Runaway Sneak Peek
Drizzling rain pattered my windshield as I stared at a two-story cabin built of wooden logs stacked on top of each other. Faded white lines lay between each log, making it look ancient. Rain stained the wood a darker shade of brown, and a little wisp of smoke rose above the chimney despite the rain.
Charming, if I wasn't so terrified the owner would kick me out as soon as he saw me. The longer I sat out here in my beater car that didn't even have a real license plate yet, the weirder this whole situation became.
And it was already pretty weird.
Still, there was one man that could help me, and that man both resented my existence and desperately needed it. He also proudly lived the life of a hermit in the mountains—I mean, who bragged about that?—and hated all details.
That alone seemed pretty ridiculous, but so was this entire situation.
A few more moments passed while I rallied my courage. In fact, I prepared myself like this every time I had to talk to Mark. I'd clutch the phone for a few minutes, think through every sentence that I had to say, and then hope that he didn't wander off on a list of his ideas. Eventually, he would wander. That much was inevitable. He'd talk things out, and I'd have to pull him back to reality with the main points he'd called for anyway.
Lately, he'd called a lot more often than usual.
Today would be very different, however, because we'd be face-to-face for the first time. I stalled this inevitable confrontation while trying to picture what he looked like. Mark and I had always spoken on the phone. He called me out of the blue one day, declared his need for an accountant, and proceeded to tell me about every business venture he'd ever started. For a man that hated details, he had a mind like a steel trap.
Plus, I'd seen his tax returns too many times. He was overly generous on charitable contributions to the point he sabotaged profit from his company. A bit of a bleeding heart, really.
Blonde, I'd guess. He sounded nice enough on the phone, so probably straight-laced, with short hair like a businessman and crisp clothes. He was single—at least his tax returns weren't filed jointly—and had no other income besides his own. Slight of frame, maybe. Like Ryan Gosling?
With a jolt, I shook my head. No, I had to stop assigning actors to everyone I met. It just . . . made people easier to approach.
With a shove, I forced myself out of my little car and into the pounding rain. It slammed into my shoulders while I shut the car door, then skirted the edges of a dirt pathway filled with water. Mud squished under my shoes as I hurried under an eave and forced myself to knock. The only thing that kept me moving was momentum. If I thought too hard about this, I'd just leave.
Ten seconds after I knocked, the door flew open. Out of sheer nerves, my heart fell all the way to the pit of my stomach.
And then I burst out laughing.
A tall, broad-shouldered bear of a man glowered at me. He had brown hair, almost black, that stuck up in odd angles from the back of his head. It was at odds with. his hazel eyes in a lovely way. His beard hadn't been trimmed in days. He wore no shirt and gray sweat pants with a pair of flip-flops on his feet. My glance was quick, but he certainly wasn't slight or business-like in any sense of the word.
The man had muscles.
A hibernating bear came to mind first. Hardly Ryan Gosling. Hardly what I always pictured on the other end of the phone. Somehow, though, this was better. First, who would mess with me if that scowl came to the door? Not Joshua. At least, I'd hoped not. For years I thought I knew Joshua, but the last few weeks had been revealing.
Second, I could fit Mark's voice with this guy.
This was a wild Mark Bailey.
Quickly, I drown my amusement in the face of his dark annoyance. Now that I thought about it, this may not even be Mark. He spoke about a twin brother, JJ, often enough. Behind him was a warm-appearing cabin, with a snapping fire that let out heat. A trickle of rain ran down my back, and I shivered.
"Are you lost?" he asked.
"No, I . . . I'm looking for Mark Bailey."
His eyebrows lifted. When he said nothing more, I realized that was the only response I could expect.
"Are you Mark?"
He nodded. I rolled my lips to school my laugh. No, I couldn't laugh at him again. He'd hear the wild hysteria. The tinge of desperation and fear and uncertainty that belied everything in my life now. Then he'd turn me away.
"I . . . I'm . . ."
My name hovered on the end of my tongue. Stella Marie. Did I dare say Marie? I'd always run my accounting business through my middle name—didn't want the world to know my first name, felt too much like an invasion—so the two names together may not clue him into who I was.
But maybe the sound of my voice and the name Marie would get him to thinking.
In a perfect world, I'd get through this confrontation without him knowing who I was. Mark tried to hide it, but he was always frustrated with me. Didn't like when I curbed his wild ideas with sound financial sense. If there was one thing Mark felt like he didn't have, it was time. He was in a hurry for everything even though he was what, 31? Two years older than me.
Money didn't always run at the same speed as Mark, and that galled him to no end.
"My name is Stella Marie," I finally said. Grandma had named me. You are Stella Marie, she always said. Not just Stella. Be proud of your heritage. So it felt strange to hear Stella without the Marie.
His gaze tapered further. I swallowed a squeak of fear and the desire to ask if I could come inside. No, of course I shouldn't ask that. I wouldn't let me inside if I were him. He hadn't let go of the door, giving me unparalleled access to his abs. By sheer willpower, I kept my gaze on his face.
"What are you doing here, Stella Marie?"
"I . . . I need some help. I heard you might have a cabin to rent."
Confusion clouded his annoyance. "Who told you that?"
No one, I thought. Just the hope deep in my heart and what I know of your world.
"Oh, just driving through town." I waved an airy hand in the vague direction that I thought Pineville would be. "I need a place to stay and I'm willing to pay cash. Maybe just for a month or so?"
His brow furrowed.
Please, I thought. Please don't care about these details. You never have before . . .
"Who in town told you to come here?"
Dagnabbit. Of course he had to ask questions now of all times. The conversation we'd had a few months ago when he said he wanted to start a ride-a-horse operation ran through my mind. He hadn't asked how much it cost to keep a horse alive or pay vet bills or bring hay into his canyon or any of that.
No, he just found a horse he thought was handsome and wanted to try it out.
Thankfully, I'd backed him out of the idea. He hadn't been happy at the time. Now he had to know who sent money his way? Mark needed money as desperately as I needed to disappear. Why didn't he take the offer? Perhaps he'd be deterred away from how I came to know him and focus on the dollars.
"$500 a month for a small cabin? I can pay in advance if you want the cash now."
The money burned a hole in the back pocket of my jeans, but I didn't reach for it yet. He leaned against the doorframe instead, seemingly unbothered by the misty fall air that flowed past him into the cabin. No one else had stirred inside, and I caught a vague peek of furniture and a can of something pried open with a spoon sticking out of it.
Bachelor, for sure.
"Why do you need a place to stay?" he asked.
"Does that matter?"
His brow lifted. "It does now."
My nostrils flared. I wasn't good at this. Lying, deceptions, sneakiness. I just wanted to find a place where I could hole up and not see anyone for a while. Maybe I'd been naive to think this would be easy. To show up on his doorstep and ask if I could live with him? The man lived in the middle of a mountain canyon? No one drove out here unless they had to, which was why I wanted to stay. Why I'd driven all the way across the country on a desperate prayer.
My breath was shaky when I let it out. "I just . . . I need someplace to disappear for a while, and I've heard that you have cabins to rent and no one comes out here."
He snorted. "You're hiding."
Yes, I thought.
I didn't answer him, just studied his face. Beneath all that beard and wild hair, I could sense a general kindness about his eyes. The same that I heard in his voice on the phone when he wasn't rattling off plans. His gaze had an edge to it, however.
He straightened up. "Look, I'd love to help. I really would. Being the nice guy used to be my favorite thing, but I'm kind of over it now. My brother just got married and moved out and I initiated this plan to go full mountain man this winter. The last thing I need here is a renter."
I blinked. Full mountain man? What did that mean? The words rushed out of me before I could stop them.
He shrugged. "I don't know! Seems like a good idea. We'll see how it pans out. I'm full of ideas, and sometimes the ones that seem the most stupid are actually the greatest in the end. Regardless, I'm not harboring a sketchy fugitive from the law that's lying about someone in town telling her I'd rent a cabin for $500 a month on my property. Sorry. No one in town would have sent you here to rent."
My heart pattered in my chest as he reached for his door and began to close it.
"I go by Marie sometimes!"
Two inches before it shut, the door stopped. His fingers tightened around the edges, but I couldn't see his face now. A lump filled my throat and I swallowed it. My voice rang out clear despite my worry. I shivered, but wasn't entirely sure it was from the cold.
"If you listen hard, you might recognize my voice. My full name is Stella Marie Lee, but I do business under Marie Lee. Mark, I know you're always annoyed with me because I stifle your ideas and I honestly have no idea why you still pay me to do your books, but I . . . I need some help."
Slowly, the door opened back up.
I am so thrilled to bring Stella Marie and Mark to life here in Runaway. This book came together like it was meant to be.
Srsly tho, I adore them! I just know you will, too.
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