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“I don’t mind walking him.” Kneeling, Sarah scratched Ghost’s stomach, then giggled as the puppy dissolved into helpless squiggles. Her face turned wistful. “My brother had a dog—this really cute little cocker spaniel—only he got hit by a car.”


“Well, since there are no cars, you won’t have to worry about that anymore,” Lena said.


“I’d love your help, Sarah,” Alex said, ignoring Lena’s eye-roll.


“Alex, I made up a plate for you.” Tori turned from the sink, wiping her hands on a dish towel. Her cheeks were dotted with color and her hair had frizzed from the steam. “Why don’t you sit down and I’ll—”


“You know, she’s not a cripple.” Lena dropped a dried plate onto a stack with a clatter. “Stop being such a suck-up.”


Alex pushed to her feet. “It’s okay, Tori. I can get it.”


Tori’s eyebrows crinkled and her mouth formed a tiny, hurt O. “I’m not sucking up,” she said to Lena.


Lena snorted. “Yeah, right. Just because Chris keeps hanging around doesn’t mean that Peter—”


“Lena,” Jess warned.


“What? I’m just saying. I don’t get why you’re all treating her like she’s any different from us.”


“Well,” Sarah began timidly, “I did hear that the dogs—”


“The dogs, the dogs, the dogs.” Lena did another wildly exaggerated eye-roll. “They don’t know everything. What if the animals change? Has anyone thought about that? It’s not like the animals didn’t go apeshit that first day.”


“Thank you for that stunningly precise scientific observation, Lena,” Jess said, expertly flipping an egg. “When you get your degree in veterinary medicine, I’ll be sure to ask your opinion. Now, the last time I looked, those dishes weren’t drying themselves.”


Lena gave a mug a half-hearted swipe. “When does she start? You would never let us get away with this shit.”


“Oh, my ears,” said Kincaid.


“Lena Christina Stoltz.” Jess hacked off two thick slices of brown bread. “I will not tolerate abusiveness in my house. One more trashy word out of that sewer mouth and I will speak to the Reverend.”


“You’re bluffing.” Lena threw her towel aside. “You won’t do it, and the Council won’t turn me out, because you need us; we’re just so Spared, we’re so valuable.”


“Lena, they just want to protect us,” said Tori.


“Protect us? We’re prisoners. They won’t let us leave.”


“But it’s for our own good.”


“Just because the adults say that doesn’t make it true.” Lena glared at Jess. “You can keep me here a million years, but you’ll never make me agree with you.”


“I don’t care if you agree,” Jess said, calmly pouring coffee into a silver thermos. “But let’s be clear. When you are Chosen—”


“I’ll kill myself first.”


“When you are Chosen, you may do what you wish under your own roof. But so long as you remain here, you will follow the rules, or I will ask the Reverend to reconsider. I don’t think you want to test me on that.” Jess capped the thermos. “Is that understood?”


The kitchen had gone very quiet. Even Ghost was still. Tori looked on the verge of tears, and Sarah was milky-white. Alex’s eyes kept sliding from Lena’s pale face to the floor, but her mind whirled.


Chosen? What’s that? And Lena tried to leave, but they wouldn’t let her? Wait just a minute….


“Yes, ma’am.” Lena’s voice was small, but Alex could smell the hot, peppery sting of her fury.


“Excellent.” Jess tucked the thermos under one arm and picked up the wrapped sandwich. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, that poor guard’s waited long enough in the cold for his breakfast.” The door closed behind her with a decisive snick.


No one moved for a moment, and then Sarah crossed to Lena and touched her arm. “It’ll be okay,” she said. “I miss my mom, too.”


Lena shook her off. “I don’t miss that bitch,” she hissed, and rushed from the room. In another moment, Alex heard her storm up the stairs.


Kincaid broke the silence. “Tori, I would dearly love another muffin, if you wouldn’t mind.”


46


Kincaid had brought a gentle, swaybacked pinto named Honey for her, but Alex balked. “I’ve never ridden a horse,” she said, ignoring the guard who lounged against the front gate, looking amused. His dog, a fawn-colored pit, capered up to Alex for a pat. “Why can’t we walk?”


“Because it’s faster to ride,” Kincaid said. “Believe me, if you end up assigned to one of the farms, you’ll be happy to have a horse.”


“Yeah,” the guard drawled. He sucked back steaming coffee. “Otherwise, you’ll be getting up before you go to sleep.”


“Come on, Alex,” said Kincaid. “And leave off with that dog.”


“Yeah, yeah, I’m coming,” said Alex, but she was grinning. Sensing that Alex’s attention was wandering, the dog had rolled onto its back and was plaintively pedaling air. Alex stooped to scratch the dog’s ruff as the pit bull groaned. “It’s not my fault.”


“Looks like we got ourselves our own little dog whisperer,” the guard said, shaking his head. “Lucy doesn’t like anybody, but seeing is believing, I guess. Lucy, come on now, heel!”


With an almost human sigh, the pit rolled to its feet and gave Alex a reproachful look: Do something. Then, head hanging, the dog walked slowly back to the guard and settled onto its haunches with an audible harrumph.


It took her a few tries before she could boost herself onto the saddle, and some more time for Kincaid to fuss with the stirrups and go over what the reins were for, how to sit, what to do. Then they headed for town, the pit woofing encouragement.


“That’s good. You’re getting the hang of it,” Kincaid said. He was astride a lean, leopard-spotted Appaloosa. “Couple of days and you’ll be cantering with the best of them.”


“Mmm.” She was thinking, Yeah, maybe canter right on out of here. Unfortunately, Honey seemed happy to take all of life at a walk. Even so, the animal’s easy motion was pleasant. Every dog they passed—and they went by quite a few—let out a friendly bark and tugged at its leash, tail frantically whisking back and forth.


Kincaid eyed her. “Dogs always this friendly?”


“Not with me.”


“Uh-huh.” Kincaid watched a guard wrestle a chocolate lab to a sit. “Well, you keep this up, you’ll never be lonely.”


Jess’s house was a little west of the village center, perhaps less than half a mile away. As they rode, Kincaid gave her a rough idea of Rule’s layout. The village itself had always been a small, virtually closed community, a stopover between the now-defunct mine and other towns that catered to the men who worked there. After the attack, however, Rule had expanded to protect nearby assets, principally forest, outlying farms, and livestock. All the major roads were barricaded at one-mile intervals beginning five miles from town and guarded twenty-four hours a day. More foot patrols, with their dogs, roamed the woods. The only road into the village was northeast. Anyone not allowed to stay was escorted to the southwest corner thirty miles north of the mine.


“You got pretty much free rein in town, though you always got to have an escort if you want to go anywhere outside the village center,” Kincaid said. “Tempers still run a bit high when it comes to the Spared. We don’t want anything happening to you.”


The way he and everyone else said Spared and Changed made her very uncomfortable. That Chosen thing, too—what was that about? The whole scene felt way too religious, what with this reverend in charge and his Council of Five. Maybe these people all belonged to some kind of cult, like Jonestown or Waco or something. Look at Jess, spouting Bible quotes. They seemed pretty organized, too, like they had a set of rules in place from way before. “Is that why I need to meet this reverend and the Council? So they can figure out what to do with me?”


“Sort of. The Rev’s pretty hands-on, and the Council runs things and decides who goes where and does what on the basis of need.”


“Did you elect them or something?”


Kincaid shook his head. “The Five Families have been running Rule since the village got started. The Reverend’s family—the Yeagers—are the most important. They’re the richest, the first of the Five Families to settle Rule going on over a hundred and fifty years now. Owned the mine, built the village, started the church. The Rev and his brother took over the mine after their father died. Mine pretty much tapped out twenty years ago, but you got men here worked that mine their whole lives. That kind of loyalty and sense of family carries through in times like these. The Yeagers took care of people before, and people figure they will now.”


“So everyone listens to Pastor Yeager?”


“Reverend. Yeah. Let’s just say he’s the final arbiter.”


“What if everyone else on the Council disagrees with him?”


“Never happened yet.”


Everyone always agreed, always came around to one guy’s way of thinking? That didn’t sound good. They couldn’t always see eye to eye, could they? “But what if I want to leave? Ellie’s out there, and Tom—”


“Well, as I get it, you have no idea where they are. That right?”


“No, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be looking for them.”


“You got some bright ideas where you should start?”


She bit back a snarky retort. “No.”


“Then, until you do, might be best if you find a way to fit in here.”


“But Rule’s not my home,” she said. Lena’s words ghosted through her mind, and she was starting to get a very bad feeling about this. “You’re not my family.”

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