Stormy Weather Baby

An SSI Novella

Monette Michaels

 

Chapter 1

June 15th, 8:30 a.m., Sanctuary.

Keely Walsh-Maddox entered the kitchen at the main lodge. Gathered around the table in the breakfast nook were Quinn Jones and his wife Lacey and Scotty, the SSI cook and a second father to Keely. The three looked up and smiled.

“Hey, princess,” Scotty called out. “How’re you feeling today? I made your favorite egg dish. It’s in the warmer. Your orange juice is here on the table.”

“Thanks, Scotty. And as to how I feel? Stir crazy.” She walked to the warming drawer and pulled out a plate containing a goat cheese, spinach, and mushroom frittata.

“You were just out yesterday.” Quinn pointed his toast at her for emphasis. “You can’t be stir crazy.”

Thus speaks another overprotective male.

“Quinn, shut up.” Lacey tapped a finger on her husband’s mouth and then lovingly wiped away a crumb that had caught on the corner of his lips. “I told you Ren is smothering her. He’s operating under the misconception that pregnant women are invalids.”

“Ain’t that the truth.” Keely sighed, put her food on the table, then slid onto the bench seat built into the breakfast nook. “I feel like one of those frou-frou, yappy, little dogs. You know the ones. Their owners take them to the doggy beauty parlor and carry them around in a special doggy purse. All I need is a collar and a leash. It’s like Ren thinks I’ll hurt myself if I walk across the floor.” She waved a forkful of egg and cheese around. “Do you know what he told me this morning before he left to go to the ranger station outside of Coeur d’Alene?”

Lacey smiled. “No, what?”

“To stay in bed!” The three laughed. “It’s not funny. He wanted me to rest after the arduous journey to the obstetrician’s office yesterday.” Keely slapped the table with her free hand, rattling the silverware. “The most stressful thing I did yesterday was stand up and sit down. He barely let me walk on my own—Arrgh! The man is driving me frick-fracking nuts!”

“He wants to protect you,” Quinn said. “I felt the same way when Lacey was pregnant. Of course, my lovely wife,” he turned and placed a kiss on Lacey’s cheek, “soon showed me the error of my ways.”

“And he kept on protecting me anyway.” Lacey’s tone was teasing and affectionate. “My advice is to do what you need to do until you can’t do it anymore.”

“Exactly!” Keely smiled at the other woman before shoveling some eggs into her mouth.

“What did the doctor say, Keely?” Scotty asked. “Did she tell you and Ren something that set him off again?”

“Again? Scotty, the man has never stopped since he learned I was pregnant.”

That had been back in November. The actual “deed” had been done in late October after Ren had returned from South America via Boston. Once Ren had gotten over his fears about her small size, they’d made love night and day. A few missed birth control pills and an extremely virile man, and voila, one pregnant Keely.

Scotty chuckled. “I stand corrected. But what did the doctor tell you? I haven’t had my report yet.” He winked at her.

Keely giggled. “The doctor said she’d see me next week for the regular checkup. That I was still on schedule for the C-section in three weeks, which is still one week shy of my due date. And that Riley is head down and everything looks good.” Keely ran her fingers through her mass of red-blonde curls. “Ren heard every single blessed word the doctor said and then completely disregarded them.”

Ren had also refused to make love to her last night and this morning, even though the doctor had said love-making was fine as long as Keely was comfortable and the act wasn’t too vigorous. Hell, she didn’t blame Ren. What man wanted to make love to a waddling cream puff?

“Ah, yes, the selective listening capabilities of the alpha-male,” Lacey said. “I know them well.” She patted Keely on the shoulder. “What do you want to do today? The men are all gone…”

“Hey, two males present here!” Quinn protested.

“Sorry, my love. I meant the three primary males who have made it their duty to keep Keely penned up at Sanctuary—her hubby, her brother, and her hubby’s brother—are gone.”

“Well…” The phone rang before Keely could reply. Being closest, she picked it up. “Sanctuary, Main Lodge. Keely Maddox speaking.”

“Oh, Keely. Um, this is Fiona Teague, Price’s sister. Is he there, please?”

“Oh, Fiona, I’m sorry. He isn’t here. In fact, he’s in your neck of the woods. The U.P. in Michigan. Hasn’t he called you?”

“No. Well, this is a hell of a mess.” The woman sighed loudly. And was that a sob?

Keely had never met Fiona, who was Price’s youngest sister and an emergency room doctor in Detroit, but it was obvious the woman was upset. Keely put the call on the speaker so the others could listen in. Something was wrong and she might need Scotty’s and Quinn’s advice on how to handle it.

Price was part of the SSI family; that made Fiona family too. Family helped family.

“What’s a mess? Are you in trouble?” At her mention of “trouble,” the other three stopped their quiet conversation and listened intently. “Call Price on his cell. He can be in Detroit in a matter of hours.”

Fiona choked out a hesitant laugh. “That’s the problem. I flew to Idaho for a surprise visit. I’m in Grangeville at a diner called Ma’s. The Greyhound bus from Boise dropped me off here. I was hoping Price would come pick me up since there isn’t a taxi service to Sanctuary or a rental car agency.”

“I’ll come get you,” Keely offered, waving off the beginnings of protests from the two men seated at the table. “It’ll take me about fifty minutes to an hour to get there. So, sit and enjoy some of Ma’s good food.”

“Oh, Keely … that’s … that’s too much trouble. Price told me you were pregnant and…”

“I’m pregnant,” Keely snarled. “Not disabled. I’ll pick you up. Just hang tight.”

“O-o-okay. See you soon.” The call ended from Fiona’s end.

Keely put the phone back in its charger and turned a smiling face to the others. “Well, that’s just what I needed—a good excuse to get out of the house and off Sanctuary. What?” Scotty and Quinn glowered at her while Lacey hid her smile behind a hand.

“You can’t pick up Fiona. Ren will kill me,” Quinn said bluntly. “He told me to keep you safe.”

“From what? It’s just a two-hour round trip to Ma’s and back. It’s not like I’m hopping in the Hummer for the six-hour drive to Boise and the mall or something. And if you mean potential danger from the Department of Defense traitor? Well, he hasn’t sent anyone after me since March. I can’t live my life worrying whether or not someone might be coming after me someday in the future. I refuse to live my life in fear.” She reached across the table, grabbed Quinn’s hand, and squeezed. “If I thought there was real danger out there, I wouldn’t leave. I would never expose my unborn child to danger.”

Quinn frowned. “Jesus, Keely, I know that, but…”

“There’s no but about it. I’m picking up Fiona.” Keely wanted to scream in the face of Quinn’s continued stubbornness, but knew it wouldn’t faze him. Rational arguments with lots of back up from Lacey would. “Lacey? Am I asking too much here? I’m an adult. I’m not sick or disabled or mentally defective.”

“Nope, you’re exactly right. You are none of those things. I think you should go if you feel like it. Eight months pregnant is far enough away from your due date to still live your life as you wish,” Lacey said. “But Quinn is correct on one point. Ren will ream him a new asshole if he finds out you’ve left the premises.”

“Call and tell him after I’ve gone,” Keely said. “That way you’ll have done your duty in reporting my break for freedom and Ren can be mad at me. See? Easy solution.” She turned to Scotty. “Fix me a Pepsi to go, please? I need to get my snow gear. The wind is from the north and really cold. The predicted weather front should hit just about the time Fiona and I are heading home.”

The Weather Channel had talked about a late spring-early summer snowstorm for this part of the Bitterroots. Mother Nature’s one last joke before milder weather set in for the summer. She wasn’t worried. The Hummer could handle the roughest weather, as could she.

“Are you sure about this, princess?” Scotty asked.

“Abso-fricking-lutely. This is just what I needed. A road trip—alone. I love my husband, but he needs to understand that I need my space from time to time.”

* * * *

One hour later, Grangeville, Idaho.

After an uneventful drive to Grangeville, Keely entered Ma’s Bar and Grill and looked around. She nodded to the owner, a large, burly, bald guy named Nick. “Ma” was his mother and she told anyone who’d listen that she’d earned her retirement. Of course, she came in every day to watch over Nick to make sure he didn’t let her high standards down.

Ma waved at her from the pass-through to the kitchen. Keely waved back.

As usual the place was packed even with the threat of snow. Late spring into early summer in northern Idaho was not for the faint of heart. This year especially had been one for the record books as winter did not want to give up its hold on the Bitterroots. But not even the threat of thunder-snow, sleet, hail, and gusty winds stopped an Idahoan from going where he wanted.

She paused once she moved farther into the room and away from the door and rubbed a hand over her stomach where her son, Riley, was doing jumping jacks in her womb. God, she could hardly wait to hold her baby in her arms instead of on her bladder. She would also like to see her feet again.

Keely walked the perimeter of the small eatery, nodding at patrons. She recognized most of the people eating Ma’s delicious home cooking. Not much of a surprise since there weren’t many residents in this part of Idaho and very few places to eat and socialize.

When she’d almost finished one full circuit of the restaurant, Keely spotted the only female who looked out of place. The curly-haired redhead sat in a corner booth and was not dressed for the inclement weather. Fiona Teague was so short the booth in which she sat almost swamped her. She looked as if she was barely sixteen years old and a strong wind would knock her on her butt. Her hair was secured into a high, messy ponytail and added to the look of youth. Her striking blue-green eyes were almost too large for her face, with long lashes matching her hair. Her skin was pale—and bruised.

Some son of a bitch had hit her—and recently. Keely’s intuition during their earlier phone conversation that something was wrong in Fiona’s life had been proven correct.

Keely rushed to the booth. “Fiona?”

“Keely? God, you’re almost as short as me. From the stories Price has told me about you, I expected an Amazon.” Fiona frowned and her gaze strayed to the obvious baby bump under Keely’s Navajo-woven, wool coat. “How far along are you? Price never gave me details, just said you were pregnant.” The woman’s trained medical eye assessed Keely from top to bottom.

“I have about another month, but I’m scheduled for a C-section in three weeks.”

“Really?” Fiona scowled. “You look full term. Your baby has obviously dropped … uh, sorry, professional habit. You might just carry low, some women do. I’m sure your OB knows what he or she is doing.” She slid over and made room in the booth. “Here, get off your feet. You look as if you could use a warm drink. This weather is nuts.” Price’s sister shivered visibly, dressed only in a light-weight, denim jacket, T-shirt, and jeans.

Keely slid into the booth, drew off the scarf around her neck, and then unbuttoned her much more practical winter-weight coat. She rubbed a hand over her belly, soothing the baby who had switched from calisthenics to playing drums on her spinal cord.

Not much longer, Riley, and mommy will play with those little kicking feet and hands.

“I could use a cup of tea.” Keely signaled Nick who nodded.

The owner knew what she liked well enough. She and Ren drove through Grangeville on the way to and from the OB visits in Coeur d’Alene. Ma’s was always a stopping place on one side or the other of the now weekly visits. For a period in the middle of her pregnancy, Keely had craved Ma’s meat loaf. Ren had made the one-hundred-mile round trip several times a week just to get it for her.

Fiona picked up Keely’s wrist and took her pulse. Several seconds passed before Fiona spoke. “Too rapid. You’re grimacing from time to time. What’s going on, Keely? Why did the men let you pick me up when you look as if you’ll pop within the next ten minutes?”

Keely didn’t know whether to laugh or be insulted by Fiona’s forthrightness and take-control attitude. For someone who looked like a pixie in a Disney movie, the woman was assertive. But then she was an emergency room physician and the attitude probably went with the territory. “Fiona…”

“Call me Fee, please. Only my mother calls me Fiona, usually when she’s bitching about my career choice and her lack of grandchildren.” She sighed. “Sorry, I guess I can come across kind of strong. But Price told me how protective your husband and the other men are.”

“Yeah, they’ve been somewhat vigilant.” Keely snickered. “Ren just looks at me and gets this expression of horror on his face. It’s as if he’s thinking ‘My God, what have I done?’” She shook her head. “Even with the doctor—and my mother who’s my size and had six kids including a set of twins, all vaginally—telling Ren I’ll be fine, he still has nightmares. Plus, for a while, we were dealing with mercenaries sent to kill me; that situation didn’t help his mental health either.”

“Jesus … and I thought I had problems.” Fee frowned and looked around the crowded restaurant. She leaned closer to Keely and spoke in a lower tone of voice. “Is it safe for you to be here? Do you know all these people?”

“It’s safe. I wouldn’t endanger my baby. Besides, you’re the only stranger here. I also have a sixth sense about trouble. My spidey senses are all good at the moment.” She smiled at Nick as he delivered her usual snack. “Hey, Nick, thanks for the tea and blueberry scone.”

“Anything for you, Keely. When you’re ready to throw that asshole Maddox over, you just let me know.” The gentle giant smiled and gave her a naughty wink.

“You’re so sweet, but I think I’ll keep the asshole for a while longer.” Keely fluttered her lashes. “I’m just getting him broken in.”

Nick barked out a laugh and lumbered toward his counter, greeting regulars as he made his way.

“Everyone seems really friendly.” Fee heaved a sad-sounding sigh as she glanced around the noise-filled room.

“Idahoans for the most part are very friendly.” Keely blew on her steaming green tea and then took a cautious sip. Her gaze never left Fee’s very expressive and bruised face. She wondered where else the doctor was bruised—or worse. “I’ll apologize in advance for being nosy, but since you’re Price’s sister that makes you one of the family. So … who beat on you? And why hasn’t Price frick-fracking killed the bastard yet?”

*

“I, uh … I can’t … talk about … just can’t.” Fee shook her head, hating the tell-tale quiver in her voice. Control, Fee. Control. She gripped the glass of watered-down cola until her knuckles turned white, fighting to hold back the tears she’d refused to let fall ever since she’d given notice at her job in Detroit. She refused to revisit the memories of what had driven her to Sanctuary. If she did, she’d start crying, screaming—and never stop. She let out a shuddering breath as she beat her demons back.

Keely patted Fee’s arm. “Are you here to ask Price for help? And don’t deny there’s a problem, because I can see there is.” Keely traced a gentle finger over Fee’s bruised jaw and cheek.

“Price can’t fix the problem.” Fee had attempted to deal with the situation herself and had been stone-walled every step of the way. Power and money always trumped justice. Lesson learned. And while the thought of Price beating the crap out of her nemesis sounded good, it wouldn’t solve the problem and could only cause trouble for her beloved brother. Her leaving Detroit had been the only solution.

“Wrong answer.”

Fee shot her an incredulous glance. She couldn’t believe the woman who looked like a pregnant fairy princess wouldn’t leave it alone.

“Yeah, yeah, I know, I’m pushy.” Keely grinned cheekily and rubbed Fee’s arm. “O-o-kay, if you aren’t here to ask for help then why the surprise visit? Not that you aren’t welcome, like I said, you’re family, but I’m damn sure your brother wouldn’t have taken off if he’d known you were coming for a visit.”

Fee sighed. “I didn’t call him, because this trip was a spur of the moment thing. Since he’s not here, I can leave tomorrow. If you could just put me up for the night?” She swirled the remnants of her cola, wondering if she needed another one. The altitude was making her damn thirsty. Water would be better, but her energy hadn’t been good lately and the caffeinated sugar kept her going.

“Of course you can stay. Price has an apartment in the main lodge you can use. And no, you will not leave tomorrow. We can get Price back here in less than a day. He’d be pissed if he missed you. He’d planned on stopping by Detroit to see you before heading back to Idaho.”

“Price was planning on seeing me? When? What did he hear?”

God, had someone called him? Did he already know what had happened? She’d hoped he would never have to hear about the whole fucking mess. He’d be so disappointed she’d run instead of taking on the big boys.

She heard their father’s voice, “You can’t be my child. Teagues do not run. Teagues stand and fight.”

Keely leaned over the table. “Fee? You just went white.” The other woman’s voice had softened, become gentler. “What’s going on, sweetie? Hey, you can tell me. We height-challenged gals have to stick together in a world of big, bad-ass men.”

Keely wasn’t going to give up. Better to give her something and then move on to the bigger issue in the room—why Keely was denying she was in early labor.

Fee took a bracing sip of her cola. “I’ve left my job in Detroit. I’ve asked to be sent to another under-served hospital, preferably in a rural area, so I can finish paying off my medical school federal loans. I had some down time so I decided to visit with Price until the Feds tell me where they’re sending me.”

“Uh-huh, and pull my other leg, why dontcha?”

Jesus, Keely was like one of those yippy, little, ankle-biting dogs who sank in their sharp little teeth and didn’t let go. “That’s the truth. It’s why I’m here.”

Keely snorted. “Price told us you loved that job. That you planned to stay there even after you’d worked off those loans.” She gently squeezed Fee’s fingers. “Are you running from the bastard who hurt you?”

Fee choked back a sob. “No.”

Way to control your emotions, Fee. The cat is out of the bag now.

Keely would persist until she had the whole story—and then she would tell Price.

Fee didn’t plan on being around when that happened. She didn’t want to see the look on her brother’s face. He would be so disappointed she hadn’t called him to “fix” things. The one thing she hated most in the world was disappointing the only male who had ever stood up for her.

“Liar.” Keely scooted around the booth and then hugged Fee. “Shit, sweetie, we kick butt on a regular basis at SSI. If the asshole follows you, he’s toast. Or, better yet, Price and some of the guys can go to Detroit and pay the abusive jerk a visit. Teach him a lesson.”

“No … no … that won’t help.” Fee took a panicky breath. Despite her resolve, tears streaked down her cheeks. She swiped at them with the cocktail napkin. “He won’t follow. And I don’t want anyone going to Detroit. I’ve handled the situation.” She wiped her eyes on the back of her sleeve after the napkin shredded from too much moisture. “God, look at me! I’m a fucking mess. I’m an intelligent twenty-nine-year-old doctor for chrissakes. In my ER, I’ve dealt with shot-up and knifed gang members, drunks going through DTs, junkies coming off drugs, and abusive men demanding to see their beat-up women. And I let one overly aggressive ER doctor scare me away from my home and the job I loved.”

Fee looked Keely in the eye. “I was doing some fucking good in that hospital and the bastard took it away from me.”

“You’re running from a fellow doctor?” Keely asked.

Shit, she had just told the woman too much.

Fee stiffened as Keely grimaced and let out a little gasp. “You okay, Keely?”

“Fine. Don’t change the subject. Who are you running from?” Keely nibbled on her scone and made a face. She shoved the scone toward Fee. “Here, eat something to soak up all the cold caffeine you’ve been drinking. Looks like all you had to eat or drink during the hour you waited on me was cola. You need real food and hydration so you don’t get sick at this altitude.”

“Talk about changing the subject. Aren’t you hungry?” Fee shoved her distress over the past aside. She straightened in her seat and scrutinized Keely with a clinical eye.

Keely waved off the concern. “I ate before I drove here. I’m good. Go on, tell me about the A-hole who beat on you.”

“Persistent cuss, aren’t you?” Fee’s lips twisted into a reluctant smile.

*

“Takes one to know one,” Keely retorted. She clenched her jaw as a wave of nausea came and went in an instant. She rubbed her stomach where Riley was bouncing around like a Mexican jumping bean. “Now talk to me. Maybe I can help.”

“No. It’s over. He’s not worth another second of my time or yours—or my brother’s.” Fee’s mouth had a mulish twist to it. Keely had seen the same look on Price’s face. Like brother, like sister.

While Fee was good at changing the subject, Keely was damn sure Price would get the full story from his sister. Charm and good looks aside, he was a force to be reckoned with when he chose, as were all the SSI operatives. His sister wouldn’t leave Sanctuary until her safety had been assured. Big brothers were very protective. Keely should know; she had five of them.

“Can we get started?” Fee looked around. “Your health and that of your baby is far more important than sitting here and revisiting my problems with Dr. Adam-fucking-Stall. I think we need to be heading back to Sanctuary.”

Woot! Now Keely had a name. Good. By nightfall, she and Tweeter would know whether Dr. Adam-frick-fracking-Stall wore briefs or boxers and whether his dick dressed right or left.

Keely tossed a ten on the table and shoved Fee’s money toward her. “I’ve got this covered.” She signaled Nick and then pointed to the money. He smiled and waved her on. Scooting out of the booth, she joined Fee and led the way to the door.

Maybe Fee had a point about her health, but she didn’t think so. Still, it wouldn’t hurt to head home. If Quinn had called as soon as she’d left, and she bet he had, Ren was probably about halfway home by now. And her brother and Trey would be heading back to the Lodge with orders from Ren to fetch her ass home.

Keely rubbed her lower back through her thick coat as another mild twinge made itself known. She was pretty sure she was having another round of Braxton-Hicks. The cramping in her stomach had moved to her lower back and seemed regular, but then so had the false labor she’d experienced several times over the last few months. Plus, her OB had been darn certain Riley would not come early and cited all the statistics about first births. Keely, as a numbers kind of person, had been reassured by the stats. Ren had just snorted and said FUBAR happens.

At the moment, the sensations were like really bad menstrual cramps and more than tolerable.

Fee followed on Keely’s heels with an attitude like an overprotective mama grizzly. As if a woman two inches shorter who weighed about one hundred pounds could protect her.

Keely snickered silently. Even pregnant, Keely was more lethal than four out of five of the people in the restaurant.

“Looks like the weatherman got it right for once.” Leaving the steamy warmth of the diner, Keely drew her scarf more closely around her neck.

“I can’t believe it’s snowing in June! It was sunny when I arrived here.” Fee’s teeth audibly chattered as she pulled the collar of her spring-weight denim jacket up closer to her ears. “Brrr. Don’t you people have spring? And I thought Michigan had crazy weather.”

Keely laughed. “Just winter’s one last hurrah. I have some warmer clothes you can borrow once we get home.”

The predicted snow had begun to fall since her arrival at Ma’s less than twenty minutes ago. The flakes were large and wet and coming down steadily. The snow covered the ground and vegetation like slushy mashed potatoes. The winds gusted upwards of thirty miles an hour, making visibility semi-lousy. The really bad news was as they climbed in altitude on the way to Sanctuary, the conditions would be worse. The snow could be blizzard levels and the roads icier. The trip home would be dicey, but she’d driven in worse.

“Where did you park, Keely?” Fee hissed as a particularly vicious wind gust hit them. Keely grabbed Fee’s arm to steady her.

“We’re heading for the black Hummer at the far end of the front row.” Keely pointed to the big, armor-clad behemoth which the men insisted was the only vehicle she should drive. It had every safety feature imaginable and some she and Tweeter, her alpha-geek brother, had designed. She could survive on the moon in that vehicle.

At the Hummer, Fee stopped on the passenger side and sent her a sideways glance. “Um, is there a drop-down ladder so we vertically challenged types can climb up?”

Keely laughed. “Nope. But there are built-in steps—two of them—and the hand-holds. It’s sort of like mounting a horse. Grab the hand-hold, place your foot on the lower step and sort of spring up and grab hold of the other hand-hold and pull yourself in.” Keely held her hand out for Fee’s bag and tote. “Give me your bags. I’ll place them in the back.”

“Maybe I should stow them,” Fee said.

“Give me the damn bags, Fee.” Keely stared until Fee handed over the luggage.

“Here goes nothing,” Fee said as she opened the door.

Keely smiled when the woman made it on the first try. The doctor had some upper body strength and a good sense of balance.

After stowing the bags, Keely went around, opened the driver’s door, and then paused. Something niggled at her senses besides the aching in her back and stomach.

She casually swept some snow off the side mirror and looked around as she cleaned the windshield with the scraper. She saw nothing out of the ordinary and shrugged. Maybe it was the drop in air pressure from the storm causing the feeling.

After slapping the snow off her gloves and kicking slush off her boots, Keely climbed into the vehicle, shut the door, and engaged all security.

Ren had hammered home many a time that engaging security was rule one when Keely was out driving alone. “No use having the systems,” he’d said, “if they aren’t used.” The one time she’d forgotten and he’d caught her, he’d swatted her ass. The light spanking had led to sex—and it had been some of the best sex she’d ever had. While she liked pushing Ren’s buttons from time to time, now, while she was hugely pregnant and couldn’t enjoy the side bennies of it, was not the right moment.

Keely looked at Fee and noted she was all buckled in. She started the engine, shifted into first gear, then pulled out, quickly picking up speed. The heavy vehicle handled the almost two inches of slushy snow like a thoroughbred.

“How long will it take us to get to Sanctuary?” Fee asked.

The doctor’s tone was too casual. Keely eyed her but saw nothing but polite inquiry on Fee’s face. “About fifty minutes on a good day. Maybe more like an hour and fifteen minutes on a day like today. I don’t want to push too hard through some of the S-curves in these conditions if I don’t have to.”

“So, where is the nearest hospital?” Again, Fee’s tone was even, no inflection at all.

Keely would play along. “If you’re asking where Riley is to be delivered, we’re talking Coeur d’Alene. That’s an almost six-hour drive. We’d use the helicopter in an emergency. Boise is a six-hour or so drive to the south. Sanctuary is pretty isolated and the surrounding area as a whole is sparsely populated.”

“Jesus! There’s nothing closer?” Fee’s voice held emotion now—shock and maybe a tinge of fear.

“Well, there is the regional medical center near Elk City, which is on the other side of Sanctuary by about twenty minutes. But Ren ruled it out. Not modern enough for his wife and son. It’s more like a clinic than a hospital. Serious cases are medevaced to Coeur d’Alene or Boise.”

“This really is the middle of nowhere.” Fee sounded worried.

“Welcome to the wild west.” Keely chuckled. “Why are you asking, Fee? I told you what my OB said.”

Keely eyed her mirrors as she routinely did and noted a silver-gray Escalade as it pulled out of a little-used side road. The SUV was about a quarter mile behind them and shortening the distance quickly. She’d seen the car before—on her way to Ma’s. The rental car plates on the front gave it away; it was the same SUV which had followed her part of the way to Grangeville from Sanctuary.

She’d thought nothing of it at the time since Ma’s was a popular destination and this road led to the interstate. But the vehicle was definitely following her once more. Her internal warning system went to red alert.

God! She’d endangered her baby by leaving Sanctuary. Ren would freak. Hell, she would kick her own butt once she was able. Right now, she had to take all the precautions she could. Nothing and no one would hurt her baby.

Fee had been mumbling something Keely hadn’t caught as she’d assessed the situation. Whatever was bothering the doctor wasn’t as urgent as the current state of affairs.

“Make sure you’re buckled in tightly, Fee.” Keely hit a combination of key codes into the on-board communications system. Any SSI operative within one hundred miles would respond to the call for help and track to her position using GPS.

“What’s wrong?” Fee’s gaze assessed Keely as if looking for a medical issue. God, the doctor thought it was the baby.

“It’s not the baby.” Keely angled her head toward the back of the Hummer. “Looks like I picked up a tail. We can’t go back to Ma’s because it’s safer to outrun the bastards.”

Going back would make them more vulnerable to an attack by their pursuers; the bad guys would love for her to play into their hands by slowing down and turning around. So, she would force them to play catch up.

She also needed a back-up plan. There was a high likelihood her pursuers had buddies up ahead on the road to Sanctuary. She didn’t want to chance a full-out gun battle if she didn’t have to. She had the baby to think of—and a civilian.

“Fee, I might have to take us off-road before we get to Sanctuary in order to elude them—and whoever they might have in front of us.”

“A tail? Who? Where?” Fee looked in the passenger side mirror. “And how do you know they aren’t just lost or something?”

“The fact the Escalade followed me part of the way from Sanctuary toward Ma’s and that they just pulled out behind us once we cleared Grangeville’s city limits. Fee, there’s nothing in this direction but the Nez Perce National Forest, lots of mountains, and Sanctuary.” Keely looked in the rear view mirror and grimaced. “Plus, my shit detector is going off the charts.”

Fee took in and let out a deep breath. “So—what are we gonna do?” She looked in the passenger side mirror. “Jesus, Keely, they’re staying awfully close. Will they try to ram us?”

“They could try. I almost wish they would. I’ve been taught by the best. And if they decide to play bumper cars with that piece-of-shit street vehicle against my armored, military-grade Hummer, I would win that game.” She pushed the powerful vehicle up to seventy miles an hour from the far safer fifty she’d been doing. She noted with a smile the guy behind her didn’t seem comfortable driving that fast on snow-covered roads. Good, she had an advantage and would milk it for all it was worth.

“As to your other question, I’ve already sent an SOS to all SSI operatives in the area. And in a second, I’ll notify the Idaho County Sheriff. Law enforcement out here is spread thinly over a vast area and I ain’t holding my breath anyone can get to us in time.” She took a deep breath and turned to look at Fee whose formerly pale face had gone somewhat green. “My guys aren’t close. We might have to play hide-and-seek with the bad guys until help arrives.”

Keely used the cell phone plugged into her car’s blue-tooth system and put the County Sheriff on alert to the situation. The sheriff’s dispatcher would notify the State Police. But as Keely had thought, it would take time to get someone to their position. The weather had grounded the law enforcement copters and the road patrols weren’t anywhere near her current position.

The weather wouldn’t stop Ren from flying, though. She prayed he’d be careful, but knew he’d push it to get to her. She’d expected to hear from him and the others as soon as the alert had gone out. Obviously, the weather had affected SSI’s communications satellite signal. She’d barely gotten the emergency call out to the sheriff; her cell signal had gone in and out.

“What do you mean by not close?” Fee asked after Keely had ended her call to the sheriff. “Where are they?”

“Ren travelled to a ranger station near Coeur d’Alene.” Keely heaved a big sigh. “He’s flying in this mess.”

Fee looked out the window at the swirling whiteness and swore under her breath. “Will your husband be horribly angry that you picked me up?”

Keely heard the worry and what sounded like dread in Fee’s voice. Obviously, Dr. Adam frick-fracking Stall had really done a number on her. Not all men were abusive and Fee needed to know that. “He’ll be upset, but he won’t hurt me. Good men do not beat on women.”

“Okay … good. I’d hate for you to … be chastised because of my surprise visit.”

“No punishment. Just a few snarls and growls and a look of disappointment. After which, he will lecture me and then take me to bed.” Keely winked at Fee. “A win-win all around. He gets to reinforce he is the man and I get hot monkey sex and lots of orgasms out of it.” She glanced at Fee whose eyes held disbelief. “Sweetie, only lame-ass cowards beat on a woman when they’re angry.”

Fee choked back a laugh. The mood in the car lightened for the moment.

Mission accomplished. She needed Fee’s head in the present, not the past or the possible future.

Keely slowed to sixty miles per hour for a particularly sharp S-curve. Their pursuers, she noted, slowed far more than she did, so she was able to pick up some precious yardage coming out of the curve. Her knowledge of the roads and area was a tremendous tactical advantage.

Fee looked in the side mirror, her left hand grasping the armrest between her and Keely. “So, Ren is out of the picture for now. Anyone closer?”

“My brother and Ren’s brother were working on Sanctuary’s northernmost perimeter security. They took ATVs,” at Fee’s frown, she clarified, “all-terrain vehicles with special all-weather tires. They are almost certainly heading back to Sanctuary at Ren’s urging to come get me.” Fee still had a confused look on her face. “Oh, God, I didn’t tell you. When your call came in, Quinn, Ren’s third in command, heard it. I told him to tell Ren where I was going. So, my guys could’ve been travelling for almost an hour when the emergency signal went out. Things aren’t as dire as they could be.”

Fee half-laughed, half-choked out a breath. “Thank God. You aren’t totally without common sense.”

Keely sniffed. “I think I might be insulted. And why are you worrying so much? I can handle those guys behind me.”

“God, Price did not exaggerate. And I didn’t believe him. I’ll apologize to him—if we survive.” Fee pointed toward the back of the Hummer. “Keely, you’ve exposed your very pregnant self to danger for me. If something happens to you or the baby, I’ll never forgive myself.”

The stern doctor Fee was now present in the car. The scared, abused Fee buried in light of the current danger. Keely really liked Price’s sister—she had guts.

“Nothing is going to happen,” Keely told her as she increased her speed to eighty on the straight-away. The Hummer handled like the expensive dream it was. “If we can’t lose them, I’ll take them out.”

“With what?” Fee shook her head. “Jesus, Keely, you’re only slightly bigger than me and most of that is baby weight. And if I’m not mistaken, you’re in the early stages of labor. You’re grimacing. Your stomach is moving like something out of a horror movie. And you keep arching your back.”

“Not labor, just Braxton-Hicks.” Keely inhaled sharply and gripped the wheel tightly. As if Fee’s words conjured it up, an extremely sharp pain shot through her pelvis. Its origination? Her lower back. “Damn, that one hurt. I think Riley just jabbed a nerve with his hand or foot. I swear this kid is going to grow up to be a kick boxer.”

She smiled thinly at Fee who didn’t look at all convinced. “Trust me. I’ve had several bouts of false labor off and on starting several months ago. Ren has flown me to the hospital in Coeur d’Alene three times on false alarms.”

“That was the past. Let’s deal with the now. I bet the baby is head down, bouncing on your pelvis, ready to come out. If your water breaks, I don’t care if you’re dilated or not, you would be quickly enough.” Fee let go of the armrest to touch Keely’s arm. “Honey, you’re in the first stage of labor and will have this baby in the next twenty-four hours more or less. I’ve delivered a lot of less than full-term babies in the ER. I know the signs. So, fighting? Out of the question.”

“Don’t bet your retirement plan on that.” Keely gritted her teeth against the pain in her lower back. She had some tricky driving ahead, a series of four sharp S-curves, and needed to concentrate. She planned to gain some mileage and not just yardage on their pursuers. “Hold on, because I’m about to show the guy behind me he shouldn’t mess with an angry, pregnant woman.”