Susan went to the window and gazed out at the drizzling rain listening to the tick of the grandfather’s clock in the hall. Each tick told her that time was running out. In exactly ten minutes, she would walk out the door and meet the stranger who would take her away. She would escape the man who had terrorized her for five long years—her husband, Blaine. She looked over her shoulder as if she expected the retired Navy Seal to appear at any moment.
Today was their fifth anniversary. She felt a stab of guilt leaving on their anniversary, but the psychic had told her if she didn’t leave today, she would be dead tomorrow. And she believed her.
She remembered the day she’d found the journal that revealed her suspicions about Blaine to be true. She'd been hanging Blaine’s pants in the closet, being careful to hang them exactly two inches apart. Nervous that everything was exactly as it should be, she stepped back and her hand hit a shoe box sitting on a shelf. The contents spilled to the floor, and when she scrambled to pick everything up she found a worn brown journal. It opened to a page that held a detailed account of his first wife’s murder. It was as if she was supposed to find the journal.
She had clutched the book—the hair raised on her arm as she read what she knew to be Blaine's handwriting: It was easier than I thought it would be. Carol had always wanted to take an Alaskan cruise. I plied her with martinis at dinner. She was drunk and staggering when I threw picked her up and threw her over rail. The ocean was rough that night. I didn’t hear her hit the water. Shivers of terror ran through Susan’s body. It was like reading pages from a Stephen King novel. In a trance, Susan lined up his black socks in his drawer.
Susan regretted not leaving that very day. But leaving took planning. The next day, she took several things to the lockbox at the bank: her mother’s jewelry, some old coins of her father’s and some old pictures. Then she rented another lockbox. She was thankful for the trust fund her parents had left her. The trust fund and her inheritance would be enough to start her new life though she did not know where she was going. She was an only child, and her only family was an aunt in a nursing home.
After her best friend, Shelly died six months ago, she’d needed someone to talk to, and found a psychic in Sedona, Arizona. Her name was Mary Madison. Susan called her, frantic. “You have time,” Mary said. “I see the number twenty-nine. That’s the day you must leave.” Susan had sighed a sigh of relief. And then Mary said, “I’m getting a message from a friend of yours who died recently. She said to tell you; the journal didn’t drop out of the shoe box by accident.”
Susan smiled. “That’s Shelly. She was my neighbor. Tell her I love her and miss her. And thank her for me. She always did think Blaine was dangerous.” It was a good feeling knowing that Shelly was somewhere out there trying to help her. There was a sense of urgency in Susan's voice when she said, “Blaine is smart. I’m afraid he’ll be able to find me wherever I go. Somehow I have to find a way to disappear without a trace.”
The next day, Mary called. “I’ve found someone to help you. His name is Derrick Hampton. He's been coming to me for readings since his wife died six months ago. He was here the day you called, and overheard our conversation. It seemed like it was meant to be. He’ll come for you on the twenty-ninth.”
“I was thinking the twenty-seventh at the latest.”
“I thought the same thing, but the cards tell me you are to leave on the twenty-ninth. I do the cards several times a day for you, and it’s always the twenty-ninth.”
"But that's my anniversary," Susan said.
"I've learned never to question the spirits," Mary said.
Thinking about it too much unnerved her. Derrick called an hour after she spoke with Mary, and told her to —destroy everything that might hint as to where she had gone: old phone records, journals. And he told her to leave a note for Blaine to tell him she wanted a divorce and it was over. She wasn't to mention that she knew about finding the journal that told about him murdering his first wife.
Her letter to the sheriff’s department was different. Derrick instructed her to tell them she was leaving because she feared for her life. And she told them she had tapes to back up her words. She said she didn’t know where she was going and would contact them later. And she added that she didn’t want them to look for her. It would be a waste of taxpayer’s money. It was true; she didn’t know where Derrick was taking her.
Everything had been done that Derrick had instructed her to do. She'd mailed the letter to the sheriff at the post office earlier that day. Once she dropped the letter in the post office box, she knew there was no going back. This was really happening. She was leaving in a matter of hours to an unknown destination. She'd never been late at her job at the library. It bothered her that her friends would worry, but Derrick had said not to tell anyone.
She was down to the last few minutes…she plodded up the stairs to get her luggage.
She went to mirror in the bathroom and gazed at herself, but her soulful gray eyes didn’t see the reflection. She’d wanted to leave for so long. In her mind—she’d left two years ago after she found out about Blaine’s affairs. She tunneled her fingers through her mid-length blonde hair and put on lip gloss. She took a long breath and looked into the mirror again. The woman who looked back looked frightened. Her lips were tight, and she had dark circles under her eyes. She looked much older than thirty-two. She hadn’t slept weeks knowing this moment was going to come.
It was time. She grabbed up her suitcase, and a small bag that held her computer; she slipped her purse over her shoulder and ran down the steps and out the door. The door slammed behind her. The air smelled like burning leaves; leaves she had raked and burned yesterday. She ran as hard as she could down the paved driveway to the country road, her bags swinging, and brushing against her faded blue jeans. The gray herringbone sweater that she’d thrown on over her white shirt seemed too warm even on a fall day when there was a chill in the air and leaves blowing across road.
She told herself she wouldn’t look back, but she did. The massive two-story white country house with the screened porch set perfectly in the middle of the expansive well-landscaped yard. It was a well-kept country estate, and had been her childhood home. She’d inherited it over five years ago, before she met, Blaine. No one would guess it was a home where the retired Navy Seal had terrorized her for years, using every psychological trick in the book to destroy her. She was past caring about material things in the house: her quilts, her pottery collection, and expensive china. They didn’t matter. She was sad to leave the family albums. She’d hidden them away in the attic in an old chest under some quilts. She’d tucked away a picture of her parents in a book, and put it in her bag. She told herself to think positive. Someday she would be able to come home. All that mattered was that she stay alive.
The black SUV slowed. She couldn’t bring herself to look at the driver. Regardless of what he looked like or who he was—she was getting in the car and leaving with him. She took a deep breath and tried to appear calm as the shiny black SUV slowed: stopped. Acting on blind faith alone, Susan jumped in the car. Looking straight ahead let her breath out hard. The car spun away, leaving a trail of dust.
A red knit glove lay on the paved road. It had fallen from her sweater pocket.
The first thing she heard was his deep masculine voice. “Hello, Susan."
“Hello,” she said as she risked a glance. She was relieved. He had short dark brown hair, and a day’s beard. He was attractive, and wore a black sports jacket, tan pants, and a white shirt open at the collar. He had broad shoulders and looked like a man who could handle himself.
He sensed her unease. “I’m Derrick Hampton. Relax. You’re safe. Nothing is going to happen to you."
His dark brown eyes seemed too calm. “My husband is a mad man. He’ll kill us both. You’re taking a big risk.” And then she said it again, her voice choked. “He’s a mad man. No one would believe me except the psychic.”
“I believe you,” he said, not taking his eyes off the road. They were traveling at a high speed, and he was breaking every speed limit. It was starting to rain. He turned on the wipers and the headlights. He glanced at her. “You’re very beautiful.”
“Jesus, haven’t you heard anything I’ve said? My husband is a heartless murderer. He killed his first wife, and if we don’t get the hell out of this town, he’ll track me down and kill me. I have no doubts.”
“You're trembling," he said his voice even and calm. He pushed a button to a blank radio station. "Breathe. You're holding your breath."
Susan exhaled. Then looked out the window and realized they were approaching the interstate. She breathed easier. “Where are we going?” she asked hoping it was somewhere far away.
“To the airport. There’s a charter plane waiting. I’m taking you home with me. It's the safest place for you to be: with me."
“Where is home?” Susan asked.
“Las Vegas,” he answered. "I retired from the FBI last year, and I’m a consultant. I teach classes to Special Agents at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia. And I’m a professional gambler.”
“Charter planes cost a lot of money,” she said. “Let me be perfectly clear. I don’t want the FBI involved. Take me to the airport. I’ll catch a plane from there.”
“You don’t understand,” he said. “I’m a whale. This has nothing to do with the FBI. The plane belongs to a friend.”
Susan looked at him with narrow eyes. She didn’t know anything about gambling but she assumed whale meant he gambled large amounts of money. She eyed the ring on his finger. It was square with a huge diamond. She thought it must be worth thousands.
She looked at her French manicured nails, her finger naked without jewelry. She’d wanted to throw her rings away that Blaine had given her, but she’d left them with the note that she’d left him on the kitchen table.
“Why did you come? You went to a lot of trouble.”
“I was skeptical at first,” he admitted. “I thought you were just another disgruntled wife with an overactive imagination. But the psychic was convincing. She said you desperately needed help.” His dark eyes studied her. “You intrigue me…a librarian from a small town in Ohio married to a psychopath. Sounds like a Stephen King novel.”
Susan crossed her arms. "I'm more than disgruntled. I'm angry that I have to leave my home. Something like this only happens to other people." He was much too relaxed, and it was obvious he was very wealthy. He didn’t look like the kind of man who visited charlatans. But then again, you couldn’t tell by looking. She’d read about president’s wives who consorted with psychics and astrologers: Mary Todd Lincoln and Nancy Reagan. Susan’s mind was racked with questions. She was intuitive. Something told her that Derrick was here for a reason. Something more than to carry out a rescue. A shiver went down her spine.
“I’m sorry. I was trying to put you at ease and didn’t do a very good job.”
“It’s okay. I have the jitters. And I don’t think they’re going to go away anytime soon.”
“After my wife died, I went through the worst case of the jitters, and the worst thing was not being able to sleep. It was so sudden." He glanced at her as if to gauge her reaction.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “You’re young to lose your wife.”
“I’m older than I look. Jenny was ten years younger. We were in New York to see a Broadway play, and she had a heart attack. She had a heart defect. We had no idea. She passed away in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.”
“Do you have children?” Susan asked.
“No. Jenny didn’t want children. She was career oriented. She sold real estate—the multi-million dollar homes. And she collected art.” He glanced at Susan, his brows drawn. “Anyway, it was sudden. So many things were left unsaid. I’d heard of the psychic. The FBI had used her to gain information. I went to see her three times for séances. Whether I contacted Jenny or not—I don’t know—but I felt better afterwards. It gave me a sense of closure.”
Susan nodded. It was unsettling. He’d probably checked her out, and knew everything about her. But she knew nothing about him. “It sounds like you’ve had your share of hardships. You’re not obligated. I appreciate everything you’ve done. But I didn’t expect you to charter an airplane, and I certainly didn’t expect to go home with you. Drop me at any terminal and I’ll catch a plane.”
“If I took you to the airport, you would have to go through security. Your husband could easily track you. If you go with me on my charter, we hop on the plane and we’re out of here. In a few hours we’ll be grilling steaks and having wine at the pool. You can take a dip in the pool after dinner.”
“No strings attached?”
“Of course, no strings attached. I hope I didn’t alarm you by telling you about Jenny.”
“No. I just don’t want to inconvenience you. I want to start a new life. Get a job.”
“Did you do everything I told you to do?”
“Yes,” she said. “I left a note on the table telling Blaine I was leaving him. And I wrote a letter to the sheriff’s department. I told them I was leaving my husband because I felt threatened, and suspected he was going to murder me. I told them not to look for me.” Susan wasn’t sure about where this was going, but it seemed that the psychic had chosen the right person to help her. And if Blaine had any reservations about killing her before, he certainly had a reason to kill her now.
“What about the tapes? Did you bring them?” he asked.
“Yes, they’re in my bag,” she replied. “Most of the conversations I taped were of conversations of Blaine and his cousin, but there were a few with his girlfriends. She looked out the window at the rain coming down in sheets. “I don’t want to have to run for the rest of my life. Someday I want to go home. I grew up in that house.”
“You may never be able to go home.”
Their eyes met. He was attractive, but she’d just left a precarious situation, and wasn’t looking to get involved in another relationship. She’d been marked for death today and was thankful he was helping her escape, but she didn’t feel beholden to him. She hadn’t felt hungry for days, but steak and wine sounded good. And a dip in the pool would be wonderful. She loved to swim, but hadn’t brought her bathing suit. She’d have to pick one up. Running away from Blaine was almost too easy. She was putting herself in a compromising situation with a stranger, and it bothered her. She could feel him glance at her from time to time. She had been avoiding his eyes, but now she looked at him straight on. “Look, maybe this isn’t such a good idea…”
“Trust me,” he said. “You’ll feel better when you meet my friends. They’re my neighbors. And they’re waiting for us at the airport. You’ll love Millie. She has a dog, Bridget, and she brings her over almost every day to play with my dog, Ruffie.”
Susan looked away to hide her smile. Derrick suddenly seemed more trustworthy. But she wondered why he would bring his neighbors. The thought of being in a group made her feel more relaxed. She told herself she should feel grateful and not be suspicious. “Thank you,” she murmured. “You took a risk coming for me. I appreciate it.”
“My life is about taking risks,” he said. He glanced at her flashing a broad smile. “You can’t win if you don’t roll the dice.”
Susan returned his smile. She wasn’t a gambler, but she was ready to roll the dice.