Rachel Wincott knew exactly where Knox Hilliard was pretty much all the time. She’d made it her business to know, insofar as she could get to a library and research, which wasn’t often.
She had a list with his wife and kids’ names, his address, his phone numbers, his company, his blog, his birthdate and death date, his workplace, his schedule, and his habits. She kept this list in a vial on a long bead chain around her neck, like a lucky rabbit’s foot.
What she did not have—and hadn’t had for five years—was the courage and selflessness to contact him and beg for what she needed most, because he despised her and had done everything in his power to keep her in prison.
But she had just hit bottom and now did not care that she was a beaten and starving dog slinking back to her master for a crumb he wouldn’t give her and the kick in the ribs that he would.
She grunted when she was jostled too hard by the cop who’d picked her up for solicitation, but the only thing she said was a low, “May I have my phone call, please?”
The cop’s eyebrow rose at her calm, polite—not-high-as-a-kite—tone, but in her interactions with most people, she made it clear she was sober and would treat them with basic human courtesy and kindness as much as possible—until they gave her a reason not to. At some point, she had learned that basic human courtesy and kindness wasn’t something one turned on; it was something one felt.
She’d probably gotten that when her son was born.
She recognized Knox’s sleepy, irritated voice as soon as he answered the phone and accepted the collect call.
“It’s Rachel,” she said.
There was a long pause, but he didn’t hang up, so she took heart. “What do you need?” he asked gruffly, but she couldn’t tell his mood. Of course, the only mood he had ever displayed around her was pissed off. She could still feel the back of his hand connecting with her cheek and sending her crashing into a wall.
“I got picked up for solicitation.”
He laughed harshly. “Of course you did.”
Rachel didn’t flinch. He hadn’t hung up yet. She barreled into it because time was scarce. “I have a baby. He’s in my apartment and if I don’t get home by eleven, it’ll be bad for him. Could you— Somehow—”
“Give me your address,” he said immediately, and she heard the rustle of paper.
She closed her eyes and breathed out softly in relief. “It’s— I’m in California.”
“I don’t give a shit,” he snapped. “Just give me the fucking address.” She gave it to him, and waited while he wrote. “You know I’m going to get that kid taken away from you, don’t you?”
“Yes,” she said, “but I called you because I hoped you would keep him. You know, adopt him. Officially.”
Another full three seconds of silence. “Uh … ”
“You can give him a good life and make him happy. I can’t anymore, and God knows I have tried.”
“Time’s up,” boomed the guard.
• • •
It was when she and her assigned public defender stood for her arraignment early the next morning that she got the shock of her life.
“Knox Hilliard, representing Rachel Wincott.”
Her mouth dropped open and she whipped around so fast she was dizzy from lack of food and water. But there he was, a lot older, furious, wading through the mass of bodies in the crappy LA arraignment courtroom toward her.
To defend her.
Rachel wanted to sit down before she fell down.
The DA was equally confused. “Hilliard—”
“Shut it,” he snarled at the man, who obviously either knew or knew of Knox.
“Are you even admitted in California?”
“I do Taight’s dirty work. I’m admitted everywhere.”
The gavel banged, and the judge snapped, “Gentlemen! Approach.”
Rachel continued to stand there on her cheap platform stilettos, barely clothed and shivering in the ice-cold air conditioning, with her hands cuffed in front of her (where they had been most of her life), and watched Knox maneuver through more bodies toward the judge’s bench, the DA following. They stood there talking low, arguing. Knox dug in his interior suit pocket and pulled out something to show them. The judge pointed her gavel at Rachel every so often.
But then it was over, and her almost-stepfather and twenty-year enemy took his place next to her, nearly shoving her now-former attorney out of his way.
“You’re my penance, you know that?” he said to her out of the corner of his mouth.
The only thing she could do was stare at him blankly, because his tone was almost … humorous. She had no response to that and she wasn’t sure she trusted a humorous Knox Hilliard anyway.
“My baby?” she had the presence of mind to ask low as the courtroom hummed around them.
“Under control,” he reassured her quickly before commencing all his legal wrangling to get her out on bond, which he would pay, and released to his custody.
“I didn’t ask for this,” she said with as much dignity as she could muster as the bailiff unlocked her cuffs and Knox guided her through the crowd and out of the courtroom with a firm hand on her back.
“Which is why I’m doing it.”
That made no sense.
Soon enough he had herded her through the process of paying her bond and getting her things, which consisted solely of a bracelet, her priceless vial of research on its bead-chain necklace, and a little clutch purse that contained all of three dollars, a tube of lipstick, and condoms. He herded her out into the bright California sun and through the parking lot to his car and into the front seat.
“Now, what about my baby?” she asked again when he slid in the driver’s seat.
“My wife’s taking care of that end of things,” he grunted while he zoomed out of the parking lot and headed out into LA traffic toward her shitty dive of an apartment she shared with two other working girls, navigating it like he knew it.
Perhaps he didn’t understand the danger he had put his wife in. “Why would you send your wife into that hell? Don’t you know what will happen to her?”
“Trust me to know what she can and can’t handle.”
She could do nothing less. After all, it wasn’t Rachel’s business what he made his wife do. “Why are you really doing this?” she asked quietly.
He slid a glance at her. “Because for the first time in your entire fucking life, you were thinking of someone else’s needs before your own.” He turned his total attention back to the road. “And,” he added, his voice a little softer, “because your mother loved you, and I love your mother.”
Rachel’s breath nearly left her. “Still?” she croaked.
She barely kept herself from bursting into tears, and to hide that, she looked out the window at the passing scenery, which got shittier and shittier as they got closer to the apartment.
“You look and sound clean,” he said conversationally.
“I have a baby to take care of,” she said simply.
He snorted. “Doesn’t stop any other two-bit crack whore.”
That was true, and didn’t she know that up close and personal. “Lucky, I guess,” she muttered.
Lucky she couldn’t tolerate the drugs’ intended and unintended effects, because there were some days she’d have given anything to be able to escape into chemical nothingness.
He said nothing more, the car filling up with silence for the entire thirty minutes it took to get to her neighborhood, until he abruptly demanded, “Is that a GPS bracelet you’re wearing?”
She started and looked at him. “Yes.”
“Your pimp or probation officer?”
She gulped. “Pimp.”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake. Can you take it off?”
“Not without pissing him off. He’ll hurt my baby if he catches me. That’s what he has over me, since I don’t use. My … babysitter is the bottom girl, to make sure I can’t take off and just never come home.”
“And she doesn’t mistreat the kid?”
Rachel shrugged helplessly. “I think she would, but Joe makes her leave him alone. She only does if I don’t do exactly what Joe says.”
Knox stared at her incredulously. “Not the same Joe you were with way back when?”
She shook her head. “No. I can’t keep Joes away from me.” Lucky that way, too, she supposed. Bad luck.
His mouth tightened and he went back to paying attention to his driving until they finally arrived.
“Okay, look,” he said matter-of-factly as he pulled up to the curb behind another rental. A big dark-tanned guy with black hair and a mangled face casually leaned against it, his equally mangled arms crossed over his chest, and a gun in his hand. “The first thing we’re going to do is get you and— Does your baby have a name?”
She looked down at her barely-there skirt, picked off a silver sequin, and muttered, “Knox.”
There was dead silence in the car and she could feel his sudden tension. “Are you fucking kidding me?” he growled.
He released what sounded like a tortured breath and slumped down in the seat. She peeked at him. He was braced against the door, rubbing his temples and the bridge of his nose.
“I hate you so much,” she whispered. “But … now that I’m a woman and I’ve gone through all the men I have, all the crap, always trying to find whatever it is I’m looking for, but also not wanting what my mom had with my dad, I— I think I understand why she stayed with you.” Her eyes filled with tears. “I hate you for what you did to me, but I still called you, and hoped you would at least listen to me because I want you to raise my baby and get him away from this life. I know what’ll happen to him if I don’t get him out while I can. After you’re gone, I can just tell Joe his real father came and took him away from me. You’re his only hope.”
“You don’t know who his father is.”
Knox was still rubbing his forehead, but finally he heaved a great sigh and murmured as if beaten, “All right. But the first thing is to get you and him fed, watered, cleaned up, and clothed.” He never opened his eyes, never stopped massaging his face. “The second is to deal with your pimp. So you better start writing all the places I can find him and all the names he might be going under and all his cronies, including the bottom bitch and the girls up the ladder, and give me a map of your track.”
She shrugged. “You can try, I suppose.”
His tone was so odd she looked up into his eyes—the ones that had always been so cold and cruel—and realized that despite his expensive clothes and rich-white-man façade, he wouldn’t have any problems with Joe, from whom she could not walk away.
Knox might have loved her mother and made her happy, but at heart, he was a killer.
And Rachel was okay with that.
She slid out of the car after he’d gotten out and opened her door for her. She didn’t think much of it because men—cops—had been holding car doors open for her for years, but usually her hands were cuffed.
Now, they weren’t.
“Go on in and get—Knox. Shit. You gotta find a nickname or something because I’m gonna get confused. My wife and cousin are in there to help you and pack his stuff and whatever you want to keep.”
She looked at him, confused. “My stuff?”
“If you think I’m leaving you here, you got another think coming.”
She blinked, and tried to say something, anything. Her? Just … leave? She couldn’t imagine such a thing.
His eyebrow rose, as if to ask her why she thought she had any choice in the matter. Dazed, she turned to go into the filthy and drug-infested prison in which she was raising the most precious thing she’d ever had.
“Mommy!” her little boy squealed when she walked over the threshold of her apartment, and caught him up in her arms when he ran to her. Over his shoulder, she saw two women in jeans and tight tee shirts and shoulder holsters for their guns. They didn’t look exactly like cops, but now Knox’s faith in his woman made sense.
They watched her back warily.
Knox’s wife was the young one—younger than Rachel, even, and she looked it.
Rachel looked to her son then. “Hi, baby,” she said after another second, pressed her nose into the boy’s dirty little neck, closed her eyes, and tried not to cry. She stayed that way until he squiggled to be put down.
“Joe came here, Mommy,” he said soberly, staring up at her, clutching his crappy stuffed rabbit to his chest.
Her mouth quirked. “I had to go to jail again.”
“I know, but you know what?” he whispered excitedly, as if sharing a wonderful secret. “Those girls made him and Conchita go away.”
She glanced at the two, who had still said nothing at all. Then she realized that the older one had actually moved past Rachel without her notice, and was leaning back against the doorjamb, her arms crossed over her chest.
These two women had not only made it from the front of the building to her apartment without being killed, but had also made Joe and his thug woman go away? Her legs felt wobbly again, and this time she had the freedom to sink to the sagging and ratty couch that came with the apartment.
“Do you want to take anything with you?” said the young one, Knox’s wife. Rachel couldn’t read her tone of voice, but she couldn’t imagine the woman wouldn’t resent her for this intrusion into her life.
“Leave it,” the older one snapped. “There’s nothing here to save.”
“Giselle! You want to make her burn her favorite dress, too?”
The woman called Giselle rolled her eyes and grumbled, “Are you going to hold that against me forever?”
“My name is Justice,” said Knox’s wife. Of course, Rachel already knew that. “Figure out what you want quick because I do not want to stay here one second longer than I absolutely have to.”
Neither did Rachel.
“You should have seen what Miss Gigi did to Conchita!” little Knox said, grinning and clapping and bouncing up and down on the balls of his feet.
Rachel’s brows rose and she looked over her shoulder at “Miss Gigi,” who wasn’t paying attention to anything going on inside the apartment because all her attention was focused on what was going on in the crowded and raucous hallway outside the apartment.
“Miss Gigi” was a small woman and honestly, Rachel couldn’t imagine how any woman could hold her own with Conchita, much less send her packing. But now she saw that there was a bruise blooming on her face, she had traces of blood around her nose, and her knuckles were raw and oozing blood. Rachel was vaguely sorry she’d missed that fight.
“You’re safe now,” Justice said softly. “As is … ” She slid a doubtful glance at the four-year-old now in the process of gathering his only other two possessions. “ … Knox. Figure out what you want to keep. We’ll take care of the rest.”
Four years ago she would have flinched that he knew what she’d named her child, much less his wife, but now she had no pride, so she simply obeyed, for the first time feeling a little bit safer than she did before.
Knox was dangerous and he hated Rachel, but he had loved her mother and made her happy.
She had to believe he would do no less for her mother’s grandson.
• • •
It was late that night in the very fine four-bedroom hotel suite she was sharing with Knox and his people when she was finally able to get a very excited “Little K” to sleep. He was excited about bathing in such a big tub and his new clothes and his new toys and his new nickname and the fact that his rabbit got a bath too. He was excited about the big, clean, comfortable bed and how pretty his mama was in her new, albeit plain, clothes instead of “work clothes” and her new, soft haircut. And he thought “Miss Gigi” hung the moon.
Rachel emerged from their room in the suite to find Knox and “Miss Gigi” dressing head-to-toe in black, the couch littered with guns and knives. Knox’s wife was helping Knox adjust something. Giselle’s husband Bryce—the mangled dude standing guard this morning—was sitting at a table and thumbing Joe’s information into a phone. Rachel looked down and away.
“Why are you all doing this?” she finally asked everyone but Knox, because she really didn’t understand. These people had to know every single thing about her.
“You’re redeemable,” Giselle said shortly as she strapped a knife around her leg.
“And even if you weren’t,” Knox rumbled as he looked over his shoulder and tugged at a strap, “Little K is.” But then he looked at her and gave her a tiny smile—just a curve at the corner of his mouth—and her heart beat faster because maybe, just maybe, he might not hate her so much after all.
He was helping her, and it didn’t really matter why. She wasn’t going to waste it or take it for granted.
“I was serious about you adopting Little K. If you want him,” she added hastily because it never occurred to her that anybody wouldn’t want him.
“I know you were serious and yes, we do want him, and yes, we are going to get all that worked out. But first we’re going to get you on your feet before you and he part company. For good.”
Rachel’s heart wrung itself out.
“You understand that, right? Once those papers are signed, you are out of his life, like you never existed.”
“Yes,” she whispered. “I expected that.”
Giselle looked up at her then. “I suggest you get your tubes tied.”
Justice hooted. “She suggests. What she means is, if you don’t, she’ll drag you to the obstetrician by your hair.”
Bryce let out a bark of laughter but never looked away from his task and never stopped thumbing into the phone.
“I did that when Kno—Little K was born,” Rachel said, and saw maybe—just maybe—a spark of respect in Knox’s face when he looked up at her again and studied her for a second or two.
But he only said, “Good. Giselle, you ready? Bryce?”
“Yes,” said the couple at the same time. Giselle fetched the phone from her husband, but Rachel had to look away when he felt her up, muttering something about girls with guns and other things no man would ever say to Rachel because Rachel wasn’t worthy of that sort of man and even if she was, she wouldn’t be able to find one.
Long after Knox and Giselle had left, Rachel was pacing the suite’s sitting room and chewing her already chewed-to-the-quick fingernails. She wasn’t used to disobeying Joe and she felt like somehow he would find her and take her and put her back on a street corner before he beat Little K. She couldn’t sleep because of her dread that this was not real, that if she went to sleep, she would wake up to her real-life nightmare.
Justice and Bryce were alternately playing cards or working on their laptops or attempting to appear calm, cool, and collected. They didn’t speak to each other nor did they speak to her. They fooled her for a while until she saw Bryce’s foot pumping up and down like Thumper’s, and she noticed Justice kept ordering room service for food that she didn’t eat more than a few bites of.
“Do they do this a lot?” she asked quietly. Both of them started.
“Who?” Justice asked. “Do what?”
“Go … ” Rachel waved a hand at the door. “Doing that.”
Bryce shrugged and looked away. “Occasionally.”
“Not together,” Justice said as if talking about it might be the thing to get her nerves to settle down. She shuddered and breathed, “God only knows what damage they could do together.”
It was past dawn when Knox and Giselle finally dragged into the suite, haggard, clearly exhausted, but clean, their hair damp, and wearing entirely different clothes. Half their weapons were missing. Now Rachel knew why they had interrupted their clothes shopping earlier that afternoon to take a room at a sleazy no-tell motel close to Joe’s place.
She opened her mouth but Giselle pointed at her. “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”
Rachel shut her mouth.
• • •
Knox stayed in LA with Rachel long enough to wrap up her legal issues, while Justice, Giselle, and Bryce took Little K and went home to take care of their own business—business they had dropped on a moment’s notice to come across the country to help her. Knox found some weird loophole that got her charges dismissed, then, much later that day, followed her up the steps of the plane he had chartered.
It was the first time she had ever ridden in a plane at all.
He brooded all the way to Kansas City, staring out the window, and Rachel didn’t want to be anywhere near that, so she made her way to the back. She was curiously calm, her heart not racing, her fears lessened. Even if Joe were still alive, he wouldn’t be able to find out where she’d gone, much less follow her. Even in the awkward seat, she slept well for the first time in years.
Justice met them at the airport, accompanied by four children, one of them Little K, who ran to Rachel squealing in delight. But over Little K’s shoulder, she watched Knox greeting his own children with broad smiles and laughter and lots of hugs and kisses and—sign language.
“Come and meet my new friends, Mommy.”
“Um … ”
But Little K wriggled then slid down her body until his feet touched the ground, took her hand, and tugged her to the children. And then he started signing.
“That’s Mercy. And that’s Damien. And this is Grace. And the baby is Geddy.” He signed throughout his recitation, then turned to the children and said, “That’s my Mommy.”
Rachel saw the sober look that passed between Knox and Justice.
“Okay, guys,” Justice said, tapping the oldest child, Mercy, on the shoulder to get her attention. The girl had what looked like a hearing aid, attached to some sort of round metal disk that was attached to the back of her head. “Daddy’s going to take you all and Little K home. Rachel and I have some things to do.”
Grace, who seemed to be about Little K’s age, took his hand and ran toward a big luxury SUV. Damien, who looked about six, ambled behind them, looking closely at the ground and occasionally stooping to pick something up.
Rachel looked at Knox, who hefted the toddler in his arms. “Rachel,” he murmured so that she focused on his face. “I’m impressed,” he said slowly, “that in the midst of that mess you made, you managed to make two excellent decisions. I think you’ll be okay with some guidance.”
Rachel just didn’t know how to process that, and stood there staring at him with her mouth hanging open.
“Godspeed,” he said as he turned and walked away toward the SUV with four very happy children and one comfortable one now sleeping against his shoulder, his thumb in his mouth.
If Rachel had had any doubts about her decision, they would have disappeared right then.
• • •
Justice had found her a small furnished apartment in Chouteau City, close to the courthouse where Rachel’s first bad-luck Joe and Knox Hilliard had turned her eighteen-year-old life upside down so many years ago. The prosecutor’s office looked exactly like it had back then, except the head prosecutor’s office now belonged to Justice.
“I’ll be the liaison between you and Knox from now on,” she said matter-of-factly. Rachel supposed, in light of his last words to her, he had washed his hands of her.
She didn’t blame him.
Justice had found her support groups for this and that. To Rachel’s surprise, she would not be expected to work for a while. Her job for the time being was to get herself together emotionally and learn a trade. Justice would pay her bills and help her learn how to manage money.
As the weeks passed while the Hilliards went through the adoption process, there was one thing she couldn’t stop wondering about. She knew better than to ask, but one day she couldn’t help herself. “What did they do to Joe?”
Justice opened her mouth, but nothing came out for a few seconds. Then she sighed. “Knox didn’t tell me, and I didn’t ask. I know him and I know Giselle, though, and honest to God, I don’t want to know what they did.”
Rachel nodded, telling herself that she would never know and must content herself with the fact that Knox had taken care of her immediate problems and that how he had done it was not important.
But it seemed that Justice had committed herself to taking care of Rachel now and into the foreseeable future, something she neither expected nor would have dared hope for. She raised her hand and wrapped it around the vial under her tee shirt.
“Why do you do that?” Justice asked one day with a tilt of her head. They were sitting at Rachel’s minuscule breakfast bar where Justice was explaining all the legalese of the adoption papers.
Startled, Rachel looked up at her, deathly afraid she would demand the evidence of Rachel’s stalking. But she found herself answering. “It’s my, uh … lucky charm, I guess you could call it.”
Justice smiled. “You believe in luck?”
“I kinda have to,” Rachel said slowly, looking out her front window at the tiny but well-kempt lawn. “Sometimes.” Her brow wrinkled and she looked down at the tidy papers on the Formica.
“What’s that look for?”
“Why are you helping me?” Rachel blurted. “You have so many reasons not to, but you are. Is Knox making you do this?”
Justice drew back, genuinely surprised. “Rachel, he can’t make me do anything.” Then she paused. “Well, not for years now. Let’s just say your mother and I have a lot in common when it comes to the beginnings of our relationships with Knox.”
Surprised, she looked back up at Justice, who was fiddling with the corners of the adoption papers. “Uh, he— You were— Like my mom?”
Justice’s mouth tightened a little. “Pretty much. But your mother chose to go back to him and was happy for five years before she died.”
“She was murdered,” Rachel corrected calmly. “Because of Knox.”
Justice turned those large golden puppy dog eyes on Rachel and she felt low for having said it—even though it was true. “There’s more to it than that, Rachel, and I’d explain it now, but I do have to get back to the office in a bit. Maybe tomorrow.”
Feeling punished, Rachel slumped a little.
“The important thing is that I chose to go back to him, too, just like Leah did, and I’m happy. Once you get to know him, Knox is an easy man to love, and I do. But every once in a while if I think about it too much, I can feel that little knot of resentment at what he did to me. It’s always there. It never goes away. And he knows that. He can feel it when I feel it. Sometimes I wonder if Leah felt it, too.”
That made sense to Rachel, and eased her mind a little bit. “Is that why you’re helping me? My mother?”
“Yes. And I like you. Now don’t forget, the hearing’s tomorrow at eleven.”
“I’ll be there,” she whispered.
The family court judge heard testimony from everyone involved, and even took Rachel into her chambers to question her privately as to whether she was being coerced or not. Rachel looked her in the eye and said, “I did all these horrible things, but I was clean and sober when I had Little K, I stayed clean and sober no matter what else I had to do, and I was clean and sober the night I called Dr. Hilliard to come get him. It’s the only truly good thing I can do for him and I want to.”
“Your son is very attached to you, and by all testimony, you are a nurturing and caring mother. Now you’ve been given a fresh start and you have what I would consider a pretty good support system. Are you sure?”
Tears stung her eyes, but she nodded. “Yes.”
When Little K finally understood that he would never see Rachel again, he started screaming for her, and kicked and screamed for her as Knox carried him all the way out of the courtroom, down the hall, and right out the front door.
Rachel walked back to her little apartment aching for her baby and feeling the hole in her life with a pain she didn’t know she could feel.
She found a little box that held her meager treasures and opened it. She sifted through its contents with a finger: Little K’s baby teeth. A rock he had painted for her in vacation Bible school just a few months before. A dollar a homeless man had given her because he thought she was worse off than he was. A few rose petals from the first flower she had ever bought for herself. The GPS chip—broken—from the bracelet Joe had made her wear for four years. A small picture of Little K in their shithole apartment in LA. A girl’s simple silver ring her father had given her when she was eight.
Other trinkets. Bad trinkets she had brought with her because they reminded her of what she had escaped, why she had given her baby over to people who would love and protect and guide him. He wouldn’t end up on the street, strung out or pimping or dealing or homeless.
Her entire life was right here in this little box. Her pain didn’t lessen, but her soul was at peace, and she meant to live so as to keep it that way. The way her mother had before she’d met Knox. The way Rachel had sworn never to live.
Now, so many years later, it was an awfully seductive prospect.
Slowly, she pulled the bead chain up and over her head, folded the glass vial in her hand for a moment, feeling its warmth from her body, then laid it carefully in her box, closed the lid, and put it back in the drawer where it belonged.