Aaron Stryder groaned as he looked over at the clock on his bedside table. It was far past midnight, but too early to start the day. He sat up in bed and saw that his wife was missing from the other side. It wasn’t unusual; sometimes she was gone days at a time without a word.
He left the bedroom and made his way down the stairs and into the kitchen. He got a drink of water and was about to return to his slumber when he heard voices – those of his wife and her brothers. He decided to stay in the kitchen and listen in.
“I don’t care what father wanted, he’s dead,” Aaron heard Mary say.
Another voice chimed in, though he couldn’t distinguish which one of her brothers it was. “I just don’t feel right about this. We’ve taken advantage of the situation for too long as it is.”
Aaron furrowed his brow. He hadn’t been around when their parents had died, but he had been told the basic details. So, it confused him that they talked about taking advantage of something. What could their father have wanted that they hadn’t fulfilled?
“Look,” Mary’s voice came again, “The older dad became, the softer he was. He wanted out of this lifestyle, but I don’t think it was right for him to make that decision for us. It’s not fair that he wanted Sara to have everything – it should have been divided equally.”
He blinked and pinched himself. Surely he must be hearing things. Was this a dream? Had his father-in-law left everything to Sara – the youngest sibling, but they had gone against his wishes? The very house he was living in rightfully belonged to Sara, the money they lived on, yet she was none the wiser. Although he was shocked, he knew that it was typical behavior of the family. Sara was the only one who was worth a damn. No wonder his father-in-law had left everything to her.
Aaron coughed so that his presence would be known. He could have tried to go quietly back upstairs, but if he got caught, it would have been obvious that he’d been eavesdropping. He thought this way was better – they might believe him.
He heard footsteps, the French doors of the living room opening, and his wife coming out to meet him.
Mary stared at him before asking quietly, “What are you doing out of bed?”
“I was thirsty.” He held up his empty water glass to prove his claim. “Your brothers are here kind of late, aren’t they?”
“You know I don’t sleep well. I wanted to get a head-start on a business deal.” She eyed him warily before speaking again. “I hope we didn’t wake you.”
“No, I got up on my own.” He didn’t know if she believed him, but there was nothing he could do about it if she didn’t. “Are you going to join me?”
He nodded, put his glass into the sink and wandered back up the stairs. He hoped that he had been convincing. He didn’t know what they would do to him if they knew that he’d overheard their conversation, but it wouldn’t be pretty.
Aaron now had to grapple with the decision of whether or not to tell Sara the truth about her inheritance. If he didn’t, that would make him just as bad as her siblings. But if he did, he was concerned that he would be putting them both in further danger.
“You know those movies where the husband always tells his lover that he’s going to leave his wife, but he never does?” Sara Doyle twirled her brown hair between her fingers. Her eyes – the color of milk chocolate – were narrowed in his direction.
Aaron raised an eyebrow. Though he looked clueless, he had an idea about where this was going. “Yes.”
“Are you going to be one of those husbands?”
He had lost count of how many times she had asked this question, and in how many different ways. He didn’t know how he was supposed to make her believe him. “There are only so many ways I can reassure you, Sara. Yes, I’m going to leave Mary. Yes, I’m going to run away with you. Yes, we are going to spend the rest of our lives together.”
She eyed him wearily before getting up from her seat and climbing on top of him. “How can I know if you’re having second thoughts? I mean, you have a good life with her. I wouldn’t blame you if you decided to stay. You have money and security.”
This was becoming a daily ritual with her. He was frustrated, but he knew that he would have to indulge her. She was insecure, but not without good reason. “I don’t have a good life with her. Money and security mean nothing to me. I’m not happy.”
“But, you are with me? Happy, I mean.”
“Yes, Sara. With you, I’m happy. Which is why I’m going to leave Mary, which is why I’m going to run away with you, which is why we’re going to spend the rest of our lives together. Can we stop having this discussion, please?”
She smiled softly, and her cheeks turned a soft pink color as she wrapped her arms around his neck. “I’m sorry. I just can’t believe this is really happening. I need to be sure that we’re going to do this because if we’re not, I’m going to have to teach myself how to live without you.”
“Well, we’re going to do this,” he said before kissing her softly. “So, stop worrying.” He felt guilty for snapping at her, but he had a lot on his mind. He wished that he could tell her, but she looked so happy. Now wasn’t the right time.
She rolled off him and sat on her knees. Her age showed in her happiness; she looked like a child in possession of its favorite toy. “All right. Let’s run through it one more time.”
It wasn’t an intricate plan. It was simpler than something like this should have been. It would be the start of their new lives, so it meant everything to them, but they didn’t have many options. “I’m going to talk to her today. I’m going to pack whatever I need and tell her that I’m leaving. Then I’ll pick you up, and we’ll fly off into the sunset.” Putting his arm around her shoulder, he smiled as he adjusted his position on the couch. “We will spend the rest of our days in deep contentment, until we have children, of course. Then we’ll probably bicker until we die of old age. Nonetheless, we’ll die in each other’s arms.”
“Mmm.” She closed her eyes for a moment as she rested her head on his chest. She could picture their life together in her mind. It would be a good life, a much better one than they had now. “It sounds perfect.”
They would be leaving everything behind. She wouldn’t get any of her family’s money, and he would be without even a dime in his pocket. But they would be fine. They were going to do whatever they had to in order to be together.
“It will be, and I’m going to prove that to you tonight.”
Sara sighed softly as she paced the floor of her room. This whole situation was messed up. She shouldn’t have fallen in love with Aaron, she knew that. In this family, once you were married, you were expected to stay that way. Affairs were not allowed. Bad things would happen if you were unfaithful. The sin was punishable by death.
She couldn’t contain her nerves as her older sister, Mary, walked into the room. Trying to appear normal, Sara pulled out supplies from the refrigerator to make dinner.
Mary sat down on one of the stools near the counter. “How’s my baby sister?”
She needed to get a hold of herself. Mary was bound to figure out what was going on with the way she was acting. “I’m a little tired.”
“And shaky, I see. Are you coming down with something?”
“Probably the flu.” This had to be the most awkward she’d felt around her sister in a long time. Sure, they had had awkward conversations before, but today was different.
“Can I get your opinion on something, Sara?”
Great, now she’s asking for advice. How was she supposed to carry on a normal conversation with her? “I guess so.”
“If someone close to you was keeping a secret…what would you do? I mean, how would you react?”
Sara blinked. This was it, wasn’t it? Her heart was beating faster than anyone’s heart should beat. “I…well, I guess it depends on the type of situation.”
Mary took a deep breath and folded her arms on the counter top. “I’ve been cheating on Aaron.”
It was a sad thing to take joy in, but Sara was relieved to hear this news. If Mary wasn’t fully happy in her marriage, and she was cheating on him, then she couldn’t blame Aaron for seeking attention elsewhere. “You…have been?”
“For years now. But don’t tell him. I don’t want him to know. Not yet, anyway.”
Sara thought that Mary’s turquoise gaze should have appeared melancholy. Her raven black hair seemed out of place, which was unusual, so she must have been stressed. Yet, strangely, she looked at ease.
This was not an uncommon thing in their family. She, Mary, and their three brothers, Shane, Jake, and Warren, had been close ever since their parents had died. They had been left with more money than they could ever hope to spend in their lifetimes. Mary had become the head of the family, and their brothers followed her without question.
Sara had distanced herself from them as much as she could over the years, but they were still her family. She had no reason to be weary of them until now. After all, they had taken her in when she had left her abusive boyfriend. They loved her.
But falling in love with Mary’s husband was something they might not forgive. Mary had been known to become quite possessive and overreact, and their brothers did her bidding. If she wanted Aaron dead, they would make it happen.
“So…” Sara paused to gather her thoughts. “What do you plan to do?”
“I have no idea. I mean, I’m not going to divorce him. The poor guy would probably kill himself.”
Sara wanted to laugh, but she didn’t dare. Her sister was so vain. How could Mary not see how miserable she had made her husband? It was obvious in the way he stood, in the way he spoke. Had she paid any attention to him since their wedding day? Did she even care about him? “Then you don’t have a plan.”
“Well, no. Not exactly. I guess I’ll just keep it up for as long as I can. He’s always wanted kids. I guess I owe him that much.”
It took all her self-control not to reach across the counter and strangle her sister. Aaron had never loved Mary. He had only married her because their brothers had threatened to break his legs if he didn’t. Those were the kind of people they were; that was why Sara had tried to stay away from them as much as she could.
Mary had claimed to love Aaron, and soon after she had married him, she had gotten bored. It was unfathomable to Sara how her sister could trap someone like that and use them, but refuse to divorce them. Aaron was a prisoner in this household. “Mary, I really don’t think that’s a wise thing to do. I mean, what if you end up leaving him? Then the two of you would have a child to complicate things. It wouldn’t be fair.”
Mary nodded. “Yeah, you’re right. You’re always right. God, who taught you how to be so smart, hmm?”
She wanted to say, clearly, it wasn’t you, but she couldn’t. She had to contain her anger. It would only make things worse. “I wish I knew.”
“Well, I’ll see you later for dinner. Aaron wants to talk to me about something.” She gasped suddenly, looking horrified and excited at the same time. “Do you think he hired a private investigator? Maybe he already knows about my affairs!”
Mary left the kitchen bouncing on her heels, and Sara tried not to throw something at her as she went. It was sad that this was entertainment to Mary, but at least she was going to get what she deserved.
Her sister had it coming. Aaron had been forced into that marriage. He had never been happy with her, and clearly, she didn’t really love him. She just hoped that Mary would come to her senses and realize that. She wasn’t always reasonable.
It was a couple of hours later when Mary went into her bedroom and found Aaron waiting for her. She didn’t know where this was going to lead, but it didn’t look promising. He was wearing a solemn expression. She closed the door as he got to his feet. “What is this about, Aaron?”
Aaron didn’t know how to say this. He had no idea if she would be devastated or angry. The thing he was most worried about was that she would sick her dogs on him. He didn’t feel like being torn to shreds by her three brothers. “Mary…I’m leaving you.” All right, so he could have put it more subtly. But there were only so many ways to tell your crazy and self-centered wife that you wanted a divorce.
“What did you say?” Her gaze had narrowed, and her features had hardened. He was leaving her? No one left her. She was Mary Doyle. “You can’t be serious.”
Aaron had never understood his wife. She was a spoiled, selfish brat. Now he knew why he had been forced to marry her. No one wanted to marry her. She had known all along that he had felt nothing for her, yet here she was, acting like it was some sort of tragedy. “I’m leaving you. It shouldn’t come as a total shock. I never loved you. You know that.”
“You never complained before! You can’t just leave me like this!”
“I never complained because your brothers threatened to break every bone in my body.” He had tried to leave before. Now that he had a reason above all reasons, he wasn’t going to let anything, or anyone get in the way of his happiness. He had to think about Sara now too. “I’ll be gone by tonight…and I’ll be sending you divorce papers from my new house.”
She narrowed her gaze as her nostrils flared. He seemed to have grown a backbone. This was the most defiant she’d ever seen him. At first, she thought he had known about her affairs, but now she wondered if he was having his own. “There’s someone else, isn’t there?”
Aaron heaved a sigh. He didn’t want to admit it, but it wouldn’t have done any good to deny it. Mary had her ways of finding out the truth – she just wouldn’t hear it from his lips. “Goodbye.”
There was nothing left to say. If she was going to be childish about this, then she didn’t deserve an explanation. Feeling as though the weight of the world had been lifted off his shoulders, he rolled his suitcase out of the room and dragged it down the stairs.
Mary ran to the landing and screamed, “I’ll never sign those papers!”
Tears were running down her cheeks, but she wasn’t the least bit sad. They were tears of anger and humiliation. She wanted her husband to get what was coming to him. How dare he find happiness with anyone but her? If she couldn’t have him, no one could.
Aaron smiled as he got out of his car. He had pulled it into Sara’s garage. This was the house where they had frequent rendezvous. When they had first met, she’d been living with her family in their mansion. They had decided that a secret location would be best to carry out their affair, and eventually, she had made the place her home – or as she liked to call it – their home. It was sad that they had to leave it behind, but it was for the best. They were safer far away from her crazy family.
He hoped that she was already there. He wanted to avoid trouble, so they needed to flee as soon as possible.
He tugged his suitcase out of the trunk of his car and hummed quietly as he checked through everything a second time. He wanted to make sure that they were ready.
Hearing approaching footsteps, he turned to grin at his best friend, Rex Mason. He was the only person who knew about the secret house.
Rex was a little taller than Aaron and slightly odd looking. He had been born with two different colored eyes, and both were extremely bright. They almost glowed in the dark. One was blue, the other was green.
He was a good friend, and he had been supportive of everything Aaron had ever done, including running away with Sara. “You got away, huh?”
“Barely,” Aaron said with a chuckle. “I swear, I could feel the breath of the Grim Reaper on my neck.”
Rex nodded. “I’m really happy for you, Aaron. I hope this all works out.”
Aaron’s expression darkened. He knew that they weren’t in the clear yet. This was only the first step. They would be looking over their shoulders for the next few months, even the next few years. He just hoped to God that the Doyle’s would leave them alone. Sara was their sister, after all. They should want her to be happy. “Yeah, well…the sooner we leave, the safer we’ll be.”
“Call me when you get there, okay? I’ll probably give myself a heart attack with all the worrying I’ll be doing.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll call you as soon as we get off the plane. Just…be careful. If they do decide to come after me, they might rough you up to learn my whereabouts.”
“I won’t tell them anything. You have my word.”
He didn’t like the fact that his friend’s life might be in danger on his account. He hoped that the Doyle’s wouldn’t stoop that low, but he honestly didn’t know what they were capable of. “It isn’t your word I’m worried about. It’s you. They will kill anyone with Mary’s blessing. I don’t know what she’s going to do. Watch your back, okay?”
Rex nodded before leaving the garage.
Aaron was starting to calm down, but the silence was slightly disturbing. He didn’t like all the thoughts swirling in his mind. He needed some sort of noise to distract him.
He was relieved when Sara came trotting up to him. When she threw her arms around him, his negative thoughts evaporated. Being in her arms was worth everything. “Are you ready to go?” he asked.
She nodded before pulling away from him. “My bag is in the house, and there’s nothing inside to give away our new destination.”
“Good. Go get your bag, but take one last look around to make sure.”
“You got it.” Sara kissed him quickly and then hurried back inside.
Aaron went into the closet on the other side of the garage. He pulled out a lock box and turned the key to open it. The only thing inside was a loaded gun. Sara wouldn’t be comfortable with it – or the amount of ammo he’d be bringing with them – but he had to look out for them. There was no way that she would try to defend herself against her siblings, so he would have to do it for her. He didn’t want to use violence, but he would if he had to. He would do anything to protect her.
He shoved the gun into his suitcase before zipping it closed. As he heard footsteps again, he smiled softly with the excitement that they would be leaving this life behind in just a few minutes. “I know it was only a couple of seconds, but I missed you.” He turned around to face who he assumed would be Sara.
But it wasn’t. He was staring into the face of Warren. Shane and Jake were behind, and all three of them looked ready to kill him. He didn’t want to be backed into a corner, so he tried to move, but something was stopping him – something he couldn’t control. He hadn’t been prepared for this moment, not so soon.
“I think you know why we’re here,” Warren said in a deep voice.
Aaron shook his head slowly. “You don’t understand the situation. Just let me explain.” He wasn’t altogether comfortable with telling them about his relationship with their other sister, but he thought it might make them reconsider whatever they were about to do. He could see the intent in their eyes, and it sent his heart racing.
“We understand it perfectly,” Shane spoke up. “You know too much. We’re sorry to have to do this to you, but you know how Mary is. She gave the order.”
He knew too much? What did that have to do with Sara? He assumed that they were there because they’d learned about the affair. But then he wondered about the night he had eavesdropped on their conversation. Perhaps he hadn’t been as clever as he’d thought; they must have known that he’d heard them discussing the truth about their inheritance.
Aaron wanted to say something, he really did. For whatever reason, he couldn’t find his voice. What was wrong with him? Why couldn’t he speak, and why was he still unable to move? It was like being stuck in a nightmare, trying to run away from the threat, but being glued to the floor.
Suddenly, found himself leaning against the car, though he didn’t understand why he needed the support. Something had happened, but it hadn’t registered in his mind.
Finally, he looked down at his stomach. Blood was spilling from a slash in his shirt. When he saw the bloody knife in Warren’s hand, the dots connected.
A quiet groan left his lips when he was stabbed a second time, and he slid down the side of the car as the knife was pulled from his chest. The blood trickled onto the floor of the garage. The pain that hadn’t registered with his brain before had caught up to him now. It felt like Warren had shoved fire into his insides. He was burning, yet he was so cold. His lungs felt as if they were disintegrating.
He saw Sarah pushing her brothers out of the way to get to him. He wanted to speak words of love, or at least of comfort, but he couldn’t think of anything to say. His mind was trapped in a fog, and his vision was blurred. “It’s…it’s okay, Sara.”
“No, it’s not okay!” Her brothers were staring at her in confusion as she wrapped her arms around Mary’s husband. She wished that they would leave her to comfort the man she wanted to spend the rest of her life with. But instead, they stood there, watching her with dumbfounded expressions. “Go call an ambulance! You can’t let him die!”
Not one of the brothers moved as if to say that his death was the point.
Aaron didn’t care that he was dying, as long as she was all right. He was still worried about what would happen after he closed his eyes, but he had faith that her brothers wouldn’t harm her. “Sara, I love you.”
“I love you too.” She was trying not to cry in front of him, but he was dying in her arms, and there was nothing she could do to save him. She was hysterical. “Don’t leave me, Aaron. We’re supposed to die together of old age. Not like this. Not now.”
Aaron couldn’t help but chuckle at the thought. He could see them wanting to rip each other’s hair out over the years. He could see them being perfectly content too. How nice that would have been, he thought.
He kissed her one last time, though it didn’t last as long as he had wanted it to. He closed his eyes, satisfied that if he had to die, at least he was dying in the arms of the woman he loved.
“Aaron,” Sara spoke softly, as if she was afraid that a voice any louder than that would force his eyes to remain closed. “Don’t go. Aaron, don’t go…”
By Laurencia Hoffman
When Aaron Stryder was forced into marrying Mary Doyle – a criminal mastermind – he knew that his life would never be the same. Trapped in a loveless marriage under the threat of violence, he soon falls for Mary’s younger sister Sara, who is everything that her sister is not. They knew that their relationship was dangerous, but they never expected what was to come. Mary discovers their betrayal and doesn’t take it lightly. She tries to keep them apart however she can, exhausting her resources and going to any lengths to get what she wants, no matter who becomes collateral damage. Will the two lovers get away unscathed, or will Mary end their lives before they get the chance?