there to see. I led Ruth over to the frozen section and picked out two pints of the most decadently secular ice cream concoctions I could find. (Salted Caramel Pretzel with Fudge Ripple for me, and Birthday Cake Funfetti Spectacular with Marshmallow Swirl for her) Then I marched us both to the checkout and paid with a smile, daring the bagger to question Ruth's clothes or her red-rimmed eyes. "Nothing better than ice cream for a broken heart, am I right?" I chirped to the checkout girl, before grabbing Ruth by the wrist and leading her out the front door.

 

She was fine until we exited the safety of the store. But once we were out in the daylight, she quailed, dragging her feet as the terror took hold. "No one is going to come for you," I whispered, but I quickened my steps all the same. Relief flooded me when we reached the car.

 

"Merciful heavens," Ruth moaned, sagging into her seat. She curled up against the door, tucking her knees to her chest like a child. 

 

I swallowed. The sight of Ruth's terror was making me re-think my plan. I'd meant to drive us right to the house. But Ruth was in the throes of a sudden, paralyzing fear. Fear takes over the second safety is at hand. In that moment, the evil you endured didn't matter. Because it was what you understood. 

 

Ruth had left behind everything that made sense to her and now the unknown was closing in. I'd felt this terror.

 

I didn't want to cause it. 

 

I bit the inside of my cheek. I'd wanted to run back to the house and put this all in Beau's hands. I knew he'd take over. I knew I could trust him.

 

But Ruth didn't. 

 

She only trusted me because she knew where I was from. Beau - my wonderful, loving fiancé - would scare her into muteness. I could see this now. It didn't matter that he was good-hearted and sweet. She would take one look at his leather jacket and low-slung jeans and see Satan himself. 

 

"Ruth, I need you to listen to me," I told her, intruding into her thoughts as gently as I could. "You've been so brave, all day." I reached out and took her hand in mine and tried to still the fluttering. "You're safe, do you hear me? But I need you to listen."

 

She took a deep breath and opened her eyes. When she finally looked at me, I nodded. "Now. I can take you to my house -.”

 

"Yes," she answered immediately, but I held up my hand. 

 

"Ruth, I'm engaged." I held up my left hand for her. Her eyes widened when they fell on the sparkling ring. "His name is Beau, and he is the kindest, most loving man I've ever met. But he is a man." She was already getting paler. "And his brother lives-," I caught myself, started that I’d forgotten about Finn’s disappearance. "Well... his brother isn't... there right now. But he usually lives with us too." Ruth was white as a sheet now. "Ruth, I promise you. They will not touch you. They will want to help you as much as I do."

 

"They're secular?"

 

"They're secular," I agreed. That word had once been enough to inspire terror in me. I could see Ruth struggling not to succumb to that same terror now. "And I don't want you to be any more frightened than you already are." Her trust in the outside world would come slowly. Like mine had. I knew that rushing it might send her running terrified back to The Chosen. Like it once had for me. "Would you like me to try and take you to the safehouse instead?" I asked her. "We can try again? Do you think you can remember how to get there?"

 

She widened her eyes. And then closed them, exhaling a painful sigh. "I don't," she moaned. 

 

"Try to remember. What did it look like?"

 

"There was a fence all around," she said, keeping her eyes closed as she tried to conjure the picture. "A low building, big rolling doors like on the barn, I think."

 

"A garage?"

 

"Maybe? I saw a few motorcycles, but then my driver came back and shouted to get my head down. He jumped back in and turned around so fast the tires screamed."

 

I wracked my brain. "Was it here? In town?"

 

She shook her head hopelessly. "I don't know. He started taking all these turns, saying we were probably being followed. I got all turned around."

 

Andolino's garage didn't have a fence around it. Not that I could remember. Of course, I'd only been there with Mr. King, and he went in around the back. Maybe a different entrance? I started the car. "I'm going to swing by the place I'm thinking, okay? You can tell me if it's what you remember." 

 

Ruth nodded and I couldn't help but notice the way her shoulders lowered a fraction. I didn't want to disturb her silence, so I kept my questions to myself as I drove. 

 

But with no place to go, they ended up swirling around in my head in a frenzied tornado of worry. "How is my family?" "How are my sisters?" "Is Rebecca with a good man?" "Is he righteous?" "Is Miriam okay?" "Levi, oh my heavens, has anyone found out that he's gay?" "Did I expose him by leaving?"

 

"Why aren't the Chosen coming to the Saturday markets anymore?" "Has there been a crackdown?" "Do you know where Susanna ended up?" "Is she safe?" 

 

"Who on earth is running the safehouse?" "Are they secular?" "Why are they helping us?"

 

"Why do they care?" 

 

With no answers forthcoming, the questions clogged my throat. I had to say something to dislodge the lump that was forming. "Does this look familiar at all?" I asked.

 

Ruth sat up. We were turning onto Mill Street now. She stared intently at the bridge that spanned the upper set of rapids and shook her head. "No, we didn't cross the creek, I don't think." 

 

"How about this?" Andolino's garage was ahead on the right, a neatly whitewashed building with three bays all open. Inside, Chuck and his sons were bustling about in their navy coveralls, using all three lifts at once. 

 

Ruth looked and immediately shook her head. "It was closed. Locked. Like it was out of business or something."

 

I pressed my lips together, thinking. The only other garage around here belonged to the Knights, but it wasn't in town and I wasn't sure how to get there. I handed my phone to Ruth. "Can you type in 'garages'?"

 

"Where?" She looked down that the phone like it was a snake poised to strike. 

 

"Never mind," I laughed and took it back from her. I’d have to teach her about smart phones. "Sorry. I doubt that's the place anyway. Maybe it was a warehouse? Somewhere in the old part of town?"

 

Ruth shrugged. I turned and headed back into town, driving slowly in case anything sparked Ruth's memory. "Did you go past here at all?" I asked as we turned onto Johnson Street. 

 

At the corner, the big Catholic church rose, its steeple the tallest structure in town. "I think?" Ruth breathed as she gazed up at it. "There weren't so many cars though."

 

She was right. Gleaming motorcycles lined the street. Cars, both regular and classic, filled both the church lot and the lot of Lowry funeral home right next door. "So that's what it was," I muttered to myself. 

 

"What?"

 

"I got caught in traffic on the way to the store," I explained. "Whoever's funeral this is, he must have been an important guy. I didn't think there were even this many people living here."

 

"Maybe it's people from out of town?" Ruth wondered, then gestured. "She doesn't look like she's from here."

 

I turned to look where she was pointing. A blonde woman was standing at the door of her hatchback, staring at the front of the funeral home. The wind lifted her hair away from her face, and even from this far away I could see the confusion and sorrow on it. Her shoulders were rounded in defeat. But as we slid past, I saw her straighten them before she pushed her door closed and started walking across the lot.

 

"She's secular," Ruth said, a touch of wonder in her voice. "But she's scared too." 

 

The sight seemed to have a strange effect on Ruth. She sat up straighter, seeming to draw herself together again. Empathy warmed her voice. "Who is she?"

 

I dragged my eyes away from the rear view, but the image of that stranger trying to pull herself together was seared into my brain. "I've never seen her before," I mused aloud. "I wonder why she's here?"

 

"We passed that!" Ruth cried, pointing to the Crown Tavern and derailing my train of thought. "I know because I remembered seeing it when we'd come in for Saturday Markets." She shook her head and closed her arms over her chest. "I used to think the people inside had to be the worst kind of sinners. Now I'm one of them."

 

I grabbed her hand. "Stop. You are a good person, Ruth. There are more ways to be a good person than the Elders taught us."

 

She gave me a small, tight-lipped smile. I nodded and smiled back in a way I hoped was encouraging. But inside I was losing hope. We'd driven up and down nearly every street in town, and Ruth still had no idea where her driver had taken her.

 

Just then I heard a rumble. Ruth let go of my hand and hugged her stomach. "Sorry," she muttered. "I haven't eaten in a while."

 

"Okay." I turned the wheel sharply to the left before I missed the turn. "You're hungry. I'm hungry. My fiancé is probably starving." I nodded with each sentence, trying to convince myself as much as I was trying to convince Ruth. "Let's eat something, okay? Just a dinner so you can have your head clear." And I can clear mine too, I didn't add. My whirlwind thoughts were spinning faster and faster with each moment. Each worry was trying to drown out everything else. Finn's disappearance. The secret underground railroad of Chosen. The locked up safehouse. The funeral. The strange girl in the parking lot. The fear on her face. Nothing was connected. Yet everything seemed linked. 

 

I shook myself so hard that Ruth gave a yelp of surprise. "We're gonna eat now, okay?" I repeated. I glanced at her. "Sound good?"

 

"Okay." 

 

"Okay." I pressed the gas pedal a little harder. It wasn't much of a plan, but it was the best I could come up with. "That's what's going to happen. We're going to all eat together. And then we're going to figure out what happens next."

 

THE END

 

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