The phone sat heavily in my hands. I juggled it back and forth, testing as if a snake would snap out of it and attack me, but it was only a cell phone—an overpriced minicomputer, which a few days earlier I practically lived life on during my nonworking hours. Oh, how things changed in a split second.
My stomach curled as my thumb hovered over the tiny button on the side of the phone, which turned it on and might change my future. The black screen hadn’t illuminated, but in my mind, I imagined what it would look like as I dialed my mother.
She had to be worried about me.
Hell, I was worried about myself.
I tucked a piece of my blonde hair behind my ear, placed the phone on my knee, and then leaned over it, as if getting closer would make my decision easier. I’d been on the run—possibly a known fugitive—for five full days and it was a lonely existence. Besides a few checkout girls and the older woman I dropped off my cabin rental money to, I hadn’t spoken to anyone since I fled Portland. Now I’d holed up in a small town on Maine’s coast for a long-term hideaway.
It wasn’t only the lack of communication with other humans, but also a lack of knowledge. I wanted to hear updates about my case. Did I even have a case? Were the police looking for me? Did my family miss me? What about my mother? Which would lead to a quicker death—her finding me or the Jesup siblings?
In my haste to get out of town as quickly as possible, I’d only left a quickly scratched note promising my mother I was okay and not to worry. Then I took less than twenty minutes and threw as many clothes as I could fit into a bag and literally ran to my car. I’d been running ever since. No one tells you how hard running gets after your first night sleeping in your car.
The problem with running is if you don’t have a destination in mind, you never get there, but you do get exhausted. Tired people think of shit plans and get caught. I couldn’t afford to get caught, so I needed to rest. Solution? A week at a rustic cabin right outside a small town named Pelican Bay.
Originally, I planned to rent the cabin for longer, but decided not to risk an extended stay. Even a week constituted an enormous safety risk, but I needed time to formulate a spectacular, lifesaving plan. It’s impossible to do that while sleeping in your car in a Walmart parking lot.
My leg twitched as I tapped it restlessly. Nerves crept into my thoughts. What if I turned on my phone and someone tracked it? Could they do that?
And then everything would be fine.
Still, I had other problems with being on the run. Things you don’t necessarily plan for when you’re safe and comfortable in your nice, warm house binge watching a show on Netflix. Life was not a TV show. Running from the police and your intended killers was a lot harder than it looked on your favorite crime drama. Not everyone knew a super smart computer guy to set you up with a new identity.
With a deep sigh, because I wasn’t ready to risk the phone call yet, I opened the glove box to my Jeep Commander—not the most inconspicuous vehicle or the best mileage to flee in—and tucked the phone safely inside the hidden compartment. A few of the sun’s rays broke through the tree canopy in the clearing, where several cabins nestled against a narrow bubbling river. I hadn’t opened the car door yet and already the scent of pine wafted in and ticked my nose.
It’d been so long since I’d seen the sun. Winter in Maine had a reputation for its gray skies, not sunshine and warmth-filled afternoons. But as we inched closer to spring, the celestial body was making more of an appearance every day. I tilted my head up, letting the rays warm my face through the car windshield.
When it came to life on the lam, I wasn’t superb at it. I left behind my job as an administrative coordinator in a home for the elderly and aged in Portland and had only made it as far north as Pelican Bay. I hadn’t even hit Canada yet. I’d never heard of the tiny town before, but the billboard on the side of the highway advertising rustic cabins for a getaway sounded exactly what I needed.
Before I found this place, I’d been too worried to stop at a hotel and use my credit card and too scared to stay by myself at one of the sleazy hotels that dotted the road on the way to our northern neighbor.
Even though I’d never been to Pelican Bay, the fact I drove through the entire downtown section in less than five minutes gave me all the explanation I needed. Typical small town. Cute little shops lined Main Street, and they even decorated the light poles. I’d driven myself right to Mayberry. Fingers crossed for an incompetent deputy to match.
I had many problems, but my biggest was how quickly I’d run out of road. If I didn’t stop soon, I really would find myself in Canada. I needed a new direction and a better plan. Every move came with risks. Because I wasn’t sure the police had an arrest warrant out against me, I wanted to avoid crossing the border if possible.
The rustic hideaway in the middle of a forest next to the ocean was exactly what I needed to help me figure out my next steps. Ava Jesup wouldn’t visit a rustic cabin even to kill me in my sleep. The dirtier and more bug filled the place, the better. Pelican Bay was the safest town for me at the moment.
A lot safer than Portland, where crazy maniacs held guns to your head and said they’d blame you for their mother’s death.
I needed a plan, but what? TV shows made running away seem easy, but for every idea I thought of, I envisioned another hundred reasons why it was bound to fail. And worse, my money would run out soon because I only had the cash from the tiny safe my grandfather gave me on my eighteenth birthday with a warning to hold on to my money because you shouldn’t trust the banks. Man, how did Grandpa turn out to be right? I didn’t trust using a debit or credit card, so I couldn’t stay in my cabin forever. The envelope I dropped off to an older woman with her gray hair tied back in a braid bought me one week of time and then I needed something new.
Since I didn’t use the phone to call my mother as planned, I slid open the Jeep door and made my way toward my tiny cabin. No use sitting in my car drawing attention to myself. It didn’t look as if the cabins had many renters. The lack of cars parked out front of each was a big sign, but I needed to be on the lookout and careful who saw me.
One short step led up to my cabin door and I stopped on it. I pulled out the rustic-looking key attached to a huge metal keyring and eyed it before sticking it in the lock. The setup was so bulky I’d barely gotten it to fit in my pocket. Losing keys must be an issue. Not much other crime probably happened in the quiet little town or this far out in the woods.
I fiddled with the key, twisting it and trying to unlock the door before pulling it out to try again in a fresh attempt. A dog barked in the background and the key slipped from my fingers, tumbling to the ground with a jingle. Damn nerves.
The noisy canine barked again somewhere in the distance. I tried to hurry, bending over the step and grabbing the key off the muddy ground when something hit my back like a bulldozer. The impact knocked the wind from my lungs and I plunged forward, holding my hand out to brace myself as I rammed into the side of the cabin.
“Delta, no!” someone yelled and then hands grabbed me.
I flinched, trying to defend myself, but the touch wasn’t mean, more of a caress. “Are you okay?” a deep voice asked as he turned me around to face him.
“Who are you?” I demanded, staring at the man in his light honey-colored eyes with little darker brown specks around the edges. Gorgeous.
“I have no idea what has gotten into that dog. I promise he’s highly trained. The military only takes the best recruits.”
I didn’t miss how he never answered my question, but my gaze fell to the brown and black dog beside him, staring up at me with his tongue lolling out. The animal who looked like a small black German Shepard was mighty, but when he tipped his head at me, it almost seemed as if he smiled.
“He’s adorable,” I said, reaching toward him but then pulling my hand back. “Can I pet him?”
The man shook his head in dismay. “He’s a menace, but yes, you can pet him. I still don’t know why he behaved that way. I can’t apologize enough.”
“It’s okay. What breed is he?” The dog had the ears of a German Shepard, but was smaller and darker, so he had to be a mix.
“Delta is a Belgian Sheperd. He’s a SEAL dog, but retirement is obviously not suiting him. Are you sure you’re not hurt?”
I scratched behind the dog’s ears as he moved his head in my direction. His owner grunted as if he found it disgusting his military dog gave in to pets. Or maybe he disagreed with how Delta leaned into my touch, his weight almost knocking me over as he held himself up against my leg.
“I seem okay.” My hand scraped a little on the wooden siding of the cabin, but I didn’t want to get the dog in any more trouble. It terrified me the first few seconds, but it became easy to see he was a big puppy at heart. He probably only wanted to play.
“Aren’t you just the cutest little thing in the entire world?” I said in baby speak using two hands to pet the dog. His handsome head pushed into my palm, demanding more love.
His owner shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “You mean he’s tough and manly.”
I snorted—how embarrassing—and pulled my head back to get a better look. Except I lost my balance in the process and my body swayed, forcing the dog’s owner to hold out his arm and catch me on the shoulder so I didn’t face plant. What had once been a white sneaker was halfway up to its laces on the muddy ground around the cabin. Perfect.
I used the unidentified man’s shoulder as a balance. It didn’t go past my notice how his muscles flexed when I did. Somebody visited the gym and often. With his help, I jiggled and wiggled my shoe out of its stuck position until the mud released it with a squelching belch only Mother Nature could produce.
“Sorry,” he said as we both stared at my now-ruined sneaker. “This place becomes a mess in the spring.
“Yeah, I guess. I’m Heidi.” I held out my hand to shake his. By that point, I felt safe. If Ava or Kyle sent him, he’d have tried to kill me already. And frankly, he would have succeeded.
His hand found mine, and it was warm and controlled as he dominated our handshake. “Lee.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Lee,” I said, my words holding nothing but truth. He was the first person who’d really spoken to me in days, and it made me realize how much I missed human interaction.
Especially with hot men. Lee wore a red plaid button-down shirt, which somehow, even though was flannel, held his arm muscles as if they were straining the material and wanted to break free. His hair was cut short to his head, and he had the jawline of a gorgeous boxer. If my life was in a different spot and I had three shots in me, I’d have asked him to juggle five eggs and sing me Gaston’s song from Beauty and the Beast.
He fit the role perfectly, but his eyes held kindness rather than arrogance. His dog looked at him as if he hung the moon even as he hit my hand with his head, asking for more pets. I had a feeling Lee wouldn’t kill any beast either. Lee was one of those men who was rugged on the outside but definitely cried at those puppy commercials with Sarah McLachlan. Not that he’d ever admit it. His eyes gave too much away.
The conversation slowed as I stared at him and clenched my teeth together, hoping he hadn’t noticed the way my gaze lingered on all his better aspects. I couldn’t help it; they were everywhere.
“So, Lee, what are you doing here?” I asked and bit my tongue because it sounded rather accusing.
He looked to his left and then to his right before leaning in to whisper conspiratorially. “Well, don’t tell anyone else, but I own this place.”
It didn’t sound right, and I shook my head. “No, the older woman who took my money and gave me the key said the owner was Leonard Fritzpatrick.”
He smiled bigger. “I only let my friends call me Lee. Pearl likes to use full names on people. Reminds us she’s in charge.”
“Ohh.” Duh, that wasn’t a hard observation to make, and I only blamed his hotness for sucking out my brain cells so I didn’t make the connection right away.
That explains a bit about the older woman who chatted me up before she’d give me a key to the cabin. She said she was helping for a few hours while Leonard ran around with his guy friends. I figured people in small towns were just weird.
“If you need any help getting the shoe clean, I’m over at the big cabin where you dropped off your deposit. I have a full-size bathroom if you need to use it.” He took a tentative step back, which only highlighted how close we’d been standing.
I edged away as well, stepping back onto the tiny porch of the cabin and inserting my key in the lock. “I’m sure it will be fine,” I promised, knowing I was a big fat liar and would probably need to throw the shoe away. Not that I had money to buy new ones. If it came to food or shoes, I always picked food.
Even skinny bitches needed to eat.
I left Lee and slipped into my cabin, closing the door behind me, but I watched from the tiny window through the sheer curtains as he and his dog made their way down the trail he’d pointed to a moment ago. When he was out of sight, I kicked off my shoes and tossed them against the door.
Why did I have to meet someone as handsome and sexy as Lee when I was literally on the run for my life?