Authors: Rachel Branton
Tags: #lds, #Christian, #karen kindgsbury, #Romantic Suspense, #ariana, #Romance, #Suspense, #a bid for love, #clean romance, #dee henderson
A hole would be nice, except then how would I help Lily? My father had hundreds of applications for each job opening in his factory, and other companies were just as flooded. No one would want to pay me what I’d earned with my father, and my degree in liberal arts now seemed rather useless. Of course, I’d never thought I’d actually have to find a job outside the family business.
A burst of anger blotted out the despair. How could I have been so stupid? Lily had at least tried to become independent, while I’d stayed reliant on my family. Now they controlled my life—and they wanted me to marry Julian.
For a moment the hurt and betrayal were too great to endure. Yet I didn’t die, and after a moment the pain receded enough to breathe again, and I knew what I had to do. I arose, brushing my hands on my pants. “I’m getting married,” I said, “but not to my fiancé.”
Gage’s eyes narrowed as he stood. “What are you talking about?” At that moment he looked hard, like a man who actually might have served time.
“He’s a liar and a cheat, and I’m getting out, even if I have to hitchhike my way to Las Vegas and marry the first man I meet.”
“So is marrying someone who doesn’t love you.”
“At least you know him. Don’t you think marrying some stranger in Las Vegas would be even worse?”
“Not if it’s a business arrangement. Temporary.” Take that, Mother. I was a quick learner. I’d find a way around the trust fund requirements because I knew if my grandfather were alive, he’d be the first one to help Lily, and he certainly wouldn’t see me married to a man who would betray me. He’d been faithful to my grandmother not only for all the time they were married, but for twenty years after she was gone.
I stuck out my hand to Gage. “It’s been nice knowing you, Gage. I hope you have a wonderful life.”
His hand swallowed mine with a strength that made me slightly uneasy. “What about Serenity?”
Serenity had been a constant in my life for seven years, but I couldn’t see walking down the Las Vegas strip with a horse in tow, looking for a likely marriage candidate. If managed to get the trust fund, I could move Serenity to wherever I ended up. Maybe I could buy the field next to Lily’s house. That is, if my parents didn’t sell the horse first.
I bit my lip, tears smarting in my eyes. “She’ll be okay here for now.”
I turned to go, but Gage’s hand shot out to grab my arm. I felt a momentary shiver of fear, and he must have seen it in my eyes because he dropped his hand instantly. “Sorry. I just—are you in trouble? Is there something I can do to help?” He was uniquely appealing at the moment, a mix of little boy and wild-looking ex-con. I hadn’t noticed how tall he was before or how broad his chest, and I wondered what he looked like under all that facial hair.
I forced a smile. “How about a ride to Las Vegas?” My old car had been sold, and the new one, a wedding gift from Julian’s parents, wasn’t scheduled to arrive until after Julian and I returned from our honeymoon. “I’m kidding. Look, thanks for your concern, but everything is fine. I’m not the first woman to have her heart broken.”
He arched a brow, and I noticed he had nice ones. Expressive. “You look more mad than heartbroken.”
He was wrong. My heart did hurt. I hated knowing that I wasn’t enough for Julian, that he didn’t love me the way I loved him. Yes, I was also furious at him, and at my parents, but most of all at myself. I was the reason I was in this mess, the reason Lily was in danger. I’d trusted the wrong man.
“Then you don’t know me very well,” I told Gage. “Good-bye. It really has been nice knowing you.”
I could feel his eyes on me as I left. Grabbing Serenity’s mane, I pulled myself up on her bare back and let her take me to the other side of the pasture.
“I’ll miss you more than anyone here,” I whispered, giving her the last cube of sugar in my pocket. “But I’ll be back some day. I promise.”
t took all of fifteen minutes to stuff several extra outfits in a backpack, and all my valuables—jewelry, cash, credit cards, small electronics that I could maybe pawn or sell on eBay. Most of my clothing was already at the house where I’d planned to live with Julian. I hoped I could get that later.
Going online, I transferred every dime I had in my two savings accounts to the personal checking I had opened as an adult, the only account on which my mother wasn’t a joint signer. Two thousand dollars. Not a lot, but enough to get started. I took more time to locate important documents and to type up a contract on my laptop. I’d need to make sure I didn’t get swindled out of my entire trust fund. I didn’t e-mail Julian because the hurting part of me wanted him to find out from someone else the way I had.
I should let Sadie know I was coming, but there wasn’t time for that because her phone was busy, and I had to get away before my mother returned from wherever she had gone. She’d stop me from leaving and call Julian and my father. My bid for freedom would be over.
The last thing I did was to remove my engagement ring and set it on my desk where I knew my mother would see it. Pawning it might be wiser, but I couldn’t resist the message it would send to Julian—and to my parents. I would not settle for half a marriage.
The house was quiet as I slipped outside and headed for the road. Already, I could tell it was going to be a long, long walk. With each step, the pack grew heavier. I could only pray my mother wouldn’t drive down the road and see me. My thumb went automatically to the place on my third finger where I’d worn the ring, finding nothing but bare skin.
I hadn’t walked a mile when I realized I was being followed by a motorcycle. Fear tingled at the base of my spine, and I forced myself to walk faster. Another two miles or so and I’d be at Sadie’s, and I was hoping she would lend me a car. After that, I didn’t know. I needed to find someone to help me get my trust fund, a temporary husband who wouldn’t mind making a fast buck. I ran over candidates in my mind, discarding one after the other. Either they were married, seeing someone one, employees of my father, or friends of Julian. Maybe one of my college friends could help. Unfortunately, I’d been so wrapped up in Julian these past months that I hadn’t kept in contact beyond the occasional text message.
The motorcycle moved closer, and I didn’t relax when I saw who was on it. I came to a full stop and turned to face Gage. “Why are you following me?” Maybe there was more to the ex-con rumor than I’d thought.
“Are you really planning to walk to Vegas?”
“Of course not. I’m going to a friend’s to borrow her car.”
“And then you’re going to marry a stranger.”
“Unless I can find someone I know to marry me instead.”
He stared at me flatly without speaking.
“Look, it’s complicated,” I said, “but once I have access to my trust fund, everything will be fine.”
“To do that you have to be married?”
His eyes were greener than I’d ever realized, and I liked the way they crinkled at the sides, but it was hard to look past the scruffy exterior. I couldn’t imagine kissing someone with all that hair—not that I wanted to kiss him. My face flushed at the thought. Hopefully, he’d think it was the heat. Late September was better for walking than August, but not much.
“Get on,” he said. “I’ll give you a ride.”
“Come on. That pack looks heavy. You can put it in here.” He opened the hard compartment on the back of his motorcycle.
Sighing, I handed it over, and he placed it next to small black duffel already inside. With a little moving around, it all fit.
“What you carrying in there—rocks?”
I rolled my eyes. “Can we just go?”
He grinned, and again I wondered what he looked like under the facial hair. “Wait a minute. Isn’t that your mother’s car?”
I glanced up the road at the approaching blue sedan. Instantly, I squatted down by the motorcycle, ducking my head.
Gage laughed, a deep, resonate sound. “I take it you don’t want her to see you.”
“Just looking for more rocks to put in my pack.”
He laughed again, and something warm grew inside me. I laughed with him, straightening once the car passed. As soon as she found out I was missing, she’d call in the troops, but for the moment I was safe. Only an hour ago, I doubted I’d ever laugh again, but here I was, already laughing with Gage.
“This will hide your hair,” he said, handing me a helmet, “and it can’t possibly make it look worse. Did you even comb it today?”
He had some nerve, though now that I thought about it, I hadn’t washed or combed it. I’d been about to jump in the shower when Sadie arrived. I didn’t have makeup on, either. Not a good way to start a search for a husband, even if it was only a business arrangement.
I silenced him with a hard look, but after I climbed onto the back of the bike, I found myself smiling again. My mother would be mortified to see me out and about with Gage. As for me, who did I have to impress? Julian was the only one, and I was running from him.
“Where to?” Gage asked.
I gave him directions to Sadie’s, and he revved the engine, starting forward much more quickly than I expected. I clung to him. I could feel his muscles under the T-shirt. Plenty strong to have hurt someone. Did the ex-con rumor mention something about that? I couldn’t remember. Cold sweat broke over me. What was I thinking even being with him?
No, I knew him well enough, and this trip was only to Sadie’s.
I enjoyed the wind in my face, the way Gage leaned when he took the turns. Julian had a motorcycle, but he didn’t like wearing the helmet and usually picked me up in his green BMW. I didn’t mind because the places we went generally required clothing not suitable for motorcycle riding.
“Turn here,” I shouted in Gage’s ear.
We turned the corner, and I felt my breath leave as I saw Julian’s BMW sitting out front of the fourplex where Sadie shared an apartment with two roommates. My grip around Gage tightened. Why was Julian at Sadie’s? After this morning, I would have thought she would barely talk to him.
I didn’t tell Gage to stop, and he drove to the end of the street before realizing something was wrong. He pulled over and twisted to look at my face. “Did I turn the wrong way?”
“That’s Julian’s car.”
He lifted his gaze. “Why, so it is. Are you going inside?”
“No. Let’s go.”
“I don’t care. Please, just go.” If I spoke to Julian now, my chance for escape would be over. I wasn’t strong enough to withstand him. Not yet. Because I’d become exactly the type of society girl Lily and I despised—spineless, choiceless, weak.
Gage nodded and took off, faster than necessary. I laid my head against his back and let the tears fall, knowing I wouldn’t be recognized with the helmet. As we passed Sadie’s, I saw Julian at the door with her, his blond hair gleaming in the sunlight that angled in despite the porch overhang. They seemed to be laughing.
Laughing? I didn’t understand what I’d seen or why Julian had been there. Had Sadie called him over to confront him? Maybe he was there to convince her of his innocence. Or maybe Sadie hadn’t told me the whole truth. The idea hurt almost as much as Julian’s betrayal.
No, she was my friend, of that I was certain. She loved me. We had history together that was stronger than Julian’s charm.
Closing my eyes, I hung onto Gage. We drove and drove until my legs began to ache and my stomach protested with hunger. Had I eaten that morning? I couldn’t remember.
As if hearing my unspoken thoughts, Gage turned off the freeway. The sign read Kingman. We’d come that far?
After several turns, he pulled up in front of a quaint older building painted bright baby blue with dark pink trim. Even the picnic tables outside were pink. A big sign atop the building read
Mr D’z Route 66 Diner.
“Hungry?” he asked.
I nodded. I’d heard of this place, but I’d never been here before. Not the sort of joint my parents frequented when I’d lived at home, and I hadn’t had much cause to be in the area.
“The burgers aren’t all that great, but the onion rings and the root beer make up for it.”
I didn’t think I could down a greasy burger anyway. Just thinking about it probably caused me to gain two pounds. My wedding dress would never fit.
My stomach heaved.
“You okay?” Gage asked. “You aren’t going to puke or anything, are you?”
“No, I’m not.” I stalked toward the door.
Inside the diner, blue and pink padded booths alternated along the walls. Stools at the bar were silver chrome with blue seats, the floor was black-and-white checks, and the walls were plastered with pictures and memorabilia of the past. “Interesting,” I murmured.
“Garish.” He smiled, but again it was lost in the facial hair. His green eyes, however, were sparkling. “Because Oprah came here, everyone stops in. Rather annoying, but I’m sure it’s good for business.”
We settled into a blue seat, and he ordered two cheese burgers, fries, and drinks.
“Wait, I just want a salad,” I said.
He arched a brow. “You need more than a salad. You need protein. You’re too thin. And you’re pale.”
“I’m always pale.”
“Well, even your freckles are pale today.”
Great. He just had to bring up my freckles. I hated them.
The waitress was hovering, waiting for the final word. Gage looked at her. “Bring a house salad, and all the rest as well—please.”
I fumed. What right did he have to order for me? He was exactly like Julian, thinking he always knew what was best. I choked on the thought. No, he wasn’t Julian. Julian would never wear that faded T-shirt and those scruffy boots or appear in public looking like a mountain man.
“Are you sure you’re all right?” Gage asked.
“I’m fine,” I said tightly. The pain inside was growing instead of diminishing. I was hurt, embarrassed, depressed, and desperate. Through all these emotions, I had only one thought: I had to show Julian and my parents that I didn’t need any of them, that I didn’t care. I would never let Julian know how much he’d hurt me.