If I Could Stay, page 1
To My Readers
About the Author
IF I COULD STAY
Annette K. Larsen
Copyright © 2018 Annette K. Larsen and Hidden Falls Publishing.
All rights reserved.
Cover photo by Kara Howell.
Cover design by Cameron Larsen.
Also by Annette K. Larsen
Books of Dalthia series:
For Cameron, who insisted for years that I name a character Jack Trent.
Left. Right. One foot after the other. Keep moving. Ignore the cold. This was a road, and despite it being the middle of the night, that meant that at some point someone would drive by. Please, let someone drive by.
The large tree on the horizon was my focus. I was determined to at least make it to that tree. It was starting to snow, and I knew that the lack of feeling in my feet was a bad thing. My ballet flats were insufficient for this weather. Everything I wore was insufficient. But when Silas had shown up this morning at the salon where I ran the reception desk, I hadn’t bothered going home to gather my things. I’d seen him in the parking lot before he could walk in and spot me. I had felt the blood drain from my face and for a moment I was rooted to the spot, barely able to breathe. Twice in my teenage years, I’d seen the people that Silas had dragged back to my father. They were always bloody, and I never knew if they made it out of my father’s house alive after spilling their secrets.
My mind had clicked into gear. I’d grabbed my purse and asked Janelle to watch the desk while I went to the bathroom. Then I’d speed-walked to the back room and ran to the door that spit me out into the alley behind the salon. The old car that I’d paid cash for was there waiting for me. My go-bag was in the trunk with all the money I’d saved while working at the salon, along with clothes and a few other essentials.
I had pointed my car toward Kansas City and the bus locker that held everything I needed to start over. But less than an hour from my destination, my car slid off the road. Now it sat sideways in a ditch, stuck in the snow. Black ice and my exhausted brain had landed it there. I’d been lucky to get up to the road before my clothes could become completely soaked through with the snow. Unfortunately, the trunk had been crunched enough that I couldn’t get to my go-bag.
This morning, I’d been living in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Now I was somewhere in the middle of Missouri, on an empty backwoods highway in the dead of night.
I didn’t know what time it was, but it had been dark for hours. My phone was in the dumpster behind the salon, the SIM card snapped in half and tossed along the side of the road a couple miles out of town. It had to be left behind just like everything else. I would need to use another name, like so many times before. Nothing traceable would go with me. I had planned to abandon my car as soon as I had the new ID and cash from the locker. So even if it were found by the police, it wouldn’t do them any good. I’d left behind my license, passport, and all traces of Maggie Lawrence, just like I had with Claire Maguire, Jenny Tolman and Emily Chandler.
This time though, my departure was even more panicked than all the times before. None of my father’s people had ever gotten this close in the past four years. Plus, this was Silas. He was my father’s favorite pit bull—and a police officer. One of New York’s finest—so long as you ignored the bloodlust and corruption.
I looked up to gauge how much progress I had made. The tree didn’t look any closer. Was I even moving? Glancing down at my feet, I realized that each step moved me forward only a couple of inches. Perhaps I’d be better off just sitting down. But the ground looked icy and hard, so I kept shuffling, my small purse bouncing against my leg with every step. It was important to keep moving, right? Wasn’t that what I had decided?
A hazy light flickered at the edge of my vision and I blinked, afraid I might be on the verge of fainting. The light grew steadily brighter, casting my shadow in front of me, and I realized it must be headlights coming from behind. I turned and stumbled into the road. Maybe that was idiotic of me, but it seemed the best way to ensure that the car would stop.
The headlights were all I could see, and they slowed as they came closer, then stopped. I blinked against the harsh light but could only stand there and wait.
A door opened.
“Miss?” a male voice called. His silhouette hurried toward me. He came right up to me and ducked to look me in the eye. He was tall and probably in his twenties. “You all right, miss?” He gave a little shake of his head, grimacing. “No, you’re not all right; you’re freezing.” He stripped off his coat and wrapped it around my shoulders, then yanked off his stocking cap and pulled it onto my head.
Oh, sweet warmth. I said thank you. Or at least I thought it. The words never made it to my mouth.
“Let’s get you in the car. I’ll take you where you need to go.” He put his arm around me, propelling me forward. I managed only a lurching step or two. “Are you hurt?” He looked me over, but I wasn’t bleeding, so he waited for me to respond.
I shook my head—a jerky, awkward movement. If I was hurt, it wasn’t enough to want to talk about it right now.
“I’m going to pick you up, all right? We have to get you inside the truck.”
Again, the words stuck in my throat, but I managed the slightest of nods.
He lifted me, and my mind wandered to his question. Was I hurt and just didn’t recognize it through the cold and shock? That would be very bad. True injuries required hospitals, and hospitals required names and a paper trail. There could be no paper trail.
My head lolled against his shoulder. He was so warm. Even though he was out of his coat and in this freezing air, I could feel the heat radiating off of him. I snuggled in, trying to get closer to the heat.
He sucked in a breath when my cheek touched the skin of his neck. “Sheesh. You’re freezing.” He fumbled for the door handle and got it open then hoisted me up inside. When he tried to pull away, my hand was fisted in his shirt and I was shaking so hard I didn’t know if I’d be able to let go.
“I need to get in the other side, miss.”
I shook my head, afraid of letting go of his warmth.
“We need to shut the doors. I’ll get in the other side and try to warm you up a bit before we start driving.” He didn’t wait for a response, but pried my hand away and shut my door.
He climbed in the driver’s side and turned up the heater before putting the truck into drive. Disappointment filled me. I’d been hoping he’d use his body heat to warm me up, since that was the quickest way.
“I’m just going to pull to the side,” he explained as he steered to the shoulder, and I did a little mental cheer. “Not many people out this late at night, but you never know.” He threw it back into park then scooted across the bench seat before leaning down to unlace his giant work boots. “What possessed you to come out in a snowstorm without a coat or good shoes?” he muttered as
“I promise I’m not trying to get too friendly,” he said as he pulled my legs across his lap. “But I’m fairly certain you’re dangerously close to hypothermia, so you’re going to have to utilize my warmth.”
If my muscles hadn’t all been locked into place, I would have thrown myself at his warmth.
He stiffened at the touch of my freezing skin as he carefully pulled me against his chest and made a little cocoon out of his coat, which was still wrapped around me. My head fell forward onto his shoulder and I burrowed into his neck. Maybe he’d think I was the one being too friendly, but I was way too cold to care.
One of his arms pulled away, and I felt him moving but didn’t know what he was doing until he let out a frustrated growl before saying, “No signal.”
Relief coursed through me and I was grateful that I had stuck to back roads. I didn’t want him calling anyone, couldn’t afford to answer questions, especially when my brain was mush.
“Hopefully I’ll be able to get you warm enough this way, cause it’s quite a distance to the next town. Once you’re ready, you’ll have to tell me how it is you ended up in the middle of nowhere.”
Fine by me. I’d be happy to tell him about driving my car into a ditch. There was nothing personal or traceable about that fact. I might even tell him more than that. He was, after all, saving my life. I nodded, acknowledging his words.
“Good, good.” He rested his cheek on top of my head. He kept his arms around me, though I could feel him stiffening. No doubt I was making his temperature drop. He reached around me and turned up the heater.
I don’t know how long we sat in that pickup truck, two strangers wrapped around each other. One desperate for help, the other willing to give it without a thought for himself. But it was long enough that my shaking stopped, and my breathing slowed, and I started to feel very, very tired.
“You falling asleep on me?” he asked.
“Maybe,” I whispered.
“So you can talk.”
I cleared my throat and took a deep breath, realizing for the first time how good he smelled. “Yeah. I can talk.”
“You got a name?”
Hmm. I hadn’t decided on a new name yet. Now was as good a time as any. “Celeste.” It came out sounding like a question.
I let out a little chuckle. “No, I’m not sure. What do you think my name should be?” I was feeling a little bit floaty, safe, like everything was suddenly fine.
He grunted. “Angel seems appropriate.”
My brow furrowed in confusion. I wasn’t an angel. I might not have been sure of much right then, but I did know that. “Why?” I asked as I was finally able to unlock my arms and wrap them around him.
“That’s what you looked like, standing in the middle of the road. Your hair looked like it was glowing. Though that might have been frost.”
I was guessing my white blouse, beige pants, blonde hair and pale skin all added to the image.
He cleared his throat. “Wow, that sounded cheesy. I swear I’m not trying to hit on you.”
I smiled, knowing that was true. “What’s your name?”
“Nice to meet you, Jack. I’m pretty sure you saved my life.”
Another grunt. I was guessing that was a nervous habit of his. “So, what’s your story? What happened to land you out this way?”
“I had a car. I hit ice and ended up in a ditch.”
“Are you hurt?”
“I don’t think so.” Certainly not enough to care.
“Let’s see.” He pulled back and I reluctantly sat up, pulling away from the circle of heat we had created. My back was stiff. I pulled my legs down and put them in front of me, stretching as I tried to straighten my frame. Jack straightened as well then flipped the overhead light on.
I blinked against the light, and for the first time, I saw his face clearly. He was good looking, but in a casual way. Dark hair. Clean cut.
His eyes were wide and he stared without saying anything. Then he opened his mouth to speak but gave up and looked me over with an assessing eye. He pushed my hair away from my face, probably looking for bumps and bruises. He ran his hands lightly down my arms.
“How’s your neck?”
I moved it a little. “Stiff, but I’ll be fine.”
“Good. Good.” He looked me over again. “You seem to be okay.”
I let out a relieved chuckle. No hospitals in my future.
“Do you think you’re warm enough? Should I drive now?”
I nodded. Not that I was in a hurry, but I was sure he had things to do, and it seemed like the polite response.
He secured my seat belt around me then scooted into his own seat and fastened his. “You’re not much of a talker, are you?”
I was about to shake my head, but decided that vocalizing my thoughts would be better. “No, I’m not. Not that I mind talking, I just…don’t all that often.”
He put the truck in gear and pulled forward. “As soon as we have reception, we can call someone for you.”
My muscles seized up as all the old familiar fears and paranoia came rushing back. “I don’t need to call anyone.”
He raised a doubtful eyebrow. “You sure?”
He looked over at me and then back at the road. “Where were you headed when your car went off the road?”
I shrugged, trying to portray a casualness I didn’t feel. “Away from where I was.”
His brow portrayed his skepticism. “To wherever the wind or snow may take you, huh?”
“Sounds about right.” I huddled deeper into his coat, wondering if he was cold without it, hoping he would drop the subject and stop asking questions.
“Are you in some sort of trouble?”
I wasn’t ready for this. There hadn’t been time to decide on a story. I’d felt so safe that I hadn’t come up with a new life to adopt. The gears in my head struggled to start turning, but before I could come up with anything, Jack spoke up.
“Are you running from something? Should you be talking to the police?”
“No,” I said more forcefully than I intended. “No cops.”
“Please. No cops.”
His brow pulled together. I knew he was worried. Not taking me to the police after that kind of a reaction probably had his instincts screaming in protest. He finally nodded. “Okay.” He returned his focus to the snowy road ahead of us and I tried to relax, allowing my panic to subside.
As the silence stretched, my reasons for not trusting law enforcement pounded through my head. The paranoia that was normally a background hum in my thoughts grew to the loud, steady beat of a bass drum.
I had been fifteen. It was my freshman year at a prestigious and expensive private school (only the best for daddy’s little girl). Most of the kids there didn’t know my dad was a criminal, but they suspected enough to stay away from me. My father had lectured me over and over about how I should be proud to be a Marchant. He tried to tell me that my last name made me powerful, and that there were few people worthy of my friendship.
When I was little, I’d believed it all. I was a princess in my father’s kingdom. But things changed over the years, and by the time I entered middle school, I couldn’t help noticing my lack of friends. When I asked to be allowed to go out with friends, Dad always told me no. It had been different when mom was alive. I had friends then. But she had died when I was nine, and after living with my father for a couple years, I started to recognize the cage he had built around me. Dad said I was powerful. But in reality, he had made me powerless. I clued in to who my father was, what his business meant, and what that made me.
I was a pawn. Sometimes I was a bargaining chip or a pretty face, but I was never me.
When my dad found out that Renee was gone, he acted as if he didn’t care. Good riddance. She was a disappointment anyway. After all, he still had me. I would carry on his legacy. I would fulfill all his hopes and dreams. The cage got smaller.
When Sam showed up in the middle of my freshman year, he was the new kid, a junior, and a loner. I caught him staring at me a lot the first week. Then he started flirting with me. He was sweet, unassuming, and really cute. So when he asked me out, I was thrilled. A boy was interested in me, and it wasn’t because my dad was dangerous. He didn’t know he should stay away from me. I’d never dated before, though I’d been dressed up and assigned an escort-bodyguard whenever Dad had a special function to attend or host.
Going on actual dates with Sam wasn’t an option. Dad never let me go out with friends, but Sam and I were inseparable during school hours. We held hands and he would play with my hair and talk close to my ear as if everything he said was just for me. After a couple weeks of hand-holding, he gave me my first kiss, then a second and a third. I liked kissing Sam. He felt safe and dangerous all at once.
My fifteen-year-old heart called it love until the day he convinced me to skip class with him. We didn’t go far from school, just to a little cafe close to campus. It was practically empty when we walked in. A couple of guys with coffee sat at a table. No employees behind the counter.
I squeezed Sam’s hand. “Are you sure they’re open?”
When I looked up into his face, his smile was sad. “I want you to meet someone,” he said, pulling me toward the one occupied table.
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