The phone rang through the Nissan speakers for the third time in an hour. I used the button on the steering wheel to send it to voicemail and concentrated on keeping up with the car in front of me.
“Why are you ignoring your editor again?” Lauren asked, pressing pause on our audiobook that had resumed in the call's wake.
I sighed and hesitated on admitting it was for the most clichéd reason ever. It was so stupid.
“Can we just listen to the book? We won’t get a chance on the way back.”
“Eden won’t care.” Lauren dismissed my suggestion. “Are you that determined to not talk about your writer’s block?”
I’d tightened my grip on the steering wheel until my fingers turned numb. “Hush. Do not speak its name out loud.” I loosened my hold and wiggled the dead appendages.
Lauren let out a giggle. “You’re serious right now?”
“You think it’s silly, but things have more power once you name them.”
“Or you can create a plan to combat it once you know what’s going on?”
“The story doesn’t make any sense, and that’s a problem,” I said. Lauren wasn’t a writer; she didn’t understand.
The lines and trees on the side of the interstate whipped by. It amazed me that even a couple of hours southeast, the leaves had not started the autumn transformation yet. It’d stayed hotter for longer this year, delaying colors. I’d need to get gas soon. I tapped the button. “Call Eden.”
Eden’s voice filled the car through the speakers. “What up, road trip compadres?”
“Let’s stop at the next major exit and find a gas station,” I said.
“Good. I could use some snacks.”
“Didn’t you bring some with you?” Lauren asked.
“Don’t judge me,” Eden quipped.
“No judgment here,” I said. “Snacks sound great. See ya at the exit.”
“10-4 that and we’re east bound and down,” Eden said.
“What?” I asked. “We’re headed south.”
“It’s from an old show. You don’t remember that?”
“Can’t say I do.”
“Well, never mind then.” The phone disconnected.
“Love the girl, but she can be weird. Do you ever wonder what her life was like before we met her?”
Lauren shifted in her seat. “She’s just nervous. I’d be uneasy too if I’d kept a friend’s car for six months. What was she driving? Didn’t Eden have one of her own?”
“We didn’t really discuss it,” I said. Digging into someone’s past left me open for reciprocal inquiry. “This person was using another car but needs hers back now.”
“You still won’t ask her questions,” Lauren said.
“I don’t ask what I don’t want to answer.”
“Yeah, I get it. But you two are spending so much time together lately.”
“Because you sent her to live in my attached apartment. And it hasn’t been that long. We’re friendly, enough.”
“You still haven’t told her?”
I let out a slow sigh. “She hasn’t asked. And besides, I like not having to explain it all. It lets me pretend that none of that ever happened. I can be a normal person.”
“You are a normal woman. Isn’t it better to tell those close to you? Just in case. It’s your call.”
“We’re following her across the state for something we know very little about. What’s the difference?”
Lauren adjusted in the seat. “We have no idea what we’re going into here.”
“We’re dropping off a car. That’s it.” I glanced into my rearview mirror. “You’re just paranoid after everything you’ve been through. It’s understandable.”
“I’m not paranoid,” Lauren said. “I’m still wearing a walking boot from two ripped tendons in my foot. It’s not paranoia.” She gestured toward the floorboard and her foot.
She’d left out the part about almost getting barbequed alive by her psychotic ex-husband hell bent on her destruction like some comic book villain. And I’d let her. Who wanted to reminisce about that?
“You come across as the paranoid one,” she added. “Always scared someone will find out who you were. Does it even matter anymore?”
“Alright, I hit a nerve, jeez. Sorry. You’ve never experienced such a public fall from grace.”
“I know what it’s like for the entire town to pity me and my family. So, there’s that.”
“Fine. It’s not pity. You’re being romanced by Camden. That’s jealousy.” I grinned.
She laughed. “Oh, I doubt that. Hopefully, they get that new building up soon, and we can put all this mess behind us.”
“See,” I said, taking the interstate exit following Eden. “That’s how I feel about my past. I want to leave it there where it belongs, in the bowels of history.”
“That’s where the shit is, right?”
Lauren tipped her ball cap and smiled. “You have a way with words.”
I laughed. “Sure do.” That’s why they’re pouring from me into my manuscript. I sighed to myself. My characters didn’t have any chemistry. That was part of the problem. How could I write a romance novel with people that weren’t attracted to each other?
“You could always ask Eden yourself,” I said.
Lauren grimaced. “But I don’t want to appear too nosey.”
My phone dinged with an incoming text message.
“What does it say?” I asked Lauren.
She stared at the screen. “It just says call me. But it’s from a number not listed in your contacts.”
“It’s weird. I’ve gotten that same message a few days ago. It must be a wrong number.”
“You should call it and see who it is.”
“No way. I’m ignoring it.”
After a brief stopover for gas and junk food, we were back on the road to rendezvous with Eden’s old friend at a truck stop halfway to Alabama. Eden was from Alabama, that much she’d told me, but the rest of how Eden ended up in Hart Valley was a mystery. The theory Lauren and I came up with was that she’d run away from a man. We weren’t sure, but it seemed likely. Beyond that, the particulars were a conundrum.
I steered the car into the lot alongside a row of parked semi-trucks and drove around to the front of a bustling convenience store. Automobiles zipped past in all directions, with license plates from many of the surrounding states and some from across the country. I pulled up to a pump and planned to top off while Eden handed over the keys, then joined us for the drive back. We’d grab some dinner on the way and be home by bedtime—not the most exciting Saturday ever, but maybe getting out would spark my creativity.
Eden parked along the front of the convenience store. She exited the car and greeted a young woman with a messy blond bun atop her head.
I scanned my card and gasoline had trickled into the tank when a female scream caught my attention. All the hair on the back of my neck stood on end. Eden was running across the lot toward me, hollering something I couldn’t make out. A hulking man with a military crew cut was fast approaching from behind. What on earth was going on?
I released the handle, pulling the nozzle from the tank and slammed it into the side of the pump, attempting to get it back into the cradle. On the third time, the nozzle clunked into place. And jumping into the driver’s seat, I started the engine as Eden dove through the open backseat window, headfirst.
“He’s got my foot.” Her voice echoed through the car. An image of Eden being dragged away by a madman flashed through my mind.
“Wait…” the man’s voice disappeared under the noise.
Lauren lunged between the seats and grabbed Eden’s arms.
“Drive,” Eden called.
In the melee, I hit the accelerator and burned rubber across the parking lot.
Lauren helped pull Eden the rest of the way through the window while I whipped onto the highway, cutting off a car, who responded with a honk. But I didn’t even take the time to apologize for my behavior. Tears blurred my vision, but I wiped them away, blinking hard. Taking the closest interstate entrance ramp, I entered the flow of traffic around eighty-five miles an hour, acting quick to put as much distance between us and him as possible.
“Who was that?” Lauren yelled.
“I don’t know,” Eden cried. “One minute I was hugging Sarah, and the next this man is rushing at me and yelling for me to stop.”
“So, you ran?” I asked, gripping the steering wheel with trembling hands.
“And you’re certain he’s a stranger?”
“Never seen him before,” she said.
“You’re missing a shoe,” Lauren said.
“Yeah, he pulled it off when we drove away.”
“Yikes,” Lauren said, turning back to the front. “Is this the way home?”
“Nope. If anyone was following, I didn’t want to lead them home,” I said, my heart thudding in my chest. Who was looking for Eden? And would they land on my doorstep?
“Good thinking,” Lauren said.
“But I can’t really tell if I’m being followed now. So, I’m going to get off the interstate and take some back roads. With fewer cars, it’ll be easier to tell if we’re being tailed, I hope.” I had some experience with evading, but it’d been a while. My skills might be rusty.
“Do that thing where you make four rights and see if there’s a car behind you. That does the same thing,” Eden chimed in.
“No one falls for that,” I said, taking the exit ramp toward an industrial park. Large, plain concrete buildings dotted with square bay doors that stretched on for several football field lengths. Trailers from big rigs sat backed into the bay gates. I pulled the car behind a building where we could watch the road.
“Why are we stopping?” Eden asked.
“I need to check the GPS,” I said. “And I still want to see the highway.” Within a couple of minutes, four or five police cars with lights flashing and sirens wailing hauled ass down the interstate in the direction we’d been going.
“Are the cops after us?” Lauren cried.
“Was that guy a cop?” I asked at almost the same time. My heart slammed into my chest wall so hard it vibrated through my entire body.
“He didn’t say he was,” Eden cried, leaning forward between the seats. “I have done nothing illegal.”
“Are you sure?” Lauren asked.
“Yes, I’m sure,” Eden said, crossing her arms over her chest.
“Who would try to grab a woman in broad daylight at a gas station?” Lauren said.
“A crazy person,” Eden cried.
“That probably has nothing to do with us,” I said, giving Lauren the side-eye. “I’m sure there are tons of reasons for the police to be rushing by right now.”
“Just get us out of here,” Lauren muttered.
“I’m on it.”