“Did you tell Lucas? What did he say? Will he come with you?”
Alaine shifts her eyes from her phone screen to look up at her sister and shakes her head in answer to each of her questions.
“I thought that’s why you went over there today,” Delah says, absently running a hand through Alaine’s hair. For some reason she feels her sister needs the comfort. “What’s going on, Alaine? You need to tell him. ”
Alaine returns her eyes to the phone instead of concentrating on the permanent ache in her heart and her sister’s futile attempt to soothe it.
“It’s fine, Delah,” she responds and though the gentle stroking only achieves making bad matters worse, she doesn’t have the energy to stop it.
“Lucas already has a lot going on,” she continues in her bid to be flippant. “He doesn’t need to worry about this too. It’s just a few days. He probably won’t even know I’m gone.”
And if he does, he probably won’t care. That, she has to learn to accept as a truth. Lucas won’t miss her presence. As things stand, he barely even tries to tolerate her anymore. Something tells her that Lucas keeping her around has more to do with the innate sense of loyalty that resides inside him than his waning love for her and whether there is any more of the latter left in his heart for her remains to be seen. Him keeping her in his life probably has everything to do with the fact that she’d given him her virginity.
How long will his delusions about chivalry last?
No, he won’t miss her. Her disappearance for a few days will most likely go unnoticed. if it doesn’t, then he’ll probably enjoy the time apart and if that is the case then what’s the point?
She pulls in a deep breath hoping that doing so will alleviate the ball of emotion settled on her chest, choking her and exhales just as slowly. It does nothing to lift her constant sorrow.
Delah sighs beside her. “The two of you need to learn to communicate. If I know Lucas Bright, he doesn’t want you going to Idaho without him. Mark my words, Ali. This doesn’t end well,” she concludes with certainty.
Alaine tapers the urge to shout that he doesn’t care. That Lucas no longer cares what happens to her and she might have been better off at the mercy of Angus. His hatred of her might be easier to deal with than Lucas’ indifference. Instead, she buries her pain with a scoff.
She will forgive her sister for pressing the issue, because Delah doesn’t have the facts about the shifting situation that now exists between Lucas and her. Can she really blame Delah for her optimism? As a matter of fact, Alaine wishes that she could siphon off some for herself. Still, she wants Delah to drop it.
Lucas’ love for her had probably died along with his spirit the day Angus shot him. If it hasn’t, it’s probably well on it’s way there. That is why it is with a guilt-ridden conscience that she finally uses a small amount of that twenty-five thousand dollars he’d given her all those months ago, to purchase four open tickets to Idaho. The rest, she intends to use to pay Harlan Jackson to withdraw his case against Delah. There’s no way a dead beat like him refuses that kind of money.
“You need to tell him, Ali,” Delah tells her a final time. “This isn’t a decision you should make without his knowledge.”
“Lucas doesn’t need to worry about this,” Alaine replies firmly. “He has enough to deal with and quite frankly, I think I can buy a plane ticket without telling my boyfriend. If he is even that still.” The latter part of her statement, she to herself.
“Once my leave is up and I have some money saved, I’ll pay him back,” she adds.
“I don’t think it’s the money that he will be worried about,” Delah says before turning away. “You should get packed.”
Alaine does so with a heavy heart. Though she’d said it like she’d meant it, she hadn’t. She would give anything to be able to call Lucas and ask for his help or advice and draw from his strength, like she used to. Whatever little he has left, he needs for himself. She knows that what they share now, is not what it once was so she won’t burden him any further with her sister’s personal problems, even if she would do anything to see him look at her with love in his eyes again.
Since she left his house earlier, he hasn’t bothered with trying to contact her. It’s enough indication as to where there relationship lies and where it’s going.
As painful as this place where she’s found herself is, she won’t allow herself regret their time together. If this is truly where and how their relationship ends, then she’s happy that her first, her only, is Lucas Bright. And if he wants her to walk away, she’ll do that for him too.
With a shuddery breath, Alaine folds the final piece of clothing for her trip - his t-shirt that she plans to sleep in - and places it at the top of the opened suitcase. She runs her fingers longingly over the soft material, remembering the last day in Italy when he’d worn it. They’d gone out. It had rained. He’d given her that accusing look because it had been warm when they’d left the house and she’d insisted that she hadn’t needed to wear an extra layer. He’d stripped off the t-shirt and crowned her head with it while they darted across to the nearest shelter -- a tree in the botanical gardens -- where he’d used his body to shield her, as much as he could, from the worst of the weather.
She closes the suitcase firmly and zips it up. If only it was that simple to snuff out the memory of how he’d locked her in against the rough tree back, lifted her chin and kissed her like they had been in the privacy of their bedroom.
It’s been months since they’ve shared a simple kiss.
Alaine pulls the small suitcase off the bed and drags it out of her room with her. They have a flight to catch to Idaho. Tawny is already waiting. Though her fingers itch to call Lucas to tell him, she holds firm to the conviction that he doesn’t need the additional bother. Even if he may still care, it’s not something he should be burdened with. Not after what he’s suffered through because of her.
“Are you sure about this?” Tawny asks a few minutes before they leave Alaine’s apartment.
Questioning Alaine is a deviation from her usual one word routine and it surprises everyone. “I feel like Mr. Bright or at least Seth should be informed about this road trip,” she adds.
“I am not sure,” Alaine confesses as she climbs into the SUV. “But Lucas doesn’t need the bother. It will be perfectly alright.”
Never mind Lucas Bright pays her salary and despite her skepticism, Tawny Rivers is loyal to her charge. She closes the door behind Alaine and drives towards JfK International Airport.
In a sense, Angus came out the true victor in all of this. Though Lucas and her survived his persistent attacks, it hadn't been without consequence. Their opponent may be rotting in a dank cell, denied bail and awaiting trial, but he’s succeeded in breaking Lucas and tearing their relationship apart. The wounds are permanent. That’s how Alaine feels. It’s what she keeps thinking as she rests her forehead against the airplane’s cool glass window.
A widening rift exists between Lucas and her now. With no idea how to deal with it, she does the only other thing there is to do. Surrender to it. They need the space. She needs a reprieve to allow her own wounds, inflicted daily, on her already beaten heart, to heal. The only problem is, she has nothing to fill the void of his absence, that seems to want to swallow her into a dark abyss.
It’s hard being without him but she doesn’t know which is more difficult - The time spent apart, or the time spent in his company? The next few days in Idaho will reveal which she can stomach better. Either way, he doesn’t feel like hers anymore and it’s a sad, painful thought.
As time passes, adding to the distance between New York and her, between Lucas and her, the more acute her distress. The deeper her soul plummets into depression and the daunting task ahead becomes a catalyst, encouraging her despair.
Five years is a long time to avoid family and home. In just under five hours all the one thousand, eight hundred and twenty-five days separating Alaine from her past disappears. She’s back and it’s like nothing’s changed in all that time.
The distance hasn’t diminished her fear of her uncle, she realizes. Just imagining his telling smirk, the one he always wears to remind her of their dirty little secret, makes her cringe. Then her parents. She hasn’t decided if it’s worth the trip to see them. As their daughter, she wants to. As a castaway, something they care little about, it should make no difference.
They speed away from Boise Airport with just seven hours between here and their destination. Alaine looks out the window from the front passenger seat at the familiar territory.
For the time, her mind is no longer solely occupied by Lucas. She weighs the pros and cons of seeing her parents. In the five years that she’s been gone, they never once reached out. It’s not like she actually expected them to. It just would have been nice if they had. It would also be nice if they fussed over her a bit, like Arlington and Shanice does over Lucas. Her parents' interest in her doesn’t even have to be in an equal measure. Just a little consideration would make her feel better. If her parents are aware of her recent ordeal, they’ve certainly given no indication.
The hushed conversation between Delah and Isabella catches her distracted attention because of the small child’s whimpering. Alaine glances back at them, straining to listen.
“I don’t want to see my daddy,” Isabella pleads. “I’m scared. Why did we come back?”
“You don’t have to be scared Izzy,” Delah tells her. “He can’t hurt you anymore. I won’t let him. And we’re here to ensure he never will again.”
Alaine turns her attention back to the road ahead and chastises herself for her selfishness. Delah is facing a potential crisis and here she is, consumed by a broken heart. She needs to focus on why she is here.
To help her sister.
“We need to find a place to stay,” Alaine says. “Somewhere Harlan won’t be able to find you.”
“Kellogg is a small town Ali,” Delah tells her. “You know you’re famous now. He’ll know we’re here as soon as we arrive. What about going home? He won’t come to the house.”
Alaine groans softly. Lucas was the one who she had happily relinquished the reigns to when it came to planning the three trips they had taken together. Her ineptitude makes her miss him ferociously in an instant. “Can’t we stay at an inn or bed and breakfast or something and ask the owner to be discreet? I don’t know.”
“My friend Lucy’s parents own a motel,” Delah offers not giving her a moment to properly sulk. “I could maybe ask her to sneak us into a room or something.”
“Okay,” Alaine agrees with a shrug. “That can work, I guess.”
“There’s one more thing,” Delah adds, reluctantly. “I need to go by my trailer. Harlan will be at work tomorrow morning. He won’t be home. You don’t have to come with me. You and Izzy can stay with Ms. Rivers but I need to go and pick up a few of my things,” she says quickly. Then adds, “I don’t expect you to come with me.”
“Delah,” Alaine protests. “If you want to talk about bad ideas that won’t end well, this is one of them. Why would you...?”
“Because I left everything,” Delah interrupts.
The emotional outburst makes Alaine sigh.
“That was my home," Delah continues. "I lived there for five years with a man I thought loved me. All Izzy’s baby pictures are there. I barely had a chance to pack before sneaking out in the middle of a freaking blizzard. You don’t have to come along, Alaine. But I have to do this.”
Having to take a few rest stops during their trip, because of the child in their midst, it takes over seven hours but Tawny finally pulls into the back parking lot of Keepsake Motel.
Grown accustomed to finer things that life has to offer since meeting Lucas, Alaine is surprised and pleased to find that the motel is not as shabby as she expected, especially considering their limited budget.
Tawny still regards her with guarded skepticism. Because of that look, Alaine knows, all it will take is one slip on her end, for word to go out to Lucas.
“It’s just a few days,” she reminds Tawny. “The lawyer said they will have everything wrapped up, neat and tidy,” Alaine says to cite the woman’s exact words. “In a matter of days,” she finishes.
“Ma’am,” Tawny says in a quiet tone. “I have to advise against going to that trailer tomorrow. You shouldn’t,” she adds more assertively.
“I can’t let her go on her own,” Alaine replies, to which Tawny sighs.
“Ms. Knight,” she says with a note of caution in her tone.
She places a hand on Alaine's arm, stopping her from stepping out of the vehicle. “If we had to drive seven hours to sneak into town, because your sister didn’t want to announce your arrival, I’m guessing this man is dangerous.”
“He’s a danger to Delah,” Alaine says giving Tawny a reassuring pat on the hand still holding her captive. “Not to me.”
Tawny nods with a hefty amount of reservation in the action but drops. Although she knows that Alaine's logic concerning Lucas staying clear of this situation is sound, she seriously contemplates contacting him. What stops her is her vast experience with the effect of trauma on even the bravest and toughest soldiers and Lucas Bright is no soldier. His reactions to his injuries is normal. Alaine is also right. His transition into this period should be as easy as possible.
“I reserve the right intervene if need be,” she tells Alaine.
Alaine wants to say that there will be no need. She has no intention of falling victim to another man, but as they sneak under the cover of darkness into the small, dismal motel room, her conviction falters.
Just who the heck is this Harlan Jackson?
She can’t remember ever coming across him or even hearing about him when she lived here. How did Delah end up with him? Then again, how did she end up with a stalker?
With a resigned sigh, she settles in one of the two beds, in the room. Maybe if her parents had been less neglectful, their kids wouldn’t be so damaged.
Like every night since the past how long, sleep is like Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny to Alaine. Her mind drifts and stays often on Lucas - wondering if he is okay and how his physical therapy went today. If he misses her. If he knows now that she is gone. He still hasn’t called or texted so, probably not to both.
Then she worries herself about Delah visiting her abusive ex and visiting her parents until finally her mind goes back to the love of her life. She misses him terribly. Silent tears, her constant late night companion, join her again.
Delah knocks tentatively on the trailer door, just to be certain it’s actually empty. Beside her, Alaine has to squint into the early morning sunlight to look back at the rented car where they left Isabella with Tawny. The visit to Delah’s old mobile home, turned into a road trip -- Alaine would not let Delah go alone. Tawny wouldn’t let Alaine go without her so Isabella had no choice but to join the potentially dangerous mission.
“I told you,” Delah says with an excited smile when her soft, terrified knocking goes unanswered. “Nobody’s home and he never locks the door.”
So said, the door swings open with little applied pressure.
“I’ll be out in a jiffy. He won’t even know we came by,” Delah says softly.
That has Alaine wondering why she would need to whisper if no one is home. Unease has Alaine trailing Delah inside. A soft grunt and the drop of what can only be a half empty bear can, when Alaine shuts the door behind her with a soft thud, has both of them frozen.
Harlan wakes with a groan from the little pull out couch and blinks at the two intruders in his home.
“Well, well, well,” he slurs and sits up. “Look what fashion life magazine dragged in. Don’t you look fancy. You look good Dels,” he adds and stands, causing Delah to step back, cowering from him.
“I just came to get my things,” she says softly.
He snorts. A sound that should be a chuckle but sends shivers along Alaine's spine. She'd heard that noise before from Angus. There's nothing remotely joyous about it.
The smile slips from Harlan's face.
“So you think you can just break in here after all this time?” Harlan says as he towers over the two of them and brushes back the thick locks of hair framing his face and falling over his green eyes. He’s a gorgeous man too, Alaine notes. It’s easy to see why Delah would be taken with his rugged good looks. In another life he could be a model. Shame in this one he is a scoundrel.
“The door was open and it’s my home too Harlan,” Delah says weakly, though she isn’t sure what she is so proud of now.
It’s small and cluttered and smells, like it’s always done. She can’t even blame that on her husband.
“What things?” Harlan counters as he cocks his head to a side in a manner that just seems too calm and measured for Alaine’s liking. She’s ready to ditch their mission. Accordingly she takes a step back toward the door. “Whatever you left sweetheart, I burned. You have some nerve showing up here Delah,” he continues, with a step toward her already trembling sister. “You had your cousin cold cock me and you ran out in the middle of the night with my kid,” he thunders, pointing at his chest with another menacing step forward. “You didn’t think I would let that slide did you? My wife making me the laughing stock of this dumb town.”
“Wife?” Alaine questions and Delah gives her a weak, apologetic smile.
“Oh she didn’t tell you? Hi Ms. Knight, pleasure to make your acquaintance,” Harlan says with a handsome smile before he turns his attention back to Delah.
“Look,” Alaine says, taking a tentative step forward. “It was a mistake to come here. We just wanted you to know that we are here for the case and we would be willing to settle out of court if you are willing to consider it,” she adds, reaching into her bag to pull out a check for twenty thousand dollars.
“Ali, no,” Delah tells her grabbing the little strip of paper. “You can’t have that money,” she says to Harlan. When he steps forward with the threat of violence, Delah steps back, trips on his shoes lying on the floor behind her and stumbles.
Without thinking, Alaine suppresses her own fright and plants herself between the two of them. A large hand reaches out, grabs her throat to pull her closer. Harlan squeezes, not hard enough to completely restrict airflow, but enough that it hurts.
“Twenty thousand?” he questions. “I hear you’re worth much more than that nowadays. Where is the rich boy of yours? I'm sure he can do better than that.”
“Tawny,” Alaine gasps to get Delah’s attention while pounding at the arm choking her, with her balled fists. “Delah,” she says again, twisting her neck to see her sister still scooting away from them in fear. “Get Tawny,” Alaine pleads again, as her eyes begin to bulge and water.
Harlan follows Delah’s retreat from the trailer and drags Alaine with him. As he steps out into the morning, he is greeted by the wrong end of a silver and black pistol leveled at his forehead.
“Let her go,” Tawny orders.
The calm in her voice floods Alaine with relife.
Harlan takes a step back and Tawny follows him into the trailer with her weapon fixed on it's target. He obeys. He obeys. Alaine collapses to the floor in a heap, coughing, sputtering and heaving.
Deciding that Harlan Jackson needs a taste of his own medicine, Tawny holsters her weapon. “You like to hit on women,” she says. “I can see you want to hit me.”
Before Harlan can throw his clenched fist, Tawny dominates him. He lands on the small table with a thud and a groan, then slithers to the floor. There, Tawny presses the toe of her shoe into his throat. In a heartbeat or less, Tawny draws her weapon out again and points it at his forehead. “Down boy,” she warns. “Apologise to the lady.”
When he acquiesces, however begrudgingly, she plants the butt of the gun firmly against his temple to knock him out.
Alaine is too stunned as she picks herself up to stand beside Tawny with a look reverence on her face. “I want to do that,” she rasps, still clutching her bruised neck.
“It seems I really need to teach you,” Tawny tells her. “You attract trouble,” she adds during an examination of Alaine’s injuries.
“You have no idea,” Alaine says trying to lighten the situation. Then she sobers to say, “Thank you,” to Tawny.
“You’re welcome ma’am,” Tawny says returning to her usual self. “There is no way I can not report this. I have to. It's part of my job.”
“You can’t,” Alaine pleads as they leave the trailer.