“Jump!” Chad yells. “Jump!”

My heart is racing and my belly is burning as badly as my lungs, my feet wobbling on the edge of the windowsill. And somehow, I know that this is good-bye. To Chad. To my mother, who was screaming in agony in the other room but has now gone silent. To life as I know it. I don’t want to let go. I don’t . . . want to let go.

“Jump!” Chad yells again, and I just do it. I jump, my stomach flipping with the action, my heart racing, the adrenaline surging through me as I brace for the impact, which will steal what little air I have left. And then . . . and then . . . nothing. No pain. No impact. No . . . nothing. Everything goes black. But that’s not how it happened. That’s not what came next, and on some level I know this because I’m asleep, living one of my many nightmares.

Suddenly, I flash forward several years to when I’d lived in New York, hiding from an unknown enemy. Nervously fidgeting, I stand at my landlord’s door as I prepare to tell him that I’m going to be late on my rent. Again. I’m going to be late again when he told me the last time was it. No more extensions. Inhaling deeply, I steel myself for the grumpy old man’s attitude and knock. And wait. And wait. I knock again, but still there is no answer. Of course not. It’s Christmas Eve. He has family. He has people he loves that he’s spending time with tonight. My gut wrenches as I walk down the hallway and up several flights of stairs to the foyer I share with only one other tenant. I stop dead in my tracks on the final step, staring at the box sitting in front of my door.

My heart begins to race, roaring in my ears. I know without question that my past is visiting me tonight. Forcing myself to breathe, I step forward and kneel down in front of the package, my long winter coat weighing me down like the dread that sits on my shoulders. On the top there is a symbol, a triangle with hieroglyphic writing inside, that tells me this parcel is from my invisible guardian angel. I don’t know if that means it’s good news or bad.

A pebble of hope forms in my chest. Could the running be over? Could this be the moment when I hear that I no longer have to hide? Urgency builds inside of me, and I stand, unlocking my door. Shoving it open, I flip on the lights, using my foot to scoot the box over the threshold of my tiny apartment. Stepping inside, I lock the door behind me, and for a moment I absorb the blow of a living area with a simple navy blue sleeper couch and matching chair, a wooden coffee table, and a closet-sized kitchen to the left being all I have in my sanctuary and hiding place.

My lips curl over my teeth as I fight the burn in my eyes. I’m not sure why, but I don’t want to open the package. I’m afraid to. I’m always afraid, and I hate that this is who I’ve become. But still I take my time and loop my purse on the hook above my head on the door before taking off my coat. Running my hands down my black skirt, I bend down and carry the box to the living room, where I set it on the coffee table. And stare at it. When it doesn’t open itself—imagine that?—my gaze lifts to the four-foot-tall artificial tree that I’d bought two years ago and I stand, crossing the few steps needed to turn it on, staring at the twinkling multicolored lights and the plain green, blue, and red ornaments, remembering the glorious ceiling-high fir trees my family used to decorate. The laughter and the joy. The gifts we’d picked out with such care.

Forcing myself back to the couch, I sit down and see that the box is taped tightly. I grab a pen on the table and jab at the tape, steadying my trembling hand and willing away my weakness. “Stop it,” I hiss at myself. “You’re stronger than this.” I pant out several angry breaths, angry at my “guardian angel” for leaving me so alone and in the dark. How can anyone live like this? How?

I stab the tape again and again, ripping at it until the stupid lid is free, then I tear the box open—and gasp as I stare down at stacks of money. Shocked and disappointed, though I can’t quite analyze why yet, I reach for the blank envelope sitting on top of the cash and open it. A typed message inside reads: If you spend it too fast or deposit it in the bank, it will bring attention to you that you can’t afford. Use it as you need it, but do it discreetly.

Tears pool in my eyes, a thunderstorm of emotions rushing over me. I have money now, but this is so far from being over. I’m being watched. I’m in danger. At any moment, someone could hurt me like they did my family and I have no idea why. Yet there is relief in knowing someone is looking out for me. The years of silence since my guardian angel, my handler, last made contact made me wonder. I’m not completely alone. I’m not . . . alone. I lie down on the couch and everything goes black again.

Now it’s years later and I’m standing in the bathroom in the museum where I work, exiting a stall to find a note on the mirror. And I know without reading it that my world has shattered once again. I’d tried to start a new life, a new job, with friends, and happiness. I’ve gotten stronger, beaten my fear.

My head swims in blackness and I’m transported to the airport, on the run again. I’ve just been told by the attendant at the counter that I might not make my standby flight, and I turn away, feeling more alone and scared than ever. I’ve never felt as alone as in that moment, when my eyes collide with a stranger’s penetrating stare, and I shockingly feel no fear. I feel a connection. The room disappears, the unease fades if only for moments, and he and I exist together. I am not alone. And then Liam fades away, like some kind of camera trick, and it’s as if he was never there. Like everyone else I’ve ever loved.

Tags: Lisa Renee Jones The Secret Life of Amy Bensen Romance
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