“Maybe she’s with Rose,” Cab said. “I’ll look into it. She could have even walked the rest of the way to the Cruz ranch; it’s just down the road from Carl’s.”
“Five miles down the road,” Jason said. “Shit, I can’t believe I just forgot about her. Probably scared her to death, too.” He approached the bars again. “Go look for her, Cab. I think she was on the run from something; probably from a man. Our fight…”
“Probably scared the crap out of her,” Cab finished for him. “All right. I’m on it. And I’ll be back in the morning to sort this all out.” He hesitated. Waved a hand at the bars. “Sorry.”
Jason heaved a sigh. “Probably more comfortable than a night at home with Dad. It’s all right. Tell Rose…” he trailed off.
“I’ll tell her everything,” Cab said, and left.
Fila ran for her life through the thick forest. Trees whipped past her. She leaped fallen branches, darted around thickets she couldn’t penetrate, fell, got up and ran some more. To her mind, the sound of her mad dash through the forest echoed as loud as thunder. She knew they’d trace her. Knew they’d find her.
She had to hide.
She spotted the tree house first and nearly tripped in shock at the sight of the high structure. Too exposed to hide in, she thought, but a few moments later she stumbled on something else. A green tarp half-hidden by layers of evergreen branches covered something someone didn’t want people to see. Panting, a stitch in her side making every breath torture, she listened for pursuers, heard none, and lifted the plastic sheet.
Someone was storing lumber out here in the woods. She had a memory—a flash of a childhood visit to a friend of the family just outside Simsbury. Climbing a rope ladder into their tree house. Eating sandwiches and telling stories.
No one who built a tree house could be all bad.
And no one would look for her under a tarp hidden in the woods. She slid underneath the cold, clammy surface and lined up her body parallel to the pile of boards. Pressed up against them, already shivering as the cold, autumn night drew in, she tucked the tarp around herself and tried to erase any signs of her passage under it. Then she lay still and held her breath. She’d wait a few hours, think up a plan, and escape again.
Rose was glad she’d taken the time to collect a flashlight from Cab’s house before heading into the woods. She hoped the woman hadn’t gotten too far a head start because of it, but she figured two of them plunging headlong into the trees in the dark was most likely to end in the need for two search parties.
All she had to go on was the direction she saw the woman run, but Rose felt certain she knew where she would end up. She wasn’t dressed for racing through the woods, so she’d have to go to ground somewhere. The tree house made a likely place.
Ten minutes later, however, she flashed her light through the small structure and conceded that it was empty. Maybe it seemed too exposed. She climbed down the ladder slowly and ran the light over the surrounding ground. Where would she hide if she didn’t want to be seen?
Anywhere in these woods.
“Hello?” Rose called. “Is anyone here? It’s safe to come out—I’m the only one here.”
She listened, but only heard the rustle of leaves in the chill autumn air. When she let out a breath, the air fogged in front of her. Had the woman been wearing a warm coat? Her head had been bare. Pretty soon she’d be awfully cold.
“I mean it. It’s safe. Their fight had nothing to do with you, anyway. It was about me.” Her voice broke and she lowered the flashlight.
Cab and Jason had fought over her. Cab had shoved her fiancé into his truck and hauled him off to jail.
Jason cared enough about her to come to blows over losing her.
She shut her eyes and took a deep breath to try to calm her pounding heart. She’d been so convinced he didn’t care. She’d moved on from him. She’d given herself to Cab.
Did it make her a bad person that she’d slept with another man so soon after breaking off her engagement? Did she still love Jason?
The answer came loud and clear. Not because he’d done something awful, or cheated on her, or neglected her, but because she’d simply moved on. She was different now than when she’d been eighteen. She was grown up. She wanted different things.
And she knew what she wanted. Art school. Marriage. Children. A job in academia.
She wasn’t confused at all about who she was and how she felt about the future. She didn’t need more time to figure things out. It might take practice before she got good at stating specifically what she wanted, or could gainsay Cab when he got too protective, but being with him would give her that practice far faster than staying away from him. She’d think of it as a crash course in setting boundaries.
Smiling just a little, she returned her attention to the dark woods around her. “Hello? Are you there? It’s just me—I’m all alone. I’d love to help you if I can.”
When no answer came, she decided to check near Hannah’s corral. She paced forward carefully, not wanting to trip in the dim light. She saw the green mound that was their unused building supplies. She and Mia had covered them carefully with a tarp and pine boughs earlier in the day.
Now the tarp was exposed in one corner.
Rose halted. The woman was under there. She knew it. How to get her out without scaring her, though…
“Please let me help you,” Rose said quietly. “It will be okay. I promise.”
She held her breath as she watched the tarp. At first nothing happened. Then it rippled, shook and flipped back, revealing a disheveled woman underneath with huge, frightened eyes.
“The men are gone; it’s just me,” Rose said, holding out a hand. She tilted the flashlight away so its beam didn’t blind the woman. “Come on, let’s get you cleaned up and warm.”
The woman ignored her hand, pushed up to her knees and stood unsteadily. She patted her clothes into place and lifted a hand to her hair. Finally she spoke. Her voice was low and unsteady, with a trace of an accent Rose couldn’t place.
“Are you Claire Cruz?”
“No. But I’m her friend. Is that who you’re looking for? I can get you to her.”
The woman nodded. “Please.”
Rose ushered her back through the woods. The woman stuck close to her, rigid with tension. She continually scanned the area around them as if convinced Cab and Jason could jump out at them at any moment. Rose understood why the fight between them might have startled her, but her fear seemed to go beyond what the situation called for. She wondered where she came from and why Jason had brought her here.