Tearing into the apartment, she left the door open as she ran to her bedroom. If they followed, she’d rather face them in a room than in the cramped hallway, a place guaranteed to allow them to corner her. The pounding of blood in her ears was almost deafening. Keep it together. Just breathe. You know what to do. He prepared you for this. She sucked a breath into lungs that felt locked with fear. She had to calm down. She needed a clear head. Her life depended on it. Dashing to the closet, she flung the door open and then opened the safe, overriding her shaking fingers. She extracted a large envelope, containing two sets of temporary identities and a sizeable wad of cash. After ramming it into the duffel bag she pulled down from the top shelf, she haphazardly yanked clothes off hangers and stuffed them in the bag. Hurrying to the dresser, she then deposited undergarments into it and zipped it up. It bulged with its contents, considering it had already held toiletries, makeup and wigs, items prepared well in advance in case she needed to flee. She never thought the need would arise, especially not in the manner it had, yet here she was, forced to run. She pulled her cellphone from her pocket, dropped it on the floor, and then ran from the apartment. After racing down the stairs, unwilling to chance an enclosed elevator, she emerged in the underground parking of the building. Her eyes darted around, scouring the many shadowed areas, looking for any sign of someone waiting for her. The darkness seemed more sinister at this late hour, holding imagined threats in every inky corner, but her intense scrutiny revealed no actual dangers. Breathing easier at the empty space before her, she hurried to her car, using her key fob to unlock it as she approached. She tossed the bag onto the passenger’s seat, locked the door, and started the car. Her heart hammered, almost painfully, and she drew another deep breath. Keep it together. Follow his instructions, and everything will be okay. She still had to get somewhere safe, someplace secluded, and wait for him to find her. That part scared her. There were so many unknown factors laying on her path to safety. She started the car and roared out of the parking lot, but then reduced her speed on the street, eager to avoid police detection. After parking the car in the lot at Union Station, she tossed her car keys in a trash bin, and then entered the station. She’d never been in the building at night and its emptiness was unnerving. A few people milled about, the odd one rushing through the space, the minimal action a marked contrast to the bustling and crowded daytime hours she was used to seeing. She detected the placement of cameras and, certain she was picked up by them, made her way to a ticket counter. Using her credit card, she purchased three train tickets, to Sarnia, Niagara Falls, and Windsor, all cities bordering the US. The plan was to have them searching those cities, and their US counterparts, while she disappeared. She ensured a camera caught her on a train platform, and then ducked out of the range of it, utilizing a door marked ‘employees only’. It led to a hallway where she found a small bathroom. After locking the door, she discarded her wallet, containing her current ID and credit cards, into the trash. Her chef uniform soon followed. She dressed, applied much more makeup than she would normally consider wearing, and tucked her long hair up under a short, blunt-style black wig. Her reflected self showed her a different woman from the one they’d be looking for and, pleased with her efforts, she left the bathroom. She spotted a door to the outside and kicked it open. A siren blared as she made her way around the building but she paid little mind to it. After all, it wasn’t her fault she hadn’t had a keycard to open the door properly. At the front of the building, she slid into a cab and instructed the driver to take her to the bus station on Bay Street. Upon arriving at the station, she purchased a bus ticket to Winnipeg with cash and then moved out to the platform to wait. The bus didn’t depart until seven in the morning and it was just past three now. She purchased a coffee from a kiosk and then sat on a bench. While she projected an outwardly casual appearance, she remained vigilant and visually inspected anyone she saw. When the time came, she boarded the bus, apprehensive over the long journey. A bus would never be her preferred method of transportation, but she had little choice. Bus tickets couldn’t be traced the way plane or train tickets could. In fact, she hadn’t even needed to provide a name in order to buy the ticket. As the bus meandered along the highway, the awakening cityscape of Toronto passed by her window. She’d miss her job, but that was all. She had no deep connections to anyone in the city. Roughly eight hours later, she arrived in Winnipeg. After securing a hotel room for the night, she bought a train ticket with one of the temporary identities. The train didn’t depart until eleven o’clock the next morning, which left her plenty of time to do all she wished to accomplish before departing. Using cash, she purchased boxes of hair dye, a burner phone, and then finally entered a restaurant to eat for the first time since her ordeal had begun. While waiting for her order, she activated the phone and texted a simple message to a number she’d memorized long ago. ‘DAR’, an acronym to inform him she was on the run. Once finished her meal, she paid the bill, and then used the restaurant’s washroom where she discarded the phone. At the hotel, she ensured everything was ready for her to leave upon awakening, and then requested a wake up call. Rising at nine would give her plenty of time to have a shower, eat, check-out, and arrive at the train station in time. She’d booked a sleeper cabin for privacy and a bed to sleep in, necessities on the almost two-and-a-half-day trip. Edmonton wasn’t her true destination—and in fact was much farther away than her intended target of Lethbridge—but she had to travel there first in order to establish an identity with her remaining temporary ID. They would probably never be able to track that ID but he would, for he’d provided it. She need only stay safe and wait for him to arrive. Viewing a light at the end of the stressful tunnel she’d been sucked into, she slid into bed. She hated the feel of the hotel sheets, and bemoaned the upcoming tedious rail trip. Exhaustion soon gripped her, an anticipated response to the adrenaline she’d operated on for hours now, and she closed her eyes. Attempting to picture what kind of life might await her in Lethbridge, she descended into a much-needed sleep.
Waiting for his next interviewee to arrive, Ethan rolled his tight shoulders. It was a glorious and unseasonable warm day but even the much-welcomed weather, after a harsh, cold winter, couldn’t lift his spirits. This Sunday was shitty so far, and it wasn’t quite noon. The ranch was busy in early spring, and these damn interviews were cutting into precious time better spent elsewhere. However, he was losing too many work hours by pulling his men from their jobs to prepare food for the rest. He needed a cook, and had to conduct these interviews even as only two people had responded to his ad. The first, whom he’d interviewed earlier, was a man he’d hated on sight. Boasting about his accomplishments on breath that reeked of beer at ten in the morning, the man’s red, bloated face had irritated the piss out of Ethan. He’d ended the interview within a few minutes, demanded the man leave his property, and never even think of returning to it. That left him with the second applicant, a woman. Hiring a woman didn’t bother him, but having one on his ranch sure did. With several male farm hands, he envisioned nightmare scenarios of the men fighting over her. Maybe she’d be a lesbian. He adjusted his work-battered hat and waited to see if he could possibly be that lucky. A few moments before noon, the scheduled interview time, a pickup turned onto the long driveway, and then parked in front of the house. Holding his breath, he allowed himself to go with the lesbian scenario. Until the woman exited the vehicle, that was, and his breath rushed out on a disappointed stream. Long, wavy, bright red hair hung to mid-way down her back, highlighted by the overhead sun in golden streaks that shone, and her jeans fit her shapely body well. Too well. Swearing under his breath, he moved forward to greet her, extending his hand. “Ms. Pennell?” She nodded as she took his hand. Forcing a smile, his eyes skimmed her beauty, dark brown eyes framed by long lashes, set under exquisitely shaped brows, creamy skin, and plump lips. Shit. She was beautiful, and that was definitely an issue. A huge problem, in fact. “I’m Ethan Collins. It’s a pleasure to meet you.” “You too,” she replied. He silently cursed the honeyed sound of her voice. She was going to drive the men nuts. “Please, come in,” he said. He led her into the office in his house, using the entrance he’d exited from earlier, unwilling to lead her through the front entrance. He didn’t want her in his house, at least not until he was certain he’d hire her, and he was really leaning to not doing so. After waiting for her to sit, he took his seat behind the desk and looked her over again. Her hair was darker now that they were indoors, an enticing crimson with maroon lowlights, cascading over her slender but strong-looking shoulders. As if nervous, she grazed white teeth along her full bottom lip. This was a mistake. He couldn’t possibly hire her. Eyes the colour of chestnuts held his gaze, seeming to beckon him to do more than interview her. “Ms. Pennell—” “Please, call me Zoë.” “Zoë,” he repeated. “I have to be honest. I’m not comfortable having a woman on the ranch, especially one who’s as, um, young as you.” She frowned. Even that gesture was sexy on her lips. “I’m sorry you came all the way out here for this interview, but I can’t hire you.” “You didn’t even interview me.” “I know but—” “But you took one look at me and decided not to hire me,” she interrupted. “Are you being sexist or ageist here? I can’t tell.” He didn’t appreciate her snarky words, and imagined his expression told her as much. “Neither,” he answered, his speech clipped with rising anger, “it’s the work environment. It’s not a place for a young woman, secluded all the way out here, surrounded by men.” “Are you implying your men will be so overwhelmed by my feminine wiles that they’ll be unable to control themselves and attack me?” “Of course not, but I foresee issues with you being here.” “Such as?” Unsure how he became the one answering questions, he stiffly folded his hands on the desk. “This is my ranch and I’m in charge. Whom I choose to hire is my business and doesn’t concern anyone else. I’m uncertain why you feel it’s your place to question me, or my decisions, but it isn’t. Thank you for your time, and I’m sorry you came all the way out here for nothing.” Instead of jumping up and leaving in an expected enraged rush, she leaned back in the chair and crossed one long leg over the other. “I won’t have come out here for nothing if you actually interview me.” “I just told you I wasn’t going to hire you.” “You can’t do that without interviewing me first. You’re the one that contacted me for the interview. Whether or not you hire me, you can’t make your sexist views this apparent. Applicants deserve a fair shot at employment, especially when asked to attend interviews. Disregarding a potential employee based on their physical appearance is unlawful, and grounds for me to involve the Human Rights Commission.” “Are you threatening me?” he questioned, narrowing his eyes at her audacity. “I’d have no reason to threaten anyone who conducts business in a professional manner. It’s not a lot to ask.” She’d just forced him into interviewing her when she knew he wouldn’t hire her. Unbelievable. He sat back in his chair and crossed his arms tightly. “Fine. Why do you want to work here?” “I love to cook. You need a cook. I need a job,” she replied. Was she purposely trying to anger him? He snorted. “Are you going to be like this now, or actually answer my questions?” “I did answer your question.” She smiled. “Fine,” he said, unable to prevent the clench of his teeth. “What experience do you have that’s relevant to this position? Your résumé is, well, frankly devoid of work experience.” “And yet you called me for an interview.” He stared at her until she nodded. “You’re right, I haven’t listed any work experience, but I have some. I worked in my ex-husband’s family’s restaurant to help out, so I have a lot of experience cooking.” “Why isn’t that on your résumé?” “Because I did it to help out, they didn’t pay me, it’s not work experience you could confirm, and now that I’m not with him anymore, it’s not like they’d give me a reference, so I didn’t bother.” Taking a moment before responding, he studied her, knowing his stare was intent and not caring a whit. While exchanging emails in order to set up the interview, he’d asked why she’d applied for a job in such an out of the way place and her answer was that she’d recently divorced, moved to Lethbridge from Edmonton, and was keen to start over in a quiet community. It was a reasonable scenario but something about her story didn’t sit well with him now that she was before him. She didn’t give off the vibe of someone who was recovering from an emotional breakup. In fact, he’d sensed no emotion from her as she’d related her work experience. Not a twinge of anger, remorse, hurt, nothing at all. There was something amiss with her. While a mystery would normally intrigue him, all he wanted now was her out of his office and off his ranch. “May I ask you something?” she questioned. “Sure.” He barely resisted the urge to roll his eyes. “Why did you ask me to come out for this interview if you so adamantly don’t want a woman in the position? You’re right, my résumé sucks, and yet you called me for an interview. As I see it, either you desperately need this position filled, or something about my physical appearance put you off hiring me. Which is it?” “Both, actually.” “I see. So, you wanted to hire me until you saw me.” When he didn’t respond, she cocked her head. “What is it about me that’s so off-putting to you?” He leaned forward again, keeping his arms folded. “You really need to ask that? It’s not that your appearance is off-putting. It’s the opposite. What do you think could transpire here, with a group of men and you?” “I’m not sure what you mean.” “You know exactly what I mean. You can easily see how attractive you are. The men will be interested in you.” “And that’s a crime of some sort?” He couldn’t help but snort. “I’m not sure why you’re being coy, but you know what I’m worried about.” Her lips pursed at his condemning tone. “Are you implying I’m a slut who’ll spread my legs for them one by one, or that I won’t want any of them and they’ll fight over me?” “Neither, but you’ll be a distraction for them, and I don’t need trouble here. I run a tight ship, and I’m not keen on having to deal with problems of a personal nature.” “I see.” She uncrossed her legs and then leaned forward, placing her hands on the edge of his desk. “I think we got off on the wrong foot and that’s probably my fault. I’m a little short on tact sometimes.” He nodded at her gross understatement. “However,” she continued, “the fact remains that you need a cook and I need a job. I’m a great cook. You won’t be disappointed with the food I prepare, or with my work ethic. I work hard, and take my job seriously. I’ll be nothing but professional. As to my appearance, well, I can’t do anything about how I look. If your men can’t control themselves that’s their problem, not mine. If you’re worried about me being overwhelmed by male attention, I can set your mind at ease. I just got out of a bad relationship and I’m not eager to start another. All I want is time on my own and a chance to be independent, have my own place, and earn my own money. It’s not much to ask, and being denied it because you think I’m attractive hardly seems fair. It seems to me that you need my skills and I need the job you’re offering. Of course, it’s your business, and your decision,” she added with a bright smile, “but I think we could solve one another’s problems here.” She made it sound like hiring her was the smart thing to do and he supposed she might believe that. He didn’t. As much as he needed a cook, hiring her was a bad idea. Despite her assurances she wasn’t interested in starting a relationship, he could easily imagine the chaos if she did start dating one of his men and it didn’t work out. Abhorring drama, he wouldn’t see it unfold among his employees. Best case scenario if she did hook up with one of his men would be if it worked out, but then they’d want to be together and he’d end up losing two employees at once. No matter which way he looked at it, he could foresee problems. Then again, no one else had applied for the job, well, aside from the drunkard he’d refused to consider. “Fine, I’ll hire you on a trial basis. However, I’m adamantly opposed to relationships between employees here.” She looked about to respond to that but kept quiet. It was a small solace. “When can you start?” “Tomorrow, if you’d like. I’m staying in a motel in Lethbridge, so I can leave at any time.” “Good, tomorrow is perfect.” He stood up, and she followed suit. Extending his hand, he forced a slight smile onto his lips. “Welcome to River Rock Homestead.” “Thank you, I’m glad to be here.” Neither of them sounded sincere, but he paid no mind. This was a temporary arrangement.