Lon went to hand signals and we all eased down and stepped back into the trees and shrubs surrounding where we had hidden the truck. It didn’t take long before the reason for the environmental disturbance to become obvious. The air was blue for a moment before a male voice muttered angrily, “I don’t see why we have to come up here and take a picture. It’s too cold for this ****.”
Another male voice answered, “That’s why you ain’t the boss Wayne. Mr. Baumgarten is and if he says we come up here and take a picture for him, then that’s what we’re gonna do. He knows what he needs it for and we don’t need to concern ourselves about it. Soldiers don’t question orders, you just do it.”
Snidely the man called Wayne said, “Perry you are such a brown noser.”
There was a little bit of shoving and then the one called Perry said, “Don’t say that man. I like being a soldier. It’s a man’s job. Mr. Baumgarten hears you say that and maybe I don’t get to be a soldier no more and have to go back to just being a mule. I like the job I have now; pay’s better and so are the fringe bennies. Mr. Baumgarten treats his soldiers good and rewards loyalty.”
“Perry, Perry, Perry the great big suck up.”
WHAM! The sound of fist hitting flesh couldn’t have been plainer than if I’d seen it happen. “You listen here Wayne. I go down I’m gonna take you with me. You got more to lose than I do and you know what I mean.”
The threat was real but incomprehensible since there was no accompanying back story. Whatever it was the threat was enough because Wayne muttered, “Geez man, take a pill or something. No need to be so damn sensitive.” Trying to reassert control he asked Perry, “You lock the car?”
“Ain’t nobody up here otherwise Mr. Baumgarten wouldn’t have sent us with no back up. Let’s just take the picture and get going. It’s cold.”
His companion snorted in high dudgeon and asked, “Isn’t that what I said in the first place?! Told you we should have accepted those jackets from Suicide.”
“Naw man. Mr. Baumgarten want us to have jackets he’ll give us jackets. He start seeing you takin’ gifts from people then maybe he wonders if you’re loyal or not, wondering if you can be bought.”
Wayne started muttering something to affect that what someone didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them and they skidded and slid down the half-mile goat track that went out to the primary overlook.
Reggie and I signaled to Lon that we were going to check their back trail while he and his son kept an eye on the two stooges. It didn’t take but a moment to reach the car as it was in the turnoff near the overlook’s pull out but up into the trees a little ways like they had been hoping to be able to simply drive to the ledge without having to do any walking. Idiots. They’re lucky they didn’t get stuck. The ground was littered with several inches of wet leaves and there was nothing but clay mud under that.
The leaves were like a giant wet sponge under our boots but thankfully didn’t leave anything to track as we moved through. We didn’t mess with the inside of the new Dodge Charger the two men had driven up in but did reach in and pop the trunk to see what they wanted locked up. Three duffle bags – all with UT insignia – lay side by side. We unzipped them and when Reggie saw what was in there he nearly had a spazz attack in glee. We reached in and emptied the duffle bags – orange would be too easy to notice amongst the trees – and hauled the stuff away to the bushes then closed the trunk.
Reggie breathed under his breath. “Lydie, I’ve got a toy I was saving for one of the caches.”
He pulled it out of his pack and showed me. I couldn’t help but grin and say, “You naughty, naughty boy. You know we need plenty of time so it can’t be traced back to us.”
“It goes up to a hundred and twenty minutes.”
I nodded, “Set it for that but we have to put it somewhere they won’t accidentally find it.”
We didn’t have time for much so Reggie crawled under and attached it to the rear axle. When he was done I said, “Let’s get out of here before Lon starts worrying and has to come look for us. What doesn’t fit in our day packs we’ll just have to carry in our arms.”
We were juggling the mess we’d … er … confiscated – having to jump off the path as Perry and Wayne passed us by.
“All this for a stupid picture,” complained the one named Wayne.
Perry immediately replied, “I told you that Mr. Baumgarten …”
“Oh for cripes sake. Drop it already. I get so sick and tired of hearing about his majesty and how he’s going to take over the whole state and then …”
Perry stopped and shoved Wayne in the chest. “Shut up before someone hears you. You know that’s super-secret. The only reason we know is because we accidentally overheard Mr. B and some of the big guys talking the other night. Anybody find out where we were and why and it ain’t gonna matter that overhearing was an accident. You know what the Boss will do to us.”
“Oh for cripes sake,” Wayne said again, but he also didn’t say another word about what they’d overheard.
Reggie and I just shook our heads as the two men nonchalantly climbed into the car and pulled out. They hadn’t bothered to look around the car to see if anyone had been there and they didn’t even make an attempt to be careful as they pulled back onto the road.
“Idiots,” Reggie muttered in disgust. “If that’s what Delorey’s soldiers are like we aren’t going to have much trouble.”
With more caution I shook my head. “We don’t know if that is the caliber of the men they have, only that these two particular soldiers lack something to be desired. They are obviously low on the totem pole and don’t have much authority if they could be – well whatever but probably killed if I had to use my imagination – if they got caught accidentally overhearing something because they were somewhere they weren’t supposed to be.”
Reggie shrugged and admitted, “Maybe.”
We started back and when Lon saw us coming he asked, “What took you …?” Then he got a good look at what was in our hands and nearly barked, “Where the Sam Hill did you get that?!”
All I told him was, “They should have locked the car.”
“Locked the … are you kidding me?!”
Reggie and I looked at each other and then shrugged. Reggie said, “It’s sad really. Drug dealers don’t get no respect no more. Can’t go anywhere without locking their cars and such. People just take their crap and don’t even say thank you.”
Giving a false outraged look I said, “We did too say thank you … it’s just gonna arrive about two hours late is all.”
When Lon finally got the explanation about that out of us he turned a little green and practically threw us in the truck and told us to haul butt. We loaded up and headed out, doing our best to not leave a trail. Lon stayed tense until we were well away but still remained quiet until we pulled up to the Houchins Farm. I stopped the truck and got out and said, “Gotta do this again sometime. It was fun. We’ll split things halvesies and …”
Then with Vernon, Mr. Houchins and the rest of us watching in confusion he doubled over in laughter. “I swear, if you two were my kids my head would be as smooth as a cue ball.”
Tears were streaming down his face before more than a moment had passed. That necessitated some explanations.
Tears were streaming down his face before more than a moment had passed. That necessitated some explanations.
Afterwards Mr. Houchins shook his head and tried to look stern and grandfatherly, unfortunately his mustache and beard couldn’t quite hide the grin that was escaping. “I swear. Semtex. Of all things. And detonators to go with it. And then you two loose screws had the nerve to stick a timed detonator to their car? Lydie, you better run on home cause when Jax finds out what the two of you been up to he’s gonna have some words for you I reckon.”
We split the haul 50/50 just like I said and then did as we were told. Besides we were both starving. Aggrieved at their lack of appreciation Reggie said, “I don’t know what they’re complaining about. It was a good haul. And that explosion should cover our trail. They’ll wonder if it was a mistake someone made, if Suicide sabotaged them, or if someone else did. Or if what I hear my ol’ man say about Delorey is true, the man’ll let it about that the two men were being set up and they’d failed the test somehow. People will then be that much more scared of disappointing him. How can we lose with that kind of set up?”
I shrugged. “Anything is possible and nothing comes for free. We covered our trail but who knows? Delorey isn’t stupid and we have no idea who he has working for him. It was just too good an opportunity to pass up. Besides Lon and Mr. Houchins and Vernon weren’t complaining, at least not much and probably more because we didn’t get their ok before we did it. They just felt they had to … to …”
“To what?” Reggie asked still irritated.
“I don’t know. Some people just feel it is their responsibility to be sober and serious about stuff. They mean well but between you and me it’s just wasted energy where we’re concern.”
“Why?” he asked with a grin once he understood I could care less about the admonitions that we’d gotten.
I gave him a unconcerned grin right back. “’Cause we’re already ruint. If words could have fixed what makes me different then Dad would have done it years ago. Personally I think Dad liked me just fine, especially considering he taught me most of what I know.”
Still smiling Reggie dared to venture, “What about your mom?”
“Welllll … Let’s just say that Dad and I had an agreement. What Mom didn’t know about wouldn’t upset her.”
We both chuckled a moment then got a little more serious as we discussed where the Semtex might have come from and how it might be put to good use in the coming battle. We arrived home in a good mood right before the sun started to go down. Jax was there as soon as we pulled in. “Everything go OK?” he asked.
“Yep. What about ‘round here?”
“Uh what?” I asked cautiously noting his tone.
From behind me Alexis said dryly, “You missed the drama. Your friend Ashley thought she was in labor.”
I started to turn and run for the house but Jax stopped me. “It was only Braxton-Hicks contractions.”
“You mean false labor? But is that supposed to be happening so soon?” I asked, still worried that something wasn’t as it should be.
“Actually you can have Braxton-Hicks contractions by the end of your first trimester. I had to take a quiz on it for my EMT training because of emergency calls for pre-term labor. Now that she knows what they are Ashley says she won’t freak out so much but it was touch and go there for a bit. She was so upset once I suspected Braxton Hicks I worried that she’d put herself into real labor if we couldn’t get her to calm down. Just to be on the safe side I’ve suggested she stay in bed for the next two days and get some extra rest. Getting off her feet might not be a bad thing either way, her ankles have been swelling up quite a bit. I’m going to start checking her blood pressure a couple of times a day at different points to see if it is as elevated as it was today or if today was a one-off because she was so upset.”
Almost afraid to ask I said, “How’s Aston?”
“Let’s just say I now know why one of my former instructors said that one of the reasons why we had to remain calm was not for the expectant mom’s sake but so we wouldn’t clock the expectant father.”
I winced and Alexis snorted a surprised laugh. I looked over to see Reggie and Ginger doing their normal meet and greet and she asked, “What is up with those two? Are they a thing or not?”
Since I decided she was curious and not being mean I explained. “It’s like the mating dance of some really exotic birds, isn’t it? They like each other but Reggie … you know how it is, his father was a jerk about women and so was his big brother, so Reggie takes it the other direction and even though he really likes Ginger he’s too worried about making a mistake or hurting her somehow so he’s driving himself – and her – crazy trying to decide whether to accept what she is offering or run for the hills like a martyr. Just try and leave them be; they’ll have to figure it out on their own if they really want to make it work.” She gave me a look and I asked, “TMI?”
She shook her head and said, “Nah. More surprised you explained it.”
She shook her head again, unable or unwilling to explain, and simply said, “You’re weird, you know that?”
I shrugged and smiled and batted my eyes at Jax and said, “I’ve been told that it is part of my charm.”
Right then Reggie’s timing put the kibosh on my own sweet greeting when he asked, “You tell him about the Semtex yet?”
After a few high decibel rounds of discussion Jax finally calmed down enough to admit that he would have liked to have been there to see it. “I just hope no innocent is around when the car explodes.”
Reggie and I winced realizing we hadn’t really taken it into consideration. It kinda sucked all the hilarity right out of what we’d done and turned it back into the serious act that it was. More than likely someone was going to die, maybe more than one someone, and we had no real control over who it would be.
Just as bad was that my suspicion was right in that Jax decided that if Delorey was around I wasn’t going to be. From that point forward all of the midnight runs to do the booby trapping was done with me holding the fort at home and Reggie supervising the placement of the devices and traps. Did I want to join in and be a part of it in a physical sense and not just as a cheerleader? Yes. I’d be lying if I said otherwise. Was it very hard for me to keep my mouth shut about what I’d prefer to be doing? Again, yes. And for the most part I kept my attitude wrangled and under control although there were a few times that someone being unkind might have called it a pout. I wasn’t pouting, not really, but I wasn’t used to being left out either and that is how I was feeling.
I held up my hand, palm outward. “Don’t. I don’t need platitudes and I want them even less.” I then continued brushing my hair out before re-braiding it before going to bed.
“You are really angry about this aren’t you?”
Trying to behave like I thought an adult ought to I told him, “Put yourself in my place and answer your own question.”
He sighed. “I have. And I’m surprised you haven’t made more noise about it. I’m now wondering why?”
Splitting my hair into three sections I started weaving. “Because while it is what I want to do – make no mistake about that – I also realize it isn’t going to get me anywhere. And on top of that I have to be able to do what is best for the team.”
“We’re doing this for your sake Lydie.”
Getting irritated that he just had to discuss this right before we went to bed I nearly snapped, “Well don’t. You say you put yourself in my shoes but I’m beginning to wonder if you really have. Do you know how stupid it makes me feel to not be included? Oh, Lydie can’t because she was a total dip and fell for the wrong guy at the wrong time and now that she’s fallen for the right guy at the right time but maybe it’s not the right time after all because the wrong guy is still trying to use her for some nefarious scheme …”
“Nefarious scheme?” he chuckled.
I nearly threw the box of talcum powder that sat on my mother’s dressing table at him. “Yes. What else should I call it? He doesn’t want my address to send me flowers and candy for Valentine’s Day.”
“Oh just forget it. I swear, sometimes guys are so clueless. Have you ever once thought that it isn’t that I resent being put in this gilded cage but what it says about what you think of me?”
“Lydie, don’t get …”
“What? Emotional? I wasn’t the one that brought this up. I wasn’t the one that wanted to know why I hadn’t reacted worse than I had. Here’s a clue … because I’m holding onto my temper by a thread!!”
I got up and had decided to throw the talcum powder after all until I saw Kelly’s wide eyed observation and her confusion over my angry shout. I turned to Jax and snapped, “Fix this.”
“Look at her, now she’s scared of me on top of everything else.” I put my robe on over my flannel PJs and left the room more quietly than I really felt like being. Once I shut the door I realized there was no place for me to go in the house; no place to escape to. Every corner was full … of people and of their things. I went down the stairs as noiselessly as I could, grabbed my jacket, and then stepped out onto the porch and breathed in the almost painfully cold air and shuddered. We could have used some of the summer heat right then but the memory of it was enough to last me for a few moments.
A couple of minutes later Jax stepped out onto the porch and before I could object had me wrapped in a hug from behind. “I know you aren’t going to believe me Lydie but …”
Quietly and sadly I told him, “Just drop it. It doesn’t matter. This is the way it is and I have to live with it. It is up to me to handle it, not everyone else to make it easy on me.”
It was pretty obvious he didn’t know what to say to that or how to make it better. I don’t think he could have done either one – no one could have – regardless of whether he’d been able to find some words or not. After a moment he asked, “Are you mad because Alexis is going?”
“No. Her fate is hers, not mine. I’m angry because I’m not going. But more to the point I’m hurt because of how you all handled it … like I’m incapable of using my commonsense and realizing that I’m a liability and choosing not to go of my own free will.”
He tried to peer at me in the dark but I wouldn’t look at him. “Wait. You mean …?”
“Yeah. I could have made that choice all on my own after reviewing all of the facts. Instead I got bits and pieces while you all decided for me and tried to figure out some way to make it more palatable so that I wouldn’t come unglued.” I stepped away and finally turned and looked at him. “Do you understand what I’m saying? First off you all made the choice for me. Second, you never really told me all that was going on; I had to guess most of it. And third, you automatically assumed that I would react badly rather than giving me credit for having the sense God gave a rock. You don’t know what I would have chosen, you just assumed. I’ve included everyone in everything here at the home place … all of it … even when I knew what would be the most constructive course of action I still included you in the decision making process, gave you input. In return what do I get? Oh, Lydie is too stupid to see how things are. She’s too much of a girl and emotional to make a wise decision. That more than anything is why I feel the way I do. And that more than anything else is why I understand why Matt thinks the way he does. When you don’t have anything else but your smarts to get through this life with, and then people act like you couldn’t rub two brain cells together to make a spark, it is like they’ve taken your value from you.”
He took a step forward but I took two steps away. “Lydie … that’s not … not … You’ve got it all wrong. And you’ve got lots of other stuff … you aren’t just smart.”
“Oh of course not. I have the Home Place here. Which by the way everything here came from one of two places … either it was left to me by my parents or it has been salvaged after you came into my life. I didn’t create any of this on my own … I only took advantage of it. But wait, I don’t really have the Home Place anymore do I? In a real sense it belongs to all of us now. Think about it, could I really kick anyone out? Or would the group come together and wonder if I’ve lost my marbles and overrule me? I’m not saying I didn’t invite this on myself but still … I thought I was doing it because I got something in return … some companionship and respect. That’s all I’ve really asked for. Instead I have to deal with … with …”
My chest was feeling heavy and I absolutely refused to cry over how I felt. I turned away and stared out at the night sky, the stars looking more starry than they should have because of the unshed tears getting in the way of my focus.
Jax sounded upset and hurt when he asked, “Why didn’t you say any of this before now? Why let it go this far?”
Shaking my head I answered, “Because I wanted someone to realize I might not be so selfish that my feelings were more important than the group’s safety; that I would be smart enough to make the right choice. I wanted to believe that eventually someone would see it even if you were too blinded by your need to protect me. Instead all I get is people walking around me like I’m gonna blow at any second, like I’ll blame them for something that isn’t their fault to begin with. I don’t blame anyone for Matt being who and what he has become. That would be like blaming Alexis and Gennie for what happened to them; it just wouldn’t be fair. Why do you all have to keep blaming me for the fact that I couldn’t see Matt for what he was until it was too late?! Do you have any idea how much it hurts to constantly have people acting like I must be an idiot because I didn’t see him for what he’s become before he became it? Even worse, that somehow or other I might still be vulnerable to being manipulated by him?!”
I couldn’t find where the hurt stopped and the anger began or vice versa. I felt like shaking like a dog, trying to get rid whatever soaked my coat, only this was an emotional coating that I wanted to be shed of. I turned and tried to go down the steps but Jax pulled me back. “It’s too cold. If you can’t stand to have me near you I’ll go but I don’t want you to get sick because I’ve made you upset.”
I turned and thumped him on the chest. “Stop being so nice and reasonable. I … I …”
Then we mutually fell into a tight embrace. It didn’t make things better but it kept me from flying apart so I guess you could say it kept things from getting worse. Into my hair Jax whispered, “I didn’t mean to make you feel like I didn’t respect you Lydie. I can’t speak for anyone else but I’m positive it is the same way for them. I never meant to make you feel this way.”
“Forget it. Just … just forget it. I can’t explain how I feel and shouldn’t expect anyone to understand. Dad always said that expecting something out of other people to the point that you needed it was the first step down a rough row to hoe.”
His sigh was a deep one and I felt it through my own body. “Lydie I respected your dad a lot but I didn’t always agree with him. That saying he had is one of the things I didn’t totally agree with him on. It might work with strangers but you shouldn’t feel that way with family … and especially not with your lover. Do me a favor … if you insist on being that way with other people, please don’t be that way with me. I’ve been expecting things out of you left and right ever since Kelly and I followed you home like a couple of stray mutts; I’ve been expecting them because I needed to and because I wanted to. I don’t like the idea that you don’t feel you can … or should … expect things out of me, or need things from me.”
“Of course I do … but I have to be able to accept when something isn’t there or doesn’t happen. I can’t just fall apart. I … I can’t. There’s too much riding on me being strong and in control.”
Quietly he said, “You wanted me to see what you’re saying I missed; that you’d make the choice not to ask to be included in the raid we are going on tomorrow night.”
“I’m saying regardless of what I would have chosen, and I like to believe that I would have chosen what was best for the group or at least had some input in it, but I was never given the chance because no one thought I had the intelligence not to behave stupidly about something that was this important. You even had to ask why I wasn’t making a scene Jax. Do you have any idea how that felt? That you had to ask why I wasn’t acting like a complete ass?”
After a moment he admitted, “I never thought of it like that.”
I had started to shiver, whether from nerves or the cold I’m still not sure. I pushed away from him and said, “We need to get back to Kelly. Plus you need to rest; tomorrow is going to be a bear.”
“We need to talk this out.”
“No, we don’t. It is what it is. There’s nothing that can be said that will change what happened and how I felt about it; there is nothing that can be said to change your mind on the subject because even after I’ve explained it to you I can see you still felt like you only did what you did with the best of intentions and would do it again.” His slightly guilty look told me I’d guessed correctly. “If I keep talking it is just going to make it seem like I’m heaping coals on your head or whining to try and get my way and that isn’t what I want to do. If you keep talking to try and get me to agree with you I can pretty much guarantee we’re going to wind up sleeping in two different places. Just let it go.”
I turned to go back in the house but when I put my hand on the door knob he pulled me back. “Are … are we OK?
I told him, “Of course we are.”
Doubtfully he said, “It doesn’t feel that way.”
I shrugged. “Well we are on my side.”
“You sure? Because it feels like you are pulling away from me.”
I wasn’t sure I was up for it but I tried to comfort him. “I’m wiped out Jax. This … this hurt … it still hurts and maybe more that I told you and you still don’t quite understand where I’m coming from. But I’m not running away, I’m dealing with it. Give me some credit will you? I’m trying to be a grown up rather than throwing a tantrum. I’m trying not to handle things and manipulate people like Matt would. Life is just too short to repeat other people’s mistakes. Just give me time. Wouldn’t you want that if you were in my boots?”
He started kissing me and I let him. I think he needed it more than me. I also let him lead me inside and up to our room. I let him put me to bed after we put Kelly down for hers. And I let him do everything else we did that night. He seemed to need it. It wasn’t a power thing, by that point I could tell the difference, it seemed that he was trying to comfort me but in reality I think he needed the comfort himself.
I lay awake long after Jax had fallen asleep wishing I hadn’t let any of what I was feeling out. I’d held it in up to then, I should have been able to hold it in until after the guys went to try and assassinate Suicide. I hadn’t wanted the last night I had with Jax to be about make up sex.
“Lydie … are you still awake?” Jax asked sleepily.
“Good,” he mumbled and pulled me closer, sharing his body warmth.
I sighed but not audibly. I decided to make the next day as easy on him as I could. I didn’t want him thinking about our head butting. I wanted him focused on his own safety, getting the job done, and then coming home. I suspected that intentionally killing someone was going to weigh on him more than he was willing to admit.