Thirty-One and a Half Regrets Page 81

“And I’m scared for you if I don’t.” He pressed a kiss to my cold lips. “Let’s get moving. Once this whole Crocker mess is taken care of, we’ll find out exactly what J.R. Simmons has and figure out how to refute it.” I started to protest, but he put a finger on my lips. “We’ll do it so quietly that he won’t know what hit him until it blows up in his face.”

It was no use to argue and I relished the thought of being free of the threat.

“But no more secrets. Tell me if you’re in trouble. Your safety will always supersede my anger. Okay?”

“Okay.”

We trudged along for what seemed like an eternity. My legs chafed from the wet jeans clinging to my thighs and my toes were still numb and throbbing, but I felt warmer moving and my sleepiness had faded. “How far do you think we’ve gone?” I finally asked, desperate for the end to be in sight.

Mason paused, picking his way around a pile of rocks. “It’s hard to say since walking in the woods isn’t like walking down the street. It takes longer to get around the obstacles—”

“How far, Mason?”

“Maybe two miles. Heading east first took some time and distance.”

My heart sank. “And you think it’s ten miles to the border? And then how far until we find a house?”

He slowed and took my hand in his. “I don’t know. If I remember the terrain correctly, the forest is dense along the border.”

I was tired and freezing, but stopping wasn’t an option and complaining wouldn’t do any good. “Okay.”

“I’m hoping we’ll find something before too long,” Mason said, scanning the trees in front of us. “If we can’t find a home with a phone, maybe we can find an outbuilding where we can warm up.”

“I’d rather just keep going.” I didn’t want to sit around and wait for Crocker to find us.

“You can’t feel your feet and neither can I. It would be smarter to stop.”

“Well, we’ll have to find someplace first and we’ll never do it standing here. Let’s go.”

The snow had started and stopped in fits. But it was heavier now and the sky was beginning to darken. Mason picked up the pace. “With the sky this overcast, we’ll be stumbling around in the dark on uneven terrain before we know it. With this terrain, that could be dangerous.”

We had been staying on high ground to lose Crocker in case he picked up our tracks, but we began to descend, hoping to find some sign of civilization. We finally reached a valley with overgrown fields. The snow had begun to accumulate and about an inch covered the ground. There were several clustered buildings in the distance. Hope soared in my heart. A farm. But it soon became apparent that the place was deserted.

As we approached the dilapidated-looking house, Mason lifted his rifle but kept the tip pointing downward. “Rose, walk behind me.”

His change in stance turned my blood from cold to icy, and I did as he requested. “Do you expect any trouble?”

“No, but we’re in the hollows of southern Arkansas and this place might be remote for a reason. It’s better to be safe.”

One thing was certain, the house had seen better days. The wood porch was rotten and several windows were broken.

When we were within twenty feet of the house, Mason stopped. “Hello!” His voice echoed in the valley. “Anyone here? We need help.”

“Do you really think there could be people inside?” I asked in a low voice. The barn behind the house looked to be in worse shape.

“Who knows? It’s remote and deserted. Squatters could live here without running the risk of getting caught.”

“But the house looks like it’s about to fall in on itself. Wouldn’t they fix it up?”

“I guess that depends on how long they planned on staying.”

The wind swirled the snow on the ground and I shivered.

He called out again. “Hello! Is anyone home? We’re lost in the woods and we need to call someone for help.”

No one answered.

Mason climbed the four steps to the porch, stepping over one loose board and around a hole. He knocked on the screen door, which was hanging from one rusty hinge. When no one answered he opened it and turned the doorknob on the front door. It gave without him needing to apply extra force and he stepped halfway through the doorway, calling out to possible residents.

I stood at the bottom of the steps as he disappeared inside. Moments later, I heard a high-pitched cry. “Mason!” I shouted.

He appeared in the doorway. “It’s okay. I disturbed a cat. I think the only squatters are a few stray animals.”

I made my way onto the porch and through the front door, letting my eyes adjust to the dark room. The house was empty except for a kitchen chair with broken spindles and a couple of cross-stitched pictures on the walls—There ain’t no lovin’ like country lovin’ and Possum—America’s dark meat. After I read them, I understood why they had been left behind. We wandered to the back of the house. The kitchen was ransacked—half the cabinets were missing and the doors of the remaining ones were hanging open. Most of the light fixtures were gone.

“What happened here?”

“Probably a foreclosure. The owners realize they’re losing everything so they take anything they think they can sell.”

I couldn’t imagine being that desperate.

“Let’s check the rest of the house.”

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