Long Gone was one of the harder books for me to write in this series. In this book, the heroine isn’t running from her past, but from her present so I needed to be in her now as she struggled with her trauma. I tried to ensure to only give the details necessary for the story, I never want my writing to even hint that violence is being glorified.
In this fourth book of the New Beginnings series, Reporter Eve Darling has the story of lifetime, a candidate for governor and his brother connived a baby away from a teenage mom and plan on repeating it. Her boss won’t believe without a source. Eve isn’t willing to give up the first woman–herself. She turns to skip-tracer Alex Stratford to help locate the new intended victim.
Alex is stunned when Eve shows up and requests help. The woman who once accused him of murder now accuses another man of a crime. Having battled Eve’s mudslinging himself, and barely winning, Alex refuses.
Determined to bring the brothers to justice, Eve continues on her mission alone. When she’s attacked, Alex rushes to her aid–and a decision alters lives forever. Can a battered and disgraced Eve and a battle-scarred Alex ever feel worthy of love from another…or themselves?
Eve sat on the twin-sized bed, knees drawn up to her chin. She barely remembered the drive from Clarksburg to Rockville, Maryland where the women’s shelter owned by the Stratfords was located. The large white two-story family style home with a four-car garage looked inviting and charming. Flowers lined the front walkway. Black shutters bracketed each window. The only thing hinting of the dual use of the family home was the large wooden fence surrounding the property and the intricate alarm inside.
A women’s shelter. Sunlight seeped through the window and played along the edge of the bed. Eve tightened her grasp around her legs, holding in a moan as aches and pain shoot through her with the simple movement. She never envisioned herself having to live in such a place. She thought herself stronger and smarter.
She agreed to stay at the Stratford’s place because she hadn’t the energy or ability to leave on her own. Brandon’s accomplice had stolen her purse and with it her car keys and wallet. Until it was found, or she had the health to return to Charleston, she had to rely on others.
The truth settled hard in her chest. Eve hated having to rely on anyone for anything. The last person she trusted with her heart and life broke it — then tried killing her. Maybe she did belong at the shelter, because even after Brandon stole her baby from her, she had thought about falling back into his arms.
Not smarter than everyone, are you? She deserved the reminder. The chiding. Judge herself as she judged others.
Her only possessions right now were the clothes on her back. Clothes Nathaniel bought her. Nausea churned her stomach. Her breath caught in her throat. She wanted them off her body. Now. She gripped the fabric, fingers twisting and turning on their own will.
The harsh sound of her breathing filled the room. She needed them off. Away from her. No wonder she couldn’t sleep last night. Nathaniel and Brandon had surrounded her. Stop. If she ripped the clothing, she had nothing to wear.
A knock sounded on the door. Taking in a steadying breath, she loosened her grip on the sweatshirt. Clothing couldn’t hurt her. Nathaniel couldn’t hurt her.
She was a fighter. Strong. Confident. No one would take anything away from her. She could get through this — would get through this event — all by herself. She’d show the Fallows they hadn’t made a victim out of her.
“Eve?” Angelina Stratford’s voice drifted through the close door.
Eve glanced over at the clock. Nine in the morning. She didn’t want to start the day when the night didn’t feel complete. She knew she dozed on and off a few times but never fell into a deep sleep. The images of Brandon kicking and hitting her had shown behind her closed eyelids.
Well, if she ever wanted to get out of there, she needed to stand on her own two feet and stop wallowing. Eve scooted off the bed and went to the door. Drawing in a deep breath, she stood straight and opened the door.
“How are you feeling this morning?” Angelina stood in the hallway.
“Would you like some breakfast? I can bring something back for you. Usually everyone eats together but you still need your rest.”
Food. Eve hadn’t thought about food. Even now, she didn’t feel hungry though the last time she remembered eating was when the nurse had brought a lunch tray into her room. She didn’t recall what she ate, just taking bites of the food placed in front of her. She knew she had to eat in order to stay healthy. Get healthier.
“I don’t mind going to the dining room. I can walk.” The words sounded slurred because of her swollen mouth. Eve stepped out into the hall. She’d prove she was fine. Brandon might have hit her, but he hadn’t destroyed her. Made her afraid. She wasn’t at the shelter to hide out. She was there because she was a little sore to drive long distances at the moment. Before too long, she’d be out of there and right back at her job.
No one would silence her for long.
“Follow me.” Angelina smiled and started down the hall.
Eve found her feet rooted. What was wrong with her? She fisted her hands into the fabric at her thighs, preparing to walk herself like a puppet if necessary.
Angelina stopped and turned. She frowned. “Is something wrong?”
Eve swallowed the fear rising in her throat. “I don’t have anything else.”
“Of course, you’d like to change.” Angelina shook her head. “I can’t believe I’ve been so thoughtless. I don’t like parading around in the clothes I slept in, and it’s even one of our rules.”
“Yes. I can tell you them over you eat or you can read them. I have a binder and vouchers for you. I planned on giving them to you after breakfast.”
Written rules and vouchers. Her stomach tightened. Eve wrapped an arm around her middle. “I’m sorry. I think I’d rather just eat in my room. I’m…”
Sympathy flashed on Angelina’s face. “Tired. I’m sure you are. Hospitals sometimes aren’t the best places for rest. I’ll bring you an outfit from the lending closet and you can pick out some more items later.”
“Is it all right if I took a shower?”
Angelina squeezed her hand. “No need to ask. While you’re here, consider our home your home. We got in so late, I forgot to tell you I placed towels and toiletries in a bathroom for you. It’s across the hall from your bedroom. No one else will be using it other than you so feel free to keep anything in there you’d like.”
“I don’t have anything.”
“We’ll fix that also.” Angelina patted her hand. “I’ll make you something to eat and put it in your room.”
A few minutes later, Angelina returned with a pair of soft grey yoga pants and a pink long-sleeved t-shirt in a soft cotton fabric. Eve carried the outfit to the bathroom, avoiding looking in the mirror. She felt more confident not knowing what her face looked like at the moment.
Quickly, she undressed, shoving the offending outfit into a corner underneath the sink. She’d burn them later. Her muscles ached from the simple task. After she showered and pulled on the comfortable outfit Angelina provided, Eve went back to her room.
Her stomach growled as the scent of bacon, blueberry pancakes and coffee wafted toward her. A good sign. A hot shower and a change of clothes made the world brighter.
“Looks like perfect timing.” Angelina carried a tray down the hall.
Eve opened the bedroom door.
Angelina paused. “Would you like me to put it on the desk?”
“Yes, thank you.”
Angelina settled the tray on the small desk. She pulled a wallet and a prepaid cell phone from a pocket of the sweater she wore. “This is for you. We like to make sure everyone has the ability to call us at any time and from anywhere. In the wallet are your vouchers. You have some for clothing, food and gas. We serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner here but sometimes the residents prefer something else. We have two sedans for resident’s use. There’s a sign up sheet in the office area, along with a schedule of group outings. Some of the ladies prefer shopping together rather than by themselves.”
Eve opened the wallet and flipped through the pieces of paper the size of regular dollar bills, and made out in different denominations with the category listed on them. Heat filled her face. The smell of the food now churned her stomach.
Was this how people on assistance felt?
She choked down the lump building in her throat. “The stores take these?”
“We do own a second-hand clothing boutique where you can use the vouchers and there’s also one independent grocery store who accepts them. If you’d rather shop elsewhere, we’ll exchange the vouchers for the cash before you go shopping. Just let me know and I’ll make sure to have the funds in the house. I don’t like having a lot of cash around.”
“Just you? Not Alex or your husband.”
Angelina shook her head. “No one here will ever have to ask a man for money or for a basic need, not even my husband or son. They are here to help so if there’s something you’d like, let them know otherwise you can come to me. I’m always available.”
“Is there a computer with wireless I can borrow while I’m here?”
Angelina pressed back a frown. “Usually we don’t loan out personal computers. There is a desk top in the family room and a laptop the children can use for schoolwork. Part of being here is so contact can be broken with those intent on harming us, and internet usage interferes in it.”
“The person who wanted to hurt me is dead.” A slip of anger entered her voice. A heavy, pulsating feeling bubbled in her chest, wanting to spew forth.
Angelina looked away. “I’ll see what I can do.”
Eve eased the door closed when Angelina left. Where had the rage come from and why at Angelina? Eve took a few bites then abandoned the delicious breakfast that created a boulder in her stomach.
Now what? She couldn’t live by mealtimes alone. She needed something to do. Her gaze rested on the phone on the nightstand.
Jack. She needed to let her boss know what was going on. He’d be wondering why she hadn’t shown up for work in days.
She snatched up the phone and called her boss’ direct line. He answered on the third ring.
“Jack Lawson, Editor-in-Chief.”
“It’s Eve.” Slurred words pushed out from her swollen lips.
“Have you been drinking?”
The harsh tone had her leaning away from the phone, as if Jack physically stuck her. She touched her mouth. “No. Beaten.”
“Let me guess, this call has something to do with your story.”
A flush flashed across her face while cold prickled her scalp. She had barely said anything and Jack already declared her a liar. “I was to meet Elizabeth Fallow. Instead Brandon showed up–”
“He was shot to death, Eve. Isn’t that enough for you? Do you really have to tarnish the man’s reputation?” Jack let out disgusted bark of a laugh. “The man’s brother is planning on entering politics. Did Brandon jilt you so bad you have to ruin Nathaniel?”
Who had talked to Jack? What had they told him? She shook her head even though Jack couldn’t see her. “I’m not ruining anyone. I’m telling you what happened to me. Brandon beat me. Tried to kill me. If someone hadn’t come to my rescue–”
“Eve, don’t. Please don’t.” Jack’s voice grew softer, weary.