Meeting Lily was the worst mistake Macey ever made after she ran away from an abusive foster home. She was almost fourteen and Lily promised so much if she joined the Circle of Friends. Back then, she didn’t know about cults and how they preyed on the young and innocent. How they would offer her everything missing in her life.
When she attempts to run away, Isaiah also teaches her about the consequences of disobedience.
Now, Macey has no choice. She has to escape. She won’t let the same thing that happened to her, also happen to her daughter. There’s only one problem, her daughter is thirteen, and she’s been brainwashed into the ways of the Friends.
Only one person can help, but will he even remember her?
Samson always cared for Macey, but she was still just a kid. He had to give her time to grow up. That was the reason he joined the military at seventeen. Four years later, he goes in search of her, only to discover she ran away.
When Macey shows up on his doorstep years later, desperate for his help, and with more pain in her eyes than one person should have to bear, he doesn’t even consider telling her no.
The special ops team Samson works with step in to help rescue Macey’s daughter. Samson quickly discovers that’s only the beginning of his problems as he starts to unravel secrets that could get them all killed.
"I don't want to leave, but you know I’d have to in a few months anyway," Samson said.
Macey turned from the window, her gaze lingering on him. Samson protected all the kids from Wanda and Ollie’s anger—which escalated the week before they got the government check. By then, he and Wanda always ran out of money.
Except now, Macey would be the only one left.
She squared her shoulders. Be strong, that’s what Samson always said. Never let them know they got the best of you. She tried, she really did, but sometimes it was so hard. She would be strong for Samson now. She wasn’t about to hang a guilt trip on him.
"I know you can’t stay,” she said, hating the tremble in her voice. She cleared her throat and continued. “They turn kids out as soon as the money stops, and it always does when someone turns eighteen." She shrugged as if she was okay with everything, holding back emotions threatening to consume her. Her hands curled into fists at her side. God, she wanted to beg Samson to take her with him.
But she wouldn’t. Instead, she’d pretend everything would be okay. "It's what happens when you're a foster kid. Unless, of course, you get lucky and find a good family."
Her gaze lingered on his face, memorizing everything about him: his intense green eyes, the harsh planes of his face that made him look angry most of the time, except she knew better. Not that Macey really thought she would forget. He'd been a part of her life for the last four years. Her protector, and maybe she’d always been just a little in love with him.
Their foster family would be glad to see him gone. He looked older than his seventeen years, and already stood six feet, four inches. Her smile was bittersweet. His dark brown hair was scraggly because he needed a haircut. She’d tried to trim it, but even she admitted that she hadn’t done a very good job.
He already had a lot of muscles because he worked out every chance he got. She always wondered if it was because of the scars on his back. He never talked about them. She never pried.
But now, he was leaving. Joining the military.
"Take me with you," she suddenly said, hugging her middle, panic rising inside her, even as she cursed herself for being weak.
He shook his head. "You know I can't. They’d come after you in a heartbeat. You're only thirteen. I would if I could."
She raised her chin. "I'm almost fourteen."
He stepped closer and pulled her into his arms. "You’re growing up fast. I wish to God I could take you with me. If Ollie or Wanda give you a hard time, tell them I’ll come after them. I've already warned them they better not lay a hand on you."
Yeah, she knew that wasn't going to last. Ollie and Wanda didn't keep their promises.
"My bus will leave in a little while. I guess I’d better get down to the station," Samson said.
He raised her chin with one finger. “If it gets too bad, turn them in again.”
Nothing would happen. It never did. Maybe they would shuffle her to another home, but being nearly fourteen put her at a distinct disadvantage. Everyone wanted infants or toddlers.
So, this was it. She hugged him tight, then stepped back, looking up at him. "I love you."
His smile enveloped her in a layer of warmth.
"I love you, too." He ruffled her hair.
She shook her head. "No, I really do love you. Someday, we’re going to get married." Heat spread up her face as soon as the words spilled out of her mouth.
His smile reached all the way to his eyes. "With your looks? Some boy will come along and snatch you up before I even have time to come back. All you have to do is bat those big blue eyes, and you'll have them eating out of your hand. Just make sure it's the right kind of guy."
Her lips set into a firm line. "No, I'll wait for you."
Samson only smiled before he gave her one last hug, then walked out the door. The air around her suddenly felt cold and empty. Tears filled her eyes as she watched him walk down the sidewalk.
She kept watching out the window until right before he turned the corner and looked back. He grinned and waved. He’d known she still watched. She waved back, and before her next breath, he turned and was out of sight.
Macey was so focused on losing Samson, she didn't hear when Ollie came to stand beside her. He set his arm on her shoulder.
"I can't say I'm not glad to see him out of the house. No kid should grow that much and only be seventeen."
She shrugged off his hand. "Admit it, you’re scared of him." She turned and hurried into the kitchen before he could punch her on the arm. That’s what he liked to do. Wanda, on the other hand, had a slap that could knock Macey into the nearest wall.
She’d rather do dishes than stay in his company any longer than necessary. There was always a dish to wash or a room to clean. Ollie and Wanda were slobs and never cleaned up after themselves.
A wave of exhaustion washed over her by the time she dried the last pan and put it away.
She was just hanging up the damp cup towel when Wanda came lumbering into the room.
“Fix me something to eat,” she growled, plunking her wide girth onto one of the kitchen chairs.
Macey thought she could hear the chair groan. Wanda actually counted all her snacks so she knew if even one cookie or Twinkie was missing.
Macey beat her at her own game. Since Macey bought all the groceries, she'd buy extra, then hide them in a special place for the younger kids. Except all the little ones were gone now. A few months ago, a young couple adopted the five-year-old twins. Not that she could blame anyone for wanting them. They were adorable. Each time one of the kids left, they took a piece of her heart.
Macey glanced around at the clean kitchen, then sighed. “What would you like?”
“Eggs, bacon, toast. Don’t skimp on the butter either, and put some of those apricot preserves on the plate, too.”
So much for escaping the house for a few hours. She brought the skillet out and started
Wanda’s breakfast. She didn’t even get a thank you when she set the plate in front of her.
Wanda immediately began to shovel the food into her mouth, and when she finished, pushed the plate away and left without a word.
It was almost an hour before the kitchen was clean again. She glanced around to make sure she hadn’t forgotten anything. Wanda would rant and rave for hours and lecture her on cleanliness being next to godliness if she accidentally left a dirty fork or spoon. Yeah, like Wanda was religious or clean.
Wanda came back in, looking around with an eagle eye. Satisfied, she turned back to Macey. "You haven't made my bed yet. You're getting lazy," she grumbled. "Go do it now.
When you finish, bring down my suitcase from the top of the closet.
Macey perked up. “You’re going somewhere?”
“My mother’s for the weekend. Now shut up and do as you’re told. I want this house so clean by the time I return, it sparkles when I open the front door.”
She didn’t care! Two whole days of freedom!
It only took her a few minutes to make the bed, then bring down the pink suitcase. She’d just set it on the bed and opened it when Wanda came into the room.
“Would you like me to help you pack?” she asked.
"I'm taking the pink dress and the light blue one, and grab the white sweater. My mother keeps her house too damned cold."
“And Ollie? What does he want to take?”
“He’s not going. Thinks he’s coming down with something.”
Her hopes deflated faster than if she’d popped a balloon. So much for wishful thinking.
"He's taking me to the train station. Make sure you take care of him while I'm gone. I don't want to come home to him coughing and hacking." She shuddered. "I hate being around sick people." She double-checked everything Macey packed. "Now get out. I want to lie down and rest before I leave."
That was fine by her. She hurried out of the room, closing the door behind her. Maybe she would walk over to the park. As long as she kept the house cleaned and had meals on the table, Ollie and Wanda didn’t care what she did.
She couldn’t help stopping at the window, picturing when Samson turned and looked one last time. She’d miss him, but he promised to write once he settled in the barracks. He swore if Ollie laid a hand on her, he would go AWOL and beat the crap out of him. She had a feeling he would do exactly that.
"He's not here anymore to protect you or anyone else,” Ollie spoke from behind her.
“No, but he’ll kill you if you hurt me.”
He laughed. “I doubt that. He’ll make friends with the guys, and on the weekends, he’ll be out whoring and getting drunk.”
She cringed, closing her eyes tight. He wasn’t like that. Samson was a good, honorable person.
Ollie ran his hand down her arm, then squeezed. “You know, Wanda's going out of town to visit her mother. The old battleax. All the woman does is complain."
Her gut began to churn. Something about him was different. She had a bad feeling. "What has that got to do with me?" She already did all the cooking and cleaning. What more did he want?
"My bed is going to be awfully cold without someone on the other side. If you're nice to me, I can make your life a lot easier."
Oh God, she was going to be sick. Rather than say anything, she turned and ran to her room, closing the door behind her. She viciously rubbed her arm, but she could still feel his slimy touch. There wasn’t even a lock on her door.
No! She wouldn't let him come near her. She would run away before that happened.
Macey crawled to the middle of the bed and pulled her knees in close, resting her head on them. No, no, no!
Why was this happening? What had she ever done to deserve this? She closed her eyes tight. Once, she’d had a family, a real family, but they were gone. She quickly sniffed back her tears.
Macey didn’t know how long she sat there, but when the car started, her head jerked up.
When Ollie returned, she knew exactly what he planned to do. She might be young, but growing up in foster care aged you pretty fast.
Living on the streets would be better than here. Her heart pounded. Maybe Samson hadn’t left on the bus yet. She might be able to catch him. If he knew what Ollie planned, he’d protect her. Maybe even take her with him.
She scrambled out of bed and grabbed her school backpack out of the closet, stuffing clothes inside. She wouldn’t stay in this house another night. God, she was shaking so hard she could barely think straight.
Samson would know what to do.
She left the house through the backdoor, keeping beside the overgrown bushes until she came to the gate. She looked around, making sure Ms. Peterson wasn't peering out her window. The old bat would run to Ollie the minute he returned to tattle on her and probably tell him it looked like she was running away.
Macey drew in a deep breath before she pushed the gate open and slipped down the alleyway. When a dog began to bark, she took off running. She didn't slow until she was several blocks away.
The bus station wasn't too far from their house. Thank goodness Wanda hated the bus and only traveled by train. Still, it seemed like it took her forever to get there. Once inside the building, she quickly scanned the area. She began to nibble her bottom lip when she didn't see him. The terminal wasn't that big. Someone the size of Samson would be hard to miss, but he wasn't there. An older couple sat near a window, and a family trying to control their three rambunctious kids were closer to the middle.
Still, he could’ve stopped to grab something to eat. She went to the ticket window. The older man on the other side looked up.
“Has bus fifty-nine left yet?” She remembered seeing the number on Samson’s ticket.
His lips pursed as he shuffled through papers. “Yep, two hours ago.”
Too late. She nodded and turned away. Now what was she going to do? Her feet felt as if she had cement blocks tied to them. She only got as far as one of the benches, then dropped down to it. Her shoulders slumped as she tugged off her backpack and pulled it around in front of her, hugging it close.
She’d told herself that it would be better to live under a bridge than to let Ollie touch her, but now she was wondering what her chances would be if she struck out on her own.
Would she be dead by morning? Or worse? And yes, she knew there were things far worse than being murdered.
She wasn't sure how long she sat there when the door opened, but she barely glanced up.
The woman was probably in her early thirties, dressed kind of plain in a long, dark skirt, a white blouse, and with a white scarf covering her hair. Their eyes met and locked for just a moment before Macey looked away.
The woman sat near her. There were plenty of places to sit. Why had she sat down by her?
She scooted over a little, putting distance between them, even though she didn't feel threatened by the woman.
“I’m sorry. I guess I’m invading your space. You just looked so worried about something that I thought maybe I could help,” she said in a soft voice that was kind of soothing. “My name is Lily.”
“No one can help,” Macey mumbled.
“You won’t know what I can do unless you tell me what’s troubling you.”
She sighed deeply. “I was hoping my friend would still be here, but he already left on the bus.”
“I see. You wanted to tell him goodbye,” Lily guessed.
She shook her head. “I wanted him to take me with him.”
“Are you running away from home?”
“I don’t have a home. Not really. I’m a foster kid.” Why was she babbling? This woman didn’t care about her. She was a stranger.
“I see.” Lily slowly nodded her head. “There was a time when I didn’t have a home either.”
Macey looked up at her, unable to hold back her curiosity. “What did you do?”
Lily studied her for a moment. “I was thirteen when I ran away. My father was a terrible alcoholic. My mother wouldn’t leave him, and when he started to beat me, I packed a small bag and left.”
“But where did you go?”
Lily’s smile softened her face. “I met someone. Much like we’ve just met. She took me under her wing and introduced me to the Circle of Friends.”
“The Circle of Friends?”
She laughed lightly. “I know, it’s kind of a strange name for a community. I like to think of it as the circle of love. Something I never had in my life.”
She'd scooted closer without Macey noticing. Lily took Macey's cold hand in hers. There was so much warmth radiating from her that it began to melt the coldness inside her.
“If you’d like, I’ll take you there. No one will ever be able to hurt you as long as you live by the rules.”
Macey tugged her hand free. "What rules?" It all sounded too good to be true. She wasn't too sure about rules. She'd had rules all her life, and the only people they benefited were the ones making them.
“Don’t worry. They’re only there to help, never to hurt. But if you’re worried, it’s okay. I was at first, too. If you don’t want to go, that’s okay. It’s your decision.”
What choice did she have? There was no other place for her. Maybe fate had brought Lily to her just when she needed someone to help her escape. “I’d like to go with you.” Her eyes narrowed. “But I’m free to leave any time, right? I mean, if I don’t like it there.”
“Anytime you want.”
Back then, Macey didn't know about cults or how they preyed on the young and innocent.
It didn't take her long to learn.