I lost my life on my twentieth birthday.
I suppose one could argue the truth of that statement. I know I have. It’s probably more accurate to say that I lost my life four months prior, the day I climbed into the back of Officer Lawrence Peck’s cop car. I just hadn’t realized it at the time.
But my twentieth birthday marks the day that I made the choice to leave it all behind. It marks the day that I became a missing person.
Right before it happened, I opened a fortune cookie that read: Your life will be happy and peaceful. I’m starting to think that cookie was meant for someone else.
I took it as a sign then, but it’s been exactly three-hundred and sixty-five days since I read that fortune, twelve full months, and happy and peaceful has not come my way yet.
I thought running was the answer. If I could just get away from that man, I’d find my peace. I’d find my happiness.
Turns out running from a police officer isn’t as easy as I thought it would be.
Today my fortune says: A new environment makes a world of difference. I’m not sure if that’s true, but I’m hoping it might be.
Because today, I’m facing the nightmare that has become my life. Today, I’m done hiding. I’m done running.
Today, I’m going to take the step that I should have taken a year ago. I’m going to take my life back.
I stare at the words on the small piece of paper, pinched between my fingertips. A new year, a new fortune. It was a tradition from my old life. A fortune cookie on your birthday sets you on the right path for the year that lies ahead of you. That’s what my mom used to tell me. She believed them, followed them. If she were here right now, I’m certain she’d be packing my bags and pushing me out so I could discover a new environment.
But I’m already in a new environment. A shady bar in a shady part of a city I’ve never been to before.
The bar itself isn’t exactly new. The tables are scratched and gashed. The leather-covered booth I’m sitting in has more duct tape on it than leather. The lights are low, hiding most of the wear and tear on the establishment, but it can’t quite conceal the blistered and peeling paint or the layer of grime on the windows.
The music isn’t quite loud enough. It’s almost a strain on the ears to hear the lyrics over the rowdy banter of the other patrons. It’s rock music. That much I can tell, but what song, what artist, I have no idea.
The men in this place look a little rough around the edges, so do the women. But there’s something real about them. They laugh too loud, talk too loud. They aren’t hiding behind polite conversation or fancy clothes. They are just … real. Genuine.
If you asked me a year and a half ago where I’d be on my twenty-first birthday, I would have said at a club. Somewhere with pop music. Somewhere I could dance. Somewhere I could be with friends and drink and flirt.
But that was a year ago.
It’s different now. That life, the one where I was a carefree girl, where I actually had friends, is gone. I don’t know that girl anymore, but then I don’t really know who I’ve become either.
But I do know that I want to be someone. I want to have a life that’s not full of fear and running. I want to live in one place long enough to make friends. I want to finish college, get a job. I want to see my family again.
Most of all, I want to see Officer Lawrence Peck rotting away in a prison cell.
Sighing, I fold the tiny piece of paper in half and tuck it into my pocket. I take a sip of my beer and glance around. The air is thick and stuffy, and I’m tempted to head outside, just for a quick, fresh breath, but I don’t.
I know the breath will turn into ten, and ten will turn into twenty, and once I hit twenty, I’ll start to second-guess myself.
And then I’ll end up running—again.
I cut my eyes to the table where the man I’ve come to see sits.
It’s him. I know it is. I studied his picture for hours before I came here. He’s tall, and solid in a way that says he spends a lot of time working with his hands. A black tee hugs his torso and he wears a pair of blue jeans. His jaw is square, strong, with a dusting of black stubble, and his nose, straight and smooth. His black hair isn’t long, but it’s not short either. It curls slightly at the ends, and looks as though he just rolled out of bed and ran his hands through it a few times.
He sits there, nursing his second beer, and laughing with another man—a friend, I assume. Maybe it’s one of his partners from PRG Investigations; I’m not sure. I wasn’t given pictures of them. He has two that I know of, though, Wesley Gates and Vance Rutherford.
As I contemplate how to approach him for what has to be the hundredth time, my heart races, each beat almost painful. They’ve been here for about forty-five minutes, and I’m still not sure what to do, or what to say exactly. It would be so much easier if the guy had an office. I could just call, make an appointment.
But he doesn’t have an office and his number isn’t listed. He works by referrals only.
I almost feel like a stalker.
A third beer is set in front of him.
Oh God, I can’t. I can’t …
I have to do this. I can’t keep running. And he knows I’m coming.
I watched Mr. Chapman send the email before he packed me up into a car with a GPS and a few hundred dollars in cash. The man has a picture of me, too. He knows why I’m here. He knows my story. He probably clocked me sitting here the second he walked in and is waiting for me to make the first contact.
Just get up and walk over there, I tell myself. Waiting is only making it harder, and with each minute that passes, my nerves fray a little more.
I take a deep, calming breath, let it out, and then, I slowly slide out of the booth and make my way through the bar. Anxiety mixed with excitement fills up my stomach. What if he won’t help me? What if he does? In this moment, I’m not sure what would be the better outcome. Both seem just as terrifying.
The gap between us closes too quickly and I stop a couple feet away. I stand there for a moment, wiping my sweaty hand on my jean-clad thigh, and hold my breath, waiting for him to notice me.
It doesn’t take long for him to glance my way, only a couple seconds. He’s smirking, a confident and perhaps a little amused smirk, but there’s also a sort of soft concern in his eyes as he looks at me.
It’s kind of impressive, the mixture of confident and soft.
It’s also a bit unnerving.
His eyes scan me, pausing on my breasts, before making their way down in a slow, thorough inspection, following my curves all the way to my toes.
Embarrassment heats my cheeks. Not only am I sweating, but I’m also wearing worn jeans that are too big and frayed along the edges, and a plain cotton top that’s wrinkled and grungy from spending two days doing nothing but driving. My hair is wrapped up in a messy twist on top of my head because I haven’t had a chance to wash it since I started my journey, and I’m not wearing a stitch of make-up.
I feel exposed under his scrutiny.
I didn’t wear my usual hoodie, ball cap or sunglasses to hide under. I didn’t want to chance him not recognizing me and taking off.
Suddenly, I wish I had worn them.
For a moment, I find myself fighting the urge to glance around and make sure no one else is staring, but then, his eyes come back to mine and he smiles, and good God, but that smile has my stomach doing flip-flops and my brain stuttering.
His picture was impressive, but up close and with that smile …
“Hi, darlin’.” His voice is deep and husky. It’s the kind of voice that calls for attention. Full of coolness and confidence, and matches the rest of him perfectly.
My entire body flames with heat and my throat dries up. I swallow hard, and attempt to smile back. “Hi.”
“You gonna have a seat?” he asks, jerking his chin toward an empty chair.
I glance at the empty chair at their table, think about sitting, but don’t. Anxiety makes me feel a touch sick, and I know if I try to sit, all I’ll do is fidget.
Instead, I hold up my beer, showing it to him, and say the first thing that comes to mind. “Just having a birthday drink.”
He cocks an eyebrow, and his smile deepens, revealing a set of perfect dimples and straight white teeth. He chuckles, a rich, deep sound that unleashes a swarm of nervous butterflies in my belly. “Celebrating alone?”
Shaking my head, I say, “No.” I take a breath, let it out, take another, and blurt, “I’m here to meet you.” My voice comes out strained, and although I know that I need this man, I’m starting to feel like this was a terrible mistake, especially when I watch his forehead crease with confusion and his smile falter.
Suddenly he doesn’t look amused anymore. His gaze turns hard and a touch cold. “You sure about that?”
Strained silence stretches as he waits for me to answer, but I don’t. I just stand there, tongue-tied, shifting from one foot to the other.
His friend is watching me with cool amusement. His eyes are active, though, cataloging every inch of me. He’s not missing anything. Not a twitch or tremble. It’s almost too much. Invasive. A little scary. For the last year, I’ve worked on being a ghost, and now, under their scrutiny, I feel very much alive.
I’m not sure I like the feeling.
I want to run away, but I don’t. Mr. Chapman trusts this guy. He wouldn’t send me here if he didn’t. He wouldn’t put me at risk. I know it. I try to smile, but it feels flat and lifeless on my lips.
“You are Jason, right?” I ask. “Jason Pierce?”
He arches an eyebrow, but doesn’t confirm or deny it. Is he testing me? I don’t know what to say. I take a small sip of my beer, trying not to fidget. If I didn’t know any better, if I didn’t watch Mr. Chapman send that email to him, I’d think this guy has no idea who I am.
But I was there. I saw the email send. I listened to Mr. Chapman leave a voicemail, too, telling Jason to meet me here at Constant Pub. He may have been fifteen minutes late, but he did show up at the right place on the right day.
Sighing, I look away, and then back at him. “Yeah, I’m sure,” I say. My voice surprises me. It’s stronger, more certain, and makes me feel a bit more confident. I smile. “I’m here to meet you.”
He considers this for a moment as his gaze sweeps the length of me again. The moment feels like a year as I try not to hide myself from his eyes, before he finally meets my gaze once more. “Who are you?”
Who am I? I laugh, a nervous little bubble of sound. I could give him the standard answer. My name is Elena Reed. I’m twenty-one, live in New York. That’s what you’d find if you glanced at my driver’s license.
But that’s not what I tell him. I give him the real answer, the honest answer. “I don’t know.”
I let out a light laugh. Her answer is an interesting one. Clever. Clever enough to peak my curiosity. She may have meant it to be cute, but there’s truth to it, too.
I’m good at reading people, always have been, but she’s easier to read than most. I wonder if this girl has any idea how transparent she is. She’s attempting not to show it, but she’s nervous. I can see it. I can sense it.
It’s written in her coiled muscles, and the way she unconsciously fidgets with the hem of her shirt, rubbing it between her forefinger and thumb. She lifts her glass to her lips and it trembles ever so slightly as she takes a sip.
The poor girl actually looks close to terrified, but yet, she doesn’t retreat.
She’s watching me, her expression blank, completely devoid of emotion. But those eyes …
Pretty, soft blue. The most soulful eyes I’ve ever seen. Her expression may be sealed up tight, but those eyes give everything away.
She’s not just nervous. She’s desperate.
Wes makes a choking sound, fighting off a laugh. His lips are pressed in a tight line, hiding the shit-eating grin that’s trying to push its way onto his face, although he can’t quite hide the laughter in his eyes.
Bastard. He’s loving every second of this, whatever the hell this is.
I consider telling her to go. I should just tell her I’m not interested. It would be the smart thing to do. Young and hot doesn’t always make for a fun night. She can’t even hold my gaze without fidgeting.
But … for the first time in years, I find myself curious. The girl’s been sitting in a booth across the bar for the last forty-five minutes watching me, and despite the fact that she’s obviously uncomfortable, she figured out my name, got up the guts to approach me …
“Have a seat, darlin’,” I say, gesturing to a chair across from me. “Let me buy you a birthday drink.”
She takes a step closer, small and hesitant, and then she drags her teeth over her bottom lip and shakes her head slightly. “I think I want to stand, um, if that’s okay with you?”
I shrug a shoulder, leaning back in my chair. I don’t even know what to say to that. She doesn’t want to sit? Fine. Whatever.
“What’s your name?” I ask. “And don’t give me any of that I don’t know bullshit.”
She shakes her head again; a few blonde curls that have worked their way loose from the knot of hair piled on her head bounce against her shoulders. Her eyes flick to Wes, and then back to me. “I want to know who he is first.”
A pang of irritation hits me at her question. I try to push it back, but it seeps into my voice anyway. “Yeah?” I say, sitting up straight. “And why the fuck would you want to know that if you’re supposed to be here to meet me?”
She looks at me as though she wants to both devour and strangle me. I chuckle softly. She’s fucking adorable.
“Because,” she says, the word shaking slightly on her lips. She grimaces, no doubt she heard it, too, and clears her throat. “I do.”
Wes takes a sip of his beer, considering her for a moment, and then lifts a shoulder in a half shrug. “I’m Wesley Gates.”
“Oh, hi,” she says, sounding startled. She stares at him, and this sweet, timid smile graces her plump lips. “It’s really nice to meet you, Wesley.”
Laughing, Wes folds his arms over his chest. “I’m guessing you’ve heard my name before.”
She flushes an adorable shade of peach and nods. “Yes, well, I know you work with Jason.”
Annoyance hits me fast and hard. Goddamnit she’s flirting. She’s fucking flirting with Wes. Is that her angle? Figure out my name as some sort of an icebreaker, an opening so she could meet him?
“You seem pretty confident that I’m Jason,” I say, coolly, barely hiding my annoyance.
She makes a face at me, aggravation with a mix of fury. “I know who you are.” It comes out like a growl, throaty and raspy.
“What’s your name?” I ask again.
She glares at me. “You know who I am. I wouldn’t be here if you didn’t.”
I grit my teeth, stopping a frustrated groan from passing my lips. I don’t even know what to say to that. She may have a tight little body, but goddamn, this innocent, timid game she’s playing … Not worth the headache.
Sighing, I shake my head. “Don’t know what game you’re trying to play here, babe,” I say. “But you can take it somewhere else. I’m not interested.”
The girl is silent for a moment, gawking, before she finds her voice and whispers, “Asshole.” As soon as the word slips out, the color drains from her high cheekbones and her pretty eyes widen. Obviously, she hadn’t meant to say it out loud and she looks at me, horrified. “This was a bad idea,” she says, taking a step back, and then another. “I think I’m just going to go now.”
“Yeah,” I say right away. “You should probably go on and do that.”
She freezes, stalling out on her retreat, and looks at me with big, hurt-filled eyes, before her expression morphs into something blank and cold and distant.
Suddenly, there’s no indication of what she’s thinking or feeling, and when I search her face closely, I realize that those expressive eyes of hers are completely free of everything. It’s as though she just simply stopped feeling—anything.
My chest tightens, and I don’t know why, but that look … it guts me.
In that second, I can’t imagine anything that could be worse than seeing that look.
Realization slams into me like a runaway freight train. She isn’t some young girl looking for a fun night. She isn’t playing a game. She expects me to know who she is.
I’m here to meet you.
Goddamnit! Someone sent her to me.
I stand up quickly, my chair teetering, before clapping back in place against the floor. I take a step toward her, and she takes another back. “Someone referred you, yeah?”
She flinches, as though she felt my question physically, but doesn’t say a word. She inches back another step.
I follow; my mind works fast, trying to think of something, anything, to say that will stop her from leaving. “You want to go somewhere?” I ask. “We can talk for a bit.”
“No,” she says, her voice cold and harsh. She raises her hands, indicating for me not to come any closer. “I’m just going to … It was good to meet you both.” And then she turns, sets her glass down on the nearest table, and she runs.