Authors: Pen Name
Copyright © 2014
All Rights Reserved
This publication is a work of fiction. All characters and events are solely products of the author’s imagination. The book’s cover is stock photography and is not endorsed by the photographer nor the model or models depicted therein. This publication contains explicit content that is intended for a mature audience and is written about characters who are consenting adults.
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weat poured off me as I thrashed around wildly, fighting off an invisible assailant. I gasped for air, my breathing shallow and erratic. I could feel his hands on my neck, choking the life out of me. I could hear his cruel laughter; to him, I was little more than a source of amusement to him. As fear enveloped me, my heart pounded so hard I thought I might pass out.
Though I put up a resilient battle, he’d beat me. I knew it was only a matter of time. Even though part of my subconscious knew I was only dreaming, it was little consolation. Every nightmare felt like real life. Every nightmare left me trembling, shaken up and unable to fall back to sleep. I was in a constant, perpetual state of exhaustion. And he always won.
Then my eyes flew open and I found myself staring at the ceiling of my tidy one-bedroom apartment in downtown Los Angeles. No one was there. No one was going to hurt me. I forced myself to take a few deep breaths and then, with an unsteady hand, reached over to switch on my bedside lamp.
Warm light flooded the room.
Swinging my legs over the side of the bed, I put my bare feet on the floor. It felt cold but that was okay. It grounded me, reminding me of where I was...reminding me that I was alone. There had been a time in my life when the prospect of being alone had been nearly unbearable. I’d felt like it would surely be a fate worse than death. But these days I liked it.
When you’re alone, no one can hurt you.
Padding out to the kitchen, I turned on the tap and filled a glass with water. A quick glance at the clock on the stove told me it was still the middle of the night. But I knew I wouldn’t be going back to sleep anytime soon. After a quenching my thirst, I made my way to the bathroom, shed my sweat-dampened nightgown and stepped into the shower.
I poured a generous amount of jasmine scented body wash onto a coarse exfoliating bath mitt. Then I set to work scrubbing myself raw from head to toe. It wasn’t necessary. Even as I did it, I knew that. But it was as though an unseen hand was controlling me. It was as though I was trying to rid myself of the memories along with the sweat that coated my cold, clammy skin.
When I got out of the shower a while later, the first thing I did was wipe the steam from the bathroom mirror. Then I stood there in front of the sink looking at myself with the passive indifference of a stranger. My body didn’t feel like my own; it hadn’t for some time.
I noted with an air of impartiality that my normally porcelain skin was an angry red courtesy of the harsh cleansing I’d given myself. It would be sore tomorrow, raw and chafed. I didn’t care. That nasty little voice in the back of my head that piped up at all the worst times said I deserved it. And maybe I did.
The girl staring back at me in the mirror looked younger than her years, with wide eyes, long dark lashes and a button nose. Her features could best be described as doll-like. But at the same time, there was a sort of weariness about her that suggested she’d survived a war. Surviving and thriving were two very different things, I thought to myself wryly as I stood there with water dripping off my body and goosebumps forming on my skin.
There was no light radiating from Amanda Laurent like some people have and her eyes were devoid of any and all emotion. A walking zombie; a vacant shell of a person: that’s what I was reminded of. No, I was no beauty queen...and I was okay with that.
Truthfully, my preference was to blend in anyway. I liked to be nothing more than an insignificant part of the background, plain and unmemorable. It was safer that way. Getting noticed can lead to trouble.
My former job had been the perfect gig for me. Thanks to a stroke of good luck, I’d worked at one of the most upscale restaurants on the west coast. My first day had been a disaster. It had quickly become apparent to my boss, Gavin Rothe, that I absolutely froze when I had to deal directly with his customers. He mistakenly assumed I was shy, and I let him go on believing it.
The truth was actually that I didn’t want to risk my ex tracking me down. But Gavin didn’t need to know that. I felt self-conscious about the drama in my personal life, as though I belonged on a sleazy talk show where people air all their dirty laundry for fifteen minutes of fame – no thanks! I preferred to keep it to myself.
Gavin could have fired me, but he didn’t. Instead, he’d found work for me behind the scenes. I was eternally grateful to him for that, because if he hadn’t been so accommodating I probably would have found myself sleeping on the streets – or worse, going back home. The thought made me shudder.
Life in Los Angeles had been good, quiet and ordinary. But it was time to move on.
Ever since that day I’d stumbled into his restaurant broke, scared and alone, pitifully begging for a job, Gavin and I had simply clicked. He was like a big brother to me. Or rather, he thought of me as a little sister. I’ll admit: it stung a little. But it wasn’t surprising. Actually, it merely confirmed my opinion of myself.
When I first met him, I thought Gavin was dreamy and secretly had a pretty fierce crush on him. That was the one time I regretted not being a glamorous, sophisticated, gorgeous woman. It wasn’t as though I expected anything to happen between us. That would be absurd. Quiet, plain girls like me never get the guy. It just doesn’t work like that.
Of course Gavin didn’t think of me in a romantic way. Why would he? No, he fell for Mina Sinclair. She was outspoken, curvaceous and with her piercing blue eyes and long dark hair, absolutely stunning. She was a stark contrast to my waifish build, long honey blonde hair and quiet demeanor. She was everything I wasn’t.
It wasn’t Mina’s fault she’d fallen in love with a good man. She and Gavin didn’t even know about my crush, so it wasn’t like they were being insensitive when they were affectionate toward each other in my presence. But even though I knew they weren’t trying to hurt me, it was hard to watch. That was one of the reasons I decided I needed to start over someplace new – plus I wanted to keep moving before my past had a chance to catch up with me.
I wasn’t a stranger to starting over. I’d done it once before, when I’d moved from my parents’ home in Santa Barbara to Los Angeles. Granted, that hadn’t been a huge cross-country move or anything...but moving to the City of Angels had allowed me to disappear, becoming nothing more than another face in the crowd. That was exactly what I’d wanted.
This time I had my sights set on something else. I’d done my research, weighed the pros and cons and now my bags were packed. In fact, the second hand truck I’d purchased earlier in the week was loaded high with my meager possessions. As soon as the sun rose and I said my goodbyes, I’d hit the road and never look back.
Though I considered them close friends, I didn’t tell Gavin and Mina what I was planning until the last minute. Maybe a part of me was afraid they’d try to talk me out of it. And maybe that same part of me was afraid I might listen. What I was planning was crazy and maybe even reckless. Deep down, I knew that. But I also knew I had to give it a try.
s I sat in Gavin and Mina’s living room with a cup of cappuccino in my hand, I felt like I was being interrogated. They may as well have shone a bright, blinding spotlight in my eyes and fired questions at me left, right and center. I couldn’t help but feel attacked. I knew they were just doing it because they cared. They felt like they needed to protect me. But they couldn’t protect me...no one could.
“You’re doing what?” Mina asked, leaning forward on the couch. I had her full attention and she looked very, very concerned. Beside her, Gavin was pensively staring off into space. He’d gone quiet once he’d learned of my intentions to leave the state and looked sad, as though he’d somehow failed me.
That wasn’t true at all. Gavin had saved me. He’d done more for me than he’d ever know.
“I’m moving to Minnesota,” I repeated myself even though I knew full well that Mina and Gavin had heard me the first time. “I found a job posting online. I’ll get room and board in exchange for helping out on a farm.”
“But Amanda,” Mina interjected, sounding alarmed. “What do you even know about farming? Have you spent any time on a farm before? Why Minnesota? Have you even lived outside California before?”
“Well no,” I replied. “But the job posting said they’d be willing to train the right person, so I guess experience isn’t needed. I’ll be working for a sister and brother who recently took over running the family farm. It’s proved to be more work than they can handle, so they need outside help. How hard can it be?”
“Amanda, you’re like...five foot nothing and a hundred pounds soaking wet,” Gavin finally spoke up. “You’re not strong enough for heavy lifting and you don’t know the first thing about harvesting crops or caring for large animals. What if you get hurt? I’m not trying to shatter your dreams here, but do you really need to go all the way to Minnesota?”
“I need a change.” That was the understatement of the year.
“What if the job posting is bogus?” Mina piped up. “Think about it. Why wouldn’t they just hire someone local if the position was legitimate? There are a lot of bad people online, Amanda. What if they’re dangerous?”
There were a lot of things I could have said in response to that. My initial reaction was to laugh and tell her I’d be a hell of a lot safer leaving California than staying put. Of that, I was sure. But that kind of response would only elicit more questions and I didn’t want to get into it. I didn’t want to see the looks on their faces when they found out the secrets I’d been keeping. So instead I simply smiled.
“I appreciate your concern,” I said to the two of them, my voice as quiet and gentle as always. Gavin joked that I should be on the radio because my voice was like silk. But being in the public eye – or ear – like that was the last thing I wanted. Most people assumed I was shy, but that wasn’t it at all. I was simply cautious.
“But you’re not going to listen to us, are you?” Gavin sighed as I climbed to my feet.
“Sorry, but my mind is made up.”
He got up then and extended his arms. He was the only man I knew whose embrace didn’t immediately make me freeze in fear. He was gentle and kind and warm-hearted...and he was Mina’s. It was okay. I wasn’t in love with him or anything. I think mostly I was in love with the idea of him...the idea that there were still a few good men out there. I squeezed him back tightly and then turned to hug Mina goodbye.
“You call us anytime, day or night, okay?” she said, clearly not wanting to let go.
“That’s right,” Gavin agreed. He ruffled my hair affectionately like one might do to a kid sister. “If you don’t like it there, we’ll come and get you no questions asked,” he vowed. “Don’t you hesitate to call us, alright? And don’t be a stranger.”
I smiled again and this time it wasn’t forced. Gavin and Mina were good people. In fact, with the exception of my kid brothers back in Santa Barbara, they were the only people I had. It was good to know I could count on them should I need them. I wasn’t used to having that. They were both protective of me and I was thankful they cared...but it was time to go. It was time to fend for myself.
“Well you two, thanks for the cappuccino but I’d better get on the road before it gets any later,” I said, trying my best to sound confident and self-assured despite the doubts that had begun to creep in after hearing Gavin and Mina voice some of my own concerns. “It’s a long drive to Minnesota.”
ometimes I wished I could be a different person. Unfortunately, I wasn’t bold and brassy like Mina. I wasn’t charismatic and charming like Gavin. I was just Amanda, small, mousey and unremarkable. And once I was in the home stretch of my journey, I began to worry.
What if Mina and Gavin’s predictions came true? What if I couldn’t cut it as a farm hand or the people who’d posted the ad had ulterior motives? The girl I’d emailed back and forth with had seemed very nice, but what if my impression of her was wrong? It wouldn’t be the first time I’d allowed myself to be fooled...