Authors: Kathryn Thomas
She walked downstairs, and she was surprised to see that the door to the kitchen was ajar. Great. Erik was up. Holly didn’t like the idea of dealing with him so early in the morning, but she knew she had little choice; this was still his house, after all. She took a deep breath and walked closer, but she froze with her hand in mid-air, and she did not push the door open any further.
Erik was talking to someone, probably on the phone as Holly couldn’t hear any other voices. She didn’t know what prompted her to stay and listen rather than just turn around and leave the man to the privacy of his early morning conversations. But listen she did, and the more she overheard, the more her stomach clenched, painfully and inexplicably.
“Yes, she’s here. I’ve waited because there was no way you could get to her as long as he was around. But he’s leaving today, which gives us the perfect chance.”
Holly swallowed hard. Her heart was thumping furiously against her ribcage. Could Erik really be talking about her? And to whom?
“No, of course she doesn’t suspect anything, I’m a professional.” Pause. “I think it’s best not to alarm her. The best course of action would be for you to just hop on a plane and come get your daughter. I’ll make sure she doesn’t leave San Francisco in the meanwhile.” Pause. “Perfect. See you in two days, Mr. Springford.”
Holly’s heart was beating a mile a minute. Her head spun. She felt dizzy and nauseated. She backed away silently from the door, and she was relieved to hear that Erik was still talking to her father by the time she reached the stairs, which meant he had not heard her and had not been alerted to her presence. He didn’t know that she knew. That gave her some small advantage, at least. She took the steps two at a time, never so glad about her habit of walking around barefooted, which gave her step a precious silent quality.
Everything made sense now. She finally knew why she had never liked Erik; it was her subconscious’ way of warning her against him. She should have listened to her intuition rather than stifle her feelings of foreboding. If she had, she wouldn’t be finding herself in the lion’s den now.
She had no idea how Erik knew her father or why he was helping him destroy her life, but she had no intention of stopping to ask. She had to get out of there, and she had to get out of there fast.
She rushed into the bedroom, and she stopped cold when she saw that Matt was up and dressed. His rucksack was slung across his shoulder. She stared at him in shock.
“What are you doing?”
“I can’t wait, Holly,” he said. “I keep thinking something might happen to Becky before I get there. What if she…” He trailed off, unable to finish the thought. He shook his head. “I have to go now and catch the first plane out.”
No, no, no!
“I can’t,” Matt said again. He walked up to her and kissed her quickly. “I’ll call you as soon as I land. I promise I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
It’s not going to be soon enough.
Holly felt panic bubble to the surface. She barely fought the urge to fall at Matt’s feet and grab on to his legs to prevent him from moving even one step away from her. “Matt,
, listen to me—”
“Holly,” Matt said firmly. “I have to go.”
He was beyond listening, Holly knew that. She watched helplessly as he walked out of the room and down the stairs. What was she supposed to do? Blurt out that his lifelong friend had set her up?
a voice in her head screamed.
That’s exactly what you should do! Do anything that’ll get you out of here!
Holly’s brain finally worked past the shock of the situation and kicked into motion. She ran after him, down the stairs and to the front door…
…where she found him saying goodbye to Erik.
Holly froze. She couldn’t say anything to him now, not with Erik standing there. Not if she didn’t want to blow what little cover she had left.
Matt looked up to her. He smiled reassuringly. “Don’t worry, Holly,” he said, mistaking her grief-stricken expression for apprehension towards him. “I’ll be fine.”
“Why don’t you let me accompany you to the airport?” she asked. “I’ll change in a heartbeat.”
“That’s not necessary. Really, Holly, I appreciate it, but…I need to be by myself right now. You understand, right?”
He was looking at her with wide green eyes, and Holly didn’t have the heart to say anything other than, “Of course. I understand.”
He smiled. He walked past Erik and up to her, and he kissed her one more time. “I’ll call you,” he promised again. “Take good care of her, will you?” he said to Erik.
The man smiled. “Of course.”
They exchanged a handshake and a one-armed hug, and then, just like that, Matt was gone. Holly watched helplessly as the cab he must have called while she was downstairs having the worst eavesdropping experience of her life took him away. He turned to wave at her, and her arm felt as heavy as lead as she lifted it to wave back.
Erik turned to her and gave her a smile. “He’ll be all right, Holly,” he said. “You’ll see.”
It’s not him I’m worried about, you lying piece of trash,
Holly thought ferociously, but of course she didn’t voice any of it. She found it chilling just how genuine Erik’s smile seemed. Then again, his pleasant ways towards her always had. She suppressed a shudder and forced out a tight smile of her own. “I hope so,” she said.
“You should try to get back to sleep,” Erik said after a moment. “You look exhausted.”
Holly shrugged. “I’ll be fine.”
“How about some breakfast?”
Holly wanted nothing more than to punch the man in the face. She wanted to yell at him, scream, hit him with all of her strength…which, she knew, would be no match for an ex-military man such as Erik. So she did her best to keep her mask in place.
“Sure,” she said, and she followed him back inside and to the kitchen.
Her brain was working furiously as she busied herself with preparing the coffee while Erik handled the food. According to what she had overheard, her father was coming in two days. That gave her a little time to work on an escape plan. She knew her best bet for now was to keep a low profile and act as normally as she could, so as not to arouse any suspicions. If Erik so much as thought she might know something, she was doomed.
She would lay low, she decided. She would work on escaping his and her family’s clutches. She would get out of there and out of San Francisco. She would find Matt. She would be safe again.
She felt a pang of sorrow as she realized that all their dreams of starting over in California had just gone up in a puff of smoke. There was no way they could remain within the state or ever come back. She thought about Matt and his undying admiration for Erik. How would he react when Holly told him what his friend had done? He would be crushed, for sure.
She sighed heavily. It was all so damn unfair.
Erik turned around from where he was scrambling the eggs. “Cheer up, Holly,” he said. “I’m sure Becky will pull through. I’ve never met her, but she sounds like a tough chick.”
“I’m sure you’re right,” Holly said, as casually as she could.
The bastard had no idea what tough chicks were capable of. Holly was determined to make sure that he would find out soon enough.
Holly waited two whole days and—almost—a whole night. She knew that if she were to disappear on the very same day that Matt had left, Erik would be on her trail immediately. Instead, she waited. She went grocery shopping. She came back to the cottage. She made dinner. She made small talk. She waited for Matt’s call from Cartridge, Texas. The call never came. She would have been worried out of her mind if only she didn’t have huge troubles of her own to get out of.
She snuck out of the house in the dead of the night between the first day after Matt left and the second. It was risky, she knew that. Her father was due to arrive the very next day, and by leaving now, she was giving him the advantage of being near her. But she was also gifting herself with the element of surprise. She knew for a fact Erik did not suspect her because he wasn’t keeping track of her movements at all.
It was three-thirty in the morning. Everything was very,
still. Holly stoke a bike from Erik’s garage, fully knowing that a car would make way too much noise, and she carried it by hand down the trail that sneaked from the cottage around the hill. Once she was far enough from the house that it was out of view and the turning of the bicycle’s wheels could not be heard, she jumped on the saddle. She biked her way to the nearest bus stop, and she passed it by. She only hit the brakes at the third bus stop, knowing that the first one would be the place where Erik would look if he were to realize she was missing—which he hopefully would not realize until morning, but one could never be too careful.
Night buses were rare to come by, but Holly had studied the schedule carefully, and she only had to wait a short five minutes until the bus showed up. It was the longest five minutes of her life. She climbed aboard and found herself a quiet seat to burrow into. She missed Matt fiercely. Her heart was pounding so loud in her ears that she had to wonder whether the other passengers could hear it.
It was a forty-minute ride to San Francisco’s bus station, and as she stepped off the vehicle, she was hit with the irrational fear that Erik might have beat her and might be waiting for her, ready to drag her kicking her screaming back to her family and the arranged marriage she wanted nothing to do with.
But Erik wasn’t at the bus station. Holly found a twenty-four hour diner far away from the station and waited the rest of the night out. She hit the car rental as soon as it opened. Over the past six months, she had been able to find a few jobs here and there during her wanderings with Matt. Small stuff, mostly connected to waitressing. But she had saved up a few hundred bucks, and she was able to use a good part of the sum to rent a car that she had absolutely no intention of returning. She gave a fake name and a fake ID, and she hit the road just as the sun was coming up.
If circumstances were any different, Holly would have felt elated with herself. Six months on the road truly had taught her how to take care of herself, it seemed. A few months earlier, she would have been completely helpless and at the mercy of Erik and her family. Now, she had a fighting chance. If circumstances were any different, she would have felt empowered. Then again, had circumstances been any different, she wouldn’t have found herself driving on nameless roads in a car that she had basically stolen, running for her life.
She took a deep, steadying breath as panic threatened to overcome her. She tightened her hands around the steering wheel until her knuckles turned white, relishing the concrete feel of something solid between her hands.
What the fuck do I do now?
She really had no clue. She had bought herself a little time, but she would have to be delusional to believe that she had done any more than that. Erik would catch up. Her family would catch up. Unless she could get to Matt before they got to her.
Except that Matt seemed to have gone MIA. Holly had left her cell phone at the house. Once she felt like she was far enough out of San Francisco to allow herself a break, she made a quick stop at a gas station, where she filled the car’s tank (just in case) and bought herself the breakfast of champions (bottled orange juice and a couple snickers bars) and a pre-paid cell phone that would be completely untraceable that she could get rid of whenever she felt like it.
She jumped back into the car, flipped the phone open, and punched in Matt’s number—which she thankfully knew by heart—as she drove. It immediately went to voicemail. Holly cursed and did her best to keep a renewed surge of dread at bay. She knew that, without Matt’s help, she had absolutely no hope of outrunning Erik and her family for very long.
Holly drove for most of the day, only stopping for brief rests when she felt like she could hardly see straight anymore. Erik must have noticed she was missing by now. She wondered if he had waited for her father to get there before he set out on her trail or if he threw himself into the chase right away. Deep down, she knew the answer; after all, as he had told her father on the phone, he was a professional. He had probably left the cottage the very instant he realized she had run.
Ever since running away from her parents’ house in Lincoln, Texas, Holly had had quite a few encounters with fear. She knew dread. She knew helplessness. And yet she couldn’t remember a time when she had been as afraid as she was now. She knew that if her family caught up with her and managed to bring her back “home”—there was no way she could ever truly think of that place as home—that would be it for her. She would not get a chance to run away again.
Images of her potential future life in Lincoln flashed before her eyes as she drove. She saw herself stuck taking care of a family business she could not care less about, her painting supplies lying forgotten in the attic alongside her dreams. She pictured herself married to Timothy Sutherland. Good-hearted, but plain, simple, bland Timothy Sutherland. She pictured herself raising his children.
Holly did not care for motherhood. She never had any desire to become a mother, and she had yet to change her mind on the subject. The only children she could see herself mothering were Matt’s…
She almost swerved off the road as the realization hit her. Having Matt’s babies and raising a family with him didn’t seem like such a horrible idea. In fact, the more she thought about it, the more she liked the possibility. She took a steadying breath as she was hit with this new realization of just how deeply Matt had touched her. That man had done things to her nobody had ever done or would ever do. He was the one. Holly was sure of it just as she was sure that she needed air to breathe.
She pulled in to a motel on a half-forgotten part of the highway. She paid for her room with cash and signed in under yet another fake name. Once inside, she went straight to the bed and collapsed face down on the mattress. She was too exhausted to move, let alone shower.
She fell asleep dreaming of unanswered phone calls and unborn babies. When she woke up the next morning, it was to find a man sitting in a chair by the wall, facing the bed. Holly shot bolt upright on the mattress, her heart in her throat.
Erik Schneider smiled. “Good morning, sunshine.”