“GET THE FUCK OUT OF THE CAR!” I yell frantically, trying to pull the door handle, but failing miserably. As my fist pounds against the window, I can feel my heart beating wildly—thump, thump, thump—and hear the fire roaring in my ears.
Her beautiful eyes are wide with terror as she tugs on her seatbelt, only to confirm that it won’t budge one single fucking centimeter. Pounding on the window, I’m screaming at her, begging her, pleading beyond reproach, but it’s as if she doesn’t hear me. She keeps shaking her head, the expression on her face one of defeat. Like she’s accepted her fate—that the flames will destroy her—and somehow, she’s at peace with it. And there's not a fucking thing I can do to save her.
Turning to look at the wreckage around us, I know I’m racing against time and it won’t be long before the semi cab’s engine blows high into the sky. My brain is screaming at me to run away, to find safety, but then I look back into the car. Her hand presses against the glass, her fingers spreading, and she looks at me, tears filling her eyes. I press my hand to the window, covering hers, and in that instant, the world around us stops. Our eyes lock, knowing we may be the last thing each other sees, and for a split second, there’s recognition in her eyes. There’s a familiarity here, as if I’ve met her before, but I can’t place her. I’m transfixed on her for a moment, trying to figure out how I know her.
I no longer feel the heat on my back, the flames on my face. All I see is her. All I feel is her. She’s someone important—I can feel it deep down in my soul, but I’m not sure why. Without question, something inside me shifts, and I start pounding my fist against the glass, knowing I need to get her out of there.
She bangs on the window, our fists both working against the glass. Yet, instead of trying to break it, she’s telling me to get out, to move away. Valuing her life over mine, which really isn’t saying much.
A small sense of victory washes over me when a crack finally appears in the glass. Motioning for her to move away, I watch and wait as she leans into the passenger’s seat, out of harm’s reach as I start hitting the crack. The sound of shattering glass brings on sweet relief as I finally break through the fucking window, my fingers fumbling as I dive into the car, barely registering the feel of glass stabbing my torso as I lean in.
I try to unbuckle her seatbelt, but it’s no use. The fucking thing won’t dislodge, and I start to panic the moment I hear her sobbing.
“Let me go. It’s no use. Get out of here before you’re burned to ashes, too,” she sobs, her voice wavering.
She refuses to look at me, and in that moment, I don’t care about myself. I’d give my life for this beautiful, familiar stranger. It’s a surprising thought because I’ve always been a selfish asshole, but seeing her there, vulnerable and ready to give up for me, I’m aware that, for once in my life, I can put someone else first. And I goddamn fucking will.
Grabbing the multi-tool from my belt, I thank the Lord my dad always made me carry one, even if it is more for cracking beer than tool use. I flip the knife out and make quick work of cutting through the material. Once she’s released, she falls against my chest, and I sigh in deep relief. A loud pop interrupts the moment, and she wraps her arms around my neck. With as much care as possible, I pull her through the broken window, wincing as every single inch of shattered glass pierces my skin.
“Oh my god. You saved me,” she murmurs, and I watch as blood trickles down her forehead.
“I’m no savior, baby. I usually destroy everything around me,” I admit, knowing she probably won’t remember this interaction.
“That’s not true. You could’ve left me to die, and you didn’t. You came back for me. No one ever comes back for me,” she whispers, her voice trailing off as her head starts to lull off to the side. The blood from her head wound continues to trail down her face, and I mentally panic as she slowly falls into unconsciousness.
Looking up, I’m straining to hear the distant sirens, begging beyond hope that help arrives in time. I’m standing in the middle of the road with a beautiful woman in my arms, and for once, I have no idea what to do.
Before I can catch my bearings, I hear a high-pitched hiss, and moments later, my vision explodes in flashes of yellow, orange, red, and blue. Somehow, I hold on to her tight even as I’m thrown forward, my arms tightening around her as we fall to the ground. Settling in on the side of the road, I roll to my side with her still in my arms. Pain flows through me, but she’s the one I’m concerned about. She’s the one I want to be safe. Me? I could die right now and no one could care. But her? I’d never fucking forgive myself if I don’t keep her safe.
I feel the heat at my back, and I hold her tighter, my body cocooning hers to keep the flames at bay. Voices shout in the distance, but my vision turns blurry, and no matter how hard I try to fight it, everything fades to black.
Earlier That Day
“Breathe, Ari,” my younger sister, Alyssa, says soothingly as she rubs my back.
Leaning forward, I inhale deeply and hold my breath, allowing the air to fill my lungs. A sense of calming washes over me and I close my eyes.
“That’s it. You’re fine.”
Opening my eyes to look up at her, I exhale slowly then steady myself. As I sit up straight, I finally make my own decision—probably for the first time in my life. “I can’t do this. No. I won’t do this,” I tell her emphatically, relief flooding through me as realization takes over. Things never should’ve even gotten this far, and I can’t believe how close I came to making the biggest mistake of my life.
What mistake is that, you ask? Marrying Benjamin Cunningham the Fourth. Tomorrow is my wedding day. Or, well, it’s supposed to be. Tomorrow. I’m supposed to plaster on a fake smile and marry Benjamin—god forbid you call him Ben—the son of my father’s business partner and my boyfriend of two years. The man I’m supposed to love. Who I thought I did love. So why don’t I feel more distraught over my decision? Why do I feel relief that I’ve decided not to pledge my undying love for this man?
Probably because I don’t have undying love for him.
The thought crosses my mind, and I know it’s true. My feet have been growing increasingly colder the closer the day has come and now I know why. Benjamin doesn’t love me and he confirmed that fact just minutes ago when I overheard him telling his father that I’m nothing more than a means to an end—his perfect little trophy wife. And once he secures that ring on my dainty little finger, he’s going to start working on Dad to become his successor. The Covingtons and the Cunninghams. The perfect merger.
I should’ve cried. I should’ve felt heartbroken. And maybe I will once the adrenaline wears off. But in that split second, what I felt was instant relief. Because now I understand what our relationship has been—a business transaction. Unfortunately for Benjamin, this is one merger that isn’t going to happen, and the look on his face when I told him so was priceless. Shock, humiliation, and even anger flashed across his features before he steadied himself and dismissed me, calling me a silly woman who simply hadn’t heard him right. With a kiss on the cheek, he told me that he had a few things to do before the rehearsal and then left like nothing was wrong. Fortunately, Alyssa was right there, and she guided me back to her room, calling him all sorts of colorful terms that would’ve had Great-Grandma Covington rolling over in her grave.
With renewed resolve, I straighten my shoulders and stand up. Smoothing down my dress, I grab my purse, holster it over my shoulder, and stroll towards the door. Alyssa scurries after me but she doesn’t say a word as we ride in the elevator of the hotel where the rehearsal dinner is being held. I don’t stop until I get to my car. Glancing into the back seat, I see my luggage and am thankful I’ve already packed for my honeymoon. This will make my getaway that much easier.
“Where will you go?” Alyssa asks.
Sighing heavily, I look up at her. I haven’t really thought that far in advance. “Anywhere. Somewhere far away from Atlanta where our parents—and probably his—can’t try and talk me into marrying him. I just need to get away. To regroup. I know I shouldn’t ask this of you, but can you cover for me? You know how William and Victoria have been waiting for this day to come, and now, it’s just going to be one more disappointment for them.”
Now that I think about it, Benjamin’s probably not the only one who viewed our impending marriage as something less than love and more about the business. My father has always lamented not having a male heir to take control of the company. Because, apparently, if you have a vagina and two breasts, you’re incapable of doing so. Now, I’m wondering if he had ulterior motives when he set Benjamin and me up on a blind date two years ago. If I can’t be his successor, then why not his reputable son-in-law?
The more I think about it, the more it makes sense. William was all too willing to embrace Benjamin, and he spared no wedding expense. Victoria, my illustrious mother, agreed and has done everything she could to talk me into quitting my job and becoming a housewife. In her words, my job is to keep the house clean, the children fed, and my husband happy. In reality, what she meant was: hire a maid, hire a cook, and turn a blind eye while my husband bangs his secretary.
Shuddering at the thought, I realize that Benjamin did me a favor. I’m escaping an unsatisfying future, and now that I’ve come this close to being a carbon copy of my mother, I vow never to let anyone push me around again. If and when I do marry, it will be for love. Not for duty, purpose, or business. No. I’ll never let another man in unless I love him and he loves me. There is no way in hell I will ever be anyone’s trophy wife.
Alyssa squeezes my shoulder. “You got it, sis. I’ll handle things here. Just promise to call me when you get where you’re going. And for the record, I’ve always thought you were too good for Ben. I’m glad you see that now, too.”
Tears well up in my eyes for the first time since making my decision. Not for my wedding, but because I have no idea where to go. Benjamin—and William—talked me into taking a leave of absence from my job as an accountant, something easy to do since my father is my boss. I’m not due back to work for at least six months, and as much as I’d been dreading the time off, I’m grateful now to have the escape. My bank account will help me get by for a while, but for the first time in my life, I have no idea what to do. After a life of trying to please my parents and then Ben—and usually failing at both—I resolve that it’s time I live for me. I just wish I hadn’t spent twenty-seven years being a pushover. I guess growing a backbone late is better than never.
Looking back at Alyssa, I muster up a smile. “I love you, too. And I appreciate it, Lyss. I’ll call you as soon as I get settled.”
I slip into my car just in time to see Benjamin running out of the hotel, his dad and mine right behind him. Apparently, he’s decided that I wasn’t just blowing smoke, but it’s too damn late. As I put the car in reverse, I roll down my windows and blast the radio, finding it not all that ironic that Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me” is blaring over my speakers. I have to laugh, knowing I’ll be doing no such thing.
Just before I peel out of the parking lot, I throw on my sunglasses and yell out to Benjamin. “Sorry, Benny, but you’re going to have to find yourself another trophy wife!” Using the nickname he loathes is probably childish, but I can’t help that final parting shot.
His face looks aghast and shock fills his eyes. Yeah, it’s finally getting through to him that a kiss on the cheek doesn’t make everything better. Thank God I overheard, and just in the nick of time.
My blood’s pumping and I feel just like Julia Roberts in Runaway Bride. But instead of running away from a man who loves me unconditionally, I’m running from what would have been a huge mistake. And running straight towards an unknown future.
When I get to the highway, I’m not sure which direction I should take. At the last second, I choose north.
I don’t know where I’m going, but anywhere is better than here.
The sound of my phone vibrating has become almost commonplace. It’s been doing so for the last four hours, and no matter how many times I hit ignore, Benjamin keeps calling. As does William. And Victoria. The only one who’s leaving me in peace is Alyssa, and I love her to pieces for it.
I know I should’ve been strong enough to stay behind and face the music, but I couldn’t. The truth is that I’ve never been the strong one. I’ve always been the yes girl, and my resolve isn’t as strong as I’d like to think. No, putting as much distance between me and my wedding is the best thing I can do right now, even if it does make me a coward. I’d rather be a coward than wake up tomorrow married to the furthest thing from the man of my dreams.
If I’d been stronger, I never would’ve allowed my father to set me up on a blind date. I never would’ve decided that complacency and security were enough in a relationship, and I sure as hell never would’ve accepted the ridiculously extravagant—and public—proposal last fall. Inhaling deeply, I decide that I’m turning over a new leaf. I don’t know where I’m going, but somehow, along the way, I’m going to find my own strength. And I won’t return home until I do. No matter how long it takes.
Glancing down at my phone, I see that the latest call is from Victoria, and I groan, knowing there’s no way I’m speaking to her now. I throw my phone into my purse on the passenger’s seat and then focus back on the road, looking out the windshield at the beautiful mountains in Tennessee. It’s a gorgeous view, especially with the setting sun, and I get distracted watching the sun dip between two rising peaks. As I round a corner, I look ahead just in time to see a semi-truck barreling into my lane, and before I can hit the brakes, I hear screams sounding in my ear—my own screams—as the truck slams into the front end of my car, sending it spinning.
My heart’s racing and I squeeze my eyes shut, knowing this is it. This is the end. I steel myself against my seat until the car comes to a complete stop. Silence fills the air, and slowly, I open my eyes, one at a time, hopeful that I can make it out of this alive. My windshield is cracked, and smoke’s filling the air, but when I look down, I’m seemingly unscathed.
My chest heaves as I try to unbuckle my seatbelt, but for some reason, it does nothing when I press down on the button. Looking out the windshield, I see the semi-truck only feet away, its engine already on fire. My thumb presses down on the release button, but I can’t get it to dislodge. Panic starts to set in as my eyes race from the seatbelt that’s holding me captive to the consuming fire that’s growing with every second. I’m simultaneously cursing God and anyone else I can think of while also praying for safety when I hear a loud bang on my window, my prayers seemingly answered.
A muffled voice shouts and I strain my ear to make out the words as I turn my gaze to the driver’s side window. My heartbeat quickens when I see the handsome stranger standing at my window. My eyes widen in shock when I realize he’s not a stranger at all. Well, not really. We’ve met—only once—but his face is one I’d never forget. And one I never thought I’d see again. In fact, I’m almost not sure that he’s real.
I’m distracted as he pounds on the glass, looking back and forth between me and the blazing inferno. I go to open the door, but it won’t move—almost as if something in the crash had knocked the mechanics off-kilter—and I have no way to escape. Panic washes over his face, and I feel the same panic flowing through me. Tugging on my seatbelt, I’m suddenly aware that it’s no use. Looking around, I see the flames, and when I look back at his face, I see it in his eyes. It’s too late for me. But it’s not too late for him.
I press my hand to the window and hope my eyes are pleading enough to get him to save himself. Instead of fleeing, his big hand comes to the window, covering my own.
“Get out!” I scream at him, not even sure if he can hear me.
But it’s no use. He pounds against the window, determination in his eyes. My eyes flick to the semi-truck and I see the fire creeping closer. Panic surges in me and I start banging on the window, frantic and desperate for him to get away.
A sob catches in my throat when I see his elbow actually cause a crack in the window. Leaning into the passenger’s seat, I cover myself as he hits it a few more times, finally breaking free. After he pushes the glass away, he crawls into the car and starts working on the seatbelt, but it still won’t budge.
A hissing sounds fills my ears, and I know it’s just a matter of time before we blow sky high. I try to push him out of the car, begging and pleading for him to save himself, but he doesn’t. Somehow, someway, he cuts me free and pulls me into his arms, slipping me out of the car just in the nick of time. As my arms wrap around his neck, he holds me close and strides away from the burning vehicle. His arms tighten around me, and he whispers sweet words in my ear, but they’re indecipherable. Pain flows through my body, my head throbbing as warm blood trickles down the side of my face. My eyelids feel heavy and I can no longer keep them open.
Just as I’m falling unconscious, the last thing I hear is, “I’m no savior.”
As darkness takes over, the last thought I have is that it’s a lie. Because he most certainly is mine.