No Longer Alone

Susan V. Vaughn

 

Prologue

Perry, Indiana

Dec 23, 2013

“I am very disappointed in what you decided to wear tonight, Nora.”

Tim broke the silence in the car. His voice was absolutely emotionless and it chilled her. A cold knot formed in her stomach as she stole a glance at her boyfriend of almost seven months. His handsome face was reserved and focused on the road, as if he wasn’t stewing in anger. A muscle clenched along his jawline, making her shiver.

“I’m sorry, Tim.” Her voice sounded cautious and soft. She was fearful of enticing his wrath. Tim’s whole demeanor sent off warning bells in her head. She inched closer to the window, desperately seeking distance.

I pushed him too far again. She had sensed a helpless anger simmering in Tim since before they left the staff Christmas party. Still, she had gotten into the car with him. As if this time, he wouldn’t voice his displeasure. She was a fool.

“Sorry isn’t good enough, Nora. I was humiliated tonight.”

“How were you humiliated?” She looked up at him expectantly and got no response. His blue eyes were fixated on the road ahead, as if she hadn’t spoken.

Nora turned away from him and sighed. She had received a lot of compliments for her little black dress tonight. Her boyfriend was less than pleased. She should have known it would upset him, considering his constant disapproval with everything she did or wore. He was always complaining that she was too proud, too confident, and acted too young. It was starting to make her wonder why she wanted to date him in the first place.

“I just can’t believe you wore that dress tonight.” He shook his head. “In front of all our coworkers, flaunting yourself.”

“Flaunting myself?”

Again, she got no response. It was as if Tim were talking to himself. A dull aching knot formed in her chest. She placed a hand on top of her heart and massaged the area. Nora missed her mother terribly—especially in times like this, when everything felt so wrong. She supposed that was truly why she had fallen for Tim so hard, and so fast.

She met him only months after her mother died of breast cancer. It was during her kindergarten-teaching interview. Tim was the principal at the elementary school she worked at, technically her boss, but it had never felt that way. She remembered how he had walked into the room, so tall, confident, and attractive. Then smiled, offering her a glimpse of his charismatic personality and charm.

She was completely smitten. They had so much in common, both only children from small towns, both passionate about education—young, ambitious, and driven. The interview lasted for hours. When he asked her out months later, she was more than flattered. Her lonely heart took over, creating a picture perfect family in her mind. She looked forward to a bright and happy future together.

But it didn’t take long before Tim’s true colors showed. He was never satisfied. Small critiques here and there quickly turned into irate rants over silly things, like the way she wore her hair. Every day his dissatisfaction seemed to grow more and more severe. She could never please him, and yet, he would never leave her. She tried to end things before, but the man always wormed his way back in. His persistence was suffocating.

She glanced over at her boyfriend. His eyes darted between her and the road. The frown on his face grew more severe. He was a volcano on the verge of erupting. She shivered like a child waiting to be punished.

“I know you’re only twenty-two, Nora, but you should learn to dress like a woman. You are a teacher now, not some easy party girl looking for a good time.” He furrowed his brow, letting out an audible breath. “Your body is for my eyes only, nobody else’s. You need to make sure everyone knows that.”

She listened to him in bewilderment. The dress she wore came right to her knees and was far from indecent. Nobody was looking anyway. Everyone they worked with already knew they were dating. Tim was completely overreacting, like always. “Maybe you should break up with me, Tim, if you feel I flaunt myself. I don’t think there is anything wrong with how I dress.”

He tightened his grip on the wheel until the whites of his knuckles showed. She saw in his eyes a glassy expression of anger. Her stomach clenched tight. The silence was a dangerous sign—almost like a warning.

She looked back out her window. Thick trees aligned either side of the street. They were entering her neighborhood and just in time. The growing tension made her uncomfortable. Usually Tim was quick to yell and scream, but tonight he was quiet and lethal. She wasn’t sure what to do with this new side of her boyfriend, but she felt tense with anticipation of impending doom.

How did our relationship end up like this?

He pulled the car into the driveway of the tiny cottage she was renting and killed the engine. With the background noise gone, she could no longer ignore the tension. Nora glanced over at him. She knew there was a line between good and evil. Tim held the line; he was the line. She swallowed hard, anticipating his evil.

“Don’t you agree, Tim? If you don’t like how I dress or how I act, maybe we shouldn’t date.”

In one sudden, forward motion, he grabbed onto the front of her coat, and pulled her within inches of his face. His blue eyes locked onto hers and blazed with lethal intensity. “We are not breaking up, Nora. Not now, not ever.”

Nora’s jaw dropped open in complete shock. Blood raced through her body, pulsating in her ears. Her spine tingled with the urgent, crawling need to run.

He let go of her coat, dropping her carelessly back into her seat. Her head bobbled from the force. He seemed not to notice as he immediately turned his attention toward the window. She raised two shaking hands and readjusted her coat. His possessive words and harsh actions had rendered her speechless.

Did he just say we are never breaking up? She shook her head, reliving the moment, searching for clues. There was no doubt of his intentions toward her. He said those words like a promise, with so much conviction it made her knees shake. Another warning bell went off in her head, increasing her heart rate. “What do you mean never breaking up, Tim?”

“Just what I said, we are never breaking up. You and I belong together.” He spaced the words out evenly, in a chilling voice that left her mind reeling.

I need to escape! I need to run! He wiped a heavy hand down his tense face, his blond hair standing wildly on end.

She huddled in her chair, making no response. The transformation in him was almost scarier than his words of possession. He looked intense, the lines of strain on his face visible, revealing the madness within. His eyes were sharp, unrelenting, watching her every movement, her every reaction. She was suddenly sure that he meant what he had said. She belonged to him; she was his possession. Now all his controlling comments for the last six months made sense. He was molding her into his perfect wife.

Tim turned back to her, and she instantly felt impaled by his steady gaze. She swallowed hard and bit back tears. “Don’t talk about breaking up, Nora. It makes me upset.” His voice was quiet yet held an undertone of cold contempt. “I love you too much to ever lose you.”

She wavered, trying to comprehend what she was hearing. The man in front of her was a monster! The desire to scream raged through her, but she merely stared at him, tongue-tied, indenting her nails deeply into the material of her seatbelt. Our relationship has gotten out of control.

She drew a deep breath and focused on the present. It was not too late to break his hold on her. They were not married yet. She could end things when she wanted to. The warning signs to do so were all there. “I know you love me, Tim, but I don’t think it’s a good idea for us to date anymore. It’s time to end things, go our separate ways. We’re too different.” She tried to sound reasonable, but there was a slight hysteria in her voice. Under his unrelenting gaze she was aware of the fact that she was only twenty-three and completely alone. She was scared of his power over her and it showed. Nora could no longer fight back the tears and let them fall with regret.

“Break up?” His whole angry expression seemed to evaporate before her eyes. Suddenly his face appeared gentle, angelic, and beautiful. His eyes were soft and pooling with tears of his own. She watched his transformation with astonishment, her heart pounding wildly.

“Don’t cry, baby. Come here.” He pulled her gently against his chest and kissed the top of her head. She was too bewildered to fight him, too scared to move. The feeling of being in his embrace was all thorns and no petals.

“I’m so sorry I upset you, babe. I don’t know what’s gotten into me. I was just so stressed out about everyone looking at my beautiful girl.” He pulled away, searching her face. As their gazes met, she felt a shocking unease run through her. “Don’t you understand? Can’t you see how that hurts me?”

She found Tim’s behavior and words puzzling. Could she have really made him snap like this? He was the principal of an elementary school after all, not a monster.

“Nora, please understand.” His desperation was coupled with large tears wetting his cheeks. “I need you in my life. I love you so much.” He stroked her face softly. His blue eyes—icy and intense—locked onto hers, making her shiver.

She nodded and lowered her gaze with uncertainty. She needed time to think and regroup. There was no longer a question of whether she should end their relationship. Her boyfriend showed his true colors tonight. But something cautioned her to tread carefully. She had to end things with him safely, in a way that he knew was final. And right now, she was far from safe.

Nora cleared her throat and pulled on her strength. “Let’s talk about this tomorrow. I just want to go to bed. It’s been a long night.”

She opened her car door and stumbled out on two shaky legs. The adrenaline from Tim’s frightening behavior made her feel sick, but she forced herself to walk toward the front door with long purposeful strides. Tim trailed her almost like a guard dog, and she could feel his disturbing presence down to her bones. Alarm ran up and down her spine. He’s following me! He won’t leave me alone!

She unlocked the door and turned back to the man she’d dated for almost seven months. As he stood before her, he made a fearful, loathsome object. Her heart pounded in her throat. She wondered how she could have dated him seven seconds, let alone seven months.

“I will call you tomorrow, babe.” He leaned in and placed a soft kiss on her lips. A quiver of resistance ran through her, but she forced herself to stand still. “Sleep tight, my beauty. I love you.”

His words packed an unwelcome punch. This was not love; this was possession. She cleared her throat, yet again. He was waiting for a response, and she had to make it convincing. “Yep, me too.”

She offered a thin smile and gently closed the door in his face. Then locked the deadbolt. It made a final, deafening click, but she felt far from safe. Her hands shook, and her heart raced, reliving the dangerous parting look in his eyes.

She took a deep, steadying breath. This was crazy. Tim was not demented. He was a well-educated, emotionally stable adult. He would understand tomorrow when she ended things.

Immediately, she was haunted with a chill and unearthly foreboding. She remembered the intensity of his features, the lethalness of his possessive words in the car. He didn’t seem normal then. She clasped her chest and sat down hard on the floor. Great shuddering seized her.

The truth of his questionable sanity was staring her right in the face, but she had to deny it—it was too much to bear. Tim was not a monster. He was just confused about his feelings for her. There was no need to worry.

She stood on two shaky legs. With courage, she pushed the curtain on her front door back to make sure her boyfriend wasn’t still parked in her driveway. He wasn’t.

She let out a loud breath of relief and began to pace back and forth on the rug in the entryway. The night’s anxiety appeared almost foolish to her now. Tim’s behavior was out of line for sure, but was it really something to freak out about? It was not as if he hit her or did anything to make her really fear for her life. “I will end things tomorrow. Tim will understand. He’s got to.”

Still, she couldn’t shake the feeling that her life was about to change after tonight—and not in a good way. She suddenly felt as if she were trapped.

She stopped pacing and faced the front door again. With careful hands, she peeled back the curtains a second time and peeped out. Her driveway was still empty, but in the near distance she could see the lights of a car.

Something cautioned her to scrunch down low, and she did—watching out of the bottom corner of her window. Whoever drove by would not see her, but she would see them.

The lights of the car came nearer, almost blinding her in their pursuit. She hadn’t realized she was holding her breath until the car slowed down and began to putter. With a shiver of recognition, she not only saw the outline of Tim’s car, but she could just make out his large hands gripping the wheel. He pulled the car just behind the large oak tree in her front yard and stopped, turning off his lights.

She crouched to the floor—in case he could see her—and gasped for breath. Tim was parked outside her house. His lights were off. There could be no doubt of his intent. He was keeping an eye on her. He was stalking his possession. She would never be safe again.

Chapter 1

Harbor Springs, Michigan

Two and a half years later

NORA pulled her 2006 yellow Ford Focus just off the shoulder of M-119, right before the entrance of the tunnel of trees. Up ahead, a narrow and twisty road ran through a dense forest, like a scene straight out of a travel magazine. The sight gave her a magical, unreal feeling, as if she was about to drive into her own fairytale.

She sighed, pulling out her smart phone. Except this was no fairytale. It was a nightmare, one she had been living for over two torturous years. She dragged the screen of her phone alive with one finger, and pulled up the internet. Under a saved tab was the help wanted ad that brought her here.

Full-time nanny and housekeeper wanted. Cross Village, Michigan. Child experience strongly desired. Job includes cleaning, cooking and watching after one four-year-old boy. Pay negotiable, lodging provided. Call Erik Bonay for more information.

“Well, Erik Bonay, I hope you’re ready.” She tapped the number provided onto her phone screen and then held her breath while it rang. The job description sounded more like Erik was looking for a housewife. A cringe-worthy image of some middle-aged, beer chugging hillbilly popped into her head. She could just picture this man waiting for her—large club in hand—ready to knock her unconscious and drag her to his disgusting man cave. Where she would then be forced to marry him and raise his army of children.

She blinked a few times, erasing the image. Her imagination had run wild again, but it was hard not to think the worst after Tim.

“Erik Bonay speaking.” A deep voice dragged her from her thoughts and gave her heart a jolt. After the hillbilly daydream, she figured Erik would have the gruff tone of an older man. In actuality, his voice was deep, youthful, and extremely appealing. “Hello? Anyone there?”

Oops, daydreaming again.

“Yes, um, hello.” She smiled and took a deep breath. “My name is Nora Francis, I am calling about your help wanted ad.”

“And?”

She bit onto her bottom lip. She wasn’t prepared for that particular question. She figured he would ask if she were interested, not sound as if she were putting him out. He’s the one that wanted help, right? “I was wondering if the position was still available.”

He sighed loudly. “The ad’s still posted, right?”

“Well, yes—”

“Then that means it’s still open.”

She sat back in her seat and closed her eyes. He was being extremely rude. She could feel the heat of indignation building inside her like a furnace but chose to ignore it. His behavior was irrelevant. She needed this job. “Okay, well, I am interested in the position.”

“Fine, then email me your resume.”

Nora shook her head. She did not have time for that. True, the ad did advise her to email her resume, but she planned to get around that. She had to secure this position and fast. Time was running out. “Actually, I am currently in Harbor Springs. Do you think maybe you have time to talk to me?”

“No, I don’t. If you are interested in the position, email me your resume. When I have time, I will look it over and if I am interested, I will contact you. Have a nice day.”

She attempted to swallow, but her mouth had gone dry. It sounded as if Erik was ready to hang up and that couldn’t happen. The nanny position included lodging, and that was exactly what she needed to drop from Tim’s radar. “Wait! I am in my car anyway, so maybe it would be okay if I at least dropped off my resume in person.”

There was a long pause, during which she held her breath. She knew she had taken a risk revealing her desperation to him, but that was how she felt. This job was life or death.

“Fine, you have an hour to drop off your resume. But I don’t have time for an interview, so don’t get your hopes up.”

There was a loud clicking sound on the other end, alerting her to the end of the conversation. Nora let out the breath she was holding and rolled down her window. She allowed the refreshing July air to fill her lungs and relax the tension in her body. This was what her life was reduced to—begging for a job from a rude stranger. Not only was Erik Bonay rude, he was adamant in the fact that he would not be offering her the job today, which meant she had to figure out a way to change his mind.

She sat up straighter in her seat and pulled down the mirror visor. Her white-blonde hair sat on her shoulders in a tangled, wavy mess. Her blue eyes were red-rimmed and swollen from driving for almost four days straight. An undefined sadness seemed to have fallen about her like a slowly descending cloud. As she studied her reflection, she knew she should be grateful to the mirror for revealing only her appearance. She could sleep off her baggy eyes, but her soul would not be so easily healed from all Tim’s abuse.

She grabbed her large duffle bag from the back seat and ripped through her meager belongings. After locating her makeup bag and hairbrush, she went to work. She brushed her hair until it shined and waved in a silky array around her shoulders. She applied mascara to her long lashes, covered up the dark circles under her eyes with foundation, and used lip-gloss to highlight her full lips. In the end, she almost looked like a normal twenty-four year old woman—almost.

She scooted around in her car, undressing from her torn jeans and worn-out T-shirt and pulled on a light blue sundress that flowed just above her knees. The color highlighted her eyes and gave her a cute girl-next-door appearance. The last thing she wanted to do was sell her womanly appeal like this, but desperate times called for desperate measures. Erik Bonay was about to be blown away.

She turned the key in the ignition of her car and pushed the visor back up. This was as good as it was going to get for freshening up in a small automobile with no running water, and no toothbrush. She pulled her car onto M-119 and headed toward the tunnel of trees. A scenic road that led to Cross Village.

The refreshing summer breeze blew in from her car window and lifted her spirits. She remembered how much she used to enjoy summer, especially in the Midwest. Her mom used to drive them up to Northern Michigan to camp out when she was a kid. She fondly recalled swimming in Lake Michigan and playing in the sand. Those were wonderful memories, some of the best of her life. She supposed that was why she was here, after Tim had found her last hide out. Part of her needed to reconnect with her childhood and remember who she used to be. Before she’d met Tim and lost everything.

She pushed down on the gas, watching the trees form a cage overhead, heart jumping in her chest. Tim was one of those men who laid in wait for a vulnerable girl to control and abuse. She never considered herself a victim before she met him. A wolf inside sheep’s clothing.

A cold shiver spread over her as she remembered. Tim always followed her, confessing his love and never ending admiration. No restraining order could stop him. No amount of distance between them was enough. He would always find a way to get to her. Promising he would never leave, that they were meant to be.

The last year and a half of her life was a scary cat and mouse game. She would run somewhere, he would find her, and she would run again. For almost three months, she had lived in a small town in California, renting a single room apartment with the leftover inheritance from her mother’s death. She waitressed down the street at a small restaurant and walked home at night. She was careful to live as low-key as possible and attract minimal attention. It was not much of a life, but as several weeks passed by, she began to feel free. It was the longest she had ever gone without hearing from Tim. It was the closest to heaven she had been in two years.

But then one day she walked home late from the restaurant and when she got there, she found a note on her pillow.

Nora,

When are you going to understand my love for you is too strong to ignore? Stop running! You and I are meant to be. We need to talk. We need to work things out. We need to begin our life together. Please give me a call when you get this. I’m in town.

Tim

She pressed down on the gas, fear and anger knotting inside her. Not only did Tim find her, but he had broken into her apartment, showing her there were no barriers between them. Then he chose to leave her apartment, so she was tormented with thoughts of where he was, until finally she packed all her belongings, and drove out of California as fast as she could. Hoping he wouldn’t catch her. Mind games, always mind games! Will I ever escape him?

A large lump lodged in her throat, making it difficult to swallow. All she ever wanted was a normal life, a family. Now she was in the middle of a nightmare, alone, and completely terrified. Hot tears fell down her cheeks, ruining her makeup. She let them fall, suddenly overwhelmed by the stress of the past two years.

What if Tim found her? What if this time he didn’t just stop at writing creepy letters or voicing his displeasure? Her ex was crazy; his stalking alone proved that. She wouldn’t put it past him to become violent. Prove his point through brute force.

She remembered the first time she called the police on Tim. They took him down to the station, and later that night he broke down her front door just to give her flowers. She threatened to call the police again if he didn’t leave, so he did, but not before warning her there were no barriers between them. They were meant to be. She filed countless restraining orders after that, and every time she would find them ripped up on her front lawn, his car circling her neighborhood. It was as if the authorities didn’t matter to Tim. He would risk anything, even losing his job to possess her. A man that crazy was capable of countless things.

Maybe I should just let Tim win? There seemed to be no end to his determination to possess her.

The thought of being back under his control created an instant burning rage inside her chest. She had already lived too many days under his rule. Going back to that oppression was not an option. She would allow herself a moment of pity but when every last tear was spent, she would keep fighting for her freedom. Much as she had for the last two years. “I’m a survivor. I can do this.”

She wiped away her tears and turned her face toward the warm breeze sailing through her window. The air was sweet, smelling of fresh lake and trees. The sun was shining bright with a promise of a better future. The road she drove down hugged the eastern shoreline of Lake Michigan through a dense forest. On one side she saw glimpses of old summer cabin homes tucked back in the trees, and on the other side she got brief glimpses of the Lake Michigan shoreline. It was breathtaking.

Nora picked up her speed, allowing the breeze to ruffle her hair. She was consumed by a profound and eager hopefulness. Maybe this time she would escape Tim once and for all and finally restart her life.