Elizabeth Marshall drove her red Honda Civic into the little town of Springfield, Ohio. The simple name was one of the things that attracted her. It wasn’t complicated, and that was exactly what she needed in her life right now: no complications.
She wanted a fresh start, far away from all the memories of the city she’d left behind. Away from the person everyone thought she was. A person she’d really never been, before or after. At the age of twenty-seven, she would be reborn. Reborn into someone she could be proud of again. Someone who didn’t pretend to be something she wasn’t. Someone her parents could be proud of.
Springfield was big enough to have all the basic necessities without any of the flashy extras you’d find in larger cities. It was just over an hour away from the place she’d called home for the last ten years. Far enough away that she didn’t think anyone here would recognize her, but near enough that she could visit her parents’ graves whenever she wanted. In some ways she was glad they couldn’t see her now. Yes, she missed them, but they’d also missed the mess her life had become. She felt moisture pool in her eyes as she thought of them, and knew that if she didn’t redirect her thoughts soon she’d be a bawling mess by the time she arrived at her destination.
Her destination. As she wove through the side streets, she focused on her surroundings. Springfield felt like a completely different world. No longer would she have to attend cocktail parties or ladies’ teas. Her hair and make-up didn’t have to be perfect before going outside to retrieve the morning paper. Here she could just be herself.
In her search for the perfect place to start this new chapter in her life, she’d stumbled upon an old home that had been turned into apartments. When she’d received the e-mail back from Mrs. Weaver, her new landlady, she knew this was the place for her. The three-story building had been around for over one hundred years, but it looked to be in good repair. She loved old buildings. It was one of the few things she’d enjoyed about where she’d called home for the past five years. In her new home, Mrs. Weaver occupied the bottom level, Elizabeth would be on the second floor. The third floor had an occupant as well, although she hadn’t thought to ask for details.
She felt good about having her own space. I need my independence, she reminded herself.
Even with that mantra, it was hard to block out what had led her to this small town surrounded by corn and soybean fields, but there was a new life waiting for her here in Springfield, she just knew it.
With a few more turns, she found the road she was looking for and followed it, as the houses once again became farther and farther apart. There was a line of trees to her right and a soybean field on her left when a mailbox came into view. Sitting back off the road, she could see the large Victorian house tucked between two soybean fields, surrounded by a small grove of trees.
As she drove up the long gravel driveway, she noticed someone looking out the first-story window.
“You can do this,” she said to herself, figuring if she said it enough she could make it true.
Pulling her loose, button-down shirt tighter around her, she got out of the car and went to the trunk. There wasn’t much to retrieve, just two bags. That was all her life consisted of now. All she had chosen to bring with her. The rest of her old life was either in storage, or had been donated to Goodwill. She didn’t need reminders. She had enough of those all on her own.
A woman with salt and pepper hair met her at the door and opened it wide. She looked to be in her mid to late sixties, old enough to be Elizabeth’s mother if she were still alive.
“Hello, my dear. You must be Elizabeth,” she said, reaching out to take one of her bags.
“It’s okay, I’ve got it. They’re not that heavy.” You could also use the exercise, her inner voice chastised.
The woman waved her concerns away and took the bag. “Nonsense. I may be old, but I’m not completely useless. Not yet anyway.” Then, extending her hand, she introduced herself. “I’m Janice Weaver, but you can call me Jan. Everybody does.”
Taking the offered hand, Elizabeth said, “It’s nice to meet you.”
She took a quick survey of her surroundings, noting that the pictures online hadn’t done the place justice, and followed Jan into a foyer decorated in cream and soft blue. The ceiling towered high above her, creating an open and inviting space. She loved it already, and she wasn’t even in her apartment yet.
“Over there is my apartment should you ever need anything,” Jan said, pointing to a door just to the right. Elizabeth nodded. “And you’re up here.” She continued up the stairs as Elizabeth followed, eager to see her new place.
At the top of the stairs were two more doors: one to the right and one to the left. Jan stopped at the door on the right and retrieved a single key from her pocket.
As Jan put the key into the door, curiosity got the better of Elizabeth. Looking over her shoulder she asked, “What is the other door for?”
Jan turned slightly to see what she was talking about. “That’s the staircase leading to the third floor apartment.”
Then, as if the brief conversation hadn’t occurred, Jan opened the door, motioning for Elizabeth to go inside.
Elizabeth looked around, very pleased. While there was a certain modern flair to the place, it was like stepping back in time. The architecture was beautiful with a vast wooden arch separating her living room from her new kitchen.
“Do you like it?” Jan asked from behind her.
She’d been so caught up she hadn’t even heard Jan approach. That hadn’t happened in a long time. She was usually overly aware of her surroundings. It just reaffirmed her decision. “I love it.”
Jan smiled and Elizabeth relaxed a little, but old habits were hard to break. While it might be true the danger was gone, one didn’t just forget being afraid.
An hour later, Elizabeth stepped back to admire the small air mattress she’d just blown up in the middle of her new bedroom. It was only big enough for one person, but it would do until she could get a bed delivered. She needed to pick up some sheets and blankets. Sleeping directly on the vinyl didn’t hold great appeal. Not even for one night.
Next she went to the kitchen. It was a nice size and had everything she needed, including a dishwasher, and there were plenty of cabinets lining the walls, waiting to be filled with food and dishes, both of which she currently lacked.
There’s no time like the present.
Jan had given her directions to the nearest market, so she grabbed her purse and started to leave, but just as she was about to descend the stairs, she heard an angry male voice say, “I don’t care what you have to do, Terry, just get it done.” Every word was punctuated by heavy footfalls coming up the stairs, closer to her apartment.
Elizabeth’s breathing quickened as her chest tightened, and she automatically huddled in on herself. The man’s voice changed in her mind. It wasn’t some stranger anymore; it was Jared, her husband.
She leaned her forehead against the wall next to the door, trying to push the memories away. He’s not here. He’s not here, she kept repeating to herself.
Just she was starting to calm, the door only a few feet away was wrenched opened and then slammed shut. It didn’t take much to put together that the man must be her new neighbor or one of them at least. She hadn’t thought to question Jan about the third-floor residents and felt stupid for not asking more questions.
It was too late now. She was here, and she wasn’t going to let something like a disagreeable man chase her out of her new home. She would deal with her neighbor even if he didn’t seem like a nice man. Maybe she could avoid him altogether. It wasn’t as if they really had to cross paths, right? She’d learn his schedule and then avoid him. That would work.
With renewed determination, she opened her door and ran down the stairs and out to her car, her speed of flight having nothing to do with the man upstairs. At least, that’s what she kept telling herself.
This day had to be one of the worst of Christopher Daniels’s life. His assistant had just up and quit without notice, and then his foreman, Terry, had failed to order enough materials to finish the interior drywall for the house they were in the process of building. On top of all that, he’d managed to run over a nail somewhere along the way and had to change a flat halfway home.
It was two o’clock, and he had more work than he wanted to contemplate waiting on his desk for him, but for just a few minutes, he was going to try and not think about it. Yeah, right, he thought as he pulled out the lunchmeat, cheese, and mayo from his refrigerator, took the bread out of the cabinet, and hurriedly made a sandwich before taking a huge bite.
Leaning back against the counter, he forced his mind to think of something else, anything else but work, and settled on the new neighbor Jan had told him about. She’d said the woman seemed nice enough and had moved down from Columbus, but that was all Jan knew. He really wished she had gotten more information so he could have had his brother Paul run a background check or something. But that wasn’t Jan Weaver. She was a great woman, just too trusting.
Chris had known Jan and her husband, Charles, since he was a kid. They’d lived across the street from his parents until they’d bought this house fifteen years ago. Fate had brought them together again when Chris’s short-lived marriage had come to an end right around the same time Charles’s health had taken a turn for the worse. In exchange for decreased rent, Chris helped out with minor repairs when needed. Living here was beneficial for both of them.
He hadn’t had a downstairs neighbor for three months, and it was going to take some getting used to. No more running out in just my boxers, he thought, laughing to himself.
It had happened years ago, but Jan never let him forget it. He’d been living here only a few months when, on his way in, he’d dropped some papers. Later that night he was getting ready to climb into bed with his usual mound of paperwork, when he’d realized something was missing. Instead of putting his clothes back on, he decided to duck out into the hallway and check.
Unfortunately, the papers were just out of reach and as he stretched to pick them up, he heard his door click shut, locking him out of his apartment. He’d had to run down the stairs in nothing but his boxers to retrieve the spare key from Jan. It was embarrassing enough, but at least there hadn’t been anyone else living here at the time to add to his humiliation.
That was three years ago. In that time he’d separated himself from all distractions. All he had left was his work, Terry being the only one he’d become friendly with, and his family, of which he considered Jan a part.
He looked at the clock. Only twenty minutes had passed since he’d walked in the door, but it was all he could afford.
Popping the last of his sandwich into his mouth, he took a glass from the cabinet and quickly filled it with water before downing it in one gulp. He placed it in the sink, retrieved his cell phone from off his belt, and dialed as he walked out the door.
By the time Elizabeth made it back, it was almost seven. It had taken her a lot longer to find everything she needed because she’d had to go to three places before finally finding the bedding she was looking for. What she’d found was perfect. It was mostly white, but with red and gray clovers all over it, a far cry from the browns and creams Jared had insisted upon.
Thankfully, the rest of her trip had gone smoother. She’d found a nice little restaurant and had dinner there. Then she went to the grocery store and filled her cart, anxious to get home, put everything away, and make her house feel like a home.
With her arms full, she managed to get the front door to open and get the first load up the stairs. It was the first time Elizabeth was thankful for all those years Jared had made her go to the gym. No. She was having such a good day she would not let her thoughts wander down that path. Resolute, she marched back down the stairs and was just reaching for the doorknob when Jan came out. “Did you need some help, dear?”
“Uh, no. I—”
She was almost knocked over when a large man came barreling through the door. He didn’t seem to notice Elizabeth at all, as he focused on Jan. “You can’t leave the front door unlocked like this. It just isn’t safe.”
His voice was gruff, and she instantly recognized it as the one she’d heard this afternoon. It was not as angry as it has been before, but still intimidating. She backed toward the stairs without thinking. It was then that he noticed her, appraising her from head to foot, and his scrutiny made her uncomfortable. Even though she was completely clothed, she felt the need to cover herself.
He was huge, taller than Jared or her father. His hair was a dark brown, only a shade darker than his eyes, and he looked dangerous, more dangerous than her husband, and her frightened expression must have been apparent. She closed her eyes tight, willing everything to go away: her memories, her fear, this man before her.
Jan said, “Chris, you have perfect timing.” She walked over to the man and placed her hand on his arm. “Elizabeth,” she said, motioning in her direction, “just went shopping and needs some help getting everything up to her apartment. You’ll be a good neighbor and help her now, won’t you?”
The man looked down at Jan with an expression she didn’t understand. Then he sighed, turned to her, and in that same gruff voice said, “Come on. Let’s get your stuff inside. I’ve got work to do.”
Before she could say anything, he was back out the door and halfway to her car. She looked over at Jan. “Go on,” she said. “He won’t bite.”
Cautiously, she followed him outside where he was already unloading what was left and had most of it in his arms before she reached his side. “I . . . I’m sorry. You don’t . . . have to help me,” she said, almost hoping he’d drop everything and leave her alone.
“I said I’d help and I’ll help,” he replied curtly. “I think I got everything. You might want to check.”
He stood, waiting, so she glanced in quickly. “Yes. That’s looks like everything,” she said, and he gave her a firm nod before marching back into the house.
By the time she caught up with him, he was waiting impatiently outside her apartment door, and she fumbled with the key several times before finally managing to get it into the lock and open the door.
As soon as she stepped over the threshold, he brushed past her as if he owned the place and went straight to her kitchen. She stood stunned for a few seconds. How did he know her place so well? Elizabeth fought with her nerves once again before following him. Of course, he knows the layout of your apartment, she told herself. He lives upstairs. It’s probably the same. That’s all.
He turned, catching her off guard, and she stumbled backward, but he managed to catch her in time. As soon as she was upright, however, he released her as if she were poison, shoving his hands roughly into his pockets.
“If you don’t need anything else then,” he said, already walking to the door.
She watched his retreating back, not understanding what had happened. When he’d touched her it had felt, well, odd. Not unpleasant, just strange. But he’d acted like she’d hurt him. His eyes had held a pain that she didn’t understand. It didn’t make any sense.
She had no idea how long she stood there just looking at the closed door before making herself move. She put all of the groceries away and made her air mattress look as inviting as possible before deciding to go ahead and get ready for bed. It was early, but she had nothing else to do. She didn’t have a television and she had no friends here.
Sinking down into her makeshift bed under her new sheets, she rolled over to watch the last of the sun fall below the horizon outside her bedroom window. She could see the tops of a few trees, but not much else. The view was so different from the view from her old bedroom window where she could see nothing much more than the house next door. One day was behind her. Tomorrow she would find some furniture and after that, look for a job. Even though she didn’t need one thanks to Jared’s careful planning and his life insurance settlement, but it was something she needed for herself.
This would work—her new apartment, her new life. All she had to do was avoid her new neighbor and pray no one figured out who she was. She could do that.
Paperbacks are available for pre-order now through The Writer's Coffee Shop Publishing House. Ebooks will be available for download on the day of release, February 9, 2012.