“I’m not safe anywhere.” Terror beat in Claudia deGras’ heart, pulsed through her veins, shut down any rational thought. Get out of here!
She bolted toward the door, not daring to look back as the sound of heavy footsteps followed her.
The old brown sedan sitting in the driveway always had the keys in the ignition. Most of the time, it started without much protest.
Claudia flung open the door and cranked the key. The engine caught and roared as she shoved the accelerator to the floor. Two doors banged shut as the old Buick slid sideways on the gravel, then found traction on the pavement.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Patrick O’Shea on the wide bench seat beside her, his hand braced against the dashboard for balance, but his face reflected his normal serenity.
Could she trust him? Did she have a choice? And where was she going?
She eased her foot off the accelerator and settled the old sedan into a speed that wouldn’t get them stopped by the police, though patrols were rare on this sparsely traveled road in Eastern Oregon.
While she drove the highway in silence, the childhood memories of curses and shouting and fists landing heavy blows on her body receded, and her panicked mind calmed down.
No one had harmed her today. In fact, over the last few weeks the O’Shea siblings, including Patrick, had rearranged their lives to protect her from the man-beast who stalked her.
The man-beast was the real danger.
“Take the next exit.” Patrick’s deep voice interrupted Claudia’s thoughts.
Patrick’s wisdom and gentleness had provided a balm to Claudia’s soul many times during the time she had been recovering from her physical wounds at his mother’s rambling farmhouse. Today, she discovered the emotional fears were deeper than she imagined. Facing the man-beast again–even in her memory–pushed her into a panicked flight.
Now reason was returning and adrenaline ebbing, and Claudia floundered. Once again, Patrick’s reassuring voice provided an anchor, so she followed his instructions. Down a paved road for several miles, flanked on either side by acres of rangeland turning dusty gold in the early summer heat. Then another turn onto a graveled road with no other traffic. Finally off any road entirely, bumping over the rangeland to come to a stop under a sheltering copse of trees near a lake.
After Claudia turned off the engine, Patrick opened the car door. “Come with me.”
He walked toward the lake, not looking back.
Claudia watched him for long minutes. Was he simply going to leave her?
The land sloped downward where Patrick now walked, making it seem like he was disappearing. When only the top of his head was still in view, panic seized Claudia once again. “Wait!”
She jumped out of the car and slammed the door behind her, running to catch up with Patrick. She topped the knoll and stopped, her chest rising and falling rapidly with exertion and fright.
Patrick stood looking up at her, the same serene expression on his face. Then he turned and continued walking to the water’s edge. Hidden in the tall reeds was a raft that looked as if it would sink with the weight of the family of ducks swimming nearby. However, when Patrick climbed on, the craft barely dipped before stabilizing. He turned and reached out his hand in invitation. Cautious but curious, Claudia climbed aboard.
Using a long pole, Patrick pushed them across the lake and under a rocky outcropping. He secured the raft to a sawed-off tree stump that served as a pier post for a make-shift dock and stepped off. “Be careful. It can be slippery.”
Intrigued, Claudia once again took Patrick’s hand and climbed off the raft. They walked toward a sheer rock cliff topped by ruins of what could have been an ancient stone cathedral. However, as they reached the cliff, Patrick slipped through a notch in one of the rocks. Once inside, he retrieved a flashlight from a pocket in the rock wall and turned it on, revealing a narrow corridor. Claudia followed him down a winding pathway for what seemed like miles. Patrick walked without hesitation, turning down side tunnels until she felt totally disoriented.
At last he stopped in front of a solid rock wall. Well, it appeared solid. Until he slid aside what must have been a doorway, revealing into a cavernous room.
“Where are we?” Claudia asked.
Patrick turned with a half-smile. “Safe. That’s what you wanted, right?”
(copyright Genene Valleau, writing as Genie Gabriel)
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