“What brings you to Redemption?”
I jerked, spilling my coffee. It spread across the table in a brown puddle, like blood pooling on a hardwood floor.
“Oops,” the waitress said. A rag appeared as if by magic, and she deftly cleaned it up. “Didn’t mean to startle you.”
“It’s okay,” I said. I had been staring out the window, mulling my choices for the hundredth time. Maybe I should have stayed. Maybe Annabelle was right. Maybe I was exaggerating.
But then my side twinged, and everything came flooding back. The taste of blood. The violence in his eyes. Waking in the hospital bed. The dreams that started that night.
Dreams I couldn’t resist.
This was the right decision. The only decision.
The waitress refilled my coffee cup. “What brings you to Redemption?” she repeated. She was young, probably my age, with strawberry-blonde hair pulled back in a loose ponytail and hazel eyes.
“Just passing through,” I said.
“Oh, where are you headed?”
As far away from New York as I can get. “California. I think.”
“You think?” When she smiled, her eyes crinkled up. I couldn’t help but smile back.
“Let’s just say I’m open to possibilities.”
She laughed. “I’m Claire.”
“Charlie.” I was amazed at how easy it slipped out. Until that moment, I hadn’t known what my name would be.
Her smile widened. “Well, Charlie, nice to meet you. How long are you staying?”
“Not long,” I said, but my answer was lost as someone called Claire’s name from the kitchen.
“Oh, sorry. Gotta go. I’ll be back.”
“Of course,” I said, but she was already hurrying over to the kitchen, her long, lanky body covering the length of the dining room in just a few short strides.
I picked at my made-from-scratch buttermilk biscuit and went back to looking out the window. Truthfully, I had no idea how I had even found the town, much less why I decided to stop at this particular little diner. It was only a couple of hours before that I had checked out of my hotel room with a solid plan to drive as long as I could bear.
And then, I somehow got myself turned around (I have always been hopeless when it comes to reading maps) and found myself in the quaint little town called “Redemption.”
I had no intention of stopping. I had no intention of doing anything other than driving through as quickly as possible and figuring out how to get back on the highway.
When I saw the little diner, Aunt May’s, I thought it was cute and whimsical. I slowed down to take a closer look, and realized my bladder was uncomfortably full. Perfect time for a quick bathroom break, I figured. I could get a coffee to go while I was at it.
Instead, I found myself seated at a window table with a plate of bacon and biscuits in front of me. Never mind that I was never much of a breakfast eater. Never mind that I had already eaten an apple that morning while I was driving, which was normally more than enough. There I was with a plate full of food in front of me and no appetite.
I should be on the road, I thought.
I should be putting as many miles as I could between myself and HIM.
My side twinged again, right below my left breast. I reached over to rub it, feeling the rough edges of the torn skin underneath my thin cotton shirt. No question I would have a scar.
Suddenly, I couldn’t stand it. I wasn’t safe. I needed to go.
I stood abruptly, shaking the table and jarring my coffee cup again, searching the restaurant for Claire.
She was taking an order at another table, but she glanced my way. I made a movement in the air like I was signing a check and she nodded, holding a finger up.
I didn’t want to wait. I wanted to leave right then and there. I also knew I was being irrational. So, instead of doing what I wanted to do, which was throw some money on the table and run out the door, I sucked in a deep breath and sat back down. A few more minutes wasn’t going to change anything. Maybe I should even take the time to finish my breakfast. Then, I wouldn’t have to stop for lunch … I could maybe even make it to a late-night dinner.
“Anything wrong?” Claire appeared at my elbow, riffling through her order pad.
I forced myself to give her a crooked smile. “No, I just didn’t realize how late it was. I’m running behind. I wanted to get a lot of driving in today.”
“Of course,” Claire said neutrally, but the pointed expression in her eyes said something else. I shifted uncomfortably in my seat, wanting to shield myself from her penetrating gaze. It felt like she could see directly into my soul.
Get ahold of yourself, Charlie. You’re being ridiculous. You barely know her.
I had to get back on the road. My mind was playing tricks on me. And with everything that had happened, I shouldn’t be surprised.
Claire placed the check on the table. “Want a doggy bag?”
“Sure,” I said, although I didn’t think I’d be real eager to eat cold bacon later. On the other hand, not having to stop for food may make it worth it.
She disappeared, and I dug my wallet out of my purse, frowning at my dwindling cash reserves. I should have taken more out before I left. Paying cash for everything was more expensive than I thought it would be. Which didn’t make any sense, of course. But that’s what happens when you grow up surrounded by credit cards and expense accounts. There had never been any reason to look at how much things actually cost when other people were footing the bills.
Poor little rich girl. What an idiot. I was so disgusted with myself.
“Here,” Claire said, depositing a cardboard box and coffee cup in front of me. “I brought you a to-go coffee, as well.”
“Thank you.” I was touched. I couldn’t even remember the last time anyone had done anything for me without knowing who my family was.
“Hey, none of that,” Claire said, as I dabbed the corner of my eyes with my napkin. I wasn’t usually so emotional, and I rarely cried, but now, the smallest thing could set me off. I definitely needed to get my head on straight. “Consider it a parting gift for visiting our out-of-the-way town.” She smiled again, crinkling up the corners of her eyes. “We love it when tourists visit, but people don’t always find us. I’m glad you stopped.”
“Me too,” I said.
“If you’re ever back this way, come by and see us.”
She gave me a quick, final nod before bustling away. I transferred my food to the box and added a generous tip. It’s not like I don’t have money, I lectured the part of myself that cringed at how little cash was left in my wallet. I had a whole trust fund. The problem was, I wasn’t sure how to access it without letting him know where I was.
I was eventually going to have to figure it out.
I was just hoping it would be later rather than sooner.
I was especially hoping he would forget me by then.
I stood up, giving myself a little shake. Enough of this. It was time to get back on the road. I could figure the rest out later.
When I was farther away. Much farther away.
I was heading to the door when I realized I still wasn’t sure where the highway was. Claire was talking to another waitress behind the counter when I approached.
“Need something else?” she asked.
“Just directions,” I said. “Can you tell me the easiest way to the I-12?”
“Of course.” She rattled off a laundry list of streets and turns, which I tried to keep track of in my head. I wished I could write them down.
She must have seen my face, because she whipped out her pen and wrote the directions on the back of an order form and tore it off to hand to me.
“Thanks, this is really helpful,” I said.
“Happy to do it,” she replied, glancing toward an older couple trying to get her attention. “Drive safe.”
I nodded and headed out of the restaurant, hearing the cheerful jangle of the bell above the door.
I got into my car, an older model Chevy Impala without the extras, placing the food next to me and the coffee between my legs. Well, it wasn’t exactly my car. I had begged my old nanny to let me borrow it, promising to either return it or send her a check for it later, once I was settled somewhere.
Actually, I didn’t have to beg much. Once she saw what he had done to me, she couldn’t get the keys into my hand fast enough.
I’d have to figure out a way to make it right for her. Just one more thing to add to the list.
I took a moment to pull the map out and compare it to Claire’s directions. It didn’t seem too difficult. I should be able to do it just fine.
I put the key in the ignition and turned it. The engine roared to life with a horrible grinding noise. I tried to put it into reverse, but all I heard was a dreadful clunking sound.
I turned the key off, listening to the engine’s death throes while trying to keep myself from throwing up. The coffee’s hot acid seemed to burn a hole in my stomach.
I banged my forehead against the steering wheel. What was I going to do?