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"You're a dead woman if you don't get over here."
The voice sent a chill down Susan's back and she did all she could to keep from screaming. As they stood in the kitchen, her husband of five years, Dirk Payson, cocked his fist. She had just dropped the plate with his breakfast eggs on them. The moment it shattered on the floor, Dirk leaped up from the table, rage in his face. It had been an accident, and yet, as she peered into his wild-looking blue eyes, she knew. A sickening dread washed over her while she quickly picked up the pieces of the broken plate off the floor.
"II'm sorry, Dirk "
"it won't happen again," she whispered, her hands trembling as she gathered up the pieces. One of the shards of the glass plate cut her index finger. Susan didn't feel the pain or the warm blood that flowed from the deep cut. The agony and fear clutching at her heart took most of her attentionthat and not making Dirk even angrier. Breathing like an enraged bull, he stood near the table, as if frozen for a second. Was he ready to hit her again? Oh, God, no!
Susan's mind sought the closest escape. She was six months pregnant and had to protect her growing baby. The last time Dirk had struck hertwo months earlierhe'd broken her nose. Why did he want to hurt her like this? Why couldn't she do anything right for him? No matter what Susan did, it was wrong for Dirk. And Dirk was there to correct her with his fists.
"You bitch!" he rasped savagely, taking a step forward. "You ruined my breakfast, dammit! I was hungry!"
"II'm sorry, Dirk. II'll make you another plate of eggs. Just give me a chance?" Her voice sounded breathless and frightened. Susan placed pieces of the plate on the granite counter. With a dishcloth, she rapidly cleaned the eggs up off the floor, as well. Susan could feel adrenaline shooting through her. She needed to run! The look in Dirk's eyes was deadly this time. He wanted to do more than break her nose. Mouth dry, her hands shaking, Susan cleaned herself up under a stream of water from the faucet.
"Please give me just a few minutes, Dirk. I'll fix some more eggs just the way you like them."
"I'm tired of you. I bet that baby isn't even mine!" That's when he lunged.
Susan screamed as his fingers wrapped around the long, blond hair that hung down her back. Wrenched backward, she felt her feet fly out from beneath her. Red-hot pain radiated from her scalp. She slammed onto the cold, hard floor. Susan threw up her hands to try and stop Dirk's other fist from striking her face.
But as she tried to twist away, he leaned over, his fist sinking hard into her protruding belly.
"No!" Susan shrieked from the impact, the pain flooding her. On instinct, she pulled out of his grip, strands of her hair still in his fist.
"Bitch! You're gonna die!"
Everything became slow motion for Susan. Somehow, she found the strength to rise, her hand across her belly where her baby lay. The pain was far too intense but she had to get away. She grabbed the handle of the black iron skillet and swung it at Dirk as he launched himself at her once again. Her entire arm vibrated from the sudden impact with his skull.
To her disbelief, he fell like a pile of rags on the floor. He had a huge gash across his brow, but at least she'd stopped him. Maybe forever. Tears splattered from her eyes. Tears of pain. She could have stood there for hours but for the sudden ripping sensation through her abdomen.
Please don't let me lose my baby! A baby she'd wanted all her twenty-three years of life. Susan had endured Dirk's beatings just to bring this beautiful, clean, innocent baby into the world.
Gasping, Susan saw everything begin to gray before her eyes. She had to escape! She had to get out of here before Dirk woke up! When he did, he'd kill her and her baby. Something raw and primal surged through her. Susan staggered forward, both hands covering her belly. Though she prayed to God that He would save her baby, Susan felt she might die.
Sobbing for breath, Susan tried as best as she could to get out of the five-million-dollar Miami estate that had been her home for all of seven months. Why hadn't she realized sooner that Dirk was a drug dealer with the Mexican cartel? That he was beyond dangerous? She'd come from a small Iowa cattle farm so what did she know? Now she was running for her life.
Warmth flowed between her legs. She knew it was blood or worse, the fluid surrounding her baby. Save my baby save my baby Susan wove unsteadily past the palm trees at the front of the house. Her world began tilting, and more fluid flowed down her legs. Sobbing, Susan ran as if drunk toward the sidewalk below. She nearly fell but she made it to the concrete walkways of the rich community. Help! She could never go back into the estate that reminded her of a prison. She had to escape Dirk! She had to save her baby girl that she'd named Sarah.
Cars slowed down, and drivers gawked at her. Susan wove on rubbery legs, her hands stretched outward to keep herself upright. Gasps and sobs exploded out of her mouth as the pain made her hunch over. Help!
Susan knew no one in Miami. Dirk had kept her inside that mausoleum, not allowing her to make friends with anyone. Her strange marriage went against her grain. At home in the small community of Greenfield, Iowa, people knew each other. They were a tight-knit community. They supported and helped one another. Susan hated Miami, hated that she'd made the stupid decision to marry Dirk Payson. At eighteen years old, when she'd fallen in love with him, she'd thought she knew everything. Against her parents' wishes, she'd run off and married him. How she regretted her choice now.
Everything had gone wrong. Susan bent over, her hands cupping her belly. Suddenly, she heard the screech of tires nearby. Looking up, Susan noticed a dark blue car stop and a man running toward her. Susan didn't know who he was, but she sank to her knees. She was too weak to stand, too weak to see if he was friend or foe. Yet, the look in his green eyes told her he was there to help her.
Then, as if someone had lowered a black curtain across her vision, Susan crumpled to the sidewalk. She knew nothing more.
Five years later
"Susan, something has happened," FBI agent Brenda Wilkins said, gesturing for her to sit down in a chair within an enclosed glass office.
"Oh?" Susan frowned and, automatically, her heart began to beat harder. It was snowing outside and getting to this building in six inches of snow had taken a long time. After pulling off her black wool coat and removing her red scarf, Susan placed them on a nearby hook.
The news had to be about Dirk. She had lost Sarah, her baby, and nearly her own life thanks to her ex-husband. When she'd awakened in the hospital, Brenda Wilkins had been at her bedside. The red-haired woman, in her forties, with thick glasses perched on her large nose, told Susan that the FBI needed her help. For the past five years, Susan Donovan had no longer existed.
After testifying against Dirk, she'd entered the federal witness protection program and become Susan Johnson.
Brenda offered her some water from a pitcher. Palms sweaty, Susan took the glass and murmured her thanks.
"What's wrong? You seem upset," Susan said. As she looked around the small, spare office, she noticed instantly that all the blinds had been drawn except at the front door. Brenda was meeting her in a special FBI front that sported another name: Garrison & Sons Life Insurance Agency.
Brenda had literally saved Susan's life. Indeed, the FBI agent had been her gateway to a life without fear of being hunted down and killed by Dirk's Mexican drug-cartel connections, even though he was in prison. Oh, there was no question in Susan's mind that Dirk had sent out hit men to find her. So far, he hadn't succeeded.
The first thing Susan had done was to dye her hair from its original blond color to sable. And she trimmed it to shoulder-length to add more change. Brenda gave her a new name, social security number and all the rest to complete the transfer to begin living a normal life of sorts. All these things ran through Susan's mind as she studied her handler. Brenda's red mouth was pursed. Adrenaline started to pour through Susan.
"Dirk escaped," Brenda said bluntly.
"What?" The word exploded from Susan's lips. She was on her feet with nowhere to go. The panic came back with a vengeance. "What? How could that be?"
"I know, I know. Come sit down, Susan. Please " Brenda waved toward the chair.
Susan couldn't calm down. Dirk had sworn to kill her. He had promised to track her down and finish the job he'd started at their Miami home five years ago. Grabbing the arms of the wooden chair, Susan felt her knees weaken. She sat down before she fell down. Beads of perspiration dotted her wrinkled brow, her gaze burrowing into the FBI agent's eyes. "How could this have happened? Do they know where he is? Are they going to recapture him?" Her mind flew like a tornado around the possibilities.
"Take some slow, deep breaths, Susan. Please. You're looking pale and I don't want you to faint on me." Brenda reached over and gripped the hand that was clenched on the arm of the chair. "Come on now breathe, breathe "
Gulping convulsively, Susan tried. She was gasping, her breaths shallow and rapid. Just the steadying touch of Brenda's hand helped her focus. Oh, God, no! The very worst nightmare that had dogged her heels all these years had finally come true. Dirk would be looking for her. Even though he didn't know where she was or what she looked like, Susan knew he'd stalk and find her. Fear of dying made her choke. She coughed violently several times, her hand pressed against her constricted throat.
"Come on," Brenda muttered, holding the glass of water toward her. "Sip this. You're hyperventilating. You've got to settle down, Susan. Not everything is lost." Brenda sat back down, her hands folded, her red nails shining against her dark green suit.
The water was cool and soothing. Susan took several gulps. Her tightened throat began to relax, but her heart pounded like a freight train in her chest. "Tell me what happened."
Frowning, Brenda picked up the report. "Dirk escaped. No one knows how. Guards suspect he was taken out in a laundry bag to the laundry truck, and he took off from there. No witnesses, though. This is all possibility, not fact. He had to have help. His cell buddies are being interrogated as I speak. And his visitors are being questioned."
"What does this mean for me?" Susan whispered. "I have a new name, a new identity. He doesn't know I'm living here in New York City." It was a long way from Miami, Florida. Dirk hated the northeast because of the cold winters.
Lips twisting, Brenda said, "Hon, I know you've made a great life for yourself as a nanny here, and you're doing well in art school. I know you want to become a children's book illustrator someday." With a deeper frown, Brenda added in a softer voice, "But for your own safety, Susan, you're going to have to leave New York City for a while."
Hand held up, Brenda said, "Listen to me. You're easy to find here. There's a lot of vermin, too. My boss also feels you would be safer away from the east coast. In a place where you can disappear. Don't worry, we'll do all the moving for you."
"Where?" Susan felt trapped.
"Jackson Hole, Wyoming. It's out in the middle of godforsaken nowhere. And knowing Payson's hatred of cold places, it's perfect for you. Plus, with him on the loose, you don't want him to flash a photo of you at the school and have someone recognize you. New York is a big town but it can be a small town. That's why we're moving you, hon. You need a new place and a new identity."
"That means you don't anticipate finding him soon," Susan said in a low tone. That meant her mother, who was also in the witness protection program, was affected. But so were her brothers, who lived on the family farm where she'd been born in Iowa. "You promised if he ever broke out of prison, you'd protect my family. What about my mom? My brothers at our farm? Are you doing that?"
"Already done," Brenda assured her. "We're working with local and state police. Your family has been warned in Iowa. And your mother is fine. We're not moving her. We feel she's fine where she is. They know Dirk escaped, and your brothers will be guarded 24/7 by those police agencies."
Relief poured through Susan. "Are you sure they'll be"
"I am." Brenda sat up. "Listen, you need to move, Susan. I can see in your face that you don't want to, but you have to. We can't risk Payson finding you here."
"I don't think he will," Susan said, her voice strong. "I have my friends, Brenda. I have a publishing contact, the art department and"
"It doesn't matter."
Susan's stomach knotted. "The last five years of my life I've found some peace, Brenda. II still haven't come to grips with losing my baby girl."