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Rodeo Family

By Shannon Taylor Vannatter

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Weights pressed down on Tori's eyelids. Her head ached. She examined her tender lips with her tongue. Swollen. Split. A moan escaped her. What happened?

She strained to open her eyes until one lid lifted. The other wouldn't budge. All she saw was a sideways view of the living room from her reclining position on the couch.

Oh yeah. Now she remembered.

She wiggled her fingers and toes to make sure she still could, then raised her hand to her face. Gingerly, she touched her eye and gasped. A massive, throbbing bulge.

How had she ended up like this—just like her mother—beaten and bruised?

Someone pounded at the door. She sat upright. Had he left? If so, was he back? Was he still mad? Her gaze darted to the back door. Could she escape? Or would he only catch up with her and punish her more?

Besides, where would she go? She hadn't bothered to get to know her neighbors in tiny Aubrey, Texas. The only person she knew was her boss. And her boss was at work where Tori was supposed to be. She covered her face with her hands.

"Tori, I know you're in there," Jenna Steele, her boss, called. "Your car's in the drive and I can see your purse through the window."

Okay, so her boss wasn't at work. What time was it?

Still daylight, but dimming. It had to be after the store closed. Jenna must be on her way home.

She held her breath. Russ must have left. Or passed out.

Please go away. Jenna—the paragon of virtue—couldn't see her like this. And what if Russ woke up or came back? She couldn't let him hurt Jenna—the only person who hadn't given up on her.

Other than Aunt Loretta.

"Just a minute." Head pounding, she got to her feet. A wave of nausea hit her followed by swimming vision in her good eye. Clutching a bookshelf, she waited until it passed and shuffled toward the door.

"I'm fine, Jenna, just sick. I don't want you to catch it. I'm sorry I didn't call in this morning."

"I'm not leaving until you open the door. We need to talk and if you're that sick, you might need to see your doctor. It is flu season."

Even though Jenna was probably miffed with her for missing so much work lately, concern tinged her voice. If Tori didn't answer, Jenna was likely to call the Texas Rangers, especially since her cousin was married to one.

But if Tori answered, Jenna might still call the Texas Rangers. Either way, she was toast.

"You have to promise me you won't call the police."

Silence for a moment. "Why would I call the police? Tori, you're scaring me."

"You have to promise. It will only make things worse if the police get involved."

"I don't see how that can be, but I promise."

Tori unlocked the door and swung it open.

Horror flashed in Jenna's contorted expression. Her hand flew to her mouth. "Who did this to you?"

Tori shook her head. Pain knifed through her head and she swayed.

"Sit down." Jenna took her arm, led her to the couch and headed to the kitchen.

Cabinet doors and drawers squeaked open and slammed shut. Ice clinked in a glass. Jenna was back a few minutes later.

Something cold touched Tori's swollen eye and she winced.

"Sorry. Should have warned you."

Her good eye singed and a tear slipped past her lashes.

"Is it possible whoever did this will come back?"

A sob escaped as Tori nodded.

"Then, let's get out of here."

"Where?" Tori bit the inside of her lip until she tasted blood. "I don't want Aunt Loretta involved in this. I don't have anywhere else to go."

"I do." Jenna helped Tori up.

"I can't go with you. He'll come after me. I've tried to break it off with him before." This morning to be exact. Maybe the day after Valentine's hadn't been the best plan. But she'd thought if she broke it off this morning when she was expected at work, he wouldn't hit her. Wrong.

"I live on a private ranch with five houses, an electronic gate with a top secret password and an alarm system. If he comes after you, we'll know it before he figures out which house you're in. And we have our very own Texas Ranger less than a mile away."

Tori blew out a breath. "I don't want to involve you."

"I'm already involved." Jenna moved the ice pack. "Go grab some clothes. We'll come back later and get the rest."

Obviously, Jenna wasn't going anywhere without her. If they didn't get moving, Russ would come back. And hurt Jenna too.

Brant McConnell punched in the code his friend, Gar-rett Steele had given him and rubbed a hand across bleary eyes. Past midnight. He'd be glad in the morning with the short drive to church.

The iron gate slid open and Brant drove through—for seemingly endless miles before he saw a road that turned to the right. He took the road and drove more endless miles. Trees lined the fence along each side of the drive and the dark shapes of horses dotted the miles of pasture-land. Some spread, Garrett.

Nine years ago, they'd both tried to catch a break in the Christian music industry in Nashville. Brant had given up after a year and come back home, while Garrett hit it big in Country music. But Garrett's life had spun out of control.

If he'd stayed in the music industry, would Brant have strayed from God, too? He'd bided his time as the song leader at his church. Until Garrett called a few months ago.

With his life straightened out, Garrett had headlined at Cowtown Coliseum opening the Fort Worth Stockyards Championship Rodeo for two months. And paved the way for Brant to follow in his footsteps. As if everything were falling into place with divine purpose, Garrett's church also needed a song director. Surely his big break at a mega-church would be just around the arena.

Finally, Brant caught a glimpse of a darkened house with a green metal roof. He pulled in the drive, parked and opened his door. An owl hooted a greeting, then quieted as a pack of coyotes yapped in the distance. Oh, the sounds of the country—always made him feel right at home. He slung his guitar over his shoulder, grabbed his overnight bag and elbowed the door shut.

The rustic porch with pine posts and a swing invited him to sit a spell. As the chorus of coyotes moved out of earshot he imagined having coffee there in the morning.

Silence measured in seconds. The brave owl tentatively hooted as Brant made his way to the door. The key Garrett had given him at church clicked in the lock. He pushed the door open and flipped on the light.

White stucco walls, an Austin stone fireplace, with log beams lining the ceiling. Rustic hardwood floors and leather furnishings. Nice crib. And this was only the guesthouse. Brant set his gear down and headed down the hall.

A darkened room to his right. The bedroom? He stopped in the doorway and ran his hand over the wall to find the switch. A floorboard creaked. He stiffened. Someone lurked in the shadows.

"Don't move," a female voice ordered.

"I'm not here to hurt anyone." His finger grazed the light switch and he flipped it on.

"I mean it." Some of the confidence in her tone wavered as light flooded the room. "I'll brain you right out of Texas."

A small strawberry blonde wielded a fire poker poised to strike. And she was sporting one humdinger of a black eye. Lord, help.

She didn't say anything, but started to cry.

He slipped his hands up in surrender. "I'm Brant McConnell, a friend of Garrett's. We were roommates in Nashville."

"What are you doing here?" Despite her weapon, her voice cracked.

"Garrett said I could crash here so I wouldn't have to drive so far to church in the morning."

"From Nashville." Sarcasm dripped from her words.

"I live in Fort Worth now." He backed away from her. "I won't hurt you. I promise. I'll just go back to my truck, and call Garrett. There must have been some mix-up. Obviously, I'm at the wrong house."

He backed out of the room, scooped up his guitar and overnight bag, and headed for the door. From the looks of her, she might come after him.

Who'd given her the shiner? It certainly hadn't been a cabinet door. Could have been a bar fight with another woman. But it looked like more than the average woman's strength could inflict. And she was too tiny to be the brawler type. Probably some jerk Brant would like to get his hands on. His gut twisted. He didn't cotton to a man laying a finger on a woman. Much less a fist.

What now? He didn't even know where Garrett's house was on the property and it was too late to show up on his doorstep anyway.

Drive back to Fort Worth? Should have stayed there. The encounter had jarred him awake, but how long would the adrenalin last? He needed to at least get away from the house so the battered redhead could relax. He started the truck, backed out of the drive and turned toward the gate, hating to think of her alone—crying.

A mile or so down the road, he pulled to the side. Wouldn't be the first time he slept in his truck.

He slumped down and tried to get comfortable. Could sleep in the pickup bed, but it'd get awful hard and chilly before morning.

Lights illuminated his cab from behind. He turned around as another truck approached.

Please not the redhead coming to clobber him with her poker.

The truck stopped beside him. He rolled his window down as a man got out. "Brant?" Garrett called.

"Hey." Brant covered a yawn. "I didn't mean to wake up the whole neighborhood. I was gonna sleep here."

"No way. Sorry about the houseguest. She just arrived today and I didn't even think about you coming in tonight since you've never taken me up on my offer before."

"I should have called, but I didn't decide until after the rodeo. By then it was late."

"Turn around here and you can follow me to the house."

"I don't want to disturb Jenna. I'll get a hotel in Denton."

"Nonsense, you're staying with us. Besides, Jenna's with Tori, the houseguest. She called to see if you were for real and since she was upset, Jenna went over." Gar-rett got back in his truck.

Brant backed his pickup around and followed Garrett back down the tree-lined drive. What was the houseguest's story?

She was a beauty—even with the shiner. What could possess a man to hit a defenseless woman? His chest boiled.

Garrett stayed straight instead of turning right toward the guesthouse and Brant followed. What seemed like countless miles later, Garrett's brake lights came on. Their headlights illuminated the sprawling Spanish style stucco house with a red clay roof. Some house.

Brant parked, got out and unloaded his guitar and overnight bag again. "Sorry I scared your houseguest. She was crying when I left. Waving a fire poker at me, but crying."

"Jenna will probably stay with her."

"What's her story?"

"She's an interior designer—works at the Fort Worth store for Jenna." Garrett shrugged. "I don't really know her story—other than she's not a Christian and if not for her, Jenna and I might not be together."

"How's that?"

"Tori dragged Jenna to my concert that started it all." Garrett headed for the house and Brant followed. "Any idea who hit her?"

"She hasn't told us yet. She's called in sick a lot lately, including today, so Jenna stopped by her place after work. Seems she's in an abusive relationship. Jenna managed to get her to stay here at least for the night and she promised to go to church with us once her face heals up. So be praying for her."

"I will." He already had. The moment he'd seen her eye.

Wednesday. Five days since the beating and with a ton of makeup to cover the bruising, Tori had made it to work for two days in a row now. She moved a bronze Texas long-horn statue to the center of the window display to catch the light better.

She'd let Jenna down so much lately, but that was over. Russ was out of her life, didn't even know where she was. The only problem, she'd have to go back to her rental house eventually. She couldn't stay in Jenna's guesthouse indefinitely. And when she did go home, would he show up?

Tori shivered. A distant memory flashed through her mind—her mom slamming into the wall. Her dad going after her again, stopping as he saw Tori peeping through her cracked-open bedroom door.

"What are you looking at, you little tramp?" he barked.

She shut the door and slid to the floor, her hands clamped over her ears. Until the noise stopped. He'd left or passed out—she couldn't remember which—and she'd tended her mom's wounds like she always did.

That was the last beating. The next day when she came home from school, she'd found her mom in the tub with her wrists slashed. Wounds she couldn't tend. Tori was just fifteen.

"I'll be in the office." Jenna touched her arm, jerking her back to the present. "Let me know if it gets busy again."

"Sure." Tori forced a smile.

"You okay?"

"Fine."

"You can't even see it anymore. Does it still hurt?"

"It's just bruised now."

"We'll get you through this." Jenna squeezed her elbow and turned toward the storeroom.

Tori's vision blurred. Jenna had been so good to her. And gotten nothing in return but grief.

How had she ended up with Russ? A man so much like her father.

For the first time all day, the store had slowed. She picked up the feather duster and swished it over dozens of lamps, sculptures and works of art.

The bell dinged and she turned.

A massive man wearing a ball cap filled the doorway.

Russ.

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