Authors: Adriane Leigh
My eyes scanned the top news stories before landing on the title of one—
Wife of Embezzler Missing.
I clicked on the link, a sense of foreboding filling my chest as my eyes darted down the page. A grainy picture of Brant and I from college accompanied the text filled with speculation on my whereabouts. The media was on the hunt to find me, sensationalizing the story with drama and innuendo, even admitting that while the FBI did not consider me a person of interest, I would be questioned in the future to help aid the investigation.
The article further went on to suggest maybe I’d known of the raid ahead of time, was either involved with the FBI, or rushing to cover up my own tracks and had disappeared with the embezzled money. My heart lodged in my throat when I read the last paragraph, it claimed a source close to John Ellis Walker was hunting for me for his own internal investigation into the criminal organization. I slammed my laptop closed as my stomach twisted and rolled. I darted to the first floor bathroom and shoved my head in the toilet. JW was on a manhunt for me. I had become his target.
I woke nuzzled into the leather of Hunter’s couch a short while later.
I padded down the hallway, glancing from room to room, looking for him. I searched through the eerie silence of the first floor, then headed up the sweeping staircase and walked softly to his master, finding the door ajar.
With the lights out and the blinds closed, the room was cast in shadow. “Hunter?” I called quietly, finding the walk-in closet light on. I turned the corner to find him on his knees, shoving clothes and paperwork into multiple duffels.
My eyes cast around the floor, he had my few things torn out too.
“Hunter, what’s going on?” I said louder this time. I finally broke past his concentration and he laid eyes on me for the first time.
They were angry and bloodshot, more intense than I’d ever seen them, not like Hunter at all. This was a creature, a feral animal looking up at me. “Pack your shit, we’re leaving,” he grunted and then shoved more clothes into a duffel without even looking at what they were.
“What are you talking about?” I dropped to my knees and lunged across him, stopping his arms with my own and clutching at his broad shoulders beneath the cotton of his shirt.
“We’re leaving tonight. We can’t wait. I don’t trust JW, not for a fucking second. I never should have,” he growled and then rammed clothes in with more force.
This was a Hunter that scared me.
I can’t just leave again. Brant’s in jail. I’m sure the Feds will want to speak to me, and there’s my mom
I can’t just leave.” I stumbled searching for any excuse.
“Too bad, Princess. Too fucking bad, but we don’t have a choice anymore. JW thinks someone flipped,” Hunter said. “He’s determined to get the rat.” His eyes finally glanced up to mine. “He thinks it’s you.”
My mind blitzed and a thousand and one thoughts rushed my brain. “But I didn’t! How could he think that?” Panic laced my voice and shook my body.
“In his mind, there are only two people that had the means.” Hunter looked up sadly. “Us.”
“What do we do? How can we prove it wasn’t-"
“We can’t do anything. I’ve told him it wasn’t. I
it wasn’t, but I’m not sure if he believes me.” He paused and his eyes softened for a moment then. “He wants us to do a job for him.”
“What?!" I shrieked as my heart hammered.
"He thinks it will prove loyalty. I told him absolutely not. No way would I put you in harm’s way, no matter how easy the job.”
"What did he want us to do?” I ventured to ask.
Hunter’s gaze burned up the space between us. “Smuggling cash overseas,” he finally admitted. “He knows I have the ability to cross customs, no red flags on my record. We travel so much, he fucking wanted me to put my own shit on the line for him!” Hunter roared, sounding every part the caged animal JW treated him like.
“What did he say when you told him no?" I whispered, afraid of the answer.
"Nothing." Hunter looked back at the floor.
"What do you mean nothing?" My heart hammering in my ears nearly drowned out all else except for the slow breaths of the man across from me.
"Just a look.” Hunter shook his head. “The look that says it’s been decided."
"Been decided? What’s been decided?"
"I have to do it."
"Hunter you don’t have to do anything. You have a career. He can’t ask you to give up everything for him. If you get caught—” My eyes widened at the thought of Hunter’s hands in cuffs and being hauled away.
"He can and he is. Unless we leave."
“Hunter, no..." I trailed off, watching his eyes whirl with desperate thoughts.
“I’ll do whatever I have to to keep you safe. Whatever it takes—that’s why we’re leaving. We’ll go off the grid. We’ll take pictures and live in paradise." He stood and placed a punishing kiss on my lips before heading into his master bedroom to dig through the nightstand. Pain punched me in the gut when I saw the glint of gunmetal and watched as Hunter shoved the gun in his waistband.
My mind whirled as I stood rooted in terror. I sucked in painfully tight breaths as my stomach tossed and turned and I felt hot tears pricking my eyelids. I spun and darted into the bathroom, bending over the porcelain again.
“What the fuck, are you okay?” Hunter was behind me a second later and pulling hair from my neck, his warm palms smoothing my shoulders as I heaved into the bowl, but my stomach was empty. There was nothing more to purge.
I shook my head in response to him, before pulling a towel down from the rack and wiping at my lips. “I can’t just leave,” I mumbled again, just the thought of running causing bile to rise.
“I’ll buy you new shit, whatever you need—clothes, shoes, bags—but we have to leave, Princess. At least for a while. I’m sorry.” His hands smoothed my hair between his fingers and actually helped to soothe me.
“It’s not about that. You keep upheaving me, I can’t catch my bearings with you…”
He placed a soft kiss at the hollow of my neck before carrying me to his fluffy bed, promising to bring me water and a cool towel. My brain whirred with the nightmare of it all. I wasn’t even sure if I was allowed to leave because of Brant’s pending investigation. I brought up that point when Hunter returned.
“You can leave. Just tell them you’re available for any questions they may have. You’re not related to any of the criminal stuff.”
“But the house? What about the house? What if he bought it with dirty money? Can I even sell it? What the fuck am I supposed to do?” I sobbed and felt another sharp cramp split my insides again. “And god, why do I keep getting sick, there’s nothing in my stomach!” I screamed in utter frustration.
Hunter settled at my side again, whispering in my ear and stroking my hair. “It’s nerves, baby. I’m so fucking sorry I’m at fault for all of this, but we’re going to get out of it, and then it’s just you and me,” he hummed.
He draped a damp cloth across my head and then fed me sips of the ginger ale before urging me to rest. I fell into a sleep wracked with nightmares and anxiety, proving it no more an escape than reality had been.
I WOKE THE FOLLOWING morning with a pounding headache and a million texts from my mother.
I groaned as the bright light of morning split the curtains, then rolled over to find Hunter asleep next to me, one heavy forearm blocking the sunlight from his eyes as he laid overtop the covers. Next to the bed was a clean garbage can, bottled water, and a cold, wet rag. Hunter had taken care of me all night. I’d vaguely remembered him applying cool compresses and kneading at the sore muscles of my shoulders as I’d held myself over the toilet.
My gaze traveled across the room, ready to dash for the bathroom, when my eyes landed on the mess of bags spewing from his walk-in.
We were supposed to leave last night and it was my fault we hadn’t. Through the fog of dehydration and sickness that marred my memory, I recalled him tucking me into bed and forcing a few sips of water down my throat. “We’ll leave first thing in the morning, you can sleep this off and then we’ll be on the road. I can’t even think about put you in a car feeling like this," he’d murmured, getting me settled. My mind too thick to make sense of the implications of his words, I’d lain back on the pillow and pressed my hands to my stomach, desperate to not be so sick, unwilling to believe what was probably the case. If I’d only known then that the morning would be too late.
“Fuck,” I whispered and checked the clock. It was only seven a.m., maybe we could still leave this morning without worry. And then I spotted the dark circles under Hunter’s eyes and the deep breaths pushing past his full lips. He was exhausted. He could use at least a few more hours before he got behind the wheel.
I stood from the bed, feeling a little dizzy, my stomach still queasy. I took a sip of water from the nightstand then tip-toed my way to Hunter’s kitchen. My stomach had been churning nonstop for days, heaving over the toilet, a late period. I couldn’t deny it anymore. I had to, at the very least, take a pregnancy test and put my mind at ease. I was just thinking of slipping out to pick one up at the corner drug store when my phone vibrated across the table. I answered it without thinking.
My mother’s shrill voice greeted me. “What’s going on?!”
“Mom, calm down.”
“Why won’t you answer my calls?!”
“Mom, I haven’t even been in town
“I knew you were in over your head with this photographer.” Her rambling continued as I blocked it out. I had to find a way to calm her down, to make her listen, if she didn’t…I didn’t want to think what could happen.
Wait. The photographer? Was it possible she didn’t know anything about Brant or the arrest? Hope bloomed in my heart that I could keep her ignorant and therefore safe through all of this.
I closed my eyes and sucked in a bottom lip, remembering the dark circles painted under Hunter’s eyes after staying up with me all night. “I’m fine, but I’ve got to go away with Hunter for a while. He’s got a lot of shoots coming up…” I trailed off, hoping she’d fall for my lie. Hoping I was right and she didn’t know anything. Hadn’t seen the news. She’d never been one to watch it that I could remember, but the headlines had been everywhere.
“Meet me for coffee,” she ordered.
“We’re leaving. I can’t.” I glanced up the stairs and thought of his exhausted form. “I’ll be gone for a while, probably a few weeks, but I promise I’ll stay in touch,” I said sadly, knowing she’d never understand why without a full explanation.
“Erin?!” she screamed again so loud I pulled the phone from my ear.
After much pleading from her, I agreed to meet my mom at a coffee shop a few blocks away. I knew Hunter would be pissed if he woke up before I was back, but I hoped to slip in and out without him noticing. And it was my
. She may have been emotionally abusive and unpredictable, but she was the only mother I had. I had to see her one last time before we left. And tt also gave me the excuse I needed to stop by the corner pharmacy for a pregnancy test.
I hung up the phone and curled my purse under my shoulder, making sure to tuck both cans of pepper spray in my easily accessible pocket, before heading out Hunter’s door and to my last day in the city.
“I can’t believe you actually took a moment out of your day to see me,” my mother simpered forty-five minutes later when I slid into the chair on the sidewalk of the small cafe.
I shot to open my mouth before shutting it again. Was it really possible she hadn’t seen the headlines dominating my life the last few days? I worked her mystifying dark eyes over in my mind, debating what to say. I was already putting her in danger meeting her, and I wouldn’t tell her what she didn’t know, for her own safety, just like Hunter had done to me.
“I’m okay...” I choked on the words, hoping she wouldn’t catch the lie.
“Is something going on with this photographer? It’s just like you to hop into bed with the next guy that shows attention. Erin, when are you going to learn?” Her eyes glazed with her own kind of tears. The disappointment was nearly suffocating.
“Mom. It’s not like that.” I stumbled on the words, because I knew all I could give her were words, and words would never suffice for Hunter and I. We were a feeling, and feelings that deep can’t be understood in a jumble of letters.
“Then what is it, Erin? What could possibly be different this time? He’s just going to use you like every other bad choice you made when you were young. Brant was too good for you, I knew it from the day you brought him home. You’ll never get anyone better, Erin. He treats you like a queen.” She shot me an accusatory glance.
“Mom...” My heart crumbled under her crippling accusations. I suddenly realized why I’d stayed with Brant for so long—because I’d been used to the criticism. I’d been raised on fear, manipulation, and guilt. That dynamic had felt comfortable to me. “I’m sorry you feel that way.” I finally responded, knowing there was no point in fighting with her.
My mother’s critical gaze ran up and down my body, to the lemon water I was sipping and then back to my own dark eyes. “There’s something different about you.” She turned her head to one side. “What is it?” she finally asked, accusatory.