I needed a place to hide. A place to start over. A place to figure out how to move forward with my life.
When my cousin Lena offered me a rent free apartment in Chicago, it seemed like the perfect solution. And it was until the legal tenant, a Marine named Josh, returned early from his deployment overseas.
The little security I had shattered. I had no place left to go, and I couldn’t live with a man I didn’t know. But I had no choice. If he knew how badly I was damaged, he wouldn’t want me around. After all, that’s what he had told me over and over. Nobody would want me.
Maybe sometimes you have to run away to find yourself.
The night of my wedding, I ran, but I hadn’t ran far enough.
Lena and Ryder’s latest argument greeted me as I climbed the stairs to the second floor apartments. They didn’t fight very often, but with their impending wedding, my cousin and her fiancé didn’t hold back their tempers or opinions. Of course, Lena liked it. She had to tell me how the make-up sex was worth his stubborn attitude. Information I didn’t want or need to know. Wisely, I kept my mouth shut. If it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t have a place to live. Or worse, I’d still be in Des Moines. I shook the thought out of my head. Des Moines was in the past and the people, including my mother, could stay there.
They’d quieted down by the time I reached the top of the steps. The shouting had toned into loud whispers. I smiled. Lena and Ryder were perfect for each other. I put my key in the door, pushing it opened. My heard froze. The door had opened without unlocking it. I couldn’t move. A shadow darted from the living room toward the back bedroom, my room. My legs unfroze. I stepped away slowly, hoping not to make a single sound until I rapped on Lena’s door. My back pressed against the white wood. I knocked again. The door gave way and I fell back into my cousin’s fiancé.
“Val?” Ryder asked.
I pointed toward the open door across the hall. My stomach churned, threatening to clear the gallon of decaf I’d sucked down in the last hour. This wasn’t happening. Chicago was supposed to be my safe haven. Nobody knew I was here. Nobody was supposed to find me. I closed my eyes and prayed it was a robber, not somebody worse. I turned to move into Lena’s apartment, to push Ryder back in and away from the danger, but strong hands squeezed my upper arms. Ryder moved me out of the way like I was a rag doll. Just the mere touch of his fingers made me want to curl up in a ball. I couldn’t keep living like this.
Ryder pushed by me in his bare-chested glory, his sculpted muscles cut with scars from his days as a Marine. I’d never seen a guy with a prosthetic leg move with so much grace. He rushed into my apartment. Well, not mine, not really. It was Ryder’s and his USMC buddy Josh’s place. Since Ryder spent most of his time at Lena’s and Josh was deployed, they’d let me move in until Josh returned in a couple of months. I hoped to be out of their way by then.
Why didn’t he just call 911? Why didn’t I?
I ran after him. Nightmares of Des Moines invaded by mind, but I shoved them back into their compartment. Ryder could get hurt. I’d never forgive myself if that happened. Not that I had ever been able to forgive myself for much of anything. Lena deserved happiness, and I would make sure she had it even if I couldn’t.
It was still dark inside the apartment when a loud “oomph” sounded in the hallway. I flipped on the light, illuminating Ryder on top of the would-be robber. As I stared at the unfamiliar face, all I could think was thank God it wasn’t Sam.
“Jesus, Ryder, I know you missed me, but tackling hugs aren’t necessary,” the robber said.
“Josh?” Ryder sat up, still straddling the guy’s lap.
It would’ve been funny had the circumstances been any different. Or even slightly different. Suddenly I longed for the home invader and not the roommate’s return. I’d have to move. There was no way I could stay here.