Read Guarding Sophie Online

Authors: Julie Brannagh

Guarding Sophie

BOOK: Guarding Sophie
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Dedication

To Judy Wiebe, because she reminds me every day there're a million things to be thankful for.

I am so lucky to be her friend.

Acknowledgments

E
VERY TIME
I finish a book now, I wonder what I could possibly say about my editor, Amanda Bergeron of Avon Impulse, and my agent, Sarah Younger of Nancy Yost Literary Agency, that I haven't said before. They are so encouraging and enthusiastic. They also give me a gentle nudge in a different direction when I need it. They work really hard to make my books so much better. And I could never thank them enough. I'd also like to thank Sarah for the puppy pictures when I'm on deadline. After all, nothing says “I'm thinking of you” more than a yellow Lab puppy with a teeny Seahawks T-shirt on.

I'd like to thank everyone at Avon and Avon Impulse for all of their hard work, specifically the art department (LOVE YOU) and Beverly, the copy editor. She saves me from myself (and egregious grammar and punctuation errors) on a daily basis. I owe her big.

Thank you to my husband, Eric, who had no idea he was marrying an author instead of a wife. He's probably still wishing I'd write a book about a K9 officer. I love you, honey.

I am so lucky to have the two most wonderful critique partners ever. Amy Raby and Jessi Gage, you rock.

Thank you to The Pumphouse in Bellevue, Washington, for harboring the Cupcake Crew on a weekly basis.

Thanks to the
Property Brothers
for showing me a world beyond honey-oak kitchen cabinets and linoleum. Plus, I wouldn't have known what “hand-scraped hardwood floors” were if one bit me in the face. Your product and décor descriptions help me paint the picture for my readers . . .

Thank you so much to Renee from Abendblume Inn in Leavenworth, Washington. We can't wait to see you again. And thank you again for letting us do our ten-year wedding vow renewal on your front porch. It was even better than the original wedding.

Thank you to the Seattle Seahawks for interviews they have given in multiple forms of media that were an invaluable help with my research. I'd also like to thank my unaware muse, Luke Wilson.

Most of all, thank YOU for buying and reading my book. I hope you'll love it! If you'd like to catch up with me, I'm at
www.juliebrannagh.com
, on Twitter at @julieinduvall, and on Facebook as Julie Brannagh.

XXX OOO and Go Sharks!

Contents

Chapter One

K
YLE
C
ARLSON WORE
sunglasses, but they were no match for the brilliance of Noel, Washington's late-spring sunshine. Noel was a mountain pass and a ninety-minute drive away from his life in Seattle. The small town was the perfect place to get lost for a while.

He shielded his eyes with one hand as the real estate agent and interior decorator he'd hired drifted into view. The real estate agent held out a shiny new set of house keys to him.

“It's all yours, Kyle. Congratulations.”

“Thanks,” he said. “Everything's ready to go?”

“Of course,” the decorator said. “You wanted simple but comfortable and earth tones. I hope you'll love it. If you have questions or need anything else, please give me a call right away.” She dug into what Kyle knew was an expensive designer handbag and extended her brightly patterned business card to him. “Thank you for the business and enjoy.”

“Take a look inside,” the real estate agent said. “I think you'll love it.”

“I'll do that,” Kyle said. “Thanks again.”

The real estate agent and interior designer shook hands with him and got into their cars. He raised a hand in farewell as they followed the winding, narrow road back to downtown Noel, I-90, and civilization as quickly as possible.

Kyle longed for privacy like other people wanted drugs or alcohol. He hadn't always been so antisocial. The past seven years of dealing with scores of family members, “friends,” and others who thought he was their personal ATM since he was drafted into the NFL had finally taken its toll. He realized that his profession didn't really lend itself to anonymity. Maybe he should have become a plumber or an auto mechanic instead of the starting wide receiver for the world champion Seattle Sharks. If he'd had a more unobtrusive life, he'd go to work from seven to four or so, go home, put his feet up, have a beer, and quit worrying about the problems that came when one was lucky enough to earn a staggering income for catching a football six months a year.

Kyle walked up the front path and climbed two stairs to the A-line's wraparound front porch. The front door of his new cabin was hardwood inlaid with baguettes of beveled, leaded glass. Two stories featured floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out over a view of blue skies, puffy white clouds, and endless evergreens. Instead of the rustic, unfinished structure most people would imagine when hearing the word
cabin
, his new place was as luxurious as the stylish Seattle hotel he'd just checked out of. It was also the perfect place to hide out for a couple of months.

He stepped over the threshold of the cabin he'd spent a shocking amount of money on and took a deep breath. Sun-warmed, lemon-scented air surrounded him. The front door shut behind him as he glanced around.

The floors were hardwood. The furnishings were earth tones, man-sized, with a few brightly colored accents to draw the eye. A gas fireplace with a stone surround dominated most of one wall in the living room. A long staircase led to a loft that overlooked the first story and three bedrooms. He'd thought long and hard about the extra two bedrooms before buying the place. If he had nowhere for anyone else to sleep, they'd be a lot less likely to visit, which worked for him.

He let out a contented sigh as he realized the only sound was his breathing. He'd bought the house in the name of a trust his family and friends knew nothing about. He'd moved out of his huge house in Newcastle two days ago and used the proceeds from its sale to fund the house he was currently standing in and a two-bedroom condo in a Bellevue high-rise, also in the name of the trust. It was his choice who found out where he was and what he was doing from now on.

He'd have almost two months of solitude before training camp started. He couldn't wait.

S
OPHIE
H
AYES TIED
the dark green grocery apron around her waist and grabbed the cash drawer for her register. She was working a short shift today. Another employee had called in sick, and she could always use the hours. She marched out to her check stand, dropped the cash into the drawer, and signed in to her register. Noel Foods wasn't exactly a bustling big-city grocery store, but it had a pretty good selection. It was also the best place to see and be seen in Noel. After all, everyone had to eat.

She smiled at one of the senior citizens slowly making her way to the teeny Starbucks across the aisle from the check stands. Even a small town couldn't survive without the world's biggest coffee shop chain. The grocery store's manager had put in a few smallish tables (and a larger one for the old people). It was busy from dawn until dusk with Noel natives settling in for some coffee and a little gossip.

“Good morning, Clara,” Sophie called out. “How are you today?”

Clara pulled her walker a bit closer to her body as she paused in her slow progress across the grocery store. “If I was better, I'd be twins.” She nodded in the direction of the grocery store's office. “Tell him you need a few minutes off to have coffee with us. Enid brought some of her homemade Kahlua.”

Sophie wasn't sure she wanted to spend the rest of her shift in a drunken stupor, but she did appreciate being invited. “Clara, thank you for thinking of me, but I don't think Mitch will like it.”

“Tell him to get the stick out of his butt. It's not like it's going to be busy in here today.” Clara let out a snort. “He's probably taking a nap on his desk.” She gave Sophie a wave and shuffled off to the tableful of seniors, one of whom was brandishing a half-gallon bottle of what must have been the homemade Kahlua. Hopefully, they had a designated driver.

Monday mornings were quiet at the grocery store. The tourists usually left Noel late on Sunday nights to avoid the traffic heading north to Seattle on I-5 from the coast. Sophie had learned a few things in the three months or so since she'd moved here.

Noel was moderately crowded with tourists between March and October each year, and wall-to-wall from the end of November until the meticulously planned holiday light displays and musical presentations ended on Epiphany. She hadn't actually experienced this herself as of yet; springtime brought visitors but not the mob scenes she'd heard about. Even a town that was “all Christmas, all the time” got extra crazy during the actual season. It was all hands on deck for every business in the small town.

Sophie didn't mind the idea of extra hours and duties at work during the holiday season. It would keep her busy enough to not wonder what was happening at home with her family. She missed them, but she wasn't sure she could ever go back to Florida.

Four months ago, she'd pulled the wall-sized map of the United States in her classroom down after her fourth-graders had left for the day, spun around a couple of times with her eyes closed, and pointed. Noel, Washington, was an entire country away from everything she knew and the man who'd told her he'd rather kill her than see her with anyone else. At least he couldn't trace her Internet searches on her work computer.

She realized her experiences with him were such a cliché. She'd dated Peter in college. They broke up in her junior year and saw other people. She wasn't interested in anything serious until she landed a job and made a good start on her future, so she kept things light. Part of the reason why she and Peter broke up the first time was his insecurity and his need for control. He told her he was concerned about her safety when she spent the evening out with some girlfriends or didn't check in. She thought his concerns were a bit ridiculous, but it was a little thing. It eventually blossomed into a much bigger thing. She got tired of it.

Peter reappeared in her life shortly after she'd started her fourth-grade teaching job in a Cocoa Beach elementary school. She loved her job, but she was somewhat lonely. A little romance put the sparkle into her world again. He'd arrived at the perfect time. At first, things went well. She believed he had changed when he found a job he enjoyed and settled into his own apartment. He wasn't so concerned about what she was doing when they were away from each other. Dating someone she had some good memories with again was fun.

It didn't take long to realize that Peter hadn't changed after all. His jealousy and possessiveness took a dark turn. He'd started drinking a lot more. It started off with small things—his grabbing her arm painfully when he was irritated with her. He threw the remote at her when she gently teased him about spending the entire day watching NASCAR. She knew something was wrong, but it wasn't enough to make a big deal out of. Maybe she was overreacting. Everything that had happened was just an accident, or he'd had a bad day. He didn't mean to hurt her.

She was late getting home from a parent event at her elementary school one Wednesday night a few months after they started seeing each other again. She'd texted him to say she was delayed, and she'd be home as soon as possible. He had a key to her place. Hopefully, he'd let himself in and help himself to beer.

She walked into her apartment an hour later, dropped her stuff on the kitchen pass-through, and kicked off her shoes. Her apartment was dark. One of her living room lamps was on a timer, but it wasn't on.

“Peter?” she called out. He didn't answer.

She padded through the hallway to go change her clothes. Maybe he got tired of waiting and went home. The bathroom toilet flushed.

“Peter?” she said.

He threw the bathroom door open and was out in the hallway in seconds. He grabbed her wrist so hard she cried out in pain.

“Where the fuck were you?” he said.

“I sent you a text. The parent-teacher thing ran late. Ow! Let go of me!”

“No,” he said and shoved her against the hallway wall so hard she banged her head. “You're lying. I never got a text.” He sucked in air. “I sat here and waited for you like a dumbass. Parent-teacher conference. Bullshit.” His eyes narrowed. He stuck his face into hers. “You're fucking someone else.”

She could smell alcohol on his breath, and it wasn't the beer she suggested he have while she was delayed.

“I'll show you the text on my phone. Let go of me!”

“I don't think so,” he said. “Stop lying.”

“I'm not lying to you. There's no one else!” She tried to pull away from him; he twisted her elbow behind her back. She tried to scream, but nothing came out besides “Let go of me!”

She was in the midst of a nightmare that she couldn't seem to wake up from, and it was like she could see everything that happened from above her body. He reached up with his free hand and slapped her face with all of his strength. She collapsed onto the floor. He dragged her to her feet again by her hair.

“Tell me who he is,” he demanded. “I'll kill him, and then I'm going to kill you.”

“There's nobody else!”

“TELL ME,” he said and threw her into the wall again.

Her vision was blurred. Her face was coated with tears and snot. She couldn't seem to move her arm without searing pain; she'd heard something “pop” when he twisted her wrist behind her back. She'd taken a self-defense course in college, but she never dreamed she'd have to use the training against someone who said he loved her.

She tried to get her knee up to kick him. He hit her again, and everything went black.

The next thing she heard was the front door to her apartment opening and her neighbor Mrs. Jackson calling out to her.

“Sophie! Sophie, are you okay? Are you here?”

She heard the rapid footsteps on the carpet. The overhead light flicked on. She let out a groan and tried to cover her eyes.

“Oh no. Oh my God.” The older woman dropped to her knees next to Sophie and fumbled in the pocket of her bathrobe for her cell phone. “Ed,” she shouted to her husband. “Sophie needs help.” She dialed 911 on her phone. “It's okay, honey,” she reassured Sophie. “I'm here. And the paramedics are coming.”

Sophie spent three days in the hospital and a couple of weeks at home recovering from her injuries. Peter had vanished without a trace. Maybe he was so afraid of facing criminal charges for what he'd done to her that he wasn't coming back.

The messages over anonymous e-mail accounts and on her cell phone via texts started two weeks later.

I KNOW HOW TO FIND YOU. AND I WILL KILL YOU.

She left her apartment the day she found an unmarked package on her front doorstep. It was a dead animal.

She had a restraining order, but she couldn't be sure it would help. The only thing that might work was relocating elsewhere, and making sure nobody back home knew where she'd gone. She'd spent a month building a digital and paper trail with a little help from a private investigator buddy of her brother's indicating she was heading for Montpelier, Vermont, including “renting” an apartment there and applying for an administrative job with the local police department. Sophie moved into a battered women's shelter while she implemented her plan. Her apartment wasn't safe anymore. She had cut up her credit cards, slowly withdrawn from social media, bought a burner phone, and left her paid-off 2000 Honda Accord in a bad part of town with the keys in the ignition, the window rolled down, and the pink slip in the glove box.

She couldn't fly using cash to pay for a ticket. The bus trip across the country was long, but it gave her a lot of time to think. She would never forget how she felt when she stood on the sidewalk in Noel for the first time and got a lungful of fresh, pine-scented air. The constant stress ache between her shoulders had vanished around Utah. The mountains that rose around Noel felt like a ring of protection. She didn't even mind the omnipresent sound of Christmas carols.

She wasn't stupid enough to believe that her life was ever going to be the same as it had been before she met Peter. She loved teaching, but she wasn't going to be able to teach again. Elementary schools would be the first place he looked for her. She wasn't sure when she'd be able to see her family; she was worried that contact would make them a target.

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