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By RICHARD L. MABRY
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2013 Richard Mabry
All rights reserved.
ADAM DAVIDSON AND DR. CARRIE MARKHAM STROLLED OUT THE doors of the Starplex Cinema into the warm darkness of the springtime evening. As they made their way through the few cars left on the parking lot, Adam's right hand found Carrie's left. She took it and squeezed, and his heart seemed to skip a beat. His fingers explored until they felt the outline of the diamond ring he'd placed there only a week ago.
She leaned in to briefly rest her head on his shoulder. "I never thought I could be this happy."
"Me either." And if he had his way, this was how it would be for the rest of their lives. Two people in love, enjoying their small-town lives, their only worry what movie to see on their regular Saturday night date.
A loud noise in the distance made them both stop. Then Adam saw a shower of color on the horizon, about where the ballpark would be. "Fireworks show. The Titans must have won." Get a grip, Adam. Stop jumping at every noise. You're safe.
When Adam first met Carrie eight months ago, she was fragile and hurting, as skittish as a baby deer, still bearing the scars from the death of her husband almost two years earlier. Her only interest seemed to be her medical practice. But, little by little, he'd seen her start to smile, to laugh, and eventually to love.
Carrie had restored the smile to Adam's life as well. He still had his own problems, even though he hadn't revealed them to her. He hoped he would never have to. But having her in his life made him certain that the life he now lived, so long as he lived it with her, would be all he ever wanted.
These things were supposed to take time, but in just a few short months each of them had decided that the other was the person needed to fill the hole in their lives. The culmination had come with Adam's proposal and Carrie's acceptance last week. They hadn't set a wedding date yet, but for now Adam was content to watch Carrie plan and bask in the glow of their shared happiness.
The couple reached Adam's car and climbed in, but hadn't yet fastened their seat belts when Carrie said, "I think a chocolate—No, make that a hot fudge sundae." She leaned back in the passenger seat of Adam's little Subaru. "That would ..."
As she was talking Adam saw a dark SUV approach from his right, moving at a snail's pace. When the vehicle was directly in front of Adam's Forester, its side window came down to reveal the glint of light on metal as the driver's hand extended outward.
Adam's next action was reflexive. If he was wrong, he could apologize. But if he was right—He was already moving when he heard the shots.
* * *
The impact of Adam's arm across her shoulder pushed her down until her head was below the level of the car's dashboard. Then Carrie heard it—a flat crack, followed by two more in rapid succession. Muffled thuds sounded above her, and she pictured bullets boring into the headrests at the place where her head and Adam's had been seconds ago. Carrie cringed against an expected shower of glass, but only a few tiny pieces sprinkled down on her.
The faint ringing in her ears after the shots didn't mask the screech of tires and roar of an engine. When the noise subsided, all that remained was the rapid thud of her heartbeat echoing in her ears.
Carrie huddled with her head down, her breath cut off as much by fear as by the pressure of Adam's body atop hers, a human shield. She felt his soft breath in her ear as he whispered, "Are you all right?"
"I ... I think so. How about you?"
"I'm okay." The pressure holding her down lessened. "Stay down until I tell you it's safe." Carrie turned her head to catch a glimpse of Adam peering cautiously over the dashboard.
Her heart threatened to jump out of her chest while her mind wrestled with what just happened. After a seeming eternity, Adam bent down and said in a hushed tone, "I think they've gone. You can sit up."
Carrie raised her head barely enough to peer through the damaged windshield. When nothing moved in her field of vision, she eased upward to perch on the edge of her seat. A few cars were still on the lot of the theater after the last Saturday night show, probably the vehicles of employees closing down for the night. There hadn't been many people in the movie theater.
"Are you sure you're not hurt?" Adam's voice, full of concern, brought Carrie back to the moment. He brushed a bit of glass from her seat with a handkerchief, then tossed it onto the floor of the car.
Carrie unfolded from her crouched position and eased farther onto the seat. "Scared, is all," she said. "You okay?"
"Not a scratch."
He reached across to hug her, and she turned to find shelter in his arms. They stayed that way for a long moment, and the trembling inside her slowly eased. "What ... what was that about?"
"Nothing for you to worry about." Adam's voice and manner were calm, and Carrie felt comforted by his very presence. Then, as suddenly as the turn of a page, he released her and swung around to face forward in the driver's seat. His next words were terse, clipped. "We have to get out of here." He reached for the ignition, key in hand.
"Wait a minute!" Carrie pulled her cell phone from her purse and held it out to him. "We can't leave. We need to call 911."
Adam took her arm, a bit more firmly than necessary, and pushed the phone away. He shook his head. "No!"
She flinched at the negative response and the tone in which Adam delivered it. "Why? Someone shot at us. We should call the police."
Adam's voice was quiet, his words terse. "Look, I don't have time to explain. Let's go."
What's the matter with him? She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Twice she started to speak. Twice she stopped.
Adam turned the key and reached for the gearshift lever.
Carrie saw his jaw clench. She was terrified, but Adam wasn't so much scared as—she searched for the right word—he was cold and determined. The sudden change frightened her. "If this was a drive-by, we need to report it. Maybe the police can catch them before they kill someone."
"Just let me handle this," Adam said. "Right now, let's get out of here. I want you someplace safe."
Although Adam's voice was low, there was an intensity to his words that Carrie had never heard before. "You have to trust me," he said. "There are things you don't know, things that make it dangerous for me to deal with the police right now." He pointed to her seat belt. "Buckle up and let's leave. I'll explain soon."
Carrie wanted to argue, but she could see it was no use. She put away her phone and fastened her seat belt.
The lights on the theater marquee went out. In the distance a siren sounded, faint at first but growing louder. "We're out of here," Adam said. He put the car in gear and eased out of the parking lot, peering through the starred windshield to navigate the dark streets.
Carrie studied Adam as he drove. Most men would be shaking after such a close encounter with death. But he wasn't. Why would that be? Was he used to being shot at? She shook her head. That was plain silly.
She thought she knew him—after all, they were engaged. Carrie glanced at him again. Maybe she didn't know Adam as well as she'd thought. That scared her even more than what they'd just experienced.
They rode in silence for a few moments, and during that time Carrie recreated the shooting in her mind. Then something clicked—something she hadn't realized until then. She turned to Adam. "You pushed me down before the shots were fired. You didn't react to the shots. You knew they were coming."
Adam glanced at her but didn't respond.
Carrie thought about it once more. "I'm sure of it. You shoved me below the dashboard, then I heard three shots. How did you know what was about to happen?"
He continued to peer into the night. "I was backed into the parking space so I had a good view of the cars moving down the aisle in front of us. A black SUV pulled even with us, and the barrel of a pistol came out the driver's side window. That was when I pushed you down."
"Lucky you saw it."
Adam shook his head. "Luck had nothing to do with it. I'm always watching."
His response made her shiver. She hugged herself and sat silent for the balance of the trip.
When they slowed for the turn into Carrie's driveway, Adam said, "Is there room in your garage for my car?"
"I suppose so. Why?"
"I don't want to leave it at the curb or in the driveway where someone can see it. Open the garage and let me pull in. We'll talk once we're safely in your house."
Carrie found the garage remote on her key ring and raised the door. When they were inside the house, with the garage door closed, she took a seat on the living room sofa. Adam went through the small house, drawing drapes, closing blinds, and making sure all the doors and windows were locked.
Finally he returned to where Carrie waited. He started to sit beside her on the sofa, apparently thought better of it, and sank into a chair. "I've wrestled with this all the way home. I thought I was finally safe, but maybe I'm not. I know what I'm going to tell you may change things between us, but you deserve an explanation."
That was the understatement of the year. Thirty minutes ago she and Adam were a newly engaged couple, winding down an enjoyable evening. By now they should be feeding each other ice cream like two lovebirds, talking seriously and making plans about their future together. But instead ... "Yes," she said, "you owe me an explanation, a big one. So explain."
"Let me say this first. What I'm about to tell you started long before I met you. My life has changed in the past eight months. I'm different, and it's because of you. I'm ..." Adam leaned toward her. He clenched and unclenched his fists. "To begin with, Adam Davidson isn't my real name."
"TO BEGIN WITH, ADAM DAVIDSON ISN'T MY REAL NAME." IT seemed to Adam as though all the air went out of the room as soon as those words were out of his mouth.
Carrie took a deep breath. "What do you mean?"
Adam swallowed ... hard. Then, like a diver finally deciding to plunge off the high board, he said, "My real name is Keith Branson. I'm on the run. If the wrong people find me, I'm a dead man." He swallowed again. "I hope and pray I'm wrong, but what happened tonight may mean they've found me."
He watched emotions trace across Carrie's face like words running across an electronic billboard: puzzlement, dis belief, fear, anger. The ache in his heart grew with every passing second.
He'd thought maybe he'd finally found safety. He'd hoped he'd never have to share this information with her. But his hopes were dashed when the bullets flew through the windshield. Maybe he'd never be safe. And now he'd brought Carrie into it. He had to tell her, no matter the cost to their relationship. He loved her too much to let her keep believing the lie.
"What have you done? Are you running from the police?" She almost shouted the next words. "What's going on?"
"Long story," Adam said. "First, I'm not running from the police. But I'm not who you think I am either. I'm not a para legal, although I'm working as one. I'm a lawyer, and I'm running away from some very bad men—men who want to kill me."
"If you're hiding from criminals, wouldn't the police protect you?"
"Maybe, maybe not. But that would mean letting them know my real identity. And no matter how the police may try to keep it confidential, somehow that information is going to leak out. It has before. If it reaches the wrong ears ... I'm dead." He shook his head. "Of course, it may already be too late."
The color drained from Carrie's face. She snatched a ragged breath. In a low voice she said, "Let me get this straight. You're telling me you're living here under a false identity. But it's not because you've done anything wrong."
Carrie continued as though Adam hadn't spoken. "When you didn't want to call the police after someone shot at us, I thought maybe you had a bunch of unpaid tickets, unpaid alimony, something like that." Her voice rose with every word. "But now you tell me you're hiding from someone who might kill you?"
"Yes," he said. "Now can I explain?"
"Go ahead. I want to know everything, Adam. Or should I call you Keith?" She clenched her fists. "Or is there another name for me to learn?"
He took a deep breath through his nose, let it out through his mouth. Repeated the process. Be calm. You fouled up, but maybe you can salvage things. "Please, call me Adam. I came here for a fresh start, and that's when I became Adam. That's when I met you. That's when I fell in love with you."
"If you're in love with me, why didn't you tell me the truth?" Carrie lowered her voice to a quiet tone that pierced Adam's heart more than any shout could. "Why did you—no, why did we almost have to die before you told me about your past? Why did it take a shooting to make you tell me that everything I know about you is a lie?"
"When I first met you, I told you the same story I'd told before, in so many other places. It had become a habit, a way of life for me. Then when we got to know each other, after we fell in love, I didn't want to spoil things by telling you the truth." His mouth was dry, his throat threatened to close off his words, but he didn't want to interrupt his story by asking for water. "I was wrong to keep all this from you. I admit it. I've been agonizing since you accepted my proposal, wondering when and how I'd break the news to you."
For a moment Adam couldn't read her expression. Then her words removed any doubt. She was hurt—hurt deeply. "And you think now is the time?"
"What happened tonight may mean that the people who've been hunting me for so long have found me." He looked down. "I'm sorry I waited, but I have to tell you the truth now. I love you too much to keep it a secret any longer."
"You say you love me, yet you hid your past from me. It took a shooting to change your mind. That doesn't sound like love to me."
Adam felt like one of the early Christians, the ones whose limbs were tied to horses that literally pulled them apart. "I admit it. I've put off doing this. I was afraid, because telling you who I am ..." He took a deep breath, then another. There was a catch in his voice when he spoke again. "I love you, Carrie. More than I've loved anyone in my life."
Carrie hugged herself like a woman trapped in a deep freeze. "So what happened tonight? Was someone trying to kill you?"
"I can't be totally sure. Maybe someone's found me, maybe it was a random drive-by shooting. But I know one thing for sure. If my true identity gets out, even in the most innocent fashion, Charlie DeLuca will find me and try to kill me ... and you too, once he discovers that I love you."
Carrie's expression shifted from puzzled to terrified. "So just being with you puts my life in danger?" She almost whispered the next words. "How could you do this to me? Were you using me? Did being part of a couple let you blend in to the population?"
"No! Absolutely not."
Carrie turned away from him and stared at the opposite wall. "What are you going to do next?"
"Tomorrow morning I'll call the police and tell them I found my car parked at the curb with three bullet holes in the windshield. I'll do my best to make them believe this was a case of malicious mischief. I can't have them digging too deeply into my identity. Because if they do, I might as well pack up and get out of town."
Her back still to Adam, Carrie said, "What if the police want to talk to me about the shooting?"
"They won't. Not if I tell it the way I've described." Adam rose and began pacing. "Believe me, more than anything I want to keep you out of this."
Carrie spun to face Adam. When she spoke, her tone was cold. "I think you'd better go."
Adam stood, then stopped. "Carrie, I'm really sorry. I hope you can forgive me." He looked directly into Carrie's eyes. "I meant the things I said when I proposed. I still mean them. I love you."
For Adam time froze as Carrie stared, first at him, then at the ring on her finger, then back at him. Finally she put both hands in front of her, and Adam's heart dropped when he saw the twisting motion she made.
"Carrie, please don't—"
She took two steps toward him and held out her hand, the engagement ring in her open palm. "I don't know what to think right now. But it doesn't seem right for me to keep wearing this. I don't know whether I love you, or fear you, or feel sorry for you, or ... I don't know." She shook her head. Tears streaked her cheeks.
Excerpted from HEART FAILURE by RICHARD L. MABRY. Copyright © 2013 Richard Mabry. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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