Emma Larkin is running for her life – nowhere is safe. Stalked by her husband’s killers, and desperate to protect her young daughter, Emma must find what the killers are looking for before she becomes their next victim.
When undercover cop, Gary Bedford, planned a relaxing break, he hadn’t counted on bumping into Emma. Now he can’t resist the temptation to discover all her secrets.
But should Emma trust her life and heart to Gary Bedford?
Can they solve the mystery surrounding her husband’s death – and uncover his deadly secret?
Running Scared - Chapter One Excerpt
What did we do to deserve this? Emma Larkin sat on Sally’s bed assessing the damage. The padded bed head had been slashed, clothes were hanging out of drawers, even the toy box had been up-ended.
“I thought we’d get away from all this,” she said, to herself more than to her four-year-old daughter.
Tears slowly trickled down her face as she picked up Sally’s music box, trying to put the broken toy back together. What they’d do now, she had no idea.
The local police had been of no help. This was way out of their league.
She’d left what little family they had back in Melbourne. She had absolutely no one to turn to.
The move to the countryside was a last ditch effort to get their lives back on track. All this upheaval had achieved very little Emma decided.
“Don’t cry, Mummy,” the little girl told her, reaching out to give her mother a hug. “We can clean up the mess, and Uncle Coop will fix the music box if I ask him.”
Sally planted a big sloppy kiss on her mother’s cheek before settling herself comfortably on Emma’s lap.
“Four days in a new town, a new home, and already…” Emma quietly sobbed.
Life had changed dramatically since her husband’s murder two years ago.
* * *
“But mummy, I liked that house,” Sally said, pouting. “Why did we have to move again?”
Emma sighed, but explained patiently, “The bad people found us again, Sally. We couldn’t stay there any longer.”
Sally thought about it for a moment. “So does that mean the bad people can’t find us now? Can we stay here forever?” Sally looked to her mother for reassurance. “I like this place. Please can we stay? Please?”
“Sure,” Emma answered. “We’ll stay. We’ll make it so they can’t find us again.” Emma smiled at Sally with renewed confidence.
This large country town was the answer to their prayers she was sure. She’d been so wrong in choosing small towns before. It was too hard to hide – everyone knew everyone. But Bairnsdale was large enough that they would blend in. Their arrival wouldn’t even be noticed.
The brown hair dye was a nice touch. There was nothing like flaming red hair to make a person stand out.
* * *
Taking a long drag on his cigarette, Gary Bedford sat on the steps of the Rotunda at the Main Street Gardens in Bairnsdale. Between assignments, his favorite past time was to come to these gardens and watch the local talent.
Women didn’t seem to go much for cops. And undercover cops? That was a whole different story. Gone for weeks on end depending on the assignment, finding yourself in dangerous or life threatening situations; chicks just don’t go for it.
Naturally there had been the occasional girlfriend, but they never seemed to work out. They just didn’t like his life-style. And when they found out his two brothers were private investigators, that was the absolute end.
A family fraught with danger—that’s what one girl told him—so at thirty-two, Gary was still single and not entirely unhappy about the situation.
Life as an undercover cop wasn’t easy.
Smoke drifted from his cigarette as Gary watched a small girl running along the lush grass with a twenty-something babe close on the young girl’s heels. The bountiful flowerbeds scattered amongst the trees provided a colorful backdrop. He looked the young woman over more thoroughly as she came toward him.
Her skin seemed to pale against her long brown hair, and her above average height accentuated by her long legs. As the wind came up, her white over-shirt flapped open revealing a scarlet tank top and black bike shorts.
Families picnicked, children played and dogs barked while adults talked or just relaxed. Gary had seen days like this before, but today he was oblivious to everything as he watched the young woman’s disheveled hair drift about in the warm breeze.
He stubbed out his half-smoked cigarette on the step and stumbled down the steps of the Rotunda.
“Oh boy,” he scolded himself as he collided heavily with the young woman.
She gasped for breath after having the wind knocked out of her by the impact. She grabbed at his shirtfront trying to get her balance.
How could he have been so damned careless?
The object of his attention scowled at him as he reached out trying to steady her but she flicked his hands away. He watched helplessly as she bent forward, her hands on her knees, still gasping for air.
Gary silently observed her eyes scanning his body. From experience, he knew the first thing she’d notice would be his unusual height. Six foot five got everyone’s attention. He reached up and ran his hand over his chin. Damn! He hadn’t shaved this morning—today, of all days. At least he’d tied his hair back in a ponytail.
She stared into his eyes. Hers narrowed with rage while she checked him out. Her eyes slid to his open denim shirt, lingered on his chest before sliding down, momentarily settling on his belly, and then drifted to his crotch. Damn her—she even checked out his… Nah, she wouldn’t do that—would she?
Her appraisal continued, focusing on his jeans—his threadbare jeans. Gary groaned inwardly. Why did he have to dress like a slob on his days off? At least he wore his cowboy boots…
Gary glanced at his feet. Oh God, thongs!
He felt a gentle pummeling on his legs. “Look what you did, you big bully,” a small voice said.
He looked down, way down, at the small child. “Sorry, I didn’t mean…” He leaned toward the winded woman.
The little girl began to kick at his ankles. He reached down, picked her up with one hand. “Okay Squirt, that’s enough. Your auntie’s all right.” His eyebrows rose quizzically as he looked the older female over. “You are, aren’t you?” he asked as an afterthought.
“Make the giant put me down!” the child squealed.
“Take your damned hands off my daughter,” the woman yelled, still slightly breathless but now angry. Gary realized she had only now become aware of the situation.
“You’re her mother?” He let out an audible sigh of disappointment then put the brown haired child down, and extended his hand to the now recovered woman standing in front of him.
Gary watched silently as she stood unmoving, pushing the child behind her. Her actions puzzled him.
He noticed an involuntary shiver go through her body as he contemplated her.
Reaching forward he picked up her delicate hand, and noticed her blue eyes widen. Was she afraid of him?
A shot of pure electricity ran up his arm as their hands connected. Did she cause that thrill or was it his imagination?
“Gary Bedford,” he said as his eyes leisurely roamed her body. When she pulled her shirt around herself, he unexpectedly felt guilty.
“Well, Gary Bedford, I hope you have a very good reason for almost knocking me off my feet.” Her words were more positive than her voice.
“I sure have, Miss, er, Mrs., er…”
“This better be good!”
He could only imagine the expression on his face as he tried to withhold a smirk. “I, er, that is…”
She straightened her back, planted her feet firmly. Oh yeah, she was ready to rip into him. “Out with it! Why did you knock me over?” She may have sounded brave, but Gary could see the terror written all over her face. She confused him.
“I, er, wanted to meet you. But I didn’t mean to knock you over. It was an accident.”
She followed his gaze to their still entwined hands. He was even more puzzled as she quickly withdrew her hand then backed off.
Gary watched, fascinated by the variety of expressions crossing her face; was it anger, annoyance or fear? Whatever it was, he was determined to stall her premature departure.
“I’m sorry, what did you say your name was?”
She stood planted to the spot, her mouth pulled into a tight little line; it was obvious to Gary she was not going to answer.
“Mister. Hey Mister!”
Gary looked down to see the little girl innocently gazing up at him.
“My Mummy is Emma Larkin. And I’m…”
“James. My name is James,” Emma quickly added, frowning at the child.
What the hell is this all about he wondered. James? Larkin?
Larkin… He tried to remember where he’d heard the name before, but the little girl’s protests interrupted his thoughts
“But, Mummy, I don’t like our pretend name.”
“Really, Sally! What have I told you about strangers?” Emma grabbed Sally by the hand, pulling the child closer.
He watched mesmerized as the wind sent Emma’s hair sailing across her agitated face. He reached out and untangled the wayward hair from her lips. A frisson of excitement trickled though him as his fingers gently brushed against her cheek.
She took a step back.
Belatedly, he realized he’d overstepped the mark. “I’m sorry. I guess your husband wouldn’t be very happy…”
“I’m not m…” Her expression revealed she had said more than she intended.
“You’re not married?” Calm down boy. Don’t get carried away. “I thought… Never mind. How about dinner? There are lots of places to choose from. There’s AJ’s or the Terminus. Or maybe you’d prefer to go to the Colosseum?” You’re babbling, Bedford.
“No, sorry. I don’t do dinner. Come on, Sal.”
“You don’t do dinner? Of course you do, we all have to eat.” Gary stubbornly refused to back down. The dead-end conversation made him – frustrated. He was getting nowhere fast. Right or wrong, he wanted to know Emma Larkin. Or was it James? The lady positively thrilled him, intrigued him, touching a part of him no one else ever had. He needed to know, wanted to know, what made her click. “Maybe I didn’t make it clear. You can bring the Squirt.”
“I wouldn’t dream of going anywhere without her. The answer is still no.” Emma looked about her nervously, and Gary was sure she was about to retreat.
Sally began tugging on her mother’s shirttail to get Emma’s attention. “Mummy, Mummy. Is he a good giant or a bad one?” The child had a scowl on her face.
This was some feisty kid, he decided.
“I’m not sure, Sal, a good one, possibly. Mr. Bedford has invited us out for dinner.”
His heart skipped a beat. “Does that mean yes?”
The child’s eyes lit up. “Can we go to McDonalds? Can we? Can we?”
“Sally, No! Mind your manners. I’m sure Mr. Bedford doesn’t want to go to McDonalds.”
Gary liked Sally. She reminded him of his nieces. She had spunk, and she certainly wasn’t afraid to speak her mind.
“The name’s Gary, remember? And if you’re happy with Macca’s, then so am I.”
He smiled, and Emma took another step back, pulling Sally along with her. He took one forward.
“I, I didn’t say we’d go…” Emma said, sounding very unsure of herself and taking two more backward steps as she spoke. This sure was one confused woman.
“But you said…” he started, and then reassessed the situation. He was pretty good at reading people’s faces and their reactions. He had to be, it went with the territory. This lady was scared, real scared. But why?
He decided to take a step back, figuratively speaking. “You’re right. You didn’t actually agree to go out with me…” He let the words trail off, then waited for her reaction.
He watched her fight with herself, trying to decide what to do. As her pretty face screwed up in a frown, he wanted to reach out and stroke her forehead…sooth, smooth.
Gary gazed down at his ankles; the kicking had started again. “Listen, Squirt…”
“You made my Mummy sad. You are a bad giant! And my name’s Sally, not Squirt.”
Without warning, Emma grabbed Sally by the hand and quickly walked away. Gary decided he had to do something, and fast, otherwise he might lose her before he’d even had a chance. He reached out and caught Emma by the wrist, softly pulling her back to him. Without warning, he dropped to his knees on the grass.
“Miss Larkin, um, James, would you do me the honor of accompanying myself and the Squirt, er, Sally, to dinner at McDonalds this evening?”
He was smirking again, he was sure of it. Surely she couldn’t refuse an invitation like that?