Chapter One - Prologue
Throbbing temples and a piercing headache rip me from my slumber and serve as a stark reminder of my overindulgence in the fine liquors that flowed like water throughout the evening’s games. Lifting my sore and heavy limbs, I wince before brushing away the morning and wrenching my eyes open. Why am I outside? Frantically glancing around, terror engulfs me as I realize that I am not at my home but in a ditch surrounded by tall, thick-based trees. The damp, cold ground permeates my thin, satin cocktail dress, awakening my senses as image after image of strange men’s faces flash through my cloudy consciousness.
Although the last few adventurous months have me slipping far afield from my rational self, accompanying my best friend, Alice, to an erotic after hour’s party following the charitable event we attended was beyond the pale. Escaping trouble during my first encounter should have had me pushing thoughts of all such things out of my mind instead of indulging in the uncharacteristic desires that eclipsed all common sense.
Whether provoked by: the whispers of a dangerously mysterious stranger claiming to desire me as opposed to Alice, whose confident sexuality could lead men to hell with just the sway of her hips; my feelings of inadequacy stemming from the alienation of my birth father; or my one sexual relationship with a man who never once made me feel desirable, I could not escape the driving hunger to return once more, to nourish my starving self-confidence. Assuring myself that I would indulge in only one more evening of reckless abandon before picking up the pieces of my out-of-control existence to settle into a life I had grown accustomed to but failed to realize how truly comforting it was, I returned for one last game.
I never suspected that pursuing pleasure would lead me into the arms of a man who derives pleasure from inflicting pain and spur my descent into a world of deception, intrigue, murder, and revenge.
Forcing myself to my knees and rising quickly, my head spins wildly, heated blood courses through me, and the sonic boom of my pounding heart in my ears causes me to stumble toward the unyielding ground. Curling into a ball, forcing in shallow breaths as pain lances through my body, I fight to calm myself and think. Panic is not an option. I repeat this mantra until the ringing in my ears subsides and I force calming breaths into my lungs, slowing my racing heart. Sitting up, I gasp at seeing tears in my dress and the deep purple bruises covering my arms and legs. Do not start panicking again, my inner voice screams. Remember what your father always taught you. Forcing my mind to concentrate, his authoritative voice pierces my muddled thoughts. Ann, whatever situation you find yourself in, panicking only makes it worse and is usually what kills you.
Despite my grave circumstance, an “ugh” escapes my lips as a bizarre image of Brian sitting on his cloud, crossing his arms, and shaking his head flashes before me. The strange image allows me to release my anxiety long enough to steady my pulse, and I wonder if he somehow sent me the image to clear my befuddled mind.
Rising while forcing myself to take in slow deep breaths, I strain to listen for any sound that may indicate I am near a road, but all I hear is the rustling of windblown leaves. Hugging myself, I move forward. The graying sky offers no indication if it is dawn or dusk. My lack of attire will make an October evening, if I am where I fear, unbearable.
Moving slowly and carefully, my bare feet ache as the thick rooted brush pricks my soles. If I don’t find softer ground soon, at least the bloodied path I’m sure to leave behind will ensure that I don’t go in circles.
Wandering for what feels like hours, there is no sign of civilization. At least the brightening sky reassures me I have time before nightfall.
As the sun hits its peak, there is no sign of civilization or life beyond the small creatures crossing my path. Raising my face, hoping to warm myself, I cannot escape the chilling sensation that I have been dumped as food for the animals who will surely feast upon my rotting corpse if I fail to find a way out. My heart constricts. I fight to breathe. If fear grabs hold of me again, I will die.
Surely, Alice knows I am missing by now. Maybe my driver has alerted the police. Shaking my head, I have been too out of control since my return from Europe. My driver probably thinks I am on a bender. He is probably relieved that I spared him the ugly job of cleaning up vile vomit. Tears prick my eyes as I realize that Alice probably believes I retreated into myself to lament over the choices I made. Although I can’t remember the day, she says I disappeared on her in Europe after Barrett left, I’m sure she will attribute my disappearance now as just more of the same. I have turned into such a disappointment since my father’s death, well my stepfather, but he raised me since birth.
Brushing away tears, my hands glide over dirt, scratches, and bruises that mar my usual peaches and cream complexion. I really have lost my way, and not just because of my surroundings. My life has been in a tailspin since losing my stepfather, my rock, and anchor. Despite my fighting him every step of the way when I was eighteen to gain the inheritance my mother left for me, I now realize, standing amid what may become my burial ground, that he fought me to save me. He fought me to ensure that I didn’t become what I am now. His love, care, and discipline ensured that from the tender age of ten, when I lost my mother, until his death shortly after I turned twenty-three, I moved toward doing well, being productive, and staying out of trouble. He even quickly pulled me from the expensive boarding university after I ditched classes to party with my friends or recover from a severe hangover.
As fiduciary of my trust, he cut off all funds, ripped me from that world, and forced me into a local college where I had to earn not only good grades but also my tuition. He even had me help with the police force’s favorite charities. I always knew with him that if I ever wanted to see my money again, I would have to be productive on my own first. Although I graduated at the top of my class with a major in business finance and a minor in public relations and advertising, he did not turn my money over. I can still hear his words on graduation day. I am so proud of you, honey. I love you and you know that your money is always safe and here for you, but I want you to see it only as a backup, a safe haven that you can dip into after working hard to indulge in a trip or treat. Idle time can only bring you trouble, and you are better than that. You need to make your way, build your confidence and like the person you are. Otherwise, all the money in the world will not make you happy. Although I fought him then, I realize as I stand amid a crisis, I am at least physically stronger and force myself to move on. If only I had enough self-confidence when he died to continue on the path he set and enter a career or relationship that was not damaging to my shaky ego, I would not have sought the destructive existence over the past few months that led me down to this point.
Pushing my fear aside and drawing from that which he instilled in me, I look around and know that as the day drags on, it is not only a way out I must search for, but shelter and water. My stomach grumbles in protest, but I walk briskly and with purpose.
The graying sky alerts me I am running out of time and still have found no path to freedom. Another night in this interminable abyss as nocturnal animals begin their prowl will surely bring death to my already withering existence. My body protests, my mind becomes cloudier and cloudier, and my arid throat is so constricted that every breath brings an aching, strangling feeling. Stumbling toward a downed tree, hoping to sit and gather strength, if only for a moment, I trip on some undergrowth. As the world comes quickly toward my face, I know I am through.