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Twisted Lives
Ali Spooner

Chapter One

 

 

The tape measure in her hand reeled in as Alex Graves shook her head. “This just won’t do, Glen,” she said to her site supervisor. “This beam is off a good two inches and will have to be reset.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Glen said, obviously disappointed. “I’ll get right on it.”

“Why don’t you and the boys reset the beam, then head out for the weekend,” Alex suggested as she placed a comforting hand on Glen’s shoulder. “We’ve all put in a hard week and deserve a break.”

Alex was a tough boss who demanded perfection from her crew, but Glen was truly thankful that she’d chosen him as her right hand. Over the four years he had worked for Alex, she had taught him more than his previous employers had in ten years. She sometimes drove him crazy, but her demand for quality made her one of the most sought after contractors in the state.

“You go ahead and we’ll do the reset and lock up,” Glen said as he and Alex walked toward the door.

Alex reached into her pocket and withdrew a fifty-dollar bill. “Take the crew over to Brewster’s, the first round’s on me.”

“Thanks, boss!” Glen’s grin lit up the room. Her genuine care and concern for her workers was another reason Glen loved working with Alex.

He watched as she walked to her truck and climbed inside. It was rare for someone of her age to have achieved such success, and the fact that she was a woman in a male dominated field added to the accomplishment. So many of the things she did reminded him of her father, who had taken a chance on a lanky high school kid years ago and put him to work.

Glen knew Alex’s success came from a childhood spent with her father. Alex’s mom, Ann, had died in a freak auto accident when Alex was ten years old and being an only child, she spent all of her free time with her father. By her early teens, Alex was completing small projects under the watchful eye of her father who tutored her in every aspect of construction. Her father, now deceased, had inspired her love of building.

An overachiever, Alex had graduated top of her class from Georgia Tech with a structural engineering degree. She was proud her father had lived long enough to see the completion of her first custom home. His face glowed with pride when he inspected her first solo project, and even with his critical eye for detail, he found it very difficult to find anything in the structure to criticize.

 

 

Alex walked out to her truck, a ten-year-old Chevy she just couldn’t bear to part with. She could well afford to purchase a new vehicle, but her reliable old truck was a welcomed relief after a long day. The still powerful engine roared to life and Alex smiled her appreciation for the aging vehicle. Shifting into drive, she drove slowly past the project for one last glance before heading home. The offset beam was just a minor glitch; overall Alex was pleased with the progress made during the week.

Content, she pulled onto the drive that would lead her back down the mountain and to an early start on a relaxing weekend. There was enough sunlight left to allow a circuit around the lake in her canoe so she could test the performance of a new fly she had tied the night before. Along with building things, Alex had developed a love of fly-fishing in her youth and enjoyed the challenge of the trout in her spring-fed lake. After the battle of bringing the fish to the canoe, Alex would gently remove the hook and release the fish to battle again another day.

As she pulled onto the paved road, her body began to relax. The fresh country air coming through the windows blew her shoulder-length dark hair around the edges of her face. Alex pulled on a pair of sunglasses to block the late afternoon sun streaming through the windshield. A smile grew on her face as she turned on the radio to her favorite country station and sang along until she neared the turnoff to her home. Almost adjacent to her driveway was a small, older model Honda Accord parked beside the road, the hood raised and steam billowing from underneath.

Alex slowed and pulled off the road, parking behind the disabled vehicle. She settled her sunglasses on top of her head and began walking slowly up to the car. Alex noted the backseat packed tightly with clothing and other personal belongings. As she strolled past the driver’s side of the car, she glanced inside to see a small dark-haired child asleep in the passenger’s seat. Alex continued walking and caught her first glimpse of the driver hidden by the upraised hood of the car. Her eyes began their exploration at the gleaming white tennis shoes and followed the line of the tight-fitting Levi’s to the woman’s tiny waist. A stream of colorful words reached Alex’s ears as the woman cursed her bad luck and waved a hand at the steam escaping the obviously damaged motor. She found herself smiling at the woman talking to the car. Her blond hair had fallen into her face and when she tossed her head to clear her vision, she found Alex smiling at her.

Mesmerized by the deepest blue eyes she had ever seen, Alex stood frozen and found she’d lost her ability to speak. Her heart raced in her chest as the woman straightened and wiped the hair back from her face.

“I am so glad to finally see someone else on this road,” the young woman said. “I haven’t seen another vehicle for almost an hour.” She breathed a sigh of relief. She looked directly into Alex’s dark eyes and felt the smile that lingered in them. The warmth that flowed from the woman’s eyes burned directly through her chest to surround her heart.

Alex cleared her throat, afraid her voice had abandoned her for good. “Looks like you could use some help here,” Alex said when she finally managed to speak, thankful that her voice didn’t squeal with the sudden surge of excitement she was feeling at the sight of the beautiful stranger. Alex tore her eyes away from the woman and peered underneath the hood. “Nothing like stating the obvious here, Alex,” she mumbled to herself.

“We were cruising right along and all of a sudden the engine died. I was barely able to get it off the road before the momentum stopped it here.”

Alex looked closely into the face of the woman and noted the yellow tint of fading bruises on the woman’s cheek before tearing her eyes away again to look at the smoldering engine. Alex could still smell the smoke that wafted from under the hood. Instinctively she reached for the dipstick, and as she feared, the engine was bone dry, not a drop of oil registering on the stick. “Umm, when was the last time you added some oil?” Alex asked. She could tell from the startled look on the woman’s face that vehicle maintenance was not one of her strong points.

“I hate to be the bearer of bad news, ma’am, but it looks like you may have burnt up your motor.” The woman frowned and her eyes filled with tears at Alex’s assessment. “It’s going to be impossible to tell for sure, though, until a mechanic can tow her in and give it a good once-over,” Alex said, hoping to communicate a glimmer of hope to the young woman.

Alex’s attempt failed miserably. The overwhelmed woman broke into tears and buried her face in her hands. Alex could think of no other action to calm the distraught woman so she wrapped her arms around the beautiful stranger and held her until her sobs subsided and she regained her composure. The warmth of the beautiful woman pressed against her body reminded Alex how comforting it was to hold someone close and managed a smile when the woman looked up at her.

“I’m sorry for turning into a blubbering idiot,” the woman said, looking up into Alex’s eyes but not pulling away from the physical comfort of Alex’s long arms. “My name is Bet, and the munchkin in the passenger seat is my daughter, Kylie.” She finally disengaged from Alex’s embrace to point toward the sleeping child.

A chill overtook Alex as Bet pulled away from her and she fought off the shiver threatening to slide down her spine. “My name is Alex. I noticed from your car plates that you are from Alabama. What are the two of you doing up here alone?”

“That’s a long story,” Bet said as stepped to the driver’s side of the car to check on her still sleeping child. Alex could feel the pain the woman was carrying with her fade as she looked at the sleeping child.

“Well, it’s going to be at least Monday before a mechanic can look at your car, ma’am,” Alex said. “The only mechanic in town has Falcon season tickets and he takes his wife into Atlanta every weekend they play at home.”

“At least tell me there is a motel in town.”

“As a matter of fact there is one,” Alex said, “not that I would recommend it, though.”

“Well, aren’t you just a ray of sunshine.” Bet immediately recognized the sarcastic tone she had used. “I’m so sorry.”

Alex laughed. “Not a problem, I get that kind of remark from strange women all the time.” Bet smiled at Alex’s witty remark and Alex felt her heart skip a beat.

“I do have a solution to your problem, though,” Alex said, once again with a serious face. “I have a home about a mile up that drive with plenty of space for two guests and I have no plans for the weekend other than a little fishing. Besides, if you haven’t noticed, you are in the middle of nowhere out here and the closest town is a twenty-minute drive,” she added.

“I really hate to impose on you, but it does seem like my options are pretty much nil at this point.”

“Great, it’s settled then. Show me which bags you need and I will grab them while you collect your little munchkin.”

Bet reached inside to pop the trunk and said, “The two in the trunk,” then walked around to wake her sleeping daughter.

Alex slowly and quietly lowered the hood and then walked around to retrieve the bags from the trunk, placing them in the bed of the truck. Bet walked toward her carrying the dark-haired child, who was rubbing her sleepy eyes. When she reached Alex’s side, the child looked up at her with those same deep blue eyes. “Hiya,” she said. “What’s your name?”

“Alex. What’s yours?”

“I’m Kylie, and I’m four.” She held up four fingers.

Alex chuckled at the small child as she reached to open the door for Bet and Kylie, closing it behind them when they had settled in the truck.

“Where are we going, Mommy?” Kylie asked as Alex slipped in behind the wheel and cranked up the truck.

“We are going to spend the weekend with Alex. Our car got sick and it will be a few days before it is well again,” she explained.

“Okay, Mommy.” Kylie snuggled into Bet’s chest. “Do you have a little girl,” Kylie asked innocently.

“No, but I do have a dog named Max and he is four also, if that counts,” Alex replied.

Kylie’s eyes lit up at the mention of a dog and Alex knew that Max would have a new best friend. Max her four-year-old black Lab, was fantastic with kids and would enjoy a new playmate.

“Wow, is that your place,” Bet asked as Alex’s home came into view on the side of the mountain.

“Home sweet home,” Alex said as she continued up the drive.

“It’s so beautiful,” Bet said in awe of the cabin set so naturally into the surrounding woods.

“Thanks, I built it myself,” Alex said. Stunned, Bet gave her an appraising look.

“Look, Mommy, a lake too,” Kylie squealed in delight.

“That must be Max,” Bet said as the young Lab raced up to meet them, a soggy tennis ball in his mouth.

“One and the same,” Alex replied as she killed the motor on the truck.

Bet and Kylie eased out of the truck and were immediately welcomed by Max, who woofed his welcome around a mouthful of tennis ball.

“Sit, Max,” Alex instructed. Max obediently dropped to his seat, the ball rolling between his feet.

Kylie squirmed out of Bet’s arms onto the ground, and was greeted by wet, sloppy kisses from Max as she hugged his neck. She squealed with pleasure.

“I think that is enough for now Max,” Alex said as she bent down to pick up the tennis ball and hurled it as far as she could into the lake. “Go get it, boy.” Max streaked to the lake, leaping into the water and swimming frantically toward the ball. Alex grabbed one of the bags and helped Bet carry them onto the porch. Max was just reaching the ball when they set the bags down on the porch and turned to watch him swim back to shore and shake himself dry before bringing the ball to Alex on the porch. “Good boy,” she praised as he released the ball into Alex’s hand.

Alex opened the door and Kylie instinctively placed her hand on Max’s collar, letting the big dog lead her into the house. Laughing at the sight, Bet followed her daughter inside. Alex smiled when a peal of laughter rang throughout the house and it suddenly dawned on her what was missing from her home. The giggles and chatter of mother and daughter gave the house warmth and Alex reveled in the sweet sound.

While Max gave the tottering Kylie a tour of the downstairs, Alex and Bet carried the bags upstairs to two adjoining rooms. “Let me show you around,” Alex said after dropping the bags off. Bet followed her down the hallway to a stairway to a loft.

“This is beautiful,” Bet said of the wide-open area that overlooked the entire first floor and served as Alex’s bedroom. Alex led her to a French door that opened onto a small deck that spanned the full length of the house. The view of the tree-covered mountain from the deck was amazing and Bet stood mesmerized by it until the sound of Kylie’s laughter brought her back to earth.

Walking to the edge of the loft Bet and Alex peeked down to see Max and Kylie wrestling on the rug in front of the stone fireplace, Max’s woofs accenting Kylie’s giggles as they played together.

“When was the last time you two had a meal?” Alex asked.

“We had lunch about twelve thirty, but to be honest, I’m starved.”

“Let me grab a quick shower and I’ll see what I can throw together,” Alex said. “Make yourself at home and I’ll be right out.” Alex disappeared into the bathroom and Bet heard the shower turn on.

 

 

Bet descended the stairs and walked through the kitchen that was equipped with stainless steel appliances. A dream kitchen she thought as she opened a fully stocked pantry and freezer. Bet continued her tour of the lower level, locating what could only be Alex’s office with a nearly full glass wall opening onto a view of the valley. Sighing deeply, Bet felt some of the tension she had been carrying since leaving Alabama dissipate. She returned to the living room to join Max and Kylie, sinking into a comfortable, deep leather chair to watch them play. Relaxing into the chair, she allowed her eyes to close. Several minutes later, she woke up to silence. Kylie and Max had stopped playing and she turned to find Kylie sitting on the kitchen counter talking quietly with Alex as she prepared a meal. Bet watched as Kylie and Alex talked comfortably together as Alex’s hands formed homemade burgers and bacon sizzled on the open griddle.

“We are having bacon cheeseburgers, Mommy,” Kylie called out when she noticed her Mom was awake.

“Sounds yummy,” Bet said. “Sorry, I must be more tired than I thought.”

“Not a problem. Kylie is assisting me in creating cheeseburgers in paradise,” Alex said, causing Bet to smile brilliantly.

“What can I do to help?”

“The oil should be ready if you want to cook the fries while we finish the burgers and set the table,” Alex said as she sent Kylie off toward the table carrying utensils. “Sure hope you gals like sweet tea or milk, because that’s all I have to offer for drinks.”

“Tea for me, please, and milk for your assistant,” Bet requested as she watched them set the table.

“Two iced teas and a milk coming up then,” Alex said as she handed condiments for Kylie to set on the table. “Such a good helper I have here.” Kylie beamed at Alex’s praise. Alex lifted Kylie onto the counter to continue watching as she and Bet finished preparing the meal.

Bet drained the fries and set them on the table as Alex melted the cheese over the thick slices of bacon atop the burgers. She placed burgers on a plate and left a fourth to cool for Max, who patiently waited for his treat.

As they sat at the table, Kylie took Bet’s hand and reached for Alex’s. “Do you mind if Kylie says grace?” Bet asked.

“Not at all.” Alex took Kylie’s small hand in hers and reached for Bet’s to complete their small circle.

Bowing their heads, Kylie started her prayer. “Dear God, thank you for this cheeseburger and for our new friends, Alex and Max. Thank you for Mommy and for sending us to our new home. Amen.”

“Amen,” Alex said as she reached for a burger and placed it on Kylie’s open bun before taking another and passing the plate to Bet, whose eyes were wide from shock over Kylie’s last comment.

She wasn’t sure how she would explain to her daughter that this was not their new home, but she would find a way tomorrow to let her know they were just visiting.

Alex, quite cognizant of Kylie’s statement, refrained from commenting, but an idea was beginning to form in the back of her mind. She watched as Bet helped a struggling Kylie create her burger then cut it into manageable portions for her small hands. They both ate hearty meals and Alex wondered when they last had full stomachs.

Earlier, while Bet napped, Kylie had told Alex that her daddy was mean to both she and her mommy and Mommy had promised that they would find a new home safely away from him. She told Alex how they had crept out of the house while her daddy was sleeping on the couch.

Even without Kylie’s revelations, Alex had deduced from the fading bruises that Bet was fleeing from an abusive partner. It took an incredibly courageous person to pack up what they could and escape from harm. Alex was sure Bet was an extremely strong person. She would keep Kylie’s secrets to herself and allow Bet to fill in the blanks when she felt comfortable talking.

After the threesome finished their meal, Alex gave Kylie a chopped up hamburger to feed to her new friend Max while she and Bet picked up the kitchen. The supper chores done, Max and Kylie moved to play in the living room, and Bet asked if it would be okay if she took a shower. Alex showed her where things were located then returned downstairs to take a comfortable seat.

Max and Kylie romped and wrestled until both were exhausted. Bet had not returned downstairs as of yet, so Kylie climbed up in Alex’s lap and with heavy eyes wrapped her arms around Alex’s neck and fell asleep. Max sat next to them and put his head on Alex’s knee, watching over Kylie as she slept.

“Do you want me to take her,” Bet asked as she walked down the stairs in shorts and a T-shirt and saw Kylie asleep in Alex’s arms, a scene that appeared all too natural for someone they had just met.

“No, she’s fine for now. Let her sleep a few minutes and then you can take her up for the night,” Alex replied. “It’s been a long time since I’ve held a little one while they slept and I forgot how good it feels.”

“It’s a very natural look for you.” Bet said with a warm smile.

“She seems like such a good kid. You have done a good job raising her.”

“She has definitely been the highlight of my life.”

Kylie sighed at that moment and snuggled further into Alex’s neck. “I have never seen her take to someone like she has to you. Usually she is pretty bashful around new people, but you wouldn’t think that the way she’s snuggled into you,” Bet said with a grin. “How about carrying her upstairs and I will tuck her in for the night?”

“All right.” Alex carefully climbed the stairs with Kylie in her arms. Bet pulled back the covers and Alex laid the child gently on the bed. “I am going to take Max out while you finish up here,” Alex said as she slipped quietly from the room.

Downstairs, Max headed for the door, followed into the darkness by Alex. Max trotted off across the yard and Alex reached into a small box and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. She had smoked for years after college but had quit except for her one smoke of the evening before going off to bed. She lit the cigarette and inhaled deeply, taking a seat on the porch steps as she listened for Max running through the woods. She watched the fireflies as they sparkled and danced on the front lawn as she enjoyed her solitary smoke.

 

 

The door opened and Bet stepped out just as Alex exhaled a puff of smoke. “Do you have another one of those?” Bet asked. “I sure could use one about now.”

“Inside the box beside the door,” she said, pointing.

Bet lit up and joined Alex on the step. “Oh my, that tastes good,” Bet said as she took a draw off the cigarette.

“I only allow myself one a night,” Alex said, as Bet got comfortable on the step beside her.

“It’s so beautiful and quiet here. I can’t tell you how many years it has been since I have seen fireflies,” she said. “I’ve never seen them in Mobile.”

Taking advantage of the small bit of information, Alex asked, “Is that where you two are from?”

Bet took a long draw from the cigarette and exhaled loudly as she braced herself for the coming conversation. “Yes, Kylie and I are from Mobile. I have been married to her father for five years and finally got to the point that I couldn’t take another beating,” she said in one long breath. “I decided that we would both be safer and happier far away from him, so last night when he started drinking, I slipped a sleeping pill into his drink. When he finally passed out from the combination of the drug and liquor, I packed what I could into the Honda, carried a sleeping Kylie out to the car and left. I made one stop at an ATM to clear out my account and to call my supervisor at the hospital to let her know what was going on.”

“Are you a nurse?” Alex asked.

“Yes, I have been an RN for almost five years.”

“That is really great.”

“What do you do for a living?” Bet asked.

“I own a small construction company and I specialize in building custom homes here in the mountains.”

“If this place is any indication of your work, I bet you are in high demand.”

“I stay busy,” Alex admitted. “We generally build eight to ten homes a year.”

“Well you certainly have a talent,” Bet said. “This place is a dream home.”

“I try to design a home around the owner’s personality, and this one fits me to a T,” Alex said. “The open, airy design gives me the creative freedom to think and the lighting to draw deep into the night if the inspiration strikes.”

“I would like to have a home like this for Kylie someday,” Bet said with a tone of determination in her voice.

“What are your plans,” Alex asked, “if you don’t mind me prying?”

“To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure what my plans are. When I cranked up the car my only objective was to get as far away from Brian as I could, so I pointed the car north and drove. Six hours later, just north of Birmingham, I pulled into a rest stop to get some sleep. When I awoke four hours later, Kylie was quietly playing with her toys. We found a nice little diner for an early breakfast and headed east to Georgia. Kylie began getting restless after a few hours so we stopped and bought a sandwich and chips for a picnic lunch at a nearby park. We ate and she played for about an hour before we continued our journey. Three hours later I found myself broke down at your driveway and here we are,” Bet said, her voice cracking with uncertainty.

“I plan on obtaining a license wherever we land and resume nursing as soon as possible,” Bet added.

“How long would it take to get a Georgia license?” Alex asked out of curiosity.

“Usually thirty to forty-five days,” Bet answered. “Until then I can get something to hold us over.”

Bet shivered and Alex realized almost an hour had passed since they started talking. “It’s getting cool, are you ready to go in?”

“I think that’s a good idea,” Bet said, hugging her body for warmth.

Alex whistled for Max and was startled when he rose from the darkness a mere three feet from where they had been sitting. Neither of the women had seen the black dog lay down as he joined them. His stealth and dark fur allowed him to listen to their conversation as they sat together on the steps.

Alex took their cigarette butts and dropped them into a can on the porch.

“Thanks for the cigarette and all your hospitality,” Bet said.

“It has been a pleasure having you two here. Max is a great friend, but most of the time he’s not much of a talker,” Alex teased.

“Seriously, though, I don’t know what I would have done if you hadn’t rescued us today. To be honest,” Bet said, “I don’t even have a clue where we are right now.”

“Well, that’s an easy one to answer. You are presently in Graves Cove, population one woman and one dog,” she said with a chuckle. Max woofed when he heard dog, as if it were his cue to make a statement.

Both women laughed at his response and Alex reached to open the door. Bet stopped her movement by placing her arms around Alex’s neck and kissing her on the cheek. Startled by the embrace and the feel of Bet’s hard nipples as they pressed into her Alex hesitated only briefly in returning the embrace. The darkness of the porch hid the flush on Alex’s cheeks as she enjoyed the comfort of the physical contact.

Max trotted through the open door followed closely by Bet and Alex. “Is there anything you need tonight?” Alex asked.

“No, I think you have done plenty for us today.”

“I am going to lock up and head to bed then,” Alex said, feeling suddenly weary.

“Goodnight then and thanks again for everything.”

 

 

Alex refilled Max’s water bowl and checked the locks on the doors before heading to the stairs. Max bounded up the stairs ahead of her and waited at the landing, then led her up the final steps to the loft. The soft glow of the bedside lamp welcomed her and she stripped out of her clothes and slid beneath the covers onto cool, clean sheets. She reached and turned off the light, listening as Bet shuffled around the bedroom for a few minutes before climbing into bed with Kylie. Max took up his familiar spot beside Alex’s bed and all was quiet in the house.

Alex slept for several hours before she woke to the sound of Max’s claws on the hardwood floor. She listened as Max descended the loft steps and walked into the guest bedroom to check on Kylie and Bet. Alex heard Bet whisper to him, “We are all right, boy,” and then she heard the soft clicking of his claws as he climbed back up to the loft.

A smile grew on Alex’s face as she heard Max lay down and she thought all is right in this house tonight. With that comforting thought bouncing through her head, Alex returned to a deep, restful sleep.

 

 

When Brian Stewart awakened from his drunken stupor, accentuated by the sleeping pills Bet had slipped into his drink, he released his rage on his empty home. Pictures and decorations that Bet had been so eager to dress their home with were smashed and small pieces of furniture lay shattered like matchsticks throughout the house, all victims of his anger. He had torn through the house to their bedroom and found a large hole in the closet where her clothing had been. Several pieces of clothing were scattered across the bed. He figured she either couldn’t fit them in her suitcase or was too rushed to take them all. When he sank down on the bed his eyes fell on a piece of paper laying on the table beside the bed. Bet’s hastily written note only further fueled his rage, and he sat on their bed and ripped apart the clothing Bet left behind.

Vowing to return his wife and child to their proper home, Brian quelled his rage long enough to call Bet’s family and a few close friends in an effort to track her down. Bet’s mother and her friends were unable or unwilling to give Brian any useful information, and after several calls, he slammed the phone down on the receiver.

Brian had paced the floor trying to figure out a course of action when his hangover-blurred eyes focused on the kitchen table. His wallet sat beside an overturned beer bottle and a thought occurred to him. He reached inside his wallet to find a card with a password to a program that he installed months earlier that would track Bet’s car. He downloaded the program on his phone and waited for the information to update.

Brian smiled when he looked at his phone to see that his wife and child had made it at least to Georgia. He hastily packed a small bag and headed out to his truck. Headed north, Brian was confident that he would soon track down his wife and child.

Brian drove beyond the fall of darkness before turning into a rest stop for some sleep. As irony would have it, Brian pulled into a parking spot mere feet away from where Bet and Kylie had slept hours earlier.

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