I bit on my thumbnail, and paced back and forth a few times. I thought about the different items in my car. Would she go through it? Was anything incriminating inside that might hint at the truth about Jared? My cel phone rang in my pocket. I quickly fished it out.
“I’m fine,” I said.
“Then why is your blood pressure going through the roof?” Jared said. His voice alone slowed my heart rate. “I can stop her if you don’t want her to take your car.”
I walked through my office to the large window, looking down to the street below. “Yes, because that won’t look suspicious at all .” The lights of Fleet Rink were bright enough to il uminate the entire block, and I watched as Sasha fol owed the sidewalk, her red hair bouncing against her silk olive blouse. The headlamps of the Beemer blinked, and a short blip sounded when the alarm was deactivated.
“Her car seems in good shape,” Jared said, trying to comfort me. He was in the Escalade across the street, pressing the cel phone against his ear as he smiled up at me.
I took a deep breath. “I don’t know why I’m worried. It’s only a mile awa—” I began, but the words were cut off by a loud boom. In the same moment, the space where my car once sat turned into a bil owing firebal . The glass vibrated, but it didn’t break. The windows of the Escalade didn’t fare so wel . I could see Jared’s shocked expression as he sat in the driver’s seat. Flaming debris shot into the sky and fel into the street.
“Oh my God! Help her, Jared! Help her!” I screamed.
“Stay inside!” Jared yel ed over the noise. He jumped from the Escalade and ran to the roaring flames. He covered his face with his arm, testing different sides of the car. I could see from three stories up that he couldn’t breach the flames. Even if he had, Sasha was gone.
Jared watched the fire in horror, grabbing each side of his blonde hair with his fists. He shook his head, and then grabbed his knees, leaning over. After a few moments, he ran back to his Escalade and took off at ful speed. The wheels squealed against the pavement.
I ran to my desk and grabbed at the phone with trembling hands. I tried to dial 911, but my fingers shook so much that I kept hitting the wrong keys. After the third try, Jared was beside me.
I col apsed into him, tears final y wel ing up in my eyes. “What happened?” I cried. “Where did you go?”
“I wanted them to think I panicked and drove off. It was a bomb, Nina. They wired your car with a bomb.”
I paused, my eyes widening. “I kill ed her. I gave her the keys to my car and sent her to her death! Oh my God, Jared, she’s dead! She’s only twenty-two years old! She just got off the phone with her mother not half an hour ago!” My voice grew shril er with every fact.
Jared hugged me to him, unable to find words of comfort. “I should have sensed it. I should have smel ed it—something.”
“Nothing?” I said, looking up at him with wet eyes.
He shook his head. “Not a damn thing. The baby and how it affects your body saturates my senses. They must have wired it after you arrived at work. I don’t understand. I wasn’t half a block away. I should have seen it.”
“We have to cal the police,” I whimpered.
“Let someone else do it. If whoever placed the bomb somehow mistook her for you, it may buy us some time. That’s why I made such a show in the street. They’re probably watching.”
“I don’t know. Must have been a shel . There’s no way to tel how many are around.”
I nodded, and Jared pul ed my hand, leading me to the stairwel . He held his finger to his mouth, and then opened the door. We descended four flights of stairs into the basement level, and then sneaked out an access door to the all ey.
My shoes tapped against the wet pavement and sloshed through puddles. The moonlight glistened on the wet pavement we walked upon. Jared led us through labyrinthine all eyways cluttered with green trash bins and litter until we final y reached the Escalade.
“This wasn’t your fault,” he whispered.
“Then whose fault is it?” I sobbed, hitting the door with my fist. “I want to know! I want them to be held accountable for taking an innocent person’s life! She was mean and spiteful, but she had her whole life ahead of her! It’s not fair!”
“No, it’s not. It’s sloppy. They’ve never made a mistake like this.”
“You think it was a mistake?” I sniffed.
“One way or another.”
My face fel again. “She was in love. With Grant, and she never told him.”
Jared frowned. “I’m sorry for Sasha. I’m sorry for her family when they learn of her death, but we have a bigger problem here. We’re leaving in one week, and you won’t be all owed to leave the country if you’re involved in an investigation. We have to explain why she was in your car, and why your car was there and you weren’t. That’s after they declare it wasn’t you in the car. That could be a while.”
He thought for a moment. “We’ll have to go away. Write a note to Beth explaining that we went on a short getaway and that you left your car keys on the desk in case she needs it, and I’ll have Bex put it on the floor under your desk in your office so that it looks like it fel .”
“We’ll go away for a few days. Figure out our next move.”
I squeezed my eyes tight. “Just stop it!”
“It won’t matter.”
Jared grabbed each side of my face and looked into my eyes. “Don’t do that. You’re not going to give up.” One hand left my cheek and touched my stomach. “We have a reason to fight more now than ever.”
His cel phone buzzed in his jacket pocket. “Ryel. She’s fine, but it was her car. No, her car exploded. They wired explosives to it. I’m not sure, yet.
She let Sasha take it for coffee. No,” Jared said, his voice low. “We’re going to leave town for a few days; buy us some time. Send Bex. I need him to run a note to Nina’s office. Bye.”
Sirens sounded in the distance. Jared put his phone away and cupped his hands over my shoulders. “You with me?”
I nodded. “I need paper and a pen.”
Jared patted his jacket and pul ed out a pen, and then he blurred out of sight. A few moments later he returned with a pink memo pad. I scribbled a few lines to Beth explaining my impromptu vacation and the location of my keys in case she needed to move my car, and then signed it. Five minutes later, a motorcycle pul ed into the all ey.
Bex planted his feet on the ground and pushed the visor of his helmet up. “Whatcha got?”
“Put this in Nina’s office, under her desk as if it fel . We need to explain this away.”
Bex pul ed off his helmet and grabbed the paper. “You guys staying here or…?”
“No. We’re leaving town for a few days. I’ll cal you when we get there.”
“I don’t know, yet,” Jared said. “Stay out of sight, and go straight home to Mom.”
Bex nodded once, and then sprinted down the all ey toward Titan. The sirens grew closer. Jared squeezed my hand and kissed my cheek. He opened the passenger door, and brushed the broken glass from the seat, and then repeated the process on his side. We drove south, stopping just outside of town. Claire and Ryan were waiting in Ryan’s Tundra truck.
“I figured you would need a vehicle with windows for your road trip,” Ryan smiled, tossing Jared the keys.
“Thanks,” Jared said.
Claire pointed to the bed of the truck. “We brought your luggage. Good thing you were going on a trip, anyway.” I nodded, feeling a little lost.
Claire offered a sympathetic expression and a hug. “Sorry about Sasha. You’l be soaking up the sun on vacation, and I’ll be here finding out who tried to kill you. Whether they’re human or not, they won’t bother you again.”
I frowned, and then tears pushed over my eyes and fel down my cheeks. I squeezed her tight.
“Don’t worry,” she said, making a point to look into my eyes. “This wil all be over soon.”
South on Interstate 95. With my head rested against the passenger side window, I kept the beat in my head with the white lines as they zoomed past and out of sight. My body felt empty and numb; I didn’t know if I was awake or asleep. Traumatic events should have been second nature to me. Maybe that was why I wasn’t a crying, shaking mess. I wasn’t coping—or maybe I was. Maybe I was simply feeling acceptance, but it was hard to know without feeling anything.
Jared moved a piece of hair from my face. “Why don’t you try to sleep?”
“I don’t know if I can.”
“Try,” Jared said, rubbing my arm. It was just a comforting gesture; we both knew I wasn’t cold. Bean coming sooner rather than later suddenly seemed a relief. Summer was unbearable for any pregnant woman, but considering my heightened temperature, it could mean trouble. Jared’s hand left my arm and rested on my stomach.
My eyes final y shut sometime soon after entering the Bronx, and didn’t open again until we were just south of Philadelphia’s City limits. It was stil dark when I awoke, my hair plastered against my cheek, warm and moist between my face and the console. Jared had made the distance in half the time it should have taken.
It wasn’t long before I processed where we were and why, and then the tears came. “Oh,” I said, wiping my cheek. Being unsettled and upset was a strange relief. I was normal, after all .
“It’s going to be okay, sweetheart,” Jared said, leaning over to kiss my hair.
“Have you heard from anyone?”
He nodded. “Claire shot me a text. They put out the fire and found the body. They think it’s you. Everyone wil probably find out in the morning.”
“Claire already informed her. She wil play dumb and devastated to the police. She knows the routine.”
I let a puff of air escape my lips. “At least she won’t think I’m dead.”
“It could be Monday morning before anyone notices Sasha is missing.”
“I don’t know,” I said, picking at my fingernails. “She was on the phone in my office talking to her mother. They seemed close. Her family could file a missing persons report today or tomorrow.”
Jared nodded, deep in thought.
It didn’t feel right letting Sasha’s death go unannounced. If she typical y spoke with her mother daily, she could be waiting for her cal , her worry turning into panic. My hand drifted to my midsection, resting over the bump that protected our child. Sasha was someone’s daughter. Her mother had brought her home from the hospital, taught her to crawl, walk, and raised her to the young woman she is; was. That woman, who loved Sasha more than anything else in the world, was sleeping peaceful y for the last time. The moment Sasha crossed her mind—the moment it occurred to this woman to cal her daughter—would be the first moment of thousands that she would feel a horrible sick feeling in the pit of her stomach. More guilt washed over me.
“Stop, Nina. It’s not your fault,” Jared said.
“I don’t suppose we can tel Beth?” I asked, already knowing the answer.
Jared only offered an apologetic expression.
We pul ed into a gas station for the second time. Anyone else would have thought twice about stopping at such a nefarious-looking place in the wee hours of the morning. Bars guarded the windows, and several unscrupulous characters loitered next to the front door. Jared, however, stepped out and walked past them as if he were at the mal .
I waited in the truck hoping none of the people staring back at me would become curious enough to wander over. Jared was only inside for a moment, and then he emerged, holding a bottle of water and something deep-fried and stuffed with cheese and chicken.
He frowned as he handed them over. “It’s not the healthiest thing, but I thought it would tide you over until we could find a decent restaurant.”
I took a bite. It was disgustingly wonderful.
Just as Jared pul ed back onto the highway, my cel phone buzzed. The display lit up, and I instantly tensed. “It’s Beth,” I said.
Jared sighed. “You have to let it ring.”
“She is probably sick with worry. I can’t just let her think I’m dead.”
Jared took the phone from my hand. “I sympathize, I real y do. Beth doesn’t deserve that, but we don’t have a choice.”
I shook my head and looked out the window. Jared was right: Beth didn’t deserve a friend like me. She had only been patient, honest, kind, loyal, and protective. I couldn’t imagine the despair I would feel if I answered a cal that Beth’s car had exploded with a charred body inside. My heart ached for her, and if I wasn’t riddled with guilt before, now I was so ashamed I could barely stand to be in my skin. Tears wel ed up in my eyes and fel down my cheeks. If Beth ever found out that I knowingly all owed her to suffer over my death, she would never forgive me—and I would never expect it from her.
The phone stopped ringing, and the voicemail chimed, letting me know she’d left a message. I held out my hand to Jared, but he shook his head.
“Do you real y want to hear the worry in her voice? You feel bad enough.”
I covered my face with my hand and shook my head. “This is awful, Jared. This is so wrong.”
Jared leaned over and kissed my temple. “I’m so sorry, Nina. I’m so, so sorry.”
I looked over at him and could see he was just as upset as I. If he could find another way he would, but once someone knew about our life there was no going back. I didn’t want that for Beth, either.
We continued south, and by daybreak reached Maryland. The morning sun glistened on a sign that read Eden Pop.793. Trees lined the median on one side of the road; railroad tracks on the other. Other than a few bil boards and a patch of land used for tractor sales, I couldn’t see much of Eden.