Where do you hide when there's nowhere left to run?
My life was an illusion built on fear, until one day, fate intervened.
I tried to run.
I tried to hide.
I tried to disappear.
At a small bed and breakfast in the middle of nowhere, I found myself, and then, he found me... Gus Gallagher, my aunt’s next-door neighbor.
He was persistent. He was everything I feared and everything I wanted. He was determined to win me over, but I was determined to drive him away. The possibility of more could never become a reality, not with him.
Soon though, I learned he was everything I needed.
The life I live now is an illusion based on deception. This time though, the lies I tell are my own. I knew eventually I’d get caught in my own web of deceit, but this wasn't my choice.
In the shadows the past is lurking; patiently waiting and set on revenge.
My life was unbearable until the day I decided to disappear.
My name is Laney Sloane and this is my story.
I had no idea what time it was. With the sun’s warm rays shining down on us, the temperature outside was comfortable. Lisbeth had stayed only a few minutes before leaving to prepare lunch. The thought of not pulling my own weight around here left me feeling slightly guilty, but Lisbeth insisted, waving her hand in the air as if brushing away my nonsense as I’d tried to voice my concerns. Relax, she’d said, tomorrow is a new day. A new day I was excited to welcome.
Lying on a throw inside of the playground area, Trevor walked over and without any warning plopped down on my belly. I gasped laughing and began tickling him, running my fingers up and down his ribs. His face was filled with joy. The sounds of him squealing with laughter only made me laugh even harder. It was such a good feeling, this lightheartedness. No one to complain we were making too much noise.
In no time, Trevor had mastered the slide, explored the playhouse, dug in the sandbox and had thrown rubber mulch all over me. His small hands were smudged black, and there were smears of dirt and mulch residue coating his round face. I was certain mine was the same. We were both in desperate need of a bath. My hands clasped his sides as he leaned forward planting a sloppy, wet kiss on my cheek. In my ear, he growled like a tiny monster. “Love you so much,” I told him, inching my face closer to his and snuggling into his neck.
“Love you, Ma,” he replied in return, and then his body stiffened, his hands pushing against me. I helped him sit up. He stood, quickly running toward the fence. It was only then that I saw him.
“Man,” Trevor cried, now standing next to the fence, his fingers wrapped around the chain links separating the two as he stared up at the stranger who had been quietly watching us. I never even heard his approach. Way to go, Laney. In the few hours we had been here, I’d completely let my guard down. It was such a foolish mistake.
My heart raced, panic setting in. I pushed myself up to my feet hurrying to Trevor. What if Victor had sent him? What if he snatched my baby before I could reach him? He was a giant of a man. I couldn’t fight him. I wouldn’t stand a chance.
“Ma’am,” he said as I scooped up Trevor into my arms. Immediately, he began crying. Cautiously, I backed away from the fence keeping my eyes on the stranger as I waited for him to make a move while silently praying he didn’t. As if sensing my distress, he held out his hands in front of his chest. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”
“What are you doing back here?” I asked, a hard edge to my tone despite my fear. Then a thought hit me. Oh, no, maybe, he was one of my aunt’s boarders, one of the brothers who had come here to hike.
He was taller than Victor, easily standing at six four or five inches in height. Who was he, and why was he here? “Like I said, what are you doing here?” I demanded once more, waiting for him to answer.
The sleeves of his gray flannel shirt were rolled up past his elbows revealing thick, muscular forearms. Dark hair dusted his tanned skin. His hands were wide. His fingers long and tapered, and they rested loosely against the top rail of the chain-link fence. An easygoing smile curved his lips, drawing my attention to their shape and the beard concealing the lower half of his rugged face. His beard was well groomed and hugged his square chin and cheeks.
He shifted, adjusting the bill of his navy- blue baseball cap. Shaggy brown hair brushed his ears. His eyes were crinkled at the corners making me take note of their unusual color. They were blue, but not an ordinary shade of blue. Beneath his intense gaze, I shifted uncomfortably hugging Trevor tighter.
“Down,” Trevor insisted, squirming against me.
“No,” I whispered, and his face turned a bright red and then he began to cry harder.
“Why are you here?” I asked once again. If he didn’t answer me this time, I was making a run for the back gate.
“I heard your laughter from the driveway,” he replied. His accent was more pronounced than Lisbeth’s. He was probably a local, but until I knew for certain, I wasn’t taking any chances. His words were slow and deliberant. His tone husky and surprisingly pleasing. He sounded as if he’d never had to rush a day in his life.
He straightened from the fence, drawing my attention to his build. His chest was broad. His shirt stretched snugly across his torso. His long, muscular legs were encased in worn, faded jeans. Scuffed, brown work boots rested upon a set of large feet. He motioned to Trevor. “I’m not going to hurt you, Ma’am or your son. You can let the little guy down.”
I wanted to trust him, but my trust didn’t come so easily. I would never trust another man again. While Lisbeth claimed, they were not all monsters, I knew they could turn on you in the blink of an eye. Men were strong. They could be cruel and dangerous; their strength always used to their advantage. Victor had taught me that lesson well, and it wasn’t one I’d easily forget anytime soon. Trevor was pitching a holy fit so I sat him down on the ground and immediately grabbed a hold of his hand before he could dart away. The same hand, he was currently trying to tug free.
“Bad mommy,” he cried, scolding me, his lower lip jutting out into a full-fledged pout.
The click of the gate had me silently cursing as my head snapped up. My body trembled poised for flight. The breath rushed from my lungs, and while the stranger remained outside of the playground, the gate between us now stood open. What about keeping an eye on him, Laney?
His lips quirked. He was attractive despite his size, but looks could be deceiving. His size alone was intimidating, enough to warrant me to keep my distance. “I was looking for Lisbeth. I thought she might be out here,” he stated, curiously watching us.
“She’s in the house preparing lunch.”
“Oh,” he replied. He showed no signs of leaving anytime soon even though I’d informed him Lisbeth was inside. I wished he would go. “By the way, I’m Gus,” he stated, introducing himself and held out his hand. Gus, Lisbeth’s neighbor?
My eyes widened at hearing his name. Relief had my shoulders sagging forward. Suddenly, Trevor’s hand managed to slip free from mine. Automatically, I reached for him trying to snag his coat, but he was too quick, my fingers encountering thin air. He ran straight toward Gus.
“Trevor, no,” I cried. I didn’t think, I reacted. Racing after him, I froze when Gus lifted him off the ground.
Paralyzed by fear, tears gathered in my eyes as I watched the two of them together. Gus held Trevor at eye level, and they looked at one another staring each other down. Trevor suddenly squealed, a wide grin splitting his face, and then Gus lifted him high in the air. The happiness registering in his expression had my chest momentarily tightening. Gus’s smile, well, it caught my attention too. I couldn’t look away. His hands momentarily left Trevor as he shuffled him in his arms, easily catching him in mid-air. While Lisbeth might know this man, I did not, and this stranger, he was holding my child.
“Again,” Trevor cried, his tiny hands balanced on the man’s muscular forearms. He glanced over at me, flashing a crooked grin that immediately filled me with apprehension.
“He’s a rascal,” Gus said, smiling. “My sister has two boys. They’re only twenty months apart. Holy terrors,” he explained jokingly then he glanced down at Trevor. “I bet you’d like them.”
“Put him down, please.” My voice trembled.
“Sure,” he said, eyeing me, but Trevor wasn’t having anything to do with the big man setting him on his feet.
“No,” he cried hanging on to him for dear life. My child saw no danger. Despite what I’d endured with Victor, Trevor had remained unaffected. Monsters, though, they didn’t always hide in your closet or underneath your bed. They didn’t wear a sign proclaiming their evil. Instead, they walked around on two legs in the daylight appearing completely normal.
Gus helplessly shrugged his shoulders holding Trevor in his arms. “How about I walk you two back to the house. I’m sure by now Lisbeth has lunch ready.”
Thanks to Trevor, I had no other choice. So, I nodded, keeping my eyes locked on him. If I voiced my concerns aloud to this man, he would think I was crazy. Clenching my hands, I began walking toward them. When Gus moved closer, one hand reaching for me, I jerked back gasping aloud. He froze. His eyes widened, his expression concerned. “I was only going to close the gate,” he explained, studying me.
Heat settled into my cheeks, and I ducked my head walking past him. “I’m sorry,” I murmured, self-conscious that I’d over reacted. Together, we made our way around the house. I’d made a complete fool of myself. Maybe, Victor was right, after all. Sometimes, I was so stupid. Gus didn’t seem offended by my behavior, even though I refused to make eye contact with him. In the driveway, a newer model black pickup truck sat parked.
Trevor was babbling excitedly, talking about ducks; about everything and anything. At a time, I’d been concerned about the delay in his speech, but one day after a nap, something inside him just clicked, and ever since then, he hadn’t stopped talking. Gus seemed okay. He was good with Trevor, but I wasn’t looking to make friends, especially not with this stranger, this mountain of a man who still currently carried my small son in his arms.
“Are you and your husband here on vacation or business?” he asked, and my eyes met his. Remember your story, Laney.