A brave woman on the run from her vindictive husband faces a dangerous path in the thrilling new romantic suspense novel from Oscar-nominated actress Meg Tilly.
Sarah Rainsford has been on the run for more than three years. She's changed identities yet again in hopes of throwing her violent estranged husband, a police lieutenant, off her trail. Since she's still legally married to him, and he is willing to bend any laws to get his hands on her inheritance, he'll stop at nothing to locate her.
With a new name and fake ID papers, she lands a job as a personal assistant to none other than Hollywood's golden boy director Mick Talford. He's a difficult client but she senses hidden depths to him. Once Mick and Sarah combine forces in a desperate attempt to keep Sarah out of harm's way, they build a strong bond . . . but with danger trailing them, is it enough to keep them both alive?
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|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||4.20(w) x 6.70(h) x 1.10(d)|
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Three years and ten months later . . .
It was Wednesday, March 10, and the second Sarah exited the bare-bones bathroom of the dilapidated motel off Highway 5, she knew she had screwed up royally. "Jade?" she called, knowing it was useless, because it was clear Jade had split. The front door was ajar, and an early-morning breeze whipped into the room, causing the droplets of water from the shower to chill on her skin. She wrapped the towel tighter around her as she crossed the room and closed and locked the door. Small good it would do now. Sarah's legs were feeling wobbly, so she went to the bed and sat. Charlie, her ancient calico cat, hopped onto her lap and started purring. The tenderness of his warm, furry comfort made her want to weep. She didn't. It was a luxury Sarah couldn't afford. She needed to take stock, regroup, and figure out what to do next.
Thank God she had brought her purse into the bathroom with her. Otherwise, her car out front would probably be gone too. The room had been tossed. The thin mattress of the bed had been pushed off the box spring, and the yellow manila envelope that contained Sarah's stash of cash was gone. How did Jade know where it was? Sarah had waited until Jade had gone into the bathroom the night before to slip it under her side of the mattress. She figured it would be safer underneath her while she slept than in her purse. The girl must have cracked the bathroom door open and watched, laughing to herself.
Sarah exhaled, shook her head. She should have known better.
Strange how one small random act of kindness could produce such a lousy outcome. As Sarah sat there, her hand on Charlie's vibrating body, her mind was flooded with "if onlys." If only she hadn't gotten off that exit ramp to grab a bite at that coffee shop just outside of Portland, Oregon. If only she had said yes to that extra cup of coffee. If only it hadn't been raining. If only she had parked on the other side of the parking lot.
But she hadn't.
Sarah had stopped at that particular coffee shop. She had refused the coffee. It had been raining when she had exited the coffee shop, her head tucked into her jacket collar in a feeble attempt to ward off the torrents of rain thundering down. And as she turned left toward her car, she saw in the shadows, out of the corner of her eye, a desperate young woman tugging on the arm of a burly trucker. "Please, Mister, wanna give me a ride?" The man was leering down at her, and Sarah could tell he had nothing but smut on his mind. Sarah had told herself, Keep walking; not your problem, but as Sarah passed, she noticed how young the girl was. Too young to be at a truck stop by herself, in the pouring rain, talking to strange men. Couldn't be more than fifteen, sixteen max. Why was she on the road? What was she running from?
That was her misstep. She had seen the ghost of herself rather than the young woman for who she was. Sarah's first instinct was correct. Jade was trouble. Sarah should have kept walking, but instead, the girl ended up riding shotgun, filling the interior of Sarah's car with the smell of unwashed body, malodourous BO, and Wrigley's spearmint gum. And Sarah found herself headed to Santa Monica, California, because Jade had said her folks lived there.
"No good deed . . ." Sarah murmured to herself. "You're such a patsy." She closed her eyes for a moment, gathering herself. Then she opened her purse, took out her wallet, and rifled through the contents. Great . . . She had to shut her eyes again, exhaling slowly. Once she'd dropped Jade off, Sarah had planned to head back toward Northern California to find another sleepy town off the beaten track that she could disappear into. That was no longer an option. She was in LA, and that's where she would have to stay, with only half a tank of gas, a cat, and $136 to her name.
Mick Talford sat at the back of the theater feeling slightly numb as the final credits for Retribution rolled. The usually stuffy and sedate crowd at the Directors Academy were on their feet, stamping and cheering, whistles piercing the air. Holy shit. Another hit. He felt a light tap on his shoulder. Turned. A young woman from the studio's publicity department whispered discreetly in his ear, "If you'd follow me, sir." He staggered to his feet, feeling slightly dazed. How the hell did he keep churning out these hits? And the next thought was, how long before it all crashes down? Because it would. This was Hollywood after all. Nothing they liked better than kingmaking, raising some poor schmuck up, and then, once he felt invincible, the bloodletting and public disemboweling would begin.
Mick followed the publicist in her gray suit, who murmured into her mouthpiece, "I've got Talford. Heading your way." They ducked through the thick velvet curtain at the back. A male publicist was waiting by a door with a big grin on his face. "Fantastic movie, sir. Great job!" He saluted Mick as he opened the door, then stood at attention, his skinny chest puffed out as if Mick were a five-star general. Mick nodded his thanks as they hurried by, his mouth dry. He hated the aftermath of movie screenings, having to go on a stage, try to sound intelligent, answer idiotic questions. The door closed behind them, and for a split second he was tempted to stay there, in that dark corridor that would lead to the backstage of the theater. Better yet, he glanced at the red glowing emergency exit sign. He could sneak out now, go to Musso and Frank Grill, sit in a booth in the back, have a glass of wine, slather their delicious sourdough bread with butter, and dig into a chicken pot pie.
Mick trailed his fingertips along the metal push bar on the door as they passed the exit, longing to run.
"Watch your step here, Mr. Talford," the fresh-faced publicist said helpfully. As if he were a doddering old man. He didn't blame her. Lately, the weight of his thirty-eight years seemed to lie heavier than usual around his shoulders. Mick ascended the stairs and stepped into the wings, where his producer, Paul Peterson, was waiting for him. "Heeeeeey, my man," Peterson drawled. He did a weird sort of shimmy, jutting out his lower jaw as if he'd grown up rough, was a guy-from-the-hood. Nothing could be further from the truth. He was a middle-aged man who had grown up in a goddamn mansion in Bel Air. Peterson yanked Mick into a bear hug, thumped him on the back. "You did it again! Knocked it out of the park! What did I tell you? We got a hit! A monsterfucking hit! Listen to them out there. They love us! They're gonna come back to see this movie again and again and tell all their friends. And we're gonna get even richer!" Peterson chortled gleefully, rubbing his hands together. "Best thing I ever did was hooking my wagon to you. You're a fucking genius. A money-making machine, and I love it. Love being rich, rich, rich!" Peterson was right. The two of them had made money by the truckload, with more rolling in every day. "Listen to that," Peterson said, cupping a hand around his ear. "Music to my ears." The audience hadn't quieted down as they usually did once the lights went up. If anything, the noise level had grown since Mick had exited his seat. Had gotten louder and louder as the crowd continued to roar their approval. It should have exhilarated him, but no. All Mick felt was slightly depressed as he watched Peterson dance around backstage like a gleeful, bald-headed elf high-fiving anyone within arm's distance.
The president of the Academy was onstage, introducing them now.
"After this," Peterson said, puffing his chest proudly, "we, my friend, are going to do some serious partying." He opened his arms expansively, as if he were riding in the lead car of a ticker-tape parade. "And not to worry, I've set up everything! One hundred percent paid for! The entire tab is on me!"
Partying was the last thing Mick was in the mood for, but Peterson was so happy, looked so pleased with himself, that Mick slapped an answering smile on his face. "Sounds great."
"Great?" Peterson squeaked, eyes bulging. "Are you kidding? What I have planned is going to blow your socks off!" Peterson leaned in with a grin and wiggled his bushy eyebrows. "Literally . . ."
Mick stifled a groan, hoping he had read Peterson's innuendo incorrectly. A slight headache was taking up residence behind his eyes. He was contemplating the relief of begging off with the weight of guilt he would feel for raining on Peterson's parade.
"And now, the moment you have been waiting for . . . Mick Talford and his producer, Paul Peterson." The Academy president gestured to the wings, where they were waiting.
"It's showtime," Peterson said, slinging a sweaty arm companionably around Mick's shoulders. "Let's go do the old razzle-dazzle, my friend."
Mick took a breath, as if about to plunge into an ice-cold pond, donned the bad-boy Mick Talford swagger and attitude that felt like an ill-fitting suit, and then strode out into the bright lights and onto the stage.
"Rachel . . ." The woman at the employment agency glanced down at the form on her clipboard. "Jones?"
Sarah got to her feet. "Yes," she said. "That would be me."
"I'm Ellen Davis. This way, please."
Sarah followed the woman into her office, mouth dry.
Ms. Davis flipped to the next page on her clipboard. Sarah could see over her shoulder that the woman was now reading the fake CV and reference letters Sarah had typed and printed at the public library that morning.
"Have a seat." Ms. Davis gestured to a chair in front of her desk as she rounded it and sat down.
As Sarah sat, she surreptitiously slid her palms down along her thighs so the black dress pants could erase the slight dampness before clasping her hands in her lap.
The woman flipped to the last page, scanned it, then placed the clipboard on the desk in front of her. "Everything seems in order," she said. "Your scores on the technical skills test were quite impressive. I don't foresee a problem getting you placed. What sort of hours are you interested in working?"
"I'm pretty flexible. And it doesn't have to be office work. Basically, I'll take whatever job you have available."
"Nights? Weekends? Long hours okay?"
"Huh . . . Interesting. Actually-" Ms. Davis's fingers rapped a quick staccato on the desk as if she were playing descending scales on the piano.
"But I'm not interested in stripping or escort work or anything like that," Sarah hastily added. This was Hollywood after all. Best to make sure the woman hadn't gotten the wrong idea.
Ms. Davis didn't look up, her fingers flying over her keyboard. "Of course. Not to worry. We don't handle that kind of 'work placement.'" Then she swiveled slightly in her chair, eyes narrowing as she leaned forward, focused on her computer screen. "Ah! Here we go." A huff of air that could have been laughter escaped her lips. "Well . . . it's worth a try," she murmured. "Lord knows, he's burned his way through all my other options." Her birdlike gaze moved away from the screen to settle on Sarah's face, taking in the dark-rimmed glasses. Luckily, the woman's perusal didn't linger on the mousy brown hair Sarah had re-dyed in the bathroom sink of the motel room last night.
Sarah looked back, keeping her expression a blank, calm canvas, a polite smile on her face, determined not to let her nerves peek through.
"Plain. Practical. No-nonsense. Might be just what the doctor ordered." Ms. Davis nodded as her gaze traveled down the conservative cream blouse Sarah had steamed in the shower. She took in the black slacks, the sensible black pumps; then her gaze slid back up to Sarah's face. "This position requires gumption, backbone, plenty of grit. No running for the hills just because the client has a few rough edges."
"No, ma'am." Sarah forced her hands to lie still in her lap. "I understand."
The woman's fingers rapped on the desk again. "Most of the specifications fit." Her unblinking eyes narrowed to a laser-like focus. Suddenly she shrugged and then relaxed in her chair. "The job pays twenty-four dollars an hour. It's live-in. Is that a problem?"
A problem? A heaven-sent gift from God was more like it. Sarah's mind flashed to handing over her last hundred-dollar bill to pay for the motel last night. The eleven o'clock checkout meant returning to the motel after her visit to the library and packing all her belongings in the trunk of her car. She would have preferred for Charlie to have the run of the motel room, as he was not a fan of car travel. It wasn't ideal, but she'd had to leave him in the car with the windows cracked open during this interview, yowling in his carrier bag as if he were being murdered. Didn't have enough to cover another night, $56.95 to her name. "Live-in is fine. Preferable, actually."
"Wonderful. When can you start?"
Sarah released the breath she'd been holding. "Whenever," she said, as if she wasn't in dire financial straits and planning on sleeping in her car tonight. "I could start today if you like?"
"Even better." Ms. Davis scribbled something on a slip of paper. "Here's the name and address. Mick Talford. Hopefully, Rachel, you'll last longer than the previous assistants I've sent."
Rachel? For a split second Sarah's mind blanked. Oh yes! Rachel.
"I'll do my best." Sarah smiled in a reassuring manner even though her heart had skipped a beat.
Ms. Davis stood, rounded the desk, and handed the paper to Sarah. "The client is a talented director. Good luck," she said, shaking Sarah's hand. "You'll need it."
Mick dumped two Advil into his hand, swallowed them dry. Leaned against the bathroom counter and stared into the mirror. He looked like shit. All work and no play. Hell, he couldn't even remember what "play" was anymore. He could hear the sounds of Peterson's party through the closed door. So many people, overflowing his living room, his kitchen, the gardens, swarming the place like cockroaches. The bacchanalian revels had been going strong for seventeen hours, and no one was showing any signs of leaving. When people got tired, they'd sleep on the spot, or stumble into one of his spare bedrooms, or pass out on a chair, a sofa, or one of the loungers by the pool. A few had been sprawled out on the lawn until the early-morning sprinklers had awoken them. Luckily, his bedroom was vacant. When the partying hordes had arrived, he'd taken the precaution and locked his bedroom, both from the hall and the door leading in from the garden. He hadn't done that the first time Peterson and his mob of sycophants had taken over his house. He'd ended up needing to purchase a new bed and bedding. Mick glanced at the clock. Three thirty p.m. Mick had hoped against hope that when morning arrived everyone would disperse, but they hadn't. As long as Peterson's store of booze and gigantic serving bowl of cocaine remained, Mick would have an impossible time clearing his house of unwanted guests. Couldn't throw them out, as he had a reputation to maintain. The "Wildman," the "rebel from the wrong side of the tracks, who burned bright and lived hard." It was exhausting keeping up the facade.