Author Amanda Washington

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Sneak Peek
LIBERTY'S HOPE
CHAPTER ONE

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”  —Martin Luther King, Jr. 

Liberty

THE INTENSE JULY sun beat down on my head as I sat in the middle of Highway 530, contemplating the stretch of road before me. It wound and curved, clinging to the side of the Skagit River, with only a narrow line of trees separating it from the water. A thriving forest grew on the opposite side of the road, with evergreen trees so lush and thick I could barely see past the first row. Green foliage blanketed the forest floor, concealing all sorts of ankle-twisting and bruise-producing hazards. I knew those hazards firsthand, and had the beaten and battered body to prove it.

I leaned forward and slid a map of Washington state out of my back pocket. Unfolding the map, I traced a line, starting at Mount Baker National Forest and going west to my approximate location. Highway 20 was maybe five miles to the north of where I sat. If I followed that road to the east, then Highway 9 North would almost take me to Canada. My map showed me just a smidgeon of southwestern Canada, so I’d have to filch a Canadian map once I hit the border. From there I’d travel to Kamloops, the last known location of my best friend, Michelle.

I had believed life would be different in Canada. I’d clung to unfounded hope the roads wouldn’t be deserted and the kids wouldn’t be trying to kill us. I could stay with Michelle’s family while I searched for a job. Then I’d find a cute little apartment, rescue another dog from the pound and rebuild my life. At least, that had been the plan.

It had seemed like such a simple and realistic plan, too, but now there were complications. One such complication appeared while I traced Highway 9 with my fingertip. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched him step out of the forest and slink toward me. When his boots reached the road I slid my Smith and Wesson Sigma free from its holster and aimed it above his head.

“Good,” Connor Dunstan said with an infuriatingly handsome lopsided grin. His perfect, stubborn jaw was two days past a five o’clock shadow which managed to increase the mystery in his intense dark eyes. His solid athletic build—accustomed to running long distances and breaking down doors to save the day—was hidden under fatigues. He moved with the grace and confidence of a trained killer, because that’s exactly what he was. “But I could have shot you from the trees.”

I shrugged, knowing no amount of caution could prevent the inevitable bullet with my name on it once it came for me. “Death, I can handle.” I holstered my gun, and then smiled at him.

His grin turned to a grimace as he eased closer. In the month that we had known each other, we’d been hunted, captured, and tortured, barely escaping with our lives. We both knew there were fates much worse than death, and since he wore ‘overprotective alpha-male’ like a badge of honor, he quickly changed the subject.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

I didn’t think he could see the map from his angle, so I folded it and slid it under my leg. “Just thinking.”

“I see.” Connor sounded apprehensive. He walked over and offered me his hand, as if to heft me to my feet.

I didn’t want him to know I’d been studying the map, so I shook my head. “I’m good. Just want to sit a bit. Legs are tired. Where’s Ashley?” I asked, in my own pathetic attempt at a subject change.

Ashley filled the role of the other complication keeping me from my Canadian destination. Connor’s beautiful daughter shared his dark, fathomless eyes and his brunette hair, and I loved her like she was my own. I couldn’t leave the girl any more than I could leave her overbearing, tenacious father. Feeling his eyes boring into my skull, I tugged on one of my shoestrings, and then retied it.

“She’s with Jeff,” he finally replied. “She found out that he’s some sort of karate expert and pestered him until he agreed to show her the beginner moves.”

“You’re okay with that?”

“Not really.” Connor shrugged. “But I trust the camp security to keep her safe.”

“Connor, I know Jeff’s made mistakes, but he’s not the bad guy you keep making him out to be. Yeah, he’s got some baggage, but he’s trying to cut free of it.”

“Libby, his dad and sister both want you dead.”

“But Jeff’s not like them. Once you get to know him, he’s pretty sweet and adorable.”

Connor cocked his head to the side, and a vein started throbbing in his forehead. “Must you refer to him as adorable?”

“Aww, you’re jealous? Although, I’m not sure why. I’m twenty-eight, Connor. Adorable isn’t exactly a quality I’m looking for in a man.”

Connor sat on the road in front of me, mirroring my crossed leg position. Our knees touched and he leaned his upper body toward mine.

“So, tell me, what qualities are you looking for in a man?”

Taken aback by his flirtatious tone, my mouth snapped shut. I wanted to fire back some sort of witty retort, but the musky scent of metal, earth, and man that made up Connor invaded my senses, making it impossible to think. His presence invaded my personal space, and, although terrified of his proximity, I didn’t hate it. Refusing to lean back and show him how uncomfortable he’d made me, I squared my shoulders and raised an eyebrow at him, trying to look contemplative.

Connor grinned and asked, “Are you getting a sunburn or blushing? I can’t tell.”

I gripped the bottom hem of my jeans, in order to keep myself from hiding my face from his gaze, and shrugged nonchalantly. “It’s sunny, I’m a redhead … you’re smart. You’ll figure it out. Is there something I can help you with?”

“Just surprised you’re out here sitting alone in the sun.” He seemed to consider me for a moment. Then he held out his closed fist in the space between us, opened it, and presented me with a beat-up, dirty penny. “A penny for your thoughts?”

I smiled in spite of myself and closed his fingers back around the coin, trying to ignore the way my heart sped up at the contact with his skin. It felt a lot like playing with fire:  exciting and warm, but I knew it would burn me if I got too close.

“You might want to keep that,” I said. “Probably don’t want to know what I’m thinking about.”

“The funny thing is—,” he returned my smile, grabbed my hands, pulled me into him, and then reached under my leg and swiped my map, “I already know.”

“Hey!” I yelled, pushing myself back from his chest. “Give me that back!”

Holding the map out of my reach, he unfolded it and looked it over. “You’re still planning that trip to Canada, huh? Were you intending to tell me about it, or would I have had to follow you?” Seemingly satisfied with himself, he refolded the map and offered it to me.

I grabbed for it, but he only tightened his grip. Annoyed, I glared up at him. His dark pupils were like tar pits, and I knew that if I stared into them too long I’d be stuck for good. Like my own personal groupie, he promised to give up his life and follow me to Canada. My stomach flipped over the idea, terrifying and exciting me. Finally, he released the map, and I took it and secured it back under my leg, like I could make believe he hadn’t called me out on it.

“That sounds pretty stalkerish,” I countered, hoping I sounded more put-off than I felt. “I heard you had finesse and skills with the ladies. Following me wherever I go? That’s kinda creeper territory, there. Whatever happened to the wine and dine approach?”

“Oh, my mistake. I didn’t peg you for one of those girls. Want to be wined and dined?” he asked. The smile that stretched across his lips looked so delicious it sent goose bumps up my spine. “I’m on it. In fact, that’s the very reason I came to find you.”

Oops. “It is?” My voice cracked and I coughed to cover it up.

Connor’s smile widened. “Yep. Come now, the limo will be here momentarily.” He grabbed my hand and stood, pulling me up with him.

I barely had time to grab the map off the road before being hefted to my feet. I stuffed it back into my pocket and eyed him suspiciously. “A limo, huh? And exactly where will it be taking us?”

“Seattle. Close your eyes so you can see it with me.”

I hesitated and his fingertips landed on my eyelids, gently lowering until they closed.

“Better. Now imagine the Space Needle. The limo will pull up to the curb and the driver will open your door. You’ll be wearing something stunning, yet classy. Maybe a dark green dress to bring out your eyes. Thin straps, fitted waist, long layered skirt. Something from Valentino or Dolce and Gabbana.”

“I had no idea you were so into fashion.”

“What can I say? I’m a man of many talents.” He tugged at the pony tail holder securing my braid and gently ran his fingers through my hair, separating it.

I chewed on my lip as electricity shot through me at his touch.

“You’ll wear your hair down, leaving it curly. I’ll meet you on the curb in front of the Space Needle and take your hand in the crook of my elbow. We’ll make our way to the famous spinning restaurant, where we’ll be seated immediately and our server will pop the cork on a hearty red wine … something from the chef’s private cellar. Then they’ll bring us baby spinach and raspberry salads, followed by crab cakes. For the main course, we’ll get lightly seared ahi tuna and tenderloin so tender it will fall apart the moment it touches our tongues.”

I tried to avoid getting swept away in Connor’s imagery, even reminding myself that Connor “playboy” Dunstan had once been labeled as ‘Washington’s Most Eligible Bachelor.’ Still, I couldn’t resist his charm. I wanted to go where he was taking me, to escape reality and just dream about what our lives could be like if the world hadn’t changed. I clung to the fantasy until my mouth watered and my stomach rumbled. He put his hand on the small of my back and leaned closer to me, drawing me further in.

“We’ll hold hands and watch the lights of the city spin around us, enjoying the company as well as the view for hours. Next, we’ll exit the Space Needle and walk the few blocks over—”

“Walk?” I interrupted. “After that huge meal, you may have to roll me down the street.”

He ignored me and continued, “To this little Italian dive that serves the best gelato in the U.S.”

“Gelato?” I asked, opening my eyes. “Do you have any idea what I would do for gelato right now?”

Connor leaned closer and gave me a butterfly-inducing grin. “No. Do tell.”

Little bells and whistles went off in my brain, screaming at me that he’d crept too close with eyes too hungry. I leaned back and looked around, saying, “Yeah, so where’s that limo? Shouldn’t it be here by now?”

Connor laughed.

In truth, no limo would be coming for us. There were no more fancy restaurants or little Italian dives. The last time Seattle graced my television screen, the city was on fire, its ashes packed with rioters. I didn’t even know if the Space Needle still stood. The country had changed in the blink of an eye, and we’d probably never get it back.

“Okay, you called my bluff.” Connor grabbed my hand and tugged me off the road. “But they are cooking up the last of the venison. We should probably get back there if we want any of it.”

“Mmm, venison,” I replied, letting him tow me toward the camp. It wasn’t exactly crab cakes and tenderloin, but to be honest, I wasn’t that picky.

We walked for a bit, and then Connor paused and squeezed my hand. He whistled our approach and another bird call answered. He gave me one of his arrogant half-smiles that made me want to punch and kiss him at the same time. “Admit it. I had you. If I could wine and dine you like that, you’d be putty in my hands. You almost kissed me back there.”

I rolled my eyes and tugged my hand away from him. Just like the date he’d just created, Connor’s affections for me drifted somewhere beyond reality. He swore he loved me, but I feared he only loved the chase. Like a dog after its tail, he’d have no idea what to do with me if he ever caught me.

“Connor, if I had a bottle of wine right now, I’d dump it on your head.” I turned and stomped off.

“What if I rubbed gelato on my lips?" he asked.


Liberty's Hope
Perseverance Book 2
Available Now through Amazon or Barnes and Noble.



 
 
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