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Oh, God, what have I done? Panic crowded Heather Hargrove's chest. Faced with the scariest threat of her life, she'd boltedpotentially making her circumstances even worse. In an attempt to calm herself, Heather watched her four-year-old daughter contentedly snore beneath a blanket on the leather sofa. Josie's safe. For the moment, anyway.
I won't let anyone take her from me.
Although they'd fled Houston earlier that day, the reality of Heather's situation was just as grim here in Dallas. She did not have the long-term resources to fight Eileen and Phillip Hargrove. Her wealthy former inlaws were one of the most powerful couples in the state of Texas. They'd be nearly impossible to beat in a custody battle even if they let themselves be constrained by anything as plebeian as "conscience" or "law." When Heather had first become engaged to their son, the Har-groves had attempted to end the relationship by bribing one of her former foster mothers to lie about her. With pockets as deep as theirs, who knew what kind of damaging testimony they could buy? If Heather had faced them in court, she would have lost Josie, her entire world. But her failure to appear this afternoon meant the judge could rule automatic forfeiture of custody.
"Here." Bryce Callahan walked back into the condo living room carrying two mugs. One was chipped at the top and featured a cartoon alien. The other was a shiny cobalt blue, printed with the logo of his software company. "Sorry I can't offer you anything to add to your coffee. I got used to drinking mine black because I never remember to buy sugar."
When she took the drink without comment, he added, "I did see a jug of milk behind the take-out boxes in the fridge, but I think it's been there since Christmas."
She tried unsuccessfully to smile. "You should probably throw it out, then."
"With St. Patrick's Day only three weeks away? Pshaw. It'll fit right in with all the other green beverages."
Heather cradled the warm mug between her hands. The last thing her jangled nerves needed was caffeine, but she was grateful for the heat. After the rainy five-hour drive, she felt frozen from the unrelenting damp and pervasive fear. "I'm sorry I came here, Bryce. I didn't really think this through." She'd been operating on desperation and adrenaline.
"Hey, what are old friends for? You don't have to apologize, Red." His crooked smile and the unimaginative nickname took her back to when she'd been eighteen. "I told you at that fundraiser to call me if you ever needed anything, remember?" Their chance encounter at a charity gala last April had been the one bright spot of a mortifying evening.
He'd handed her his business card, eyes filled with worry, and said he hoped to hear from her soon. Prior to that night, the two college friends hadn't seen each other since Bryce had flunked out of the University of Texas. The computer genius had prioritized all-nighters leveling up in video games above attending 8:00 a.m. sociology lectures.
Tonight, in plaid pajama pants and a black T-shirt boasting Total Domination, his sandy brown hair in need of a trim, Bryce looked more like the bighearted slacker he used to be than the successful game designer he was now. At the benefit, she hadn't even recognized him in his tux. Of course, she'd been preoccupied, trying to deal with her uncharacteristically hostile husband at the last social function they'd attended as a married couple. Unlike his father, Christopher Hargrove's favorite form of manipulation had always been charm, not bullying. But, by last spring, Christopher had become fed up with her questions about his family's shadier dealings and her insistence that they couldn't raise their daughter with the Hargroves' flagrant disregard for rules.
Christopher had believed consequences were for other people, but being rich, good-looking and well-connected hadn't saved him when he wrapped his sports car around a tree the month after Heather left him. The Hargroves blamed her, said his self-destructive actions had been fueled by his pain over losing his wife and daughter. Eileen Hargrove's ice blue eyes had bored holes into Heather at the funeral. "You killed him, you ungrateful nobody. You killed my son! And you will Pay."
Heather shivered, and coffee sloshed over the rim of her mug.
"Easy," Bryce cautioned, taking the hot cup away from her. He turned to set it on the coffee table, but the surface was buried under gaming magazines, napkins from local fast-food restaurants and illegible notes scrawled in half a dozen spiral notebooks. With a shrug, he shoved a stack of papers to the floor, then blinked at the corner he'd uncovered. "Huh. I forgot this had a glass top."
"What am I going to do?" Heather asked. It was a rhetorical question. Her mess wasn't his problem.
"I'll tell you what you're not going to dolet those soulless bastards take Little Red." He lowered his voice to a whisper as he glanced at Josie's fiery curls. "I know I only saw you with her father from across the ballroom, but he was clearly bad news."
It had been obvious to anyone with eyes and ears what kind of night she and her husband had been having. Bryce hadn't bothered trying to catch up with her about old times; he'd simply waited until Christopher went to the restroom to say hi and give her his number. She'd called Bryce for moral support after she and Josie had moved into an apartment. Shame welled inside her, humiliation that it had taken her so long to admit her husband would never change. Her old friend had seen Christopher's true colors in a single evening. Why had it taken her years?
In her defense, Bryce had only witnessed her husband drunk and antagonistic. He hadn't seen the determined charmer who'd pursued her or doted on her during their first blissful year of marriage. Plus, Bryce had been looking through the eyes of an adult, not the eyes of a young woman who'd grown up in the foster care system and felt cherished for the first time in her life.
"Chris had his moments," she said softly. She liked to think that some of her late husband's good qualities would live on in Josie.
Bryce waved a hand. "My point was, you make his parents sound about a thousand times worse than him."
"Agreed. But running was a mistake." All she'd ever wanted growing up was a family of her own, yet now she'd endangered her daughter's chances of a normal home life. Josie was still reeling from losing her father. How could she be expected to cope if Heather's impulsive actions landed her in jail? After her arguments with Christopher about operating outside the rules, her failure to appear made her a terrible hypocrite.
"You're not thinking about going back?" Bryce asked dubiously.
Dread knotted her stomach. Her in-laws had scared the hell out of her from the day she'd met them. At first, it had been because she hadn't believed she was good enough for their sonan opinion Eileen Hargrove reinforced at every opportunity. But over the past few years, she'd become apprehensive for other reasons. Christopher had joked that Hargroves were "above the law because we can afford to be." Though Heather lacked specific details, she knew her father-in-law's criminal activities weren't limited to bribing his way out of traffic tickets.
Not that I can prove it.
"I can't go back," she finally said. "They have unlimited funds and a lawyer who makes great white sharks look cuddly in comparison." From things she'd overheard during her marriage, Phillip Hargrove might also have judges and state officials in his back pocket.
"You mentioned funds." Bryce peered at her through his wire-rim glasses, his concern unmistakable. "Need a loan?"
She rose, crossing to the expensive ottoman to hug him. "You are a prince. Why couldn't I have fallen for you in college?" She'd been nineteen and vastly inexperienced with men when she'd met Christopher at a museum near campus.
"A diligent scholarship student like you with a wastrel like me? Pshaw. You couldn't have been expected to put up with this." He gestured toward the cluttered tabletop and the magazines now scattered haphazardly on the unvacuumed carpet. "It would be an affront to your artistic sensibilities. Now stop trying to change the subject, and tell me if you need money."
"No. At least, not yet. If I'm careful." When she'd first considered leaving Christopher, she'd begun quietly squirreling away cash. It had taken her a long time to work up the courage. She'd later supplemented her new bank account by selling jewelry. She'd realized she might have to pay for a contentious divorce, but at the end of the day, despite his faults, she'd known Christopher loved Josie. She'd prayed that would guide him to some reasonable decisions.
Eileen and Phillip Hargrove didn't love anyone. They saw Josie, the only child of their only child, as the Hargrove heir, belonging to them by rightsas much a possession as Eileen's BMW or Phillip's Jag.
"What I need" Heather sighed "is a plan. Other than hauling ass toward the Mexican border."
"With customs security checkpoints? Definitely not the direction you want to head if there's possibly a warrant out for you." His forehead crinkled in concentration. "I might know a place you can go. Ever been to the hill country? I have a cousin in Fredericksburg."
"It's bad enough I imposed on you," she said, not following his train of thought. "I can't show up on your cousin's doorstep."
"You can if she's not home." He was starting to look excited, gesturing with his hands as he spoke. "My cousin Kelsey is married to a guy in the military. He's been overseas a lot but now he's got a six-month assignment in Alaska. She's going to join him, and I arranged for a friend to house-sit. All the regular bills are set for automatic drafts out of Kelsey's bank account. As long as you've got cash for stuff like groceries, you and Little Red would be set. It's perfect!"
"I don't understand. What about your friend who already agreed to do it?"
"She'll be inconvenienced when I tell her Kelsey's changed her mind. And a little peeved," he admitted. "But I'll make sure she lands on her feet. You have a hell of a lot more at stake, Heather."
She was all too aware of the high stakes. To keep the panic at bay, she tried to lighten the moment. "Heather, huh? I think that's the first time you've ever called me anything but 'Red.'"
"About that." He tilted his head, considering. "You stand out with that hair color. Ever thought about going brunette?"
She pressed her fingertips to her eyes. "Not until just now. I'm new at this whole fugitive thing."
"Different hair would help. So would different names. I can assist you there."
She glanced up, startled. "There's a limit to what I'll let you do for me." Even as she said the words, she prayed they were true. How much risk would she let a friend take if it meant protecting her daughter?
"I didn't mean like create new social security numbers for you or falsify a passport," he clarified. "This isn't a Bourne movie. But I might know someone who, uh, dabbles in fake IDs. It would have an upcoming expiration date because the new ones are too hard to copy and it probably wouldn't fool a professional beyond a quick glimpse, but it's a start."
Counterfeit identification and lying about who she was? Bryce's intentions were good, but did she dare continue on this path? Then again She cast one more anxious glance in Josie's direction. How could she dare not take Bryce's help?