31 January 2023

22 – Bleak future

That night, Dana silently wept in her cell. She didn’t have the heart to join John. When he would ask her how her day had gone, she would have to tell him about the Rye’s reaction. She couldn’t bring herself to do it.

He didn’t need that, the situation was difficult enough as it was. The day before, he had tried to get up, to no avail. Lindsey had explained some ligaments had been ruptured by the shards of glass. It was likely that John would never run as well as he did before. That is, if he was able to stand up, which he was not at the moment.

The future looked bleak. What should we do? Stay here and try to make amends by rebuilding Hope County? Leave the area for good and start our lives again somewhere else? What if the residents all have the same reaction as Nick? Who will forgive John, after all the harm he has done to these people?

Besides, the Baptist had recently told her he wanted to see Joseph again and unravel the mystery surrounding Holly Pepper’s banishment. John couldn’t understand how she had left the area without even saying goodbye. Still, they had exchanged personal memories and concerns. He couldn’t imagine what could have frightened her so much that she would leave overnight.

Dana had a bad feeling about the whole thing. Joseph clearly didn’t care about his younger brother’s health or future. He still hadn’t heard from him. The thought of John coming face to face with him made her shudder. She tossed and turned for several minutes before falling asleep.

* * *

— Hey.

Dana had greeted John with a fake cheerfulness. He smiled at her, sitting on his cot.

— Hi, Deputy. You finally care to come see me ?

— Sorry, I’ve been busy. How’s your leg ?

— It’s killing me. And that bastard Lindsey insists on having me do exercises.

The vet walked through the open door.

— That rehab will allow you to walk properly one day. But if you’d rather the bastard doc left you as you are, just ask !

Seed grinned as Dana held back a laugh. John couldn’t help but make a snarky remark.

Vet, Lindsey. That’s different.

Not picking up on the mockery, Charles bent over his patient to remove the IV and the brace around his leg from ankle to thigh. As he lifted his knee, John tightly clutched Dana’s hand, crushing it in his own. She smiled at him.

— Just hold on. You’re going to be okay. I’m here.

Lindsey asked for her help in getting Seed to his feet and have him leaned on both of their shoulders.

— Very good, John. Now we’ll try to take a few steps if you don’t mind.

— Guess I have no choice.

His stubbornness made Dana wince. The bad faith he was showing was certainly intended to mask his pain. For as long as she could remember, his sarcasm was always provoked by a too-frank approach or a truth he wished to hide. She was convinced he was not feigning pain. On the contrary, his self-esteem certainly made him look more confident than he really was.

Leaning on his good leg, the Baptist moved the other one forward a few inches. The pain struck him. It was as if those damned glass shards were piercing him once again. He held back from screaming. Despite his silence, pain could easily be read on the drawn features of his pale face.

He took a deep breath before placing his foot on the ground. Once again, pain electrified his entire leg. Realizing he could not continue, Lindsey intervened.

— Stop it, John. That’s it for today. It’s too early to try anything more. We’re going to help you back into bed and I’m going to massage your leg.

— No disrespect, doc, but I’d rather have her do it.

— If you’d like.

Once he was back on the cot, Lindsey briefly instructed Dana on proper movements and left the room.

She placed both hands on the Baptist’s thigh, taking care to avoid getting too close to the still fresh scar. John shuddered at her touch.

— Am I hurting you ?

— No. It’s good to feel your hands on me. I missed you.

— Missed you too.

She leaned down to caress his face and plant a kiss in his beard, before resuming upward motions designed to get blood flowing.

— So, what’s the news from Hope County ?

The moment she had been dreading had arrived. She tried to keep a brave face, answering him while avoiding his gaze.

— Well, the news is starting to spread. I’ve been talking to Whitehorse about the follow-up.

— Follow-up ?

— Yes, the continuation. May I remind you that I’m a police officer and that the sheriff is my superior ? Basically, I’m required to arrest you and your brothers and sister.

— But you won’t.

Feeling his gaze on her, she looked up to observe him in turn. He was mischievously grinning. How could he be so positive about the situation ?

— I wish I could avoid it, indeed. But… Earl is adamant. He’s made it clear that there’s no way you’re not going to be tried or jailed.

John disapprovingly clicked his tongue.

—  And then…

She looked down, embarrassed.

—  What now ?

—  Whitehorse has confirmed he will be retiring soon. And he wants me to succeed him.

—  You ? Sheriff ? I must admit that star badge and role will suit you. And then you could arrest me once and for all.

—  John, this isn’t funny !

—  No, it isn’t. But what else can I do but laugh about it ? This situation is so pathetic that I wonder if there’s any way out for us.

Dana’s blood ran cold. Her hands froze over her lover’s bruised knee.

—  What do you mean ?

—  You know what I mean.

—  But… a few days ago you were pushing hard for us to get married and start a family !

He straightened up and grabbed her hands still clutching his meniscus.

—  Dana, you mean a lot to me. You’ve given me everything. You’ve helped me open my eyes. It’s not fair that you must give up your career and your dreams because of me. It’s time for me to take responsibility for my mistakes, even if I have to be locked up for the rest of my life. I’m largely responsible for the deaths of many people, not to mention the families separated and their property stolen. I don’t want to be a hindrance or a burden to you. You have helped me enough. You’re still young, you have a right to live your life the way you want to, without having to pay a weekly conjugal visit to a jerk in prison who doesn’t deserve that sacrifice.

Tears welled up in Dana’s eyes.

— John, can you hear yourself ? What are you talking about ? I would never give you up for a job. I never wanted to become a police officer out of passion. I did it to follow Killian, whom I met when he was at police academy. I don’t care about this job. I don’t want to ignore my personal beliefs anymore. As far as Joseph is concerned, I’ll gladly put him in handcuffs and out of business. But as for Faith, Jacob and you, I’m not so sure anymore.

The tone of her voice softened. She continued.

— You did wrong and made serious mistakes. But if we could keep you out of jail, or at least lessen your sentence, I would feel better. We need to find a way to convince people of Hope County to support you. Without their help, I don’t see a positive outcome.

— What do you have in mind ?

— Maybe you could make amends, like helping to rebuild what was destroyed ?

— That’s a thought. But in my present state, I don’t see how I could do that.

They remained silent for a few moments. The problem was still there. Suddenly, John’s eyes brightened.

— Here’s what I’ll do : I’ll pay for all the cleaning and repair work ! And I’ll order Joshua to return the residents’ personal property. I will tear up and cancel all signed property contracts, and offer additional compensation to each family.

Dana smiled at him.

— That’s a very good idea. But I’m afraid it won’t be enough to change people’s opinions of you.

— Who knows ?

She seemed to hesitate for a moment before admitting.

— I went to see Nick last night.

John clenched his fists.

— What were you doing at that asshole’s house ?

— I told them about us. Nick got mad. He disowned our friendship and told me he wouldn’t hesitate to kill you if he ever ran into you again.

Seed leaned over to her to wipe a tear from the corner of her eye. She sniffed before adding, sobbing.

— They offered me to be their daughter’s godmother. I turned them down.

— Oh, Dana. I’m so sorry. But this all makes my point. If you must give up your own life because of me, it’s not worth it. You have a right to be happy.

The policewoman rushed to hug the Baptist. She did not manage any more to retain her tears, which now heavily crushed in the hollow of John’s shoulder, causing him shivers. Between two sobs, she whispered.

— I’m happy with you, you idiot. I want to marry you, just as we planned. Here in a few weeks, or somewhere else in twenty years. All I care about is being with you and getting a fresh start away from all this shit.

John in turn held her close, gently kissing her ear.

— My brave little miss wrath. I’ll do anything to make up for my mistakes, I promise. And I’ll do anything to make you happy. One day I’ll marry you for real. When this is over.

A cough brought them out of their bubble. Jacob’s husky voice came across the room.

— Isn’t it a little early for this kind of thing ?

They separated to watch him come towards them with his feline walk.

— I saw the doc. He told me situation wasn’t glorious ?

— It isn’t. I’ve gone over to the weak side.

His older brother laid a friendly hand on the Baptist’s shoulder.

— Weakness, John, is not failure of a first attempt. You have your whole life ahead of you to succeed in this rehabilitation. You have a family that loves you and will help you through the dark times. Strength is being resilient in the face of adversity, not giving up and fighting to the end. I have every confidence in you to do that. I know you can do it. You’ve been through other trials, you’ll beat this one too. The weak are the ones giving up without even trying. You’re not one of them.

John sincerely smiled at his brother.

— Thank you, Jacob. I needed to hear that.

The soldier affectionately ruffled his little brother’s hair, who protested and immediately set about rearranging his long brown strands. Heading for the door, Jacob called out again.

— Prepare yourself well for this fight. It may be long, but it will be worth it. It’s time to show Joseph we don’t need him to exist.

Dana’s gaze moved from the now closed door to the Baptist. A few tears had welled up in his irises. She realized how sensitive John was, even though he had always tried to hide his emotions from others.

I can’t imagine how hard it’s been to keep it all bottled up inside him all these years. No one deserves a second chance more than him.

* * *

— What are you doing?

— I’m preparing all property deeds signed by people of the county.

Dana tried to straighten up to look at John, but he pushed her forehead back with a caress so she would reposition her head on his thighs.

— Just lie there on me. We’re comfortable like this, aren’t we ?

She silently nodded. It was true that they were fine since John had come home. He was forced to rest, and aside from the few daily physical therapy exercises Lindsey prescribed, he was medically forbidden to engage in any activity that would interfere with his ligament recovery. This ranged from walking too long to any sexual activity, which infuriated the Baptist and occasionally created palpable tension between them. Not wanting to think about this state of things, Dana went back to the matter at hand.

— What are you going to do next ? Go knock on the door of each inhabitant, and say “Hello, it’s me, the man who took everything from you. I’ve come to apologize and give you back your home” ?

A smile split the Baptist’s face. He leaned toward her to whisper.

— Why not ?

Dana straightened up suddenly to sit next to him.

— Are you crazy ? Do you think people will forgive you like this, with just a torn up deed and three words of apology ?

— And a nice wad of cash.

— John, I’m serious !

— So am I. You don’t seem to have much of a sense of reality. Money rules the world, it always has. Nobody turns down a lot of money. And I can afford it.

She loudly sighed.

— What’s the matter ?

— John, even if people accept your money, I can’t believe they’ll forgive you so easily. The Rye’s are so pissed off that Nick has sworn to shoot you if you show up at his door. Yet Kimiko is a pretty reasonable woman.

Seed stood up, waving a pile of paperwork at Dana and raising his voice.

— What the hell else do you want me to do ? Do you have a better idea ? If so, now is the time !

— John, don’t get up like that ! You’re going to hurt yourself !

— I don’t give a fuck. I’ve got nothing left to lose. I’m already crippled anyway.

He angrily picked up the rest of the contracts piled on the coffee table and limped toward the front door.

— Honey, wait ! Please ! At least take your crutch !

The Baptist slammed the door behind him without even giving her a glance. I hope no one attacks him. Maybe I should go with him. Dana got up and quickly put on a jacket before following in her fiancé’s footsteps.

When he reached his vehicle, he noticed she had followed him.

— What are you doing ?

— I’m coming with you.

— No, it concerns only me.

— John, it is dangerous !

— I don’t need a bodyguard. Stay out of this !

He tried to push her away with a wave of his arm, but she caught his wrist.

— I’m not leaving. I’m coming with you, whether you like it or not. If you want, I’ll stay in the car while you knock on the doors.

The Baptist hesitated for a few moments before retreating and climbing into his pickup, letting the strong head that served as his companion climb into the passenger seat.

The first farm north of the ranch was the Bradburys’. The cult had seized it to conduct animal experiments in the nearby fields and used the silo to store bliss. Despite this, the old couple still occupied the dilapidated warehouse where they were selling the few pounds of hay Eden’s Gate had left to them.

Dana saw old Bill’s startled face as he opened the door to the Baptist. She was sure he had not expected to be confronted by the man who had driven him off his land and taken all his possessions. Despite the vehicle’s windows remaining open, she could not grasp the content of the discussion. She quickly realized, however, that the conversation was turning sour, given the way John was gesticulating, with the sales contract in one hand and a wad of cash in the other. Old man violently closed the door in the visitor’s face, but the Baptist held it back with one hand.

— John, no !

The two men glanced at the pickup with astonishment. John’s amazement gave old Bradbury time to close the door, but he couldn’t hold it this time. From the Baptist’s walk, Dana could clearly see the rage rising in him. Once in the car, he yelled in her face and glared at her.

— What the fuck are you doing ?

— I’m stopping you from doing something stupid !

— What do you care ? I agreed to let you come on condition that you stay here and keep your mouth shut. There was never any question of you interfering !

For a moment, Dana seemed lost. Realizing how violent his attitude was, John relented.

— Look, I appreciate you wanting to help me. But this is all my fault. I must deal with this on my own.

— John, you can’t do it that way. You are not that man anymore. I know you can communicate in a civilized way. You can do it. Don’t let wrath get to you.

She placed a kiss on the Baptist’s lips and he fell speechless. He loudly sighed and restarted the contact, handing her the Bradbury contract.

— Next ?

Sliding the document under the stack of papers, Dana read the name on the first one.

— Steele.

The property was located not far from one of the tunnels the cult had blasted through, preventing any entry or exit from the county. Dana remembered searching the place and finding a chilling note. The document described how a man named Alex had tried to dismantle the cult with his friends. It further explained that they had been punished by John’s wrath and had been buried in the tunnel. Except for Alex, whose body was still hanging upside down at the entrance of the passage.

She was overcome with grief. Is this really the man I want to marry ? How could strangers forgive him for such a horrible act ? She felt his gaze on her.

— Are you okay ? You don’t look so.

— Yes, I am. It’s just… this man, Alex…

— Who ?

— I read a note in the Steele garage. It was about a man who had incurred your wrath…

— Oh. This.

She saw his eyes crinkle. He curtly clicked his tongue before continuing.

— That guy made a real mess of things.

— Did you kill him ?

— No, I didn’t.

— What happened then ?

— I admit I got mad.

— Surprising.

He gave her a murderous look. She had to restrain herself from laughing. John turned off ignition and continued.

— Joseph had given clear instructions : communication routes were to be cut off. Including tunnels. My men laid dynamite to destroy this one. The thing is, this guy and his buddies had the unfortunate idea to use it to try to escape. Wrong place, wrong time.

— How do you explain the hanging body ?

— We picked him up from the rubble. He was already cold when we hung him up. Since he had filmed the cult and posted videos on his blog, my guys figured a warning photo would interest his fans and repel potential intruders. And they were right.

She stared at him in disbelief, arms folded.

— Dana, you must believe me. I promise you I didn’t do anything to them. I’m an asshole, that’s for sure. I’m far from innocent. But I didn’t do this. I just ordered my guys to destroy the tunnel, and they did it.

— Who hung this young man’s body then ?

— Jacob’s minions. That’s their thing. They love all things creepy and gory. If you don’t believe me, take a walk in the Whitetail.

She remained silent. She had indeed found many bodies hanging upside down or by their arms, sometimes even nailed to crosses, in the northern mountain region. Dead sometimes lay on the ground, but their heads or eyes were always covered. Modus operandi was undoubtedly the same in all cases.

Her introspection was cut short by the sound of John’s door closing. She calmly contemplated the surroundings. The burned-out remains of a house stood next to the garage containing the disgusting note. An old, seemingly abandoned trailer adjoined the building.

She watched as John walked with his ever-so-limbed step toward the trailer, against and over which old rusty metal sheets were piled. She sighed as he knocked on the door.

Dan Steele’s reaction matched her surprise. This time, the thirty-year-old’s words came through loud and clear to the vehicle. He was yelling at John, insulting him and trying to punch him in the face. Despite his disability, the Baptist managed to step back and avoid the blow, staggering and catching himself in extremis against the caravan wall. Faced with the young man’s aggressiveness, Seed quickly retreated, returning to the pickup truck cursing.

— Let me guess. He refused ?

— Aha. You’re so perceptive.

John clutched his forehead in his hands, looking desperate. Dana grabbed the paper he was still holding between two fingers to slip it into the contracts pile.

— Next : the Davenports. But I may have a better idea.

The Baptist raised his head, his eyes wide.

— What idea ?

— Why don’t we go see the Rye’s instead ?

— Are you crazy ? Didn’t you say Nick would kill me if I showed up at his door ?

— He would. But if we both go, I won’t let him hurt you.

— Dana, I don’t understand.

— The Rye’s have some influence in the county. Everyone knows Nick and his company. Suppose we can convince them to let it go.

— Yeah. That’s smart. If they go along with it, the rest of them might just follow suit.

— Exactly. Onward, my fellow Inquisitor.

— Let’s get to my bunker first.

John turned ignition key and briskly started the car. Dana felt his confidence return. Why, she couldn’t say. But he certainly had an idea in the back of his mind.

* * *

The vehicle’s arrival was a sensation. A chorus of surprised faces greeted them as they passed through the gated compound. John’s men certainly didn’t expect to see him arrive at his old haunt. And what’s more, accompanied by the cult’s number one enemy.

A crowd formed around them as they got out of the pickup. The men remained silent and calm, with a questioning look in their eyes. The Baptist took the initiative to anticipate any questions.

— I’m here to get some stuff. I’m not staying. Deputy is helping me. Joshua ?

The man ran up from the back of the group and stood before his boss.

— Where are the things we seized from the residents ?

— Section B, floor -3.

— Well, take us there.

The henchman hurried towards the building’s entrance, pushing the dazed onlookers in his path. John and Dana followed his lead and entered the dark corridor of the bunker.

Daylight was quickly absorbed by subterranean gloom. Only the sound of their footsteps clattering against the iron staircase could be heard. Dana shivered as she remembered her last visit to the fortress. John was dragging her behind him to an unknown place. She had thought her end was near. She unconsciously clutched his arm. He reassured her with a kiss on her forehead.

When they finally finished descending, a few more steps brought them to a heavy door, which Joshua opened in front of them. Dana couldn’t contain a cry of amazement.

A huge room spread out before her eyes. Inside, countless pieces of furniture and other objects were piled up on either side. It was impossible to distinguish the room’s walls, so much they were cluttered. The bric-a-brac had taken root on every inch of the concrete floor. Piles of clothes looked as if they might fall off at any moment.

Dana glanced at John in outrage.

— Is that where the track suit you lent me came from ?

He awkwardly smiled.

— Yeah. But the underwear was mine.

She gave him a murderous look before resuming.

— What exactly are we doing here ?

— We’re collecting all the baby things we can find. I’m going to take them to Rye as a gesture of goodwill. Joshua, help me carry this stuff to the truck.

* * *

The drive from the bunker was silent. While John focused on the gravelly switchbacks, Dana gazed pensively at the landscape. What a beautiful area. Too bad Eden’s Gate chose it as a location. What a waste. The pine forest quickly gave way to fields and cows.

Soon, the Rye estate gate was in sight. Dana’s throat tightened. Seed parked in front of the airplane hangar with a squeal of tires. He glanced at his accomplice as he unbuckled his seatbelt.

— We’re in. It’s make or break.

Seed grabbed one of the crates from the pickup’s deck and carried it painfully to the house’s porch. Dana did the same. He smiled at her and raised his fist to the door to knock. Just before he reached it, she held him back.

— No, wait. I think it would be better if I spoke first.

With a shrug, the Baptist gave in and moved behind his sidekick.

— What are you doing here ?

Tone was cold, punctuated by a hint of doubt. Nick was wearing his usual cap, despite the gloomy, gray weather.

— I came to talk to you. I’m not alone.

Dana cautiously shifted so that he could see John, who remained motionless behind her.

In a flash, Rye lunged at Seed with his claws out. She barely had time to get between the two men. The family man, furious, shouted.

— What the fuck does that mean ? Are you kidding me ? Told you I didn’t want that son of a bitch in my house !

Not giving her time to reply, he shouted at the Baptist.

— You motherfucker ! You signed your death warrant by knocking on my door !

John took a step in his direction, gently shoving Dana out of the way.

— I’d like you to let me do the talking, then I’ll leave if you want me to.

— I don’t want you to go, I want you to die ! Do you understand ? I want you to DIE !

Once again, the deputy tried to come between them. Kimiko’s arrival relieved her. She slipped in front of her husband to form a barrier between Dana and him.

— What’s going on ? Why are you screaming like that ?

— Why ? Are you kidding me ? Look who had the nerve to show up at our house !

Kim gently placed her hands on Nick’s shoulders, which seemed to calm him down temporarily. She turned to face Dana and John.

— Deputy, we made it clear to you that we don’t want any members of the Seed family coming into our house. Why are you doing this ?

Dana glanced at John, who silently nodded in approval.

— John wanted to talk to you. Of course, you don’t have to listen to him. But if you would, I would appreciate it. As a thank you for the help I gave you. Then we’ll go away and not bother you again, I promise.

Kim seemed to be looking for approval from Nick, who was looking away to indicate his annoyance and disapproval. Dana thought she detected a twitch of irritation in his wife. The young mother sighed and took the lead in responding.

— Okay, we’re listening, Seed. But don’t expect sympathy from us.

John cleared his throat.

— Thanks, Kim. I know you hate me, and you have every reason to.

Nick sighed in annoyance. Kim motioned for Seed to continue.

— I can’t undo the past and make things the way they were before we came. All I can do is explain my point of view and try to fix what is fixable.

Exasperated, Rye interrupted, pushing his wife aside.

— So go ahead and deliver ! I’m not going to spend all day listening to your bullshit. Unlike you, I have a family to feed and I have to work to do so.

The Baptist took a step forward to face him and continue.

— Well, I’ll play it short so I don’t waste your time. I apologize to you and your family for what I put you through. Everything I did, I did in good faith. I wanted to do the right thing and I was sincerely convinced that happiness and salvation came through the acceptance of faults and their expiation. I recently realized that there were certainly other ways to do this. I always had faith in Joseph. He got me… he got me out of difficult situations. He’s always been there for me, just like Jacob. I know you think I’m a rich kid who’s been given everything by life. Well, you’re wrong, at least partly. The truth is that I’ve never had a family. My brothers are my only support. I would have given anything to have parents, to hear me say that they were proud of me and that they loved me. But I never got that chance. And I became an arrogant jerk. Yes, I have a lot of money. But most of that money I earned by sweat and tears, for the love of foster parents for whom I was never perfect enough. But enough about me. I came here today to apologize to you, and to give you back what’s yours.

He picked up the box that was sitting by the front door and handed it to Rye.

— What’s this ?

— Some stuff I took from the people in the county. In this one, you’ll find clothes and useful stuff for your baby. Congratulations by the way.

He didn’t give Rye time to reply and reached into his jeans pocket to pull out a thick wad of cash, which he handed him.

— And that’s some scholarship money for your kid.

Nick stared at him, incredulous. He calmly put down the box and grabbed the bills with a sharp movement. He shook the wad in John’s face.

— Are you giving me money to turn a blind eye to all the shit you’ve done ?

— No, I’m not. I’m offering you help to rebuild your future and your family’s tomorrow.

Rye chuckled before turning to his wife.

— You hear that, Kim ? Did I hear that right ?

She shrugged. Nick moved closer to Seed until only a few inches separated their faces. John stood still and held his gaze. Suddenly, Rye began to yell.

— Keep your fucking money ! I don’t need you to live. Now get the hell off my property !

As he was talking to John, he threw the bills at his face. He grabbed his wife’s arm to pull her inside, but she broke free of his grip.

— Hold on.

Dana and John exchanged stunned looks. Nick also looked amazed. He probably wasn’t expecting a reaction from his wife. And certainly not for what was to come. Kimiko spoke to Seed in a confident tone.

— You and your family have screwed up people’s lives in this area. But lucky for you, not everyone is like you. We’re humans, not heartless sadists. Besides, the deputy helped us out a few times, so we owe her that much. So I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt. Thank you for coming to explain yourself in person, and thank you for your offer. Clearly, we’ll never be friends. But when you say you want to make amends, I want to believe you. However, as everyone knows, actions speak louder than words. So until you prove your good will, there’s no reason to forgive you for your mistakes.

John seemed to regain his confidence. He straightened up.

— Thank you, Kim. What can I do ?

— It’s not my place to tell you. You got yourself into this mess. Get yourself out of it. Now, if you’ll excuse us, we have a baby that needs our attention.

The two men remained eye to eye. A distant rumbling announced an imminent storm. The sky seemed to follow the mood as the atmosphere became heavy. Dana ended the silent joust that seemed to be going on between the two dominant males.

— Thank you for listening to us. We’ll leave you now.

She took John’s hand in hers and pulled him tenderly toward her. He didn’t move. What the hell is he playing at ? He’s going to screw it up ! She pleaded with him in a soft but confident voice.

— John, please. Let’s just go.

Reluctantly, the Baptist turned his back on Rye and followed Dana to the pickup. Once seated inside, he glanced at the old Rye shack. Nick was no longer on the doorstep. Neither was the crate of clothes. A few greenbacks were twirling in the breeze that was rising with the storm.

Out of sight of his adversary, Seed hurriedly opened the car’s pocketbook. He seized medicine box prescribed by Lindsey and sent several of them directly to the bottom of his throat. With her eyes fixed on the road ahead, Dana inquired about his health.

— Are you in pain ?

— The pain is killing me.

She placed a comforting hand on her fiancé’s thigh.

— You’ll be fine. You need to rest. It’s been a trying day in every way.

She hesitated for a moment before adding.

— I’m proud of you. You did your best. Now the ball is in their court.

* * *

Nick was torn between rage and amazement. From the day he’d met John Seed, he’d known he was a complete asshole. Vain bastard had never once shown mercy or even understanding to anyone. On the opposite, he had always seen him push others around as much as possible. At least, that was his view.

Damn, to see him admit his wrongs and apologize, almost groveling before him, what a good feeling. Still, he felt no pity for the motherfucker and his shaky childhood story. He would not stoop to forgive him. His gaze fell on his wife, who was holding their daughter in her arms, tenderly cradling her.

— Holy shit. Never in my life did I think I’d ever see this. Johnny fucking Seed apologizing. This world’s turning upside down. I still don’t understand why you let him talk that shit.

Kim frowned.

— Are you doing this on purpose, Nick ? Think about it, please !

— It’s all thought out.

— Have you thought about her ?

Rye looked down at his sleeping daughter, curled up against her mother. Then his eyes fell on the box of clothes and accessories on the table, from which Kim had already pulled a blanket, now wrapped around Carmina.

— Do you think we can afford to raise her decently ? Nick, we need the money !

— What are you talking about ? My business is doing great !

— Is it ? How many flight hours have you charged since Eden’s Gate got hold of the county ?

Nick didn’t dare to face her gaze. He grunted, while going out on the porch. I hope the wind didn’t blow away all those damn tickets.

* * *

— Please, not to prison.

John had uttered the request with a pleading look. Dana watched him out of the corner of her eye. He was sunken in his seat, his head tilted back, eyes closed. Blood didn’t seem to be flowing anymore through the knuckles of his clasped hands as they pressed hard against his injured thigh. His grimacing features showed him suffering.

She grabbed the radio from her belt and contacted Lindsey, telling him that John was with her and they would be spending the night at home. The vet protested. His patient had already left care unit early, but Charles couldn’t fight his strong head. So it was agreed that John would spend every other night in the prison for observation, and the other at home. Even so, he knew that the argument was futile and the Baptist would do as he pleased. He gave up the verbal joust and finally agreed with a sigh.

Night had fallen when she parked in front of the Henbane River cabin. She offered her shoulder to John. It seemed to her that it was harder than ever to walk for him. He nearly collapsed with each step, holding back his cries. Still, she managed to support him all the way to the bedroom. She helped him sit up on the bed before going back to the hall. No sooner had she closed the door than a torrential rain fell on the tiles. The noise became so loud that she went to a window to look at the sky.

Hailstones as large as walnuts were splintering on the ground, bouncing several inches before finishing their course. She shivered, hurriedly threw a few logs into the fireplace and struck a match. As soon as the fire began to dance in the chimney, she returned to the room to help John undress.

The scene in front of her caused her to grimace. The Baptist had removed his shirt and unbuckled his belt. His jeans had come down only slightly lower than his thighs, but he had not managed to do more. He looked helpless and at a loss, staring into the void. A trail of blood spread from the scar on his inner thigh to the top of the lowered pants. Shit ! No wonder, he’d done way too much for his condition.

She sat down next to him and ran a reassuring hand over his cheek.

— I will help you. Let me do it.

He silently nodded as she crouched down to untie his shoelaces and remove his shoes. She carefully removed the blood-stained jeans and bent down to survey the damage.

— I think some of your stitches blew out.

He looked back with a grimace.

— That’s okay. I’ve seen worse.

— Stay still, I’ll disinfect the wound and bandage you up.

Joining the gesture with the word, she went to the bathroom to get her medical kit. It took her a few moments to find the disinfectant and the bandage. She had spent little time at home in the last few weeks. She met her own gaze in the mirror and was shocked by her drawn features and dark puffiness under her eyes. You poor thing. You need to rest. You won’t last long if you keep this up. Her thoughts turned back to John. It was better not to let this wound linger too long.

A smile played on her lips as she crossed the bedroom threshold. The Baptist had taken advantage of her absence to lie down and he had fallen asleep immediately. His face seemed at last to be at peace. Strangely, the hailstorm had also stopped, giving way to a downpour of rain interspersed with distant thunder.

Dana began to examine the scar. As suspected, four out of eleven stitches had come undone. She quickly blotted the blood and tightened the opening as much as possible with sterile adhesive strips. She surprised herself by yawning so much that her jaw dropped. I’m exhausted too.

She nonchalantly threw her clothes on the dresser then slipped to the Baptist’s side. She delicately pulled the blanket on which he had fallen asleep to pass it over their two numb bodies. She tenderly kissed his pierced earlobe before whispering.

— I’m so proud of you. You’re a good person. You deserve a second chance. Good night honey. Sweet dreams.

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