ESCAPE Part One
SOME SECRETS SHOULD NEVER BE SHARED
When beautiful and mysterious Rowan Baker moves in upstairs from Shane Adams, he is instantly captivated. With every encounter he becomes more intrigued, but as an experienced Private Investigator, he can’t shake the suspicion that Rowan is holding on to some big secrets.
Rowan has been on the run for years and she’s good at keeping her distance from people. But there’s something about Shane that’s completely tantalizing. Soon, her life becomes more complicated than she ever expected, making her secrets harder and harder to keep. The closer she gets to Shane, the more she fears that he won’t accept her if he learns the truth of her past. When she is forced to let go of one of her secrets, will Shane stay, or will Rowan push him so far away he can’t make his way back?
Sweat dripped off her skin, sliding down her back. The rising heat made her head spin, but Rowan stood her ground ticking off the seconds. Water. She really needed more water, but now wasn’t the time. The smell permeated her nostrils and burrowed into her brain. Never again. The smell of burning meat overwhelmed her brain and she knew she would never be able to eat beef again.
“Two more cheese burgers and a corn dog,” Tami yelled in her direction.
Rowan nodded and watched as the burgers oozed their juices over the grill and the meat turned from soft pink to brown. The deep fryer to her left bubbled rapidly, sending yet more grease and heat into the air. Even wearing only a pair of shorts and a thin tank top, her face was hot. The thick apron somewhat protected her clothes from the grease and slime, but nothing could protect her from the stifling hot air.
“You get that, Rowan?” Tami asked.
Tami was one of the teenagers she supervised. For an extra buck fifty an hour, Rowan agreed to be the manager of the local pool’s Snack Shack. The management had been thrilled to have a 31 year old apply for the position, and in the cool offices of the Community Center it seemed like a really good opportunity, but now, sweating like a pig and working the grill because none of the teenagers wanted to get greasy, she was seriously questioning that decision.
“Yeah, thanks Tami. Can you please check the fries? We don’t want to run low on them,” Rowan said, flipping the burgers and throwing two more on the grill. Reaching down to get the buns, she noticed they were out. She’d have to make one of the girls work the grill while she went to the stock room.
“Julie, after you start that corn dog, you need to cook these for me while I run to restock.” Rowan called toward the other side of the tiny kitchen.
“Ohhhh, Rowie. Do I have to?” Julie whined.
Rowan wanted to slap her. Never in her life had she heard a sixteen year old whine so much. That would’ve never been tolerated back home. Hell, that would’ve never even happened. No one whined—ever.
“Julie, get an apron and don’t burn these burgers. The lunch rush is just starting,” she told her as she walked toward the door, pulling off her apron.
“Fine. Yuck. I hate it back here. It’s so hot.” Julie reluctantly slipped on an apron and picked up the spatula.
Blinding sun assaulted her eyes as she opened the back door. The community pool was busy this time of year. She had no idea there would be so many kids with nothing to do but go to the pool and swim every day. Not like her childhood, if you could even call it that. Wasn’t like Justin’s either, she thought with a pang of guilt.
Classic management move to keep the supplies for the kitchen in the office building, but it did allow her out of the hell hole every once in a while to breath some fresh air, albeit chlorinated, still better than what she was breathing near the grill.
Making quick work to gather what she needed, she did several trips back and forth, restocking everything that was low. On her last trip back, she did a quick check of the front and noticed the condiment stand was a mess. Taking a deep breath, she ran to get a wet rag and went back to clean up what Julie and Tami were supposed to keep clean. Those girls were serious slackers.
After cleaning the condiment stand, she checked the rest of the front set up to make sure there weren’t any disasters looming. Satisfied there weren’t, she headed back toward the kitchen.
“Shane!” Tami shouted from the cash register with an order ready to be picked up.
“I’ll get it, Tami. What do they look like?”
“Tall, dark hair, slight beard, cut like you’ve never seen, red trunks—with three kids,” Tami reported, searching the tables, “Over there.” She pointed.
Rowan grabbed the tray piled high with food and several drinks, before walking over to a table full of kids.
“Is anyone hungry over here?” she asked.
The kids jumped up with shouts of, “me, me, that’s mine, over here!” as she started passing out the food. Once all of the kids seemed to have what they had ordered, she had one corn dog left.
“And this must be–” turning her attention to the dad Rowan’s words died in her throat and her heart almost stopped when his dark brown eyes collided with hers. For the first time, Tami was absolutely accurate in her assessment of a customer. He had short dark hair, almost spiky, with a smattering of a beard, and sitting there in his wet board shorts he looked cut like a god. His abs alone made her mind go places she hadn’t been in years. His shorts were riding low enough to see a happy trail running along his flat stomach, straight down his perfect V and ducking underneath the waistband of his shorts.
Clearing her head, she realized she was holding her breath. He looked familiar, but then she wasn’t thinking clearly at the moment. The exquisite male before her reached up and gently lifted the corn dog boat from her hand.
“Thanks. That would be mine.” His voice was deep and rich and slithered across her skin, causing her arms to break out in goose bumps.
Rowan froze, feeling her throat instantly dry up as if she hadn’t had water in days. She could rationalize her dry throat, that was to be expected in this heat, but the goose bumps suddenly appearing on her skin could only be explained by her sudden, intense reaction to this man. Damn, I really need to get out more. Embarrassed, she tried to pull herself together.
“If there is anything else you need, just let the girls know,” she croaked out as she turned and all but ran back to her place by the grill.
Humiliation crept into her veins as she realized how childish she had just acted. Feeling the heat of it crawling up her neck and blossoming on her face, she blew out a breath, disgusted with her behavior. After all this time she expected more from herself; she was a grown woman, for heaven’s sake, and should be able to have a conversation with a good-looking man without turning into an adolescent. Drooling over fathers spending a day with their kids was not acceptable. Might even be a new low for her. After all this time, working so hard to fit in and act like a normal woman, with a normal background and history, all it took was one fine man and she still felt like an awkward teenager with too many hormones.
Not that she was anywhere near giving up, but she was getting impatient with herself. She would never go back—that was a given. But, the outside was, in fact, a lot harder than she thought. She knew Jolly was evil and cruel, but maybe he did know a thing or two. Out here was confusing and hard, with too many rules and expectations.
Rowan took a long drink of ice water and a deep breath. She may be thirty-one with no outside skills at all, but she was fierce and determined to make it. She was already running the Snack Shack for the community pool–HA! Proof that she could handle it out here. Rowan smiled at the thought. Besides, she had Justin to think about. Failure was not an option.
* * *
Shane sat holding his corn dog in the air, stunned at what had just happened. He couldn’t believe his luck. The girl! His girl—the one he’d been trying to meet for weeks, was working here of all places. When she handed him his lunch, he got so lost in her eyes, he didn’t want to come back. They were the brightest hazel he’d ever seen, and they glowed as if a light was shining within, making them appear almost yellow. When their eyes locked, it was as if she looked straight into his soul. He shivered at the thought.
He noticed her the day she’d moved in and had been trying to talk to her ever since. He thought it would be relatively easy, given that they lived in the same apartment complex, but he’d been so wrong. She moved like a cat and he always missed her. He even considered stalking the mailboxes, figuring she had to get her mail at some point, right?
When Shane first saw her, she took his breath away—and that never happened. Dressed in old tattered jeans and a tight black tank top, he couldn’t stop watching her. As she carried in her boxes, he kept expecting her friends to show up and help her move the big stuff. As far as he saw, no one ever came and she never really moved in anything big.
At first glance he thought she was young, like just out of high school young, the way her body rippled with muscles as she carried her boxes up the stairs and the spring in her step as she practically skipped down the stairs empty handed to get more. Her silky brown hair was cut short, just hitting her chin line in the front, tight in the back. She looked like an athlete or a fitness model. But after watching her for a while, he decided she wasn’t that young after all. She had the kind of beauty that gave most women confidence, but she never looked anyone in the eye when they passed on the stairs and never once stopped to talk.
He had watched her move in all her stuff, never once venturing out and offering her help or hospitality. He’d been kicking himself ever since. What a dickhead move that was. He could have manned up, introduced himself and offered her help, but he just stood in his ground floor apartment all day, mesmerized by her, like some creepy stalker. Just when he’d realized his mistake and was about to venture out, his phone rang and his whole life got turned upside down.
“Uncle Shane!” his niece Jennifer screamed, pushing a French fry in his face.
“What’s up, sweetheart?” he asked her, coming out of his daze.
“Eat, silly.” She plopped a handful of fries into his paper boat.
“What’s wrong?” his nephew Jake asked. “You look funny.”
“It’s that lady,” Aaron added, before inhaling his burger.
Of all of his sister’s kids, he related to Aaron the most. Shane vividly remembered being nine. Just at the cusp of being cool, but not quite old enough to pull it off. Jennifer, the oldest of the group, was a lot like their mother: organized, bossy yet caring. At eleven, she had already perfected the art of getting her brothers to do what they needed to do without making them feel like she owned them. Jake was seven and a handful on a good day. Why or how he agreed to watch them for two weeks while his sister and her husband enjoyed a second honeymoon was beyond him. At day three, Shane wondered if he was really going to last another eleven days, but hey, who's counting?
“Do you know that lady?” Jennifer asked him.
“No, sweetie. But I think she lives in our complex. I guess I just didn’t expect to see her here. That’s all. Go ahead and eat so we can get back in the pool.”
He sat back and ate his disgusting corn dog in three bites. This is what he remembered doing as a kid. Hanging out at the pool, eating pool food, and soaking up the sun. He and Melanie spent more time in their community pool during the summer than anywhere else. That’s where he learned to watch people. He learned to recognize the difference between fear and excitement when kids jumped off the diving board. He watched teenage boys square off silently when they were both eyeing the same girl. He watched in awe as his sister’s friends evolved from play mates to real girls, and as his friends changed their own behavior around them. All skills he used on a regular basis as a Private Investigator. He loved being a PI. Knowing early on he was never going to be a desk job guy, and that he didn’t follow orders very well, he’d never aimed for a traditional career. In high school he learned that he could blend in almost anywhere and had a face that people rarely remembered.
Between that and his theater classes in college, he soon became one of the top investigators in the area. The only down side was, at 32, nothing surprised him and trust was a rare commodity in his world. Other than casual relationships along the way, he’d never had what he would call a girlfriend, never met that one girl who took his breath away. Not until now, anyway. And he didn’t even know her name. He needed a name to go with that face and that body. He needed it now.
He stood abruptly causing all three kids looked up at him nervously.
“Keep eating, guys, I’ll be right back.” He nodded his reassurance and turned toward the snack bar.
It was time for him to man up. He was a PI for God’s sake; at the very least he could get a name.
“Can I help you?” The young girl at the window fluttered her eyelids and smiled at him. Shane chuckled as he remembered his own hellish teenage years.
“Yeah, hi.” He turned on his most charming smile. “I was just wondering. There’s a lady who works here, she just brought us our food.” Shane waited.
“Oh yeah. That’s our manager, Rowan. Is something wrong?”
“Nope. That’s great. Rowan, huh? Thanks. That’s all I needed.” He turned, a genuine smile on his face.
“Hey, wait Mister,” the girl called, and he turned back. “What’s your name? Seems only fair, right?” She smiled coyly at him.
“Uh, Shane,” he told her, impressed with her forwardness, “My name is Shane Adams. Have a good one.” He nodded to her and left to go back to his charges.
* * *
Climbing the steps to her apartment, Rowan thought of nothing else but peeling off her clothes and taking a nice, cool shower. The complex had a small pool, but she needed to get the smell of old meat and grease off her skin and out of her hair. Then, maybe if the pool was empty, she would sneak down and take a quiet dip. The last thing she wanted to do was get in a pool with a bunch of screaming kids.
Luckily, there seemed to be few children in this apartment complex. After doing as much research as possible, she had decided Oakdale would be her next step. She knew that Justin was set for a while longer, maybe later this summer he could come visit her, but the days when it was the two of them against the world were long gone. Truth be told, she liked it better this way. It seemed as if she had spent her whole life taking care of somebody, and just being in charge of herself was a nice change. Knowing that Justin was safe and far away from Jolly was enough for her. He was living his life, she was living hers.
She was thankful for her job at the pool, but knew that it was only for a couple of months at best. One of these days she would get a real job that didn’t involve grease and slime, but until that happened, she would stick with fast food. It was better than the shady under the table work she had when she first started out.
Summer was short lived and the kids would be going back to school, the teenagers she managed would be back in high school, and she would be, once again, out of work. She needed to find something to do that was easy to pick up and move. Maybe bartending, or construction. She knew a lot about construction, she knew nothing about bartending, or drinking.
Walking into her apartment always made her smile. She knew, without a doubt, that this was her safe place. Having moved several times now, she knew exactly how to make her home perfect for her. Not too sparse, but not so cumbersome that she couldn’t pack up and move quickly. Always keep moving! That was the key to her survival. At least for the first few years. She knew that going in, but it was worth it. Worth every inconvenience, every box lost or destroyed, every item left behind. Her freedom was worth all that and more. Jolly be damned—this was her life.
She peeled off her clothes, throwing them in a plastic bag. They smelled so bad, she didn’t want them stinking up her apartment. This was her life and she loved it, stinky clothes and all, but there was a limit.
The cool water moving across her skin as she dove into the pool was heavenly. Having put her laundry in the washer, she planned on swimming till they were done. The laundry room was just across the way from the pool, so doing laundry was as easy as taking an evening swim. She’d always wanted to be a swimmer when she was a kid, now she got to indulge with each and every load of dirty clothes.
Coming up for air, she pulled herself out of the pool and sat on the side. It was still hot outside, but with the sun almost down, it was nice to just sit and enjoy the warm air drying her suit.
“Nice night.” The deep voice penetrated her thoughts and she darn near fell back into the pool.
“Oh! You scared me—” She turned and came face to face with the father of three from the pool. “Shane?”
His face lit up when she said his name. Tami had not let up all afternoon about the hot dad that wanted to know her name, and how awesome was Tami that she now knew his. It had gotten on her last nerve.
“Hi Rowan. So the window girl told you I came by, huh?” She could hear the amusement in his voice.
“Yes, she did. Your daughter’s not old enough to be annoying yet, so I guess I shouldn’t blame you for asking Tami, but for heaven’s sake, she would not let up.” Rowan slipped back under the water.
Why was he here and why was he talking to her? She was so flustered, she couldn’t think straight. She had to breathe at some point, so when she got as far away from him as possible she came up for air.
“–not my daughter.” She heard when her ears cleared.
“I’m sorry. What?” she asked, still flustered.
“I said Jennifer is not my daughter. Neither are the boys. I’m the crazy uncle that agreed to watch them for a couple of weeks while their parents rekindled their relationship in Hawaii.” He looked right at her, waiting.
“Oh.” Rowan let that soak in for a second. “Wow, you are crazy! I take it you don’t have kids of your own?”
Shane simply shook his head.
Rowan laughed out loud, “So you had no idea what you were signing up for, then. Well, you’re in for it now.”
He grinned, stirring infernal heat deep inside her. The promise of that grin made her toes curl; she had never seen anything so sexy in her life. With no other recourse, she dove back under the water to pull herself together. Popping up back on his side of the pool, she pulled herself out of the water and slicked her hair back.
Taking a moment to look at him fully, she noted how comfortable, casual and edible he looked, standing there in worn jeans and a t-shirt while she was nearly naked, a fact not lost to her. His muscles called to her, and the way his fingers dangled elegantly from his hands made her mouth water. Oh, what were those fingers capable of? She tried to clear her mind before meeting his gaze, but from the look on his face, she guessed she wasn’t as quick as she’d hoped.
He smiled as if waiting for her to have her fill. Chagrined, Rowan turned, grabbed her towel, and headed out the gate. “Good luck!” She called over her shoulder as the gate slammed shut.