Some people are just born bad, but the other ninety-nine-point-nine percent are a product of their experiences. At least, that’s what Avery Trent told herself as she slipped her hand out of the bag with the Siamese cats pictured on the front. The bag’s owner, snoozing beside her, was completely oblivious to the cash she’d just lost, money that would go toward Avery’s new identity.
As Avery shoved the bills into her designer handbag, she watched the white-haired lady with both caution and curiosity, wondering how the woman could fall asleep next to a stranger on a bus. The truth was, though, Avery would be the last person anyone would ever suspect of thievery. In fact, she’d be the one they’d ask to watch over their precious belongings. And at one time they would have been right to trust her.
Avery had taken note of the lady’s name and address. She took a moment to scribble it in her notepad and shove it into her purse. One day she’d repay her.
“I’m sorry, Sadie,” she whispered, feeling her throat constrict. Standing as quickly as she could when the bus squealed to a stop, she left to find somewhere to sleep for the night and hopefully get something to eat, too.
She didn’t pick the first motel she found, but didn’t search for long either and she regretted her hasty choice as she eyed the bed wearily. There was a suspect stain on the faded floral bedspread, and with a racing heart, she noted a spider in the corner above the bed. At least it’s not a cockroach, she told herself as she looked for a place that wasn’t filthy to put her precious Coach handbag. “A hot shower, some vending machine dinner, a quick call to Becca, and then some sleep,” she said aloud, to stave off the loneliness that closed in on her like the water-stained motel walls. The last hotel she’d stayed in was a five-star and had a bathroom as big as the room she was currently standing in. She wished she’d appreciated it more.
She should have enjoyed a lot of things in her old life more—her closet full of designer clothing, shoes, and handbags, her Mercedes, and her spa shower with the twenty-seven jets and waterfall faucet.
Blinking as she peeked around the corner into the bathroom, she noted the steel tub with the chipped white paint and rust stains that made her grimace. Her stomach growled then, too, alerting her to the other thing she missed—real food. She hadn’t had a meal since the previous morning, and that had been a greasy diner breakfast.
Shivering and knowing she might not get another shower for a while, she took off her high-end and equally trendy hiking boots. With her toes bare, she remembered the spider and climbed onto the bed. A tiny blip of fear zinged in her gut as she reached up to squash her unwelcome roommate, until she noticed the spider was nothing more than a penned prank. Relief flooded her, and she flopped down, hearing a spring pop. It was silly to be afraid of spiders after all she’d been through.
“Avery, quit your damn squealing; it’s just a spider. Get in there and give the horses their oats.” Her grandfather’s large hand splayed on her back, gave her the much-needed comfort she’d longed for until he shoved. Flat on her belly in the cold, filthy barn, she rose quickly, ignoring the burn in her skinned knees and palms, knowing the oats that had scattered across the ground could get her sent to bed without supper. He helped her along with that same hand to the scruff of her neck, and when she turned to blubber an apology, her grandfather dangled the spider by its long silken thread in front of her face.
Avery shivered and swallowed hard at the memory, almost feeling the spider’s wispy legs on her face again as her grandfather held her forcibly in place.
No, she hadn’t always been a spoiled rich girl. She’d grown up with just the essentials: food on the table, a roof over her head, and secondhand clothing on her back. Though her grandparents weren’t impoverished, they’d never spent a dime more than they’d had to.
“Waste not, want not, Avery. Now eat your food and hurry up. You’ve got dishes to do before you turn out the horses.” Her grandmother’s stern eyes looked at her with tight disapproval. “Your grandfather told me about your ridiculous display in the barn. You’re lucky you’re getting that dinner tonight.” She looked away with a huff. “Imagine a five-year-old afraid of an ordinary house spider.”
Avery had a trust fund though, and when it had come through on her eighteenth birthday, she’d gone a little crazy. She’d forgiven herself for that, though. After living meagerly for so long, a little overindulgence was to be expected. However, the second installment, at twenty-five, had gone even faster—but that fell on Alex, Avery’s trusting nature, and her desperation for love.
Avery’s gut churned even thinking her dead husband’s name, and she went to close the curtains tighter, first peeking to see if anyone watched from the shadows. Just a quick shower, she decided, heading for the small grungy room.
After checking for spiders behind the curtain, Avery got in the shower and began scrubbing herself promptly under the hot spray. She continued thinking about the money as she washed. She thought she’d have done better with the last installment, on her thirtieth birthday, but with her current predicament, she’d never know. Her husband’s killers would find her if she attempted to get the money. Her thoughts carried her through the rest of her routine and out to the vending machines. She wished she could turn her brain off at times.
With her hair up turban-style in the dingy towel and wearing her only other set of clothes, she munched on a package of vending machine trail mix. The raisins were hard as rocks and gritty, and the peanuts were soft, but it was better than chocolate or chips. She needed something in her belly with at least a little nutrition. In the morning, she’d have a real breakfast—the one meal she afforded herself. It was cheap and filled her for most of the day. She’d need the energy for sneaking across the border. Her destination awaited. The east coast of Canada, her birthplace and more important, the last place she’d lived with her parents before they’d died.
The twisty mountain road was all ups and downs, often with no more than a car length in between. Danger signs flashed, warning of moose, and Avery hadn’t had cell service for the last forty minutes. She glanced at the phone on the passenger seat of the Jeep she’d stolen after she’d crossed the border in a family’s trunk, and she was glad it wasn’t getting a signal. After the voicemail she’d heard at her last stop, she knew she’d have to ditch it anyway.
“Uh, Avery. What’s going on? The police are looking for you! You’re wanted for questioning. Something about Alex, the douchebag. Where are you? Please call me back. I haven’t heard from you in days.” There was an emotion-filled curse as her best friend, Becca had disconnected, and it made Avery’s eyes sting at the thought of worrying her. The cell was Becca’s, so she’d thought it would be safe. When Avery explained she was escaping Alex and a bad situation, her best friend had handed it over, hugged her, and told her to keep in contact. But now that the cops were sniffing around, it was safest for them both if Avery stayed off the line. God, she would miss Becca though.
Avery looked back at the road, and her heart pounded as she jerked the wheel, yanking the Jeep back into her lane. She needed to pay attention, for goodness’ sake! Going too fast while distracted and emotional, especially on a road that was already hazardous, was a bad idea, but she wasn’t willing to slow, not after seeing the same guy in a ball cap at her last two pit stops. Maybe he wasn’t taking her picture with his cell, but she wasn’t taking chances. Nope, there was no time to slow down, and so each time she rose over the crest of another hill, her heart pounded a little faster. Still, she kept going; it was just another element of danger in her already treacherous existence.
She was on the main logging road but hadn’t seen another vehicle for hours. It was picturesque, with evergreens and various deciduous trees climbing the mountainside and a dusting of snow still covering the ground. The sun was bright, and the sky blue. It was the kind of day she would have appreciated several months ago, but her life no longer held such luxuries. There were only staples now—a change of clothes, a bit of money, a gun, and a destination.
Her bucket list was to see the east coast: Peggy’s Cove, Cape Breton, and particularly Prince Edward Island, where she was born; all places she’d been with her parents before they’d died—not that Avery remembered, but she had the family albums. She loved PEI best—at least in pictures. She’d borrowed Anne of Green Gables from her school library hundreds of times as a child. Now more than ever, she wanted to be close to her birthplace, to go home, even if only for a short while before she met her untimely demise.
Avery let gravity pull her faster down the steep hill and even accelerated, feeling her fear climb as she descended. Gripping the wheel, she pressed her lips in determination. Embrace the fear, control it, she told herself. This is how you live now. Take fear by the horns and dominate it. Her words forced her to swallow the rising panic inside and focus on the surrounding beauty. Some people said they took life ‘one day at a time,’ but for Avery, it was ‘one breath at a time.’ And in this breath, she took in the mountain view instead of giving in to her anxiety.
Avery was not only being pulled by the force of the massive hills but hope as well. However small that hope was, she allowed herself the dream of a new life—a life where she didn’t have to run anymore, one where she felt safe.
What would her new life be? The question rattled inside her mind. Secluded, she decided, and no men, ever! At one time, all she’d wanted was a husband and children to fill her life with affection and warmth, but now? Alone and safe was all she desired. She chuckled darkly at how drastically different her aspirations had become. Her mouth pulled into a tight frown as Alex’s face flashed in her mind. Damn him, but despite everything he’d put her through, she still felt a blip of anguish over the loss. She shook it off, narrowing her eyes a moment as bitterness invaded.
“Do not feel sorry for Alex Donovan!” Avery clenched her jaw and acid burned in her gut.
Sucking in a deep breath of fresh mountain air, she forced herself to release the tension twisting in her gut. Alex Donovan was gone, and even though she had once loved him more than her own life, she was glad he was—after all, she was as good as dead now thanks to him.
The last time she’d seen Alex, he’d forced her into his bedroom closet to save her from the two men who broke in and killed him. She blinked the memory away rapidly before the fear began to grip her so tightly she wouldn’t be able to breathe. She reached across to the passenger seat and stuck her hand inside her purse. There were antacids in there somewhere, to relieve the bile that rose in her throat. Another problem she’d never had before Alex.
As the Jeep crested another huge hill and began picking up speed again, she searched one-handed. Careening toward the dip, she gripped the wheel even tighter with her left hand. The steering wheel shook, and the vibrations went right to her jaw. Her stomach dropped as the speedometer climbed to ninety-five miles per hour. Acid churned and licked like a serpent’s fiery tongue up her esophagus. Avery glanced at her purse, wondering if she should pull over but when she looked back at the road, she knew it was too late.
In front of her, at the bottom of the hill, climbing over the guardrail was a moose. It stepped over with such ease it had to be six and a half feet at the shoulder easily.
Hullo, Bullwinkle, she thought, a dead calm sweeping away her panic.
It was the most majestic creature she’d ever seen—so wild and yet so unhurried. He belonged here. This was his land—road-be-damned.
Everything slowed, and despite her bowling toward the huge animal, serenity overtook her. Today she would die, but by nature and not at the hands of Alex’s killers. She would finally be at peace, and that was a relief.
The moose turned its glorious, long face toward her and one thought dominated her mind. Don’t be like Alex and take an innocent with you.
She cursed and yanked the wheel. Even though the roads were dry, without ice or snow thanks to the sun, she still spun in a full circle.
An incredible shrieking wail pierced the quiet as metal scraped metal and the Jeep tore through the guardrail and went down. It wasn’t a sudden drop, but a jarring roll through dense brush and trees. She jolted violently in her seat, the crushed front end pressing on her like a tombstone. Hot blood spilled down her face when her head collided with something. Various parts of her body screamed for attention, but when she focused on one pain, a new one joined the chorus.
She knew she’d be free soon, though—free of all her pain. The idea calmed her further and slowed everything around her. The car would hit a tree, and she’d find release from the cage Alex had put her in, and like a bird, she’d flutter away. With that thought as her final one, the burgundy Jeep plowed into a huge pine tree, and with a sickening cry from her iron-tasting lips, she found blackness.