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Every Waking Moment Brenda Novak Emma Wright has finally escaped the dangerous man who's controlled her every move for the past six years. Taking her five-year-old son, she has fled across the country–seeking freedom, safety and a fresh start. But Max's father isn't giving them up so easily.Preston Holman understands the lengths a parent will go for his child. He's given up everything to pursue the man he believes killed his son.When Preston meets Emma, he wants nothing to do with her or the boy who reminds him so much of his own child. Yet he can't abandon them–and as he's drawn into the danger that surrounds them, Preston begins to wonder if he's finally found something to live for beyond revenge. Praise for Brenda Novak “Novak’s story is richly dramatic, with a stark setting that distinguishes it nicely from the lusher world of other romances.” —Publishers Weekly on Taking the Heat “Readers will be quickly drawn in to this well-written, multi-faceted story that is an engrossing, compelling read.” —Library Journal on Taking the Heat “Cold Feet left me breathless. Any book by Brenda Novak is a must-buy for me.” —Reader to Reader Reviews “Novak’s Cold Feet is a nail-biter…. The plot is riveting, the ending delightfully unpredictable and the characters compelling.” —Romantic Times “This story should appeal to readers who like their romances with a sophisticated touch.” —Library Journal on Snow Baby “A one-sitting read! Kudos to Brenda Novak for an insightful and emotional story that tore at my heartstrings.” —The Best Reviews on A Baby of Her Own “Novak is an expert at creating emotionally driven romances full of heat, sensual tension and conflict that not only satisfy her characters but her readers as well.” —Writers Unlimited on A Husband of Her Own “Once again, Brenda Novak delivers a stunningly magical performance…. Novak’s fans will easily recognize her unforgettable style and characterization from the first chapter.” —Wordweaving on A Family of Her Own “[A Home of Her Own] kept me on the edge of my seat, Kleenex in hand, totally enthralled to the last page. This is a forget-about-dinner, just-order-a-pizza kind of read.” —Romantic Times Every Waking Moment Brenda Novak www.millsandboon.co.uk (http://www.millsandboon.co.uk) To my husband, Ted, who’s stood behind me for twenty years. Even in the beginning, through the lean times, he supported me financially when I started flying off to every writers’ conference I could feasibly attend. He’s constantly searching for the next computer, software, keyboard, chair and anything else that might make my job easier. He listens to every story I write and tells me, even when I’m sure he’s wrong, that what I’ve written is good. And he props me up when I get too tired or overwhelmed. What more can a wife ask? I’ve always been able to depend on his love. For that, I’m eternally grateful. Dear Reader, When I’m not writing romantic-suspense novels, I’m writing relationship stories for Harlequin’s Superromance line (the longest and most mainstream of the various series). I’ve found it to be a great mix. If I’m craving danger and intrigue, I dig into one of my “bigger” books, like this one. If I miss the cozy comfort of a good relationship novel, where there’s rarely any threat of physical danger, I write another story set in the fictional town of Dundee, Idaho. They’re different styles of books—and yet they’re similar in many respects. I like creating characters who have an interesting past, a conflicted present and the hope of a fabulous future. But back to this story…. I’ve long found it fascinating how some people feel compelled to control others. I’ve never really understood that compulsion, which is part of the reason for my fascination. It can become such a driving need, one that causes all kinds of trouble, sometimes resulting in murder. In Every Waking Moment we have two villains who can think only of fulfilling their own desires. They set off a chain of events that change the hero and heroine forever. But some characters really deserve a “happily ever after” and, after you read this story, I think you’ll agree with me that Preston and Emma fall into that category. I enjoyed seeing how they’d react when faced with certain daunting challenges, but I especially enjoyed seeing them triumph in the end. I love to hear from readers. Please feel free to contact me through my Web site, www.brendanovak.com, where you can enter to win a $500 shopping spree at the store of your choice, check out excerpts and reviews for this and other books, see what’s coming in the future, or help me reach my juvenile diabetes fund-raising goal. If you don’t have an Internet service, write to P.O. Box 3781, Citrus Heights, CA 95611. Stay safe! Brenda Novak CONTENTS CHAPTER ONE CHAPTER TWO CHAPTER THREE CHAPTER FOUR CHAPTER FIVE CHAPTER SIX CHAPTER SEVEN CHAPTER EIGHT CHAPTER NINE CHAPTER TEN CHAPTER ELEVEN CHAPTER TWELVE CHAPTER THIRTEEN CHAPTER FOURTEEN CHAPTER FIFTEEN CHAPTER SIXTEEN CHAPTER SEVENTEEN CHAPTER EIGHTEEN CHAPTER NINETEEN CHAPTER TWENTY CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE EPILOGUE CHAPTER ONE VANESSA BEACON’S HANDS SHOOK as she stared down at the California driver’s license she’d had her gardener purchase for her several months ago. The photo was hers, along with the physical characteristics. Hair: Bld; Eyes: Bl; HT: 5-06; WT: 120. The name, birth date and address, however, were not. The name read Emma Wright. Vanessa had chosen “Emma” because it was her mother’s middle name. “Wright” she’d selected as a reminder. She was doing the right thing. She had to believe that wholeheartedly or she would never have the courage to take such a risk. The clock ticked loudly on the wall of her expansive chrome-and-marble kitchen. It seemed even louder than Manuel’s new plasma television, which she’d turned on in the living room to occupy their son, Dominick. She’d gone through her and Dominick’s suitcases, checked for his new birth certificate, her driver’s license and the two prepaid credit cards she’d purchased as additional identification, plus the teaching credential in her new name. She also counted her cash and packed her maps. But she couldn’t help worrying that she’d forgotten something. God, she couldn’t make a mistake. Dominick’s life might depend on what she’d forgotten. Mumbling a silent prayer that she could think straight despite her racing heart, she once again sorted through the backpack she’d hidden in the attic for the past three weeks. A small, handheld cooler contained three types of insulin—NPH, Regular and the fast-acting Humalog. Outside the cooler and loose in the backpack, she’d packed two hundred Ultra-Fine needles for Dominick’s three or more daily injections, two blood-glucose monitors, arm and finger pokers with plenty of test strips and two boxes of extra lancets. There was also a biohazard sharps collector, which was so large and bulky she’d almost taken it out a number of times but didn’t in the end because she had to have somewhere safe to toss the needles. She’d included KetoStrips to test for protein in Dominick’s urine, an emergency glucagon kit—in case he ever passed out, God forbid—and a tube of oral glucose gel for use in smaller emergencies. Besides all that, she’d packed his logbook to record his blood-sugar readings, and plenty of carbohydrates disguised as granola bars, trail mix, fruit and individually packaged chips for her son’s mid-morning and mid-afternoon snacks. She’d nearly required a small suitcase just to transport his diabetes supplies. But every item was absolutely essential. One missed insulin injection could quickly result in ketoacidosis, a life-threatening condition. I have everything. There’s nothing to worry about…. Vanessa closed the bag. A glance at the clock made her feel weak in the knees. It was after ten. Juanita should’ve been here fifteen minutes ago. Would she come at all? Or had Manuel gotten to her? Vanessa cautioned herself against the paranoia that threatened. Manuel always watched her closely, but she was sure he had no idea she was about to disappear. She could trust the gardener. Carlos had proved himself with his secrecy on the false ID and the car he’d bought for her. Juanita would come through, too—if her loyalties were what Vanessa believed they were, and if she clearly understood what Vanessa wanted her to do. Vanessa thought she did. Manuel had insisted on hiring a nanny who could speak only Spanish, so his son would learn his native tongue, he said. But there were plenty of bilingual nannies, especially in San Diego where they lived. No, it wasn’t solely for Dominick that Manuel had selected Juanita. Manuel liked the idea that Vanessa wouldn’t be able to communicate with her. Isolating Vanessa gave him that much more power and control. Fortunately, it wasn’t quite that simple. He didn’t know it, but during the four years they’d been living together, she’d taught herself enough Spanish to speak and understand most of what she heard. At first, she’d done it to help while away the empty hours of her day, since Manuel wouldn’t let her return to school or get a job. Later, she’d wanted to understand the strange phone calls he received at night and to decipher what the Rodriguez family discussed during the frequent meetings they held in the conference room off Manuel’s home office. But she didn’t want to know about Manuel’s business dealings anymore. Or his family’s. His family was the main reason Manuel had never married her, even after she’d had Dominick. His mother refused to accept her, ostensibly because of her nationality, but Vanessa knew it went a little deeper than that. Mama Rodriguez couldn’t tolerate the thought of another woman in her favorite son’s life. Period. It was a fact Vanessa had once lamented, but no more. She’d learned enough about Manuel’s mother, his whole family, to be thankful for their rejection. Dominick came in from the living room, his round face a picture of impatience. He’d just turned five two months ago and would’ve been starting kindergarten in a few weeks. She hoped she’d be able to get them situated soon so he could go to school this year. “Mo-om, I thought you said we were going to leave!” he said. Vanessa attempted a reassuring smile, even though she was sweating profusely and feeling as though she might faint. Juanita had to come. She had the car Carlos had bought. And if she didn’t appear soon, it meant Manuel had figured out what was happening. He’d take Dominick to Mexico and Vanessa would probably never see her son again. Manuel had certainly threatened that often enough—whenever she tried to establish some independence. He’d made his point when she’d tried to leave the first time. Her father had passed away several years before she met Manuel, and her brother had been killed in a motorcycle accident not long after, but her mother and married sister lived in Phoenix. She’d gone to them, and wished she could do so again. But she wouldn’t make the same mistake twice. Manuel had tracked her down and dragged her back—then let her know, in no uncertain terms, that he wouldn’t tolerate her leaving in the future. Don’t think of that. Don’t remember…. “We’re waiting for Juanita,” she said, aching to pull her child into her arms. She didn’t know what she’d do if she could never hear Dominick laugh again or tell her how much he loved her. But she knew a clingy, desperate hug wasn’t what he needed at the moment. She didn’t want to communicate her anxiety to him any more than she already had. “You said she was coming a long time ago,” he complained. “Where is she?” Vanessa had no idea. Juanita had worked for them for nearly a year and was never late. Where could she be today? Without her support—and the car—Vanessa and Dominick would never get away. “Maybe she had a flat tire.” Please let it be that. “I’m sure she’s coming.” The phone rang. Vanessa quickly gave Dominick some markers so he could write on the dry-erase board attached to the fridge, and approached the desk in the corner. Anxiety stabbed through her when she recognized Manuel’s cell-phone number on the caller ID. He was supposed to be on a plane to Mexico. He left the country often and stayed sometimes for several days, sometimes for a couple of weeks. He claimed to import marble from Culiacán, but Vanessa had long suspected that he imported more than marble. The steady bursts of noise jangled her already frayed nerves. Should she answer it? She wasn’t sure she could keep her voice level. Hoping that his plane had simply been delayed, that he’d be gone soon, she decided to let the answering machine take it. But she should’ve known she couldn’t avoid him so easily. Her cell phone, which was sitting on the counter, started ringing only a few seconds later. Manuel hated it when he couldn’t reach her. She knew he’d keep trying, again and again and again, until she finally picked up, even if it meant missing his flight. She couldn’t let him miss his flight. When she continued to hesitate, Dominick glanced up from his drawing. “Mommy?” Spurred by the curiosity in her son’s voice, Vanessa arranged her expression in a blank mask to hide the fear and loathing Manuel elicited, and retrieved her cell. “Hello?” “What’s going on?” Manuel demanded without a greeting. “Nothing. Why?” “You didn’t answer the house phone.” “I told you last night that I might run a few errands this morning.” “You haven’t left the house.” A prickly unease crept up Vanessa’s spine. He’d spoken with such certainty. “How do you know?” “A good guess.” She didn’t believe it was a guess at all, and judging by his flippant tone, he didn’t care whether he’d convinced her. Somehow he always knew where she was. She’d scoured every inch of the house and been unable to find any type of listening device or video camera, so he must have hired someone to watch her. Which made Juanita absolutely integral to her plan. Dominick went back to drawing, and Vanessa moved to the sink to stare out the kitchen window at the perfect summer day, wondering for the millionth time who was out there. “Why didn’t you pick up?” Manuel pressed, unwilling to let the subject go. “I was—” she swallowed to ease the dryness in her throat “—in the bathroom.” “I had a phone installed there, remember? For your convenience.” Not for her convenience. So she wouldn’t have even the bathroom as an escape from him. “I refuse to answer the phone while I’m in the bathroom,” she said. “I haven’t used that extension since you put it in. You know that.” He chuckled softly. “Querida, you can be so stubborn.” Manuel had no idea. But he was about to find out—if only Juanita would arrive as promised. “What do you need?” she asked. “I’m calling to check on you.” Check on her? Not in a loving way. Vanessa could hardly tolerate the sound of Manuel’s voice or the pretense of his caring. When she’d first met him, at twenty-two, she’d just graduated with a teaching degree. He’d been older, twenty-five, and had seemed energetic and ambitious—but loving and kind, too. He’d changed so fast…. Maybe she’d never really known him. Maybe the man he used to be was simply a persona he adopted when it suited him. In any case, she barely recognized him anymore. His dark eyes, once the color of melted chocolate to her, watched her too carefully, frightening in their obsessive intensity. And the thick black hair she used to love, especially when it fell across his brow, he now slicked back in a dramatic style that added to the impression he gave of being as hyperaware as he was hypercritical. She brought a hand to her chest, preparing herself for the answer to her next question. “Aren’t you going to Mexico today?” “The trip’s been postponed.” Her muscles tightened. No! Not when I’m so close. “Until when?” The knocking of her heart against her ribs made it difficult to speak. “Come on, mi amor. You know better than to bother your pretty head with business.” A dodge. Typical of him. As was the condescension in his voice. He didn’t like her knowing his schedule. Except for the odd occasion, he typically sprang news of an impending trip only the night before. But Juanita still wasn’t here, and Manuel hadn’t said why his trip had been postponed. Did he realize she was planning to leave him? “Will you be home for dinner, then?” she asked. “Of course. I always spend my evenings with you, if I’m available.” Bile rose in Vanessa’s throat at the thought of postponing her escape until Manuel’s next trip to Mexico. Holding out until he was far from home would be the wisest course. She and Dominick needed the lead time. But everything was already arranged. And staying meant she’d have to suffer through more nights in Manuel’s company, nights that always ended, at some point, with her lying beneath him. Manuel had an insatiable sexual appetite and demanded she perform some kind of sex act for him daily, often two or more. “Maybe you could mention to Juanita that I’m in the mood for meñudo,” he said. Even the prospect of sharing another interminable dinner with Manuel made Vanessa ill. She frowned at the cigarette burn her husband had inflicted on the inside of her wrist four days ago. Manuel loved to deal out little reprisals for anything that displeased him— Dominick rounded the kitchen island. Quickly hiding the injury, she rubbed her son’s back as he came over to hug her leg. “What’s wrong, Mommy?” Worry clouded his innocent eyes. She held a finger to her lips to indicate silence. She didn’t want Manuel to overhear. “I’ll tell her to make it for dinner,” she said into the phone. “And I’m going to need those suits I had you take to the cleaners,” he added. “Can you pick them up for me while you’re out?” Her life was closing in on her again. “Of course.” “Thank you. You’re such a wonderful wife.” “I’m not your wife,” she said. “As far as I’m concerned, you are. Every man should be so lucky.” Vanessa’s nails curled into her palm at his assumption and false praise. He threw her a few compliments from time to time—figuring that would keep her happy. But he’d never trusted her or loved her enough to let her be truly happy. Or to stand against his family and marry her, as she’d once wanted. Or to treat her as an equal instead of chattel. “How do you want me to pay for it?” she asked because she knew he’d expect this question. Their gated, ten-thousand-square-foot mansion provided proof of his wealth. But he kept such a tight rein on their money that it had taken her nearly two years to save the funds she’d given Carlos for the car. She’d only managed to accumulate that much by returning small items she hoped Manuel wouldn’t miss—even groceries—and hiding the money between the insulation and the wall in the attic. “I’ll call the bank and add an extra hundred to your account,” he said. “Fine.” She grimaced at his stinginess. He allowed her no standing balance. He waited until she had a specific need, one he could easily verify. Then he called and transferred enough to cover the expense. One hundred bucks would barely pay his dry-cleaning bill; Manuel clothed his lean, sinewy body almost exclusively in the finest hand-tailored suits. “Thank you, querida,” he said. “What else do you have planned for the day? What is my hijito doing?” She glanced at their son. Dominick was so unlike his father, so much more similar to her side of the family—especially the younger brother she’d lost the year she and Dominick had moved in with Manuel. Large for his age, Dominick had sandy-blond hair, eyes that were an unusual shade of green, and golden skin that still retained the softness of a baby’s. “He’s standing here, waiting to go to the store.” “He should be reading, Vanessa. You know I want him to read.” “We’ll read when we get back.” “Let me transfer the money to the credit card I’ve given Juanita. She can do your shopping and pick up my dry cleaning. I don’t know why you like doing such menial tasks.” Maybe it was because she had nothing else to do. Manuel insisted that Dominick needed one hundred percent of her attention, but she believed there should be more to life than following her son around, watching over his every move, correcting all his mistakes, stealing the same privacy and independence from him that Manuel had already taken from her. “I like to get out once in a while,” she said. If you only knew how badly I’m dying to get out right now. “It’s good for me.” “So you’re always telling me.” She had to leave. Right away. She couldn’t survive the helplessness any longer. “But today…today you might be right,” she said. “I’ve got a headache. Why don’t you go ahead and put the money on Juanita’s card. I’ll have her take Dominick out to run errands while I lie down.” “Fine.” “I’ll see you tonight,” she said, eager to get off the phone. Tears burned at the backs of her eyes, tears of disappointment and bitterness toward the man who had systematically cut her off from friends and family. At least he didn’t know what she had in store for today. If he did, he would’ve said something about the way she’d set him up—wouldn’t he? “Te amo,” he said. She couldn’t say it back. She hadn’t been able to for years. “Goodbye.” She hung up then slumped over the kitchen sink, afraid she was going to be sick. The sound of keys jingling and the front door opening brought her head up. Dominick dashed off and, a moment later, marched into the kitchen ahead of Juanita, who met Vanessa’s eyes with a fearful expression. “Are you ready, my friend?” she asked in Spanish. “Where have you been?” Vanessa replied in the same language. “I had a neighbor check the engine of the car. I couldn’t let you go without knowing you and Dominick would have a reliable vehicle.” Vanessa feared the car might be stolen property. It should’ve cost a lot more than it did. But Carlos hadn’t admitted anything, and she hadn’t asked. What was the point? She had to take what she could get; she didn’t have a choice. “Why didn’t you tell me? Or call?” she asked in English. Juanita scowled and moved closer, gazing around the kitchen as if looking for the camera Vanessa had searched for repeatedly. “I thought of it too late yesterday, and we agreed never to discuss this over the phone.” She lowered her voice so Dominick, who’d started using the dry-erase board again, couldn’t hear. “He called me last night, you know. He asked how Dominick was doing in his studies, but he also asked many questions about you.” “Like what?” Vanessa whispered. “What you do while he’s gone, where you go, whether you try to communicate with me.” “What did you tell him?” “Nothing.” She removed the long heavy coat, sunglasses and head scarf Vanessa had asked her to wear. “Put these on and go. Right away. It isn’t odd for a little old lady like me to dress so warmly, even in the summer. And the engine of the car is good, strong. You should be fine.” Vanessa hesitated as she accepted the clothing. “But he didn’t go to Mexico, Juanita. He’s still here, in town. He wants you to make meñudo for dinner!” “So…are you going to wait?” Juanita leaned around the island to check on Dominick. Vanessa could see that he was still happily occupied. But she put Juanita’s belongings on the center island and pulled Juanita into the formal dining room. “I don’t know what to do.” “You have to go,” Juanita said. “He senses something. I know he does.” “But now that he’s coming home tonight, you won’t be able to tell him I was here when you left at dinner but gone when you returned in the morning. What will you say to him?” “Don’t worry. I’ll say I was running late and you were already gone when I arrived.” Vanessa checked Dominick again. He’d given up on the dry-erase board but was busy arranging magnetic letters into the small words she’d taught him to spell. “He’ll want to know why you didn’t call when I didn’t return.” Juanita pulled thoughtfully at her lip with her teeth. “I’ll have Carlos take me home early,” she decided, “before I would expect you back, then I’ll tell Manuel I felt ill and didn’t want to infect Dominick.” “And if someone’s watching the house? What if they see me like this and tell Manuel you left with Dominick—and never came back? With Manuel coming home, it’s all so much more immediate.” “Calm down, my friend. We’ve talked about this before. I’m just the housekeeper. No one pays attention to when I come and go. If someone says I left with Dominick and never came back, I’ll say they are loco. My son dropped me off in the morning. Carlos took me home when I felt ill. In between, I never went anywhere or saw anything out of the ordinary. How can Manuel argue with that? It is simple, eh? Besides, he doesn’t even think we speak the same language, remember?” “Sí.” Vanessa struggled to regulate her rapid breathing. He’d never suspect Juanita. He trusted her. Everyone trusted Juanita. Nodding decisively, she ducked back into the kitchen, covered her head with the scarf and put on the coat. It was now or never. She was leaving; she couldn’t look back. Somehow she’d provide a life for herself and Dominick, a life that had nothing to do with the man who tried to own her. Their return distracted Dominick from his magnets. “Why are you dressing up like Juanita?” he asked with a scowl. “This is the special game we’ve been practicing for,” she told him, adding Juanita’s sunglasses and dark lipstick to her disguise. She’d been terrified that Dominick might mention the “game” to Manuel. But it was a risk she’d had to take. Fortunately, they played games of pretense quite a lot, and it had never become an issue. “We’re going to see if anyone can tell who I really am.” “Am I going to dress up, too?” “No, you’re going to act like I’m Juanita, remember? When we step outside, you’ll hold my hand and walk to the car the same as you do whenever Juanita takes you shopping or to the library.” “That’s not how it goes. I’m Max, from Where the Wild Things Are, and you’re a lady named Emma.” Vanessa had chosen the name Max because it came from Dominick’s favorite book. He responded well to it. And, equally important, it was a name Manuel would never connect with him. “We’ll do that, too. Just as soon as we drive away.” “Oh, I get it! You’re going to be Juanita first, then Emma.” He seemed excited—until he followed them into her bedroom and noticed, for the first time, the two suitcases she’d packed. He watched Juanita cover one with a big black garbage bag and take it out to the back porch. “Why are we throwing away our suitcases?” “We’re not,” Vanessa said, doing the same with the other one. “Carlos is going to get them for us.” “Is he playing, too?” Dominick asked as they walked into the kitchen. Vanessa slipped the backpack into a garbage bag and carried it to the back. “Sort of. We’ll meet him down the street.” “But why do we need suitcases? Are we going somewhere far away?” “Yes,” Vanessa said, feeling such relief in the word that she reached out to squeeze Juanita’s hand. “Where?” Dominick asked. Across the country, as far as I can take us. “You’ll see. It’s a surprise.” She stood in the living room to make sure Carlos saw their luggage. Had he noticed Juanita pull up outside? The gardener came almost immediately. Good. Glancing inside the house from the patio, he nodded as he picked up the first bag and carried it around to the front, as if he was loading more clippings into the bed of his truck. Fear turned Vanessa’s legs rubbery as she hurried to the front door and gave her nanny a tight hug. “You’ll be okay?” she asked in Spanish. “Of course. We have it all planned out.” “I could never thank you enough.” Juanita took a piece of paper from her pocket and slipped it into Vanessa’s hand. “What’s this?” “My sister Rosa’s number. We can communicate through her. Call me if you need anything.” Vanessa stared down at the crumpled paper in her hand. “You never even told me you had a sister—” “Exactly. Manuel doesn’t know about her, either. I keep my business to myself, eh?” “Where does she live?” Vanessa asked. “About an hour from here.” In a moment of pure panic, Vanessa squeezed her friend’s arm. “Go to her, Juanita. Go to her and never come back here.” She leaned close so she could whisper the rest into Juanita’s ear. “Manuel, he…he isn’t right.” “You’re the only one he hurts,” Juanita whispered back. “Just be safe, my beautiful friend. And be happy.” Vanessa waited while Juanita said goodbye to Dominick. Then she took her son’s hand. Keeping her face down and stooping a bit like the older woman, she led him out the front door into the mellow sunshine of a clear August day. The nondescript white sedan she’d asked Carlos to purchase sat in the circular driveway, representing the freedom she’d craved for so long. She wanted to race toward it, buckle Dominick safely inside and put the metal to the floor as she tore away. But she forced herself to walk very slowly, like Juanita. She’d be gone soon. Then she wouldn’t be Vanessa Beacon anymore. She’d start over as Emma Wright, and Dominick would be Max. CHAPTER TWO “EMMA, EMMA, EMMA,” Emma chanted, trying to get used to her new name. She gripped the steering wheel of the white Ford Taurus so tightly her shoulders ached. She’d been heading north on Interstate 5 for nearly six hours, but the miles didn’t seem to be passing quickly enough. Probably because she kept imagining that Manuel had figured out she was gone and was already coming after her. She checked her rearview mirror, something she did every few seconds, and increased her speed to eighty. A red Toyota 4Runner was following her and had been since she’d come out of the Tehachapie Mountains, the section of interstate called The Grapevine that separated the Los Angeles Basin from the San Joaquin Valley. Interstate 5 wasn’t like Highway 99, which ran parallel to Highway 5 through the central part of California. Interstate 5 bypassed most of the small farming communities between Los Angeles and Sacramento. The people on this newer road were typically traveling across the state, so the fact that someone had followed her for so long wasn’t that unusual. Except she didn’t recognize any of the other cars around her. People passed her all the time, or she passed them, but they soon drew apart. “Mommy, I want to go home,” Dominic—Max—said from the back seat. He was bored with the action figures she’d brought for him to play with and had been asking to get out of the car for the past few hours. She’d stopped once in Los Angeles to feed him, test his blood and give him insulin. But Emma couldn’t afford to let him have another break yet. She felt the tick of every second. As close as freedom suddenly seemed, she was still only a heartbeat away from failure and terrible reprisal. “I’m sorry, babe. Mommy can’t stop now.” “Why not?” he asked, jingling the chain around his neck that held the dog tag she’d had Carlos purchase. It was engraved with Dominick’s new name and medical information. She checked the red Toyota again. Two occupants. She didn’t think she’d ever seen either man before. But they could be a threat all the same. Maybe they were the ones who’d been keeping an eye on the house. Maybe her disguise hadn’t fooled them, or they’d seen Juanita pass by the kitchen window a few minutes after she’d left…. “Mom?” Max persisted when she didn’t answer. “When are we going home?” She watched the needle on her speedometer edge up to eighty-five. “We’re not.” Glancing in the rearview mirror, Emma saw her son tucking the metal tag inside his T-shirt. “Ever?” Emma didn’t want Max to have to face the reality of forever. She knew he might not find the same relief in it she did. So she kept her answer vague. Especially because she didn’t know what might happen. “Not for a while.” “What about Daddy?” “What about him?” She was too preoccupied with the Toyota to focus fully on Dominick’s questions. Max, she reminded herself. She had to become accustomed to it. But she couldn’t concentrate. Had the men in the other car been following her longer than she thought? Could she have missed seeing them somehow? “Isn’t he coming with us?” “No, he’s in Mexico,” she said to make the situation easier for Max to accept. If her son reacted to this news the way he normally did, he wouldn’t ask about Manuel again for days, maybe even weeks. Soon, one month would blend into the next, and Max would adjust to his new life and eventually forget the old. The transition wouldn’t be easy, but time would help. “Won’t Daddy be mad that we’re going on vacation without him? He doesn’t like it when we leave.” “I know.” She sped up yet again, so the Toyota couldn’t draw even with her. “I think Daddy’s gonna be mad,” he said. Max was right, of course—Manuel was going to be furious. But she felt no guilt for separating him from his son. She had to think about what was best for Dominick—Max—had to guide and protect him so he wouldn’t grow up to be like his father or get involved in the family “business.” “Daddy’s busy. He doesn’t even know.” She adjusted her mirror again, relieved to see that the Toyota had finally dropped back a little. A moment later, however, she realized why. A highway patrol car was coming up fast, in the other lane. Vanessa—Emma…she was Emma—immediately eased off the gas, but it was too late. The red SUV passed by with scarcely a glance in her direction, while the patrolman came up behind her and flipped on his lights. Damn it! What was she going to do now? Her first panicked impulse was to run. But she had Max in the car. Turning on her blinker, she slowed and pulled off the Interstate onto the shoulder, and the patrolman did the same. “Why are we stopping?” Max asked. “Because we have to. There’s a policeman behind us.” When the car was no longer moving, her son unlatched his seat belt and climbed up on his knees to stare through the back window. “What does he want?” “I don’t know yet. Just don’t say anything while he’s here, okay?” “Why not?” “It’s all part of the game we’re playing. No matter what I say, you don’t talk.” “How come?” “I don’t have time to explain. Just be quiet back there.” Emma hated to use bribery with Max. It set a bad precedent, but she wasn’t sure what she might have to say to the patrolman and didn’t want her son to contradict her. “If you keep quiet, if you don’t say even one word, Mommy will buy you a toy at the next town, okay?” “Okay!” His enthusiasm gave her hope that he would actually remember and comply, but Max’s natural frankness was only part of the problem. She had no idea what would happen if she gave the patrolman a fake ID and he ran it through his computer. How much scrutiny could her new driver’s license withstand? And what was she going to do when the officer asked for registration and proof of insurance? The car could be stolen property. Real or fake ID? Either way, she could be in trouble. Breaking into a cold sweat, she felt in her purse for her wallet. The patrolman’s boots crunched on the gravel shoulder as he approached. In her rearview mirror, she could see the pant legs of his taupe uniform, his black utility belt and holstered gun, and his badge, which glinted in the bright light of early afternoon. As he drew closer, in her side mirror, she made out a fiftyish face with salt-and-pepper hair showing beneath his trooper’s hat. She’d let the red Toyota spook her into making a dreadful mistake. How could she have been so stupid? Wiping away the perspiration on her upper lip, Emma pushed Juanita’s sunglasses closer to the bridge of her nose and pulled the scarf forward. Then she lowered the window. “Good afternoon,” he said, his manner professional. “Hello.” She took note of his name—Daniels—and tried to smile confidently. A lot depended on her performance in the next few minutes. He bent his head to glance at Dominick, who was dangling over the seat in an effort to see him. “Where you headin’ today?” “Sacramento.” Emma wanted to embellish the lie by saying she had family there, but she was afraid such a comment would draw Max into the conversation despite her bribe. They’d visited her family in Arizona two years ago, when Emma had tried to leave Manuel, and Max had loved it. He constantly begged her to take him on another “Zona vacation.” “May I see your driver’s license?” Offering up a silent prayer, she handed him her real license. “Is this address correct?” “Yes. Is something wrong, Officer?” “You were speeding. Going nearly ninety miles an hour, Ms.—” he studied her driver’s license “—Beacon.” “I’m sorry,” she said. “My son has diabetes, and I’m in a hurry to reach the next town so I can get him some food.” She shifted to make sure the backpack containing Max’s diabetes supplies was completely closed—and prayed that Max wouldn’t pipe up to remind her of all the snacks they had in there. She hated to lie, especially in front of her son, but if she didn’t do something, their bid for freedom and safety could easily end in the next ten minutes. Fortunately, Max thought it was all a game. “What does he need to eat?” Daniels asked. “Fifteen grams of carbohydrate, but he needs to do it right away or he could have an insulin reaction. He was just recently diagnosed, so I’m still getting used to the whole thing. Had I been thinking, I would’ve prepared better when we stopped in L.A., but I gave him lunch and forgot all about buying an emergency stash. For the past few minutes, I’ve been so worried he’ll go low and pass out that I haven’t been watching my speed.” Emma risked a glance at Max in the rearview mirror, hoping he’d hold his tongue. Her stomach lurched when he didn’t. “I need to eat something?” he said. “Yes, sweetheart. You didn’t finish your lunch.” At least that part was true. Daniels seemed to soften, but he didn’t return her driver’s license, tell her to be more cautious in the future and let her go as she’d hoped. “We’ll get you on your way as soon as possible,” he said. “May I see your registration?” “I’m telling you, I don’t have time for this.” She let the panic rising inside her enter her voice. “Maybe you could follow me to the next town.” His eyes cut to Max. “I’m sure I’ve got something to eat in my car. I’ll get it before you leave, if he’s okay for the moment.” Emma looked at her son. It was hardly possible to claim Max wasn’t okay for the moment when he appeared as alert, happy and curious as he did. Shit! She’d gambled and lost. How badly she’d lost remained to be seen. She rummaged through the glove box, completely unsure of what she might find there, and managed to come up with a Certificate of Registration. Along with the registration, she found a sealed envelope with her new name on it, but she had no idea what it could be and wasn’t about to open it right now. Shoving the envelope back in, she gave Officer Daniels the registration. His eyes flicked over it. “This car is registered to a Maria Gomez?” Emma had no idea how to respond. She could only hope that if the car was stolen, it hadn’t been reported yet. “Yes. Maria’s a friend of mine.” “This might take a minute.” He walked back to his patrol unit. She could see his head and shoulders in her side mirror as he sat behind the wheel with his door slightly ajar, could hear the faint murmur of his voice as he spoke into a crackling radio. Was he running her license plate through some computer? If so, what would he find? A semi rumbled past, muting all other sound. Several cars whizzed by, too. Emma’s hand hovered over the gearshift. She was tempted to join that stream of traffic, to run while she still had the chance. She couldn’t go back to Manuel. This time she’d lose Max for sure. “Did I do good, Mommy? Do I get a toy?” her son asked. “You did great, babe. But it’s not over yet. Be quiet a little longer, okay?” Resting her hand lightly on the gearshift, just in case, she watched the patrolman walk back to her. “We’re almost done,” Daniels said, and handed her the registration certificate but not her driver’s license, which he’d attached to the clipboard he carried. From what she could see, he was writing her a traffic citation. She let go of the gearshift. Daniels must not have found anything on her or the car, or he would’ve said something by now. That the car hadn’t raised a red flag surprised her, but the fact that she wasn’t in the computer didn’t. She knew Manuel would involve the police only as a last resort. He had too much to hide to draw that kind of attention. And because he’d found her so easily last time, he’d feel confident he could do it on his own. “May I see proof of insurance, please?” the officer asked. Suddenly hopeful that she’d have the chance to recover from her foolish mistake, she rummaged through her purse again and provided her insurance card. He compared it to her driver’s license and passed it back. “Sign here, Ms. Beacon.” He held the clipboard out to her. “If you’d like to protest this action, instructions are on the other side. Signing the violation isn’t an admission of guilt.” She didn’t care if it was. She’d sign anything to be able to get back on the road. She scribbled her real name at the X and accepted her pink copy. But he stopped her before she could roll up her window. “Ma’am?” “Yes?” He pulled a candy bar out of his pocket and gave it to her. “I had this in my lunch today. Hope it helps your little boy.” “Thank you.” “No problem.” He leaned down to look in the back seat. “You’re a handsome kid,” he said. “What’s your name?” Charmed by the promise of candy, which he preferred to toys since he lived on such a restricted diet, Max didn’t hesitate. “Dominick,” he said, smiling broadly and completely forgetting his pretend name. “Dominick Escalar Rodriguez.” Emma’s grip tightened on the steering wheel until her knuckles grew white. “Get your seat belt on,” she told her son, her voice as normal as possible even though she was dying to escape—before anything else could happen. “You don’t want Mommy to get another ticket, do you?” Grudgingly, Max flopped onto the seat and buckled himself in. “Are we going home now?” The patrolman stepped away from the car. “You’re heading in the wrong direction for that, I’m afraid.” “We’re taking a little vacation.” Emma rolled up her window and, at the first break, merged into traffic. She was extremely lucky to be driving away. But she had no idea how long her luck would hold. She needed to get out of California. Fast. EMMA FELT SAFER once darkness fell. She hadn’t initially planned on venturing into Nevada, but after her confrontation with the California Highway Patrol, turning east instead of continuing due north seemed wise. And though she never would’ve anticipated it, she liked the harsh wilderness that made up this part of the state. She also liked the western feel of the tiny mining towns she passed. Carson City, Dayton, Ramsey Station, Silver Springs, Frenchman…Some weren’t even big enough to appear on her map. Others had a small casino that doubled as a motel or an old-style theater with the marquee advertising a movie—usually not a new release by the rest of the country’s standards. There was always a church or two, a diner, a gas station, maybe a post office, sometimes a public library or municipal building. In each one she saw older, well-kept homes at the center of town and some cheaper, not-so-well-kept homes at the edges, plus a handful of single-wide trailers scattered here and there, and more than the usual ratio of four-by-fours. Nevada was truly the last bastion of the Old West, Emma thought as she dodged a tumbleweed blowing across the highway. Folks here didn’t have spectacular coastline views and multimillion-dollar homes. They didn’t even have many trees—just sagebrush, mostly. But they lived a simple life in wide-open spaces. And they seemed more likely to mind their own business. She rubbed her burning eyes. Max had fallen asleep in the back seat hours ago, after a short dinner break at Lake Tahoe. If she wasn’t so tired, she would’ve preferred to forge ahead, but hour had marched after hour and it was nearly eleven. She’d been driving all day and the tension in her muscles was making her back ache. She needed to find a place where they could spend the night, and she needed to test Max to be sure the insulin she’d given him with his meal hadn’t pulled his blood sugar too low. Reaching over the seat, she touched her son’s head. He wasn’t sweating, which was a good sign. He seemed to be sleeping peacefully. She could probably wait another thirty minutes to test him, until she found a motel. But she was never completely certain of such a decision. Battling diabetes was as much a guessing game as anything else. Except, like their game today, there wasn’t anything fun about it. A loud thump, thump, thump warned her that she’d just swerved into the center of the road. Momentarily startled, she jerked the car back into her own lane. She was practically alone on the highway, but she had to stop driving—before she crashed into a ditch or a telephone pole. Fortunately, she saw city lights ahead. MANUEL STRODE around his desk and slapped down a map in front of his trembling gardener. “Where?” he shouted. “Where is she going?” Sweat trickled from Carlos’s temples, and his dark eyes darted furtively toward Richard and Hector, two of the men who worked for Manuel. “I—I do not know.” “That’s what you told me the last time I asked,” Manuel growled. “Say it one more time, and I’m calling Border Patrol. Your American Dream will disappear like that.” He snapped his fingers for emphasis. Though heavyset, Carlos wasn’t very tall. At Manuel’s words, he seemed to shrink into himself. “W-what makes you think I help her, amigo?” “Carlos, I saw you.” Hector unfolded his lanky body from the chair where he’d been sitting several feet away, shoved a hand through his long dishwater-blond hair and moved closer. “I keep an eye on the house, you know? This morning, when I was turning into the neighborhood, I saw you talking to someone in a white Taurus.” He scowled. “Only I thought it was Juanita.” “Sí, it was Juanita,” Carlos insisted. “I already tell you that.” Manuel couldn’t help himself. He hauled off and hit Carlos so hard he could feel the gardener’s nose break beneath his fist. Carlos’s head snapped back against the wall, and he nearly fell from his chair. The blow seemed to surprise everyone, but only because it came without warning. Manuel knew his men weren’t opposed to violence—they thrived on it. Carlos’s arms flew up to protect himself from further blows, fear gleaming in his eyes. “Don’t make me do that again,” Manuel said, shaking the sting out of his fingers. “Tell me what I want to know or I swear I’ll have you deported.” Carlos began to sputter, “Amigo…” “I’ll have your mother deported, too,” Manuel added. “She’s old and sick. She doesn’t need to have Border Control knocking at her door, eh?” Pulling his hands away, Carlos stared down at the blood on his palms. “Señor, please…por favor. No trouble. I—I have a family.” “Then tell me what you know about my family!” Manuel wanted to hit him again. This man had cost him Vanessa and Dominick. He wanted to kick him until he was nothing more than a bloody blob on the floor. Carlos must have sensed the malevolence inside him because his trembling grew worse. “Whose car was Vanessa driving?” Manuel pressed. “Where did she get it?” When he said nothing, Manuel hit him again. Twice. He would’ve kept hitting him, except Hector finally pulled him away. “Manuel, not here. You’re not thinking.” He wasn’t thinking. He couldn’t think. Since he’d come home to find Vanessa and Dominick gone, and had begun to suspect the worst when they didn’t return, he could only want. He wanted Vanessa and Dominick back, and he wanted to punish this man for helping them leave. Richard, who was nearly as tall and skinny as Hector, but had red hair, put a calming hand on his shoulder. “Call Border Patrol instead, okay?” It took Manuel several seconds to regain control. He was still breathing hard when he walked around his desk and called information. “Border Patrol, please.” Tears streamed down Carlos’s face as Manuel took the number. When Manuel hung up, then lifted the receiver again, Carlos finally lurched to his feet. Blood streamed from his nose. His lip was cut and beginning to swell. And one eye was half-closed. “Wait, por favor. Listen to me. She was so unhappy. I—I had to help her.” “Where did she get the car, Carlos?” The menace in Manuel’s voice was a promise he intended to keep. Forgetting about his damaged face and the blood, the gardener rocked nervously from foot to foot. “It belonged to my mother. Vanessa, she—she no have much dinero, you know? And when she come to me, I—I feel sorry for her. So I tell my mother I will get you another car soon. We will save. We have plenty of opportunity in this country.” “Illegal aliens can’t register a car here, Carlos,” he said. “Who’s listed on the registration as the legal owner?” Tears mixed with the blood running down his face. “Mi amiga.” “What friend?” “Her name, Maria Gomez.” Manuel had never heard of her, but it didn’t matter. Hector might have let Vanessa slip away earlier, when he thought she was Juanita, but he’d written down the make, model and license number of the car she’d been driving. He did that with every car that visited the house. “What else?” Manuel demanded. Carlos attempted to wipe the blood from his nose. “That is all,” he said. “I give her my mother’s car. No more.” Hector pulled the bandanna he wore almost everywhere off his head and mopped his own face with it. “What do we do now?” Manuel glared at Carlos, wondering whether he needed to have Hector or Richard kill him. He deserved to die, but it was never easy to get rid of a body. And for a man like Carlos, deportation would hurt badly enough. “We call the police.” “What?” Richard cried. “I thought you didn’t want to involve the police,” Hector said, obviously just as spooked. Richard and Hector had spent most of the past decade avoiding the law. But the police could be a powerful tool, if used in the right way. “I don’t,” Manuel said. “We won’t have anything to do with the call. At least not directly. Carlos and his friend Maria will simply report the Taurus as being stolen.” He smiled. “Then the police will start looking for it, too.” ACCORDING TO THE MAP, Fallon served as the agricultural center of Nevada. But it was too dark to make out the surrounding farmland. As she came into town, Emma saw a string of restaurants and stores that were far more modern than any she’d noticed in Nevada since Carson City—a Jack in the Box, a Dairy Queen, even a Wal-Mart. A few budget motels sat right off the highway, but she didn’t want to stay in those. She was hoping to find a little hideaway where she wouldn’t have to worry that someone driving past might spot her car. She had no way of knowing if Officer Daniels had later realized that she was someone he should’ve detained. Doubling back when she reached the end of town, she turned left at a sign that said Yerington to see what might be off the main drag. But Fallon didn’t seem to be nearly as deep as it was long. Almost immediately, she left the city behind and started into the country. The inky-black sky looked like crushed velvet overhead, and the smell of livestock and green growing things drifted through her closed vents. It wasn’t a bad turn to have taken, though. About a mile from the highway, she found exactly what she’d been hoping for—a small, low-profile motel. A sign in front read Cozy Comfort Bungalows and the word Vacancy glowed red in the bottom right corner. Weak with gratitude and eager for a short reprieve, Emma wondered if a motel like this was ever full. Fortunately for her, she didn’t think so. She pulled into the gravel lot outside the long, narrow series of attached rooms, which weren’t bungalows at all but your basic budget motel, and parked as close to the office as she could. Then she contemplated whether or not to carry Max in with her while she registered. He was getting so heavy. After a moment’s hesitation, she decided to lock the doors and watch the car instead. The office was closed tight, but a porch light illuminated the space around the door. A sign above a buzzer on the wall read After Hours Ring Here. Emma pressed the buzzer several times during the next five minutes and heard it go off, but didn’t manage to rouse anyone. Thank goodness she wasn’t trying to hold her sleeping fifty-pound son. “Is anyone home?” she called, opening the screen door to knock on the wood panel behind it. A brown minivan pulled into the lot. At first Emma felt relieved that she wouldn’t be the only one trying to drag the innkeeper from his bed. But when the van’s engine rattled to a stop and the driver got out, she began to wonder if it was wise to be standing in the middle of nowhere alone. Whoever this man was, he didn’t look reputable. He didn’t look like someone who’d be driving a minivan. Nor did he resemble a Nevada native—there wasn’t anything western about him. Dressed in a pair of faded, holey jeans and a sweatshirt turned wrong-side-out, he had at least two days’ razor stubble covering a strong jaw and chin, and windblown blond hair. It brushed the collar of his sweatshirt in back and fell unkempt across his forehead. “No answer?” he asked, shoving his hair out of his eyes. Sticking her hand in her purse, she searched for a little security—in the form of the small can of mace Carlos had given her when she met him to retrieve her luggage. “Not yet.” He opened the sliding door to his back seat, slung a black bag the size of a laptop computer over one shoulder and grabbed a large duffel. When he came toward her, his movements were well-coordinated, which allowed Emma to relax a little. He didn’t seem drunk or otherwise out of control. And when she could see him more clearly, she realized he didn’t look dangerous, exactly. He was far too handsome for dangerous. He had a straight nose, well-defined cheekbones and lips almost too sensual to belong to a man. “Maybe we’ll have to go somewhere else,” she said. He shook his head. “She’s here.” The way his hair moved, Emma could tell it was clean. He seemed oddly refined despite his careless attitude, his thick whiskers and worn-out clothing. His nails were neatly clipped; thanks to the floodlights on the building, she could see that as he gripped his bags. His teeth were perfectly white and straight. And he had a body like Manuel’s, lithe and lean with broad shoulders and a tapering waist—an ideal build for an expensive tailored suit. So what was he doing wearing such tattered jeans? Was he some kind of dot-com guy who’d lost his job and fallen on hard times? Why was he at this hole-in-the-wall motel in the middle of a Wednesday night? Whoever he was, he had a story. Emma wondered if most of the people who stayed at the Cozy Comfort Bungalows had a story. He didn’t bother ringing the buzzer. Opening the screen door, he used his fist to bang far more loudly and decisively than she would have dared. A moment later, an inside light snapped on and an old woman with white hair and arthritic hands came to the door. “Oh, Preston, I thought it might be you,” she said, peering out at them. The smell of cats and Mentholatum wafted out of the house behind her. “You’re back already, huh?” Emma released her can of mace and hiked her purse higher on her shoulder. He frequented this place? Somehow that seemed as incongruous as such a handsome man dressing like a bum. “Just for tonight, Maude,” he said. “I have to go to Iowa tomorrow.” “Iowa!” she cried. “Surely you’re not driving there.” “I drive everywhere.” “Well, at least you’ve got a lady friend with you this time.” His light-colored eyes focused briefly on Emma. “She’s not with me. I think she wants a room.” Emma cleared her throat and spoke up. “Yes, please.” “Sure, honey,” Maude said. “Let me get Preston his key. He likes the end unit, don’t you, Preston?” Maude didn’t seem to expect an answer, because she turned away. When she reappeared, she handed Preston the promised key and a Ziplock bag filled with homemade cookies. “Get some sleep. I’ll be making pancakes in the morning, if you’re interested.” “Thanks,” he said, but he didn’t refer to the cookies, as Emma would have done. His voice was so noncommittal she couldn’t tell whether he’d be joining Maude for breakfast or not. Emma watched Preston Whoever-He-Was walk away. Maude’s eyes lingered on him, too. “Poor guy,” she said. “From what I can gather, he’s really been through the wringer.” She adjusted the plastic cap she wore to keep her hair from getting mussed while sleeping. “Anyway, you’d like a room. Let’s see what we can do….” Because of her sleeping son, Emma waited outside while Maude handled the paperwork. Ten minutes later, she unloaded her suitcases from the car and returned for Max. He was difficult for her to carry, and she wasn’t sure how she’d get him into the motel without pulling a muscle, but she certainly didn’t want to wake him. She needed him to remain asleep so she could get some rest, too. “Boy, you’re getting big,” she muttered. “Are we home yet?” he asked, but she didn’t respond. She didn’t want to upset him by saying no, which turned out to be a good decision because he was asleep again as soon as his head landed on her shoulder. Just a few more steps, she told herself. Almost there…here we are… But her door was shut; the chair she’d used to prop it open had slid out of the way. She hoisted Max farther up on her shoulder and tried the handle. Locked. Damn. Bending one knee to help support her son’s weight, she leaned against the side of the building so she could get the key out of her pocket. “You have a son?” The voice startled her. The man Preston was standing in the shadows holding an ice bucket, but until he spoke, she hadn’t noticed him. “Yes.” She thought he might ask Max’s age, his name, maybe a few other details—typical small talk when confronted with someone’s child—but he didn’t. He stared at her and Max through his longish streaky-blond hair, his expression unreadable. Then he came forward, took the key she’d just pulled out of her pocket and opened her door. “Thanks.” She deposited Max on the bed and pivoted to find Preston looking in at them, key still in the lock, his hand on her door so it wouldn’t swing shut. “Good night,” she said, a little disconcerted that she and Max had suddenly claimed so much of his attention when he’d been completely uninterested in her before. He didn’t answer. Unless Emma imagined it, which could have been the case, a raw, almost savage expression crossed his face. An expression he quickly masked before tossing her the key and letting the door close with a quiet click. CHAPTER THREE ALTHOUGH IT WAS nearly midnight, Emma couldn’t sleep. She’d expected to drop off immediately and wake only once during the night—when the alarm rang at three and she had to get up to test Max’s blood. But her mind wouldn’t release the worries that kept her one-hundred-percent conscious. She kept reminding herself of their new names, frightened at the thought of forgetting. And, as if her preoccupation wasn’t enough, she could hear the television going in Preston’s room next door. Had he fallen asleep with it on? Probably. She sighed. It didn’t matter; she couldn’t relax anyway. Climbing out of bed, she pulled a sweatshirt over her T-shirt and pajama bottoms, and crossed the room to stare out the window. After putting Max to bed, she’d moved the Taurus to the far end of the lot, where it sat in almost total darkness, well hidden from the road. She probably should’ve asked Carlos if it was stolen, so she’d know whether or not to fear the police as well as Manuel. But Carlos had been so sweet about helping her, she didn’t want to offend him. Besides, she was desperate. She would’ve taken it regardless. Maybe in a few weeks she’d be living in a small town somewhere in the midwest, where Manuel would never think to look for her, and she could park the Taurus in her garage and walk to work. She smiled at the thought of owning a little yellow house with flowers in front, of teaching first grade at the local elementary school. She’d have her son, a new name, a new life. Another chance…. Suddenly remembering the envelope in her glove box, Emma checked to be sure Max was still sleeping peacefully. Then she grabbed her can of mace, put on a pair of flip-flops so the rocks wouldn’t cut her feet, and slipped out of the room. The envelope had to be from Juanita. Or maybe Carlos. She hadn’t told anyone else her new name. The night had cooled quite a bit. A chill wind swayed the trees lining the property, making her shiver. Normally she would have liked the creaking of the branches, the low rustling of the leaves, but tonight those sounds seemed stark and lonely, almost eerie. So did the gurgle of the water flowing through the canal not far away. Maybe that was because, crazy as it seemed, she felt as if Manuel might show up at any moment. Imagining him lunging out of the dark, laughing at her puny efforts to get away from him, made the hair stand up on the back of her neck. She froze for several seconds, her hands sweating on the mace as she turned in circles, squinting into the shadows near the motel. Nothing. She couldn’t see or hear anything unusual. Except for the sound of her neighbor’s TV, which filtered out through his open window, the wind and the canal made the only noise. The door to the Taurus groaned as she opened it. She couldn’t see much, especially inside the car. The dome light was broken, but everything else was in pretty good shape, considering that the vehicle had only cost her twenty-five-hundred dollars. Searching the glove box, she easily located the envelope and took it back to her room, where she shut herself in the bathroom to read it. At first glance, it looked like a letter from Manuel. She instantly recognized his jagged scrawl. But closer inspection revealed that it was a photocopy of something he’d written and not a letter at all—a list of names, addresses, phone numbers and a few dates. Someone, presumably Juanita, had jotted a quick note in Spanish at the bottom of the page: Si él te encuentra…If he finds you. Perplexed, Emma examined the names. Where had Juanita found this? In Manuel’s office? It was possible. While Manuel typically kept his office locked against Emma and Max, he allowed Juanita to clean in there occasionally. But Emma had mentioned to Juanita, several times, that she believed Manuel’s business wasn’t quite what it seemed. Juanita had never let on that she agreed. So who were the people on this list? Several lived in Mexico. Some lived in San Diego. One had no address. Did she finally have proof of what she’d long suspected? Juanita’s note was too cryptic to tell. On several occasions, Emma had overheard Manuel’s family talking about shipments and carriers and accidents in the desert. But those few snippets of conversation hardly proved that Manuel was involved in anything illegal. And although she’d been as vigilant as possible, looking for some kind of leverage, she’d never been able to find anything more damning. Returning the paper to its envelope, Emma tucked it away in her purse. She needed to decide carefully what to do with it. If this paper was what she believed, it could mean her freedom—or maybe her death. FINALLY, AT ABOUT ONE o’clock, the exhaustion of the day overcame Emma and she slept. But only for two hours. At three, the alarm clock woke her to test Max’s glucose levels. Almost too tired to move, she hit the button that would stop the ringing, dragged herself out of bed and stumbled to the bathroom. She’d left his testing kit on the counter so she could find it without rummaging through everything. But her eyes were too grainy to open all the way. Especially once she flipped on the light. Hunching over the sink, she splashed water onto her face. Then she wiped her hands, inserted a test strip into the glucose meter and retrieved the lancet that would draw blood from the end of Max’s finger. She hated poking him. For her, that was the worst part of his daily care. The three or more injections weren’t half as bad as continually pricking the sensitive pads of his little fingers. But the ramifications of not testing were even worse. Blood sugar that was too high or too low could kill him, and he could go either way unexpectedly and very quickly. So she did what she had to do. Moving into the bedroom, she gently pulled her son’s small hand from beneath the blankets, pressed the lancet to the end of his index finger and tripped the spring. He winced but didn’t wake. A moment later, she was able to squeeze out a drop of bright red blood, which was quickly drawn into the edge of the test strip. Then she stood, sleepily scratching her head as she waited for the reading. When the meter beeped, she held it up to the light coming from the bathroom. Two hundred and eight-four. He was a hundred and eight-four points too high. She hadn’t compensated for his lack of exercise as well as she’d hoped. But he didn’t show any visible symptoms when his glucose levels fell in this range, no sweating or blotchiness, so it was difficult to know. Fresh worry gnawed at her as she headed back into the bathroom to draw up more insulin. She pictured the blood circulating through her son’s body as a thick sludge that was damaging his eyes and his kidneys—and possibly his nerve endings and heart. Somehow she had to do better in accounting for all the variables. She was his only defense. But just when she thought she’d figured out how his body processed certain foods, he’d grow and everything would change. Tears sprang to her eyes, tears she fought so she could read the tiny marks on the syringe. She was responding to the effects of stress and exhaustion as much as the daily concern she felt for her son. She knew that—just as she knew crying wouldn’t solve anything. Max whimpered when she pinched the back of his arm and inserted the needle. But afterward he rolled over and continued to sleep. She dropped the syringe into her sharps container and sat on the bed, lightly running a hand over his short crew cut. Already interested in copying the older boys he saw in their neighborhood and on TV, he insisted on putting gel in his hair to make it spiky. She smiled as she remembered him coming downstairs wearing a T-shirt he’d cut at the bottom and sleeves to mimic the young man who cleaned their pool. Max meant everything to her. She wished she could take the finger pricks and injections for him. Suddenly she realized that the television next door had been turned off. At last. The peace and quiet felt almost profound. Getting up, she crossed the room to check the car again and saw someone outside. Her heart jumped into her throat. But another look showed her it was only Preston, standing in front of his room. What was he doing? She watched him for several minutes. He was smoking and staring into space. He’s like me. He can’t sleep. But he appeared to be more than restless. He appeared…desolate, which struck her as odd for someone so young, fit and handsome. She recalled Maude’s words: He’s really been through the wringer. What had happened to him? It was really none of Emma’s business. She needed to go to bed so she could get up early and leave this place. But empathy and her own need for human interaction warred with her common sense. Maybe she should reach out to him, somehow help him get through the night. It might help her at the same time. One night wasn’t much, but Emma knew that when it was late and dark and lonely like this, one night could drag on forever. Grabbing her protective spray just in case, she propped a shoe in the door so it wouldn’t shut and stepped out. “Having trouble sleeping?” she asked, being careful to hide the can behind her back. He hadn’t turned when she opened her door. He didn’t glance over at her now. “Always.” She inched a little closer, trying to seem casual and relaxed. “They make sleeping pills for that, you know.” He took another drag on his cigarette, letting the silence stretch as he leaned against one of the posts that supported the overhang. After a few seconds, he turned his head to study her. “Are you interested in a smoke?” “No.” “Then what? Small talk? Entertainment?” “I don’t expect you to entertain me, and I don’t like small talk,” she said. Manuel had cut her off from everyone and everything, except the faces she passed in the grocery store or on the street. She was sick of meaningless smiles and nods and comments on the weather. She craved real friendship, deep conversation. She doubted she’d get that from a brief encounter with a stranger, but connecting with someone for even a few moments was better than more isolation. “Fine, then here’s the truth,” he said, a shrug in his voice. “I can’t trust myself enough to buy sleeping pills.” “Because…” Smoke curled from his lips. “What do you think?” He was intimating that he might hurt himself, of course. But something about his words didn’t ring true. She was fairly sure he was just trying to shock her. “What am I supposed to say to that?” “Nothing. You’re supposed to realize I’m probably unstable and scurry back to your room.” “What if the fact that you’ve considered suicide doesn’t scare me?” “It should.” He liked playing the part of an I-don’t-care-if-I-live-or-die badass, she thought. “Maybe I understand how you’re feeling. Maybe I’ve been there.” She’d once sat staring at a bottle of sleeping pills for three hours. Taking them would have been the easiest way to escape Manuel. He made her feel so insignificant, so angry and helpless. It was the defiance suicide represented that had appealed to her, the dramatic final exit. Control that, you bastard. If not for Max, she might have done it. The wind blew Preston’s hair across his forehead as he flicked his ashes to the ground. “You’re telling me you’re nuts, too?” She toyed with the mace behind her back. “Feeling desperate isn’t the same as being nuts.” “It can be.” He scowled, studying the cigarette pinched between his fingers. “Anyway, you don’t know me. And you’ve got a kid in there.” His eyes held too many secrets. She gazed out across the lot. “Maude seems to think you’re okay.” “That doesn’t mean anything. You barely met her,” he said, bringing the cigarette back to his lips. “Are you telling me I can’t trust either of you?” The cigarette moved as he talked. “I’m telling you that you can’t trust anyone.” “You have some serious issues.” “We all have issues.” The way he looked her up and down would have made Emma nervous, except it was so…orchestrated. “You’re not even dressed,” he added. She arched an eyebrow at him. “I’m well covered.” “Those pajamas aren’t the most attractive pair I’ve ever seen.” “I’m not trying to impress you, so quit trying to intimidate me.” He crushed his cigarette beneath his heel and didn’t respond. “Do you want to talk about it or not?” she asked. Shoving off from the post, he rounded on her a little too quickly. She hopped back out of reach—and dropped her mace on the ground in the process. He eyed it for a second. “There you go. Now you’re using your head.” Picking it up, he gave it back to her. Then, with a humorless chuckle, he disappeared inside his room. So much for starting a Tortured Souls Club, Emma thought as she looked down at the small canister. But it was just as well. She was never going to see Preston Whoever-He-Was again. And she had enough problems of her own to worry about. She needed to get some sleep. The more states she managed to put between herself and California tomorrow, the better. WAL-MART WAS BUSIER than Emma had anticipated. Evidently it paid to be the only superstore in town, even in a town the size of Fallon. Max helped her push a shopping cart down the aisles as she looked for the bottled water. She’d planned to be on her way by now—hours ago, actually. But she’d been exhausted. When Max had slept in, she did, too. And by the time they’d showered, dressed and packed, the stores were open. So she’d decided to take advantage of the local Wal-Mart to stock up on bottled water before venturing any farther into the desert. Unfortunately, it hadn’t been the quick stop she’d anticipated. First, Max needed to use the restroom and took so long, complaining of a stomach ache, she was afraid he was getting the flu. Then she had to feed him, so they ate at the Mc-Donald’s in the store. At that point, she couldn’t put off his insulin injection, which necessitated another trip to the restroom. And on the way back, he’d spotted the toy aisle and insisted he be allowed to choose a toy as his reward for being so good while the police officer talked to Mommy yesterday. Because Emma didn’t have the heart to tell him he hadn’t been as quiet as she’d requested, she’d given in and let him pick out a magnetized game designed for travel. But now she was getting nervous and more than eager to leave. “Hey, Mommy, they have gum,” Max said once they’d found the water and were finally standing in the checkout line. Emma thumbed through the latest issue of People. “I’ve got some sugarless gum in the car.” “I don’t like that kind.” She glanced at the candid photos of various stars. “It’s better than nothing, isn’t it?” “How ’bout a sucker?” Emma looked over the top of the magazine, wishing the checker—a gray-haired man with wire-rimmed glasses—would hurry. Checkout was never fun for the mother of a diabetic child. Everything Max loved but should avoid was displayed at eye level. “I don’t think so, honey.” “Please? It could be my emergency snack.” Except that his emergency snack never lasted until an emergency. “I really want to keep your blood in its zone, okay, baby? You had that candy bar the policeman gave you yesterday, which didn’t really fit into your meal plan.” “What if I take an extra shot?” “I just gave you your insulin.” His shoulders drooped and his bottom lip came out. “What if I eat only half of it?” Emma picked up the sucker and checked the carbohydrate totals on the back—twenty-one grams. “I guess you could have it for your afternoon snack,” she said, although she knew Max would start begging her for it the moment they got in the car. All too familiar with their typical negotiations, he began to press her even before that. “You mean for lunch?” “I mean for snack at three o’clock.” She’d have to take away a healthier food in order to let him eat the sucker, but she didn’t want to make his life miserable. Forever conscious of the fact that her money had to last, Emma put the magazine back in the rack, paid for the water, candy and Max’s game, and hurried from the store. She was so intent on avoiding the other shoppers and traffic moving through the lot that at first she didn’t notice the cop car parked at a slant behind her Taurus. It was Max who pointed it out to her. “Look, Mommy. There’s another policeman.” Emma leaned around the large family in front of them to see what he was talking about, and felt her stomach drop. Sure enough, a police officer circled the Taurus, shading his eyes to see inside it. God, it was stolen, just as she’d feared! Why else would they be so interested? What now? Grabbing Max’s hand, she darted back into the store. She’d noticed another exit over by the tire center. She’d slip out there. But then what? She couldn’t leave her car. “What are we doing now, Mommy? Where are we going?” Max asked as she hurried him down one aisle and then the next. Emma could hardly breathe. Their suitcases were in the trunk of the car. She had no choice but to leave behind almost everything they owned. Thank God she had the backpack with Max’s diabetes supplies and her purse. “Mommy? What’s wrong? Are you crying?” “No.” Obviously, her panic showed. “I’ll tell you what’s happening in a minute,” she said, scrambling to decide what to do. She had to get out of Fallon right away. But she no longer had transportation. And, as far as she knew, this town didn’t have any bus service. The vision of a beat-up brown van flashed through her mind, along with a snippet of conversation. I have to go to Iowa tomorrow. Iowa! Surely you’re not driving there. I drive everywhere. Preston was leaving town today. He was going far, far away. And he had a van. He might be her only chance to escape. But it was nearly eleven o’clock. What if she’d already missed him? PRESTON HOLMAN BLINKED at the ceiling overhead. He needed to think of five good reasons to get up. That was the exercise, wasn’t it? The therapist he’d seen at his ex-wife’s insistence had told him to face each new day by making his list of five. He glanced at the gun on the dresser. As usual, he could think of only one. Ironically, it was the same thing that had caused his divorce. But it got him out of bed every day. Rolling off the mattress, he landed on his feet, peeled off his boxer briefs and strode to the bathroom to take a quick shower. He might have suffered a setback yesterday when the pharmacist who knew Vince didn’t hear from him as he thought he might. But Gordon, the private investigator he’d hired to help him track Dr. Vince Wendell, had called afterward with better news. And even if this new lead didn’t work out, Preston would still find him—somehow, somewhere. Dallas was counting on him, and he wouldn’t let his son down again, regardless of the cost. A knock echoed through the room before he could start the water. He didn’t generally receive visitors. He’d quit associating with friends and family over a year ago—about the time he started carrying a gun. It had to be Maude. She was the only person he knew who refused to notice or care that he didn’t want to be bothered. He supposed that in some perverse way he liked her motherly clucking. After all, he’d been searching the state of Nevada for months and always came back here. Pulling on a pair of jeans, he fastened the buttons and shoved his gun in a drawer. A shaft of sunlight blinded him as he opened the door, reminding him that he should’ve been up hours ago. He would’ve been, if it hadn’t taken him until five in the morning to fall asleep. Raising a hand to shield his eyes, he blinked when he realized two people stood on his stoop—and Maude wasn’t one of them. “Can I help you?” Keeping his gaze firmly affixed to the pretty woman he’d met last night, he refused to acknowledge the stocky, all-American boy at her side. She dropped four quarters in her son’s hand and asked him to run to the office to see if Maude would sell him a diet soda. The boy trotted off, and she gave Preston a hesitant smile, which faded quickly when he didn’t return it. “I’m sorry to bother you, but…” “What?” he prompted when her words faltered. Her eyes drifted to his bare chest. Then she lifted her chin. “I heard you say to Maude last night that you’re heading to Iowa today. Is that true?” It was his turn to grow leery. “Do I really want to answer that question?” “Why not?” “Because I can’t see where you’re going with it, which makes me a little uncomfortable.” “I’m not going anywhere with it. Well, of course I am, but…” She wiped her palms on her expensive linen shorts before folding her arms in a jerky, nervous movement. “My car’s been stolen.” “From here?” He stuck his head out to check the far corner where, for whatever reason, she’d parked her car last night. The white Taurus was gone, all right, but he had a hard time believing it’d been stolen. Fallon had very little crime. He typically left his keys in the van. “Not here, exactly,” she clarified. “At Wal-Mart.” “Are you sure you didn’t forget where you parked?” Her lips thinned. “I didn’t forget where I parked. My car is gone and my luggage with it. Max and I had to walk three miles to get back here.” “Do you need to use my phone to call your insurance agent or…something?” he asked, still at a loss. He didn’t know this woman. What could she possibly want from him? “No.” Her nails made indentations in her arms, beneath her white, short-sleeved sweater. “My insurance agent won’t be able to help me.” “Because…” “I only carried liability coverage. My boyfriend and I recently split up and…and I couldn’t afford anything more comprehensive.” Preston considered her troubled face. She had ice-blue eyes with golden lashes, a small, elegant nose, a generous mouth, and the most beautiful sun-kissed skin and long blond hair he’d ever seen. Was she using her looks and that bad-luck story to see how much she could take him for? She was probably accustomed to getting whatever she wanted. But he wasn’t a good mark. He traveled light. And he carried a gun. “I’d offer to let you call your family or a friend or someone else,” he said. “But something tells me you’re not here to use the phone.” “No.” “So…what, then?” She glanced over at the dirty brown minivan he’d picked up at some two-bit used-car lot along the way. He’d fallen asleep at the wheel and wrecked his truck—the only thing he hadn’t given his wife in the divorce. “Actually, I was hoping maybe we could hitch a ride with you.” The moment of truth. “Hitch a ride where?” he asked. “Iowa.” “What?” “You’ve got room.” She appealed to him with those incredible eyes, and for the first time, Preston noticed how pale and drawn she was under that tan. “I have family there—in Iowa, I mean.” “We’re complete strangers!” “I know.” She was also too thin. But he couldn’t do anything for her. He couldn’t stand the idea of having her boy in the car. And the loaded weapon was something else entirely. “Forget it. Won’t work.” “Why not?” “It takes three days to get there.” She grew more agitated. “What about Salt Lake City? That’s closer.” He wasn’t taking her anywhere. He started to shake his head, but she grabbed his arm. “Please?” Damn it! Preston closed his eyes. Since the tragedy that had changed his life, no one dared approach him, let alone ask him for a favor. He was too filled with rage, too hungry for vengeance; all that negative emotion made others uncomfortable. So how had he suddenly found himself in this predicament? He opened his eyes to stare down at the hand still gripping his arm so beseechingly—and saw a nasty-looking sore. It was only the size of a nickel, but he was willing to bet it hurt like hell, and it didn’t seem to be healing. Taking hold of her wrist so she couldn’t immediately recoil, he said, “Where’d you get this?” Her eyes slid to the injury. “It was an accident.” He made no effort to pretend he believed her. “An accident?” “I bumped into my boyfriend when he was smoking a cigarette and burned myself.” “This isn’t the type of burn you get by accident. It’s too deep.” When she didn’t answer, he dropped her hand. “Are you going to tell me the truth? Or do we say goodbye right now?” “Okay.” She seemed to deflate a little more. “He’s got an anger problem.” “Your boyfriend?” “Yeah.” “He did it on purpose?” “You already know that.” “Sounds like quite a guy.” She said nothing. “You two split up?” he asked. “Yes.” “Where is he now?” “Not here, which is all that matters. And I can pay for gas. Surely that’s an incentive to let me ride with you for a few hours. You look like you could use the money.” “I look like a lot of things,” he said. “A lot of things I’m not.” Remembering the sleeping boy she’d held in her arms last night, the same boy who’d just dashed off to get a soda, he let his breath out in a long sigh. “If it was only you, it’d be different, but you have a kid and—” “You’re worried about Max?” It’d been two years, but the sight of a young boy still made Preston feel as though someone had driven a stake through his heart. “Kids don’t do well on long drives. They get bored, they whine, they beg, they have to go to the bathroom every five minutes—” “Not my kid,” she interrupted quickly. “Every kid.” “Max is a good boy. He…he’s very low maintenance. You won’t even know he’s in the car, I promise.” As if on cue, her son came running back, carrying a diet cola, which he’d already opened. “She had one, Mom,” he said. “She gave it to me. She wouldn’t even take the quarters.” Preston kept his eyes averted from the boy’s young face. The voice affected him badly enough. “How nice of her,” Emma said. “I hope you remembered to thank her.” “I did. She gave me a cookie, too. Can I eat it?” A frown creased the woman’s forehead as she regarded her son. “You already had a sucker.” “But we walked a long way.” She glanced fleetingly at Preston. “Not now. We’ll talk about it later.” “Pul-leeze, Mom?” The conversation sounded all too familiar. “See?” Preston said. “It won’t work.” “He’s only asking me for a cookie!” she said. “You’d better find someone else to give you a ride.” He backed up and started to shut the door, but she put a hand on the panel before he could. “Wait! You can’t turn me away. I…I need your help.” Preston still wanted to refuse. He would have—if not for that damn burn and the desperation in her eyes. “Please!” she said again and, suddenly, he let go of the door. The opposing pressure sent it crashing into the wall. She flinched; he didn’t. “Fine,” he snapped, “but you’d better keep that boy quiet.” The woman grabbed her son’s arm and pulled him slightly behind her. “He won’t make a peep, right, Max?” Max looked confused, which made Preston feel even worse. He knew he was being harsh and unreasonable. But he couldn’t help it. “If either of you gives me any trouble, I won’t feel the least bit guilty kicking you out at the first town,” he said. She stiffened but nodded obediently. “I understand.” CHAPTER FOUR EMMA KNEW SHE SHOULD test Max’s blood. Soon. Because she was trying so hard to keep him quiet, she’d been giving in too easily whenever he asked for something to eat. With no exercise to compensate, he had to need extra insulin. But after claiming that her son was “low maintenance,” she didn’t dare whip out his testing kit and reveal what a monstrous exaggeration that had been. Preston Holman, who’d introduced himself once they hit the road, seemed to have no tolerance for children. She feared he’d use Max’s special needs as a reason to dump them long before they reached Utah. If Max could hold out until they had to stop, she could walk him into the ladies’ room and take care of him without a lot of fuss. Only they were in the middle of nowhere, and Preston didn’t seem inclined to pull over just for the fun of it. Neither did he talk much. They’d been driving for nearly three hours, and he’d scarcely said a word. She got the impression that he saw her and Max’s company as an endurance test, that he was busy counting the minutes until he’d be rid of them. The slightest irritation could make that happen sooner than she wanted. “Mommy, I’m hungry,” Max complained. Emma knew he couldn’t be hungry. He’d been snacking like crazy, which was what had her so worried. “You’re fine.” “I want a cookie.” She glanced quickly at Preston, whose eyes seemed fastened on the road ahead of them. He hadn’t looked at her, or her son, more than a couple of times since they’d left. She hoped he was in his own little world, deep in thought, and wasn’t paying attention. But the way he gripped the steering wheel with both hands when Max added a whiny “pul-leeze” indicated otherwise. “You’ve had enough sweets,” she said softly, praying Max would accept her response and go back to playing with the magnetized checkers she’d bought him at Wal-Mart. But he’d grown bored with that game, along with his action figures and his coloring books. “When will we be there?” he asked. “Not until dark.” “Will it be bedtime?” “Yes.” “What’s taking so long? I want to eat.” A muscle flexed in Preston’s cheek. Loosening her seat belt, Emma turned to face her son and lowered her voice. “I gave you lunch already, honey, you know that.” “Can I have my afternoon snack?” Emma bit back an irritated exclamation. No matter how tense she was, she had to remain calm. “You’ve already eaten plenty of sweets.” “But I’m hungry!” “Then you can have some—” She was about to say protein, but she knew that would sound like an odd response to Preston. Parents of normal children didn’t typically talk to them in terms of carbohydrates and proteins. “Some string cheese or lunch meat.” “I don’t want any cheese or lunch meat!” Max was tired of the foods she typically used as substitutions. Just as he was tired of riding in the car. “If you’ll take a nap, it’ll make the time go faster, honey. Then, when we stop, I’ll let you choose something you’d like to eat, okay?” “I want to go home,” he replied, and started crying. Torn between his distress and her fear that Preston would drop them off at the first opportunity if she couldn’t get her son to quiet down, Emma gritted her teeth. “Max, please stop—” Suddenly Preston reached down and tossed a whole box of cookies into the back seat. “Let him eat,” he growled. With a final sniff, Max stopped crying and recovered the cookies. But Emma couldn’t let her son continue to binge. Without enough insulin, his body would be forced to use fat for energy, which would create ketones. Ketones could kill body cells. If they built up, they could lead to coma. “I have to use the restroom,” she announced crisply. Preston’s scowl darkened. “Now?” “Now.” He waved at the flat desert surrounding them. “There isn’t anywhere to stop.” “When will we reach the next town?” “Not for a couple hours.” There wasn’t even a tree for cover. Just sagebrush. But Emma could hear the rattle of the inner bag as Max reached into the box for one cookie after another. “I’ll make do,” she said. “Please stop.” PRESTON CHECKED under the hood, where he’d stashed his gun. Fortunately, the bungee cord he’d borrowed from Maude had done the trick. The weapon hadn’t moved. Relieved, he leaned against the front bumper and lit a cigarette while waiting for Emma and her boy to take care of business on the opposite side. Barely two years ago, when he’d still been a husband and father and a successful stockbroker in San Francisco, he’d also been a triathlete. He’d conscientiously avoided anything that might impair his physical performance. He’d eaten healthy foods, lifted weights, cross-trained. He’d certainly never dreamed he’d ever find himself standing at the side of a desolate highway in Nevada, leaning against a rattletrap van—the only vehicle he owned—hiding a gun and sucking on a cancer stick. Life was full of surprises. With a careless shrug, he embraced the nicotine, halfway hoping it would kill him, then let the smoke escape through his lips in a long exhalation. “You done?” he called. Gordon’s lead on Vince Wendell’s whereabouts was the best one they’d found since the doctor had left Nevada. Preston was anxious to get back on the road. He shouldn’t have picked up any passengers, particularly a mother and child. But that burn on Emma’s hand still bothered him—what kind of cruel bastard purposely burned a woman? And he had to admit that giving them a lift wasn’t that big a deal. They’d reach Salt Lake in one day. He could handle one day. “Um…not yet,” Emma answered. Preston could hear Max talking about a rock he’d found. Emma tried to convince him to leave it behind. When Max refused, she told him to put it in his pocket. A few seconds later, she scolded him for getting into the dirt. Preston hated to see her mollycoddle the boy. He wanted to tell her that a little dirt never hurt anyone. He would’ve told her that if Max was his son. But his son was dead. And Preston refused to get involved in Emma and Max’s lives. He was just biding his time until they reached Salt Lake. “Domin—Max, cooperate,” he heard her say. “You almost forgot,” he laughed. “Calm down. You know we have to do this.” Her voice dropped to a whisper after that. Preston couldn’t decipher what she was saying until she finally called out that they were finished. “Did you have Max go, too?” he asked. The last thing he wanted was to have to stop again. “Yes.” “Good. Hop in.” He put his cigarette out in the dirt and turned—then froze when he found Max standing at the back bumper, watching him. “You smoke?” the boy said. Where was Emma? She was supposed to be watching this kid, keeping Max as far away from him as possible. His heart started to pound at the frank curiosity in the boy’s eyes. Glancing through the windows, Preston saw Emma cleaning her hands with something on the other side of the van. “My mom hates it when people smoke,” Max volunteered. “She says it’s stinky. And sometimes it eats a hole in your throat.” “She’s right.” Preston pulled open the driver’s-side door, then hesitated. The highway wasn’t busy, but he couldn’t get in and slam the door as he longed to, in case Max happened to step into the road while no one was watching. “My dad smokes, too,” Max said. Although he didn’t really want to talk to Max, this piqued Preston’s curiosity. Was Max’s father the same man who’d burned Emma? “Where is your dad?” “Mexico.” “How long has he been there?” Max shrugged. “I don’t know.” “Max?” Emma called. The boy darted back around the van. “What?” “I told you to stay right here.” “He smokes,” Max said loudly. Emma lowered her voice. “That’s none of our business.” “I told him you hate it.” “Thanks a lot.” Preston couldn’t prevent the rueful smile that curved his lips at the sarcasm in her voice. Children didn’t understand polite subtleties. They were honest, fresh, innocent…. Dallas had been the same way. Memories of his son invited the pain he’d been working so hard to suppress. Preston had let him down. Terribly. He’d let Christy down, too. But especially Dallas. Emma came around the van, holding Max’s hand. “Would you like me to drive for a while? Maybe you could nap.” Reluctantly, Preston raised his head. She looked fragile and worried, like Christy had two years ago. He wondered what other horrors, besides the burn, had created the haunted expression in her eyes. At the same time, he didn’t want to know. He couldn’t get involved, couldn’t care. There wasn’t anything left inside him except a ravaging desire to hold his son again, which would never happen, and the determination to punish the man responsible. “Just get in the van,” he said, and hoped she would simply do as she was told. She didn’t. “Are you okay?” He’d broken into a cold sweat when the emotions had overwhelmed him. He struggled to pull himself together, but he couldn’t erase the images emblazoned on his mind: Dallas soaking the sheets with a raging fever. Christy’s whispered prayers and constant pleading. Vince’s odd behavior. And, at the end, six-year-old Dallas lying innocently in his coffin, stiff and cold and gone forever. Emma and Max made his loss jagged, new. Every emotional wound he had that was connected to the past two years felt like it had just burst open. He reached for the side of the van to steady himself. “Is it the cigarettes?” he heard Max whisper to Emma. “Why don’t you find another rock, okay, buddy?” she said. “But search on the other side of the van, away from the road.” Now that Max had permission to dig in the dirt, he seemed unwilling to leave. “What’s wrong with him?” “He’ll be all right. Go ahead.” Max finally did as he was told. Except for the occasional car shooting past them on the highway, the silent stillness of the desert settled around them, almost as stifling as the heat. “Are you ill?” Emma asked. Preston breathed deeply, summoning the strength and willpower to avoid the jaws of the dark depression that sometimes gaped after him. He knew it came from the betrayal and the rage and the guilt. In a sense, he’d been as much of a victim as Dallas. But he wouldn’t remain a victim. “No.” “Then what’s wrong?” “Nothing.” He thought of the gun, and the promise that sustained him. It’d all be over soon…. “Give me the keys,” she said. “I’ll drive for a few hours.” He looked up to find that she was still staring at him. “No.” He was feeling better, back in control. “Why not take a break while I’m here to help?” A semi honked as it passed, and the subsequent blast of hot wind blew her long, silky hair across her face. “Because I don’t need a break. I’m fine.” He’d used his gruffest voice, but she didn’t seem to notice. She brushed her hair out of her eyes and tucked it behind her ears. “Come on, you can worry about being a tough guy tomorrow. You’ll have two more days of driving to manage on your own.” A tough guy? He wished he was tough. He wished he were as tough as Christy and could have resumed his life the way she had. All through Dallas’s ordeal, Preston hadn’t been able to shed one tear. He still hadn’t released the pain buried inside him. Christy, on the other hand, had sobbed from the beginning. And now she was remarried. The invitation to her wedding had included a picture of her smiling brightly at the side of a man who used to be their neighbor. You have to forget and move on, she’d told him only months after Dallas’s death. For our sake. For the sake of our future. Let Dallas go, Preston. Please. Let him go so I can, too…. But Preston couldn’t let go. Not then; not now. So Christy had moved on without him. He had to admire her survival skills. She certainly wasn’t as fragile as he’d once thought. “Hello?” Emma prompted when he didn’t answer right away. “I can drive.” It wasn’t easy to accept kindness from someone he was so reluctant to help. Her eyes appraised him coolly, almost mutinously. “You need a break.” Preston almost got in. But…if she was going to be so stubborn about it, he didn’t see how it could hurt to let her drive. Without another word, he tossed her the keys and stalked around to the other side. Since his divorce, he’d never been a passenger in his own vehicle. He doubted he’d managed to sleep, even if he wasn’t driving. Since Dallas’s death, it seemed he could never shut down completely. He feared too many things—that Vince would slip through his fingers. That he’d crumble and never be able to put the pieces together again. But twenty miles down the road, Max nodded off. And the thrumming of the tires, combined with the movement of the car, slowly eased the tension knotting Preston’s muscles. Soon, his eyelids felt so heavy he could scarcely lift them. “Quit fighting it,” Emma said softly. “Nothing bad will happen if you close your eyes for a few minutes.” That’s what she thinks, he told himself. She didn’t know any better. He tried to shake off the sleepiness so he could take over at the wheel. But a merciful darkness drew near, buffeting him like a gentle current. And then, finally, there was nothing. MAX AND PRESTON SLEPT through the next hour. With a blues CD playing in the background—something Emma was surprised to find in Preston’s odd assortment of music—she relaxed for the first time since leaving San Diego. Manuel would never expect her to be traveling in a brown minivan with a man. It didn’t hurt that the color of Max’s hair and eyes was so similar to Preston’s. The three of them weren’t likely to raise any eyebrows—they looked like a little family. How her son could resemble a stranger more than his own father, Emma didn’t understand. Because of Max’s unusual coloring, Manuel’s mother had often intimated that he couldn’t possibly belong to Manuel. But Emma knew she could prove it with a paternity test if she wanted to. She’d never slept with anyone else. “What are you thinking about?” Emma blinked and glanced over to find Preston studying her from beneath his thick, gold-tipped eyelashes. “Nothing, why?” “You were frowning.” Manuel’s family had a tendency to bring out the worst in her. But there was no reason to go into all of that. She and Preston were sharing a ride, nothing more. He’d drop her off in Salt Lake City late this evening, and she’d never see him again. Then she’d have to plot her next move—with no luggage, no car and little money—from the valley at the base of the Wasatch Mountains where she and Manuel had once attended the Winter Olympics. “We’re only forty minutes or so outside Eureka,” she said, instead of responding to his comment about her expression. “Have you ever been to Eureka?” he asked. “I’ve been to Eureka, California, but not Eureka, Nevada. I’ve never traveled this road before.” He gazed out at the scenery. “They call this the Loneliest Road in America.” “Really?” “Interstate 80 has more traffic.” “So why’d you choose Highway 50?” “I don’t like crowds.” “I’ve noticed.” She purposely spoke in a biting tone. “I’ve never met anyone who hates children as much as you do. You remind me of Ebenezer Scrooge.” She thought she saw him wince, but she could feel little real sympathy for someone who didn’t like Max. “You’re getting your stories screwed up,” he said. “Scrooge hated Christmas.” “I don’t have anything screwed up. He was a miserly old man who hated everyone, especially children.” “I could’ve left you in Fallon,” he pointed out. Emma had to concede that was true. Maybe he was helping them grudgingly, but at least he was helping them. “You’re right,” she said. “I’m sorry.” He didn’t say anything. He kept his face averted but she could see his reflection in the glass: the marked angle of his cheekbone, the squareness of his stubbly jaw, the slight cleft in his chin. “Have you been on this road a lot?” she asked. His focus didn’t change from the desert surrounding them. “I’ve been all over Nevada in the past seven months, although I’ve mostly stayed in Fallon.” “But you didn’t get a job or buy a house there?” Finally he looked over at her. “No, I usually stayed at Maude’s.” From the appearance of his van, he’d been living in motels for quite some time. She wanted to ask what had happened to him, why he didn’t seem to have any roots. But she knew he wouldn’t take kindly to the question, so she resorted to something less personal. “The towns along this road look sad to me, like they’re dying.” “The mines have closed down, but the people out here are tough,” he said. “They’ll make it.” She considered him against the backdrop of the monotonous landscape. “I didn’t think so when I first saw you, but…you seem to fit in here.” “I look like the miner type to you?” “Not at all.” “So what’s the connection?” When she didn’t answer right away, he grimaced. “Never mind.” “What?” “I’m Scrooge, remember? You think my soul’s as barren as the land around us—or something equally flattering.” “No. Actually, I think you and the desert possess a sort of…stark beauty,” she said. His eyebrows lifted. “Beauty?” She chuckled. “Does that offend your masculinity?” “It surprises me.” “Why?” “You have to ask? I haven’t shaved for a couple days. I can’t even remember the last time I had a haircut.” “I’m not talking about your hair.” She made a point of eyeing his T-shirt and holey jeans. “Or your fashion sense.” “Then what are you talking about?” “Your face. Your body.” Even Emma heard the frank admiration in her voice. Their eyes met, and she wished she’d been a little less honest. A few seconds earlier she’d somehow hurt him, and had overcorrected. That was all. But the intensity of his gaze reminded her that she didn’t know him very well and, except for her sleeping son, they were alone in the middle of nowhere. “I didn’t mean that the way it came out,” she said, making a point of counting the yellow dash marks flying toward them. “I—I wasn’t coming on to you or anything.” He didn’t speak for several minutes. When he looked at her again, the flicker of interest in his eyes was gone. “Is the man who left that burn on your hand Max’s father?” he asked. “Yes.” “You called him your boyfriend.” “We were never married.” “Why not?” “His family objected.” “And he gave in? In this day and age?” “He has a close-knit family.” “I still find that hard to believe. How long were you with him?” “We were together for six years. We lived in the same house for five.” “You moved in together after Max was born?” “Yes.” “And when did you leave him?” Emma couldn’t believe she was divulging so much. But talking seemed the quickest way to ease the sudden tension that had sprung up between them. “Two days ago.” There was another pause. Thinking the conversation had come to an end, she reached over to turn up the music. But Preston caught her hand. “Are you on the run, Emma?” It was the first time he’d used her new name. Called her by any name…. Conscious of the smooth baritone of his voice and his strong, warm fingers clasping her wrist, Emma drew a deep breath. “What do you think?” “I think a woman doesn’t plead with a complete stranger to take her and her son across the country unless she has no other choice.” Emma didn’t respond. What could she say? He was right. “Do you suppose he’s following you?” he asked. She knew Manuel would try. But she didn’t want to spook Preston any more than she already had. “I hope not.” He turned her arm over and ran his thumb very lightly across the raw, red burn. “A man doesn’t give up a woman like you, or a son like Max, unless he has to.” Emma wasn’t sure if he was talking to her or to himself, but for her own peace of mind, she wanted to answer. “He has to,” she said simply. “I’ll do absolutely anything to make sure we never go back.” CHAPTER FIVE MANUEL STOOD at the window of his Sacramento hotel, gazing down at the busy street below. Where was she? If he didn’t catch Vanessa soon, he might never find her. Contemplating life without her made it difficult to breathe. He couldn’t believe she’d gotten away from him; he still hadn’t completely dealt with the shock of it. But he told himself he wouldn’t have to. He’d eventually figure out what she had planned, where she was going. He wouldn’t allow her to humiliate him in front of his whole family. I told you she couldn’t be trusted. I told you to quit thinking with your dick, his mother had said. You should’ve taken Dominick and moved on years ago. His brothers had clucked their tongues and acted smug, knowing full well that their own wives would never have the courage to defy them. She doesn’t know her place, José had said, the comment an obvious suggestion that Manuel should teach her. It was high time he did, Manuel thought. Once he found Vanessa, he’d give her a lesson she’d never forget. She wouldn’t even be able to brush her teeth without permission. He’d prove to his family that he could handle her, that he could handle any woman. But first he had to find her, and reporting the car stolen had netted him only one lead. He knew Vanessa had been pulled over while traveling north on Highway 5. That piece of information had led him to Sacramento, but he didn’t know where to go from here. Pinching his neck, he turned to the phone. He’d already contacted Vanessa’s family and all her old friends. They claimed not to have heard from her and sounded so genuinely surprised by his call that he believed them. He probably shouldn’t have wasted the time. After what had happened before, the odds weren’t good she’d go back to them again. Should he call the police and report that Vanessa had kidnapped their son? That she’d been kidnapped herself? He wanted to—but he couldn’t. There was always the chance that Vanessa had learned more about his business than he realized. If she aroused suspicion and the police launched an investigation, it would put his whole family in jeopardy. His mother said there was no need to invite trouble, to forget about Vanessa. But that was easy for his mother to say. She’d never liked Vanessa, wanted to be rid of her. She didn’t understand that he’d never met anyone who could arouse him the way Vanessa could. Maybe he should fly to Arizona, just in case she decided to break her silence long enough to— The telephone rang. Crossing the floor in four strides, he snatched up the receiver. “Hello?” “It’s Richard. I’ve got news.” Manuel’s heart began to pound. “You’ve found her?” “No. But the police called. They’ve located the car.” “Where?” “Fallon, Nevada.” “When?” “This morning.” “Was it abandoned or something?” “They found it in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart. They waited for the driver to come out, but no one ever showed.” “Damn it!” he said, and kicked the desk chair across the room. Richard remained silent. Manuel rubbed his face, grappling for control. Don’t let the panic win. Calm down. Think. Nevada… Quickly, he spread out the map he’d purchased and searched the state to the east of California. Fallon…Fallon… Finally he pinpointed the town. It was on Highway 50, not far from the California-Nevada border. If Vanessa didn’t have a car anymore, she was probably still there. Or somewhere close. He felt a powerful surge of hope. Now the search was narrowing. “Manuel, are you there?” Richard asked. “Call Hector and everyone else. Tell them to get their asses to Fallon.” “Don’t you want to go there yourself?” “I’m on my way. But Fallon’s not very big. If she’s there, it shouldn’t be hard to find her. What we have to do is set up an outside perimeter. How far could she have traveled from Fallon if she left around the time the cops found her car? We’ll mark that on a map. Then some of us will stay in Fallon and the rest will fly to the outer line of that perimeter and slowly move in toward the center.” “Sounds smart,” Richard said. It was smart. Finding that car was the lucky break he’d been waiting for. AT EUREKA, Preston took over the driving. The change woke Max, who wasn’t too happy about having to get back in the van after their brief stop. But Preston was glad to trade seats with Emma. The nap had revived him, and he felt more comfortable behind the wheel. Soon they’d reach Ely, then Wendover. Beyond Wendover, they’d have a final two-hour stretch across the salt flats, then they’d arrive in Salt Lake City. “When can we eat?” Max asked. Preston could see Emma fighting sleep. At the sound of her son’s voice, she jerked her drooping eyelids open and looked at Preston. “Do you think we could get some dinner in Ely?” He nodded, wanting to tell her she could go ahead and relax. A normal person, a person with any compassion, would do that. But Max was wide-awake and talkative, and Preston didn’t want to be left alone with him. The memories crowded too close. “We’ll stop soon,” she told her son. “When?” Max asked. “In about an hour.” “An hour! That’s too long.” Preston felt the same way. Glaring down at the odometer, he willed the miles to pass more quickly. “Hey, Mom. There’s a rabbit!” Max’s squeal of excitement startled Emma, who’d been about to nod off again. “What, honey? What did you say?” “Did you see it? Huh, Mom? Did you see it?” She covered a yawn. “See what?” “The rabbit,” Preston muttered. The exasperation in his voice acted like a jolt of caffeine. It also resurrected the tense expression she’d worn earlier. “Sorry,” she said, but he didn’t know if she was talking to him or to Max. “You’re not looking,” Max complained. “I am now,” she said. Preston watched Emma gather whatever reserves of strength and patience she had left and turn toward the window, presumably in search of wildlife. But he couldn’t expect her to continue acting as a buffer between him and her son. He couldn’t be that much of a jerk. He didn’t know her whole history, but he was beginning to understand that her life hadn’t gone much better than his. If he was going to drop her off in Salt Lake, the least he could do was let her get some sleep along the way. Still, he cringed at the thought of dealing directly with Max. He put off what his conscience dictated, hoping the guilt would recede. But it didn’t, so he finally reached out and squeezed her shoulder. When he touched her, she gaped at him in astonishment. “Go to sleep,” he said briskly. She shook her head. “I’m getting my second wind.” “Bullshit. You’re exhausted.” “Did you say the ‘s’ word?” Max asked. “Max, it’s none of your business,” Emma warned. “He said the ‘s’ word, Mom. I heard him.” “That’s okay,” she replied. “It’s not up to us to tell Mr. Holman how to speak, especially in his own car.” “Can I say the ‘s’ word?” “Absolutely not.” “He did.” “I’m bigger than you,” Preston chimed in. “When you’re my age, you can decide what words to use.” Max seemed satisfied with this answer, but not thirty seconds later Preston heard him murmuring, “Shit…shit, shit, shit.” Evidently, Emma heard him, too, because she twisted in her seat. “Max! What do you think you’re doing?” Preston adjusted the rearview mirror to see Max’s eyes widen. “Practicing,” he said innocently. Emma shook her head, and Preston couldn’t help laughing. “Rest,” he told her. “You can worry about cleaning up his language later.” “You’re smiling,” she said as though she was amazed that he could. Preston instantly sobered. “Just get some sleep.” “If my son says shit one more time, you’re going to have to take us all the way to Iowa.” “Do you really have family there?” With a yawn, she laid her head back. “No.” EMMA CLOSED HER EYES but refused to relax completely. She had to remain cognizant of what went on in the car. Although she was beginning to doubt that Preston was really as unfeeling as he wanted her to believe, he made no secret about his dislike of children. She’d seen the way he looked at her son, as if he couldn’t bear the sight of him, and had no intention of letting Preston say or do anything unkind to Max while she slept. “Are we almost there?” Max asked. Knowing this question would probably annoy Preston more than any other, because Max asked it so often, Emma tried to summon the energy to answer. But Preston responded before she could, and with far more patience than she’d expected. “We’ve got another thirty minutes or so.” “Thirty minutes? Is that long?” “It’s half an hour.” “Is half an hour long?” Preston chuckled. “Not really.” “Can I have some ice cream when we get there?” Emma made an effort to bring words to her lips. She’d given Max an insulin injection when they’d stopped, but his glucose level had reached 450 mg/dL, which was very high. She didn’t want him to have any more treats until she could get his blood sugar under control. “Don’t let him have another cookie, okay?” she mumbled. Unless she was mistaken, Preston’s voice sounded almost gentle. “You’re supposed to be sleeping, remember?” “He’s had enough sweets.” “I won’t give him anything. We’re about to have dinner.” She thought she said okay, but wasn’t sure. Exhaustion made her limbs heavy, her tongue unwieldy. “My dad’s gonna be mad if we don’t go home soon,” Max announced. The hot sun, glaring through her window, made Emma feel warm and lazy—as though she were lying at the side of their pool. Despite that, she realized her son was attempting to enforce his will by appealing to the power his father had always held in his life, and felt guilty for dragging him so far from home. They’d had to leave Max’s aquarium behind, his comfortable bedroom, his toys. Now they were struggling to deal with his health issues on the road. And they had almost nothing. Except the chance at a new life, she reminded herself. She conjured up the little yellow house she’d imagined so often, and smiled inside. Soon they’d be safe and free. “Does your dad ever play ball with you?” Preston asked conversationally. “No.” Emma let herself relax a little more. Maybe Preston wasn’t so bad. He was even trying to entertain her son. But his question almost made Emma laugh. Manuel wanted Max to excel at baseball, yet he couldn’t be bothered to stand out in the yard and play catch. He hired a private coach to work with him twice a week. Emma threw to him every other day. “What’s your father like?” The answers streamed through Emma’s mind like ticker tape: Controlling, obsessive, fanatical… “He’s tall,” Max said. “Did you live with him?” Unfortunately… “I still do.” Not anymore, Max. Never again…. “So does he know you’re gone?” “Um…” Max seemed a little puzzled. “He’s at work right now,” he answered at last. “What does he do when he’s at work?” Wouldn’t we all like to know…. “He wears a suit.” “A suit, huh? Do you see him very often?” “When he comes home.” “Do you like it when he’s home?” “Yeah. Sometimes he brings me a fish for my big tank.” The fish Manuel brought home for Max’s aquarium seemed to swim through Emma’s thoughts. Shimmering. Colorful. Resplendent. And occasionally ferocious enough to eat the other fish in the tank…. “Then he takes my mom into the bedroom,” Max added out of nowhere. Emma imagined Preston’s surprise that this comment would come from a five-year-old. She didn’t like her son volunteering such intimate information any more than she liked the way Max must feel about those occurrences; they’d obviously made an impact. But she felt strangely disconnected from the conversation. She was drifting in and out, baking in the hot sun. Sometimes she was beside the pool. Sometimes she was cooking in the house. Sometimes she was riding in the Hummer with Manuel at the wheel…. “What do you do while they’re in the bedroom?” Preston asked. “I watch my new fish,” Max said. Emma’s sluggish mind slowly presented a picture of her son standing in front of his aquarium while his father dragged her into the bedroom and locked the door. It never concerned Manuel, even when he hadn’t seen Max for a couple of weeks, and the boy was starved for his attention. Nor did Manuel care about the fact that Emma felt awkward and self-conscious with their child only a few feet from the door when he insisted on having sex with her. More often than not, Manuel went so far as to fasten her hands to the headboard. He liked bondage, but he rarely tied her feet. He wanted her to struggle. He relished having the power to subdue her while she tried to resist. Of course, if Max was awake in the other room, she had to do it silently, which Manuel enjoyed even more. The heat became overwhelming. Too hot. Miserable. She wanted to find some relief. But there was no escape. Just as she feared there was no escape from the man she’d already lived with for five years. He’d never give up. He’d find her— A hand touched her shoulder. She instantly recoiled. “Emma?” It was Preston. Breathing hard, she stared at him until the fact that he wasn’t Manuel could sink in. “You seemed…agitated,” he said. “The sun, it’s…hot on this side.” He opened her air vent, which had apparently been closed, all the while watching her. “Are you sure you’re okay?” Letting her eyes drift shut again, she nodded while waiting for her galloping pulse to slow. She still longed to slip into a peaceful sleep. But she knew she’d never relax now. Her dreams had made Manuel feel too close. She imagined him speeding down the highway, quickly closing the distance between them. When Preston spoke a few minutes later, he lowered his voice as though he thought she was asleep, but Emma heard every word. “Is that where the accidents happen, Max?” he asked. “In the bedroom?” “What accidents?” “Were you there when your mother burned her hand?” “She burned her hand?” Emma hadn’t mentioned the injury to Max. There seemed little point in making up a story to cover something he hadn’t noticed. “You didn’t know?” Preston said. “Maybe I was at the library with Juanita.” Not the library. The park. Emma remembered well, because she’d been so grateful that her son was gone during her last big argument with Manuel. “Who’s Juanita?” Preston asked. “My nanny.” “You have a nanny?” “Yeah. She’s from Mexico,” he said proudly. “Does she speak English?” “No. She speaks Spanish like me and my dad.” Max had used the same kind of superior tone Manuel often adopted when speaking of his heritage, but if Preston was aware of the change, he didn’t react to it. “I see. What about your mommy? Does she know Spanish, too?” Max hesitated. Until the morning they’d left San Diego, and Juanita had shown up late, Emma had been careful around him. She wasn’t sure her son knew the extent to which she could both speak and understand Manuel’s native tongue, but finally Max said, “Sometimes.” When I need to, Emma thought smugly. Manuel had tried to alienate her from his people, but it was his people who had made her escape possible. His people and the enigmatic man beside her, whose rare but gorgeous smile she already knew she’d never forget. “WE HAVE A PROBLEM,” Preston said. Emma’s nerves grew taut as she searched his face. They were only fifteen minutes from Ely and dinner. So close. But her escape had been ill-fated from the start. First Manuel hadn’t flown to Mexico as planned. Then she was pulled over by the CHP. Then she found that cop circling her car this morning and had to beg a ride from a complete stranger. Instinctively, she craned her neck to look through the back window, expecting to see Manuel bearing down on them. He’d told her she couldn’t escape him. He’d promised that if she ever tried, he’d come after her, no matter how far he had to go, no matter how long it took. And she believed him. But except for the slower-moving RV Preston had passed only a few moments earlier, they were alone on the road. “What kind of problem?” she asked, trying to stem her sudden deluge of fear. “The engine’s overheating.” The engine had been running a little hot while she was driving, too, but she’d thought that was more or less normal. They were traveling through the desert, after all, relying heavily on air-conditioning, which tended to tax the system. She’d assumed the van would be okay, especially since Preston hadn’t seemed concerned when she’d mentioned it earlier. Evidently, that had changed. “How bad is it?” she asked. He frowned as he applied the brake. “The gauge is showing red. We have to pull over.” The tires crunched as they parked on the gravel shoulder. “We’re getting out?” Max said eagerly. “For a few minutes,” Emma told him, and glanced at her watch. It was after six. Considering the amount of insulin she’d given him at their last stop, he’d be going low if she didn’t feed him soon. And they’d already eaten most of their snacks. “You don’t happen to be a mechanic, do you?” “I know stocks and bonds,” Preston said. “Not cars.” Stocks and bonds. Somehow that seemed too yuppyish for Preston Holman, but Emma’s worry about their situation curtailed her surprise. “What do you think could be causing the problem?” He bent over to pull the lever that would release the hood. “I’m guessing it’s the water pump.” “That’s not good. If it’s the water pump, the van will only overheat again once we get back on the road.” “Exactly.” He looked behind his seat and located a gallon of water. “At this point, I’m just hoping we can make it to Ely.” “Then what?” He brought the water into the front and opened his door. “I’ll have to get it fixed.” Emma frowned. “But if Ely’s anything like the towns we’ve passed, they might not have a garage.” “Ely’s got nearly five thousand people. There’ll be a garage.” He sounded tense, impatient. “It’s after six o’clock,” she said. “The repair place, if there is one, will probably be closed.” “Then we’ll have to get a motel.” Damn. A motel meant they wouldn’t be continuing on tonight, and she didn’t feel she’d gone nearly far enough from where she’d almost been picked up for grand larceny. Not to mention California and Manuel…. “You’ll take us with you when you go on, won’t you?” Emma hated to press her luck. She knew Preston wasn’t any happier about the delay than she was. For whatever reason, he was in a big hurry to reach Iowa. But she had to ask. He stepped out, not answering. “Preston?” It was the first time she’d used his given name, and she knew he’d noticed when he replied, “What was that, Emma?” “You heard me,” she said, refusing to pander to his dark mood. His eyebrows gathered as he glanced at Max, who was already clambering out the other side. “I don’t know. Maybe I’ll take you as far as Wendover and put you on a bus.” Sighing, Emma watched him go around front and open the hood. When he bothered to be nice, it was almost impossible not to like him. But Preston wasn’t nice very often. He’s really been through the wringer…. Whatever happened to Preston Holman had definitely left a mark. WHEN THEY LIMPED into Ely more than an hour later, Preston’s nerves were shot. They’d had to stop every few minutes to let the engine cool, which turned what should’ve been a short drive into something interminable. They were hot, irritable and hungry. Because he’d had to get under the hood so many times and didn’t want Emma or Max to see the gun he’d hidden there, he’d tucked it into the waistband of his jeans, where it was digging into him. And Max’s pleading to stop, to eat, to unfasten his seat belt or go home had become a litany. Preston couldn’t wait to be rid of his passengers. Fair or not—maybe because they were to blame for the other unsettling emotions he’d experienced today—he held them responsible for this recent trouble. He shouldn’t have let Emma and Max ride with him. He’d known they’d be a problem. “There’s a garage,” Emma said, pointing helpfully as he stopped at one of the few traffic signals in town. A blue corrugated metal building on the left boasted a red-lettered sign that read Mel’s Auto Repair. But the garage doors were down and the office looked empty. “They’re closed.” Which wasn’t any wonder at nearly seven-thirty at night. “Looks like it,” she said. Swallowing a sigh, Preston headed back to the motel they’d just passed. He’d get a room, some dinner and some sleep, in that order. Then he’d deliver the van to the shop early in the morning and see about getting the hell out of this place. And Emma and Max… He didn’t know what they’d do. If they were still around when the van was ready, he supposed he’d take them to Wendover as promised or maybe even Salt Lake. But he certainly wouldn’t be upset if they decided to find another ride in the meantime. “I’m staying here,” he said as he gestured at the Starlight Motel and mini-casino. “Where do you want me to drop you and Max?” Catching his not-so-subtle hint that they go elsewhere, she blinked at him as though momentarily lost, then lifted her chin. “Um…there was a smaller motel down the street. Maybe that’ll work.” “That’s a dive,” he said. “Why not let me take you to the Hotel Nevada?” She bit her bottom lip. “No, I think the other place will be less expensive.” “It’ll probably be a difference of, what? Ten bucks?” “The smaller motel will be fine.” Preston bit back a curse. Was she that worried about ten bucks? He thought of the burn on her hand, and her words, I’ll do absolutely anything to make sure we never go back, and hated himself for dumping them. She was on the run with a kid and no car; she was desperate. But he wasn’t the man to help her. He had only one purpose left in life, to seek and destroy, not play the part of the Good Samaritan. Besides, Emma didn’t need him, not really. A woman who looked as fine as she did could probably take her pick of Good Samaritans—good male Samaritans, anyway. Fleetingly, he realized she could hook up with someone more dangerous than the man she was running from, but he refused to acknowledge it. “Whatever you say.” He wheeled the van around, but when they reached the small, dingy front office of the Feel Good Motel, Preston couldn’t bear to let Emma get out without giving her some money. At least she and Max would get a good dinner tonight. That was something, wasn’t it? The fifty landed in her lap before she could climb out. She stared down at it, then closed her eyes and shook her head in obvious disgust. “I don’t want your money,” she said, throwing it back at him. “I was asking for a ride to somewhere you’re going anyway. But I can see now that we’re too much of an inconvenience. You can’t be bothered with a woman. Especially a woman who has a child, God forbid.” Preston clenched his jaw as her words hit him where he was most vulnerable. “I didn’t say I wouldn’t take you to Salt Lake. I just thought—” “I know what you thought. You’ve made it crystal clear that you don’t want us around,” she said, and got out. “Come on, Max. We’re done riding in this car.” “Take the damn money and at least get a decent room,” Preston said. “Damn,” Max repeated. “Can I say shit and damn when I get big?” “No,” she snapped. “And you can’t do anything else like Mr. Holman, either. If I have my way, your heart will never be three sizes too small. Say goodbye to Mr. Scrooge.” “Mr. Scrooge?” Max echoed. Preston didn’t hear Emma’s response because she’d already slammed the door. He watched her grab her son’s hand and stomp into the office. She didn’t even have any luggage. She carried only a backpack and a purse, a purse with apparently little money. Dropping his head into his hands, Preston massaged his temples. She’d alluded to The Grinch, not A Christmas Carol. She had her Christmas stories screwed up, after all. But it didn’t matter. His heart was three sizes too small. He hesitated a moment longer but, ultimately, the gun pressing into his back reminded him that she’d be better off making other plans, plans that didn’t include him. CHAPTER SIX MAX GIGGLED at a Tom and Jerry cartoon while Emma lay down across from him on one of the beds in their moldy-smelling motel room. They’d already walked to Elmer’s Drive-In next door, where she’d bought her son a hamburger and fries and given him what she hoped would be his final injection for the day. Happy to be out of the car, he was momentarily entertained, which came as a much-needed relief to Emma. But she was getting hungry. In order to save money, she’d nibbled on a few of Max’s fries instead of buying herself dinner. Preston had scoffed at a mere ten bucks, but to Emma, every dollar counted. She had only twenty-five hundred to her name. If she and Max didn’t want to be out on the street when they reached the midwest, they’d need first and last month’s rent and deposit, and enough money to support them until she could find a job. Twenty-five hundred wasn’t much to begin a new life with, especially a life filled with so many unknowns. She’d never used her degree. Would she be able to find work as a teacher? If not, would there be something else? Would they even be able to make it to Iowa? And without a car, how would they get around after they settled down? She knew Preston had been her best bet for immediate transportation, but she didn’t regret what she’d said to him. She couldn’t ride with him anymore. The stress of trying to keep Max quiet for miles on end was making her crazy. And she couldn’t tolerate feeling like such a burden. She’d tried to be nice. She’d helped Preston drive and offered him money for gas. He’d refused, but she couldn’t spare him any kind feelings for that. Nothing seemed to make a difference. He just didn’t want them around. Period. Конец ознакомительного фрагмента. Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес». Прочитайте эту книгу целиком, купив полную легальную версию (https://www.litres.ru/brenda-novak-2/every-waking-moment/?lfrom=334617187) на ЛитРес. Безопасно оплатить книгу можно банковской картой Visa, MasterCard, Maestro, со счета мобильного телефона, с платежного терминала, в салоне МТС или Связной, через PayPal, WebMoney, Яндекс.Деньги, QIWI Кошелек, бонусными картами или другим удобным Вам способом.
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