The leaves felt cold against my feet as I ran through the dense forest, trying to avoid tree branches that had fallen. I could feel the scratches on my half naked body, the sting of them reminding me that I was still alive.
I was alive.
My heart was pounding outside my chest, the sound was so loud I was sure he could hear it. He would find me and haul me back to him, finishing what he started.
"Cara, you fucking bitch!" I heard my once loving boyfriend yell into the forest.
It wasn't always like this. He loved me once, I was sure of it. But now, I was running for my life in the middle of nowhere in northern Minnesota. Nobody would hear me scream as he killed me, a promise he made in our cabin not more than an hour ago.
I continued to run, not looking back. I knew there had to be a cabin at least a mile or so from ours, but I didn't know where or in what direction.
"Cara!" He yelled again. It sent chills down my spine, the sound of his voice so full of hatred and disgust made my insides turn.
When did this all happen, and how the hell did I get here? One minute he's telling me how beautiful I was and the next he's beating me into oblivion. I was in and out of hospitals for broken bones, fractured fingers, concussions, all sorts of things. But I stayed and I don't know why.
But this time, he grabbed one of our kitchen knives, promising to put an end to his misery and mine. He grabbed at me and started cutting off my clothes, piece by piece. The knife slicing apart not only my clothes but the rest of my sanity as well. I grabbed the closest object next to me and hit him over the head, knocking him down and then I was running.
I could see smoke billowing out of a building and I ran in that direction, the crunch of the leaves kept me moving. I could see the cabin in the distance and I sprinted towards it, my breathing was labored, my body weak.
I ran up onto the front porch of this house and began pounding on the door.
"Help!" I screamed as I looked over my shoulder. I could see a tall shadow standing in the distance and I knew it was him. Ryan Young, the man of my dreams, and the demon in my nightmares.
The door swung open at my consistent pounding, a frail old woman stood at the door. She had a confused look on her face until she took me in, my body bleeding, my feet dirty, and my tear stained cheeks.
"Please help me." I whimpered as I fell into her. "Please."
My heart pounded in my chest as my feet hit the concrete. The sounds of Ella Vos were playing through my ear buds as I pushed myself to finish my three mile run. I could feel the sweat bead on my chest and trail down into my cleavage. My auburn hair swayed in the wind while I ran down the street at a steady pace.
It's hot in Los Angeles. The dry heat is far different than the humid summers in Minnesota, but I love it. Moving away from my home state was the only way I would feel remotely safe from him.
When I reached my three miles I slowed down to a stop outside of the building that housed The Harmony Project, the place where I spent the first six months after I escaped.
Rita, the woman who opened the door for me over a year ago fed me, clothed me, and then sent me there. She promised that it was a good place and that she had been there before at one point in her life. I took her word for it and was on a plane the next day heading for Los Angeles.
Rita and I kept in touch. Periodically, she would call me to catch up and to see how I was doing. She became a huge part of my life, and I was eternally grateful to her for what she did for me.
I bent over, resting my hands on my knees, trying to catch my breath. I kept my eyes trained on my black Nikes. I heard the distant ring of a bike as I stood up. I turned to look and saw a man on the bicycle coming towards me. Before he could crash in to me, I was abruptly pulled out of his way. A pair of strong hands came around my waist and pulled me hard. I watched as he sped by me and flipped me the bird.
I pulled out of the grip and whipped around to see the most stunning face I had ever seen. He was towering over me, standing well over six feet. The scent that came from him smelled like mint and body wash. Clean and fresh.
His jet black hair was tousled up in a sexy kind of way, the long locks hanging just barely above his eyebrows. His high cheek bones were met with a sharp jaw line and a heart-shaped face. I half expected to see blue eyes, common in Los Angeles. But I was surprised to meet eyes the color of emeralds, bright and intense. It was like the world fell away and I could only see him, the bustle of Los Angeles traffic that was whizzing by us was no longer there, the smells of hot dog stands and car exhaust was no longer present. I was overwhelmed by him, his sight and smell.
He was dressed in a suit that most likely costed more than what I made in a year, gold cufflinks adorned his wrists. His white dress shirt was open at the top, showing just a bit of chest hair that resembled the color of the hair on top of his head. His suit was tailored to him perfectly, accentuating his broad shoulders and narrow waist. I could feel the need to run the pads of my fingers through his chest hair bubble up and reside in my arms. My body begged to touch him.
The need to be closer to him overwhelmed me, but I knew danger when I see it, and he was dangerous. His powerful stance and curious gaze had my body playing tricks on my mind. I could feel the fire on my bare skin where he had grabbed me. The tingling took over my entire body.
"I'm sorry." I mumbled as I pulled the ear buds out. "Thanks, for uh, catching me."
He continued to stare at me, his gaze intense and overwhelming. I gave him a slight nod and was about to put my earbuds in when he spoke.
"It's okay." He said, his voice deep and smooth like rich chocolate. "You're welcome."
He continued to look at me, his gaze now turning darker in a sense. His eyes roamed over my curvy body. I suddenly felt self conscious, I immediately covered my bare midriff and gave him a tight smile. "Well, I have to be going." I pointed in the opposite direction and quickly stuck my ear buds in. I turned from the mysteriously hot man and began running in the opposite direction.
I couldn't stop thinking about the mysterious man as I rounded my apartment building and entered my three digit code into the keypad. When the door buzzed I walked into the building and then headed to my apartment that I shared with my best friend, Tara.
When I unlocked the door, I could smell the cookies Tara was baking. I inhaled deeply and took my shoes off. I threw them into the closet adjacent from the front door and walked down the hallway until I came to our open living room. "That smells awesome." I said as I entered the kitchen on the right.
Tara was dressed in a pair of shorts and a white tank top, her fire red hair piled on top of her head. She gave me a sweet smile as she pulled the cookies out of the oven.
"You're just in time." She set the pan on a cooling rack and then set the oven mitt on the counter. "How was your run?" She asked as she started to clean up her mess.
"Eventful." I said as I took a seat at our dining room table. The high table and chairs were perfect for Tara, her long legs allowing her to sit easily. I had to practically jump to get onto the chairs.
"What do you mean?" She gave me a puzzled look as she turned off the faucet and dried her hands on the hand towel that was hanging on our oven.
I told her the story of what happened, down to every detail. How intense this man was and how he made me feel.
"So he was like, outrageously hot?" She asked.
"That was all you got from my story?" I laughed as I nudged her shoulder. "But yeah, like crazy hot. Like, I had never knew there was men out there that looked like him."
"So?" She said as she raised her hands. "Did you get his number?"
"No." Tara smacked her lips at my admission. "I didn't even get his name. I was too nervous to barely say a word."
"What the shit Cara." She gazed into my brown eyes as she flung her arms in the air. "What's the point of meeting a hot guy if you can't at least get his phone number."
"You know why I couldn't." I said simply as I met her fierce gaze.
Tara knows more than anyone, she was at Safe Guard when I got there. After surviving her fathers beatings as a child, she got into a relationship with a man who brought her to the brink of death, just like me. We connected on a spiritual level, our minds alike. But, she coped a lot better and faster than I did. She said it was due to her Irish background, but I just wasn't sure. She was a fiery red head, so I didn't put it past her.
"Oh sweetie." She walked towards me and enveloped me into a hug. It felt comfortable being in her embrace, like I was back home and my mom was hugging me. "He can't hurt you anymore." She pulled away from me and gripped my shoulders. "Don't miss out on something because you're afraid he will be like that bastard."
"I know you're right, I just haven't gotten there yet." I slumped at my admission. The thought of spending my life alone was terrifying, but the thought of spending my life with someone like Ryan was unbearable, and I'd rather die alone then to ever face something like that again.
"You will, eventually." She smiled at me, showing a set of perfect teeth. "Here." She walked back to the cooling rack and grabbed a chocolate chip cookie off the pan. "Eat this, it will make you feel better."
I laughed as I took the cookie from her hand and put it in my mouth. Soft and rich, the chocolate melted on my tongue and reminded me of the mystery man I had just met.
I walked into the building that housed The Harmony Project, leaving the sounds of Los Angeles behind me.
The scent of lavender filled my nose and caressed my senses. It was soothing and familiar. The walls were painted a light gray color, soft piano music played in the background. I remember feeling safe when I first entered the building, the fears of Ryan finding me were gone.
Sitting in the large desk in front of me was Georgina, her gray hair framed her delicate features. She peered up from her computer and gave me a huge smile.
"Cara." She beamed as she stood up and rounded the desk. She brought me into a warm embrace. I wrapped my arms around her curvy frame and squeezed as hard as I could. "To what do I owe the pleasure of seeing you?"
"I got a call from Alan. He said he wanted to see me. Something about me speaking at a fundraiser?" I shrugged my shoulders.
It took a lot of courage and a pep talk from Tara to come down here and meet with Alan Walker. The thought of getting up on stage and speaking in front of thousands of people about my experience and how The Harmony Project helped save me was scary to say the least. I had a hard time talking about it with Tara, I couldn't imagine talking about it in front of strangers.
But she continued to tell me how great of an opportunity this was for me, and how it might help me cope better if I just talked about it. I reluctantly agreed and then called Alan back, confirming our appointment at two-thirty.
"Ah, yes." She said as she made her way back to her desk. She took a seat and clicked a few things on her computer. "Our annual event. Well, I'm glad that Mr. Adams, our chairman, decided on you this year. I think you'll be great." Her eyes crinkled when she smiled at me.
Just as I was about to take a seat, Alan stepped out of the door on the right of Georgina's desk. "Cara Winters." He said as he looked at me, his eyes full of happiness at my presence. I gave him a charitable smile and walked towards him.
Alan Walker was a kind and gentle man. His soft features and warm eyes made him easy to trust and easy to like. He wasn't big by any means, he was extremely short and skinny. His clothes always looked to be two sizes too big. We grew to be what I would have considered friends. He continued to check up on me even when I exited The Harmony House, a woman's shelter I stayed at for a brief time when I was trying to get on my feet.
Alan lead me down a long hallway. "We're meeting with the chairman of the board, Gabriel Adams. Have you heard of him?" He asked as he peered at me over his shoulder.
I shook my head no, however the last name is familiar. "It never really came up."
"He's a huge donor, giving us well over twenty million a year. He's the reason we are able to do everything. He's the reason you were able to stay at The Harmony House. He funded it."
"That's very nice of him." I said quietly as we came to a stop in front of a large wooden door.
"It is. He's waiting inside for us, don't be afraid." Alan said as he took in my cautious stance. "Mr. Adams is a very nice man, albeit a little intense, but overall he's a good guy."
Alan opened the door and I was met with a pair of intense emerald eyes. Fuck. Me.
The man from the other day was seated in a plush chair at the head of an enormously large table. He was wearing a gray suit, silver cufflinks sparkled in the bright lights of the meeting room. No one else was in there besides him, but it felt crowded. His presence took up the entire room.
I felt like I was diving into the shark tank, me being the main meal.
His eyes followed me as I walked in and took a seat on his right side. Being so close to him was overwhelming. I shifted uncomfortably in my seat, the closeness of him sent shivers down my spine.
"Cara Winters." My name rolled off of his tongue in such an elegant way that I was about to combust in my seat. "My name is Gabriel Adams. I'm the chairman of the donations board for The Harmony Project." He sat back in his seat, his eyes stayed glued to me. I envied his relaxed state, I wanted to feel at ease too. Yet I was sitting there, my stomach in knots. "I have read your file and I think you'd be a great candidate to speak at our upcoming fundraiser in two months."
He read my file.
Everything I've been keeping tucked away, he knew. I hadn't even told my best friend everything yet, and this strange man knew it all.
I could feel shame creep up my body and reside in my cheeks, something I had grown accustomed to.
"I don't know if I can." I murmured. I fidgeted with my hands in my lap. I was trying to distract myself from looking at him. The last thing I wanted to see was pity on a beautiful mans face.
"I think you can." He said, the confidence in his voice was unexpected. I peeked up at him through my eyelashes. He was looking at me in a way I had never seen before. It looked like, admiration. "Like I said, I've read your file and it is remarkable how strong you were through the process here at The Harmony Project and how you persevered even after everything you went through. I think your story would resonate with a lot of people." He believed in me.
"Really?" I questioned out loud.
"Yes." He said with conviction.
"Okay." I replied softly. I thought back to Tara and how proud she'd be of me. She was the reason I came down there in the first place. If I turned it down, she'd be disappointed in me. It's only one speech. "I'll do it."
Alan stood by the door, he had a heartfelt smile across his face. "I have no doubt you'll do fantastic, Cara."
I gave him a genuine smile and turned my gaze back to the man sitting before me. He was relaxed, his eyes studied me once more.
"I'd like to have a word with Ms. Winters alone, if possible Alan." Gabriel said without taking his eyes off me.
Alan looked from me to Gabriel and I gave him a slight nod, telling him it was okay to step out. As the door closed behind him, Gabriel sat up in his chair, his entire focus was on me.
"I was hoping I'd see you again." He said, his voice was raspy.
I couldn't look away from him. It was like he had me trapped in my seat, his gaze held me hostage.
His eyes darted to my lips as I ran my tongue over them. "Is that why you choose me?" I replied.
"Not entirely." He responded.
"Promise?" I asked without thinking.
Why was I asking him to promise me something? He didn't owe me anything. Besides, whether that was the only reason or not, I was doing something good for myself. Maybe this really will help me cope.
"I promise." He said without hesitation. "I was wondering if I could take you to dinner sometime soon. Like tonight." He was straightforward, no games. "I'd really like to get to know you better."
"You've read my file." I said in a hushed dismissive tone.
He saw what was in my file, why would he want to get to know a girl who was broken and damaged.
"But that's not you." He replied thoughtfully. He furrowed his eyebrows and shook his head. "You're so much more than what's on a piece of paper."
But I wasn't. My entire life was laid out on that piece of paper and Ryan took whatever else I had and destroyed it. All of my friends, my adoptive parents, my college career, all of it was gone. He left me nothing, not even my sanity.
"I don't think that's going to be such a good idea, Mr. Adams."
He sat back in his chair and regarded me with cool eyes. "I'm sure you're right, Ms. Winters." He gave a tired sigh. "But, I'm a stubborn man, and I don't like when I hear the word 'no'."
That didn't surprise me. Gabriel Adams looked like the kind of man who took what he wanted when he wanted and he was ruthless while doing it. That's why I couldn't take him up on his offer, even though the thought of going to dinner with him was tempting, I had to keep myself safe.
"I'm really not that surprised." I replied. "And that's why I have to say no, Mr. Adams. You've read my file, so you know what I've been through and I just can't handle someone like you, not right now."
The laughter that came from Gabriel shocked me to the point it nearly made me fall out of my seat. Was that smug bastard laughing at me? Did he find this funny?
Anger coursed through my veins as he continued to laugh, his head tilted back. If he weren't so damn beautiful, I'd slap him right across his face for being disrespectful.
"Is something funny to you?" I demanded.
"You've made assumptions about me, Ms. Winters. Some that don't come as a surprise, but some that are just downright ridiculous." He smiled. "I may be demanding, but it gets the job done. I don't demand much from my lovers, just that they are as respectful to me as I am to them." Lover? "I am well aware of what you've been through, but that doesn't change anything for me. You are different than most other women I've come across and I can't quite put my finger what that is. If you can't 'handle' me right now, so be it. I won't pressure you into something you're obviously uncomfortable with." Gabriel reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a small card and set it in front of me. Written in neat handwriting was his name and personal cell phone number. "But, if you do ever want to take me up on my offer, here's my number. If you ever need anything, and I do mean anything don't hesitate to call me." Gabriel stood from his chair and gave me one last perfect smile. "I'm looking forward to hearing from you, eventually."
I couldn't move. I was glued to my seat as I watched him gracefully walk out of the meeting room. I couldn't believe what had just happened and how it made me feel. Anger would have been a normal feeling after something like that, but attraction? Lust? What the fuck is wrong with me?
Alan came back into the meeting room. "What the hell was that?"
I was asking myself the same damn question.
"I have no idea." I said bewildered.
Once I finally was able to gather my thoughts, I grabbed the card Gabriel left in front of me and stuffed it in my purse. Just in case.
I strolled over to Alan and he engulfed me into a hug. "I'm so happy for you Cara." He said into my hair. "You really do deserve this. You've worked so hard."
I nodded into his shoulder and then pulled away from him. "Thank you Alan, that means a lot to me."
After we said our goodbyes, I walked out of the meeting room and towards the exit. I felt Gabriel's card burning a hole through my purse, begging me to take it out and call him. I ignored the feeling, I needed to get my best friend's advice first.
Tara held the card in her hands as if it were a fragile piece of china afraid it would break if she held on too hard. "You got his number?"
"Well, I didn't ask for it." I sighed as I plopped down onto the couch. "He just gave it to me and told me to call him."
The thought of actually calling Gabriel was terrifying. I wouldn't know what to do or say, besides I'd go back on my word and I would look easy. I couldn't portray that to him. I learned not to show my vulnerabilities, and a man like Gabriel would harness them and use them to his advantage, just like Ryan.
"Cara." She said as she moved to sit by me. "He likes you."
"I know." I gave a tired sigh. "But you've never met him before, T. He is so intense and domineering it makes me nervous."
"But, you want to call him." She stated. It wasn't a question, she already knew. If I didn't, I would have just thrown the number away at The Harmony Project.
"Yes!" I howled.
"Then do it." She handed me back the card, determined.
"No. I wouldn't know what to say." I shoved the card back at her. "Besides, I'm not comfortable enough to talk to him on the phone. I'd probably sound like an idiot."
"Just do it." Tara grabbed my phone from its place on the table and dialed in Gabriel's number. I jumped up from my seat and tried to grab my phone from her before she pressed the send button. She ran from me and put the phone on speaker. As soon as I heard Gabriel's voice on the other end, she threw the phone at me. "Talk." She mouthed.
"Hello?" I squeaked as I glared at my best friend.
"Cara." Gabriel said, his voice smooth and rich. I took the phone off speaker and put the phone up to my ear. "I'm glad you called." I could tell he was smiling on the other end. Part of me wanted to slap the smile off of his smug face, the other wanted to be in front of him so I could witness the beautifully rare smile of his.
"Uh, yeah." I giggled nervously. I peered over at Tara, the anxiety creeped up my body. I started to panic. "I don't know what to say." I said as I placed my hand over the receiver.
"Tell him you want to go out for dinner sometime." She mouthed to me.
"I'd like to take you up on your offer." I stuttered.
"That sounds good." He replied. He sounded satisfied and I couldn't tell how that made me feel. "What about tonight?"
"Tonight?" I squeaked. My eyes shot to my best friend, she was shaking her head up and down. "Okay."
"Great. I'll be there in around seven-thirty." I peered over at the clock that was mounted above our kitchen sink. It was only three. That gave me time to prepare myself both mentally and physically.
"Okay. Do you need my address?" I asked.
"That won't be necessary. It's in your file, remember?"
"Oh. Yeah." I had forgot that my current address was on file as well as various other details about me. It was protocol, and even though I didn't want to share that information, it made sense.
"So, I'll see you then." Gabriel said. "Oh and Cara? Don't worry too much, okay? I'm not as bad as you think." Then the line went dead.
The butterflies in my stomach increased ten-fold as I set my phone on the kitchen table. Tara was close behind me, her eager ears were waiting for me to tell her all the details.
I ran through everything he said, her eyes going wide at the last thing he said to me. "Wow. Super jealous." She replied as she fanned herself. "But now, you have to get ready, and I'm going to dress you." Tara said as she clapped her petite hands together. "Come on." She grabbed my arm and pulled me into her room.
I was going to go on a date with a man who could potentially resurrect me or burn me to the ground. I didn't know which one it was going to be, but I was hoping for the former rather than the later.