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Authors: Brandilyn Collins

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BOOK: Final Touch
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30

I
n the backseat of Ed Schering’s personal limo, Rayne clutched Gary’s hand. Police cars escorted them, front and back. “It’s going to be a zoo out there,” Al had warned them. “The media are all over this story.”

Rayne was used to the melee of reporters. Usually she disliked it. Today she was grateful. Anything to get the word out about Shaley. Someone out there would spot her. They
would.

Rayne, Gary, and Al were the only ones in the limo. Brittany, Ross, and the band members wanted to go, to stand behind Rayne and Gary as a line of support. But that would have been too many people and would have required all the more police to guard them all. Even the three bodyguards had been left behind.

The press conference was set for ten o’clock in the morning at the Santa Barbara County courthouse on Anacapa Street. It would be live on TV, with every national network and cable news channel carrying it. Many local stations as well.

Rayne’s watch now read 9:45. They’d been informed the microphones were all in place. One of Al’s colleagues from the field office was bringing a blown-up picture of Shaley and a large mug shot of Ronald Fledger. Gary and Rayne would be escorted to the mics, say their piece, and leave. Al would stay behind to field questions. He would include information about the color and make of the car, and the suspect. Every eye out there would be looking for an old blue Ford Explorer and a man behind its wheel matching Fledger’s description.

God, may someone find the car soon.

In the hours following the failed SWAT mission, Rayne’s endurance had crumbled. But she forced her mind from terrifying imaginings to a constructive task—writing her press conference speech. Gary and Al had helped.

That speech now lay folded in the small purse slung over her shoulder. The FBI didn’t want her and Gary to appear threatening or vengeful. If the kidnapper saw that, he might react in anger—and Shaley would pay. They were to speak quietly, in control, and to Shaley’s kidnapper. They were to plead for their daughter’s safe return.

The pleading part would not be hard.

Rayne’s eyes burned, and her nerves felt like sandpaper, her lungs weighted with exhaustion. Every breath was an effort. Each minute she thought,
I can’t live through the next one.
Then, somehow, she did.

“There’s the front of the courthouse.” Al pointed.

A distant
whop-whop
sounded in the air. Rayne didn’t need to see the helicopter to register the sound. Some TV station, no doubt.

In the next block, she saw a long series of white stucco buildings with red roofs on her left, looking much like an old Spanish mission. A tower with a large clock rose from the front entrance. Palm trees around the buildings blew in a slight breeze.

Such a pretty sight. On such a horrible day.

The limo stopped at the intersection. The side street where they needed to turn left had been blocked off by police. The police car ahead of them turned, and the barricades were moved aside. The limo rolled through and parked at the curb. Rayne peered at the back of the L-shaped courthouse buildings. Beautiful green grass spread in gardens beyond a large porch and steps. On that grass hundreds of reporters and cameramen milled. An enormous bank of microphones stood on the porch, and uniformed police guarded the area. A number of men in shirtsleeves and ties stood on the porch, talking.

Policemen flanked the limo and lined up to escort Rayne and the others to the microphones.

At sight of the car, all reporters’ heads turned. Cameras came up. In a mad rush, they jogged toward the limo.

Rayne heard their shouted questions the instant she stepped from the car.

“Rayne, have you heard any more from your daughter?”

“Do you have any idea who kidnapped her?”

“How was she taken from a guarded estate?”

Rayne’s heart raced. She was used to crowds, used to paparazzi, but this was too much.

“Is it true you know the vehicle Shaley’s in?”

“How are you doing?”

“What about your wedding?”

Rayne’s legs felt shaky. No sleep, little food, and all the grief had left her with minimal strength. The crowd sounded so
loud.
Surely the decibels were nothing like the screaming fans at concerts. But every sound pierced her head.

She gripped Gary’s hand and walked woodenly between the protective rows of policemen, eyes straight ahead. The sun was overly bright, and her temples thudded. But she would get through this.

Somewhere out there on some TV, maybe Shaley would see her. Would hear the carefully worded sentences meant to send her a message—
we know you didn’t mean what you said on the phone.

Cameras whirred and snapped as reporters crowded against the policemen. Al held Rayne’s left elbow, propelling her quickly to the courthouse porch. In his left hand he carried notes. They hurried up the stone steps. Al nudged them back from the microphones. “I’ll start, as we planned.” His dark eyes studied Rayne’s face. In them she read compassion and understanding. Once upon a time, Al and his wife had been through this very same thing. “You all right?” he asked.

No.

Rayne nodded.

Al conferred with his colleagues. A tall, rotund man held the blown-up photo of Shaley. The sight of that beautiful face pierced
Rayne’s soul. She gazed at it, then tore her eyes away. Her focus landed on a second man, holding another large poster. Rayne could only see the back, but she knew what it was. Ronald Fledger’s despicable face.

“Okay, we’re ready.” Al exchanged a glance with Gary and walked to the microphone.

The mass of people fell silent. Pens readied against notebooks.

With trembling fingers, Rayne opened her purse and took out the two speeches. She handed Gary’s to him. They weren’t supposed to read them, and both had memorized every word. But at the moment Rayne didn’t know if she could recall even the first sentence. Fuzziness draped her mind. Would her tongue even work?

“Good morning.” Al’s voice boomed over the microphones. He thanked everyone for coming, then turned and held out an arm toward her and Gary.

Rayne moved toward the microphone bank on someone else’s legs. Her entire body started to shake. Cold grief and rage washed over her. Shaley’s kidnapper could be watching right now. Suddenly she didn’t want to just plead. She wanted to yell and scream,
demand
that he let her daughter go. She wanted to promise she would tear his eyes out, his heart. Pursue him until she died.

A panicked sob kicked up her throat. Gary squeezed her arm. “You want me to go first?” he whispered.

Rayne shook her head. She raised her chin and took deep breaths.
Control, Rayne. For Shaley.

Al stood aside, and Rayne stepped up to the mics.

She gazed at the hundreds of faces before her but registered none of them. In her mind she saw only one face—Shaley’s.

Her mouth opened, and the words flowed.

“I’m Rayne O’Connor. Many of you know me as the lead singer for my band, Rayne. Today, I ask you to see me as a mother who is grieving at the loss of her only child.”

The FBI agent holding Shaley’s picture moved close to Rayne and held it high.

“This is our daughter, Shaley.” Rayne extended her arm toward the poster. “Minutes before Shaley’s father and I”—Rayne gestured toward Gary—”were to be married, our daughter was taken from us. Imagine the shock. A wedding turned to anguish.”

Rayne’s throat tightened. Her fingers curled around the folded paper in her hand.

“We ask the person or people who have Shaley to let her go. We know she wants to come home.
We
want her to come home. Just let her go. Please. We
need
her with us, with her family. We aren’t the same without her. We can never be the same. Shaley makes our family whole. She is our—”

Tears stung Rayne’s eyes. She clamped down her jaw and blinked rapidly. In her mind she envisioned the multitude of cameras honing in for the tightest shot, drawn to her grief like flies to honey. Fine. If her tears helped Shaley, that’s all that mattered.

“She is our joy.” Rayne swallowed hard. “We beg you to give her back to us. That is all we want from you.”

The words ran out. Had she written more? Rayne looked at Gary, who gave her a reassuring nod—
Good job.

Rayne stepped to the side, and Gary moved to take her place. The agent holding Shaley’s poster moved a few feet to his right, keeping the poster held high.

“I’m Gary Donovon.” Gary’s voice sounded raw. “Unless you live on another planet, you all know the story of how I reentered Shaley’s and Rayne’s lives last year.”

The reporters near the front smiled wanly.

“Being a father to Shaley, seeing her every day—that was my lifelong dream. That dream came true when I found Rayne and Shaley. Whoever has taken her—please return her to us. We’re her family. This is where she belongs.”

He stopped. Gulped a breath.

“Today Rayne and I are offering a one-hundred-thousand-dollar reward for Shaley’s safe return. If you have any information on where she might be, please contact the authorities. Agent Al Scarrow will
give you the number in a minute.” Rayne saw Gary look straight into the camera directly in front of him, as if he were facing the kidnapper himself. “Let her go. Now.
Please.
So many people are looking for her. So many want to see her returned to us. We can forget all of this if you’ll just let her come back to us.” Gary started to say more, then stopped. His head dipped once. “Thank you.” He stepped back.

Immediate questions hurled at them.

“Rayne, have you…”

“Gary, did you…”

“Do you know…”

“When…”

The voices drowned out each other. Al moved up front and raised his hands, signaling quiet.

Policemen gestured for Rayne and Gary to head for the stairs. In no time they were surrounded by escorts. They hustled down the steps, reporters still shouting questions.

“Folks, let me give you important facts that we know.” Al’s voice boomed over the microphones, but many weren’t listening. Rayne picked up her speed. Soon she was running. Who
cared
about a shot of her getting to the limo? Al’s information was
important.
The sooner they got out of here, the sooner reporters would listen to the agent.

An eternity passed before they reached the limo. Their driver held the door open. Rayne jumped inside, followed by Gary. The chauffeur shut the door and ran to the driver’s side.

Rayne fell into a seat. “Go!” She waved a frantic hand at the chauffeur. “Go!”

As the limo pulled from the curb, Rayne could hear Al’s voice spilling into the gardens. “Shaley and Ronald Fledger were last known to be in a cabin outside Provo, Utah. Before that they were filmed by security cameras at a gas station. Shaley was wearing a man’s white T-shirt and jeans. Her hair was up in a baseball cap that has
San Diego
written on the front. They were driving a 1997 blue Ford Explorer, license plate…”

31

T
he dashboard clock read 11:15. Over two hours since we’d left the gas station.

My stomach rumbled and groaned. I now hadn’t eaten for almost twenty-four hours.

The never-ending road stretched before us. Instead of continuing on Highway 20, Joshua had taken every little back road he could, still aiming north. I had the sense we weren’t getting very far very fast. I watched signs for towns approaching…only for us to drive through them without stopping. Joshua now slumped over the steering wheel, grim determination working his jaw. His exhaustion only made him meaner. I didn’t dare say anything out of line.

Mostly I said nothing at all.

But one thing was bothering me—a question I couldn’t answer. When the time was right, I’d ask Joshua.

At some point we found ourselves back on Highway 20. A new sign read
Ashton—five miles.

An angry sigh heaved from Joshua. “You’re not much company.”

“Sorry.”

He reached out and turned on the radio. Commercials. I half listened to ads for a car dealership, an insurance company, a bank. Then news came on—and I heard my name.

My muscles stiffened. I wanted to hear that people were looking for me—and I also hoped I didn’t. Because who knew how Joshua would react?

His chin bounced up at the news story. He turned the volume higher.

“…the daughter of rock singer Rayne O’Connor,” the news announcer said. “This morning on courthouse steps in Santa Barbara, Ms. O’Connor and Shaley’s father, Gary Donovon, held a press conference, aided by the FBI and local law enforcement. Shaley was last seen wearing jeans and a plain white T-shirt.”

How do they know that?

Joshua’s head snapped toward the radio.

“Shaley and her captor were traveling in a 1997 blue Ford Explorer, California license plate 2ZRY394.”

A chilling smile spread across Joshua’s face.

I pressed back against my seat, rocks in my lungs.

“If you see this vehicle, please call nine-one-one immediately—”

Joshua laughed and slapped off the dial.

I stared straight ahead, new desperation seeping through my chest. What was the point of my planning, of looking for a way to escape? Joshua would never let me out of his sight, and no one would ever find me.

No one.

I wanted to scream and cry. Fingers curling into my palms, I bit my lip and turned toward my window, fighting to hold it together.

“See how smart I am?” Joshua gloated. “Always one step ahead of ’em.”

My eyes stung.

“That’s the best news I’ve heard all day.” He bounced a fist against the steering wheel. “We got time now. And we ain’t got to hide on these little highways all the way to Montana. I’m going to find somewhere to crash for a while. Then we’ll hit the freeway and head straight home.”

Home.
I shuddered. Once we reached his place in the wilderness of Montana, I would have no chance of escape.

I forced my voice to stay even. “Where are we going to stop?” Not that it mattered. Nothing mattered now.

“You just watch.”

We reached Ashton. Joshua turned onto Highway 47, much smaller than 20. Bruised hands pressed between my legs, I sat like a statue. My wrists still burned, and my left cheek began to throb. My body was
so
tired. I craved sleep but didn’t dare close my eyes. Even when we stopped I couldn’t allow myself to sleep. I had to keep my eyes on Joshua every minute.

Where was he going to stop out here?

The highway led us through farmland on the right, skirting a mountain and trees to our left. Few cars passed us.

After rolling through a tiny town named Warm River, the highway climbed into the mountains and forest.

I swallowed. Dared to ask my question again. “Where are we going?”

“To find a cabin.” Joshua sounded more energetic just knowing he’d be able to rest soon. “Bound to find a summer getaway out here somewhere. We’ll sleep, maybe find something to eat.” He gave me a hard look. “And I’ll make sure there’s no working phone.”

“I won’t do anything like that again.”

“Of course you won’t. If you know what’s good for you.”

What was the point of even trying to get away? I didn’t have the strength.

Up ahead I saw a small road leading off 47 to the right. Joshua slowed and turned onto it. “Let’s see what we can find.”

Nothing, that’s what. Trees and more trees. No one around for miles.

And then—a small dirt road. Joshua took it. The road wound through the forest and ended at a wide beige trailer on cinder-blocks. No car in sight.

Joshua grunted with satisfaction and pulled up to the place. He stopped the car by yanking on one of the wires he’d rigged. Then he withdrew the gun beneath his seat. “Stay here.”

I eyed the weapon, my pulse faltering. What if someone was here? “Please don’t kill anybody.”

He gave me a long, penetrating look. I saw wildness in his eyes. “‘Vengeance is mine,’ saith the Lord.”

Oh, sure, this was God’s doing. And vengeance for what? Happening to be in your own trailer when a madman came knocking?

My mouth went dry.

He slid from the car and walked on stiff legs to the two metal front steps. I watched without moving, a fist pressed to my mouth. Joshua rapped on the door with the butt of the gun.

No answer. He knocked again.

Joshua stuck the gun in the waistband of his pants and grabbed the black step railing. Swung his right leg back and kicked the door with all his might. The door crunched open.

He turned around and gestured for me to get out of the car. Like a beaten puppet, I did as I was told.

Joshua pulled the door back on its broken hinges and motioned for me to go inside first. I stepped into a dim living room smelling of closed-in air and faintly of Lysol. Everything looked clean and cozy. Bright. Like a woman had decorated it. The sofa and matching chair were red, accented with flowered pillows. Magazines were stacked neatly on a rectangular wooden coffee table, and paperbacks filled a tall bookshelf. The cover on the top magazine showed a man fishing. Maybe a couple owned the trailer? To my left sat a small dining table, separating the room from the kitchen. The counters were wiped down, a coffee machine and toaster upon them. Beyond the kitchen stretched a hallway.

“Sit.” Joshua gestured to the couch. As I obeyed he ventured down the hall, peering in doors. He returned, looking satisfied. “No phone.”

No TV or radio that I could see either. This was a place for someone who just wanted to get away. Indignation for the owners twinged inside me. They didn’t deserve this.

Joshua opened the refrigerator door. I strained to look around him, seeing little food on the shelves. No milk, which would spoil quickly. Didn’t look like the owners planned to return soon.

How long until they could find a clue from me?

I blinked, pierced by my own question. Even in my despair, even knowing I’d never be rescued, I wasn’t ready to give up.

I
had
to keep fighting.

Joshua rummaged around in the refrigerator drawers. “There’s bread in here. And cheese and salami.” He started pulling out items and laying them on the counter. “Not the Ritz, but we won’t starve.”

Like he knew anything about the Ritz.

My stomach growled.

I curled my fingers into my legs and surveyed Joshua’s back, remembering my fear in the cabin. (Was that days ago?) What would Joshua do to me here?

Quickly I pushed up from the couch. “Want me to make you a sandwich?”

“Sure, fine.” He picked up a bottle from the refrigerator door. “Here’s some mayonnaise. You need to eat too.”

I moved into the kitchen and opened drawers, looking for a knife. Took down two small plates from a cabinet. “Would you check the bedroom closet for me? I still need shoes.”

Joshua eyed me again, jaw moving from side to side. “You can’t lie to me. I know when you’re lying.”

I busied myself with opening the mayonnaise jar, spreading the sauce on two slices of bread.

“You
hear
me?”

I raised my gaze to his, forcing myself to look calm. My ankles felt weak. “Yes.”

His eyes narrowed. Then he swerved past me and down the hall. I heard the sound of a door opening, soft thuds on the floor of the next room. A moment later Joshua’s footsteps headed out of that room and farther down the hall.

My hands placed salami slices on the bread, followed by cheese. Hungry as I was, I hadn’t thought I could eat. Now I could barely wait.

An idea popped into my head. I turned and looked at the magazines on the living room coffee table.

Joshua returned, holding a pair of pale blue sneakers and a ladies’ green polo shirt. “How about these?” He held out the shoes to me.

I took them, checked inside one for its size. None to be found. “They look about right. Thanks.” I set them on the counter.

He nodded. “I’ll buy you shoes when we get to Montana, you know. I will take care of you.”

I gave him a tight smile.

“And your dress is beautiful.”

“Dress?”

“Your wedding dress. It’s white with lace. I think I got the right size.” His expression creased into anticipation, as if he wanted to please me. As if he really thought this would make me happy.

Fresh dread uncoiled in my stomach. For a moment words stuck in my throat. “A wedding? Who’d be there?”

“Just us and Caleb. And God.”

“Don’t you need a preacher to marry someone?”

“The marriage will be in God’s eyes. That’s all that counts.”

I licked my lips. “When is this supposed to take place?”

“Not ‘supposed to.’
Will.
” His mouth spread into a leer. “Soon as we get home.”

No.
“How long a drive is it from here?”

Joshua pulled down the corners of his mouth. “Now that we can get back on the freeway, maybe a little over nine hours, not counting stops.”

Nine hours. Once we left the trailer, I’d have so little time. Sickness rolled through my stomach. “Where in Montana?”

“Why you want to know?”

“Can’t I at least know where I’m going to live?”

He tightened his mouth and surveyed me. “Up north. Not far from the Canadian border.”

I knew that much already. “What’s the nearest town?”

“Stop asking questions!”

I turned back to the sandwiches. The smell of salami now sickened
my stomach. I laid the second pieces of bread on top of each sandwich. Held Joshua’s plate out to him. “Here.”

“Put this on.” He thrust the green shirt in my other hand, then took the plate.

I looked down at the plain white T-shirt he’d given me to wear and remembered the news on the radio. My description had me wearing that shirt. Joshua wasn’t taking any chances.

Wordlessly, I picked up the shoes and headed down the hall.

Within twenty-four hours I would be “married” to this monster. The thought weakened my knees.

Behind the locked door of the bathroom I changed shirts. I tried to avoid the mirror, but my gaze drifted to my reflection. I stilled, staring at my face as I’d never seen it. My left eye wasn’t as puffy, but the bruising had turned purple black. The color matched the bruises on my arms and hands. My hair straggled from the rubber band I’d used to make a ponytail. Everything about me looked beaten and worn, like I was twenty years older. My face reminded me of pictures of battered women.

You
are
battered, Shaley. Welcome to your new life.

I turned away from the mirror and stared at the white T-shirt I’d dropped on the floor.

A voice inside my head told me to pick it up.

I draped it over my arm and looked back to the mirror. It was a cover to a medicine cabinet. I opened it up.

On the clear shelves inside I saw a box of Band-Aids, a bottle of aspirin, two toothbrushes and toothpaste, and various hand and face creams. On the top shelf—a tube of lipstick and an eyebrow pencil.

I picked up the eyebrow pencil and took off the top to examine the point. It was sharp enough to write with.

Clutching the pencil, I sat on the closed toilet, listening to the rapid beat of my heart. I could leave this shirt behind. If I only knew exactly where we were headed.

But I
did
remember the license plate of our new car.

I knelt on the floor and spread out the shirt. Poised the pencil to write—then straightened.

No. There was a better way.

I pulled my bottom lip between my teeth. This plan was much more of a gamble. If Joshua caught me, he’d beat the rest of me black and blue. Then kill me.

My eyes squeezed shut. Did I dare?

What choice did I have?

Leaning over once again, I turned the shirt lengthwise and began to write in large block letters.

A banging hit the door. My body jerked.

“What’re you doing in there?”

I swallowed. “Changing clothes.”

“Can’t take that long.”

“Joshua, where do you think I can go from here—float up through the ceiling?” The window was hardly big enough for me to get through.

He growled. “Get
out
of there.”

“Coming.”

I batted at the toilet paper holder, purposely making noise. Then flushed the toilet. Turned the water on in the sink. With shaking hands I bent down to finish my writing task. Done, I lifted the shirt and held it up toward the window, checking to see if the light made the lettering visible from the front of the shirt.

It didn’t.

I folded the T-shirt lengthwise, writing inside, and placed the eyebrow pencil upon it. Rolled up the shirt.

“Sha—”

“There’s lipstick in the medicine cabinet. Can I keep it?”

“You ain’t gonna be wearin’ no lipstick.”

I picked up the tube and plunked it back down on the shelf hard enough to make a
click.
Closed the medicine cabinet.

Holding the rolled-up T-shirt casually by my side, I opened the bathroom door. Joshua’s gaze fell to the shirt.

I managed a shrug. “I want to take it with me. Use it as a pillow in the car.”

He lifted a shoulder. Weariness dragged at his face. “I got to get some sleep. You take the back bedroom. I’ll take this front one. Doors stay open, and I’m a light sleeper. You ain’t gonna get past me down this hall, so no use trying.”

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