They call me Vigilante because I make my own laws.
Because I get retribution when there’s none to be had.
Because my name is Jace Mercy… but I show none.
Stood up at the altar, I ran from everything familiar… and straight into trouble.
Now I’m the lone witness to a backwoods execution.
A wanted woman with a price on my head.
I’m trapped in a cabin with the one man who can save me.
I’m under his protection.
I’m *in his bed*.
But there’s a price to pay for his protection.
And there’s nowhere left to run…
It’s a shame ruining a four-thousand-dollar dress, but it has to be done.
First, the sleeves.
I tear at the yards of silky fabric until I hear a rip, then shove it to the floorboard of the car. It’s strangely satisfying. Next, the veil. I pull every single little bobby pin out of my hair and gently lift the delicate headband off my head, a little pang of guilt hitting me in the chest when I shove it to the floor as well.
It really was pretty.
Fortunately, the skirt is detachable, with a million yards of elaborate fabric bunched in swaths around me so thick I feel like I’m in the center of a cloud. It’s difficult to unclip the little hooks that hold the train and dress together, but when I finally do, I’m ten pounds lighter. I chose this dress on purpose, a convertible gown suitable to go from church altar to dance floor in a matter of minutes. Only problem is, you’re meant to make the adjustments with the help of your bridesmaids, and those girls are nowhere to be found.
They knew. They fucking knew.
And now they’re likely eager to take advantage of my father’s generosity by drinking it up at the open bar.
It was the first damn thing he said, while I stood at the altar in front of eight hundred of my family’s closest friends and relatives. “It’s a travesty my daughter’s been stood up on the day of her wedding, but I paid for a party, and that’s exactly what we’re going to have.” He said it like he was cheering on the high school football team to defeat their rivals, and the crowd responded like they’d been trained. They actually cheered.
I was standing in front of every single person I’d known since childhood, my cousins, aunts, uncles, my father’s political cronies, and my mother’s country club friends.
A lump the size of a golf ball forming in my throat, unable to meet the eyes of the women who called themselves my friends surrounding me because one of them betrayed me. She took off with the groom, and now I can’t trust any of them.
How many of them knew? How many of them enabled her?
I had to leave. I was suffocating, and I needed to get air. So, I pretended to go use the ladies’ room.
My mama patted my shoulder and my cousin shook her head sadly.
“Let her go,” my mama said to her, then to me, in that icy voice that turns my stomach, “Go collect yourself before we go to the hall.”
It was the constant refrain I heard growing up. Proper women don’t cry where others see them.
Go collect yourself.
You’ve been jilted at the altar and now we expect you to maintain your composure. Fix your makeup and hair and hold that head high.
Go collect yourself.
For the first time in my adult life, I made a decision that my parents won’t approve of.
I found a running car in the church parking lot, probably owned by some sweet little old lady dropping off muffins for a bake sale. I vowed mentally to pay her back amply for what I was about to do, got behind the wheel, and while the whole church was filled with people waiting for my return, I folded myself and my miles of satin into the driver’s seat and took off. I didn’t think of a jacket or my purse, where I was going or what I’d do when I got there. I needed to get away. I couldn’t think. I had to get far, far away.
I drove as far away from civilization I could go, until the houses gave way to fields and pastures. I found an abandoned lot, pulled over, and now I’m trying to dismantle my dress so I can go do something normal. It would be easier if my hands would stop shaking.
I just stole a car.
That’s, like… against the law.
What do they do to people who steal cars? Specifically… what do they do to daughters of prominent politicians who steal cars?
This is not going to end well.
And where do I even go from here?
I have no money on me. No cellphone. I left everything at the church with my bridesmaids. I’ll… go back.
I just need a little space.
Once the dress has been stripped to little more than a tiny sheath that’s a bit less conspicuous than a wedding gown, I get back into the car and keep driving.
I drive until the sun begins to set, my mind a jumbled confusion of thoughts and fears. I ignore the dropping temperature on the dash. I’m so hungry I’m nauseous. I have no idea where I am, though I passed a sign for Casper miles back and I have some vague notion that’s about four hours from home.
The needle on the gas tank shows it’s nearly empty, and I not only have no money for gas, I haven’t seen a gas station at all. So when I see the little well-lit bar on the side of the road and a rickety sign proclaiming Big Creek Saloon, I pull over and park the car. And there, in the privacy of a stolen car, wearing the wreck of a dress I want to shed, I put my head on the steering wheel and burst into tears.
I’m so humiliated. So hurt. I let myself believe that Winston Luxe was the one. He certainly looked the part and acted the role, all handsome, popular local politician, wealthy and suave, and even though a little part of me suspected something was off, how was I to know he was cheating on me with my bridesmaid?
How could I know that the two of them had planned to elope, to stand me up at the altar, and leave me alone in front of a crowded church of gawking people? At least that was what he told me in the note he left, that one of my bridesmaid’s sheepishly handed to me.
I’m sorry to do it this way. I didn’t know how to tell you. I love her.
I gave him my virginity. My virginity. And yeah, he was… not super good between the sheets, but I told myself he would… improve. I was inexperienced, after all, and so was he.
And I figured maybe sex is overrated.
I told him my hopes and dreams, and he listened… at least I think he did. He pretended really well, anyway.
And then he left me for my bridesmaid.
I wail in the little stolen car, my heart cracking like ice on a winter pond, when suddenly, someone knocks on the window. I freeze. There’s nothing worse than thinking you’re having a good sob fest alone then being interrupted.
I rake my hand across my face and peer through the glass. The window’s foggy, but I can make out a woman standing there wearing a red checkered shirt tied at her belly, skin-tight black leggings, and her head is tipped to the side with curiosity.
I roll down the window with an inward groan.
“Yes?” I sniffle.
She sticks her head in the window uncomfortably close to mine, and I’m hit with a wave of her perfume.
“Honey, are you okay in there?”
“I’m fine,” I say, my voice wobbly, but she isn’t buying it. Billows of wavy blonde hair frame her oval-shaped face and she purses ruby-red lips, shaking her head. Bright blue eyes meet mine, bedecked with ridiculously long lashes, so made up my mama would tsk her and mutter about the drug store makeup queens, but in her eyes, I see what my heart longs for.
Sympathy. Understanding. And it undoes me.
“Aw, honey, you’re anything but fine,” she says sorrowfully, her voice so kind tears well in my eyes again. “Come on in, and let’s get you something to cheer you up. Name’s Daisy.”
She notes my hesitation with a frown, then reaches for my hand and squeezes. This woman has no sense of privacy or personal space, but for some weird reason, I’m okay with that, because the way I’m feeling right now, I need someone who understands that. Something tells me, this woman with the miles of blonde hair and soulful eyes gets that.
I cut the engine, take the keys out, then look back at the car. I open and close my mouth.
What do you do with a stolen car?
Daisy notes my hesitation, bites her lip, and shakes her head.
“Honey, this ain’t your car, is it?”
I cringe in silence, but it’s answer enough. She glances down to the floorboards and notes the torn silk and satin, and her wide eyes grow a bit wider. Then she nods.
“How far’d you come?”
“I’ve been driving all day,” I tell her. I have no idea how far. “I—I don’t even know where I am.”
She nods. “Then we’ll drive this car to the back and take care of it in the morning. Believe me, there won’t be any cops in the back of this place. We’re good. Give me the keys, and I’ll take care of it.”
I hand her the keys, realizing with sudden shock that I trust Daisy more than I trusted the girls bedecked in bridesmaids gowns this morning.
I find myself in short time sitting at the bar apart from everyone else, as Daisy takes her place behind it. She took me in the back door, and it’s so dim and smoky in here, no one even glances my way. I sigh with relief. If ever I needed anonymity, I need it tonight.
Daisy leaves me to myself for a bit while she pulls drinks and flirts with the guys at the bar. Her long, ruby-red fingernails flash as she takes their money and makes change, and when they’re settled for a bit, she makes her way to me.
“You hungry, honey?”
“Starving,” I tell her. I sigh and look down. “Listen, I’ve got no money with me, but I—”
She waves a hand and shakes her head. “I get it. You can pay me back by keeping me company in this male-infested hell hole.” But her grin and wink soften her words.
Minutes later, I’ve got a steaming hot basket of fries that make my mouth water, and some kinda drink that’s a pink-tinted amber. I have no idea what it is, but it’s delicious. I hungrily eat my food then down half the glass in three big gulps. It’s fruity and fiery, and I could drink it by the gallon. The first sip makes me sputter, the second makes my head grow woozy, the third makes me sigh.
“Easy, baby,” Daisy says raising a brow at me, but soon, her attention is at the other end of the bar. It feels so good to sit here, eating these steaming hot, salty fries, swigging down the ice-cold drink. Oh, if my mama could see me now. Fried food hasn’t touched my lips in years, much less piled on a paper plate served with paper napkins.
At one end of the bar, I watch a rowdy game of pool take place. Loud country music blares from overhead speakers, and there’s a couple making out at a small booth in the corner. Everyone knows Daisy, and Daisy knows everyone.
I wonder how long it took before my parents realized I was gone. Have they started looking for me? Are the cops out right now, looking for the stolen car? Will they know I’m the one who stole it, and will they press charges? Or will they make a deal with my father, and I’ll walk away without recourse?
I wouldn’t know. I’ve never broken the law before. Freya Rhett, daughter of Lucille and Reginald Rhett, does not break the law. She doesn’t even leave the house without makeup or perfectly manicured nails. She says ‘yes, ma’am,’ and ‘no, sir,’ and doesn’t talk about anything politically charged or controversial, but maintains politeness and good grace no matter what the circumstances. She has a flawless, petite, hourglass 36-24-36 figure, has had every hair on her body perfectly groomed, waxed, or lasered off, and maintains utter composure at all times.
Except, apparently, when she’s a jilted bride. I close my eyes and inhale deeply, willing the tempo of my heartbeat to steady.
It’s at that moment, amidst the noise of the music and rowdy game of pool, the clinking of glasses and laughter, I feel the skin on the back of my neck prickle. A full-body shiver slides through me and I know I’m caught. They’ve found me, and I’m going to jail. It’s a wild thought and I have no reason to think it, but I can’t shake the feeling. I try to discreetly look around me but see no one who’s looking my way. I might as well be invisible to the other patrons here. Slowly, casually, I turn on my barstool and almost dismiss the foolish notion as a figment of my imagination, when my gaze falls to the shadows behind the bar.
I draw in a breath, freezing at the sight of the man whose huge, hulking body leans across the table, a drink in one hand, the other huge hand curled menacingly in front of him. I can’t see his face cast in shadow, but the whites of his eyes gleam in the dark. His eyes are fixed on me. And those eyes are furious.
I stare back for a moment, held in the trance of his glare, before I yank my gaze away and turn back to the bar. My heartbeat thunders and my breaths come in little gasps.
Does he know who I am? Does he know what I’ve done? Is he law enforcement, come to cuff me and take me away?
I catch Daisy’s eyes and crook a finger at her.
“What is it, baby? You okay? I swear, as soon as this crowd dies down, I’m pullin’ up a chair so’s we can get to know each other a little better.”
“It’s fine,” I tell her. “Promise. I just…” I lower my voice. “I want to know who the man is behind me at that booth.”
Looking over my shoulder, she looks with curiosity and I watch as her eyes widen.
“Oh, Lord help,” she whispers. “If it ain’t Jace Mercy come back from the dead.”
I swallow. “Come again?”
“Jace Mercy,” she whispers to me, eyes cast down as she wipes down the bar and speaks in a low voice only the two of us can hear. “That boy’s trouble. He was raised just north of here at the foot of the mountains by the former town sheriff. Horrible upbringing, that boy had, raised by the most corrupt sheriff that town ever saw. Watched his daddy beat his mama til the day he was big enough to take the law into his own damn hands and hasn’t stopped since.”
A chill shivers through me.
“What do you mean?”
“They call him Vigilante. Ain’t no crime he won’t commit for the sake of justice. They say his daddy’s body lies in a shallow grave where the river bends in the hollow. But sheriff made enough enemies.” She pauses before she whispers, “Jace is a bit of a legend.”
“Oh,” I say lamely. “So, um, why is he glaring at me?”
“He ain’t,” she says, but she doesn’t meet my eyes. “You know the resting bitch face? Jace has resting glare face.”
No, she’s lying. He was glaring at me.
“He shows up here about once a month. Drives into town for supplies. Leaves cash. Then he’s gone. Reminding everyone he’s here. Lives alone and secluded, off the grid on miles of land away from everyone and everything, but if there’s justice to be served…”
She glances over my shoulder again and bites her lip.
I take another sip of the drink she gave me and ice hits my lips. “What do you mean… justice?”
How could he possibly know I stole the car? Why would he care? And if he did, why would he sit there glaring?
“Girl, I could tell you stories…”
“Tell me stories,” I whisper, surprising even myself with my bold demand. Silently, I push my empty glass to her. With a smirk, she fills it and pushes it back to me, leaning in and whispering in my ear.
“Jace Mercy’s name instills fear in the heart of every damn criminal from here to the river,” she says in a low whisper, shaking her head. “He was only a few years older’n me in school, but that don’t mean a damn thing. He took on men twice his age, because he was twice their size and meaner. The year I graduated high school, a serial rapist was on the loose. Sheriff’s head was up his ass, girls were getting assaulted. Then the weekend before graduation, the man was found with a guilty confession written out and strapped to his chest. Castrated. He bled out on a dirt road. Vigilante justice.”
Shaking her head, she lowers her voice. “Honey, I could tell you stories all night long. Things didn’t get real serious with Jace until…” Her voice trails off and she looks over my shoulder.
“What?” I whisper.
She looks over my shoulder and nods. “He’s gone.”
“What were you going to tell me?” I need to know.
Swallowing, she lowers her lashes and whispers. “Things changed when they killed his fiancée.”
The wounds from today still burn, raw and red, and my heart squeezes when I hear her say fiancée.
“The law around these parts, they can’t be trusted, so it’s come to where the citizens fend for themselves, you hear me?”
“I get it,” I say, though I know I really don’t. “What happened to her?”
“Killed,” she says, in a voice so low I can barely make out the words. “Carjacked on the way home from work, heading to Casper to pick up her wedding dress. No evidence. No one ever caught for the crime.”
“That’s terrible,” I whisper.
She sighs. “Ever since then, Jace’s been restless. Fearless.”
“He just… takes the law into his own hands?”
“Oh, you could say that,” she says.
I shiver. “That sounds brutal.”
I watch Daisy’s face sober. “It is.”
Sipping my drink, I wonder where he’s gone and if he’ll be back. I wonder why he cares two licks about me at all. I’m just a no-name rich girl in a wrecked dress, trying to get up the courage to do what she has to. I close my eyes when the memory of what happened to me today comes to me.
How can I go back? What will happen to me next? Eyes still closed, I finish my drink, welcoming the buzz that numbs the incessant chatter of my brain. It’s getting late, and I have nowhere to go. Daisy seems friendly enough, but she could be off her rocker for all I know. Where am I?
I open my eyes and gasp when the room spins around me. Placing both hands on the counter, I brace myself, but the faces in front of me swim. I open my mouth to speak to Daisy, but she’s all the way at the end of the counter.
I need to go collect myself. Find a bathroom, get some cold air, something. Maybe find a phone.
Who would I even call?
I get to my feet, wobbly and uncertain, and it takes me a full minute to right myself before I lift my head and walk away from the bar. I don’t know where I’m going, but I figure if I walk away from here there’s got to be a restroom nearby. Or something. Past the bar, I see a short hallway that leads to a door, and I reason that must be where the restroom is. Stumbling a little, I make my way toward the door, my stomach tumbling like an angry river. I swallow hard, trying to keep my composure, reach for the handle of the door, and tug. I gasp when I don’t find a bathroom in front of me but the cool night air. Still, it’s a welcome relief, so I quickly step outside. The door shuts behind me.
I’m going to be sick. Oh, God. The waves of nausea make my mouth water and I whimper.
This is a sort of back alley, with a dumpster and the stolen car behind it. Large white industrial-size plastic drums are stacked in rows six deep, and tan-colored empty bread racks are stacked beside them. Beyond the storage area and dumpster are miles and miles of trees. I stumble away from the door and run to a clump of trees just before I lose the contents of my stomach.
I wipe my mouth and fall to crouching, taking in deep, cleansing breaths of cold night air.
It’s so much colder than when I left this morning. I shiver, then freeze when I realize I’m not alone. Behind the car stand three men. Two have their backs to me, and they have an almost militaristic look to them. In front of them one man kneels, his hands tied behind his back, his mouth gagged, wearing a blindfold. I blink.
What are they doing? It looks like some sort of scene out of a thriller, the man kneeling and moaning against his gag, likely begging for his life.
My body halts in instinctive self-preservation, breath catching in my lungs with a stifled gasp. Fingers splay at my mouth, freezing my scream before it starts.
I shouldn’t be here. If they see me…
I have to get away.
I look wildly around me, trying to find a means to escape, but if I move too quickly, I could catch their attention. I crawl on hands and knees back toward the bar until I get to the door I came out of. Heart racing, I flatten my back against the building and carefully scoot to where the stacks of bread racks climb to the sky. I try to make myself as small as I can, tucking my arms and legs into myself, but I’m worried it’s already too late.
The crunch of gravel makes my heart skip a beat, heavy boots several yards in front of me head towards where the men stand.
“Picked one hell of a place to demand his confession,” an oily voice snarls. I can see his mud-caked boots from where I crouch, circling the man on the ground. “Any minute, someone could come on out here and see what we’re doing.” To my surprise, he laughs, mirthless and cold, the sound making my skin prickle with apprehension. “But you boys don’t give a shit, do you?”
The others mumble a response, but I can’t make out what they’re saying, their words drowned out by the pounding of blood in my ears. I need to get away so badly I’m shaking. The man’s frantic mumbling behind the gag increases in pitch to near pleading, like a wounded, muzzled animal. I peer around from where I am and try to see who they are. Every one of the men wears a black checked shirt, black leather boots, and black bandanas wrapped around their necks, like they’re some sort of uniformed crew. I reason they’re a gang of sorts, though the one pacing wears a red bandana on his neck. He’s gangly and lithe, like a starved wildcat but I can’t see his face under the wide-brimmed hat. I cover my mouth with my hand when he draws a thick knife from his belt, his fingers tightening on the handle.
I can’t watch. If I see what he’s about to do…
With a growl in the man’s ear, he grabs him by the hair, yanks his head back, and lifts his hand to strike. I close my eyes, unable to watch. If the man wasn’t gagged, he’d scream. Instead, there’s a garbled, liquidy, horrifying sound, then a sickening thump as his body hits the ground.
“Clean ‘em up,” the man with the knife says, giving the flailing body a savage kick of his boot. Crimson stains the ground. My hand trembles on my mouth, bile rising in my throat again.
Oh my God. I just saw a man murdered.
I saw who did it.
Please go away. Please go away. I need this nightmare to stop.
The men spring into action, barking orders and dragging the body through the gravel. They’re coming closer to me, heavy boots on gravel once more, the ominous sound drawing closer and closer. I look wildly about me for a means of escape, but there’s none. I’m trapped.
“Why looky here,” someone says. “Boss, I think we’ve got ourselves a spy.”
I do the only thing I can think of and apparently the only thing I’m good at.
Gunshots ring, deafening, drowning out my frantic screams as I race toward the thick cluster of trees. I swerve and dodge tree branches coming at me. I’m thankful I run six days a week at the gym. The trophies in my parents’ living room bear testament to the fact that not only can I run but I’m damn good at it. Only problem is, I’m not on a track with running shoes but in a torn wedding dress wearing useless sandals. I somehow block out the pain that shoots through my tender feet with the roughness of tree branches and roots underfoot. I’m running for my damn life.
I don’t know where I’m going or how I’ll get away, but the only option is to run deeper into the forest, for I’m surrounded on all sides and can’t make it back into the bar. I stumble on a tree root and right myself quickly, but I can’t run very well in these damn shoes and dress. There are at least three of them pursuing me like hounds on a trail. I swerve, looking for any kind of hideaway, take a sudden right, when my toe catches something. I careen into the woods, fly head first into an unyielding tree trunk, and my world blacks out.