*Note: Now that life has stopped trying to eat me whole, I'll begin posting real content soon. Thanks for sticking with me, y'all.
“Don’t worry about us, Lorna.” Ruthie pinned on her brightest smile. “We’ll be fine.”
The housekeeper looked doubtful. “But Mr. Chason—”
“Will be out of town until Friday.” If her luck would only hold. Lord, please let him stay gone until then. No “surprise” early returns. “I assure you, I can handle the house while you see to your mother. Please, Lorna, go take care of her.”
Lorna twisted her neat white apron in both hands, the wrinkles by her mouth deepening. “If you’re sure…”
Ruthie smiled so widely her face hurt. “Positive.”
An answering expression bloomed on Lorna’s weary face. “Oh, thank you, Mrs. Chason. I did so want to be with her, but I know Mr. Chason doesn’t like for you to be alone.”
She bestowed a fierce hug on Ruthie, who returned the embrace despite her surprise. When was the last time anyone other than the children had touched her with affection? What she endured from Stephen didn’t count.
Ruthie pulled away, blinking back a rush of silly tears. Crying wasn’t her style, hadn’t been for a very long time now. All crying did was give her a puffy face and burning eyes. It didn’t change a darn thing.
She gave Lorna tiny push toward the back door. “Tell your mother I asked about her.”
After another round of reassurances and goodbyes, she locked the door and rested against it. She couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity. With her legs shaking beneath her, she slipped from the kitchen with its to-die-for granite countertops and professional stainless appliances she was never allowed to use. Late-afternoon sunlight shone through the tall windows of the foyer and splashed on the Italian tile floor. She hurried up the stairs, holding on to the banister, questions and doubts beating in her head.
What if he came home? What if he caught her? What if he didn’t? What if she managed to get away?
The latter was the only one that mattered, the one that spurred her on. This might be her only chance and she meant to take it.
She found the children in the spotless playroom where she’d left them. As always, they were too quiet, John Robert on the window seat with his nose buried in a book, Camille dancing a pair of dolls through the dollhouse, Ainsley curled into the rocker with her stuffed bunny on her lap and her thumb in her mouth. Studying them from the doorway, Ruthie longed for the noise and laughter of her childhood home, for that warmth and joy for her children.
Three more reasons to escape while she could.
She walked to the center of the room and sat cross-legged on the rug. John Robert glanced at her over his book; Camille didn’t look around. Ruthie reached up and pulled Ainsley onto her lap, rubbing her chin against the soft dark hair. “How would you like to go on an adventure?”
Camille dropped the dolls and stared, lips parted, a glimmer of excitement in her eyes. John Robert closed his book. “Is Daddy coming?”
Ruthie sucked in a breath. “No. This is a mommy and kids adventure.”
Ainsley hugged her rabbit. “Will there be pirates?”
“Maybe.” Ruthie kissed her youngest daughter’s cheek. “But we need to leave today. Are you ready?”
“Can I take Bun-bun?” Ainsley clutched the lovey harder.
“Yes, and John Robert can take his book and Camille can pick something to take along. But we must hurry.”
She took Ainsley with her to the master suite, aware John Robert trailed her, his small face set in worried lines. “Don’t we need to pack, Mama?”
“I have what we need here.” Standing on her shoe shelf, she tugged the small tote from its hiding place. “I thought we might pick up new clothes along the way.” She needed the house to look as normal as possible, for there to be as few clues as possible to her destination once Stephen returned. “John Robert, we will need Ainsley’s go-bag. Can you get that for me? You can add some juice and snacks, if you like. I’ll be right back.”
He nodded, his eyes still troubled, and her breath caught. Already, he looked so much like her brothers, nothing like Stephen. Please, please, let it not be too late to get him away from his father’s influence. She didn’t want her firstborn, the joy of her heart, to grow up like her husband. She didn’t think she could bear it.
She deposited Ainsley in the playroom again and slipped down the backstairs into Stephen’s office. For once, his absolute arrogant faith in her obedience was going to come back to bite him. She slid open the unlocked credenza and removed the three leather-bound ledgers there. With them securely tucked into the tote, she gathered the girls and went in search of John Robert.
He sat at the island in the kitchen, the plaid monogrammed bag they’d termed Ainsley’s “go-bag” since her infancy, in front of him. Ruthie smiled softly and forced a note of gaiety into her voice. “Ready?”
She secured them in their booster seats, lifted the garage door via remote and backed down the drive. The neighborhood was deserted and she sent another grateful prayer heavenward. Just to be safe, she took a circuitous route downtown and left the luxury SUV in a high-rise parking garage. Carrying the stylish tote and Ainsley’s bag, she should appear as if she were merely going shopping, children in tow, if and when anyone looked for them on the garage security cameras. With the children gathered around her, she took the back exit and walked two blocks over to a second long-term storage garage.
There, she settled the children in the aging minivan. She cranked it, thankful when it started on the first try. With her fingers wrapped around the steering wheel in a painful grip, she looked over her shoulder at the children. “Okay, first stage of the adventure. We’ll stop in Atlanta for something to eat.”
Once Charleston faded behind her, she relaxed her death grip on the wheel. She’d done it. There was no going back now. Exhilaration mixed with a banked sense of dread.
She drove straight through, making only brief stops for food and restroom breaks, at shabby locations not likely to have the latest security camera systems, taking care to pay using small bills. Ainsley was asleep by the time they reached Jonesboro. Camille dozed around Macon. By Cordele, John Robert had finally nodded off.
Ruthie drove and didn’t relax until she saw the sign for Chandler County. With the ease of familiarity, she navigated the back roads. There’d been changes since the last time she’d been here, just before John Robert’s birth seven years before, but not so many that the intimacy of home didn’t bring tears to her eyes. This time, she didn’t blink them away. They slid silently down her face.
She made a right onto a gravel turnoff. The long drive opened up to a large yard and an old frame farmhouse glowing white under the moon and a bluish mercury light. A sweet sigh of relief escaped her. She’d be safe here. Her children would be safe. The house, too, had changed—a large sundeck now gracing the area next to the back porch, new plants joining the ancient azaleas and oak hydrangeas her grandmother had lovingly tended.
Ruthie stopped the van behind a dusty white Chevrolet Z-71. A Volvo sedan sat next to it. She glanced over her shoulder. The children slept quietly, peacefully. Not wanting to disturb them, she slipped from the driver’s seat, her lower back and legs protesting the hours spent behind the wheel. Leaving the interior light on so they wouldn’t wake in the dark in an unfamiliar location, she hurried up the brick walkway, another change. When she’d been a child here, visiting her grandparents, a packed clay path had led to the back porch.
This late at night, the house was mostly dark, but squares of soft golden light spilled from the keeping-room windows. Nerves twisted in her stomach. It had been so long since they’d really talked. She didn’t know him anymore, not really. What if he wasn’t happy to see her, willing to help her? What would she do then?
She squared her shoulders. If that turned out to be the case, then she’d find a way to do this herself. Taking the first step necessitated that she not fail. The stakes were too high.
At the back door, she rang the doorbell and waited. Behind her, crickets and frogs sang in the dark night and beneath their song she could hear the distant whisper of the river. Oh, she’d missed this, missed the softness of these Georgia nights and the pure safety of this place.
Long minutes passed and she was preparing to push the bell again when a dark silhouette appeared at the door, backlit by the interior lights. The door swung inward.
“Ruthie?” Shock colored Tick’s deep, drowsy drawl.
She blinked away more of the silly tears. His black hair sleep-mussed, clad in navy pajama pants, he held the door open with one hand, his other behind his back, securing his handgun there, she was sure.
Suddenly blinking didn’t work anymore and the tears rushed free as she threw herself against his chest. “Oh Lord, Tick, I’m so glad to see you. I couldn’t go to Mama’s, didn’t want to risk that, because I’m sure he’ll look there first…”
She felt him falter once before he closed his arms around her, and sure enough, the weight of a gun in his left hand rested against her. “Ruthie, my God, what are you doing here? Are you all right?”
With an effort, she tried to pull herself together. He was married now, a father, although she hadn’t even attended his wedding, hadn’t seen the little boy named for him. He pulled back and used his free hand to brush the damp hair from her face. “Honey, talk to me. Come inside—”
“I c-can’t.” Her voice cracked and she caught his start of surprise. Oh, heaven above, he was going to think she was crazy. Maybe she was now. Maybe Stephen had driven her insane and she simply didn’t know it. A half-hysterical giggle escaped her and she clamped her lips closed, took a deep breath. She waved over her shoulder. “The children…I can’t leave them in the van.”
“Of course not.” He darted a quick look beyond her and spun to place the sleek semi-automatic in a kitchen drawer. “Come on, I’ll help you get them inside. Have you eaten?”
She nodded. “In Atlanta, then a snack in Perry.”
Thankfully, he didn’t ask any further questions but followed her to the van and gathered John Robert into an easy hold while she lifted Camille. Her son, cradled by the uncle he didn’t know, never stirred. Inside, Tick stopped in the kitchen with an uncertain expression.
“Do you think they’ll wake up?” he whispered. She shook her head and he nodded. “Let’s put them in the guest room upstairs and we can put your little one in the nursery with Lee.”
“I’m sorry I woke you,” she murmured, trailing him up the staircase, cataloging the changes in the house. Their grandmother’s outdated decorating was gone and the home now bore the distinct stamp of Tick’s strong personality, probably tempered somewhat by his wife’s tastes as well. The sister-in-law who was merely a face in a photograph, a signature on a Christmas card.
“You didn’t. I was up with Lee, had just put him back to bed when you rang.” He nudged open the first door on the right off the landing. He grinned over his shoulder as he settled John Robert beneath the covers on the double bed. “My night to get up.”
She slipped Camille beneath the sheets on the other side. Stephen had never gotten up with their children. That had always been her job, taking care of them, keeping them quiet.
“Tuck them in.” Tick brushed his knuckles over her cheek, his dark eyes concerned. “I’ll get the little one.”
She did, tucking the sheet and thin coverlet around them, kissing them, sending up silent prayers for them. She left the small lamp burning on the dresser and eased into the hall, just as Tick topped the stairs with Ainsley cradled to his chest. He tilted his head toward the room opposite and Ruthie opened the door.
It was definitely a boy’s room, with deep blue walls and wide white trim. A pine crib with white bedding stood against one wall, and a twin bed shared the space, outfitted in a quilt embroidered with an array of boats. As she flipped the quilt back for Tick to settle Ainsley down, she glimpsed a dark-haired baby snoozing in the crib, his arms laid out by his head, his lips pursed.
After she’d repeated her bedtime ritual over her daughter, Tick laid a hand on her back and ushered her toward the door. “Come on.”
Her stomach knotted all over again.
In the hallway at the bottom of the stairs, he gestured toward the kitchen. “Want something? I can make some coffee or there’s milk or juice—”
“Coffee would be great.”
The few minutes it took him to secure his gun and start the coffee brewing gave her a chance to pull herself and her thoughts together. She leaned against the kitchen island, a new addition to the keeping room area, and glanced around. The green linoleum was gone, replaced by shining hardwood. A rustic pine table graced the dining area and in the living room, a red couch and comfortable leather chairs provided a conversation area. Pine tables held baskets for magazines and books. Photos covered the walls in neat arrangements. A play yard and infant swing sat near the living area and another basket held baby toys.
She cupped her elbows and rubbed at her arms. “It looks like you. The house, I mean.”
A grin lit his face but didn’t dispel the seriousness of his chocolate gaze. “That’s what Cait says.”
At the mention of his wife, she darted a look at him. “She won’t mind, will she, us being here?”
“No, of course not.” His eyebrows winged upward. He poured coffee into two mugs and slid one across to her. “Black, right?”
She nodded and lifted the warm cup. He indicated the living room. “Come on. Let’s get comfortable and you can tell me what’s going on.”
Oh, she couldn’t wait. Clutching her mug, she took one chair and he waited for her to sit before he sank into the other. Silence dragged between them and she sipped at her coffee, the rich liquid doing little to settle her nerves. She laughed, a short, humorless sound. “God, Tick, I don’t know where to start.”
At this gentle prompting, she laughed again. “Do you have all night?”
“I have however long you need.”
She pressed her fingers against her brow. “I’ve made such a mess of things. Stephen…I thought he was a great catch, a good man, and he’s not. He’s…”
How to tell her brother she’d married a crook and a monster?
“Ruthie?” Tick covered her knee, his touch strong and warm. “Does he hurt you?”
“Not physically.” She lifted her head. “That’s not his thing. He…controls me. Where I go, who I see, what I do. And the children too. I don’t want that for them, Tick, I don’t. I want them to have what I had, what we had…” Her voice broke and she swallowed against the tightness in her throat. “Verbally, he’s vicious when he’s angry, when things don’t go the way he likes. I’ve been planning to leave for a while, but I needed a plan and an opportunity, and I wasn’t sure where to go, what to do… I’m sorry for showing up like this, dumping this all on you—”
“No, don’t be sorry.” His voice hardened. “Don’t you dare be sorry, Ruthie. Holy hell, I should be apologizing to you, for not—”
“Don’t.” She knew what he was thinking. “It’s not your fault. It’s not anyone’s fault but mine. And Stephen’s, for being the absolute monster he is. But I need your help now, Tick.”
“Don’t say that yet. You don’t know what I want.” She looked at her brother, who’d been awarded the FBI award upon his graduation from Quantico. He was all about integrity and what she was going to ask would test that.
“Ruthie, just ask, honey. I’ll do whatever I can.”
She took a deep breath. “I want you to help me disappear.”