If i could stay, p.3

If I Could Stay, page 3

 

If I Could Stay
 



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  “Great. Cause I’m starving.” He reached for his handle and I did the same. He waited at the front of the truck for me and held his arm at my back—not touching me, but like it was a protective barrier—and ushered me inside. “I’ll meet you over at the restaurant after I use the little boys’ room.” He winked at me and walked off.

  I hurried off to the women’s room, grateful that he was trying hard not to make this awkward. After using the bathroom, I washed my hands and stared at myself in the mirror. I looked haggard, plain and simple. I wet a paper towel and scrubbed under my eyes to remove some latent eye makeup then brushed through my hair the best I could. It was a beautiful honey and gold blonde, courtesy of the girls I worked with. My natural color was a light brown. I’d need to dye it dark this time, maybe give in and cut some bangs.

  I left the restroom and browsed the aisles of the store, picking up two t-shirts, a hoodie, some hair dye, a box of granola bars, rain boots, socks, a disposable cell, and a messenger bag to keep it all in. They even had sweatpants.

  I paid for it all with the limited supply of cash in my purse, making sure to keep my face down and away from any cameras, then took my shopping bag full of purchases and went over to the restaurant. I found Jack standing there looking nervous. When he saw me, he visibly relaxed.

  “Afraid I had run off?”

  He looked down, perhaps a little embarrassed. “Yeah.” He shrugged.

  “No worries. I’m too hungry to run off just yet.”

  A hostess sat us at a booth and we looked over the menu, which offered steak, potatoes, and other home-style cooking.

  “Get whatever you’d like,” Jack said. “My treat.”

  The offer pricked my pride, but practicality made me accept.

  We were ready to order when the waitress showed up. Jack ordered a steak. I asked for a cheeseburger.

  After a minute of silence, which appeared to make Jack uncomfortable, he cleared his throat. “So…what can you tell me?”

  I shifted in my seat. “What do you mean?”

  “You’ve been purposefully vague answering questions, which is completely fine. You don’t know me, so I certainly don’t expect you to trust me.”

  Smart man.

  “Can you tell me a little about your family?”

  I took a minute to sort through what truths to tell. “I have one sister. She’s older. After she moved out, it was just me and my dad at home.”

  “Your mom?”

  “She died.”

  His face transformed into pure sympathy. “How old were you?”

  “Nine.” I looked down at the table, where I was fiddling with a napkin. That’s when everything had gone bad. Without mom, everything fell apart.

  “Do you have many memories of her?”

  “Yeah. I spent a lot of time with her in the two years before she died.” She had made me feel safe. Even when we were stuck in my father’s world, she tried to be a good mother, but she was also busy playing her part in my father’s empire.

  I looked up and Jack was studying me, his eyes so dark that the irises almost blended with the black of his pupils—eyes that saw too much.

  Time for a subject change.

  “What about you? Why were you driving across the state in the middle of the night?”

  “My parents live in California. The tiny town here in Missouri, not the state.” He tilted his head toward me and winked. “I was there over the weekend. My mom, my brother, and two of my nieces have birthdays this month, so we usually have a joint party. We can never all get time off to be together over the holidays, so February has turned into the default reunion time.”

  “That explains why you were driving, but it’s two in the morning. Why so late?”

  He shrugged. “Lost track of time. That’s always how it goes. We start talking about all the trouble we used to get into, and I end up leaving three hours after I planned.”

  “What kind of trouble?”

  “Stupid high school stuff. Toilet papering houses. Using fishing line to drag stuffed animals in front of cars when they passed by.”

  I gave him a disbelieving look, but he just shrugged.

  When our food came, all talk ceased. Maybe he would have kept up the conversation if I had acknowledged his presence, but right then, it really seemed like me and that cheeseburger were the only important things on the planet. I hadn’t eaten since lunch, and it was almost two a.m.

  When I had devoured every last bit of my burger and fries, I sat back with a sigh and closed my eyes. Man, I was tired. As I sat there, breathing and thinking, my mind started to rehash the last fifteen hours. I wondered why my father had sent someone I would recognize to track me down. I wondered if Silas actually knew that I worked at the salon, or if it had been a complete fluke. I mentally scoffed at myself. I didn’t believe in coincidences, not when it came to my father.

  Despite my utter exhaustion, I couldn’t rest. The need to get moving, to hide, to change my name and my look bubbled up, demanding that I act.

  I opened my eyes and looked at Jack, who was shamelessly studying me. After a moment, he smiled. “Ready to go?”

  I nodded and he looked around until he spotted our waitress then asked for the check.

  “I’ll meet you out at the car,” I said, and didn’t give him a chance to respond before grabbing my bag and walking back to the restroom. I stepped out of my shoes and stripped out of the thin blouse and slacks I wore, replacing them with the sweatpants and generic tee I’d bought. Then I threw the sweatshirt on over it. I put on two pairs of socks, then the rain boots (bright blue with white polka dots), tucking my pants inside them. I emptied the rest of the stuff from the shopping bag and loaded everything into the messenger bag along with my purse then folded Jack’s coat over the top.

  I tossed the shopping bag and put my hood up before I left the stall, hoping I would look like someone else.

  I scanned the restaurant as I passed and saw that Jack was no longer there, so I walked outside with a confident stride. After I climbed into the truck and shut the door, I offered his coat to him.

  He shook his head and put the truck into gear.

  “I’ve got the hoodie. I’ll be fine. You need to be warm, too.”

  He shot me a wide-eyed look that suggested he didn’t agree with me. “I’m not the one who was wandering in the snow for hours.”

  “It wasn’t hours.”

  “How do you know?”

  Okay, so it might have been hours. I held the coat out to him again. “Just put your coat back on.”

  “People don’t bounce back from near hypothermia in a matter of hours. Put the coat on.” His tone didn’t leave much room for argument, and if I were honest, I was still cold. So I slid the coat on over my hoodie and willed my body to soak up the warmth.

  “Thanks,” I muttered, enjoying the smell of his coat.

  “I’m glad you got some warmer clothes.”

  I smiled. “Me too. And I am loving my new socks.”

  A corner of his mouth rose. “It’s the little things.”

  ***

  It was still dark when we pulled off of highway 36 at the edge of town.

  Jack cut his eyes over to me with a nervous glance. “Where to?”

  Right. I had to stay somewhere. I needed to sleep.

  “I mean,” he continued, “you could crash on my couch, but I’m hoping you’d be smart enough not to take me up on that offer.”

  “Are you not trustworthy?” Not that I would have even considered it. Jack was nice. Really nice. He was probably completely trustworthy, but there was no way I was crashing on any stranger’s couch.

  “Of course I am, but you don’t know that.”

  I laughed off the suggestion. “And you’re still not sure if I’m a thief or not.”

  One side of his mouth pulled up. “There is that.”

  “Just drop me at a cheap hotel.”

  “Can do.”

  The air became thick and awkward. I fidg
eted with the ties of my hoodie. “Are you still willing to take me back to my car?” I asked, worrying for the first time that he may have made the offer just to placate me.

  “Of course,” he answered easily. “I get off at four. You okay hanging out in the lobby after you check out? I can meet you around four thirty.”

  I nodded as he pulled into an Econolodge. “Are they going to be okay with me paying cash?”

  I could see the wheels in his head turning, wondering why I wouldn’t just use a card, but he didn’t ask. He’d been pulling into the drop-off area but ended up driving through it and claiming a spot. “Let me come in with you. I know the owners, and if I vouch for you, it shouldn’t be a problem.”

  “Thanks,” I muttered, anxious over the fact that I was racking up quite a bill of debts with this guy. Debts that I wouldn’t be able to repay.

  I grabbed the messenger bag and jumped down from the truck. I burrowed into Jack’s coat, already lamenting the moment I’d have to give it back.

  We entered the lobby, the glass doors swooshing closed behind us. There was no one manning the desk, probably because it was the middle of the night. I looked around for a bell to ring, but then a woman in her fifties came from the back office. She looked tired, but her eyes brightened considerably when they landed on Jack.

  “Hey Jack, what are you doing in here this time of night?” Her name tag read Debbie.

  He tilted his head toward me. “This young lady needs a room, but she only has cash. I know y’all usually require a card, but I thought you could do us both a favor and bend the rules. Her car is stuck in a ditch outside of town.”

  She gave me a pitying look. “I’m sorry to hear that, sweetie. I’d be happy to get you a room.” She started tapping and clicking on her computer. “And I’m sure Jack here would be willing to vouch for you with his own credit card in case of incidentals.” She turned a syrup-sweet smile on Jack and held out her hand, palm flat.

  My eyes widened at the exchange, but Jack just rolled his eyes and pulled out his wallet. He extended a card between two fingers. “I’m confident there won’t be any trouble, Deb.”

  Wow, this guy actually did trust me. I really hoped that didn’t end up getting him into trouble.

  I told her my name was Celeste Watley and handed over the cash. That left me with less than a hundred dollars to my name until I got back to my car. Tomorrow couldn’t come soon enough.

  “Enjoy your stay,” she said, handing me my key card.

  “Thanks,” I said as I dropped my bag to the floor so I could get Jack’s coat off.

  “No problem, hon. Good night, Officer Trent.”

  My shoulders stiffened and my head snapped around to see what officer she was speaking to. Debbie was already heading back toward the office, and there was no one in the lobby but me and Jack.

  My stomach dropped.

  “Good night, Deb,” Jack responded, though his eyes were fixed on me, now with a new sadness.

  The office door clicked shut and I stood there with Jack’s coat hanging off of one shoulder, trying to think if Debbie calling him “officer” could mean anything other than what I thought it did.

  He pressed his lips in a sad imitation of a smile. Then he shrugged.

  So it meant exactly what I thought it did. I yanked his coat off the rest of the way and held it out, my arm straight and stiff. “Well, Officer. Thanks for everything.”

  “Angel—”

  “No. I made my feelings about cops pretty clear, and you lied to me.”

  “I didn’t lie,” he said evenly as he took the coat that hung between us.

  I scoffed.

  “I didn’t lie,” he said with more force. “You were on the verge of hypothermia. Your safety was my only concern. So when you said ‘No cops,’ I decided to keep my profession to myself. I couldn’t risk you running off because you were scared of me.”

  He had a point. He’d saved my neck; I knew that. But that didn’t mean I could trust him. “Well. Thanks for making sure I didn’t freeze.” I picked up my bag and turned away from him.

  “I’ll be here at four thirty.”

  I turned to face him but kept walking backward, away from him. “Don’t bother. I’ll find another ride.”

  “Celeste,” he protested, but it lacked conviction. He knew I wasn’t going to change my mind.

  I gave him a mock salute. “Have a good life.” I turned my back on him again and rounded the corner to find the elevators.

  3

  I STEPPED ONTO the elevator, wishing I had the luxury of trusting Jack, but knowing from experience that I simply couldn’t.

  Though my father had never physically hurt me, he wielded his power with precision, and that meant utilizing every tool at his disposal. Those tools included the many people in law enforcement positions that he had blackmailed, or simply paid, to do his bidding. I knew about Silas and the other cops early on, but it wasn’t just them. My father refused to take chances with my life, and thus his control was absolute. It was a shame that all of his protection ended up being the thing that damaged me the most.

  In a house as big as the one I grew up in, with household staff running here and there and business associates coming and going at all hours, my sister and I became very adept at being polite when meeting new people and then forgetting that they existed. We stayed away for the most part.

  Except for the uncles. We got to know all of the uncles.

  They weren’t really my uncles. I knew that. But dad treated them like family, so I did as well. Uncle Jimmy would ask me how my violin lessons were going, and Uncle Ross brought Renee and me little trinkets.

  It didn’t occur to me at the time that their names were made up. Nicknames to keep us in the dark while making us feel special, like we were part of a big family.

  It wasn’t until I was sixteen that that illusion shattered. Renee was long gone and it was difficult not to wonder what made these men special. Why did Dad want me to know them and have them know me? Then one day I approached my father’s study to ask him a question. When I reached the door, he had his television on, watching a press conference.

  Dad didn’t like TV, so I didn’t say anything, wondering what it was that had caught his attention.

  The spokesman was talking about some huge manhunt, updating the press about a case that involved every government law enforcement agency. Then he turned the microphone over to the CIA agent in charge of the investigation.

  It was Uncle Ross.

  I had to remind myself to breathe. When the camera pulled back, I saw that a representative from each agency sat behind a microphone with their name and agency emblazoned on a name plate. I scanned their faces but didn’t recognize anyone else. When the cameras pulled back farther to show more of the support staff and agents attending the press conference, I could have sworn I saw two more people who did business with my dad.

  I walked away from the study without asking my question. I couldn’t even remember what it was.

  It had been more than a year since Renee left, and I had started to wonder if I could be that brave. If I could leave.

  But now…

  I had always known my father had influence, but until I saw Uncle Ross at that microphone, I hadn’t realized the breadth of his reach. I could never trust the police or any government agency. My father’s resources were such that any contact I had with any law enforcement would likely find its way back to his ears. I was on my own.

  ***

  I chewed on that bitter fact as I rode the elevator up to the second floor of the Econolodge. I knew, I knew that I couldn’t trust anyone, but Jack had wormed his way in. He’d made me want to confide in him. Good thing I hadn’t.

  Shoving him out of my head, I found my room. It ended up being nicer than I thought it would be, but I didn’t bother exploring. First things first: I locked the door, dropped my bag on the bed, and went into the bathroom to start the shower. I stood under the hot spray for a long time, letting my body fina
lly warm up. I washed my hair and body then leaned my arms against the wall, resting my head on them as the water ran over my face and hair and down my back. When I realized I was on the verge of falling asleep right there in the shower, I turned it off.

  I wrapped in a towel then stood in front of the mirror as I wrung the water from my hair that hung almost to my waist. I’d miss this hair color. It was the only professional color I’d had since I left my father’s house. Perks of working in a salon. But I needed the extra layer of anonymity that a change would give me. After I got some sleep, I’d have to pull out the box of hair color I’d bought at the rest stop and get to work.

  Not now, though. I dropped the towel I was using on my hair, not caring enough to dry it further. As I approached the bed, I considered putting clothes on, but didn’t see the point. They were dirty and cold and I was enjoying the feeling of being clean and warm. So I fell into bed still wrapped in a towel, slipping easily into a dreamless sleep.

  I woke to a knock on my door and jerked to a sitting position. It took me a minute to remember why I was sleeping in a hotel room in a towel, but when I did, I fell back in relief. The knock was probably housekeeping. I padded over to the door and looked out the peephole.

  Jack Trent stood outside my hotel room door. You’ve got to be kidding me. He was in his uniform, all tall and authoritative and wanting to help.

  I stared through the hole, not knowing what to do or say.

  He knocked again. “Angel, are you there?” he called. “Or . . . Celeste.” He rolled his eyes. “I don’t know what to call you.”

  Right. I was Celeste. “What do you want, Jack?” I asked through the door.

  He held up a paper bag. “I brought you lunch.”

  I looked to the clock by the bed. It had been past three when I’d fallen into bed, and now it was eleven fifteen. I’d missed the free breakfast they offered. As much as my paranoia warned me to cut off all contact with this cop, I couldn’t bring myself to reject his offering, especially when I didn’t know how else I would get back to my car.

  “Hang on,” I said before slipping into the bathroom and pulling on the sweats and t-shirt I had left on the floor. I undid the chain and took a breath to give me courage before pulling the door open.

 

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