The second standalone novel in Catherine Cowles’ beautiful Sutter Lake series is coming next week, but you can read the Prologue right here, right now.
My heart beat so fast, it felt as though it were rattling my ribs, straining to get free. I eyed James from the backseat as he navigated through DC traffic. My driver, but also my warden. I wasn’t sure he even knew it, but he was just the same.
James turned off the main thoroughfare and onto a quaint side street full of high-end shops and art galleries. I tried to steady my ragged breathing. He pulled to a stop in front of a salon. My port in the storm, the one place he or my fiancé wouldn’t follow.
I gripped my purse tighter, knuckles bleaching white. “I’ll be a few hours.” I was impressed my voice didn’t shake.
James nodded. “I know the drill, ma’am. I’ll be keeping an eye out from here.”
I wanted to laugh, but it would have come out in a disgusted tone. What was James keeping an eye out for exactly? Terrorists? Viking marauders? Certainly not the one person I actually needed protection from.
Garrett had introduced James innocently enough. All the fiancées and wives of the partners at Garrett’s law firm had drivers. He didn’t want me to have to navigate the craziness of Washington DC traffic. I’d thought it was sweet at the time. But then again, I had thought a lot of things were sweet once upon a time, things that I now realized were stones used to build my prison.
Then James had become driver and bodyguard. “I’m involved with some very powerful people, Valerie,” Garrett had said. “Someone could try to hurt you to get to me. I just want you to be safe.”
I rubbed a tender spot on my arm. Apparently, Garrett was the only one who was allowed to hurt me.
I straightened my spine. Those days were over. “See you in a few hours,” I called over my shoulder as I hopped down from the SUV. My ribs cried out at the motion, but I kept my face perfectly blank.
I’d become a master at masks over the past few years. No one knew what lurked beneath my surface. The pain that wracked my body and my heart. But, most importantly, no one—save a single soul—knew the plotting and planning I’d been doing for months. It was the only way this might work.
I pushed open the door to the salon and scanned the busy space. I spotted Gena in the back corner. She’d switched her normal station at the front of the salon with another stylist for today.
I strode forward, weaving around people to get to my only friend in the world. A nervous smile pulled at her lips as she wrapped me in a hug. I stiffened. Gena immediately pulled back. “Shit. How bad?”
It had only taken a couple of visits to Gena’s salon for her to begin to put the pieces together about my relationship. She hadn’t pushed, though. Then, one day after she’d caught sight of the bruises around my neck that I’d attempted to hide with a scarf, she’d leaned down and whispered in my ear, “You don’t deserve this. No one does. When you’re ready to talk, I’m here.” My story had spilled out in small bursts over the following months. And Gena and her salon had become my only port in the storm that was my life.
I shook myself from the memory and attempted a smile that came out as more of a grimace. “Not bad.” And compared to other times, it wasn’t. I had been careless. Gotten distracted as I was going over the plan in my mind and hadn’t heard my phone ring at first. I had three rings to answer, but two was really best. Anything over three, and I would pay for it. And when Garrett had gotten home last night, I had.
Gena’s lips pressed together into a firm line. “We are going to get you out of this.”
I gripped her hand. “I know. Thank you so much.”
“Anything for you, girl. Now, let’s give you a new look.”
* * *
An hour and a half later, I fingered the ends of my new bob. Gone were my long, golden locks, and in their place was a shoulder-length brunette ‘do. I examined my reflection in the mirror. I looked different, I just wished I could do something about my eyes.
I’d always loved my eyes. They were the same as my mother’s. One of the few things I had of hers since she’d died in childbirth. But their almost violet hue made them too unique.
Gena squeezed my shoulder. “I got you contacts. They’ll only last two weeks, but it’s long enough for you to get wherever you end up going, and then it won’t matter as much.”
I felt a flash of pain at having to hide what little I had left of my mother, but I knew it was necessary. “You’ve thought of everything.”
Gena squeezed my shoulder again. “We’ve thought of everything. He’s not going to find you this time.”
I’d tried to run once before, but I’d made the mistake of taking off with no real plans and using my credit card at a hotel. Garrett had found me in less than twenty-four hours, and his reaction had ensured I didn’t even consider running again for over a year.
I let out a long, slow breath. I was smarter now. Stronger. I had planned for every possibility. I rose from the chair. “Let’s do this.”
Gena led me back to a large bathroom where she handed me a paper bag. “Your contacts and a different outfit.”
I peeked into the bag, and a smile pulled at my lips. Jeans, a t-shirt, and a hoodie. How long had it been since I’d worn something so casually comfortable? I honestly couldn’t remember. College, maybe? I fought the urge to rip off the pencil skirt and cardigan I was wearing.
Gena cleared her throat. “First, we have to take pictures.”
I froze. It was a vital step, I knew it. Something we’d started doing a couple of months ago. An insurance policy. Because if Garrett did come after me, I’d need all the firepower possible in my arsenal.
“Okay.” I hated how weak my voice sounded. Despised that my hands shook as I unbuttoned my sweater and unzipped my skirt. Shame, thick and bitter, washed over me as the click and whir of a Polaroid camera sounded. I wanted to be stronger, to not allow the actions of someone else to make me feel this way, but I couldn’t stop the cascade of emotions.
I bit my lip to keep the tears at bay as Gena circled me, photographing the bruises that littered my arms and torso. She’d take two sets. One for me, and one for herself to put in a safety deposit box in her name. We were covering all our bases.
“I’m done.” Gena’s voice cracked on the second word. “I’m so sorry, V. He’s a fucking bastard.” She lifted my chin with a single finger. “None of this is your fault. You hear me? There is nothing you could’ve ever done to deserve this, okay?”
I nodded, the ball of emotion in my throat keeping me from speaking. I threw my arms around her, ignoring the protests of my ribs. “Thank you. I don’t know what I would do without you.”
I didn’t. Gena was the only person I had in this world. All I had was a dead mother, the grandparents who’d disowned her—and me by affiliation—and a big question mark for a father. Without Gena, I would be totally and completely alone. Tears spilled over my bottom lids.
Gena sniffled in my ear. “I’m going to miss you like crazy. But don’t contact me for any reason. Promise me.”
This was the hardest part of it all. Knowing that for this to work, we could have zero communication. Garrett had no idea that we were even friends, but he would scour the lives of every person I had regular contact with. We couldn’t take the chance.
“I know.” I pulled back. “Maybe we’ll luck out, and he’ll get hit by a car crossing the street.”
Gena snorted. “That’s too kind a death for him.”
“He’ll lose interest in me eventually. Then, I can get in touch.”
Gena looked skeptical but nodded. I made quick work of pulling on the jeans, tee, and hoodie. When I slipped my feet into the pair of Converse sneakers, I wanted to sigh with pleasure. Never again would I wear shoes that pinched my toes simply because a man wanted me to.
Gena handed me a new purse. “There are four bus tickets and three train tickets in here. Don’t tell me which one you think you’ll use. I also gave you my ID. Use it until you get where you’re going and then burn it. I’m sure Garrett will search for my name since this is the last place you’ll have been seen.”
I nodded and licked my lips.
Gena pressed on. “There’s a small suitcase with the basics in my trunk. Don’t put the contacts in until after you’ve gone to the pawnshop.”
Gena was right. If Garrett somehow managed to track my engagement ring, I didn’t want some pawnshop employee telling him I had brown hair and brown eyes. Garrett needed to think I was running in the same clueless fashion I had before. But I wasn’t. I was smarter now, and I was going to win my freedom.
I fingered the ends of my newly cut strands. “Do you have something I could use to cover my hair?”
“Shit. I didn’t even think about that. Hold on.” Gena dug through her bag. “Here.” She handed me a beanie. “This should do the trick.”
“Perfect.” I glanced at my watch and swallowed hard. “I better go.”
Gena cleared her throat. “Be safe and be happy.”
“I will.” I pulled the beanie over my head and tucked my hair inside the woven cap.
Gena led the way out of the bathroom and down a narrow hall to the salon’s back door. The door opened to a miniscule parking lot with five cars. We headed towards Gena’s Ford Explorer. She handed me the keys. “There are sunglasses in the console. Wear them until you make it past Hulk out front.”
I threw my arms around her one more time. “I love you, G.”
“Love you more.” Her voice sounded choked. “Now, get out of here. Quick.”
There was a burning in my chest as I let her go. I was about to be totally and completely alone. But alone is better than dead.
I climbed into the SUV and turned over the engine. It had been so long since I’d driven, I hoped I didn’t get into an accident. Carefully, I backed out of the parking space and headed for the driveway, taking only a moment to glance at Gena in the rearview mirror. She stood with her hands in her pockets, brows furrowed, nibbling on her bottom lip.
I forced myself to look away. I could do this. I held my breath as I reached the end of the drive. The dark SUV that housed James sat, unmoving. I pulled into traffic, and my heart rattled again as I passed the vehicle. My eyes darted from the street in front of me to the SUV in my rearview mirror. It didn’t follow. Step one had been a success.
I let out the breath I’d been holding and headed for a sketchy part of town.
* * *
I sat in the front seat of the Explorer, counting my cash. The pawnshop owner had raked me over the coals. He had smelled my desperation from a mile away and had only given me a fraction of a fair price for my massive diamond engagement ring and Rolex watch. There had been nothing I could do about it. I was running out of time, and I had to take what I could get.
I stuck the money into my purse and pulled out the array of ticket options Gena had purchased for me. I flipped through them. All big cities. New York. New Orleans. Minneapolis. My fingers stilled on a bus ticket to Portland, Oregon. It had to be a sign. I hoped against hope that it was. Maybe my mother was looking after me and guiding my steps from above.
Even if she weren’t, and this was just some random coincidence, it didn’t matter. I was on my way, and now I had a destination. Come hell or high water, I was getting my life back.