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By Sandra Brown
Read by Jason Culp
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Thatcher Hutton, a war-weary soldier on the way back to his cowboy life, jumps from a moving freight train to avoid trouble . . . and lands in more than he bargained for. On the day he arrives in Foley, Texas, a local woman goes missing. Thatcher, the only stranger in town, is suspected of her abduction, and worse. Standing between him and exoneration are a corrupt mayor, a crooked sheriff, a notorious cathouse madam, a sly bootlegger, feuding moonshiners . . . and a young widow whose soft features conceal an iron will.
What was supposed to be a fresh start for Laurel Plummer turns to tragedy. Left destitute but determined to dictate her own future, Laurel plunges into the lucrative regional industry, much to the dislike of the good ol’ boys, who have ruled supreme. Her success quickly makes her a target for cutthroat competitors, whose only code of law is reprisal. As violence erupts, Laurel and—now deputy—Thatcher find themselves on opposite sides of a moonshine war, where blood flows as freely as whiskey.
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Won’t be much longer.”
Derby had been telling her that for the past two hours. He said the same four words at intervals that had become so regular she could now predict, to within a minute, the next repetition. His tone was terse and emphatic, as though he were trying to convince himself.
Laurel had stopped responding because whatever she said, he took as an affront. He sat hunched over the steering wheel, his shoulders stacked with so much tension they were nearly touching his earlobes.
They had gotten a late start, not leaving Sherman until past noon. Since the day had been half gone, and daylight with it, she had suggested they wait until tomorrow to set out, but Derby had stubbornly stuck to his plan.
“My old man’s expecting us. I didn’t spend good money on a telegram telling him when we were coming, only to be no-shows.”
It wasn’t a trip to be making with an infant just barely a month old. She certainly hadn’t expected to be uprooted with only a few hours’ notice. But here they were, Derby, her, and baby Pearl, driving through the night. The farther they traveled, the more concerned she became about their welfare.
Derby had told her that his father lived roughly a hundred and fifty miles southwest of Sherman. He had showed her on a map the route they would take. Until today, she had never been on a road trip in an automobile, but she hadn’t counted on it taking the six-plus hours they’d been traveling to cover a hundred and fifty miles.
She was huddled inside her coat, the lower half of her face wrapped in a muffler, a cap hugging her head. But even bundled up as she was, she had kept careful track of the highway signs. Freezing precipitation made them difficult to spot unless the T-model’s one working headlight caught them at a good angle. They were still on the right highway, but how much farther could it possibly be?
Or maybe, in order to avoid a quarrel, Derby had fudged on the distance.
To be fair, though, neither of them had counted on the abrupt change in the weather. North Texas had enjoyed a reasonably mild winter through Christmas and New Year, but the Farmer’s Almanac had predicted a spring that would be colder than usual, with hard freezes expected well into mid-March. This was day two of the month, and it had come in like a lion.
They’d just reached the western outskirts of Dallas when the norther had caught up to them. The leading gust of frigid air had broadsided the Tin Lizzy like a runaway freight train.
She wouldn’t be surprised to learn that that first buffet had left a dent in the car door. Not that another dent would be noticed. It was already banged up.
* * *
The day Derby had driven the car home, she had been flabbergasted by his impulsiveness. When she’d asked where he’d gotten it, he’d told her about a former war buddy who lived in a town nearby.
“He hadn’t been in France a month when the poor bastard lost his left leg clean up to here.” He’d made a slice across his groin. “Can’t work the pedals to drive. He let me have this beauty for a song.”
They didn’t have a song, but she hadn’t pointed that out, because, in that boastful moment, some of Derby’s rakish charm, which had attracted her to him in the first place, had resurfaced.
He’d swung open the passenger door and made a sweeping gesture with his arm as he bowed. “Your chariot awaits, Miz Plummer.” He’d winked and grinned, and she’d seen a flash of the dashing young man who had marched off to fight the Great War, rather than the quarrelsome stranger who had returned from it.
She’d seized on his sudden lightheartedness and had giggled helplessly as he’d driven them through town going faster than he should and needlessly honking at everything and everybody, making her laugh harder. He’d seemed mindless of the jostling, until one pothole sent her bouncing so hard in her seat, she placed her hands protectively over her belly.
“Careful of those chuckholes or the baby might pop out of me like a cork from a bottle.”
She had gone into labor that very night. By three o’clock the following afternoon, she was a mother and Derby a father. That had been four weeks ago.
At first Derby had been prideful and happy and solicitous to her and their baby girl. But the newness of fatherhood had soon worn off, and the grinning man who’d taken her on the joy ride retreated once more behind a perpetual scowl she couldn’t allay.
In the thirty or so days since Pearl’s entrance into the world, Derby had lost another job. He’d spent a lot of time away from the house and snapped at her whenever she’d inquired where he’d been. In a heartbeat, he would become testy and short-tempered. She never knew what to expect.
During supper last evening, out of the clear blue, he’d announced, “We’re moving to Foley.” He’d avoided looking at her by keeping his head bent over his meal.
Afraid to overreact, she’d blotted her mouth with her napkin. “I think I’ve heard of it. Isn’t it near—”
“It’s not near anything. But my old man’s found me work out there.”
She had actually felt a spark of hopefulness. “Really? That’s wonderful. Doing what?”
“Does it matter? He’s expecting us tomorrow.”
The floor, none too level already, had seemed to undulate beneath her chair. “Tomorrow?”
Pearl was a fussy baby who demanded to be nursed several times a night. For a month, Laurel hadn’t slept for more than a couple of hours at a time. She was exhausted, worried about Derby’s state of mind, worried about their shortage of money, and now…this.
Leaving half his supper uneaten, he’d shoved back his chair, left the table, and lifted his jacket off the peg near the back door. “Pack tonight. I want to get away early.”
“Wait, Derby. We can’t just…” Words had failed her. “Sit back down. Please. We need to talk about this.”
“What’s to talk about?”
She gaped at him with bafflement. “Everything. Do we have a place to live?”
“I wouldn’t up and move you and the baby without having a plan, would I?”
“It just seems awfully sudden.”
“Well, it’s not. I’ve been thinking on it for a time.”
“You should have talked it over with me.”
“I’m talking it over with you now.”
His raised voice had caused Pearl to flinch where she lay asleep in Laurel’s lap. Laurel had lifted her to her shoulder and patted her back. Derby’s expression had turned impatient, but whether at her, the baby, or himself, she’d been unable to tell.
“I’ve got some things to see to before we clear town. Rent’s due on this place the day after tomorrow. I’ll leave notice of our departure in the landlord’s mailbox.” He’d reached for the doorknob.
“Derby, hold on.” She’d gone over to him. “I welcome the idea of us making a fresh start. I just want it to be a good fresh start. Thought through, not so rushed.”
“I told you, I have been thinking on it.”
“But making a move to another town seems drastic. When you talked to Mr. Davis, he told you that he might have an opening at his store soon.”
“Scooping chicken feed into tow sacks?” He’d made a sour face. “No thanks.”
“Something else could—”
“There’s nothing for me here, Laurel. Anyway, it’s decided. We’re leaving.” He’d pulled open the door and said over his shoulder as he went out, “You’d better get started packing.”
He hadn’t returned home until after two o’clock in the morning, disheveled and red-eyed, reeking of bootleg whiskey, too drunk to stand without support. When he’d stumbled into the bedroom, he’d propped himself against the doorjamb and blearily focused on her where she’d sat in the rocking chair next to the bed, nursing Pearl.
“Things ready?” he’d asked in a mumble.
Their duplex had rented furnished, so there hadn’t been much to pack except for their clothing and her personal possessions, which were few in number and didn’t amount to anything.
In answer to his question, she’d motioned to the two suitcases lying open on the floor. She’d carefully folded his army uniform and laid it on top.
Laurel had eased Pearl away from her breast and tucked it back inside her nightgown. “Couldn’t we give this decision a week, talk it over some more?”
“I’m sick of talking.” He’d staggered to the bed, crawled onto it, and passed out.
He’d slept late, and had been irritable and hungover when he woke up. Laurel had wished he’d forgotten about their departure, about the whole harebrained idea. But he’d fortified himself with several cups of strong coffee and a dozen hand-rolled cigarettes, and by the time she’d packed them a lunch with what food was left in the icebox, Derby was impatient to be off.
While he was loading their suitcases, putting one in the trunk and strapping down the other on top of it, she’d walked through the duplex one final time, checking to see that nothing belonging to them had been overlooked.
Derby had hung his army uniform back in the closet.
* * *
The top on the Ford was up, which kept some of the frozen precipitation off them, but it was open-air. During the whole trip, Laurel had kept Pearl clutched to her chest inside her coat, inside her dress, wanting to be skin-to-skin with her. She was afraid the baby would freeze to death and she wouldn’t even know it because she was so numb with cold herself. But Pearl had nursed well her last feeding, and her breath had remained reassuringly humid and warm.
“Won’t be much longer.”
Laurel held her tongue.
This time, Derby added, “A crossroads is up ahead. He’s only a few miles past that.”
However, beyond the crossroads, the road narrowed and the pavement gave way to gravel. The surrounding darkness was unrelieved except for the faulty headlight that blinked intermittently like a distress signal from a foundering ship.
So when Laurel caught a flicker of light out of the corner of her right eye, she first thought it was the headlight reflecting off pellets of blowing sleet.
But she squinted through the precipitation and then gave a soft cry of desperate hope. “Derby? Could that be his place?”
“Up there. I thought I saw a light.”
He slowed down and looked in the direction she indicated. “Gotta be,” he muttered.
He put the car in low gear and turned onto a dirt track formed by tire treads. The sleet made it look like it had been salted. The Model T ground its way up the incline.
At the higher elevation, the north wind was vicious. Howling, it lashed against the car as Derby brought it to a stop.
Whatever relief Laurel might have felt evaporated when she saw the dwelling beyond the windshield. It could be described only as a shack. Light seeped through vertical slits in the walls made of weathered lumber. On the south side of the structure, the roof steeply sloped downward and formed an extension that provided cover for stacked firewood.
She didn’t say anything, and Derby avoided looking at her. He pushed open the driver’s door against the fierce wind and climbed out. A fan of light spread onto the ground in front of him as the door to the shack came open.
Derby’s father was silhouetted, so Laurel couldn’t make out his features, but she was heartened by the welcoming tone of his voice as he shouted into the wind, “I’d ’bout given up on you.” He waved Derby forward.
Less enthusiastically, Derby approached his father and shook hands. They exchanged a few words, which Laurel couldn’t hear. Derby’s father jerked his head backward, then he leaned to one side in order to see around Derby and peered at the car.
Derby did a quick about-face, came over to the passenger door, opened it, and motioned Laurel out. “Hurry. It’s cold.”
Her legs almost gave out beneath her when she stepped onto the ground. Derby took her elbow and closed the car door. Together they made their way to the open doorway, where her father-in-law had stepped aside for them.
Derby hustled her inside, then firmly shut the door.
The wind continued to roar. Or, Laurel wondered, was the roaring in her ears actually caused by the sudden silence, or her weariness and gnawing hunger? All that, she assumed. Plus the alarming and humiliating realization that she and Pearl had not been expected.
“Daddy, this is my wife, Laurel. I’ll get the suitcases.” With no more ceremony than that, Derby left them.
* * *
There was little resemblance between Derby and his father, who was half a head shorter and didn’t have Derby’s lanky build. The crescent of his baldness was so precise it could have been traced from a pattern. The hair around it was wiry and gray and grew straight out from his head like brush bristles. His eyebrows looked like twin caterpillars stuck to his forehead.
They assessed each other. She said, “Mr. Plummer.” Clearing her throat of self-conscious scratchiness, she added, “Pleased to meet you.”
“Laurel, he said?”
“We’re kin now, so I ’spect you ought to drop the sir and call me Irv.”
She gave him a faint smile, and some of the tension in her chest eased. Pearl squirmed inside her coat, drawing his notice.
“That the baby? What’s its name?”
Laurel unbuttoned her coat, lifted Pearl out, and transferred her to the crook of her elbow. “Her name is Pearl.”
He didn’t step closer, but tentatively leaned forward and inspected what he could see of Pearl, which wasn’t much, swaddled as she was, and considering the meager light provided by a kerosene lantern that hung from a hook in the low ceiling.
He appeared to be pleased enough with his granddaughter, because he smiled. But all he said was, “Well, how ’bout that?”
Then he turned away and went over to a potbellied stove. Laurel noticed that he favored his left leg, making his bowlegged gait even more lopsided. He opened the door to the stove and tossed in two split logs he took from the stack of firewood against the wall.
He came back around, dusting his hands. “Y’all are hungry, I ’spect. I’ve got a rabbit fried up. Fresh killed and dressed this morning. I’ve kept a batch of biscuits warm. I was waiting till Derby got here to make the gravy.”
Laurel’s stomach had been growling for the past several hours, but to be polite, she said, “I hate that you’ve gone to so much trouble.”
“No trouble. Coffee’s—”
The door burst open, and Derby came in with their suitcases. He dropped them at his sides and pushed the door closed with his heel.
Irv said to him, “Move over there closer to the stove. I’ll pour y’all some coffee.”
“Got any hooch? Or are you abiding by the new law of the land, even though it’s horseshit?”
Looking displeased by his son’s crudity, Irv glanced at Laurel, then walked over to a small chest that had only three legs. In place of the missing one was a stack of catalogues with faded, curled, dusty covers. He grunted as he went down on his right knee. He opened the bottom drawer, reached far back into it, and came out with a mason jar that was two-thirds full of clear liquid.
As he heaved himself up, he said, “Sometimes my hip gets to bothering me so’s I can’t sleep. A nip of ’shine helps.”
Derby reached for the jar without so much as a thank you. He uncapped it and took a swig. The corn liquor must’ve seared his gullet. When he lowered the jar, his eyes were watering.
Laurel was already furious at him. Weren’t their present circumstances dreadful enough without his getting drunk? She didn’t conceal the resentment in her voice when she told him she needed the necessary.
Irv said, “Around back, twenty paces or so. You can lay the baby down over there.” He nodded toward a mattress on the floor in the corner. “Take a lantern, Derby.”
Laurel didn’t want to leave Pearl, but not having any choice, she laid her on the mattress. The ticking looked reasonably clean compared to the hard-packed dirt floor. She wrapped the baby tightly in her blankets, hoping that a varmint wouldn’t crawl into them before she returned.
Between taking sips of moonshine, Derby had lit a lantern. Bracing herself for the brutal cold, Laurel followed him out. It had started to snow, and it was sticking.
She was glad Derby was with her to help her find her way, but she was too angry to speak to him. She went into the foul-smelling outhouse and relieved herself as quickly as she could.
When she emerged, Derby passed the lantern to her. “Get back inside. I’m gonna have a smoke.”
“It’s freezing out here.”
“I’m gonna have a smoke.”
“And finish that?” she said, glaring at the fruit jar.
“I’m sick of you nagging me about every goddamn thing.”
“As if things aren’t bad enough, you’re going to get skunk drunk?”
He smirked. “Thought I would.” He raised the jar to his mouth, but she slapped it aside, almost knocking it out of his hand.
“Do as I tell you, Laurel. Go inside.”
“Your daddy didn’t know about Pearl and me, did he?” When he just stared back at her, she shouted, “Did he?”
Even though she wasn’t surprised, hearing him admit it caused her to see red. “How could you do this to me, Derby? To Pearl? To all of us? Why in the world did you bring us here?”
“I had to do something with you first.”
“You’ll thank me later.”
He produced a pistol from the pocket of his coat, put it beneath his chin, and pulled the trigger.
Laurel’s father-in-law waited until daylight and the worst of the storm had blown itself out to notify the authorities. Before leaving for town, he made her swear that she would stay inside the shack while he was gone. Listlessly, she agreed to remain inside, having no desire to subject herself to see in the dreary, gray daylight what she had beheld in darkness.
She hadn’t even known that Derby owned a pistol.
In Irv’s absence, she sat on the mattress near the potbellied stove, where she had endured the long night, benumbed by what Derby had done. She’d held Pearl to her the entire time, her infant being the only thing that seemed real, the one thing she could cling to in this ongoing nightmare.
She couldn’t even take comfort in fond memories of Derby. Those she’d cherished had died with him. They’d been obliterated by what would be her final memory of him.
She resented him for that.
Irv returned, followed by the sheriff and the justice of the peace. They came into the shack and spoke to her briefly, but there was little she could say that would make the circumstances any clearer than the gore they’d seen splashed onto the door of the outhouse.
After Derby’s body had been removed and taken to the funeral parlor, Irv dismantled the outhouse and burned it. By the early dusk, he had built another enclosure. He probably wouldn’t have been so industrious on the day after his son’s suicide if it hadn’t been for the privacy Laurel required.
Now, less than twenty-four hours after meeting her father-in-law, they were alone in the shack, except for Pearl. He was at the cookstove, preparing food she didn’t think she could eat, but knew she must in order to sustain Pearl.
“Thank you for replacing the outhouse.”
“Easier to start over than try to clean the old one. He’d made a goddamn mess.”
Softly she said, “He wasn’t right in his mind.”
He turned away from the stove and looked over at her. “Shell shock?”
“I suppose. A light had gone out inside him, and it never came back on. I thought he would get better as time passed. I tried to help him, but he wouldn’t even talk about it.”
Irv dragged one hand down his creased face. “He was like that after his mama died. Shut down, like. He ever tell you about that?”
“TB got her. Derby was seven, eight. Had to watch her decline, then die. That’s tough on a kid.” He paused, lost in thought, then cleared his throat. “After she passed, I couldn’t earn a living and look after him at the same time. I had no choice but to put him in a home. For what it was, it was a nice place. Subsidized by the railroad. I’d go see him whenever I could, but…”
He raised his shoulders. “He never forgave me for leaving him. Soon as he was old enough, he went his own way. I’d hear from him off and on. Mostly off. But it seemed to me like he’d found himself again and was doing all right. Then the war came along. If it was as bad as they say, it’s a wonder any one of them who survived it haven’t done what he did.”
He heaved a sigh that invoked Laurel’s pity. The wretched memory of Derby’s death would stay with Irv until his own final breath.
“Can I help you there?” she asked.
“No thanks. I’m just making some gravy for that rabbit we didn’t eat last night. It’s almost ready.”
Pearl was sleeping peacefully on the mattress. She probably needed to be changed, but in the process, she would wake up. Right now, it was better for Laurel, as well as for the baby, that she remain asleep. Because Laurel needed time to think.
She was viewing her life as a spool of ribbon that had gotten away from her, rolling out of her reach, unwinding rapidly and haphazardly, and she was powerless to stop it.
She shivered, as much from despair as from the cold air that seeped through the cracks in the walls of the shack. She hadn’t removed her coat since she arrived. Shoving her hands deep into its pockets, she said, “Right before he…did it…Derby admitted that he hadn’t told you about me and Pearl.”
Irv set down the long spoon he was using and turned toward her. “He didn’t even tell me he’d survived the war.”
Derby and she had still been in a honeymoon haze when he had left for overseas. She would have gone crazy if she hadn’t received periodic letters from him. Usually they were filled with cryptic references to his misery, but at least she’d known that he was alive. Learning that Derby hadn’t extended his father that courtesy made her heartsick for the old man.
“That was terribly thoughtless of him.”
“I got one letter telling me he’d been drafted and was going to Europe to kill Huns. I moved around a lot for work, so he’d been long gone by the time that letter caught up with me.
“Armistice came and went without a word from him. I took that as a bad sign, but the military is supposed to let folks back home know when their loved one has fallen or is missing, right?
“So I went up to Camp Bowie, where he’d been stationed before shipping out. After a lot of rigamarole and sorting through red tape, I was told he’d made it back stateside. His last paycheck from the army had been mailed to a post office box in Sherman. I wrote to him there just to tell him where I’d lit in case he ever wanted to find me.”
- “Set in 1920, this superior thriller from bestseller Brown firmly anchors all the action in the plot . . . Laurel and Thatcher are strong and inventive characters, and their surprising decisions and evolving relationship will keep readers engaged. Brown shows why she remains in the top rank of her field.”—Publishers Weekly, Starred Review
- “Brown doesn’t often delve into historical fiction territory, but she does here with gusto, and readers will practically taste the dusty streets of Foley and feel every rickety bump of the moonshiners’ trucks. There are shoot-outs and reformed prostitutes and a no-good hillbilly family, but none of it feels like an empty stereotype—it’s just all a lot of fun. Combined with Brown’s knack for romantic tension and page-turning suspense, this one is a winner.”—Booklist, Starred Review
- "A masterful storyteller."—USA Today
- "Brown deserves her own genre."—Dallas Morning News
- "A novelist who can't write them fast enough."—San Antonio Express-News
- "One of the best thriller writers around, period."—Providence Journal
- On Sale
- Sep 14, 2021
- Hachette Audio