Time to Run(7)

By: Marliss Melton


Three cars had been parked in the overflow parking lot, and none of them were Chase's. She'd seen what he drove yesterday—an older blue sports car that was probably halfway to Oklahoma already.

She couldn't blame him for not wanting to get involved. Who would, when Garret had made a reputation for securing some of the harshest sentences in naval history?

And yet ... she'd expected better from Chase. After all, he'd taken care of her twice in the past, why not this time?

In a moment of foolish optimism, she'd even stuffed her backpack with everything they needed, just in case he did show up: toothbrushes saved from a dentist visit, eight hundred and three dollars, plus a change of clothing for both her and Kendal.

She regretted that impulse. What if Garret, ever suspicious, delved into the contents of her bag? He'd guess her intent to flee in an instant. He'd never let them out of his sight again.

She shivered, clinging to her secret, desperate to relieve the tension building inside of her. She'd sworn to herself that she and Kendal would never suffer another one of Garret's consequences. But unless she found a way to flee, and flee soon, it was inevitable.

Down a tree-shaded foot trail, she plodded. Wasn't there any way to Texas that couldn't be traced? Public transportation was not an option, not in this post-9/11 era, when even bus stations were equipped with video monitors.

If only Chief Chase McCaffrey could have plucked them from Garret's world and taken them to another! It had seemed like providence that he'd blown into her life when she most needed him. Nothing so promising would ever come her way again.

With a blind eye for the flora and fauna Sara trailed seven boys and their Scout leader down a steep ravine. Up the other side they climbed, on steps created by underlying roots. At the crest of the hill, she and Kendal paused, while the others rushed pell-mell toward the swathe of marshland below, eager to spot wildlife but more likely to frighten it away.

The sulfuric tang of mudflats commingled with the fresh-scented breeze. Weighted with depression, they followed the others more sedately.

When they arrived at the bridge that spanned a snaking creek, the others were far ahead. In the quiet lull, Sara discerned the cry of an osprey and looked up.

What would she give to be free like that bird? Free of Garret's unrelenting expectations.

But the sun beat down, and the backpack bit into her shoulders, reminding her that she was earthbound.

Kendal stopped in his tracks, and Sara stumbled into him. "Honey, what—"

"Look, Mom."

His request had her peering down the glinting stream. To her astonishment, there was Chief McCaffrey paddling toward them in a camouflaged canoe.

"He was at the park last night," Kendal said, proving he was more observant than he'd let on.

Chase's hot blue gaze captured Sara's startled one. He'd come after all. God in heaven, he'd actually come for them! Disbelief, relief, then urgency stormed her sensibilities.

"Mom, what's going on?"

They were still alone on the bridge, the others far ahead. With a swish of his paddle, the SEAL maneuvered the canoe alongside them. "Jump in," he said.

"Mom?"

She rushed to explain. "Remember when I told you that I had a plan, Kendal? That we were leaving?"

He darted a stunned look at Chase.

"This is it," she confirmed. "We're leaving now. Get in the boat, sweetheart. Hurry!"

Sara threw a leg over the rail.

But Kendal didn't move. He looked back and forth between her and the stranger. "Who is he?" he wanted to know.

"He's a Navy SEAL," she answered. "He can protect us. Kendal, please get in the boat."

The scowl on Chief McCaffrey's face could have dissuaded even the most fearless individual. "We can't miss this chance, sweetheart!" Sara pleaded, her heart pounding. "Hurry, before the others come back."

Her urgency finally galvanized him. Kendal scrambled over the railing, stepping down into the boat before she'd thrown a second leg over.

"Sit on the bottom," Chase instructed him.

Sara took that cue to position herself on the front seat.

No sooner were they in the boat than Chase launched them into the current. Stabbing his paddle into the stream, he swept them around the bend, taking them quickly out of view of the bridge. The tide was low, and the marsh provided concealment.

A cooling breeze dried the sweat on Sara's upper lip. She glanced back at Kendal, who gripped both sides of the boat, his eyes wide and disbelieving. Behind him, their unlikely rescuer, wearing a baseball cap and cutoff T-shirt, kept a steady stroke on the paddle.

She wanted to thank him, only the frown wedged between his eyebrows kept her mute.

Her heart pattered with hope and fear. She glanced down at the ring pinched between her fourth finger and the canoe's edge. If she didn't think she might need to pawn it one day, she'd take it off right now.