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Samantha Rogers looked over her shoulder, trying to maintain her composure in the inky black parking lot. Her heels clicked against the pavement and the overstuffed paper sack in her arm teetered.
Why weren't the overhead lights working out here? Sure, the grocery store was in the middle of nowhere, in Yorktown, Virginia, a town where crime was practically nonexistent. But the soft glow of "Hal's Market" on the sign above her did little to comfort her or guide her steps.
A footfall sounded behind her.
She craned her neck but didn't see anyone. The sound spooked her enough that she quickened her pace. Her shoe caught in a crack, and she nearly toppled onto the asphalt.
She righted herself, but not before an apple escaped from the top of her bag and rolled under a nearby car.
No way was she stopping to retrieve it. Not with the way imaginary spiders scattered across her skin and her throat ached as she tried to hold her fears at bay. Tension pounded at her ears as she strained to hear another telltale sign that someone was following her.
Her paranoia reared its head at the worst times. But Samantha could have been certain that the man in the grocery store had been watching her. His bulging muscles, heavy jowls, and rocklike hands only made him appear to be dangerous. That's what she tried to tell herself, at least.
For that matter, the man was probably shopping for the same household staples she was. She'd stopped by on her way home from a late night at work to grab the usualmilk, eggs, bread and some fresh produce. A lot of people stopped to get those things. That's most likely why the man's movements inside the store had paralleled hers.
He was just someone on his way home. His wife could have called him and reminded him they were out of milk. That was it.
She may have mentally convinced herself that her theory was true, but her body still remained on alert.
Samantha's SUV came into view. It was only four parking spaces away. The heavy downpour earlier had flooded the front of the lot, so she'd had to park in the back. Now she wished she'd battled the ankle-high water closer to the store instead.
With her free hand, she fumbled inside her purse until she found her keys. She grasped them like a lifeline.
She'd pick up Connor from his karate class, go home and lock her doors.
Then she'd laugh at herself for being so silly. She'd make jokes about her paranoia. She'd tell herself she had an overactive imagination.
Though she tried to brush off her anxiety, it didn't work. How much longer could she live in this fear? It wasn't fair to Connor. Every eight year old should have a stable, predictable life. Connor deserved to live in the same place for more than a few months at a time. He needed a safe place to call home.
This wasn't how she'd imagined her life turning out.
Always looking over her shoulder. Tense. Afraid.
She reached her SUV and rounded it to the driver's side. Relief filled her. That footfall had been her imagination.
As she hit the button to unlock her door, a man rushed from the shadows.
She dropped her bag and tried to scream. Before she could, the man's fist collided with her jaw. The force of the hit propelled her backward, into her vehicle. Her head snapped back, cracking against the SUV.
It was the man from the store. The one with arms that looked like tree trunks. With a neck as thick as his head. Who towered above her by a foot, at least.
She hadn't been paranoid.
"Did you think we wouldn't find you?" he mumbled. Spittle showered her, followed by a blast of the man's hot breath. "We always find who we're looking for."
Her knees went weak, and she began sinking to the ground. She didn't stand a chance against this man. Her one hundred and twenty pounds weren't enough. Her cell phone was out of her reach. Her keys jangled as her feet hit them on the asphalt.
This man was going to kill her, and she could do nothing about it.
No, she had to think about Connor. She had to fight for him. She couldn't let this man win.
Her gaze quickly scanned her surroundings for somethinganythingshe could use as a weapon. All she saw were a dozen broken eggs, a busted milk carton and a loaf of bread.
Tears threatened to squeeze out as the man grabbed her blouse and jerked her back to her feet. His fist struck her stomach.
Deep, jarring pain made stars swim before her eyes. Her ribs ached. Air squeezed from her lungs.
"You have some very powerful people looking for you." He pressed her against the SUV. "One in particular said you need to pay for what you've done."
Wasn't there anyone else out here? Anyone to call for help? The SUV formed a barrier, making it impossible for anyone coming from the store to see them.
"Leave me alone," she mumbled, her head spinning. "Someone already killed my husband."
"Someone killed him?" He grunted. "You killed him. An eye for an eye."
"Of course I didn't." Her voice cracked.
"That's not what I heard."
"Please. I have a son. He needs me." Maybe she could reason with this man. It was doubtful. But maybe. She didn't have many options right now.
She quickly soaked in the man's features. Gold tooth. Snake tattoo stretching up his neck. She'd never seen him before. He had to have been contracted by someoneone of her husband's former friends.
"I wasn't hired to be compassionate. I was hired to bring you indead or alive. Dead would be less of a hassle."
The man punched her in the gut again. The air rushed from her lungs. Tears spilled down her cheeks.
He reached into his back pocket and pulled out something shiny.
A knife, Samantha realized.
Any hope she had for surviving disappeared faster than her last paycheck. Dear Lord. Help me!
Just then, a siren screeched in the distance. The man startled at the sound.
Adrenaline surged in Samantha. She had to fight for her life. To fight for her son.
Finally, the scream that had been lodged in her throat escaped. She pushed the man away with a strength that surprised even her. Then she sprinted toward the store.
She ran, not looking back until she reached the inside. There, she sagged against the wall.
She glanced outside, just in time to see the man scowl at her. He climbed into his car and squealed off. She was safe. But for how long?
She had to get Connor and run. Where? She didn't know. What would she do once she got there? She had no idea.
But staying here was not an option.
"I know people think I'm crazy, but I've got to do this." John Wagner leaned back in his chair, not liking the tension across his chest. He'd felt this tension for far too long now. "I've got to make some life changes. I've been in denial about it for a long time."
"I think it's a good choice," his friend Nate said. "Even if people think you've lost your mind." His friend grinned as he leaned against an empty table in The Revolutionary Grill. It was Tuesday night, the one night of the week the grill didn't open. That's why John always stopped by, every week on the same night, to hang out. Nate and his wife owned this place.
Today would be John's last visit for a while, though. In the morning, he'd leave for Smuggler's Cove where he would begin a new adventure. He'd worked at the Coast Guard Training Center here in Yorktown for the past five years.
Now it was a time for a fresh challenge: restoring nine cabins on the remote island of Smuggler's Cove, located in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay. John was looking forward to some new scenery and new faces. Mostly, he was hoping his soul might be restored right along with the old cabins.
Since Alyssa had died, nothing in his world had felt right. This life change was his last-ditch effort to find some peace, to make things right with himself. He prayed to God that would be the case. If this didn't work, what would?
Finally, John took his last sip of coffee and stood. He raised his cup in acknowledgment of all the Tuesdays he and Nate had done this. "As always, thanks for the coffee. You guys will definitely be what I'll miss the most about this place."
"We'll be out there to visit you in a week," Nate added. "Work fast."
"You know how to put the pressure on, but there's no one else I'd work as hard for." It was the truth. Nate and his wife Kylie had been loyal friends to him. He'd do anything for them.
Just then, the back door of the restaurant flew open. John's gaze traveled through the kitchen, swerving in the direction of the sound.
A woman stood in the back entrance, her eyes wide. Blood trickled from her forehead, her lip was busted, her gaze looked frantic.
Nate rushed toward her, his eyebrows furrowed together in worry. "Samantha? Are you okay?"
The woman nodded and touched her forehead.
That's right, John realized. It was Samantha, the woman who was renting the room above the restaurant. He'd hardly recognized her in her disheveled state.
John had seen her around a few times. She was hard not to notice with her trim build, soft blond hair that fell to her shoulders and the mysterious air about her. She kept to herself, but her gaze was always searching her surroundings, as if she was on guard or looking for someone.
She'd spiked John's curiosity, but that was as far as it had gone. Ever since Alyssa, John knew he didn't deserve the chance to even consider a relationship. Besides, Samantha seemed like a closed book, someone whose body language screamed, "Keep your distance."
John joined his friend, scanning for trouble out the backdoor window. Before he even reached Samantha, he could see her trembling.
"I'm fine," Samantha muttered. Her gaze fluttered to Nate and then John. "Just a little
John was sure those injuries were from anything but an accident. Had someone done that to her? Anger surged in him at the thought.
He'd seen firsthand the devastation that happened when people didn't treat others as humans. Alyssa had been a prime example, and his heart still broke at the memory.
"That must have been some accident," John muttered, soaking in her injuries.
Samantha shrugged. Her gaze fluttered wildly about the room, and she gripped her purse. "I'm sorry. I can't talk now."
"Can we help you get cleaned up, at least?" Nate asked. "I can grab my first-aid kit, put some ointment on that cut."
She shoved a hair behind her ear. "I'll be fine." She reached into her purse and pulled out a piece of paper. Her tremble was more noticeable when she extended her arm. "Here's the rest of my rent for the month. I'm afraid I'm going to have to take off. Family emergency."
"Anything I can do to help?" John asked, even though it wasn't his business to ask.
"No." She shook her head. "I'm just going to grab my things and pick up Connor. We're going to hit the road tonight."
Nate shifted, worry wrinkling the corners of his eyes. "You can't wait until morning?"
Samantha shook her head. "I'm sorry. But I've got to go now. This can't wait." She paused and sucked on her lip for a minute. "Look, you and Kylie have been really kind to me. I don't know how to say this, but please be careful. Be safe. Especially safe."
"What's going on, Samantha? I don't like the sound of that." Nate, a seasoned Coastie, had always been tough, strong and fair. Right now, he sounded on edge.
John wanted to step in, to say more, to help in some way. But he didn't know the woman, and Nate did. He held his tongue, restrained himself from pushing Samantha for answers. It was obvious that she needed help, even if she wouldn't admit it or accept it when offered.
She took a step toward the staircase leading to her apartment over the restaurant. "I don't have any time right now. I've got to go."
She rushed up the stairs. Halfway up, she dropped her purse and the contents clattered down. John retrieved some lipstick and a pen. He handed the items to her, noticing how she jerked back when their hands touched.
"Thank you," she muttered before hurrying away.
John stomped back down the stairs and joined Nate at the back door. He wanted to get his friend's take on the situation. They moved away from the staircase so their voices wouldn't carry.
"What was that about?" John asked.
Nate rubbed his jaw, looking just as perplexed as John was. "I have no idea. She's scared."
"Someone roughed her up," John muttered.
Images of Alyssa flooded his mind. He blanched at each memory before regret filled him. He should have done more to protect her. He should have known that the man who'd caused her so much misery in her past would return, that he wouldn't be content to leave her alone.
"I've seen that look before. She's terrified." John shook his head, unable to get the images to leave his mind. "What do you know about her?"
Nate shook his head. "Not much. She keeps to herself. Always pays her rent on time. Dotes over her son. But she's offered very little in terms of personal information. We don't ask. If she wants us to know, we figure she'll tell us."
John clenched his jaw, still replaying the conversation with her. "She said, 'Be safe.' It sounds as if trouble might be coming."
"I'll keep my eyes open. We've had problems around here before."
"And they landed you in the hospital," John reminded him. "Maybe I should stick around, be an extra set of eyes
"You do your thing, John. Smuggler's Cove is your dream. I'll take care of things here or call the police if I have to."
John hated to walk away when a storm could be brewing. Especially since Nate and Kylie had a toddler and another baby on the way. Nate would need all the help he could get.
John prided himself on always being there for friends when they need him. That's one of the reasons why his failure with Alyssa hurt so much.
He'd let her down. He'd let their unborn baby down.
"I don't like this," John finally said.
Nate clamped his hand on John's shoulder. "It's about time you did something for yourself. The change of scenery will be good for you."
But John didn't know if he could do that. The image of Samantha standing in the doorway with fear in her eyes would haunt him. So would the remembrance of her busted lip and the cut on her forehead.
Could he really go on with this new chapter of his life just as he'd planned? He didn't know.