His shadowed eyes, heavy with another kind of threat, slid over her. “You ready for me to take you back?”

All she had to do was say yes. One simple word. She pushed her tongue into the proper position. Arranged her lips. Failed to force it out. “Not yet.”

He frowned. “Are you sure you know what you’re doing?”

The answer to that question was so obvious even he could figure it out. When she failed to respond, he shrugged and climbed back on the bike.

As they pulled out of the parking lot, she wondered how riding off with this menacing biker seemed less chilling than facing the family she loved so much. But then she didn’t owe this man anything. The worst he could do was- She didn’t want to think about the worst he could do.

Once again the wind tore at her robe. Only her hands stayed warm from the body heat radiating through his thin suit coat. Eventually he turned off the highway onto a rutted trail. The bike’s headlight cut an eerie pattern across the scrub, and she held tighter to his waist even as her brain screamed at her to jump off and run. Finally they reached a small clearing at the edge of a river. From a sign she’d seen earlier, she guessed it was the Pedernales. A perfect place to dispose of a dead body.

Without the roar of the engine, the silence was suffocating. She got off the bike and backed away. He pulled something that looked like an old stadium blanket from one of the saddlebags. As he dropped it on the ground, she caught the faint scent of motor oil. He grabbed the beer and grocery bag. “You gonna wear that thing all night?”

She wanted to keep the helmet on forever, but she took it off. Pins tumbled, and a wedge of oversprayed hair poked her in the cheek. The quiet was dense and noisy with the rush of river over rock. He lifted the beer in her direction. “Too bad this is only a six-pack.”

She gave a stiff smile. He popped the top, sprawled on the blanket, and tipped the longneck to his mouth. He was a friend of Ted’s, wasn’t he? So he had to be safe-despite his threatening appearance and boorish manner, despite the beer and the frayed bumper sticker.


“Have one,” he said. “Maybe it’ll loosen you up.”

She didn’t want to loosen up, and she had to pee, but she hobbled over anyway and took a bottle to keep him from drinking it. She found a spot on the far corner of the blanket where she wouldn’t brush against his long legs or breathe in his general air of menace. She should be drinking Champagne now in the bridal suite of the Austin Four Seasons as Mrs. Theodore Beaudine.

The biker pulled a couple of cellophane-wrapped sandwiches from the grocery bag. He tossed one in her general direction and opened the other. “Too bad you didn’t wait until after the big wedding dinner to dump him. The food would have been a lot better than this.”

Lump crab parfait, lavender grilled beef tenderloin, lobster medallions, white truffle risotto, a seven-tier wedding cake…

“Really. How do you know Ted?” she asked.

He ripped off a big corner of his sandwich with his teeth and spoke around the wad in his mouth. “We met a couple of years back when I was working a construction job in Wynette, and we hit it off. We see each other when I’m in the area.”

“Ted hits it off with most people.”

“Not all of them good guys like him.” He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and took another noisy swig of beer.

She set aside the beer she wasn’t drinking. “So you’re not from around here?”

“Nope.” He balled up the cellophane sandwich wrapper and flipped it into the weeds.

She hated people who littered, but she wasn’t going to mention that. Devouring his sandwich seemed to require all his attention, and he didn’t volunteer any more information.

She couldn’t postpone a trip into the woods any longer. She took a napkin from the grocery bag and, wincing with every step, limped into the trees. When she was done, she returned to the blanket. He chugged some more beer. She couldn’t stomach her own sandwich, and she pushed it aside. “Why did you pick me up?”

“I wanted to get laid.”

Her skin crawled. She looked for some indication that this was his crude attempt at a joke, but he didn’t crack a smile. On the other hand, he was Ted’s friend, and as odd as some of them were, she’d never met any that were criminals. “You’re not serious,” she said.

He skimmed his eyes over her. “It could happen.”

“No, it couldn’t!”

He burped, not loud, but still disgusting. “I’ve been too busy for women lately. It’s time to catch up.”

She stared at him. “By picking up your friend’s bride while she’s running away from her wedding?”

He scratched his chest. “You never know. Crazy women’ll do anything.” He drained his beer, burped again, and tossed the empty into the bushes. “So what do you say? Are you ready for me to take you back to Mommy and Daddy?”

“I say no.” Despite her growing apprehension, she wasn’t ready to go back. “You haven’t told me your name.”


“No, really.”

“You don’t like it?”

“It’s hard to believe that’s your real name.”

“No skin off my nose whether you believe it or not. I go by Panda.”

“I see.” She thought about it while he ripped open a bag of chips. “It must be nice.”

“How do you mean?”

“Riding from town to town with a made-up name.” And a big blue bike helmet to hide beneath.

“I guess.”

She had to stop this, and she gathered her courage. “Do you happen to have a cell I can borrow? I… need to call someone.”

He dug into his suit coat pocket and tossed her his phone. She failed to catch it and had to fumble in the folds of her robe.

“Good luck getting a signal out here.”

She hadn’t thought about that, but then her ability to think logically had deserted her hours earlier. She hobbled around the clearing on her now-torturous heels until she found a spot near the riverbank where she picked up a weak signal. “It’s me,” she said when Meg answered.

“Luce? Are you all right?”

“Matter of opinion.” She gave a choked laugh. “You know that wild side of me you’re always talking about? I guess I found it.” Nothing could be further from the truth. She was the least wild person imaginable. Once maybe, but not for a long time.

“Oh, honey…” The signal was weak, but not weak enough to mute her friend’s concern.

She had to go back to Wynette. But… “I’m-I’m a coward, Meg. I can’t face my family yet.”

“Luce, they love you. They’ll understand.”

“Tell them I’m sorry.” She fought back tears. “Tell them I love them, and I know I’ve made a horrible mess of everything, and that I’ll come back and clean it up, but… Not tonight. I can’t do it tonight.”

“All right. I’ll tell them. But-”

She disconnected before Meg could ask her any more questions she had no way of answering.

A crushing fatigue swept over her. She’d slept badly for weeks, and today’s awful events had used up whatever energy she had left. Panda had disappeared in the woods, and as he came out, she decided to let him get drunk in peace. She gazed at the blanket spread on the hard ground and thought of the narrow, comfortable beds in the private presidential quarters of Air Force One and the blackout shades that covered the windows with the push of a button. She gingerly lay back on the farthest edge of the blanket and gazed at the stars.

She wished she had a biker name to hide behind. Something tough. Something strong and menacing. Everything she wasn’t.

She fell asleep thinking up biker names. Snake… Fang… Venom…

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