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Annie Coleman almost dropped the phone at her ex-boyfriend's words, but she couldn't. She had to keep it together for her daughter. Jayden played nearby, oblivious to the sheer terror Annie was feeling at hearing Bryan's gasping warning. "Run. Disappear… Don't trust anyone, especially the police."
A scuffling noise on the other end of the phone sent her heartbeat slamming against her chest. What was going on? A swishing sound filled her ears, followed by something like a fist hitting flesh and a groan that iced her blood.
"Thought you could get away," a gruff voice said between punches. "You haven't finished telling me what I need to know."
Annie panicked. What was going on? What was happening to Bryan on the other end? Confusion gripped her in a choke hold, her chest tightening with each inhalation.
"I don't want—" Bryan's rattling gasp punctuated the brief silence "—any money. Just let me go. I'll—" a smack interrupted his words "—forget…everything."
"I'm not worried about you telling a soul." The menace in the assailant's tone underscored his deadly intent.
"Now all I need is where you hid it exactly. If you tell me now, it will be a lot less painful."
"I can't—" Agony laced each word.
"What's that? A phone?"
The sounds of a struggle then a gunshot blasted her eardrum. Curses roared through the connection.
Fear paralyzed Annie in the middle of her kitchen. Was Bryan shot? Dead? she screamed silently, clutching the receiver until her fingers locked into place.
"Who's this? Annie? Who are you?"
The assailant's voice soclear on the phone panicked her. She slammed it down onto its cradle as though that action could sever the memories from her mind. But nothing would. Had she just heard her daughter's father being killed? What information did Bryan have? How did that man know her name? Question after question bombarded her from all sides, but inertia held her still.
The ringing of the phone jarred her out of a trance. She zoomed in on the lighted panel on the receiver and noted the call was from Bryan's cell. The assailant now had her home telephone number! He could discover where she lived. He knew what she'd heard.
The last time she'd talked with Bryan early this morning, he was finally paying his father a visit for the first time. What could have gone wrong with that? Why was he warning her? What was Bryan sorry about? What did he do? Why shouldn't she trust the police? The questions started all over again, slamming one after another into her thoughts.
"Mommy, what's wrong?"
Looking up at Jayden, Annie schooled her features into what she hoped was a calm expression while her stomach reeled. "You know I've been thinking, honey?
We need to take a vacation. We've been working so hard this year. It's time for us to have…an adventure." Her daughter was all into having adventures, since her favorite book series was The Brandon Twins' Escapades.
"Where?" Jayden came to her and threw her arms around Annie.
She wished she could stay forever holding her child, pretending she hadn't heard what she had. But she couldn't.
Annie hugged her daughter to her, then leaned back. "That's a surprise—a Christmas surprise." Because she wasn't sure herself, but she couldn't get Jayden's father's words out of her mind. Run. Disappear. Don't trust anyone, especially the police. Nor would she forget the gunfire that followed.
Grief and fear swamped her. Although she and Bryan had never married and were only friends for Jayden's sake, he'd tried to do right by his daughter in his own way. Had that led to him doing something foolish? Deadly?
"When are we going?" Jayden stepped back from Annie.
"Right now is as good a time as any. It's Saturday. I'll get some money and then we'll hit the road."
Jayden whirled from her and started across the kitchen. "Wait till Mandy hears I'm going on an adventure."
"We don't have time for you to call Mandy." They might not have much time for anything. She didn't even know where Bryan had been calling her from. "I'll get our suitcases. Let's see how fast we can pack. Take only your favorite things." Although she tried to make it sound like a game, her voice quavered, and Annie curled her trembling hands until her fingernails dug into her palms.
At the door her daughter paused, cocking her head. "When will we be coming back?"
Not until I figure out what's going on. I can't take the risk that Bryan has gotten caught up in some scheme and somehow involved us. He'd done some foolish, impulsive things in the past. "I'm not sure. But we'll probably be gone for a few weeks." She hoped only that long.
Jayden whirled around. "Then I'll need my new doll and my treasure chest."
The memory of when Bryan had given his daughter an antique porcelain doll for her birthday last month jolted Annie as though she'd stuck her finger into a socket. He'd even given them his mother's family's Bible, a surprise, since he wasn't a Christian, but he'd wanted his daughter to have it when she got older. Would Jayden ever see her father again?
Annie passed the sign for Christmas, Oklahoma. After two days on the road, driving long hours and crashing at night, she needed a place to stay for a while to figure out what was going on. She didn't even know if Bryan was dead or alive or where he'd been when he'd called her.
"I'm tired, Mommy."
"We're almost there."
She prayed that her mother's cousin, one she hadn't seen in fifteen years, still lived in Christmas. After racking her brain, she'd finally come up with Sara McLain's place as a possible refuge until she did some investigating and came up with a plan. Fond memories of a holiday season spent in a town called Christmas kept creeping into her thoughts as she drove toward Oklahoma.
In the motel rooms along the way, she'd spent each night after Jayden had gone to sleep reading Bryan's mother's family Bible, looking for guidance on what to do. But the Lord hadn't answered her prayers in years. So why had she thought He would now?
On the outskirts of Christmas, Annie stopped at Speedy Mart to get some gas and directions to her cousin's house. As she filled her tank, Jayden danced around, happy to be out of the car.
"Honey, stay right next to me." Annie envisioned the unknown assailant on the other end of the phone call suddenly appearing and grabbing her and her daughter. Would she ever feel safe again?
She searched her surroundings, looking for anyone who appeared suspicious. A car pulled in behind her, and a man got out to get gas. Didn't she see that Chevy behind her on Interstate 40 back a hundred miles? Not sure, she massaged her temples, trying to rid herself of the constant fear that had engrained itself in her.
When she was through filling her tank, she took Jayden's hand and hurried toward the building to pay. A bell rang as she opened the door. She glanced back at the man finishing up putting gas into his car. He caught her gaze, grinned and got back into his Chevy, then pulled out of Speedy Mart. Relief slumped her shoulders. False alarm—she hoped.
At the counter she started to pull out her credit card out of habit, but she stopped herself and instead withdrew some cash from her quickly dwindling savings. She smiled at the older woman who took her money and gave her change.
"You just passing through?"
"No," Annie said, stuffing the dollars into her purse, her gaze slanting toward her daughter, who was holding her porcelain doll and exploring the candy rack next to the counter. When she fingered one, Annie said, "Jayden, no candy right now."
"But I'm hungry."
"We'll get something in a little bit."
"Here visiting?" the attendant asked and slid her cash drawer closed.
"Yes." Behind Annie the bell over the door jingled, and she automatically turned to see who was entering. For the past two days she'd been constantly looking over her shoulder and checking out all the cars behind her on the highway. She'd never been paranoid before, but fear was taking over her life.
A tall man in a navy-blue police uniform came into the store and grinned at the woman behind the counter. Annie breathed a sigh. Then she remembered Bryan's warning, and tension whipped through her.
The police officer's gaze swept the store as though checking to make sure everything was all right before settling first on Jayden then Annie. The sharp, assessing look moved down her length before coming back to her face. A smile crinkled the corners of his cobalt-blue eyes and lit their depths with a glitter. He nodded a greeting toward her.
Uncomfortable with his scrutiny, Annie turned her attention back to the cashier. "I need directions to Sara McLain's house on Bethlehem Street. Do you know her?" She was over a thousand miles from Crystal Creek. This man had nothing to do with what had happened in Florida.
The older woman glanced behind Annie.
"Maybe I can help you." The police officer stepped up to the counter a few feet from Annie. "Sara's a neighbor of mine."
"Oh, good, you know where she lives. My name is Annie Madison." Which was true but Madison was her middle name. She'd decided the first night on the road that was the name she would go by as a precaution in case anyone was looking for Annie Coleman.
"I'm Caleb Jackson, the police chief of Christmas." He offered his hand.
She fit hers in his and shook it. "Nice to meet you. Can you give me directions to Sara's?" Annie snagged her daughter before she wandered toward another rack with chips. "I'm her cousin."
"Cousin?" Skepticism sounded in his voice. "She's always talking about her family. I don't remember her mentioning you."
"It's been a while since I've seen her." She hated explaining herself to a stranger, but she didn't need the police chief becoming suspicious.
A grin eased the wariness from his expression. "Sara will be thrilled. She was just talking about how none of her nieces or nephews could come for Christmas. Have you ever been here?"
"Yes, the last time was when I was ten during the holidays, but I don't remember much about the town, except all the lights downtown and the huge Christmas tree in the park." She glanced out the large picture window, a blanket of clouds darkening the late afternoon. "I need to talk with Sara this evening and then find a place to stay. My daughter is tired and hungry." She hoped Sara would let her stay with her, but she hadn't seen her in years and she might not open her home to her. If that were the case, she didn't know what she would do. Her money was limited. Fear, always present since she'd last heard from Bryan, wormed its way deeper into her mind.
"Sara fell a few weeks ago. She could use some help around the house, but she hates asking anyone to. Maybe you are an answer to a prayer. I'll show you where she lives. You can follow me." He turned to the lady behind the counter. "I just need a cup of your coffee, Marge."
"Already have it for you." The woman took the dollar the police chief set on the counter.
"Ready, Mrs. Madison?" He snatched up the cup.
"It's Ms. Madison. I'm not married."
She'd never been married. Although Bryan and she had discussed marriage when she discovered she was pregnant in college, she'd decided against it when he was arrested for driving under the influence. Too many red flags kept popping up in their relationship. When she'd met him as a freshman, he was an upperclassman with arresting blue eyes and an easy smile. He'd whisked her off her feet, and she'd given herself to him. She deeply regretted her choice back then, but one good thing had come from it: Jayden.
Taking her daughter's hand, she started for the door. "I appreciate you showing me where Sara lives. I probably could have wandered around until I stumbled onto Bethlehem. I remember what a big deal the holidays are here in Christmas."
"Yeah, the town grows at this time of year. We get people from all over Oklahoma and the surrounding states visiting during the season. We go all out."
"The thing I mainly recall is the festival of lights," Annie said as she helped Jayden into the back and slipped behind the steering wheel of her ten-year-old Ford Mustang.
"We added fireworks about twelve years ago." He shut her door and strode toward his police cruiser.
As she followed Caleb Jackson through the town, holiday spirit was evident everywhere she looked. Every street's name had a Christmas theme: Noel Avenue, Candy Cane Lane, Mistletoe Street, Nativity Road. Usually Christmas had little meaning for her. She only celebrated it for Jayden's sake.
Although Bryan tried to help as much as he could, it had been a struggle supporting her daughter on an office manager's salary. She was thankful when she called her employer, Ron Adams, that he'd been understanding about her suddenly taking some time off. She'd been with him for five years, and this was a slow time of the year for his roofing business. She hoped by the first of the year that she could go back to Crystal Creek and her old life. She wanted to believe that Bryan was all right and there had been no reason for her to flee.
Six blocks off the main street through downtown where one store after another dealing with Christmas edged the thoroughfare on both sides, the police chief turned onto Bethlehem. Large houses—some Victorian, all decorated for Christmas—lined the street.
He stopped in front of one of the Victorian homes, painted a powder-blue, with a black wrought-iron fence along the sidewalk. The lot Sara McLain's place sat on was at least half an acre. In fact, all the houses on the street had sizeable yards. Memories of running and playing on the lawn flashed into her thoughts. She remembered feeling safe here.
Annie stared at the three-story structure with a Christmas tree positioned in the center of a floor-to-ceiling window facing the street. White lights draped the pine with gold bows and white ornaments. "We're here. Remember, your last name is Madison, honey. It's important you don't forget."
She didn't want to tell her daughter the reason, but she had to say something or she would continue to ask. "That's our new last name now. We're on an adventure and in disguise."
"Oh, great!" Jayden unsnapped her seat belt and hopped from the car, hugging her doll.
As Annie climbed out, she heard Caleb Jackson introduce himself and ask her daughter, "What's your name?"
Annie stiffened, gripping the door handle.
Annie expelled a deep breath and rounded the front of her Mustang. She knew he was a police chief, but the words don't trust anyone, especially the police had kept her up most of the past two nights, listening to every sound passing her motel room door.
His gaze captured hers. "This is Sara's."