Hey kids, Saving Sarah, Book 4 in the Women of Willow Bay series, is releasing in just 22 days! I’m so excited I can barely breathe because this book is one that tore at my heartstrings as I wrote it. Sarah’s character was vetted by a woman who graciously shared her story of domestic abuse with me (she is free of it now). Although this isn’t her story, it’s purely fiction as Sarah Bennett’s story, I am grateful for her checking me on details and feelings and fears. I hope you enjoy this little excerpt from Saving Sarah and that you fall in love with Sarah and Tony, just as I did. Thanks for reading!
A Lake Michigan breeze tugged Sarah Bennett’s auburn tresses from the tight clip at her neck as she stood on the ferry next to her friend Julie Miles. They had been more than halfway across before Sarah worked up the courage to leave the car that was parked in the belly of the huge vessel. Julie had brought her coffee and a muffin that Sarah had only nibbled on. The women sat together quietly until Sarah opened the car door and stepped out. Even now she couldn’t help scanning the area, peering into the tinted windows of the ferry cabin, searching…praying.
“He’s not here, you know,” Julie said, almost as if she could read Sarah’s thoughts.
“In the clear-thinking part of my brain, I know that.” Sarah stared out across the water, watching the breeze whip up tiny whitecaps on the surface. “But he’s still out there and he won’t give up.”
“You don’t know that.” Julie sipped her coffee. “You hit the son of a bitch on the head with a skillet, baby. If he’s smart, he’ll stay away from you.”
Sarah shivered in spite of the early May sunshine warming her bare arms. That awful night replayed in her head in an endless terrifying loop. After she’d bashed her ex-husband, she’d grabbed her emergency pack, shoved her laptop and wallet into it, and run down to check on Mack. The night watchman was groggy from being punched out and his lip was bleeding, but he was alive, thank God. Paul wasn’t stupid; he hadn’t hit Mack hard enough to really hurt him.
She turned to Julie. “I should’ve told the police about Paul when I used Mack’s phone to call the ambulance.” The horror of skulking around the alley behind the shelter, casting around for the long black Lincoln, and praying desperately that she wouldn’t be stopped by Paul’s driver sent another agonizing shiver through her.
“Sarah, come on, drink your coffee,” Julie urged. “You need the caffeine and the sugar.”
Sarah tried a small sip, but her heart rose to her throat as she remembered the scene she’d left behind three nights earlier. Maybe she should’ve stayed with Mack, but he was conscious and fully aware that she’d called for help. When he saw her backpack, he’d encouraged her to just go, so with a reassuring hug, she’d fled—straight to Julie and Will. And now she’d brought her dearest friend into this horrible mess.
Sarah pulled the clip out of her hair, raking shaky fingers through her unruly curls. “Jesus, Julie, what if I’d killed him? What if he’d died? How could I have lived with being a murderer?” She swallowed a sob, but gave it up and put her head down on the rail and wept.
Julie drew closer and wrapped her arms around Sarah, turning to allow her to rest her cheek against her friend’s strong shoulder. She patted her gently, whispering wordless comforts and finally reached in her pocket for a tissue. “Here, dry your eyes. That’s not what happened. When Will got there, Paul was gone and Mack was doing fine. We’ve got this. It’s going to be okay.”
Sarah pressed the tissue to her eyes, then she blew her nose and took a deep breath. She twisted the wet paper in her hand, searching for the words to describe the scene with Paul, still needing to process it. “So fucking typical of him to show up in a limo and lurk outside the shop.”
“I still don’t quite get why you didn’t just call the police when you saw the car?” Julie crossed her arms, her head tilted in a question, not a judgment.
Sarah drank the coffee, letting it warm her all the way down to her belly. “Really, Jules? Parking on the street isn’t a crime. What would I have said to the cops?”
“They could’ve at least checked it out, don’t you think?”
“You sound like Mack.” Sarah shook her head before she handed Julie her cup, gathered the tangled curls into a knot again, and clipped it in place.
“Mack’s a smart man.” Julie handed her coffee back before resting her elbows on the stainless steel railing. “Honey, you’ll be safe in Willow Bay. I rented the apartment in my name and Noah Dixon is the soul of discretion. Carrie and Sophie will take you in and nobody wants to cross those two anyway. We take care of our own in the village. So it’s going to be fine. Trust me.”
“I trust you.” Sarah met Julie’s steady blue gaze. And she did trust her…mostly.
* * * *
Sarah latched the deadbolt after Julie and Will left. No sooner had she walked away than she hurried back and double-checked it and the chain on the door of the apartment above the old boathouse at Dixon’s Marina. It was a charming place with deep-cushioned denim sofas facing each other in front of a huge picture window that overlooked Willow Bay. Julie’s friends, Carrie Reilly and Sophie Dugan, had cleaned thoroughly and the scent of lemon furniture polish blended with the fragrant piney air coming in through the open windows. Instinctively, Sarah hurried to the back of the apartment to shut the windows before reminding herself that someone would have to have a damn tall ladder to get to them.
She shook her head, left them open, but turned back and closed them part way, checking the screens to make sure they were securely latched, before she explored further. A small bedroom with a desk and a daybed under the loft stairs was decorated with amazing photos of the lake, vineyards, and a red-roofed lighthouse. An en-suite bathroom had a frosted window that she assured herself was latched tight and too small for an adult to get through anyway. The kitchen was sparkling white-painted cabinets and granite countertops with what appeared to be new stainless steel appliances.
She pulled open a cabinet and found cheerful flowered dishes, while another held glasses and stemware, and a bottom cupboard contained a set of high-end stainless steel pots and pans. Apparently, this kitchen was fully stocked. She could cook. She loved to cook and she’d done damn little of it in Chicago. There was always too much to be done at the shelter and in the shop. What a pleasure it would be to play with new recipes in this kitchen. A window above the stainless steel sink overlooked tall pines and a gravel parking area behind the boathouse. She reached up and checked the lock.
Open steps led to a huge master bedroom with a bathroom at least four times the size of her entire studio apartment in Chicago. And it had a big delicious shower with multiple showerheads. Nice. No window in that bathroom, thank God, and the bedroom windows looked out over the docks and the bay. They were cranked open and with an effort, Sarah left them that way. A ceiling fan circled lazily above a king-sized bed covered in a lovely pink-and-green quilt. Nothing here to be afraid of.
She was safe.
Back downstairs, she set her backpack on the white wicker desk at the bottom of the stairs, where she found a note from her landlord, Noah Dixon, welcoming her and giving her the Wi-Fi password and other incidentals about the apartment. When she went to the refrigerator for a drink of water, she found a casserole, a pie, fresh vegetables and fruit, eggs, milk, and a bottle of white wine. A note on the casserole let her know that Carrie and Sophie were only a phone call away.
Already, she was finding a small sense of safety here in this little town on the lake. Pulling out the casserole, she cut a serving, and discovered to her delight that it was chicken—her favorite. She put the square on a plate, covered it with a paper towel, and placed it in the microwave to reheat. Suddenly, she was famished, so she whipped up a salad with the veggies in the fridge. Someone, no doubt Carrie or Sophie, had even thoughtfully provided three different kinds of salad dressing. She chose the balsamic vinaigrette and even opened the wine—a crisp summer Riesling from a winery right there in Willow Bay—and poured a glass.
She sat on the high stool at the countertop, eating her lunch and watching the sailboats on the bay out the front window. After lunch, she would call Julie and talk to her about buying an inexpensive used car. She’d left hers in Chicago—abandoned it really. Maybe Will could go to the parking lot behind the shelter and get it and sell it for her.
No… Too dangerous. Paul probably had someone watching her car. It would just have to sit there until they towed it. It would go in the police impound auction, which was okay. That money went to a good cause.
She rinsed her dishes, stuck them in the dishwasher, and emptied her pack to take inventory—cell phone, wallet with a Michigan driver’s license, her passport, and a birth certificate. Everything made out in her new name.
“Sarah Jane Bennett.” She said the name out loud, trying it on for size. Miraculously, the shelter’s director had managed to get her new identity set up in just a matter of a few hours. Well, maybe not so miraculously—money talked even in these kinds of situations and Sarah had paid a pretty penny for the paperwork to escape.
She placed her laptop on the desk by the stairs and since the battery was low on her cell phone, she plugged it into the outlet by the kitchen bar. The rest of the things she packed carefully back into the pack, except for a framed picture that she set on the desk by her laptop. “Hey, baby,” she whispered to the photo of the young girl in the simple wood frame, “here we are, in a new place again.” She kissed her fingertips and touched the photo, tears welling up in her eyes.
Swallowing hard, she set the pack against the wall next to the front door before scooping up her purse and the suitcase that Will had packed for her when he went back to her apartment that night… That terrible night. Was it really only three days ago? A shudder wavered through her as she headed for the stairs.
At the bottom step, she paused, set the suitcase down, and went back to recheck the lock on the front door. It was bolted. She walked to the small mud room off the kitchen and verified the back door was locked, too, although she was dismayed to discover that it was a simple knob lock—no deadbolt. A trip to the hardware store in town just became the first item on her to-do list. For a moment, she debated wedging a chair under the knob, but with a deep breath, let it go. The door was locked, the window was too high to reach the lock from, so for now, it was okay.
The master bedroom welcomed her warmly with a shaft of afternoon light streaming in the windows opposite the French doors that opened off the loft. She dug into her purse and found her trusty old iPod, plugged it into the clock radio by the bed, and relaxed to Norah Jones as she emptied her suitcase onto the bed.
Bless Will’s heart. He had literally stuffed all her clothes into the big case. It was clear he’d scooped her few belongings out of the beat-up dresser and closet in the tiny apartment, because the zipper was straining and it weighed a ton. Shoes, tops, underwear, skirts, and jeans nearly burst out when she unzipped the bag. Her cosmetics and toothbrush were tucked into the pocket in the front, along with everything from her shower, which he’d thoughtfully wrapped in a towel so nothing had soaked through the canvas of the suitcase. With everything laid out on the bed, she scanned the room for a dresser, but didn’t see one.
She carried her toiletries into the bathroom and spotted two doors across from the shower. One revealed a fully stocked linen closet filled with towels, sheets, and everything she’d need in bathroom supplies for the next six months at least. She chuckled. “Thank you, Carrie and Sophie.”
The other door led into the most amazing walk-in closet she’d ever seen—even more elegant than the one she’d left behind in Atlanta so many years ago. All white-stained wood, one side was drawers, baskets, and shoe racks that her meager wardrobe wouldn’t begin to fill. A mirror on the back wall opened into a three-way and lighted up when she pressed the switch by the door to turn on the overhead lights. Sarah couldn’t help laughing out loud thinking about how her few articles of clothing would look hanging in this closet. Somebody, probably Noah Dixon, sure knew how to appeal to female renters, because this closet was great, and clearly it had been done recently, because it still smelled of fresh paint and there wasn’t a mark on any of the shoe racks.
Grinning for the first time in three days, she collected her shoes—all three pairs—and set them in the rack. Just as she placed her worn leather sandals, she heard a noise downstairs. She stood stock-still, listening. Yes. Someone had opened the back door and was clomping through the kitchen.
Oh holy shit!
Whoever it was hadn’t even bothered to knock. Her heart leaped to her throat as she tiptoed into the bedroom and rummaged among the clothes piled on the bed for her purse.
The footsteps were getting closer, so she dug in the purse for the little .22 pistol she’d acquired just the night before. Who knew she’d ever have need of it in this sleepy little town? But what if Paul had her followed? The tread was too heavy to be Paul’s, but maybe one of his gorillas…
She stepped to the French doors and peeked out, but wasn’t close enough to the loft rail to see over. She was going to know soon enough, because from the sound of it, the intruder was headed right for the stairs.
Sarah tucked in as close to the wall as she could, peering out through the crack by the door hinges. A huge man clambered up the stairs, whistling as if he didn’t have a care in the world.
What nerve! He’d broken into her apartment, but was acting as if he belonged here.
She squinted. Burly as a lumberjack, the guy’s salt-and-pepper hair was longish and curled over his collar, and he wore trendy dark-framed glasses. In one hand, he carried several wooden poles that he’d probably used to break into the back door and in the other, a shopping bag.
Pure red rage surged through her and she stepped into the opening with both arms raised, the pistol aimed directly at the bastard’s heart. “Stop right there!”
It never occurred to Tony Reynard that someone would be in the apartment over Noah’s old boathouse because no one was supposed to be there. Carrie had told him yesterday that Julie’s friend wasn’t due until the weekend. He’d been patting himself on the back for the last two days for getting the closet build-out done so quickly. All he had left to do was install the poles for the hanging clothes, which was where he was headed when a little redheaded spitfire stepped out of the bedroom with a damned gun in her hands. And, oh shit, those hands were shaking.
It took about ten seconds for him to assess the situation, slowly step down one step from the top, and hold his hands, full of closet poles and a shopping bag, up in the air.
“Hello,” he said, keeping his tone as even and measured as he could.
“Who are you?” Her voice trembled. Clearly, she was terrified, even though her crystal blue eyes were shooting angry sparks. She was tiny—not much over five feet—and if she weighed a hundred pounds soaking wet, he’d eat his favorite Chicago Cubs hat.
“I’m Tony Reynard.” He glanced over his shoulder and backed down another step.
“Don’t move.” She shook the gun at him and he realized it was a .22 semiautomatic, which could certainly be deadly, although by now he was fairly sure she wasn’t going to shoot him.
“What are you doing here?” she asked.
“I’m going to put my hands down now, okay?”
“I wouldn’t,” she advised, sounding a little bit braver. “Unless you want a bullet through your heart.”
“Hey, I’m just the local handyman.” Tony kept his hands up and moved down one more step so they were more eye-to-eye. He’d reached his full height by the age of sixteen, so he’d learned not to tower over people. He didn’t mean to be intimidating, but six feet three and two hundred and thirty pounds of bulky male tended to be daunting. “I’m here to install the poles in the new closet.” He peered around her. “Looks like you could use them.”
She eyed him suspiciously. “What’s in the bag?” She jerked the gun toward the sack in his right hand.
From his vantage point, Tony could see that the safety was off and her finger was inside the trigger guard.
He was fairly sure the damn thing was loaded—she seemed too serious to be trying to frighten him with an unloaded weapon. She was afraid, but she meant business. He wasn’t interested in getting shot by a crazy-scared female, so he gave her his best charming smile even though sweat ran down his sides.
Just act calm. Show her you mean her no harm. That was the key.
“Hangers. I bought some of those velvet hanger things at the Target in Traverse City. Julie said you were arriving with only your clothes and nothing else from your place in Chicago, so I thought you might be able to use some hangers. I’ve also got some drawer liner here. Package says it smells like lavender.”
She stared at him for what seemed like an eternity, but he didn’t let his gaze waver…or his smile. Finally, she took a deep, shaky breath and slowly dropped her arms, still holding the gun in both hands.
“Maybe you could, um, take your finger out of the trigger guard and put the safety on before you shoot yourself in the foot,” Tony suggested. “And I’m going to lower my arms now.” When she didn’t object and did as he recommended, he sagged against the stairwell wall for a moment before he said, “You must be Sarah, Julie’s friend from Chicago.”