Panic spears the walls of my throat.
I run through the trailer where I live with my stepbrother, my toe catching on a piece of raised carpet and sending me sprawling. Hearing Tony’s footsteps behind me, I scramble to my feet, knocking empty beer cans in every direction. Tears make my vision blurry, but I’ve lived in this trailer all my life, long past the point I wanted to, so I know it like the back of my hand.
“Get back here, Peyton, or I swear to God.”
Leaping over the partition that stands between the dining table and the front door of the trailer, I jerk the knob and throw myself out into the night. The summertime humidity hits me like a brick wall, clogging my windpipe. But I have to run. I have to get away from Tony. What he tried to do…
Drunk or not, it was wrong.
I had no warning. Never could have expected it.
Skin crawling, a pitiful sound breaks from my lips and I force my legs to go faster. I sprint through the dark trailer park on bare feet, not daring to knock on a neighbor’s door for assistance. None of them can stand me. Ever since I started working as a kindergarten teacher at a private school on the nice side of town, their nickname for me has been Miss High and Mighty.
“Peyton!” Tony screams in my wake. “No one is going to believe you!”
All I can do is run faster, my nightshirt floating around my thighs.
When my stepmother passed away earlier this year, joining my father in the great beyond, I was just getting ready to finally, finally move out. To be on my own in a clean, empty apartment miles away from this place. But I stayed after the funeral, even lost the security deposit on my new apartment, because my stepbrother was so grief stricken, I didn’t want to leave him alone. Sure, he’s mean as a snake, but we’re family. And there was no one left to cook his meals, make sure the bills are paid. Without my financial contribution, he could have ended up homeless. So I stayed.
Remembering the way he clapped a hand over my mouth tonight and tried to pull down my panties, acid churns in my gut. I’d been fast asleep so it took me a moment to realize what was happening. Who was trying to…to…
Thank God I never found out. My instincts kicked in immediately and I swung the book in my lap, bashing Tony in the nose. Ran like the wind. And I’m still running now, the road coming into view up ahead. What am I going to do when I get there? Ideally, I’d flag down help from a driver, but everyone in town knows Tony. He’s a well-loved local DJ. Odds are, whoever pulled over would doubt me and take his side. What if they refuse to help me escape in time and Tony reaches me?
With no choice but to continue running along the road, my heart flies up into my mouth when I hear the purr of an engine approaching from behind. I throw a frantic glance back over my shoulder to see if I recognize the vehicle. In a small town like this, normally I would. But I’ve definitely never seen the vintage, black Mustang before. It rolls past me and I lock eyes with the driver…
And time seems to stand still.
In the space of a single heartbeat, I sense that everything is going to be all right. There’s no reason I should feel that way. The man with a hand draped over the wheel is a stranger. I place him in his late twenties, but his eyes speak of a profound maturity. They’re deep set, full of knowledge. They betray a heavy soul.
His hair is dark, eyebrows drawn. A groove on his forehead grows more intense the longer we stare at each other through the passenger side window. In the sleeve of his white T-shirt, his bicep jumps, a line moving in his jaw. There’s an attractiveness to him that is nothing short of sharp, dangerous.
So why do I feel like my savior just arrived?
The brakes of his Mustang grind to a dead halt and I stop running, my breath continuing to fly in and out of my lungs. Throwing the car into park, he gets out, comes around the front bumper, looking around. Searching the area with those soulful eyes. Lord, he’s tall. At least six foot three. “Someone after you, honey?”
“Yes,” I breathe, shame heating my face. “M-my stepbrother, Tony.”
Malice darkens his expression and oddly, that reaction comforts me. It makes me feel as if I have an ally for once in my twenty-two years. He sweeps me with a glance, his attention ticking to something over my shoulder a split second before I hear the footsteps approaching. “There’s the vermin now,” murmurs the stranger. “Why don’t you get in the car and I’ll handle this?”
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