FLOWER IN THE DESERT (STANDALONE NOVELLA)

Prologue

The heat was excruciating, enclosing around her and smothering her like a thick blanket. Sweat was dripping into her eyes but she couldn’t lift a hand to wipe them. She felt paralyzed, the heat holding her in its tight embrace. Her breathing was shallow, each breath harder to take than the last. But she knew she had to move. She put pressure on her heel, slowly rotating her body on the hard, unyielding surface beneath her. It was dark, but a few lines of light shot in through the seams of the small area where she was being held. Where was she?

She focused all of her energy on moving in her hand, dragging it centimeter by centimeter along the rough material of the floor, trying to find the edge of the space she was confined in. She knew it was small, although she couldn’t see very far in front of her face. It was claustrophobic in feel, and sure enough, her fingertips found the plastic edge, mere inches away, after what seemed like an eternity. She raised her hand, trailing it along the hard metal. She felt it curve over her, the ceiling less than a foot above her head.

She was in the trunk of a car, she realized. And she had to get out immediately, or it would become her casket.

Chapter One

Jason ‘Jase’ Rivers heard his phone ringing through the haze of sleep but he chose to ignore it. He knew who it was. Only one person would be inconsiderate enough to call so early in the damn morning. Of course, that someone usually had a pretty good reason for calling. Jase rolled over in bed with a groan, the white sheet tangling around his midsection. He scrubbed his hands over his face, rough with the early growth of a beard. He stared up at the ceiling of his trailer as the phone continued ringing in his ear. Outside, the hot sun was already blazing. The trailer was like an oven, but Jase was used to the Arizona heat. It didn’t faze him much. Not much did.

The ringing abruptly ended. Before he could breathe a sigh of relief, though, it was ringing again, loudly and insistently in his ear.

Yeah, what?” Jase snapped up the phone and answered in his usual gruff manner.

Got a case for you,” Agent Sam Collins replied, his voice tinny and muffled across the line. “So get up, get some coffee, and get your ass down here.”

Who says I’m interested?”

I say,” Sam said. “We got limited time here. You in or out?” Jase sat up in bed, his interest admittedly piqued.

In.”

Okay then. We got a woman missing in the Grand Canyon. Been missing for forty-eight hours.”

You sure?”

Estranged husband reported her missing last night.”

How the hell does he know she was in the canyon?” Jase swung his legs over the end of the bed, shoving a hand through his unruly hair. Sam was right. He was definitely interested.

He claims they were on a picnic, they got into a fight and she marches off into the canyon, never to be seen again.”

Bullshit.” Jase stood and stretched.

Exactly our opinion. Husband met her the night before last, according to her father. Then takes her all the way to Arizona for a picnic.”

Hence the feds.”

Yup.”

And you know how much I love working with you feds.”

You’ll be given as much latitude as you need.”

Good, ’cause I don’t need a group of bumbling babysitters on my ass while I work.” Jase lifted his laptop screen and typed in his password. In seconds, the details of the case were in front of him. He scrolled through, his eyes scanning the information. Missing: Ruby Rose Lucas. African-American. 33 years-old. The picture of her, included in the file, was taking its time downloading, thanks to the shitty internet speed in his preferred locationout in the middle of nowhere.

You looking at the file?”

Yeah.” Jase drummed his fingers on the formica counter. “So where was she last seen?”

Husband’s not quite sure where they had their little tete a tete. He thinks he entered through the North entrance.”

Shit.” Jase ran his hand through his beard again. “How do you know she’s even in the canyon?”

Come again?”

“Why wouldn’t he just take her out to Sloan Canyon or Meade?” Jase wondered aloud. “If he killed her, why wouldn’t he dump her in Nevada? Seems like he’s sending you on a fucking wild goose chase.”

“That is the question,” Sam said, his voice muffled like he was moving. Finally, the picture downloaded and Jase let out a low breath. The woman in the picture was smiling bright, red lipstick on her lips, a mass of unruly dark curls around her face. Her brown eyes were mischievous but friendly as she smiled for the camera. She wore a form-fitted, strapless blue dress, her breasts full and practically spilling out of the top.

Ruby Lucas, you look like trouble,” he murmured to himself.

“Bingo,” Sam said, breaking through his reverie.

“What?”

“Her father just emailed a photo. The prick proposed to her at the Grand Canyon. Looks like around the Royal Arch. I’m sending it to you now.”

“Sick fucking bastard,” Jase said. So it was some kind of twisted reward for the asshole, killing her at a place that meant so much to her. Jase knew she was dead, then and there. He knew without a doubt her husband had murdered her and dumped her in the vast, unforgiving canyon. “You know we’re bringing back a body, right?” Jase asked. “No way in hell she’s alive.”

“Every second we spend yapping is another second we’re wasting,” Sam said. “She’s got two kids, Jase. Seven and two. She’s all they have.”

Shit. Sam knew he couldn’t refuse that, soft-hearted as he was. He had a Superman complex a mile-wide, according to his sister, and the thought of two kids without a mother was more than he could bear. Jase clenched his jaw and stood, looking around for his pants. A young, beautiful, most-likely-dead mother of two. Just his fucking luck.

“We’ll bring her home then,” Jase said matter-of-factly as he grabbed a clean linen button-up out of the closet.

“That’s the spirit. I’ll let the feds on the ground know you’re on the way,” Sam said, sounding almost cheerful. Jase ended the call and tossed the phone onto the counter beside the laptop. He knew he would do his damnedest to find the woman. It was in his bones. He was a tracker, like his grandfather and great-grandfather before him. When he started to track, he wouldn’t let up until he’d found who he was out there for, whether it took days, weeks, months or years. His longest case had ended with him finding the sun-bleached skull of a college student who went missing in the canyon for two years. He didn’t want to think about lively, colorful Ruby Lucas like thata pile of bones, picked clean by scavenger animals. But he was nothing if not realistic.

The woman had already been out in the in the high heat for over a day. If she was hurt or injured, her chances of making it out alive were even slimmer. If her scumbag husband had in fact killed her and dumped her, then she’d already be bloated in the summer sun. There was no way around itthe chances for a happy ending were getting slimmer by the minute. He finished dressing quickly, grabbed a protein shake from the mini-fridge in his tiny kitchen, packed his hiking gear, and stomped out of the trailer. He threw on his military jacket and shoved on his sunglasses to combat the blinding sun.

He swung his leg across his motorcycle and the bike roared to life. He made a pledge to himself, then and there. He would find Ruby Lucas, or die trying. He would do right by her kids and her family. He would respect the power of nature and look to the land for answers, like his ancestors before him. He would not falter. Wherever she was, he would find her. Well, he thought darkly as he sped off down the dusty road, he’d find whatever was left of her.

***

Ruby Lucas could remember kissing her babies on their little foreheads before she left her father’s house. She could remember getting into her car and driving to meet Arnell. She could remember singing along to Whitney Houston’s I Wanna Dance With Somebody at the top of her lungs as she drove through the dark desolate desert. She remembered the uneasy feeling she tried to suppress about meeting her estranged husband for a date night. But she couldn’t remember much else. She couldn’t remember where she was. She couldn’t remember how she got in the smothering-hot trunk of a car.

The heat was slowly extinguishing her ability to think. Her brain felt like mush. Her muscles felt like they had melted. She was covered in sweat, and she wondered how much liquid she had left in her body. Her mouth was dry as a bone and her lips were cracked. Ruby was a fighter, though. She wasn’t going to stop trying to find a way out of the trunk. Until she took her last breath, she was going to fight.

She pushed herself to the edge of the trunk, so that her body was almost flush to the curves of the plastic casement. Thinking was becoming increasingly impossible, but she kept at it, trying to figure a way out of her predicament. Her fingers skirted along the smooth plastic, finding an edge. Luckily she had fingernails long enough to grip. She yanked at the panel until it came mercifully free. She found the wires that ran along the floor and followed them. She started yanking at them, putting as much strength into it as she could.

Nothing happened.

She yanked again, trying harder. She ran her fingers across the wires, trying to figure out which one was from the trunk release. There was a lever beside her seat, and she knew the wire would have to run along the frame of the car and end up in the trunk. It was just a question of which one it was. Unfortunately, she didn’t really have time to figure it out. She pulled hard and felt a wire give.

Nothing happened.

Fucking… bullshit,” she mumbled, her mouth feeling like it was stuffed full of cotton. She lifted her knee, so slowly it seemed to take hours, and pressed it against the casement, trying to get leverage. She leaned back, pulling on the bundle of wires with all of the strength she had left. She felt them pop free, one by one, and she could have cried, she was so relieved. She felt her muscles sag and her head dropped back as she tried to drag air into her lungs.

Nothing happened.

Ruby felt her breaths coming quicker and quicker. She tried not to think about death, but it was looming. It began to dawn on her that she was going to die before she found her way out. She tried to calm down, but the fear was too much. She was hyperventilating, she realized, and it was becoming impossible to breathe in the enclosed space of the trunk. Ruby felt hot tears stinging in her eyes as her children’s faces flashed before her. She thought of Elle’s big hazel eyes staring up at her from her crib. She thought of Brandon’s crooked smile as he laughed. The memories fueled her. She wasn’t going to give up, dammit.

She couldn’t.

She rolled onto her back and tried to lift her leg to kick the hood of the trunk. She gritted her teeth and put all of her remaining energy behind swinging her leg. She got in one weak kick before collapsing, her chest still heaving but no air coming in. Her fingers clawed at the rough fabric beneath her as her eyes bulged. She was suffocating, she knew. She didn’t feel fear, exactly. Just anger. Blind anger.

It wasn’t fair she wouldn’t get to see her kids grow up. It wasn’t fair she wouldn’t be there when Brandon hit his first goal in soccer. It wasn’t fair she wouldn’t get to see Elle in her prom dress. Ruby blinked and felt a tear roll down her cheek to her ear as she thought about them becoming adults without her.

Then metal above her creaked and whooshed and light flooded the trunk, blinding her for several long moments. She felt the air fill her lungs, so violently it almost hurt. She gasped, choking and coughing as she breathed in as much as she could. When she could finally see and move again, she pulled herself up to sitting, her muscles rejuvenated by oxygen flowing through her. The fog around her brain cleared more slowly, and for several long minutes, all she could do was sit there, her eyes slowly adjusting to the scorching sun.

Chapter Two

Help!” Ruby screamed, the cry ripping at her throat and waking her up for good. It felt great to scream. All of her panic and terror flowed out of her in a steady stream as her voice reverberated off the walls of orange rock around her. Although no one answered her cry, she felt alive and awake, although dazed. As she got her wits around her, she lifted a hand to shield her eyes as she got a good look around. She was in a ravine, she realized, and she knew immediately she was in the Grand Canyon. She’d been camping in the canyon many times as a child, and had been on numerous hikes there as an adult. She was an outdoorsy kind of girl, but she had no illusions about the danger she was still in. She’d escaped the heat of the trunk, but she wasn’t in the clear. Not by a long shot.

The important thing was she was alive.

The trick was going to be to stay that way until someone rescued her.

As she gingerly climbed out of the trunk and put her feet on solid ground, she could only hope that someone was looking for her. In fact, she prayed for it. She had no food, no water, and nothing to protect her from the elements but the tank top, leather huarache sandals, and gauzy linen skirt she’d worn to meet Arnell.

Basically, she was royally fucked.

But first things first.

Ruby leaned against the side of the car, waiting until the nausea that swept over her had run its course. The rush of oxygen to her brain made her feel dizzy and loopy, almost like she was high. The harsh sun beating down on her wasn’t helping at all. She knew she had to find water and shade immediately. She didn’t really have much time to waste. Gripping the car for stability, she made her way around the side to the driver’s side door. She reached for the handle and yanked. It didn’t budge. She was locked out of her own car, stuck in the middle of nowhere.

Ruby suppressed another scream and dropped her forehead to the hot glass of the car window. She closed her eyes and told herself to focus on the task at hand. She needed to get inside the car. She could see her purse overturned on the passenger seat, and she wondered if her car keys were in there as well. When she spied a half-empty water bottle in the front cup holder, she knew she had to get inside. She needed that water for survival. Moving slow as molasses in the oppressive heat, she checked all four doors and found them locked. Cupping her hands around her face, she scoured the front passenger window for anything else that might be of use to her. Luckily, with two kids, her car was often a mess. She saw an umbrella and a sweater in the backseat, as well as a ziplock bag of dry cereal she kept in the car for her toddler Elle.

Her mouth watering and her stomach rumbling, she knew she had to find a way in. Her first thought was to break a window, so she looked around for a rock big enough to do real damage. She had no qualms with destroying her car. In fact, it wasn’t even really her car. It was her husband’s car. Arnell was the one who insisted she get the black BMW, when what she really wanted was a neon-green Prius. He wanted his wife driving around in an expensive car so that the neighbors would see how well-off they were and how much money he made. He always cared most about keeping up appearances, Ruby thought. She wondered if he and his new girlfriend had even noticed she was gone yet? The mother of his children was missing and he was probably be dancing in the streets with joy instead of looking for her.

With a slow breath, she shook Arnell out of her mind. She was angry at him, but she had to focus at the task at hand. Bending slowly, she tried to lift a big rock. It was too heavy for her fatigued muscles, and she gave up on it and tried a smaller rock with more jagged edges. She carried it to the car and lifted it, focusing on her reflection in the window. Imagining Arnell’s face instead of her own, she swung her arm back and brought the rock down hard on the glass. Arnell was the reason she was in this mess, she was sure. The last thing she remembered was driving to meet him. What had happened in the interim, she wasn’t sure. She hated her soon-to-be-ex-husband, but she didn’t think he was capable of trying to…

The window cracked and shook, and Ruby tried again. She lifted the rock and brought it down harder. A shock of pain ran through her arm and she could feel the soft skin of her palm split open. The rock was sharper than she’d thought, but she didn’t stop. She brought it down again and again, until the window exploded into a million little shiny pebbles of glass that sparkled as they flew through the air. For the second time that morning, she felt like her life had just been saved. She yanked open the car door and dove for the water bottle.

The water was hot as it flowed down her parched throat, but she didn’t care. It was the best thing she’d ever tasted. She told herself she had to ration her water, but she still drank too much. When she was finished, there was only a few swallows left in the bottom of the bottle. Mentally, she kicked herself but what was done was done. Like being stuck in the middle of the deserted and arid canyon, she could only make the best of the situation. Remembering the cut on her palm, she set the bottle on the roof of the car and held up her hand to examine it. It was a ragged cut along her lifeline, beaded with blood.

Not a good sign,” she said to herself, sardonically, then looked around for something to bandage it with. The blood wasn’t spurting, but it was flowing, and she knew she couldn’t afford to lose a lot. She opened the back door and found one of her daughter’s clean diapers, tucked into the pocket behind the passenger seat and pressed it to the cut. She slumped beside Elle’s car seat, exhausted and weak with hunger. The air inside and out was still and stifling and Ruby, having grown up in the desert, knew instinctively the temperature was well over a hundred degrees. The high heat of the day was upon her and she knew there was nothing she could do but wait it out. When the sun went down, temperatures would drop rapidly, but at least then she would have the car to shelter her.

She hadn’t completely given up hope that she would somehow be on her way home before nightfall, though. After a moment, she forced herself to slide out of the car to look around for her keys. Her big Celine purse, a gift from Arnell two Christmases ago, had been dumped out on the front seat, most likely by whomever had locked her in her trunk. Ruby shifted through the contents, unearthing them from under the glass of the window like an archeologist digging up T-rex bones. She knew she was moving at a glacial pace, but she couldn’t force herself to move any faster. Her adrenaline was gone and it had taken her strength along with it.

Ruby found chewing gum, mints, and a granola bar in the mess on the front seat, but no car keys and no phone. She continued searching the car, looking in every nook and cranny for food or water. She found a sandwich baggie of dry cereal, a half-empty bottle of orange juice, and an apple under the seat. Never before had she been so happy she kept her car a mess. Her kids threw their shit everywhere and for once, it’d come in handy. She felt tears prickle in her eyes as she bit into the apple. The sweet juiciness tasted like heaven on her dry tongue. Her stomach clenched in response, wanting more. But she was smart this time. She only ate half of the apple and rationed the rest.

Drenched with sweat, Ruby knew she had to get out of the car. It was too hot. She swept her hand across her forehead and looked around her surroundings. She was on the floor of the canyon. Everything around her was parched and dusty. There were very few plants or signs of life. The sun bore down on her and she knew she had to find shade, sooner rather than later. But she also knew from years of camping that, if lost in the wilderness, the smartest thing she could do was to stay put. She mentally thanked her father for taking her camping every summer, although her family’s brand of camping often involved a fancy RV instead of tents and sleeping bags. She knew enough to know her situation was bad, but she didn’t let herself dwell on it. She knew it could be a lot worse.

She knew she could have just as easily died in the trunk.

But as it was, she was alive and as far as Ruby was concerned, she was going to stay that way. She found and opened the umbrella she kept in the glove compartment to shield herself from the sun and plopped down in the dirt beside the car. Drawing her knees up to her chest, she did the only thing she could dowait for someone to come to her rescue.

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