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  • Alexis Winter

**SNEAK PEEK** Waiting For Forever


PROLOGUE — STEPHANIE

Three Years Earlier . . .


I hold my breath as I listen. I try not to stir as I slowly crack open an eyelid to look at my husband lying next to me. His breath has gone from shallow to a deep, heavy snore. I cough softly once to see if he stirs; he doesn’t. I cough again, louder, as I turn my head toward him. Again, he doesn’t wake. The sleeping pills I crushed into his beer earlier have done the trick. This is my chance.

I slowly slide out of bed and tiptoe backwards into the hallway, holding my breath again as I stare at him the entire time. I turn to exit the room but glance back to double-check that his snores are real. I’ve learned the hard way that he’s great at faking sleep, only to find myself tackled and thrown to the ground just as I attempted to leave the house.

With trembling hands I put my shoes on as fast as I can. I can hear my heartbeat in my chest, the loud thumping reminding me that I have to be successful this time or there very well might not be a third escape attempt. Memories of my last attempt swim through my brain.

“The only way you’re leaving this fucking marriage is in a body bag, you understand me?” He spit the words in my face as he pushed his forearm against my throat, pinning me against the wall. His eyes had gone completely black, like he was a shark that smelled blood. I could smell the liquor on his breath as I struggled to choke back the tears. Tears only spur him on.

“Answer me!” he screamed, this time gripping my hair until my scalp burned, forcing me to look in his deranged eyes.

“I—I un—understand,” I managed to get out despite my trembling, bloodied lip. My mouth tasted metallic, a result of him smacking me so hard my bottom teeth bit almost clean through my lip.

Sadly, that was only one of the minor incidents. I’d gotten good over the years at coming up with what I thought were convincing stories on how I broke my wrist, my jaw, a few ribs, and even an eye socket.

Either people believed me, or no one actually cared enough to find out the truth. I can’t decide which is worse.

But that was the last time. I swore after that night that he’d never hit me again. So I devised a plan: cook him his favorite meal, make sure he had a fresh 12-pack in the fridge that he’d be sure to finish, and lace one of the beers with a sleeping pill or two. I don’t want to kill him—I refuse to go to prison for this piece of shit—I just need him to sleep deeply enough that I can escape once and for all.

I don’t know where I’m going. I don’t have any friends or family to help me. Daryl made sure of that. That’s what you don’t realize about marrying a narcissist: slowly they start to shelter you from loved ones, alienating you and blaming you in the process. Before you know it, you’re living in total isolation, completely dependent on this psychopath and at their mercy. It’s like a frog being boiled alive: by the time you realize what’s happened, it’s too late.

I grab the small bag of clothes and toiletries I’d packed earlier from under the kitchen sink, a place I knew my beloved husband would never stoop to look.

“You’re the woman, so you belong in the kitchen and the bedroom. Those are the only two places you’re of any service and you’re not even good at those.”

I shake the memory of his hateful words from my head as I glance over my shoulder one last time. I reach into the front pocket of my bag, making sure the keys are still there.

A few weeks ago I bought a 2004 Chevy Aveo I saw for sale on Craigslist. I’ve been secretly skimming money from Daryl’s secret stash. I know he has a few different jobs—though none he’ll actually explain to me, most likely because they’re not legal. The more he tells me, the more I’m a liability. What I do know is, he has a safe filled with cash and the idiot used his birthdate as the combination. So week after week, I snuck in and took a few hundred here and there. I knew the risk. I knew there was a good chance he’d figure it out someday, but I was completely out of options.

I took a total of $3,000, so when I spotted the car for only $1,500, I didn’t think twice. I offered the man $1,200 cash and he accepted. I offered the owner an extra $300 if he’d let me keep it at his place until I could pick it up. He agreed, no questions asked, thankfully. It’s four miles from my house and I know my only option is to walk there tonight to pick it up.

The moment my feet make it out of my back door, I take off running across the field behind my house and don’t look back. My lungs burn by the time I make it to the tree line, but I don’t stop. I know if I take the road, it will be a quicker route to the car, but I can’t risk it if Daryl wakes up and jumps in his truck. He has giant spotlights on his truck just for that reason. He’d spot me in a minute and I know without a doubt he’d shoot me.

I run the entire four miles, tripping and stumbling over branches and rocks. I have a small flashlight, but it’s no match for the inky blackness around me. I have no phone; I left it behind because he tracks it. Finally, I see a small light in the distance and know I’ve made it. I exit the woods and cross the street, where the Aveo is parked in the man’s side yard just off the driveway. I don’t think twice or hesitate. I reach into my bag and hit the unlock button on the car. I open the door, climb inside, and say a small prayer as I insert the key and turn it. The engine comes to life and I see there’s half a tank of gas. I throw the car in drive and take off.

Tears begin to fall down my cheeks as a sob rips through my chest. Elation, excitement, fear . . . all of it courses through my body as I realize I’m finally free.

***

Present Day . . .

“Class was fantastic tonight, Steph, thank you. Really needed that after having a week of sick twins.”

“Oh, you poor thing, I’m glad you got some mommy time tonight.” I smile at Cheryl as she throws her bag over her shoulder and walks to the door.

“I’ll see you on Thursday. Have a great night!”

She waves to me as she steps outside and heads to her car. I lock the door behind her, looking out into the parking lot. It’s been three years since I left Daryl, but I haven’t stopped looking over my shoulder. Sometimes it’s almost like I forget that I’m in hiding or on the run—that my life is in limbo—but I try not to, because the moment you let your guard down is when your past catches up with you.

I never intended to stay anywhere very long. In fact, the first place I chose was Virginia Dale, Colorado, a small town just over the border from Wyoming. I’d only planned to stop for gas and a bite to eat—maybe a night in a motel—but I ended up staying there for almost a year. I thought I’d end up as far away from Wyoming as possible to throw off Daryl and his sheriff cousin, Rick, who always does Daryl’s dirty work, but then I thought perhaps hiding in plain sight was smarter.

I liked it in Virginia Dale, made some great friends, got a waitressing job my second day, and settled into a routine, but when I saw a bartending job open here in Grand Lake, I took it. I knew that if I didn’t want to get caught, I’d need to stay on the run. But here I am, two years later. If you’d told me I’d go from tending bar and waiting tables in country cafes and diners to managing a Pilates studio owned by my best friend—and that I’m even certified and teaching classes!—I’d tell you you were crazy. I love my job, and I love connecting with my students and sharing a holistic and healthy way to strengthen the body and release negative energy.

I finish sanitizing the equipment we used in class tonight and sweep and mop the floors. I turn off the light in the studio and step into the hallway to do a once-over and check in the locker rooms when I hear something. I stop dead in my tracks, my heart beating against my ribs as I hold my breath to listen. I hear it again. It’s the sound of the doorknob turning, but the door is locked.

Fear grips me as I reach into my pocket to pull out my phone, but then I hear my name, muffled through the shut door.

“Steph, you in there?”

My shoulders drop and I release my breath in an audible exhale as I recognize Ryder’s deep, melodic voice. I step around the corner and see his imposing 6’4” figure blocking the entire glass door. His long, dirty blond hair is tied up in his signature man bun. A lazy smile slowly spreads across his full lips as I approach the door and open it.

“Hey, what are you doing here? Classes ended a while ago,” I tease. I know it’s a total fantasy, but my God, the things this man does to me. Butterflies dance in my lower belly as he lets out a rumbling laugh.

“I was driving home and saw your car in the parking lot and just wanted to make sure you were okay up here all alone.”

I step aside as he enters the lobby of the studio. I try to casually rake my eyes up his denim-clad tree-trunk thighs. He crosses his arms across his broad chest and my eyes continue their journey up his magnificent body.

This is how I know that Ariana Grande was right about God being a woman, because only a woman could design a man so deliciously perfect and tempting to the female gaze it would make you want to hurl your body off a mountain just so he could rescue you. His insane body and good looks are only half of it. The man is a damn fireman . . . he literally rescues people. Maybe he could rescue me from my dry spell. I quickly shake the thought from my head and snap my mouth shut before a stream of drool trickles out.

“Well, that’s very sweet of you. Thank you. It can get super dark out this way and I’m not looking to be a snack for a mountain lion.” I giggle nervously.

“I had ulterior motives too.” He runs his hand over his scruff and I can hear the scratching, sandpaper-like noise it makes.

Have I imagined that scruff scraping along my inner thighs? Only a few dozen times.

“Oh?”

“Yeah, I miss our talks over at The Lariat. You were always the best part of my day when I stopped in there, and I just wanted to see how you were doing.”

I stare at him for a second. Is he nervous? No, you’re just reading into it, Steph.

“Yeah, I missed seeing you too . . . and all the other patrons and regulars,” I say quickly, trying to sound casual. “I told Jerry that I can still bartend when and if he needs me, but he hasn’t texted me, so I’ve just been teaching all the classes I can here.”

I watch as he steps further into the studio, looking around the lobby and down the hallway.

“What about you? How’s work? Still putting out fires and rescuing kittens?” I ask and realize I sound like a high schooler.

“Yeah, yeah, still putting out fires. It’s about to get busier with wildfire season right around the corner.” He plays with the thick leather cuff of his watch like he wants to say something but he’s unsure. I’m about to say something when his eyes dart to mine and he says, “We should hang out.”

I smile and those damn butterflies feel like they’re doing backflips in my belly right now.

“Yeah?” Ugh, high schooler again. Why not just flip my hair while I’m at it?

“Yeah,” he repeats my answer back to me as his eyes level on me. It’s like they’re looking right through me and suddenly, I feel really vulnerable.

“For sure. We should totally hang out.” I say the last part a little too loudly and try to readjust. Is he asking me out on a date? What does “hang out” even mean these days? “You’ve got my number . . . so text me sometime?” I step past him and turn the rest of the lights off before walking to the front desk to grab my keys and bag.

He doesn’t say anything as he walks behind me out the studio door. I shut the door and lock it before turning and walking to my car, Ryder beside me the entire way.

“This is me,” I say, nodding my head toward the Aveo. “I mean, obviously it’s me. It’s the only other car in the parking lot other than yours, and you’ve seen my car before, so you know what kind of car I drive.” Words pour nervously from my mouth as I fidget with my key ring, my eyes focused on the rocks I’m pushing around with the toe of my shoe. Ryder’s low rumbled laugh breaks the silence again and my eyes snap to his.

“Doesn’t have to be a date or anything with connotations, Steph. Just hanging out,” he says casually with a shoulder shrug.

“Yeah.” My voice has gone up about five octaves. “No, I know what you meant. I know we’re both crazy busy and we’re friends—good friends.” I have no idea what the hell I’m actually saying right now. I’m rambling as Ryder takes a step forward and slowly closes the distance between us.

“Or it can be more.” His voice is thick and low and oh so delicious.

He leans down and it feels like everything is happening in slow motion as his warm hand settles on my waist, his thick fingers gripping me softly as his lips touch mine.

The kiss isn’t long. It’s direct and to the point. His pillow-soft lips part, kissing mine once and then twice as his tongue softly parts my own lips and briefly caresses my tongue. I’m completely breathless, and the air has been sucked out of my lungs in the most delicious and exciting five seconds of my life.

He reaches behind me and opens my door, helping me inside. He leans down, his face next to mine.

“Drive safe, Steph. I’ll text you.”

He gives me a wink before shutting my door and walking around my car toward his truck. I watch him in the rear-view mirror the entire time, completely torn and wondering if I should run after him and beg him to finish what he just started, but just as I put my hand on the door handle, a chill runs through my body and I remind myself that while I’m still Stephanie Hartman here in Grand Lake, Ryder has no idea that I’m a woman on the run with dangerous secrets that could get us both killed.

CHAPTER 1 — RYDER


I can’t keep the damn smile off my face as I make the drive home. I hadn’t intended to kiss Stephanie, but that’s where the moment led us. It felt . . . right. Nothing has felt right between another woman and me since my wife Tara died.

There’s been something between Steph and me since the moment I saw her tending bar at The Lariat. She’s more than her outward beauty—she’s a genuine, kind person who always sees the good in others. We’ve flirted for months, constantly dancing around the giant elephant of buzzing sexual tension in the room. It’s been fun—exhilarating even—but there’s also been a cloud of something else lingering. Something I haven’t yet figured out. I’ve enjoyed every second of getting to know Steph over the last year and I have a feeling I haven’t even scratched the surface yet.

Morgan Wallen’s “Sand in My Boots” comes on my playlist and I reach over to turn it up. I rest my elbow on the open window, the crisp evening air of the Rocky Mountains whipping past me as I belt out the lyrics, letting them take me away. I tell myself that I need to get my guitar out again.

After Tara died, I put it away. It was too painful. Every time I looked at it, I was reminded of her and what we could’ve had. She bought it for me for my birthday one year after I’d made a drunken confession that I’d always dreamt of being a country singer when I was growing up. She thought it was adorable and insisted I not let that dream die.

I didn’t have the heart to tell her that it wasn’t my dream anymore, but getting that guitar reminded me of someone I used to be. I picked it right back up, started writing a few songs here and there, and even went to a few open mic nights. I used to serenade her and our unborn daughter on our back deck. Tara would be barefoot, her legs slung across my own as she’d lie back on the porch swing. She’d get this lazy, content smile as she closed her eyes and rubbed her belly. Sometimes she’d hum along with me. She told me once that it was her favorite part of the day. But the day after she and our daughter died, I put the guitar away and haven’t touched it since.

I pull into my driveway, my heart heavy with the jog I just took down memory lane.

“I need a dog,” I say aloud as I realize how lonely it can get out here in mountains. I put the truck in park and shut it off, reaching to grab my lunch box and water bottle when I hear my phone chirp. I reach in my pocket as I walk up to the front porch and see Steph’s name on the screen. Just seeing her name fills me with excitement again.

Steph: I was thinking, we should make plans to hang out before we both get busy and forget.

I smile at my phone. She’s right. We’ve both said the let’s hang out line a few times over the last few months and neither of us actually made plans. It’s not that I haven’t wanted to; I guess I was trying to feel out if she was ready. I don’t know much about her past and I’m not looking to just hit it and quit it. Steph deserves more than that and I want to give that to her.

Me: Yeah, I agree. How about tomorrow night? Dinner in Granby? I know a place with live music.

I see the three little dots appear on my screen, dancing in sequence as she types a response, but then they disappear. I wait several moments but a response doesn’t come through. I place the phone on the counter as I empty out my lunch box and rifle through the fridge for something to eat. Finally my phone chirps again and I’m nervous to open the message, fearful that she’s rescinded the offer to hang out.

Steph: I was thinking maybe we could just hang at your place?

I’m a little surprised. I see why she took a few moments to reply. She probably didn’t want to seem too forward, but fuck me, I’m not about to say no to her wanting to come to my place.

Steph: If not, totally okay. Just thought it might be nice to not have prying eyes and just be a little more chill, ya know? I thought I could bring some wine and we could stay in and cook? No pressure.

Steph and I are well aware that pretty much everyone in town has been trying to get us together. They think they’re being subtle, and at first it was funny, but now it’s annoying.

Me: Absolutely. I’ll pick up a few groceries. See you around 6?

Steph: It’s a date. :)

My heart flutters in my chest when I read those three little words and I realize that for the first time in a long while, I’m falling for someone.

***

“You think Leigh and everyone would freak out if they knew we were hanging out?” Steph takes a sip of her wine and wriggles her eyebrows at me, causing me to chuckle. She leans casually against the railing of the deck, the cool evening air causing her to hold her sweater a little tighter around her body.

“Oh, I’m sure. I bet she’d freak out even more if she knew it was a date.” I sip my wine as I deliberately keep eye contact with her. I know she was the one who said it first via text, but I want to make it clear to her that I feel the same way.

“Yeah, I’m sure she would.” She looks down into her glass briefly as I take the two steps toward her to close the distance between us. I place my wineglass down on the railing of the deck. I take the glass from her hand and place it next to mine as I slowly turn her to face me.

“This is a date, Steph,” I say as I see her slowly nod before swallowing. “And I haven’t stopped thinking about kissing you again since last night.”

I tip her chin upwards till her big blue eyes are staring into mine. I lean in, slowly, giving her time to register what’s happening, but she doesn’t stop me. Instead, she lifts up onto her tiptoes as our lips press together softly. It feels the time stops for a moment, like there’s only us on this planet right now.

I move my lips against hers slowly at first before we both find a rhythm and deepen the kiss. Our tongues dance together as her hands that were resting against my chest now grip my flannel tightly as she pulls me closer. A small growl escapes my lips as I grip her waist tighter, holding her thin body against mine as I grind my thickening cock against her belly.

A moment of panic runs through me as I realize how quickly this kiss has turned into something heated and hungry. Before I can second-guess myself, I slide my hands from her waist to just below her ass and lift her. Her legs wrap around my waist and her tongue melts with mine as I feel her warm center rest against me. I spin us around, pinning her between me and the outside wall of my house.

I let my hands wander, exploring her body over her jeans and sweater as I feel myself straining hard against my zipper. It’s taking everything I have not to drag her inside and bury myself so deep inside her I’ll never forget it. But that’s not what I want with Steph. I don’t want to use her as a way to escape my past. I want more.

“Wait, baby—”I murmur the words against her mouth as she paws at the buttons on my shirt. Suddenly, her eyes open and meet mine, a glint of panic registering on her face as I slowly lower her back down to her feet. Her eyes run down my body as I struggle to adjust myself, attempting but failing to hide my massive erection.

“Uh, sorry about that, I—”

We’re both panting, trying to catch our breath as we adjust our clothes.

“Nothing to be sorry about,” she says softly, and I look up to meet her gaze. She’s embarrassed.

“Steph, it’s not that I regret it or didn’t want it, trust me. I was about two seconds away from—well, let’s just say I was trying to slow things down because I don’t want you thinking I’m just trying to use you for a quick fuck. I like you . . . a lot.”

I run my hands nervously over my beard as she nods at me before walking over to grab her glass of wine.

“That’s very sweet of you, thank you.” She takes a seat on one of the benches near the fire pit and tucks her legs beneath her. “Sit. Let’s get to know each other better.” She smiles as she pats the seat next to her.

“So tell me about Stephanie. What’s your story?” I ask, realizing that this is the first time we’re actually talking about our pasts. We always made small talk when she was tending bar or we were hanging out with a group of friends. We’ve done a good job of getting to know each other now, but neither have us have shared about the journey that bought us here.

“Boring, really. I was in the system. I never knew my dad and my mom was on drugs, so she was in and out of prison. She lost custody of me when I was seven and that was the last time I saw her. I was in and out of foster homes till I was 17.”

“Fuck,” I mutter as I reach over and squeeze her hand. She just shrugs it off.

“It’s okay. It is what it is. More importantly, what’s your story?”

I can see that she clearly doesn’t want to share more about her past, so I don’t pry. I finish off my wine and let out a long sigh.

“Afraid my story isn’t a happy one either. I have great parents, though I’m an only child. My mom passed about 10 years ago from leukemia. My dad is still alive and doing well. He’s in Broomfield with his second wife, who he met about four years ago. They’re super active in their community and my stepmom really keeps my dad young.”

“That sounds wonderful, Ryder,” Steph says, and I can see the confusion on her face.

“Yeah, that part is. I, uh, I dated Tara, my high school sweetheart, from 10th grade until we got married when we were 22. Things were great. She was a kindergarten teacher and we put off having kids for a while since we got hitched so young. Anyway, we decided to try and she got pregnant pretty quickly with a little girl but, um,” I clear my throat, trying not to tear up, “when she was just shy of five months pregnant, she was hit head-on by a drunk driver. She and the baby died instantly.”

I hear a gasp from Stephanie as she covers her mouth with her hand. I look over at her as she rests her other hand on mine. I take her hand in mine, running my fingertips over her soft skin.

“I’m so sorry,” she whispers.

“Not your fault, but I appreciate it. That was four years ago and it was the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through, but I’d like to think it made me a better man. Made me realize what’s important in life, ya know? I used to be so focused on my firefighting career—on making captain—that I’d blow off dates with Tara and family events just so I could practice and get in my workouts and training.” I hang my head, remembering the look on Tara’s face whenever I forgot to do something I’d promised because I was too focused on myself.

I look over at Steph and her eyes look like they’re filled with tears.

“Fuck, I’m sorry. I took it really dark. I’m sorry.”

She doesn’t say anything, but then she places her wineglass on the deck next to her feet and slowly crawls into my lap, wrapping her arms around me as I bury my face in her neck.

“Dinner was amazing, by the way.” I pull her face back to look at mine. “Thank you,” I say as I brush a tendril of hair behind her ear.

We both stare at each other, the air growing thick between us with desire. I drop my gaze from her eyes to her lips and they slowly part.

This time, neither of us takes it slow. We don’t deny the need we both feel as we devour each other’s mouths. I slip my hand behind her neck, pulling her body roughly against mine.

“God, I want you,” I murmur against her lips as a whimper escapes. “You have no idea how badly I’ve wanted this,” I continue between pants as our lips break apart then find each other again.

I’m completely lost in her: touching her, tasting her, feeling her body shudder beneath my touch all while we’re still fully clothed and only kissing. A sniffle interrupts my focus as Steph breaks the kiss, her head dropping a little before she covers it with her hands.

“Stephanie, honey, what’s wrong?” I pull her hands back to see big, watery tears spilling over the edge of her eyes and down her rosy cheeks.

“I’m sorry—” she says as she scrambles to remove herself from my lap before walking across the deck and back into my house.

I follow closely behind her, confused.

“Did I do something? I’m so sorry,” I say as I reach out for her hand.

“No, no, you didn’t,” she says between sniffs as she wipes another big tear away before grabbing her purse. “You are perfect and wonderful and amazing.” The tears fall steadily now as she shakes her head, her words shaky with emotion. “And that’s why I can’t do this.”

And with those words, she slowly slides her hand out of mine and walks through my front door, closing it behind her.

CHAPTER 2 — STEPHANIE


I’m a coward. That’s the bottom line.

Tears blur my vision as I drive back to my apartment. I had the perfect opportunity to be honest with Ryder—to tell him that my past isn’t as easy as “I’m a foster kid with no family.” There’s a whole toxic history of fucked-up-ness so deep in my family it’s impossible to escape.

By the time I’ve made it back home, I’ve convinced myself that I actually did Ryder a favor. He’s a good man who comes from a good, upstanding family with values and traditions and holiday cards. Before the accident, he had the perfect family and perfect life with a kindergarten teacher no less.

Why the hell would a man like him be interested in someone like me? Those are fairytales. In real life, the hero firefighter widower doesn’t fall in love with the local bartender who’s on the run from her abusive husband. I’m the bump in the road that he tosses aside when he finally finds his second chance at happily ever after.

I climb out of my car and trudge the stairs up to my apartment. I feel ashamed and sorry for myself—ashamed that I didn’t even give Ryder the chance to hear about my predicament, and sorry for myself that my asshole husband even put me in this situation.

I head straight to the kitchen for a glass of water. My tongue feels bitter rolling around in my mouth, with the word husband making my stomach flip. I’ve grown to hate that word—not because I don’t want to be married and not because I hate men, but because I hate more than anything that Daryl Sellers is my husband and there’s nothing I can do about it.

I walk to the bathroom, turning the water on in the tub and tossing a few lavender bath salts in, hoping they’ll help me relax. I pull my phone out of my pocket as I sit on the edge of the tub.

No texts or calls from Ryder. I don’t blame him. I open our last text exchange from just a few hours ago when I was asking him what kind of wine he liked on my way over to his house. I hastily type out a message to him.

Me: You deserve so much better than me.

I stare at the message. It’s true, but it’s too dramatic. I erase it and try again.

Me: I’m married and I’m in hiding from him.

I instantly hit delete on that one. I put the phone back in my pocket and pace the bathroom for a few minutes. I contemplate not only what to say but why I want to say it. Why do I want to tell this man the details of my past when I know it will result in the end of any sort of potential future for us? It’s not that I don’t think he won’t want me . . . it’s because he deserves better. He doesn’t deserve to be saddled with this burden of me trying to sort my life out while putting him in danger.

I pull the phone out one more time and type the words that come to mind.

Me: Ryder, I’m so sorry. I know that word doesn’t negate what I just did and I know I owe you an explanation. You don’t owe me the time to listen to me or to give me a second chance, but I do want to offer. There are things about me you don’t know and it wouldn’t be right or fair for me to hide them from you. If you’re willing, I’d like a chance to explain things and to apologize in person.

I hit send before I can talk myself out of it. I place the phone on the counter as I strip out of my clothes. I grab the phone and slowly lower myself down into the steaming lavender water. The phone chirps and I slide the screen open.

Ryder: No rush, Stephanie. I’m your friend first and foremost and I meant it when I said I like you. I’m here for you, always.

I lean my head back against the porcelain tub as a single tear falls from the corner of my eye.

Ever since I left Wyoming, I’ve kept my head on a swivel. I told myself not to get too attached to people or a town or place. I did well for a while, but even when I made friends in Virginia Dale and felt welcome there, I knew the moment I got too comfortable, I had to leave. So I did. I packed up my things in the middle of the night and drove to Grand Lake, where I saw an ad for a bartending job at The Lariat.

I know most people would’ve run across the country if they were hiding out from their abusive husband, but I didn’t have the money to go too far. The $1,500 I had left over from buying the car went pretty quickly when I had to put down the first and last month’s rent to get a place to live . . . not to mention, sometimes hiding in plain sight is your best bet.

I swirl the bubbles around as I think about the friendships I’ve made here in Grand Lake. My heart hurts when I think about leaving here. Fear starts to work its way through my body. My stomach tightens as my throat constricts when I realize that if I tell Ryder who I really am, it’ll put a target on his back. He’s a good man—the kind of man who would want to protect me against someone like Daryl.

I panic, standing up quickly as water sloshes over the edge of the tub. I grab my towel, drying off before rushing to my bedroom and flicking on the light. I feel manic. I grab my two giant suitcases and begin to pull items from hangers and drawers, shoving them into the suitcases without even folding them.

“No, no!” I shout as I stand up. I pace my room, wringing my hands as I will myself to breathe and calm down. I close my eyes, pinching the bridge of my nose as I inhale through it and let out long, audible exhales through my open lips.

“I’m done running.” I turn to the floor-length mirror on the inside of my closet door and stare at myself. I look thin and tired, a far cry from the chubby-cheeked teenager I used to see staring back at me.

“You’re done running, Steph. We can’t keep doing this. We stay this time and we fight.”

I drain the tub and return to my bedroom to begin putting my clothes back where they belong. I turn on my Spotify app, and Adele’s melodic voice fills the room with her telltale emotional lyrics. I start to hum along with them, and soon I’m belting out the song in the same octave.

I stop suddenly when I hear what I think is a soft knock on my front door. I feel the panic grip my chest again as I reach over and pause the song. I listen again intently but don’t hear anything. I tiptoe to the side of my bed, grabbing the baseball bat I keep next to my nightstand, and tiptoe down the hallway into the living room. I stare at the bottom of the door where it meets the floor, seeing if there’s a shadow or movement, but I don’t see anything.

I hold my breath and take the few steps to close the distance. I look out the peephole, but there’s no one in my vestibule. I take a few breaths as I grip the handle, unlock the deadbolt, and remove the chain lock. I grip the bat tightly in my right hand as I slowly twist the handle with my left one and open the door. I glance around, but again, the vestibule is empty. I’m so focused on looking for a person that I almost miss the small bouquet of flowers wrapped in grocery store cellophane on my doormat.

I smile, relief washing over me as I release the door handle and bend down to pick up the flowers, bringing them to my nose and inhaling their floral scent. The tension in my shoulders begins to relax as I realize my fear that Ryder would want nothing to do with me now wasn’t accurate.

I grab my phone and type out a message to him.

Steph: Hey, sorry to bother you again but I got the flowers. Thank you.

I don’t have a vase but I find an empty Mason jar and fill it with water before placing the flowers in it. I put it in the center of my coffee table. My place is very small and the furniture is mismatched, but it’s home . . . for now. It came furnished, which was a huge bonus for me, so I’m not about to complain that the coffee table is technically an outdoor patio side table.

I make myself some tea after changing into my pajamas, then I cuddle up on the couch to watch the latest Dateline. I stare at the flowers, a smile slowly spreading across my lips. I know it’s the smallest gesture, but at 17 I dated then eventually married the same guy, and the only time he ever got me flowers was on our courthouse wedding day. My thoughts are interrupted when my phone alerts me to a text from Ryder.

Ryder: Hey, never a bother . . . not when it’s you. ;) Hope you have a great night and sleep well.

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