RAW AND HONEST.
That’s what Liam Stone claimed he wanted from me—but it’s not what he gave me. He lied to me. He hurt me. And still some crazy, stupid part of me clings to the idea that there could be a logical explanation for what I overheard between him and Derek last night. The same part of me that saw him as my hero, willing to fight my proverbial Godzilla.
But he was never truly my hero. And after a sleepless night in the Inn at Cherry Creek, I’ve faced reality. I can’t risk trusting him—or anyone else—until I confront the past someone wants me to forget. That means leaving Colorado and my identity as Amy Bensen and heading to Texas, which is exactly what I’m working on now.
Entering a downtown Denver pawnshop on a gust of wind, I swipe my long blond hair from my face and glance around. The T-shaped glass display shelves are unattended, yet the all-too-familiar sense of being watched makes me want to turn and leave. This is where the guy at the flea market who made a cheap fake ID for me told me I can obtain a high-quality one that will allow me to disappear. And that’s exactly what I need, because Liam Stone’s money and power will enable him to hunt me down if I don’t fully cover my tracks.
“Hello?” I call out, hugging myself against the air-conditioning. I’m chilly in the white shorts and red tank top I bought at Walmart after my dinner-turned-disaster with Liam last night. I hate that I can’t go back to my apartment for my things—though most of them were bought by Liam, anyway. Once I’m able to disappear, I’ll pull my money from my old New York account and purchase more basics that really feel like mine.
I move farther inside the store, praying the twenty bucks I gave the cabdriver is enough to ensure he waits for me. “Hello?” I call again, but my answer is more silence.
Seconds continue to tick by and I feel increasingly uneasy. Deciding to check on my cab and regroup, I turn toward the exit.
I turn to find a burly fiftysomething man with a thick beard as gray and wiry as his longish hair. “I was looking for Roberto,” I say. Is this scruffy-looking stranger my ticket to freedom?
He’s in front of me now, the scent of cigarettes wafting off of him, his jeans and T-shirt wrinkled and worn. “I am Roberto,” he declares. He reaches out and lifts a strand of my long blond hair, and it’s all I can do not to shrink away from him as he adds, “My man said you were brunette.”
I step back, tugging my cheap, oversized purse in front of me and between us. “Wig,” I say. “I brought it with me.”
“For a quick change of identity,” he comments. “Smart, mami.”
I don’t know what mami means, but after the horrid ID his man at the flea market made me, I decided I needed a better disguise. In a worst-case scenario, I can still pass with my Amy Bensen photos.
“Twenty-five hundred dollars,” he says.
I gape. “What? No. I was quoted five hundred.”
“You need to disappear badly enough to want two hair colors. That means you need the best identification I can make you. That runs twenty-five hundred dollars.”
“I don’t have twenty-five hundred dollars. What do I get for five hundred?”
“Nothing. You were quoted wrong.”
My gut knots. “I don’t have that much.”
“Well, then,” he says, his lips thinning, “use your flea-market ID.” He turns away, dismissing me.
“No,” I say quickly. The fake ID his guy made this morning won’t get me through a grocery line, let alone airport security. “Wait.” He faces me again, arching a dark brow in a silent question. “I have seven hundred dollars.”
My mind races, calculating how much I’ll have left to survive with if I go higher. I settle on a firm “Fifteen hundred dollars. That’s all I have.”
His gaze rakes up and down my body, then returns to my face, and I feel violated. “Perhaps we can barter,” he suggests. “You give me something I want. I give you something you want.”
My heart lodges in my throat. I want to survive. I want answers. I want to make Amy Bensen disappear, but not like this. “No, I—”
“Yes,” he counters, and his hands come down on my shoulders.
Panic rushes over me and a surge of adrenaline spikes through my blood. I shove his hands away. “No!”
He grabs my wrists. “It’ll be good for you, I promise.”
“Let go!” I hiss. A familiar prickling in my scalp begins, signaling one of the dreaded flashbacks that can debilitate me. “No. No.” Pain spikes along my scalp like a blade. “Oh, God. Not now.”
“Oh, God is right,” he promises. “Over and over, you gonna say that.”
I see the intent in his eyes. He isn’t going to make me an ID. He’s going to make me a victim, if I let him. I’m sick and tired of being everyone’s victim.
I raise my knee hard, putting every bit of my strength behind the blow to his groin. He grunts and doubles over, panting in pain. The prickling in my head is more pronounced and I shove against the door, desperate to escape before I collapse. A quick glance to my right tells me the cabdriver has deserted me. I run blindly, as fast as I can.
Spots splatter in front of my eyes, and I dart into a diner and head for the sign that reads “Restroom.” Once I’m inside the one-stall room, I lock myself in and press my back against the door. Pain pierces my scalp and I ball my fists and slide down the door, just in time. Suddenly, I’m flashing back to the past.
I park my Toyota Camry in front of the house, thinking about what it’ll be like to be in college a few months from now, with no curfew. Stepping outside into the hot Texas night, I realize that the porch is dark. How very . . . odd.
I frown and shove the car door closed. My parents’ Ford SUV is in the driveway. Since my mom isn’t on the porch waiting to tell me I’m ten minutes late, maybe the migraine she was fighting earlier caught up with her. Still, I feel uneasy, and pull my keys out to be ready.
Quickly walking toward the house, hoping to avoid a lecture, I tiptoe up the porch stairs. The third plank creaks loudly and I freeze. Dang it, this is Dana’s fault. I told her I had to leave the movie theater thirty minutes ago, but the captain of the football team was talking to her and she’s infatuated with him.
I rush up the rest of the stairs, and the instant I hit the porch, a hand wraps around my upper arm. I gasp and a big hand covers my mouth. I reach for it, trying to pry it off of me. A second later I’m pushed against the wall, the hand still over my mouth. “Were you inviting someone to grab you and hurt you?”
I blink my older brother into view through the inky black night, and his hand falls from my mouth. I grimace and lift my knee to his groin, stopping just shy of contact. “I should hurt you. You scared the crap out of me, Chad! When did you and Dad get back into town?”
He ignores the question. “When you see something unusual like the porch light being out, don’t just charge forward and hope for the best. Walking around in your fairy-tale world of Saturday night dates and teenage gossip isn’t going to keep you safe.”
My anger is instant. “‘Teenage gossip’? Did you really just say that to me? I want to be at the digs with you and Dad. I want to be exploring the world. It’s your influence on Dad that keeps me from traveling with you—so don’t even go there, Chad.”
A lock of curly blond hair falls over his brow as he shakes his head. “Because I’m fucking trying to make sure you have the normal life I have never had.”
I suck in a breath at the raspy, affected quality to his words that sends goose bumps down my spine, and fear clenches my gut. “What’s wrong, Chad?”
He just stares at me and I wish like heck the shadows would soften on his face.
“Chad?” I prod.
He shoves off the wall and scrubs his face. “Nothing’s wrong.” He motions to the door. “Let’s go in.”
“Not until you tell me what’s going on. And don’t tell me it’s nothing. Tell me the truth.”
“You can’t handle the truth. If tonight told me anything, it’s that.”
“That’s unfair. I’m living the only life you let me have. What aren’t you telling me?”
Pounding jolts me back to the present and I am on the ground, my legs spread out on the filthy floor of the restaurant bathroom. “Chad,” I whisper, aching at how real he’d felt. Only months after that night, I lost him and everyone I loved. I squeeze my eyes shut, remembering how Mom had opened the door and ended the conversation that Chad never reopened. Chad had blamed his behavior on a girl and a bottle of tequila I know he’d never touched. I’d have smelled it on him.
You can’t handle the truth. I’m ashamed of how right he was. Ashamed at how I’ve hidden from and blocked out everything for the last six years, afraid of what I’d discover. My lashes lift. Not anymore.
I open the bathroom door and return to the dining area, and it’s as if the memory of Chad has shifted something inside me. I am suddenly challenged to be more than I have been, but deep down, I know this has been coming. Something inside me burns to escape the prison that’s been my life. It is almost as if, on a subconscious level, I went to work at the museum to tempt fate and force myself to finally act.
Exiting the diner, I’m remarkably coolheaded about how to deal with my travel limitations. I hail a cab and direct the driver to take me to a bank. There I withdraw the cash from my New York account, knowing I’m sending out an alert about my location to whoever was following me from New York.
Next, I have the driver take me to Walmart, where I suck it up and invest in more of what I need for my travel plans: a selection of casual clothes, two small black suitcases, a couple of hats, sunglasses, and basic toiletries. After I pay for the items I go to the bathroom and change into jeans and a navy tee, putting my purchases in one suitcase and leaving the second one empty. Finally, I slip on a red hoodie to make sure I stand out at my next stop.
When the cab pulls up to the curb at the airport, my nerves are tight as I force myself to get out of the car. I have a plan, and it’s a good one. Good thing, too, since there is no plan “B” that makes sense to me.
I head to the counter of a budget airline and snag a seat on a flight leaving in less than an hour. I check in the empty bag to make my reservation look more legitimate, keeping the other bag with me. Once I have my boarding pass, despite my feet resisting, I press forward, reminding myself that there are cameras and security personnel everywhere. I’m safer here than anywhere else.
Fifteen torturous minutes later I head to the gate, where I claim a seat near the counter so I can call for help if needed. I do not move. I just . . . wait. And wait. And wait. Finally, boarding time arrives. This is where I have to do things just right. I wait in line, and the attendant scans my ticket and waves me down the ramp. I walk through the entryway and disappear onto the boarding ramp, then move to the wall, letting others pass. My hoodie comes off and I stuff it in my bag, then tug out the black ball cap I purchased and shove my hair underneath.
An attendant appears from around the bend in the ramp. “Do you need help?” she asks.
“My mother is meeting me, and I’m worried. Do I have time to look for her?”
“You have about three minutes. Is she a confirmed passenger?”
“What’s her name? I’ll call her on the intercom and check the manifest for her name.”
“Kylie Richardson, and thank you.”
She looks concerned and nods. “Give me a moment as we continue boarding. What’s your name?”
“Lara,” I say, speaking my real name for the first time in six years, and all but choking on it as I do. I don’t let myself dwell on the foolishness of using it in an airport where I’m surely being hunted.
Brooks. But for reasons beyond my obvious need for discretion, my birth name no longer feels like me. “Yes.”
“Okay, Ms. Richardson. Go find your seat and I’ll find your mom.”
I follow as she goes up the boarding ramp and peek around the corner to see her walking toward the counter, where another attendant stands. The waiting area is empty. Like it had been the day I met Liam, when I’d thought I was going to be bumped, but instead ended up seated in first class next to him. Now I wonder if that was a coincidence, or by his design.
With the attendants facing away from me, I hear the announcement calling my fictional mother and I seize the opportunity and quickly leave the gate area. Then I all but run down the escalator and straight toward the taxi stand. There I hand the dispatcher a twenty-dollar bill. “I’m late to a wedding rehearsal dinner. I need out of here fast.”
He glances at the money and nods. “You got it, sweetheart.” He lifts his hand to motion to a cab and then grabs my bag.
“In the backseat, please,” I instruct, wanting it where I can get to it if I need to make a fast departure. I can’t afford to throw out any more money after the cost of that plane ticket.
I’m just about to get into the backseat when I hear someone say, “Amy.”
For the flash of a moment, I freeze at the sound of Liam’s deep, all-too-familiar voice. No. No. No. He cannot be here. He can’t.
But he is, which can only mean one thing. He’s been having me followed—confirming that he was never just a stranger who touched me deeply. He’s everything I don’t want him to be; everything I had prayed he wasn’t.
I whirl around. Wearing faded jeans and an Izod shirt as perfectly aqua blue as his eyes, Liam looks every bit Mr. Tall, Dark, and Handsome. And he’s close. Too close.
He moves forward and I hiss, “Don’t!” and hold up a hand. “I’ll scream bloody murder.”
He stills, and our eyes lock, his narrowing, holding mine captive. “Run to me, Amy—not from me.”
The words stir a passionate memory of him saying them to me once before. And they hurt. I hurt. “I don’t even know who you are.”
“You know who I am. Who are you?”
“Hey, lady,” the driver says. “You coming?”
“Yes,” I call out. “Yes. I am.” But I don’t look away from Liam. “I heard you talking to Derek last night.”
“You don’t know what you heard.”
No denial. I wanted denial. Not hearing it tells me more than words, and I turn away and start to get into the car.
“Don’t do this,” he commands, but there’s a hint of a plea I’m not sure is real. Maybe I just want it to exist. Maybe I just want to turn back time and make last night, and so many things, go away. “You need my protection,” he adds.
I laugh, but it’s all pain and no humor. “Your protection was never what I needed.” It was his honesty, his realness—which I now doubt.
“You need my protection,” he repeats. “That’s what I was talking to Derek about. Protecting you.”
Is the camera feed live? he’d asked Derek. That isn’t protection. “Lies don’t protect me,” I bite out.
“I didn’t lie to you.”
I grind my teeth at the realization that I want him to give me a good reason for what I’d overhead. There is no good reason, I remind myself, as I had a million times last night. I let my guard down with him, and I can’t risk that. Not when my family’s dead, and I could be next.
“I can’t do this with you,” I whisper, not even sure if he can hear me as I lower myself into the cab.
“I will find you,” he calls after me, and the words are pure conviction, a promise.
“You can try.” My heart is racing as I yank the door shut, lock it, and tell the driver, “Go—now!”
The car jerks into motion and Liam pounds on the roof. “Damn it, open up, Amy!” The private, always-in-control man I know is nowhere to be found. He runs alongside us, leaning into my view. “Don’t do this, Amy. Stop, now!”
“Do we have a problem, lady?” the driver asks.
“Drive and we won’t!”
He guns the engine to pull ahead of Liam, and his absence is both a relief and a blow. I twist around to stare at him, the baseball cap falling from my hair, my eyes desperately seeking Liam. He’s running after us. Running. Liam doesn’t seem like a man to run after anyone, but he’s running after me.
My fingers curl into my palms and I force myself to turn around. Liam was desperate for me. It was in his eyes, his actions. His voice. And I’m desperate for him, for the man I believed had ended my eternal hell of being alone.
But I don’t know why he is desperate for me, any more than I know why I am hunted, or how he might be involved. I only know that he could be.
And right now, I realize why I let six years pass before I looked for answers. Not knowing who to trust, or how to find out what I need to know without dying, is terrifying.
But not knowing was just a facade of safety—and it’s simply no longer an option.
I will find you. Liam’s words play in my mind. He will, if I give him the chance. My nails dig into my palms. If I ever see Liam again, it has to be my choice.
I sit up straight as we exit onto the highway, and I think of the note in the suitcase at JFK airport.
Be smart. Don’t link yourself to your past. Stay away from museums this time.
Calm slides through me, as it had after the diner this morning, and I’m back in the zone I found years ago to escape the memories of the fire that destroyed my world. Stop and think, Amy. Stop and think before you act.
I resist the urge to direct the driver to the first exit; it will be too obvious. “Exit here,” I order several miles later, digging cash out of my bag.
The cab takes the frontage road. “Right or left?” he asks.
My gaze lands on a truck stop, and a lightbulb goes on in my head. “Just go straight,” I order, tucking my hair securely under my ball cap. When he stops at the red light ahead of us, I open my door, tossing him the cash.
My zone does not seem to stop my adrenaline from spiking through my veins at the danger of being out in the open, a danger I’m ready to have behind me. Shoving my purse onto my shoulder, I dart across the road, my suitcase in tow. This new plan is much better than the one I started with this morning.
The instant I’m inside the truck stop, I make a beeline to the back door that I can tell leads to the industrial gas pumps for the big rigs. I’m bypassing my Plan A, which had been to buy a cheap car off of Craigslist, one I wouldn’t need an ID to buy, and drive out of the state. Dangerous as it might be, I’m hanging onto my cash and hitchhiking, because staying in Denver any longer than necessary is dangerous, too.
I step outside to look for the most un-serial-killer–like person possible. As I exit, a short, bearded man in jeans and a cowboy shirt grabs the door and stops a few steps from me. “You need help, sweetheart?”
Already this is seeming like a bad idea. “No, I’m good.”
He squints, revealing thick lines around eyes that spend way too much time moving up and down my body. “You need a ride?”
“She’s with me.”
I glance up to find a thin, fiftysomething red-haired woman kicking up dust with her cowboy boots. She stops beside me. “You ready to head out?”
The look she gives me is all motherly authority, and my heart is squeezed by memories of my own mother. “Yes,” I say, no hesitation in my reply. “I’m ready.”
She motions me toward a big red rig and I fall into step with her. “I’m Shell, honey. I’d ask what you’re running from, but I’ll spare you the lie. I ride with my hubby, Roy. You can join us if you like. Where you headed?”
“Away from here,” I say. “That’s all that counts right now.”
Sadness seeps into her eyes and is quickly extinguished, but I see it. I feel it. Oh, how I feel it, and once again I feel a connection with a stranger. But then, all I have in my life are strangers. Who else would I connect with?
“Who do we have here?” a happy-looking gray-haired man with a beer belly asks as we approach the shiny red truck.
“This is . . .” Shell begins and glances at me questioningly.
“Amy,” I say, clinging to the name that’s the only thing I’ve managed to keep for six years.
“I’m Roy, Amy. You know how many truckers it takes to pump gas into a rig?”
“Ah, no. How many?”
“None. We make our wives do it.”
Laughter bubbles from my throat, and Shell snorts. “He doesn’t make me do anything, honey.”
Ten minutes later I’m at the window seat of the rig with Shell between me and Roy, and my spirits have taken a nosedive. As Roy pulls onto the frontage road, a crushing sensation fills my chest, pressing against it like the big rig I’m riding in is rolling over me instead of the hot pavement. I feel no regret over leaving Denver, but there’s plenty over leaving Liam. I still want my Godzilla-slayer—which is exactly why I need to put distance between us.
I don’t know who I’m running from, or if I’m wanted dead or alive. I simply know I have enemies, and that it’s time I find out why. And I’ll do that by being my own Godzilla-slayer, the hero that honors my family the way they deserve to be honored.