USA Today Bestselling author, Laura Lee, brings you a standalone story about love, loss, and second chances, set in Corinne Michaels' Salvation Society world.
I fell in love with Beckett Armstrong before either one of us knew what that meant. He was my first kiss. My first love.
My entire world.
We promised each other forever, and we meant it wholeheartedly. But unfortunately, when tragedy struck, love wasn't nearly enough to save us.
Little did we know... it would only get worse from there.
Twelve years later, Beckett and I wear our scars like finely crafted armor. We've been in survival mode for so long, we've forgotten how to live. After everything we've endured, can we move beyond the pain to forge a future together?
Or are we destined to repeat the mistakes of our past?
*REDEMPTION contains graphic scenes that some readers may find triggering.
Release date: April 11, 2021
Publisher: Wild Thorns Press
Print pages: 426
Content advisory: graphic sex, language, brief war flashbacks, domestic abuse
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
Worthless. Stupid. Pathetic.
If ugly words are thrown at you often enough, they eventually become your truth. It’s a complicated, gradual process carved by years of cruelty. The shift is so diminutive in your everyday life; you don’t see the gulch forming until the damage has already been done. At the first fissure, you’re second-guessing your own thoughts. Then, as the gap widens, you start questioning your values, no matter how deeply rooted they may be. Over time, little pieces of your soul are chipped away day by day until your self-worth is so diminished, it’s living on the opposite end of the canyon. You hardly recognize the person staring back at you in the mirror. The only thing you know for sure is how ashamed you are of what you’ve become.
I know this because I speak from experience.
For almost twelve years, I’d been meticulously conditioned. Molded by a master manipulator. Barely a woman when Sebastian and I met, I was drawn to him. Curious because he was so sophisticated and drastically different from everything I had ever known. I was flattered by his obvious interest. Surely, a man that successful and attractive could’ve had any woman he desired. Yet, he chose me—a simple girl from a small southern town, eleven years his junior and hopelessly in over her head. This worldly man wore expensive suits with an impeccable smile as he made pretty promises to mend my broken heart. Alone in a new city and so very desperate to ease my sorrow, I was the perfect little lamb to a vicious wolf.
A freshman in college at the time, I was young and naïve enough to believe the fairy tale. To take his name as my own less than nine months after we met. If only I had the strength to admit the truth on our wedding day. That the man I was about to marry would never have my heart because someone else already owned it. Maybe things would be different. Maybe I would’ve walked away and never known what a monster Sebastian would become. Maybe, just maybe, I wouldn’t be so battered and bruised.
Sebastian had broken me down throughout our marriage, time and time again until all I knew was what he wanted me to know. All I was, was a pretty face on the arm of a powerful man. Here in Manhattan, I’m surrounded by millions of people, but I wouldn’t consider any of them a friend. I’ve alienated every person that ever mattered to me because my husband convinced me I needed no one but him. And as the controlling, abusive side of him came to the surface, I maintained that distance because I didn’t want my loved ones to witness my humiliation.
In hindsight, I know that it was all part of his carefully orchestrated plan. Because of him, I have no confidant. Because of him, I have no Plan B. Because of him, I have no escape.
I am his prisoner in a Park Avenue penthouse.
The doctors say I’m lucky—this could’ve been much worse, but luck is the last word I’d use in this situation. As I glance at my reflection in the little mirror above the sink, I survey the evidence of Sebastian’s brutality. I’m a living Picasso, all lopsided features and controlled chaos. Half my face is badly disfigured, while the other half barely has a scratch. Reddish-purple marks mottle my skin, significantly darker around my jawline and the bump on my temple. My lips are split and puffy, with dried blood crusted at the corner. My left arm is resting in a sling, cradling my recently dislocated shoulder, and my right eye is nearly swollen shut from the forceful blow of my husband’s angry, drunken fists. I wince as I swallow, carefully prodding the ring of bruises around my neck.
I’m not such a great trophy wife at the moment, am I?
I would laugh at the irony of my condition if I didn’t think the movement would hurt so much. Sebastian’s typically more controlled, worried I couldn’t do my best impression of a Stepford wife during one of his many business functions. Usually, he prefers to work through his rage by slamming his dick inside of me instead of using his fists. I honestly can’t decide which is worse. I can’t remember the last time I desired sex, let alone enjoyed it during the act. It became a tool I used to pacify the monster because, according to him, a wife’s sworn duty is to please her husband whenever and whichever way he sees fit. Lord knows I’ve heard him say it enough times over the years.
I gingerly return to the bed, careful not to tug at the IV in my hand as I lower myself to the lumpy mattress. As I lie here listening to the buzz of the emergency room, I can’t help but think about who I was before moving to New York. A cheerleader with a perennially sunny disposition. The prom queen who stood proudly beside her adoring king. A young woman with her whole life ahead of her, a smile so bright, it could light up the darkest of nights. Someone who dreamed big, laughed freely, loved wholeheartedly, and believed in happily ever afters.
That was who Sebastian Winters married. That was who he destroyed. That girl, Presley James, died many years ago.
Presley – Age 5
“Presley Anne, come on over here. I want you to meet someone.”
I drop my dolly and run at the sound of my daddy’s voice. When I make it across the dirt to our big red barn, I find him inside with a man and a boy ‘bout as old as me.
He motions me over and tucks me under his arm. “Presley, this is Mr. Armstrong. He’s going to be our new foreman. He and his son are moving into Papa’s old house. Say hello, honey.”
Mr. Armstrong is big like my daddy, ‘cept his hair is darker. My daddy has lots of white on his head. Mama says it’s from years of trying to run the horse ranch with just him and a couple’a other grown-ups. She says Daddy is stubborn as an old mule when it comes to askin’ for help. Mama made him hire a whole buncha new people after he hurt his back real bad.
“Hi, Mr. Armstrong.”
Mr. Armstrong goes low to the ground like Mama does sometimes when she’s talkin’ to me. “Well, hello there, Presley. Aren’t you a pretty little thing?”
“Thank you, sir.”
He laughs and scoots the boy closer. “Presley, this here is my son, Beckett. According to your daddy, you’re both starting kindergarten in the fall.”
I give the boy a big smile. Mama says my smile is infected, but that don’t make no sense to me. I had an owie get infected once, and it was really gross. Grown-ups are weird sometimes.
“Hi, Beckett. You wanna go see our fishin’ pond?”
Beckett looks up to his daddy. “Can I, Daddy?”
His daddy pats him on the shoulder. “Sure, son. You two go ahead. I’ll find you when I’m done with Mr. James here.”
I pull on Beckett’s hand and lead him out of the barn. “The fishin’ pond is my second favoritest place on the whole ranch! You can go fishin’ and swimmin’, but Mama says I’m not allowed to go in the water by myself ‘til I’m older.”
“What’s your first most favoritest place on the ranch?” Beckett asks.
“Oh, that’s easy. The horses are my most favoritest things in the whole wide world. One of ‘em just had a baby. Daddy let me name her after my favorite flower! He says when she’s a little bit older, she can be all mine, and I can ride her anytime I want! Do you like horses, Beckett?”
“I dunno.” Beckett’s shoulders lift. “My dad was a cattle rancher ‘til we moved here. They had some horses on the last ranch we lived on, but only the grown-ups were allowed to ride ‘em.”
“Where’d ya live before? I’ve been in Georgia my whole life.”
“Brownsville,” he says. “That’s in Texas.”
When we reach the pond, I run down the fishin’ dock and pull my shoes off. I like stickin’ my toes in the water. It’s funny when the fish tickle my feet. “How come you moved to Hope?”
Beckett takes off his socks and boots and hangs his legs over the edge like me. “Mr. Wakefield sold the ranch we were livin’ on. He moved away and took my mommy with him. Dad says it’s time to make new memories, just us boys, so we came here. He said livin’ in a town called Hope was a sign from God that everything was gonna be okay.”
“How come she left if she’s your mama?”
He runs his finger along the wooden edge of the dock. “My dad says sometimes people aren’t fit for bein’ mommies and daddies, so he’s just gonna have to love me enough for both of ‘em.”
I kick my feet and giggle when water gets on my face. “Are you sad you don’t have a mama no more?”
“Well, my mama’s real nice. I’m sure she can be your mama, too. She makes the best peach cobbler in all of Georgia. Plus, if I get a boo-boo, she fixes me all up and gives me ice cream after. She’s a real good mama.”
Beckett kicks the water just like me. “I like peach cobbler.”
“It’s the yummiest.”
“Do you wanna be my friend? My friends call me Beck, so you can, too, if you wanna.”
“Okay, Beck.” I nod. “I’m gonna be your bestest friend in the whole wide world!”
“Mrs. Winters? Is it okay if I come in?”
My eyes follow the sound of the deep voice, and I find a middle-aged man standing in the doorway to my room. I don’t know who this guy is, but he looks like some sort of official, which has me instantly on edge. He must sense my discomfort because he digs into his suit jacket’s breast pocket and withdraws a wallet.
He flips it open to reveal a badge, but he’s too far away for me to see any details. “My name is Derek Simmons. I’d like to ask you a few questions about your attack.”
I narrow my good eye in suspicion. “I already gave a statement to the police.”
Mr. Simmons nods to the plastic chair that sits against the wall. “May I? I promise I won’t take too much of your time.”
I give him a slight nod.
“Presley,” I insist.
The thought of being Mrs. Winters for a minute longer makes me sick. I can’t pretend anymore.
“Presley.” He clears his throat. “The statement you gave to the police doesn’t match the witnesses’ statements or the evidence we have. I’d like to know if you’d care to revise your account of the events that transpired early this morning.”
There are witnesses? I guess there’d have to be, but the last thing I remember before waking up in an ambulance is riding the elevator down to my building’s lobby.
“Am I being charged with something?”
I wouldn’t put it past Sebastian to use his connections to shift the blame to me somehow.
He shakes his head. “Not at all. But I would like to ensure the right person pays for their crimes, and I can’t do that without your help.”
I release a sigh. “Look, Mr. Simmons—”
“Derek,” he says with a smile that’s undoubtedly charmed many women out of their panties. “It’s only fair.”
“Derek.” I blow out a breath. “Like I told the first officer who came here, a man broke into my apartment and attacked me. No, I can’t give you more details about his appearance because all the lights were off since I was asleep at the time. Somehow, I managed to fight him off and get away. The last thing I remember is riding in the elevator toward the lobby floor. I have nothing else to say.”
“What do you typically wear to bed at night, Presley?”
I startle at the sudden change in topic.
“Pajamas, like most people. What does that have to do with anything?”
He gives me a knowing look. “According to the security footage, you were wearing slacks and a blouse when you were found, which, as you’ve stated, is not your normal bedtime attire. Are you telling me you took the time to change your clothing before leaving your apartment and fleeing the perpetrator?”
Crap. This guy is too observant for my liking. I glare at him again, but I don’t think it’s as effective as I’d like with only one eye.
“I fell asleep on the couch while I was waiting for my husband to return. I hadn’t changed into my pajamas yet.”
Derek frowns. “You live in a highly secure building. No one can access the penthouse without a keycard to your private elevator. The doorman confirmed your husband came home around midnight but left again approximately one hour later. Security footage shows you stumbling out of the elevator shortly after that, right before you collapsed onto the lobby floor. Look. I appreciate how delicate this situation is, considering your husband’s... influence. I truly don’t want to pressure you after everything you’ve been through, but I can’t prevent this from happening again if you don’t tell me the truth.”
Yeah, right. Like I’m going to trust anything this guy has to say. For all I know, Sebastian put him up to this.
I clench my jaw but forcibly relax when a shooting pain reminds me how many hits it took earlier. “I am telling the truth. I have nothing else to say.”
“Where was your husband going at one in the morning?”
“I have no idea. Not that it’s any of your business, but we had a fight, and Sebastian stormed out. Now, if you have any more questions for me, I think I should have my lawyer present as this conversation seems to have taken a turn into an interrogation.”
He releases a harsh exhale as he reaches into the breast pocket of his jacket again. He produces a business card and extends it in my direction. As I eye it warily, making no attempt to grab it, he says, “You have options, Presley. I have zero loyalty to your husband, and I can help. Don’t let him get away with this. Call me when you’re ready to talk.”
With that, he stands up, places the card on my bedside table, and leaves the room. When he’s out of sight, I pick up the rectangular cardstock.
At the bottom, there’s an address to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Civic Center office. What the heck? Why would the FBI be interested in a case like this? I set the card down and allow my eyes to drift closed, willing the throbbing in my head to go away. The doctor offered me some prescription painkillers, but I declined. Those things make my head fuzzy, and that’s the last thing I need right now because my head is already spinning. It probably doesn’t help that I haven’t slept in over twenty-four hours.
“Knock, knock.” I blink rapidly as the nurse who’s been taking care of me enters my room. Huh. I must’ve dozed off for a bit. “I have good news! As soon as I get that IV out, you’re all set to go home. Your husband just arrived, and—”
“Could I have a moment alone with my wife, please?”
My entire body stiffens at the sound of his voice. Damn it. I knew it wouldn’t be difficult for him to find out which hospital I was in considering the police involvement, but I had hoped I’d have more time. I take a sip of water from the cup the nurse gave me earlier and set it back on the bedside table, this time, directly over Agent Simmons’ business card. I’m pretty sure Sebastian would actually kill me if he thought I ratted him out. Hell, he might do it anyway if recent events are any indication.
“Oh... of course,” the nurse stutters. “I’ll give you two a few minutes. You must’ve been so worried.”
He rushes toward me and grabs my hand. “I’ve never been more terrified. When the officers showed up at my office, telling me you were attacked during a home invasion, all I could think about was getting to you. Seeing that you were okay with my own eyes.”
I fight a whimper when Sebastian’s grip tightens in an unmistakable warning not to call him out on his bull.
“Sweetheart, I’m so sorry I wasn’t there to protect you.”
Our gazes are locked as we wait for the nurse to leave. As always, he’s perfectly coifed, not a strand out of place on his thick head of hair or a wrinkle to be found on his five-thousand-dollar suit. The only imperfections marring his beautiful features are the slight scratches on his cheek and neck. The second he’s confident we’re alone, the air shifts as the real Sebastian Winters leaks through the shiny surface. The concerned, loving husband has disappeared entirely. Instead, a menacing man now looms over me with the devil in his eyes, promising retribution. No longer able to stand the pressure, I avert my eyes. There was a time when this man’s baby blues would suck me into his orbit, but now, I go out of my way to avoid eye contact with him, afraid of what I might find.
Sebastian leans over, pressing his mouth against my ear. His thumb idly brushes over the racing pulse on my neck while his fingers span the width of my throat. “Trying to run was incredibly stupid, Presley. You should know by now I’ll never let you go, and I don’t tolerate disobedience. You’re going to have to work very hard to make it up to me.”
“Sebastian, if you don’t let me go, I swear I’ll scream.” I’ve been bowing down to this man for too long. After what I learned last night... after what happened when I confronted him about it... I refuse to keep my mouth shut any longer.
“I’d like to see you try.” His minty breath teases my nostrils as a dark chuckle falls from his lips. “Matter of fact, please do. I’ll enjoy punishing you for it later. And trust me when I say, I will punish you, dear wife. I need to make sure you never attempt to do something so stupid again.”
I claw at his fingers with my good arm when he puts pressure on my throat. I greedily gulp in air as he jumps back upon hearing someone enter the room.
“Excuse me, but I need to review these discharge instructions with my patient now.” The nurse—Mia, I think her name is—turns her icy gaze on my husband.
Said husband straightens his tie as he takes a step back, acting as if he wasn’t just trying to strangle me. “Yes, of course.”
Mia glances at me out of her peripheral. “I’m sorry, sir, but I’m going to have to ask you to wait in the lobby to protect my patient’s privacy.”
Sebastian narrows his eyes. “I’m her husband. You can say whatever you need to in front of me.”
“I mean no disrespect, Mr. Mayor. It’s hospital policy.” She juts her chin out. “Please don’t make me call security. I’m assuming you’d like to avoid making a scene. I’ll be happy to escort you to the waiting room myself, so you don’t lose your way.”
I could kiss this woman for playing the reputation card. The only thing Sebastian cares more about than appearances is control. I wait on bated breath as he decides which course of action he’ll take.
His gaze flicks to mine. “I’ll be in the waiting room, darling. Right outside the emergency room doors, so I can return at a moment’s notice.”
I don’t miss the implied threat.
My nurse straightens her shoulders as she steps aside to let Sebastian walk out first. Right before she leaves the room to follow him, she looks over her shoulder. “I’ll be right back.”
I nod, too busy trying to swallow the lump in my throat to form any words.
As promised, no more than two minutes later, Mia returns, sliding the glass door closed behind her, sighing as she takes a seat beside me.
“Presley, I hope I’m not stepping over a line, but I have to ask this again. Are you safe at home? Was it really an intruder who did this to you?” She waves a hand toward me. “Or was it someone you know? Perhaps someone close to you?”
I take a moment to formulate my reply. I have no idea what I’m going to do about Sebastian, but I know I can’t leave here with him. I’m not about to trust that FBI agent without knowing the motive behind his actions, but something about Mia tells me I can depend on her. This woman heals people for a living. If anyone is a safe bet, it’d be her.
I take a deep breath. “Hypothetically... if I said I wasn’t safe at home—which that’s not what I’m saying—but if I did, what good would that do? I have no money, no friends, nowhere I can stay in this city.”
“What about family? Is there anyone you can stay with? Or, if you need me to, I’d be happy to make some calls to check shelter availability.”
“No, a shelter would never work.” I shake my head. “I could be recognized. And I don’t really talk to my family anymore. Even if I could go home, it’s almost a thousand miles away. I have no way of getting there.”
She gives me a sad smile. “I’d wager a pawn shop would give you good money for those rings. At the very least, you can get a ticket home. They should be open soon.”
I gasp, looking at my wedding set. I’ve been wearing these rings for so long, sometimes I forget they’re even there. Sebastian made it clear early on, I was not permitted to remove my rings for any reason. It’s not like people don’t already know I’m married, seeing as we’re in the public eye, but I think he likes having tangible evidence that I belong to him. The overhead lights reflect off the flawless five-carat diamond as I examine it closely, casting tiny rainbows on the wall. It really is stunning, with its Asscher-cut center stone in a pavé setting, but it’s been more of a shackle to me than a piece of jewelry, so I lost sight of its beauty. Plus, if Sebastian ever truly tried to know me—the real me—he would’ve learned I’d never be comfortable with something this flashy and impractical. That should’ve been my first clue, but sadly, I was too busy nursing a heartbreak to notice.
“I don’t...” I toy with the bands on my finger. “I don’t even have cab fare to get to one.”
“My cousin Joey drives an Uber. I can call him and have him take you somewhere. It’s on me. There’s a service entrance... you wouldn’t even have to cross through the ER waiting area. And they might be a little big, but I have a change of clothes in my locker that I’d be happy to give you to help disguise you as much as possible. You need to decide quickly, though, because I have a feeling the good mayor isn’t the most patient man.”
You can say that again.
“Can I ask you something?”
“Why are you helping me?”
“Because I’ve been there, honey. I was with a horrible man for too long. When I saw the way your husband was standin’ over you just now, I knew somethin’ wasn’t right. It felt like I went back in time for a second there.” Mia’s gesticulating wildly, and her New York accent is becoming more pronounced the longer she talks.
“How’d you get away?” My voice is so quiet, I’m not sure if she hears me.
She shrugs. “I stuffed my damn pride aside and asked for help.”
I wonder if that’s even an option for me. After all this time, would my family welcome me back home? I know I broke my parents’ hearts when I told them I didn’t want them to visit. I cringe when I recall the conversation where I implied they would embarrass me in front of my high-society friends. Little did they know, those friends were imaginary. Every time they asked me to come to Georgia, I had one excuse after another, acting as if my new life kept me so busy, I couldn’t possibly leave the city. Finally, when Sebastian was elected the mayor of New York City, they stopped asking. Since my wedding day, I haven’t seen my parents or my brother, which hurts me so much because we used to be so close. We still talk on the phone, but our conversations are brief, mostly on holidays, and always awkward. I blink back tears when it hits me how badly I miss them.
I sniffle. “Okay.”
Her brown eyes widen. “Really?”
I nod. “Yeah.”
“Okay.” Mia stands up. “I’ll be back in two minutes tops with those clothes.”
Ten minutes later, I’m dressed in an oversized Giants hoodie and jeans with a ball cap, and I’m sliding into the back seat of cousin Joey’s Prius. Mia was kind enough to give me her sunglasses to hide my swollen eye better.
“Good luck, Presley.”
“Thank you. For everything.” I pull the door closed, giving her a little wave through the window.
As the car pulls away from the curb, I take a deep breath to steady myself. Any minute now, Sebastian will know I’m gone, and once that happens, there’ll be no turning back.
Presley – Age 8
“The fish aren’t bitin’, Beck. We should go visit the new foals.”
“Try casting out a little farther,” he suggests.
I do as he says and flick my fishin’ rod off to the side, casting the fly halfway across the width of the pond.
I smile. “Like that?”
Beck nods. “Yeah. My dad says the fish bite better in the middle.”
I like fishin’ with Beck. Sometimes, we come here to sit on the dock and dip our toes in the water. Other times, like today, we try catchin’ some fish.
“Whatcha wanna be when you grow up?”
Beck recasts his line, too. His fly doesn’t get as far as mine did, but I don’t rub it in because my mommy says that’s not nice. “That’s easy. I’m gonna be a rancher like my dad.”
“On a horse ranch like ours?”
“Maybe.” He takes a moment to think about it. “Or cattle. I really like the horses, though. I think it’d be cool to work with ‘em. My dad says he’ll let me help with the birthin’ next summer.”
I scrunch my nose up. “Birthin’ is messy.”
Beck shrugs. “I don’t mind.”
“Well, I’m gonna be a famous actress.”
“That’s cool. You sure are pretty enough to be in the movies.”
Beck always says nice things to me. “Mama says I can’t stay in Hope if I want to be in movies or on the TV. She said I’d have to move to a big city like Hollywood or New York. I told her I don’t mind ‘cuz I think livin’ in a big city would be fun. You could come with me, too. I bet we’d have lots of fun in the city.”
Beck’s eyebrows pull together. “I like living in Hope.”
“Me too, but I wanna see the whole world.”
“I bet you’ll be super famous, Pres.”
I smile. “I can’t wait to be a grown-up. You just wait and see, Beckett Armstrong. I’ll be a big movie star and make lots of money so I can buy a big ol’ piece of land like this and tons of horses. You can be the rancher and take care of ‘em. Then, you and me can get married.”
Beck holds my hand, ‘cuz we do that sometimes. “Okay.”
“Here we are.” My driver shifts the car into park.
He took me to a pawnbroker in the Bronx. I’ve never been to a place like this before—I’m not really sure how this is supposed to work.
Joey seems to sense my hesitancy, so he adds, “Just go in there and ask for Sal. Tell him Joey P sent you.”
I grab the handle to open my door, but before I exit the car, I ask, “Hey, I don’t suppose you’d mind waiting for me, would you? I’d be happy to compensate you after... well, if he gives me any money.”
When I step inside the store, I’m surrounded by a mish-mash of items: guitars, bikes, various electronics and sports memorabilia, power tools, etcetera. Taking up the most real estate is a long glass counter filled with assorted jewelry. Geez, I’ve never seen so much stuff in such a small space before. It almost feels like I’m on an episode of Hoarders.
“You lookin’ for something in particular?”
Behind the counter stands a fifty-something man with a big, bushy mustache. Since he seems to be the only person around, I’m guessing he’s the one who spoke.
“Uh... I’m looking for Sal. Joey P sent me.”
The man gives me a warm smile, the gap between his front teeth somehow making it more enchanting. I’m so used to being surrounded by people obsessed with perfection; it’s nice to see someone real for once.
“Well, you’ve got him. Any friend of Joey’s is a friend of mine. What can I do for you?” When I lift my head, Sal’s brown eyes widen as he gets a good look at my face beneath the brim of my borrowed hat. “Whoa. You look like you’ve had better days. Shit. That was insensitive. How can I help you?”
I twist the bands on my finger, trying to focus on anything other than the pity in his eyes. “I have these rings, and... I... uh... I’d like to sell them.”
“C’mon over, let me have a look.” Sal motions me over as he grabs a diamond loupe from a drawer behind him and places it on the counter. He whistles when I drop the rings in his hand. “These real diamonds?” He places my engagement ring—the one with the largest stone—under the lens, not waiting for an answer. “Yep, they sure are. Damn, this is a quality piece. Flawless, if I’m not mistaken. A diamond this size has to retail for at least a hundred-K.”
I fidget while Sal takes his time inspecting each ring thoroughly. When he’s done, he places them on a little velvet-lined tray and looks up. “I gotta be honest with you; there’s no way I can give you even a fraction of what these babies are worth. I just don’t have that kind of cash flow. Have you considered trying to sell them privately?”
Tears prick at my eyes. “I can’t. I don’t have time for that. I need money now.” I lift my gaze and look him directly in the eye. “Please. Whatever you can give me. I need money to get home.”
I tell myself to hold still as his eyes travel over my face.
“The best I can do is ten-K.”
I blow out a breath. Ten thousand dollars will be plenty. I don’t even care that Sal’s offer is significantly below value. I’d donate those rings to a homeless shelter if I didn’t desperately need the cash.
“Okay, I’ll take it.”
Sal lifts an eyebrow. “You sure?”
I nod. “Yes. I’m sure. I need the money, and ten thousand will be more than enough.”
“Okay, then.” He jerks his head to the left. “Step into my office. We just need to fill out some paperwork, and you’ll be on your way with ten-grand in your pocket.”
Sal’s office is really just a drop-down desk at the end of the glass case. He slides a piece of paper across the surface and points to a mug filled with pens on my right.
“These are standard forms, stating where you got the ring, how long it’s been in your possession, an oath that you didn’t obtain it by illegal means, stuff like that. I’ll need your ID because I have to notarize the affidavit at the end.”
Thankfully, I had the sense to grab my cell before leaving the apartment. I don’t like carrying a purse on the streets of New York, so I opted for a phone case that doubles as a wallet. I start to pull my license out but pause when I think of a potential problem.
“You’re not going to share this information, right? Nobody will know I was here?”
He scratches the scruff on his jaw. “I’m required by law to report any incoming items, but it’s not like I’ll be broadcasting it on the streets or anything. As long as the rings aren’t reported stolen, I don’t have to release your name.”
I take a moment to weigh the consequences. I suppose it doesn’t matter if Sebastian ever did know I was here. It’s not like these forms mention where I’m going. Mia suggested I disable the locator feature from my cell so Sebastian couldn’t track me. I’m thankful she thought of it because I wouldn’t have. If I’m honest with myself, he’ll figure out where I’m going sooner rather than later, but if I can get out of New York first, I feel like I’ll have a better shot at making it to my destination. Once I’m there, I’ll no longer be alone, which makes me less vulnerable in Sebastian’s eyes.
With that decided, I hand Sal my license and start completing the forms. Fifteen minutes and ten thousand dollars later, I’m back in Joey’s car.
“You figure out where you wanna go next?”
I pull the money from my pocket and count ten bills from the stack. Handing them to him, I ask, “How do you feel about taking me to the Newark airport?”
JFK and LaGuardia are too obvious. I hope flying out of Jersey will throw Sebastian off my scent a little.
Joey smiles. “For a thousand bucks, sure. E-W-R, here we come.”
A while later, Joey drops me off at the airport, and I make my way over to a nearby check-in area. I feel like bugs are crawling over my skin the entire time I wait in line. I keep the brim of my hat low, but I know people can see how beat up I am, regarding me with sympathy or whispering something to their companions. When it’s finally my turn, I walk up to the counter and have to remind myself not to react when the attendant gasps as she gets a close-up look at my face.
“Ho—How can I help you, ma’am? Are you checking in today?”
“I’d like to buy the first available one-way ticket to Atlanta.”
I can tell the lady’s trying not to gawk while her fingernails tap on the keyboard, but she’s not all that successful. “The first flight with any open seats departs at 6:05 p.m., which would arrive in Atlanta at 8:32 p.m.”
Crap. I can’t wait that long.
“Do you have any earlier flights? Maybe to Montgomery?” I lean forward and lower my voice. “Please. I really do mean anything. I don’t care how many planes I need to take; I just need to get out of here as soon as humanly possible.”
Her fingers fly across the keyboard again. “I have a few seats left on a nonstop to Charlotte, leaving in just under an hour.” More typing. “From there, I can get you to Atlanta. The layover in Charlotte is about three-and-a-half hours, so you’d be arriving in Atlanta at 6:55.”
I sigh in relief. “I’ll take it. How much?”
“With taxes and fees, three-hundred eighty-seven dollars and twelve cents. If you’re checking a bag, that’ll be an extra thirty dollars for the first piece and forty dollars for the second.”
I discreetly count out enough cash and hand it to her. Easier said than done when you’re not supposed to move one shoulder. “I don’t have any bags. It’s just me.”
She takes the money from me. “I’ll just need to see a piece of government identification, please.”
I pretend I don’t notice her bewilderment as she attempts to match the picture on my license to the woman before her now. I’m sure this whole thing is suspicious as hell in her eyes. It takes the ticket counter lady a few minutes to type everything into the computer before she hands me a boarding pass.
“They’re boarding in twenty minutes at gate C-4. You’ll need to hurry.”
“Thank you.” I pocket my ID and pull the brim of my hat down before heading toward the security screening area.
I barely make it to my gate in time because, of course, I’m flagged by TSA for additional inspection. I’m the last person to board, and my seat is in the back of the plane, so I have to fight through the sick feeling in my stomach as hundreds of curious eyes look me over as I walk down the aisle. Once I’m finally seated with my seat belt securely fastened, I close my eyes and take a few deep breaths. I know once I arrive at the ranch, there’ll be a whole new set of shock, pity, and questions I’ll have to endure, but the weight that’s been crushing my chest all these years finally feels a bit lighter.
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