an excerpt

Chapter One

I had a plan. I didn't know if it was a good plan, but it was all I had. So, I was sticking with it.

As with most big plans, I had thought about it a lot beforehand. Dreamt and fantasized about the moment all my work would come to fruition. Then, as the world likes to do, the opportunity was dumped into my lap with no advance notice so I had to act fast. And for all my planning, I was still nervous. Shaking like a leaf as I tiptoed across my father's office in the dead of night, opened his safe behind the cliche velvet picture of Elvis and grabbed it all.

I didn't know how much it was, but once I got enough miles between me and Las Vegas, I counted it: 4.8 million dollars. It took two huge bags and I was struggling with those sons of bitches once I got them packed up.

My dad was out of town and I had roofied two of his henchmen that were charged with babysitting me while he was away. It had been laughably easy, just a flick of my hair and a bat of my eyelashes and those guys were putty in my hands.

"Want to play strip poker?" I had asked, dressed only in shorts and a tank top. They fell over each other at the chance and when I shook the bottle of Jack Daniels at them, they licked their lips and clamored into chairs at the gaming table in the parlor.

I didn't even remove one piece of clothing, and these two dudes were in their boxers and passed out cold. Amateurs. How do you live in Vegas and not know how to play poker?

After that was done, I high-jacked the security system--just shut it down completely. My dad wasn't very clever with the pass codes--it was the same as the safe--his own fucking birthday. He was a narcissist and an idiot. And so fucking evil, that taking nearly five million dollars of his money was well deserved. I didn't feel even an inkling of guilt. None.

I took the private elevator we had from the top of the Cromwell, in the penthouse where I had lived my entire life, down to the private garage under the building. It took three trips and no one stirred in the house the entire time.

The last thing to put in my the car was my dad's cane corso, Bugsy, who had been tagging along at my heels the entire time, riding the elevator up and down, his tail wagging with a repetitive thud against my leg. He was thoroughly confused as to why I wasn't just sleeping or watching Netflix--my two typical nighttime activities. But he was a dog so he went with it.

My dad hated that dog. He got him because he was supposed to be intimidating. He would have him sit at his side when he took meetings with people to try to frighten them, like the dog would do his dirty work with a one word command and rip their throats out on a whim.

But Bugsy was not a killer; he was a dumb ass. A big, loveable oaf who liked belly rubs and naps way more than growling and terrorization. Once my dad decided Bugsy was no good to him, he tossed him aside, just as he did with everything else in his life. My mom, my brother, me. If we didn't fulfill whatever needs and wants he had in the exact moment he had them, we were expendable.

Up until now, I had been obedient. I had done what I was supposed to do, looked the way I was supposed to look, walked the proverbial line for my father. When I was young, I had been afraid. When I got older, I was patient. And when the time was right, I struck.

Once everything was packed and nothing was out of place--I left.

I had only taken my clothes, a few pieces of jewelry that my father or my joke of a fiance didn't buy me and half my shoes, which numbered twenty-four pairs. My Mercedes SUV was filled to the brim, and I knew that the next car I got would have to be another SUV. Not only for the space, but because Bugsy was a big fan of riding up high and shoving his face out the window to slobber into the air.

I had long ago set up a bank account in my new name, so my first stop once I made a deposit and put some miles between me and the strip, was a car. Anything over ten grand had to be reported to the IRS, which I didn't want. Even with a new identity. But a wire transfer didn't have to be reported; I got a brand new GMC Terrain that cost $27,990. I drove it to where I had parked my Mercedes, at the Boulder City airport in the long term parking and put on an expired plate I had bought at a garage sale. I transferred my things, my dog and myself to my new car, locked up the Mercedes, and drove away.

I didn't want to go out east; my dad and Connor would assume that would be where I was headed. I had fallen in love with New York City on my first trip there at thirteen and went twice a year. And my dad had connections in Atlantic City--too close for comfort.

The west coast wasn't far enough away, and the Midwest was too snowy, covered in flat ground and corn fields. I couldn't spend my life surrounded by that.

I settled on somewhere in the south. My first stop was in Arizona. I drove through a few towns, stayed in Tucson overnight with Bugsy happily sniffing the entire hotel room a dozen times over, then collapsing with exhaustion. The second night was New Mexico. Same thing; found a hotel, Bugsy sniffed and we both passed out.

The third day, we woke up and I drove as far across Texas as I could and when I got off the interstate for gas, I found a town that looked like it should be in a movie. Small, adorable downtown with historic buildings around it. A locally owned grocery store with a farm stand out front, lined with fresh produce and homemade baked goods. One road in and one road out with precisely three stop lights in town. Perfect.

Gladewater, Texas was my new home. I went directly to the small storefront in town that said: Mike Whitbeck, Realtor.

The bells jingled above the door, and I noticed the dated, wood-paneled office smelled faintly like cigarette smoke and cinnamon scented room spray. A woman with fluffy brown hair sat behind a long counter that separated the front section from an area with a few haphazard chairs and a banged-up coffee table from the back section with two desks and a large office with windows.

She looked up from her Vogue magazine; she was fifty, trying to look thirty, with heavy makeup and a top that was just this side of indecent. But she smiled at me and I smiled back. "Help ya?" she asked, snapping on her gum.

"Yeah, hi. I'm looking for some property in town," I said.

She stared at me, her eyes traveling down from pricey blouse, to my expensive linen pants, and stopping at my costly heels.

"You are, huh?" she kept staring.

"I am. Something with some land. Do you have any listings I could look at?" I asked.

"Here in Gladewater?" she was still staring.

I nodded. "Yes."

She brought her eyes up to mine. "Honey, there are two houses for sale here in town. One is two blocks away off Main Street, and other is out by the farms east of town. Take your pick." She snorted a laugh.

"I'll take a look at the one outside of town," I said and she stared at me a moment longer.

"Helen, you got that deed for McIntyre's ready?" A man with a potbelly and a jelly donut stain on his shirt came out of the large office at the back. He gave me a wide, appreciative grin. "Hey there, darling. What can we do for ya?" he asked, his voice dripping in deep Texas drawl.

"I wanted to take a look at the property out of town on--" I glanced at who I assumed was Helen for help.

"Locust. 221 Locust." Helen finished for me, digging into a drawer for a sheet of paper that she held out for Mike.

"Really? You're interested in the Hatchett farm?" the man seemed surprised.

Fuck. That sounded ominous. "I am. Hi, I'm Caroline Ward," I said, holding out my hand.

The man shook my hand. "Mike Whitbeck. Whitbeck Realty," he said, nodding his head toward the front window which was sprawled with the same words in large letters.

"Hi," I said, looking at Helen. "Caroline," I said, offering her my hand.

She grinned, sticking her red-talons out at me. "Helen Whitbeck. No relation." She cackled. "Nice blouse, sweetheart. Must've cost a bundle." She noted.

"I'm a big fan of eBay," I lied. The blouse did cost a bundle but she didn't need to know I had the money to pay for it. Or that I had about ten thousand times what I paid for this number in the back of my car.

Mike handed me a slip of paper with the specs of the Hatchett farm typed out. "It's a fixer upper for sure. Iris Hatchett lived there a long time, but she wasn't one for home repairs." He glanced at me. "You lookin' for something that's move in ready?"

"I can handle a fixer upper," I said, though I'm sure they doubted that immensely based on my sophisticated look, but they didn't question me.

"We can drive out if you want to look at it," Mike offered.

"I'd love to," I beamed.

He smiled in return. "Be back, Helen," Mike said unnecessarily.

"Nice to meet you," I said to Helen.

"You too, honey. Best of luck." She wiggled her fingers at me and returned to her magazine.

We walked out front and Mike stopped. "You got a car?"

I nodded at the GMC and Bugsy barked from the front seat.

Mike jumped backward. "Jesus Christ! What kind of dog is that?" he asked, holding onto his chest. Shit, I hope he didn't have a heart attack. That wouldn't be putting my best foot forward in a new town.

"He's half gargoyle," I used my usual joke, but Mike did not look amused. "He's super friendly; bark is much worse than his bite."

"Yeah, uh huh. Maybe keep him in the car while we look at the house." He suggested, still inching backwards.

"Of course. No problem at all." I gave him another winning smile.

He ran a hand over his balding head. "Well, I'm parked here. Follow me," he said, pressing himself against the car beside us while he made himself as small as possible (quite a feat) and slid past Bugsy who was panting heavily and dying to lick this dude and crawl into his lap for snuggles.

"Okay," I said, climbing into my car. I followed him through the town, where he waved to the half a dozen cars we passed, including a sheriff's car. That made me edgy, but I have no idea why. I hadn't done anything wrong.

Well, I had stolen millions of dollars; but it was dirty money with a dirty purpose. I was basically Robin
Fucking Hood; Robin Hood didn't need to worry about the police in a small town in northwest Texas.

It took about fifteen minutes through twisty, windy roads to get to the house and it was definitely a fixer upper. But it had working heat, a new roof, and that was all I needed for now.

After walking through it, taking a pass at the ten acres it sat on and the two outbuildings, including a small barn near to the house and a larger barn at the back end of the property, I said I'd take it.

Mike stared at me. "You'll take it," he repeated.

"Yes. You said its $102,000?" I asked.

"Yeah, but we need to get you approved for a mortgage."

I shook my head. "I'm paying cash."

"You're paying cash," he repeated again.

"Yes." I said, "With a wire transfer."

He stared at me. "Darling, you sure about this? This house needs a lot of work, and this is a small town and it's coming on winter."

"I'm sure, Mr. Whitbeck. I had family near here. They're all gone now, but this is where I would like to be for a while. So, if we can get back to the office, I can sign any papers you have." I grinned, I batted my long lashes, I even squeezed his arm in a reassuring gesture that I hoped communicated to him: "I got this, buddy. Look how capable and attractive I am!" (I learned early in life that most men often thought these two things went together when usually they didn't.)

He stared at me another moment. "All right, darling. Let's go. I'm gonna bank a good commission since you ain't haggling and I listed it two months ago. So, let's take care of it quick before you change your mind." He chuckled.

"I won't," I vowed.

I followed him back to the office. Helen was as surprised as Mike that I was buying the house, immediately, but within a few hours it was done. I had the deed in my own fancy new moniker, Caroline Margaret Ward as I was now named, and I was driving there just as the sun was setting.

I had bought an aerobed, so I set it up, got some blankets from the car, and went inside. Bugsy was in love. He had spent his entire life living in a hotel in the dessert, so lush green grass and open spaces were a new experience for him. But he took to it immediately and if I had any lingering doubts that I hadn't made the right decision, that we weren't exactly where we needed to be, they were gone as soon as I saw Bugsy chase a butterfly and break into a full out run while he tried to eat it.

Once we were both fed, the house was dark and quiet, and Bugsy was asleep on half the bed, snoring loudly, I exhaled. For the first time in my entire life, I was breathing free.