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The Lifetime of

A Second

The Time Series #3

Escape. That was my sole focus. Forget the headlines, forget the threats. Forget what happened? 

 

Never. 

 

I fled the big city in the desert to hide in a small town amongst the pines. My plan was to blend in, work until I had enough money, then vanish. 

 

There’s just one problem: I didn't factor in having a boss like Connor Vale. 

He’s quick-witted, sexy as sin, and has a heart the size of Arizona. 

 

The longer we work together, the more difficult it is to keep him at arms length. 

 

I know better than to return his smile. I know better than to shudder at the feel of his hand on the small of my back. And I definitely know better than to lean in when we’re working close together. 

 

Even when I know he wants me to do all those things. 

 

Falling for him would be easy, if it weren't for one inescapable truth: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, and nobody around me is safe. 

Excerpt:

CHAPTER ONE

Brynn

I blinked, and they disappeared.

The Saguaros, I mean. 

The tall, multi-limbed cactus only grow in the Sonoran Desert. I only grew in the Sonoran Desert, too, until it became clear Phoenix could no longer be my home. All I had to do was climb into a car and point it north. Such a simple ending following a catastrophic journey. 

Me and the Saguaros. We’ve disappeared. 

The vehicle I’m in does a terrible job absorbing the black tar road. The road noise rushes in, whirling around us. It doesn’t even matter. The air is already thick with awkward silence. What does a little road noise hurt? 

Through a wide-open swath of nothingness we drive on, and the car climbs higher. A small sigh escapes my lips at the first pine tree. In less than a mile we lose the tall, scrubby bushes and there are only pine trees, some clustering together and others spaced far apart. I feel somber at the sight of some that are barren and blackened by previous fire. It seems unfair they’re left standing, bearing the marks of how they were ravaged for all to see. 

At least my marks hide on the inside. 

My shoulder bumps the hard plastic door as the driver changes lanes and speeds up to pass a semi-truck. He sends the massive truck a couple beeps from his horn as we go by, grumbling under his breath about the left lane versus the right. 

I should’ve known someone who spells his name Geoff would be a bad driver. The moment I saw his name I wanted to call him Gee-off but resisted the urge. Leaning forward, I open my mouth and say the first words spoken to one another in two and a half hours. “It should only be twenty more minutes.” Looking down, I check the map on my phone again. 

I look up, catch his gaze in the rearview mirror, and immediately avert my eyes.

“I’ve never been asked to drive this far before,” he says, his tone curious. 

He’s fishing for information, but he’s going to come up empty. The phrase ‘Life or death’ used to be said by my dad when I complained and he wanted me to see how inconsequential my complaint was. But this is not like that. 

This is actually a matter of life or death. 

And to make this all work, I have to trust a stranger who drives too fast and wants to know why he’s taking me to a small town in the woods. 

If he recognizes me, I’m screwed.

I pull the ball cap lower onto my forehead. Without thinking I reach for my hair, held back in a ponytail. My fingers keep reaching, curling against the cloth interior of the seat instead of my hair. I’ve done that so many times since I chopped off my long, blonde strands two days ago. I wonder when that will end? The hair is gone. 

Another sacrifice. Or, perhaps, a penance. If giving up my hair could atone for what I’ve done, I’d be bald in a heartbeat. Nothing can change what happened, the judicial system decided I wasn’t guilty, but in my heart? 

Guilty.

Guilty.

Guilty. 

We’re almost there. “Number forty-seven,” I tell the driver. He crawls down the street at the same time I’m filled with an overwhelming urge to arrive. So now you go slow? 

My nails dig into my palms as I will myself to calm down. To distract me, I study the homes we pass. They are small, squat, and each one has a chimney. The front yards are tidy; some of them have flowers rising from terra-cotta pots. I lean in, focusing on the house on the corner. The tip of my nose pokes the window. The house is nondescript, no flowers or bushes in sight, and the door is black. Shiny, midnight black.

That door screams its message loud and clear—Stay away. I want that door. Too bad my rental agreement won’t allow me to paint. Or install an alarm system. 

“Here you are,” Geoff says, slowing to a stop. 

I undo my seatbelt and hop out. By the time he makes his way to the rear of the car, I’ve pulled out my two bags and placed them on the ground. This is the first time I’ve seen him standing. He didn’t get out when he arrived to pick me up from the gas station. Geoff’s left leg is missing, and in its place is a metal rod. Now I feel like an ass for disliking his name. 

“Accident when I was a kid,” he explains, pointing down. He shrugs. “Sometimes I forget it even happened.” 

I nod because I don’t know what to say, and I still feel awful. I was a terrible companion for that long car ride, but that’s the thing about disappearing. It comes with stipulations. Starting with: Don’t be memorable. I can’t tell a funny story, or have a meaningful conversation. I can’t be a vibrant color in someone’s memory. No magenta, or teal. I am beige. Endless, insignificant beige. 

I used to be lemon yellow. Happy, outgoing, ebullient. 

One second of time turned me into a neutral shade, and it will be my color forever. I’ve come to accept that. It’s one of the reasons I decided to run. Well, that and the other thing. The thing that will always have me looking over my shoulder. 

“Good luck, Ms.—”

“Brynn,” I say quickly, not wanting Geoff to say my last name again, in case one more passage of it through his lips prompts it to stay in his mind longer than necessary. 

Already I regret not using a fake name. My middle name seemed like enough of a deviation, but I’m not so sure now. Last week this was all just an idea in my head. I received his most recent hate mail, and after I placed it alongside his other letters, thought I should skip town. From that one tiny thought came big choices. I began searching for places to rent in northern Arizona, and when I found a place ready for immediate move-in, I snapped it up. Ginger, the owner of the eleven hundred square foot cabin, was chasing her dream of backpacking through Europe, and would be gone for six months. 

Perfect, I told her. What I didn’t tell her was that I’ll be long gone by the time she comes home. Three months of wages is all I need. Just enough to pad what my parents will give me when their season is finished. I arranged a property manager for my place, packed my bags, gathered all my important documents, and Elizabeth Brynn Montgomery dropped the Elizabeth. I did not pass Go, I did not collect two hundred dollars. 

I ordered a car and had it pick me up two blocks from my condo. Now that car is driving away, and I’m here in Brighton—a town dwarfed by sprawling, sunny Phoenix—standing on the sidewalk, and staring at the small home in front of me. The yard is neat, the grass a deep green and trimmed. Three stairs connect the front walkway to the porch, and each step is buffered by a small pot of geraniums. On either side of the front door hang two rustic lights that resemble lanterns. 

“Here we go,” I mutter, and bump bump bump my rolling suitcase along the cracks in the short driveway. Ginger said the house key would be under a pot of flowers. I lift one after the other, and on my fourth try I find one gold key on a silver key ring. 

The inside of the home looks much like the outside. Tidy, modest, and sparsely decorated. Ginger must have a thing for apples. The curtains are blue and white gingham with red apples lining the bottom and top. A large, framed picture of apples hangs on the wall in the living room. Fake apples are piled in a basket on top of the fridge. 

It takes only a few minutes to walk through the place. In the hallway I find a locked closet and assume that’s where Ginger has stored her personal items. There are no photographs in the place, no books, or anything that tells me even a morsel about Ginger as a person. They all must be in that closet, and it strikes me as sad that these things can mean enough to take up space in our homes but can so easily be locked away. 

Is that the way it is for everything? Are things only as important as we make them? 

The thought depresses me, but the feeling isn’t new. 

I won’t take those pills the therapist gave me. At the request of my parents, I went to see someone. She kept calling what happened the accident, but I argued it wasn’t an accident. The therapist said she understood that, but for my sake, they would call it an accident because, from my standpoint, it was one. 

I rub my eyes, an attempt at banishing the thoughts. Thinking them won’t help anything. What’s done is done. It can never be undone. 

Instead, I search the place. Open every cabinet, sift through every drawer, until I’m certain I know every inch. After that, I dump my suitcase on the bed and put everything in its proper place. The master bedroom is large, Ginger said, because she’d knocked out the wall between the two bedrooms. 

“When you’re single, one large is better than two small,” she’d explained, then asked me if I was single. 

“Yes,” I answered her quickly. “And I plan to keep it that way.” 

Besides, nobody will want me now. 

Not after what I’ve done.

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