Sophia grimaced as she picked up her bag from the floor. After a quick glance around the room, making sure there were no visible signs of her immediate absence, she walked out, heading down the stairs quietly. She had to quickly duck into one of the spare rooms of the mansion as one of Grant’s henchmen came into the hallway. After she was sure he left, she snuck down the service hall where the maids lived and crept into the garage. Taking a deep breath, she got into her car and, making sure Elena had left her bag on the passenger seat, she started the car and made her way down the driveway.
Her chest hurt, no doubt another fractured rib as she had difficulty breathing. Grant hadn’t held back during his beating tonight. Something must have gone wrong with one of the shipments again. At least he hadn’t forced himself on her again; she didn’t think that she’d have the energy for her carefully designed escape plan if he had. It has been years since she tried fighting him off; that only ended in her having a hard time walking for days as he always had his way, whether she wanted it or not.
Leaving the premises through the delivery gate was easier than she had anticipated, but then again, Elena had assured her she would keep the guard busy. She could only hope the young maid knew what she was doing and that she wouldn’t get into any trouble.
Sophia had a long drive ahead of her and no time to waste. It would be morning soon, when her personal maid would discover her empty room and Sophia gave it another two to three hours before they would realize that she wasn’t somewhere in the mansion either. Sophia grimaced as she thought about all the times she had hidden in the mansion after a night with Grant, hoping no one would find her and she’d be able to get away. That was a futile and ridiculous plan. No, this time, she was smarter than them. She was going to make a clean break and completely disappear; no way was she going back to her gilded cage that her husband called their home.
Sophia’s eyes burned as she crossed the county lines into Minnesota. It had been three days since she left New York and she was utterly exhausted. She had planned her trip carefully, only pulling over three or four times to eat and rest, never for more than two hours. In Chicago, she had stopped at a small ER and had a doctor check her over. Of course they had a bunch of questions for her. She was limping, had three broken ribs, bruises up and down her arms, a busted lip, and a black eye. As soon as they patched her up and gave her pain meds, she slipped out again, leaving the hospital unseen, and pushed on with her journey.
No doubt Grant would be checking her credit card for any activity. He didn’t give her a lot of money, but she withdrew everything in the account once out of the city. She still had a little way to go into Minnesota; she wanted to be deep into the forest region before nightfall. She looked at the map in her hand one last time. A few miles ahead was a deserted forest trail, the perfect stop.
Upon reaching it, she got out of her car and glanced up and down the quiet road. Sophia grabbed the plastic bag from the back seat and opened it hastily; this was where time was of the essence in her plan. She took out the clothes she last wore in New York; there were still a few blood splatters on them. Perfect. She took out her travel bag from the front seat and placed it next to the road.
Looking around, she found a decent-sized rock, and weighing it in her hands, she made her way back to the car. She started the car, placed the parking brake and put it in gear. She placed the rock on the gas pedal and smiled in satisfaction as she heard the engine’s revs pick up; she made sure the steering wheel was straight before leaning in and releasing the brake. Stepping back quickly, she saw the car running down the road. It hit a bump in the road, swiveled, and went off the road before hitting a tree. She ran over, grabbing her pocketknife and the plastic bag.
As she reached the nearly wrecked car, she took the rock out and stepping back, she smashed it into the windscreen, which wasn’t nearly as cracked as she hoped it would be. Taking out her purse, she made sure the money she had withdrawn was still all there. Grabbing her phone from the bag, she got out of the car. She made a cut in the palm of her hand. Squeezing the blood out, she smeared it on the popped airbag as well as some on the dashboard and the seat. She cut her other palm as well and smeared some more on the door handle and the ledge of the door itself. She stood back and took in the car with a critical eye. It looked good enough for her.
She made sure to leave very visible footprints across the road. As soon as she was a few feet into the scrubs, she took her clothes out of the plastic bag, hastily shoving the bag into her jeans pocket. She started ripping her clothes, making sure to smear more blood on them as well. She left a trail with her clothes, breaking twigs and smearing blood on rocks, trees, and some of the patches of grass. She disturbed the fauna around a small clearing as much as she could, but she needed more blood.
Gritting her teeth, she used the back of her phone as a mirror and made a small but deep cut at her hairline. As always with head wounds, blood gushed out and she knelt and bowed her head, allowing the blood to drip into a small puddle at her feet. She cut a couple of strands from her hair and threw them down as well. When she started getting lightheaded she tore the bottom of her shirt and pressed the piece of the cotton to her head. She smeared the last bits of nearly dried blood from her palms on her phone before switching it on and tossing it aside.
Taking off her shoes and socks, she threw one back toward the road and the other she left right there. She stood up slowly and this time careful not to disturb any plants or smear a single drop of blood, she made her way back to her bag at the turn of the road. She kept to the undergrowth, careful not to leave any visible footprints in the sand this time. She reached her travel bag, got out a comfortable pair of used sneakers, thanks to Elena, and shoved her feet into them. She took out the baseball cap and three sizes too big hoodie. Hauling her bag onto her back, she started making her way down the road. The next town was only about three miles out.
There she would clean up a bit and use the money she had nabbed from Grant over the years, which amounted to quite the total now. She was going to buy a bus ticket south with her brand-new fake ID. The worst part was over now. Grant would track her credit card and her cell phone and come charging up here with nearly his entire mob, by which time she would be long gone. Safe in Tennessee.
Bob glanced up from the morning paper as he heard heavy footsteps come down the stairs. Samuel Hunter, the town sheriff, came striding into the kitchen, his big body barely fitting through the door frame. He was already dressed for work, his uniform pristine, an old habit the ex-marine still maintained proudly. The grim lines on his face however… Bob wondered when his son would ever be happy again. It had been ten plus years since his boy, only twenty, had his heart broken by a young summer romance.
“Hey, Pops.” Sam sat down and took the cup of coffee from his dad with a small smile.
“You heading out already?” Bob asked as Sam downed the coffee.
“Yeah, I forgot my wallet at the bar last night, so I have to go back for it first. I overslept.” Bob looked at his son closely. “Nightmares again?” Sam sighed and looked at his dad. He was one of the few lucky marines who didn’t suffer severely from PTSD, but sometimes he would dream about the men he had killed in close combat, their faces expressionless and their eyes merely black holes. He would wake up in a cold sweat. That was when he would take her picture out of the worn copy of Pride and Prejudice, her favorite novel that she forgot on his front porch the last night he saw her. His beautiful Sophia. They fell in love like a brewing thunderstorm, all rolling clouds and bolts of lightning. But she had left him, chosen an older man with a lot of money above his offer to run away together. Before the next summer, he was enlisted as a marine and on his way to his first tour of Iraq.
“Not really. I dreamt about Soph.” He shrugged as his father looked at him sharply. He had never kept any secrets from his old man and he never would. They only had each other in this world. His mom had died giving birth to him, but his father had raised him to be a proud and honorable man.
“She was smiling at me, but her eyes…” His voice trailed off as he recalled the image that came to him last night of the woman he had once thought was the love of his life. Her face was still as perfect as he remembered it, but her smile was forced, and her eyes were empty. He shrugged the memory off with force.
“It doesn’t matter. She is happier wherever she is. Probably shopping on Fifth Avenue with a few other high society wives.” He couldn’t keep the bitterness from his voice. He didn’t have much to offer her when they were young. He was a twenty-year-old man, working in his dad’s bar, still indecisive about what to do with his life. But he had loved her; he would have moved mountains for her.
But she had rejected him and his love—coldly and cruelly. If someone had told him before that night that she was a coldhearted bitch, he would’ve knocked the guy the fuck out. Unfortunately, no one gave him any warning. She had cast a spell over everyone as a sweet and innocent girl. His father had loved her. Fuck, he wanted to take his belt to her for disappointing his dad. Too bad his heart was too broken to see that his dad’s was as well. Since his retirement from the army, he’d had many flings, a few relationships, but nothing that lasted more than a few months. Shaking his head to rid his brain from the memories, he looked at his dad again as the older man addressed him.
“You head on out to work, I’ll pick it up for you and bring it over.” Bob owned the local pub, Hunter’s, and the men had their dinner there most nights, as their waitress had moved out of the small town of Ripley a few months back. They were still trying to find a replacement, so Bob was there during most of the week to help with the workload.
“Thanks, Pops.” Sam got up, squared his shoulders, and left the house.
Bob sighed. Sometimes he wondered if he had raised his son to be too proud. Heading out of the house himself, he was lost in thought as he remembered the beautiful Sophia and how she had so effortlessly fallen into their world. She was like a ray of sunshine for their dull lives. If he’d ever had a daughter, he would have wanted her to be like Sophia. Sam was too proud, too stricken with heartache to see straight through her lies. Bob knew there was a reason she was leaving; she had loved Sam and she was scared to leave that night. Bob was sad that she didn’t trust them enough to tell them what was really going on.
Of course, he tried to tell Sam this, but the boy didn’t want to listen to anything. Which was why he was so surprised when Sam talked about her so casually that morning. That was a new occurrence. Maybe his son was starting to get over her, starting to heal. He pulled into the parking in front of the bar and frowned as he saw a person huddled in the doorway, a big bag lying next to him. He didn’t really have the energy today to deal with a beggar, but he wasn’t going to call Sam to do it. He wasn’t that old yet and could still handle a random drunk passing through town. He nudged the guy not too gently with his foot and waited as the big jacket lying over him started moving.
“Come on, big guy, time to move along. Don’t want to call the sheriff on you.” The figure jumped up quickly and Bob had to take a startled step back as it wasn’t a guy, but a girl. A tiny little thing too, with a pixie cut, dark gray at the front with various streaks of blue, pink, and purple standing in all directions in the back. She had a tiny cut on her upper lip and a fading black eye; from his years as an EMT, he could tell they were about a week old.
“I’m sorry, I’m just waiting for some… Bob?” The silver-blue eyes were wide, and her mouth fell open slightly. Bob took another step back and examined the woman in front of him closely.
“Soph?” The moment the name was out of his mouth, the tiny woman in clothes that were way too big for her jumped toward him and wrapped her thin arms around him, hugging him tightly.
“Oh, Bob! I was so scared you weren’t going to be here anymore. I didn’t know where else to go.” And then she was sobbing into his chest, so he wrapped one arm around her and struggled with his keys with the other. After opening the door, he led her inside and went back to grab her bag. When he returned, she was still sniffling a little, but it seemed that most of her crying had calmed down.
He moved around the counter, took down two tumbler glasses and poured a liberal amount of whiskey into each. He wasn’t a big drinker and never before noon, but the Lord knew he needed a drink right now and from the looks of it, so did Sophia.
“No, thanks.” She pushed the glass back at him, but he pushed it right back again.
“Sweetheart, looks like you need it more than I do.”
Her lower lip trembled as she took the glass and swallowed the burning liquid, wincing as it raced down her throat.
“Now tell me what you are doing here.” Bob watched as she swallowed, closed her eyes and took a deep breath, but as she opened her mouth to speak, the bell on top of the door chimed and Sam came in.
“Pops? I came to get my wallet, I’ve got…” He glanced up and saw the woman sitting there.
“Pops, you’re not open yet.” Bob raised an eyebrow at his son. Seriously, he was pulling sheriff on him now? Obviously it wasn’t his trading hours yet; it was barely eight in the morning.
“I know.” He glanced at Sophia quickly and saw that her face was deathly pale and her back ramrod straight, but she turned slightly in her chair, her back facing Sam. “I was merely having a chat with an old friend.”
Sam gave the woman a quick once-over. Her stiff posture was clashing with the wildly styled and colored hair; weren’t women with hair color like that supposed to be easygoing? And she was rude as well, not acknowledging him. Must be from the city; small town folk were well-mannered down to the bone. The dominant side of him, which had been asleep for the past ten years, had a good idea to pull her from that chair, bend her over the nearest table, and give her the hiding her rudeness deserved.
“Good morning.” He raised his voice slightly, his eyes intense on her back, willing her to turn around.
Sophia gave Bob a pleading look, but he merely shrugged. He knew how Sam was and apparently, so did Sophia. She took a deep breath and turned around slowly. Sam looked at the tiny woman, her arms folded across her stomach as though she was holding herself together. She looked… familiar. He focused on her face, taking in the bruises, but it was her eyes that captured his attention the most. He took a step closer, grunted as she visibly shrank back, but then she blinked, and he saw a rim of green peek out behind the gray of her irises. Contact lenses.
“Now Sam…” Bob began, his hands raised slightly, like he was trying to calm a dangerous predator, and that was exactly what Sam felt like when the puzzle in his mind clicked.
“Sophia?” She gulped and her already pale face whitened even more.
He turned to his dad furiously. “What the fuck is the meaning of this?” But then he seemed to remember himself, turning back to her and taking another step closer. As he raised his hand, she nearly threw herself off the chair but then steeled herself with one hand raised toward her face.
Sam fell back a few steps, shock written all over his face. “You think I’d hit you?”
She gave a nervous smile and lowered her hand. “Of course not, it was an instinctive reaction.” His eyes narrowed as he took in her bruises again. Instinctive, yes, but he would bet his next paycheck that she was afraid of him. His phone beeped again, reminding him of the reason why he couldn’t wait for his dad to bring him his wallet. He cursed under his breath.
“Look, I have to go, there’s been an accident outside of town.” His dad nodded at him and Sophia was looking at him with wide eyes. He turned toward her. “I want to talk to you. Don’t leave town.” His voice was deep; the dom was rearing his head again. Her face paled again, and he glanced down at her fingers; no wedding ring, but a faint white line. Yeah, he was going to see her again, he had a whole list of questions to ask her. “Pops?” He didn’t look at his dad, but they understood each other without having to speak. His dad handed him his wallet. “She’ll stay a few days, at least.” His father’s voice was firm, and he knew he could leave Sophia there.
“I’m afraid I can’t…” Her voice was soft with a slight quiver that gave away her nervousness.
“Don’t make me cuff you to my bed again, Sophia.” She blushed furiously, and he felt his lips quirk into a slight smile. At least she still remembered. “Stay with Pops. I will see you later.”
“Yes, sir.” He felt his groin tighten and her eyes widened as she slapped a hand over her mouth.
“Good girl.” He smiled at his dad and turned around, leaving without a second glance.
Sophia sagged against the bar and let out a shuddering breath. She was such a fool! She had thought of everything when planning her escape, including her brand-new image and ID, stating she was Sophie Denton, born in Los Angeles and raised by the system. It was easier that way than making up fake parents, especially after the way her own parents gave her to Grant to pay their debt. She glanced up as she realized Bob had witnessed the entire exchange between her and Sam and she felt her face flame with mortification as she realized how easily she had succumbed to Sam.
“Bob, I can’t…”
“Sophia, I won’t go against my son’s wishes. Sam was a fool all those years ago, but I’ve always been wise before my years.” She frowned at him, thoroughly confused.
“I know you were pulling a ton of bullshit at the time. Telling him you didn’t love him? That you wanted a man with enough money so that you don’t ever have to lift a finger again? I called bullshit, but Sam was too damn stubborn to see past your lies. He was hurt, hell, he is still hurting, and he deserves for you to be honest with him. He needs to move on, and he can’t do that without closure. Closure you are going to give him as soon as he comes back from work tonight.”
Sophia pondered this as she bit her lip. She wanted to get away from her life. Never in her wildest dreams did she think that Sam would still be living here. She’d thought she could get to Bob, lay low for a few weeks, and steadily make her way to Mexico and start a new life. Bob was right; if Sam was still hurting, he deserved to be happy. He was a good man and would make some woman a very happy wife one day. She had noticed that he did not wear a ring, so he was obviously not married—yet. She ignored her stomach plummeting at the thought of Sam being married and having kids with some faceless woman. But she scoffed mentally. She’d left him, broken his heart, and married Grant, and she was hurt that he might do the same. She nodded at Bob as she made her mind up. She owed Sam an explanation and no matter how much it hurt her, she had to make sure that he was able to move on and live his life before she had to leave town again.
“Now, it looks like you need something to eat and maybe a decent bed to sleep on?” Sophia opened her mouth to refuse, but her stomach gave an embarrassingly loud growl and she pressed her lips firmly together. “But before we leave, I need to check over your injuries.” Bob’s voice was firm, and his eyes were focused on her, daring her to go against him.
“I don’t have any…”
“Sophia, I was an EMT for nearly thirty years. You’re limping and taking shallow breaths.”
“I’ve seen a doctor, I have pain meds, I’m fine.”
“Humor an old man.” He came around the counter again and held out a hand for her. With a sigh of resignation, she allowed him to help her from the barstool and followed him meekly as he walked toward the back of the entertainment area where she knew the staircase was that led to small apartment above the bar. Once inside the bedroom he told her to lift her shirt. She bit her lip before closing her eyes and lifting her shirt to reveal her healing abdomen.
Bob gritted his teeth as he saw the bruising, in various stages of healing, spattered across her porcelain skin. He forced his personal feelings aside as he did a quick, but thorough examination of her.
“Seems like three broken ribs and…”
“I twisted my ankle, it’s not broken. I told you, I went to a doctor.” Her lips were still set firmly, but her shoulders were straight, and she held her head high.
“What medicine did they give you?” She pulled the pills from her jacket pocket and gave them to him.
“These are fine, but I think you’ll need a refill. Those ribs are going to…”
“Take four to six weeks for the pain to be bearable.” She finished his sentence for him.
“Okay, so the doctor filled you in on everything.”
Sophia had to bite her lip to keep the words from spilling out. Truth was, she had her ribs broken a few times before, so she knew exactly what to expect. As she glanced up at Bob, she knew that he could see right through her; it was something Sam had inherited from him. One look cut through all the lies. It was sad that despite his cunning intelligence, he was so quick to believe her lies all those years ago.
Sam worked on autopilot for the rest of the day. When he got to the bar that morning, he’d never expected to find Sophia there. What was she doing here? Why now after all these years? And she seemed so different. He remembered her as a young girl of nineteen, with light in her eyes and fire in her spirit. Her eyes were dull now, she had small frown lines next to her eyes, and the corners of her mouth seemed to tug downward in sorrow, almost exactly like she appeared to him in his dream the previous night. She didn’t look like a happily married woman. What the hell had happened in the last ten years that she showed up here now, unannounced and with a completely new persona dragging along with her? And those bruises? Her skittish attitude? Oh, yes, they were definitely going to have a good, long talk. He parked in front of the bar and got out of his truck, slamming the door shut. Bob looked up as the bell above the door jingled. Sam was sporting a thunderous expression and he sighed softly.
“Where is she?”
“She’s resting upstairs, but…” Sam turned abruptly and strode toward the back door. He didn’t hesitate when opening the door to the small apartment and made his way determinedly to the bedroom. Sophia was lying on her back, a small frown between her eyes indicating that even when sleeping she was anything but peaceful. He noticed her bag lying on the floor and rummaged through it quickly. With a deep frown, he walked over to the bed and sat down next to her. The slight movement jostled her awake and she jumped out of the bed, looking around the room with frightened eyes.
“Hey, Soph, relax. It’s just me.” Her eyes drifted toward him and she took a deep breath, raising her hands to rub the sleep from her eyes.
“Damn it, Sam! You nearly gave me a heart attack.” She took a deep and calming breath, before tugging nervously at the hem of the oversized T-shirt she had changed into before taking a nap, acutely aware of the fact that she wasn’t wearing anything beneath it. Sam’s eyes raked over her body once before lingering on her exposed thighs, his steely gaze then once again settling on her panicked face. Even littered with bruises that made a murderous rage rush through his body, she was still exceptionally beautiful.
“Really? I only sat down.” There was a question in his eyes that she wanted to evade by all means.
“So… you were looking for me?” she asked, hoping she didn’t look as nervous as she felt. Sam nodded and stood up, indicating that she should follow him. Once she stood from the bed, he immediately started heading to the small table in the kitchen before sitting down heavily.
“Yes. What are you doing here?”
The abrupt question should have caught her off guard, but she knew Sam and he was as forward and direct as they came.
“I’m just passing through, Sam. I’m not here to intrude, I didn’t even know that you were still staying in town. I’ll be gone by tomorrow morning.”
Sophia reared back and gave him a confused look.
“Sit down, Sophia.” His voice deepened and she felt her knees weaken at the sound of his dom voice. “Or should I say Sophie Denton?” Her legs gave out beneath her as she flopped down in a chair at the other side of the table and it had nothing to do with the sound of his voice. Her face was drained of color and she could only look at him with wide eyes as he stood up and strode back to the bedroom, returning shortly with her backpack. He slammed the bag down on the table and she jumped at the sudden noise, but she still couldn’t get her vocal cords to unlock. She watched with trepidation as he pulled out her brand-new identification card, along with the fairly large stack of bills tied together with a rubber band.
“Care to explain why you are running with a false ID?” His voice was deceptively soft, and Sophia swallowed nervously.