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Braxton grabbed the bagel between her teeth, freeing her hands to throw together a quick lunch, which was tossed into her backpack. The house was chaos as everyone was in some state of readiness for morning classes that were all within forty-five minutes of each other.
“Carrie!” she shouted, yanking the bagel from her mouth. “Let’s go!” Her request was greeted by the pitter patter of Carrie’s hurried steps down the stairs, as she’d used Becca and Braxton’s bathroom to shower since Lydia was using the one downstairs. Braxton took a bite from her bagel when the wall phone in the kitchen rang. Spitting out the unchewed bite in her hand, she picked the handset. “Hello?”
“May I please speak with Braxton Crowley?” a deep, male voice said.
“This is she, and make it quick, mister- I’ve got class in seven minutes,” Braxton said absently, glancing at her wrist watch, then over at Carrie’s bedroom to see the shorter woman grabbing her backpack and keys.
“Alright then, Miss Crowley. I’ll make this brief. I’m Detective Gene Maddox from Ivanwood, Colorado. I’d like to speak to you about your mother, Margot. I’m in town, and I’d really like to get you down to the station so we can chat. When would be a good time for you?”
Braxton felt the floor fall out from underneath her, breath catching in her throat. “Oh. Uh. Well, Detective, I really have to get going. How about I give you a call later today, after classes?”
“Alright. Here’s my cell number.”
Braxton wrote down the digits, her fingers trembling around the pen. “Okay, got it. Talk to you later, then.” She set the handset in the cradle and felt nauseous. Dropping the bagel into the trash, she quietly headed for the front door, followed by Carrie.
“You okay?” the roommate asked, unlocking her car with the plastic remote.
Braxton nodded dumbly, climbing into the car.
Becca groaned as her feet hit the floor. She was tired, having been awoken by her own nightmares the night before, the events of the day with Margot bringing on memories she didn’t want. Running her hands through her wild hair, she stood, craving a nice, long, hot shower. Gathering clean clothes, she padded out into the hall, only hearing the soft murmuring of a TV somewhere downstairs.
The water felt absolutely heavenly as it fell down her body, her hand reaching out to try and salvage as much hot water as she could, since everyone had already taken showers before class. Freshly showered and dressed, Becca padded downstairs, anxious to get her first cup of coffee of the morning.
“Hey, Mrs. Crowley,” she called out, noticing the older blonde sitting on the couch and watching some sort of talk show.
“Good morning, Becca,” Margot smiled at the beautiful woman who headed into the kitchen. “Would you care for some breakfast?” she asked, following.
“Oh, no. You don’t have to feed me.” Becca began to prepare the coffeemaker.
“I know. But I enjoy it.” She immediately set about getting out ingredients that she’d bought for just this purpose. “Do you prefer sausage or bacon? Or do you eat meat at all? I know how you kids are these days.”
Becca chuckled. “Yes, I eat meat, and sausage, please.”
“Sausage it is. You sit down and keep me company.”
“Aright.” Becca sat in one of the wobbly kitchen chairs, watching as Margot pulled out a loaf of bread, container of eggs, the sausage, butter, cheese, milk and sugar.
“Waffles or French toast?”
“Oh, no, Mrs. Crowley-“
“Margot, you don’t need to go to this much trouble for me,” Becca protested, starting to rise from her chair. She sat back down with an oomph when Margot put a hand to her shoulder and pushed with surprising strength.
“Sit, you. And I want to go this much trouble, even though it’s no trouble at all.” Margot gave her the most endearing smile. It made Becca miss her own mother, whom she hadn’t spoken with in four and a half years. “Besides, it’s nice to have someone appreciate what I do.”
Becca didn’t respond to that, instead walking over to the coffeemaker and preparing herself a cup of coffee and pouring Margot one. “How do you like it, Margot?”
“Black is fine with me, honey.”
“Black it is. Here you go.” Becca set the filled cup on the counter next to Margot’s working space, then reclaimed her seat. She stared at the older woman’s back, chewing on her bottom lip as she tried to decide what to do. Now that they were alone, she considered bringing up what she’d been told the night before by Braxton, but didn’t want to get the girl in trouble. Little did she know that Margot was having very similar thoughts.
“Becca,” she began, back to the younger woman as she began to prepare her breakfast. “Are you happy here?”
Surprised by the strange question, Becca set her cup down, as she was about to take a drink. “Yes. Why?”
“So you plan to stay then?” Margot chanced a quick glance over her shoulder before turning back to her task.
“In the house? Yes.”
”Good. Braxton seems to really like you, and you’re such a nice girl.” Unbroken egg in her hand, she turned to fully face the beautiful young woman. “I need to ask a favor of you.”
“Sure.” Becca was curious and gave Braxton’s mother her full attention.
“I need you to look out for her. Keep an eye on her. Jared is gone a lot now, I notice, and with the looks of things with Karen, I’d say it’ll be more time away than less. Braxton is going to need someone. Someone she can trust and can lean on. Do you think you can do that for me?”
“Of course I can.” Becca tucked her bottom lip underneath her upper teeth again then decided to bring it up. “Are you planning on turning yourself in, Margot?”
Margot gasped, the egg she had in her hand falling to the floor and shattering. Within moments she and Becca were kneeling on the floor, cleaning up shell and yolk. Their gazes met.
“Don’t be mad at her,” Becca said softly, sopping up the mess with a paper towel. “Jared wasn’t here and she needed someone to talk to. I’ll never say a word.”
Margot placed a gentle touch to Becca’s cheek. “I know you won’t. There’s a calm strength in you, Becca. You just know right away with you that you’re trustworthy.”
Becca looked away, unable to take the genuine look of respect she saw in Margot’s eyes. “Thanks,” she muttered, standing and tossing the soiled towel into the trash.
“And, yes. I’m turning myself in. I can’t be a burden on Braxton.”
“You know you won’t be. She loves you and will do anything to help. We all will.”
Margot studied the taller woman for a long moment before turning back to her breakfast preparations. “You aren’t suggesting I run, are you?” she said quietly. “And which did you want? Waffles or French toast?”
“Waffles. Margot, I know where you’re headed, if you make that decision. I’ve…” Becca’s voice trailed off, her stomach roiling. She swallowed several times then decided to continue. “I’ve been there. I just got out after serving four years for vehicular assault. A man is in a wheelchair for the rest of his life because of me. Trust me when I tell you that you do not want to go where I’ve been.”
“Do the kids know?” Margot asked, her back still to Becca. “About where you’ve been?”
“What kind of lesson am I teaching my daughter, Becca, if I don’t pay the piper for my sins? My house is extremely large, with extremely large windows, and stones hurt.” She turned to the younger woman, who had moved to the counter perpendicular to the one Margot was working on. Becca leaned against it, arms crossed over her shoulder.
“You’re teaching her a lesson of survival. From what she said you’ve been through, you don’t deserve to spend the rest of your life in a six by eight cell. You’re better than that.”
“Aren’t you?” Margot challenged.
“This isn’t about me, Margot. This is about a daughter who needs her mother.”
Margot turned away, blinking several times to keep her emotions at bay. “I know,” she whispered. “For so many years I prayed that God would get me out of that marriage. Get Braxton and I away from Fletcher. I thought He’d truly answered my prayers when Braxton went off to school. But then it just got worse for me. Not that I begrudged my daughter her happiness or freedom, mind you,” she clarified with a hard look.
“Margot,” Becca moved over to her, placing a tentative hand on her forearm until the older woman met her very serious gaze. “I can hide you. It breaks my heart to think of you going off to that place. You’re a good woman, and don’t deserve that. It’s hell in there, Margot.”
“Honey,” Margot said softly, covering Becca’s hand with her own. “Nothing can be worse than Fletcher. Trust me on that, okay?”
Braxton sat in her class, pencil tapping rhythmically against her test. Though she had studied for her Twentieth Century Artists class, her mind was wandering dangerously. She’d answered less than half of the questions, and the clock was ticking.
“Damn,” she muttered, realizing that some of her fellow students were already finishing their tests and leaving. She shook herself free of thought and returned her focus to the task at hand.
As she walked down the busy halls of the art building, Braxton heaved her backpack higher onto her shoulder. She was headed to her next class when suddenly something struck her mind. She found a bench and fell down onto it, gasping.
The realization that her father was dead hit her between the eyes. This realization, however, had nothing to do with grief or sadness. She now knew that she was safe. There was no longer a shadow lurking over her shoulder, threatening to yank her back to Ivanwood for the slightest perceived sin. She was free to live her life as she wished. The bastard was dead.
Several people glanced at the woman sitting on the bench, who seemed to be laughing at nothing at all.
“Hey, Brax. Are you okay?” one of Braxton’s acquaintances asked, stopping in front of her.
Braxton sobered, but only slightly. “Tina, can get grab a ride home from you?”
The rain was pouring down as Braxton climbed out of Tina’s truck, yelling a quick thanks before running up the walk to the house, holding the ends of her jacket closed as she did. Once inside, she shook her head to shake the water from her hair, blowing out a breath.
“Damn, that’s some rain,” she muttered, shrugging out of her backpack and heading toward the stairs. “Mom?” she called, tossing the heavy pack onto the bed, where it nearly bounced back off. She tore her wet shirt off, standing in her bra as she dug through her dresser drawers for a dry shirt.
“Hey, Brax- oh, shit! Sorry.” Becca hurried out of the room and into the hall.
Braxton looked up, surprised, then looking down at herself. “Oops. Sorry, Becca.” She chuckled. “Okay, shirt’s on. You can come in.”
Looking a little sheepish, Becca appeared around the corner. “Sorry. Didn’t realize you were dressing.”
“Don’t sweat it. I should have closed my door. Besides, I’d be willing to bet good money you’ve seen a woman in just a bra before.”
Becca looked away, a hand coming up to cup the back of her neck nervously. Oh, yeah. Once or twice. “Some rain, huh?”
“Yeah. A nice precursor for the snow we’ll get in a few weeks.” Braxton dug through her backpack, picking out her sketchpad and pencils.
“You’re home early,” Becca commented, stepping into the room and leaning a shoulder against the wall just inside the door.
“I know. Come on in.” Braxton indicated the armchair, “Or you can sit on the bed. Your choice. It might be a little more comfortable.”
Becca chose the bed, sitting next to the sketchpad, running a fingertip over the textured cover. “Mind if I look?” she asked, tapping a finger on it.
“Yeah, sure. Go for it. But,” she said, stopping Becca from picking up the pad with a hand to her wrist. Blue eyes met Braxton’s gaze. “Be nice.”
Becca grinned, eyes twinkling. “I’m always nice, Braxton.”
Braxton looked away, for some reason blushing slightly at Becca’s words. “Yeah, well, be nice this time, too.”
Becca got comfortable and flipped open the cover, marveling at the talent of the hand that had created the pictures. “Damn,” she murmured, eyes never leaving the page she was on. “You’re really good, Braxton.”
“Okay, I said be nice, but I didn’t say blow smoke up my ass,” Braxton said shyly, even though inside she was glowing with pride and pleasure.
Becca smiled and continued to flip through the sketches.
“You enjoy. I’ll be back. Need to go talk to my mom.” Braxton was turning toward the door when she was stopped by a hand on her arm.
“She’s not here, Braxton.”
Confused, Braxton scowled. “Where is she?”
“I don’t know. She said she had some errands to run.”
Braxton felt panic clench her gut, a cold sweat beginning to trickle down her spine. “What kind of errands, Becca?”
“I truly don’t know.” Becca looked into the wide eyes of the blonde, and for a moment thought about telling Braxton about her and Margot’s conversation earlier that morning. She wasn’t sure it was her right, though. What if Margot changed her mind? What if she got angry, as it was certainly her place to tell her daughter her plans, not Becca’s. “I don’t know,” she said again, turning her attention back to the drawings.
Braxton plopped down in the armchair, tossing her backpack back to the floor, leaving Becca alone on the bed other than the sketchpad she was looking through. “Becca?”
“Mm?” the taller woman said absently.
“I’m glad she did it.”
Becca’s head snapped up, eyes wide with surprise. “You are?”
“Yes. You never got the pleasure of meeting Fletcher Crowley, did you?”
Becca shook her head. “Nope. Can’t say as I did.”
“Well, let me tell you that I lived in fear of that son-of-a-bitch for twenty-one years. Every move I made, even while here at school, he saw. Every decision I made, I knew he was aware of.” She turned in the chair, bringing her legs up to flop them over an arm. “Did you know that I had my first taste of alcohol in January of this past year? I’d been here more than two years already! Not that getting drunk is a priority for me or anything, mind you.” Braxton didn’t miss the pained look on Becca’s face, no matter how fleeting, at those words. “But I figured he’d know. He’d somehow see what I was doing and send his buddy Jesus up this way to strike me down.”
Becca set the sketchpad aside, not realizing that her own eyes gazed up at her from the page, so she could give Braxton her full attention. “Sounds like a real prince.”
“Of Darkness, maybe. Today it hit me. I mean, really hit me, that he was gone. That I will never have to worry about him again. Even though my mother swung the blows, I feel like I’ve beaten my biggest demon somehow. Like I was there, I killed him. I got him out of my life and out of my head.” She studied Becca for a long moment. “Am I crazy, Becca? A heartless bitch?”
Becca blew out a breath, shaking her head. “No. You’re a beautiful, intelligent, talented young woman who is finally free to live her life as she sees fit. You can wake up now, the monster’s gone.”
Margot glanced into the rearview mirror, noting the presence of the rust-colored sedan, the windshield wipers whipping as quickly as her own to try and keep the smooth surface free of the pounding rain. She couldn’t see the man behind the wheel, though she didn’t need to. After all, she’d spent the entire morning sitting across a table from him, telling him everything, every detail, every moment.
Before heading to the police station, Margot had driven around the town, taking in everything she could. She stopped and had a decadent lunch, then saw a movie. She’d found an empty roadway and had pushed the pedal to the metal and spun out a few times, enjoying the rush of speed and adrenaline, knowing it was likely to be her last.
Detective Gene Maddox had been kind, no judgment in his voice or his questions. He simply wanted to know the truth, and had told her the truth in kind. Fletcher’s body had been found not four hours after Margot had walked away, one of his parishioners had come by the house to seek out his minister’s guidance. Fletcher’s body had been seen through the window, and the godly man had called the police.
Margot wasn’t surprised, and wasn’t even scared, though she knew it would catch up with her. She’d never done well with change, or perhaps she would have changed her life a long time ago. Either way, she had done the right thing for her soul, and though she’d committed a heinous sin, she could only hope that God would be merciful since she’d confessed her sins, and was willing to pay the price, no matter what that would be. What she hoped for the most, however, would be that Braxton could forgive her for not only taking her father away, but herself, as well.
She’d done what she could for her daughter, taking a trip to an attorney and the bank today, as well. Braxton would be taken care of.
The two cars pulled up in front of the large Victorian, the rain making the day gray and dreary. Soon a black and white squad car pulled up behind Detective Maddox’s. “Pissy day, huh?” the detective said, opening an umbrella as he walked over to Margot. He shielded her from the misery as they headed up the path.
“Oh, I don’t know,” the older woman said, looking up into the sky. She almost wanted to stand under its baptismal drops, but couldn’t deny Gene Maddox his gentlemanly attempt. “I always loved the rain.”
Once they’d hit the porch, the detective stopped Margot with a hand to her shoulder, the uniformed officer hopping up to the top step under the cover of the porch. “Margot, I can only give you a few minutes, okay?”
Margot nodded in understanding. “Thank you for this, Gene. It’s greatly appreciated.” She pushed the front door open and stepped into the house, followed by the two men.
Her heart began to beat faster when she heard footsteps coming down the stairs. Taking a deep breath, she waited.
Braxton hit the main floor and was startled to see the party of three standing in the middle of the living room. Her mother was flanked by an police officer and a man in a wrinkled suit, all three had hair plastered to their heads from the rain.
“What’s going on?” she asked slowly, her gaze bouncing off all three before finally settling on her mother.
“Honey, this is Detective Gene Maddox, I believe you spoke with him this morning. He’s come all the way from home for me. This is Officer John Webb. He’s going to be escorting me.”
“Escorting you where?” Somehow Braxton couldn’t get her brain to wrap around what was happening, even though she knew exactly what was happening.
Margot stepped away from the two men and over to her daughter. She reached into her purse and dug out a large, sealed envelope. “When I leave today, Braxton, I want you to open this and read it carefully. Alright?”
Braxton looked down at the offering and shook her head slowly. “No,” she said, her voice small. She distantly heard footfalls on the stairs behind her, then a warm presence. “No, I don’t want it.”
Margot misunderstood her daughter’s reaction, the sadness within almost overwhelming. She set the envelope on a nearby table. “Well, it’s there when you’re ready, I guess.” She stepped forward, taking Braxton into a final hug, ready to pull away from the limp body when suddenly fingers of iron dug into her back as Braxton’s arms flew up and around her.
“No!” Braxton cried, realization finally hitting her heart. “No! You can’t go! No!” She pulled away, holding her mother by the shoulders. “We can hide you,” she whispered desperately. “You did nothing wrong. We can hide you!”
Margot shook her head, her hand reaching up to palm her daughter’s tear-streaked face. “No, honey, I did do wrong. I should have left your father years ago rather than doing what I did.” She smiled big and bright, her heart light and conscience clear. “Honey, it’s okay. Don’t cry for me.” She brushed the tears away with her thumbs. “I’m free, Braxton. Don’t you understand? I’m free now.”
Braxton could barely see through her tears now as her mother hugged her one more time. The younger woman buried her face in the warmth of Margot’s neck, her entire body heaving with sobs. “Just when I got you you’re leaving,” she cried, the little girl inside clutching desperately at her momma.
Margot’s eyes squeezed shut. “I’m here, my baby. I’ll always be here. I love you.” She pulled away, unable to take the anguish she could hear in Braxton’s voice. In that voice she heard the cries of the baby Braxton had once been. She remembered back in those days that all she had to do was rock her, and soon Braxton would fall back to sleep.
Braxton let go as Margot pulled away, backing up toward the two men who stood waiting. She felt as though her entire world were crashing around her feet, and her legs nearly fell out from beneath her. Strong arms wrapped around her from behind, and Braxton sank into them, back against a solid body.
Still crying, Braxton watched as the police officer quietly read Margot her rights, turning her so her back was to him as he brought slim wrists to her lower back, placing metal cuffs around each one. Margot looked over her shoulder at Braxton one last time, a smile upon her lips and peace in her eyes. She looked at her daughter as long as she could until she was led out the front door and back out into the rain, the detective’s umbrella once again shielding Margot from the rain.
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