“No. No bringing work home. Get a massage, go to the f**king Bahamas; I don’t care what you do, as long as you take a break. Don’t come back until Monday. Next Monday,” he clarified.
Fuck. A week off of work with nothing to do? He’d go insane.
No, he knew he shouldn’t check up on Savannah, but once the idea had planted itself firmly in his mind, he knew it’d be damn near impossible to shake.
Cole spent the first two days of his vacation much like he spent every other weekend: catching up on sleep, hitting the gym, grabbing some takeout and parking it on the couch with a beer and flipping aimlessly through the TV channels.
But by the time Monday morning rolled around, he knew he was in over his head. There was no way he’d survive another week of this shit. He was already bored out of his mind, and it was day one of his Bureau-enforced vacation. Damn Norm.
Thoughts of Savannah continued to occupy his mind, and he found himself wondering where she was and if she was doing okay. After his third cup of coffee, he was jittery and pacing. Damn, he’d be crawling the walls of his condo by noon if he didn’t get out and do something.
Cole made a snap decision, knowing he wouldn’t be able to let the thoughts of Savannah go. Not until he knew she was okay. It was simple curiosity, nothing more. Plus, it’d give him something to do to occupy his time. A win all round. He’d do a simple stakeout, no big deal. After a quick phone call to another agent that morning, he had a good idea where they’d taken her.
The safe house.
She was taken to the only nearby facility with an opening—a transitional housing development on the shady side of town. Something about it didn’t sit right with him. She was too innocent and good-looking to be somewhere like that.
He would stakeout the house, assuming she was still there. Since the file hadn’t mentioned any other family, he was betting she was. Once he saw her with his own eyes, and confirmed she was safe and doing well, he would let it go.
Fall was Savannah’s favorite time of year. The brutal heat of the Texas summer had dissipated and left the air around her pleasantly warm, and more comfortable than stifling. She was taking her third walk of the day. With nothing to do other than sit and worry over the kids, she preferred to be outside, moving, rather than sitting in the grungy halfway house.
She rounded the corner of the block she’d grown familiar with over the past several days, surprised she hadn’t worn a path into the sidewalk by now. There was a small park across the street. She considered stopping to watch the children playing, but kept going, knowing it would only dredge up memories that would make her cry.
She couldn’t quite believe things had ended the way they did. She felt conflicted being away from the compound, empty in a weird way. It was all she knew, but she’d dreamed of leaving the overly strict compound for the last few years. She’d become disillusioned with their whole way of life after her mother passed away four years ago. But there were certain things, and people, she’d miss. She already missed the bustle of activity, always having someone to talk to. She thought of Dillon, the only other person her age, and wondered where he was.
When the sun began to sink lower in the sky, she resigned herself to spending another night at the house. She’d come to despise it for no other reason than how alone she felt there. She turned right at the corner, surprised that she didn’t recognize her surroundings. She’d been so lost in thought, and over-confident in her ability to navigate, that she hadn’t paid attention to where she’d wandered. She turned in a circle, searching out a landmark, or street sign she’d recognize; but unfortunately it did little good. She was lost.
She took a deep breath and willed herself to stay calm. But the fa?ade lasted about two seconds. She had no one to call and didn’t even know the address of the house. She was completely and utterly alone. After growing up in a household with a dozen different women mothering her, the realization was a stark one. She’d never been on her own. And she was already failing at it.
Savannah wiped away the tears that had begun to escape her eyes. What would she do if couldn’t find the house again? The street had started with an L, hadn’t it? She supposed she could go into a nearby shop and ask if they knew of a halfway house close by. She’d probably sound like a crazy person, but what other options did she have? She pulled in a deep breath, regaining some composure, and looked through the window of a convenience store. The guy at the counter met her eyes, then stared straight at her boobs. Nope. Not going in there. Gaze cast down, she kept walking.
With the thud of her shoes against the sidewalk and the pounding rhythm of her heart guiding her, Savannah continued on. The purr of a car engine lingered behind her. Not passing. Shoot. This wasn’t a great part of town to be alone in. What had she been thinking? So she quickened her stride, but the car kept pace.
A large black SUV stopped alongside her. The dark tinted window lowered. A rush of panic washed over her, and tears sprang to her eyes.
The rough male voice knew her name. She stumbled to a halt and dared a glance in his direction. She was met with the concerned gaze of the FBI agent who had rescued her after the compound was raided. He was tall, and broad shouldered with dark hair, stubble dusting his jaw and his dark eyes were locked on hers. She ventured a step closer to his SUV. She didn’t know his name, or what he intended, but something in his dark gaze gripped the very depths of her, and she knew instinctively that she could trust him. At least she hoped she could. He hadn’t hurt her that night. His touch had been strong, but gentle. Summoning, her courage, she turned to face him.
Cole couldn’t believe his luck, that he had quite literally spotted Savannah on the way to the safe house.
Her face was streaked with tears and her eyes wild. Shit, she looked scared. Had someone done something to her? The thought drove him nuts.
“Savannah?” he repeated.
Without waiting for her to respond, Cole slammed his gearshift into park and hopped out, crossing the front of the SUV to stand before her.
He lifted her chin, inspecting her face and neck for marks, and gripped her upper arms to turn her in a circle, looking her over completely. She appeared unharmed, so he didn’t understand why she was crying. “What happened?”
She swallowed and looked down at the sidewalk between their feet.
“Hey.” He brushed her hand with his. “You remember me, right?”
She met his eyes and gave him a hesitant nod. “What’s your name?” she asked, a nervous hitch in her voice.
“Colby Fletcher.” He offered her his hand, and she slipped her delicate fingers into his palm.
“Colby,” she repeated in barely a whisper.
“You can call me Cole. Everyone else does. Or Fletcher, or Fletch. You know, whatever…”
She grinned, more with her eyes than her mouth. His babbling had apparently scored some points.
“Now tell me what’s wrong,” he pushed. He didn’t mean for it to come out as a command, but he needed to know what had happened to her, manners aside.
“I went for a walk and got lost,” she said simply.
Cole nearly sagged in relief. Thank fuck. That, he could fix. God, if something had happened to her, he didn’t think he could’ve handled it. Not with the worry that’d been churning in his gut the last several days. “Come on, I can drive you back.” He turned for the driver’s side again, but Savannah remained rooted to the sidewalk. He returned to the spot where she stood and spoke to her in hushed tones. “You can trust me, okay?”
Her eyes flashed to his. He’d forgotten how green they were. She squinted and blinked several times, as if she was deciding. It was cute. Without another word, Savannah opened the passenger door and climbed inside.
Cole’s skin tingled, hyper-aware of just how close she was. She wore a pair of baggy jeans, torn at one knee and a long sleeved thermal tee, but the ill-fitting attire did nothing to temper the desire he felt. He gripped the steering wheel tighter, his hands itching to fold her body against his own. Shit, his libido was out of control when it came to this girl. Maybe he really did need a vacation. Somewhere with sand and lots of women in bikinis. Somewhere the hell away from Savannah.
Neither spoke during the short ride back to the halfway house. Cole stopped in front of the two-story, pale gray house flaking in paint. Both his and Savannah’s attention was captured by a group of guys sitting on the wide front porch, arguing loudly.
Savannah fiddled nervously with the door handle, but made no move to exit the car.
“Listen, I don’t have to take you back right away…we could grab a cup of coffee.”
Relief washed over her face. “Yes.”
There was no way he was sending her back inside that house just yet.
Over steaming mugs of coffee at a nearby café, Cole attempted small talk, but mostly they sat in comfortable silence. Savannah seemed distracted and somber. He wondered if she was counting down the minutes until she had to go back to that house, and dreading it just as much as he was. “Do you have any family you can stay with?” he asked finally.
A deep searing gaze communicated her need. Cole’s worst assumptions were proven correct — she was all alone. She swallowed and shook her head. “My mom passed away when I was fifteen, and I never met my father. I suppose I could find one of the women from Jacob’s group, but I don’t know…”
“Are you hungry? Have you eaten? We could get you something.” Cole couldn’t stop himself from peppering her with questions.
She kept her gaze cast down and shook her head. “I’m fine.” Savannah sat quietly in her seat, her thin fingers wound tightly around the coffee mug.
Cole wished there was something more he could do for her. He wasn’t sure what to say, how to help, so he sat silently across from her sipping his coffee.
By the time they reached the house again, darkness had blanketed the sky. Cole shifted into park, turning off the engine. “I’ll walk you inside.”
The house itself was large, but poorly maintained. The furniture was old and unmatched, the beige carpet stained and threadbare. Cole didn’t see much of the first floor, beyond a dingy living room, before she led him upstairs. There were several closed doors along the long hallway. Savannah stopped at the second door on the right. The key fumbled between her fingers, clanking against the wooden door. After three failed attempts to unlock it, Cole removed it from her trembling hand, and deftly opened the door.
The first thing he noticed was the odor—the room smelled like wet gym socks. Savannah flipped on the light and took several steps into the room. A single narrow cot on the floor and a chair in the corner containing stray articles of clothing were the only furnishings.
Fuck. He couldn’t just leave her here, could he?
Savannah stepped in closer, wrapping her arms around his waist and tucking her head under his chin. “Thank you,” she whispered.
Her eagerness at physical contact surprised him, but he only hesitated a moment before wrapping his arms around her. Cole patted her back, hating that his attempts at soothing her were clumsy and awkward. He’d never been good at this kind of thing: emotions, touchy-feely crap. Maybe his presence would be enough to calm her. And although he didn’t know how to show it, he felt protective. He wouldn’t let anyone hurt her. If anyone so much as looked at her the wrong way, Cole would knock them on their ass. He held her for several long minutes until the beating of her heart slowed to normal, and she backed out of his arms.
Their eyes flashed to one another’s at the sounds of an argument going on in the next room. Angry voices carried through the thin walls. Another argument. Cole and Savannah exchanged glances.
“Are you sure you’ll be okay?”
She nodded, looking solemn.
“Here’s my card.” He fished the card from his wallet and placed it in her trembling hand. “Call me if you need anything.”
Savannah remained silent, glancing at the card, running her thumb along the raised lettering.
“Lock your door when I leave, okay?”
She nodded tightly, sucking her bottom lip into her mouth, as if there was something more she wanted to say, but stopped herself.
Cole left reluctantly He knew it was getting late, and as much as it pained him to leave her, he couldn’t put it off any longer. He was sure he was crossing some sort of professional line even being here. He waited outside the door until he heard the lock slide into place, the sound not nearly as reassuring as he would have hoped.
Once he was outside, Cole took a deep breath and scrubbed his hands across his face. The cooling blast of autumn air filled his lungs, but did nothing to return him to his senses. He climbed inside his truck and gripped the steering wheel until his knuckles were white, trying to will himself to start the engine and drive away from her.
The lock on her door did little to calm her nerves. The deep, raspy voices of her male neighbors sent shivers down her spine. She huddled in closer to the thin, scratchy blanket.
The unfamiliar sounds and smells of the house left her on edge and shaking. The brief interlude with Cole had helped, but now that she was back in the bleak reality of the tiny room again, an impending panic attack throbbed in her chest.
Growing up the way she had, listening to Jacob’s crazy rants about sex being dirty and diseased, and men of the world being fueled by only their lust, made her hyper-aware of the sounds in the rooms next to her. Their loud voices, crude glances, and grubby hands. Jacob constantly drilled into her that men would only want her for one thing.
Realization struck. She was alone. Totally and completely alone. Panic crept in to the edges of her brain, but she fought it, holding the darkness at bay. Just barely. Think Savannah. If she could go on after losing her mom, she could survive this, too. Didn’t have much choice.