Three to Ride

Nights in Bliss, Colorado - 1

Sophie Oak


To Kim. If the universe had asked me what I wanted in a sister, I would never have picked you. Sometimes reality is better than fantasy.

Special thanks to my family for giving me the time to write, to the towns of South Fork and Creede in Colorado for the inspiration, and to my writer buddies, Kris Cook and Shayla Black for always listening when I drone on and on.


Elizabeth Courtney stared dully out the hospital window. It was a gray day outside. It seemed like it would never stop raining.

“We’ll give you protection.” The officer had made that promise three times now. He kept looking over her file and saying the same things.

“For how long?” Liz asked, knowing the answer wouldn’t be to her liking.

The male officer shifted from foot to foot and scratched at the hair under his black cap. “For as long as you need it.”

“I doubt that,” she replied. It would be for as long as they had the budget for it, if that. Tommy still had friends on the force. Just because he’d turned out to be a complete psycho freak didn’t mean they would desert him. Cops tended to stick together, especially on big-city police forces. Liz had already gotten a phone call from Tommy’s old partner threatening her if she didn’t drop the case against him. Of course, at the time, her case had been stalking. She could now add arson and attempted murder to the list. God, she thought, still dazed at the last twenty-four hours, how could one date have gone so wrong? Her stomach felt leaden. Her heart started to pound.

“She’ll be in the hospital for at least another forty-eight hours,” the doctor said to the police officer.

She was grateful for the doctor’s intervention. It gave her a moment to quell the panic that was threatening to overtake her. She stared at the man in the white coat and thought about what he’d just said. Just an hour before, Dr. Jones had told her she could leave tonight. He looked so serious that Liz kept her mouth closed.

The officer nodded and flipped the notebook he was holding shut. Liz bet he was happy to be able to put off the problem for another couple of days. “All right, then. We’ll be back tomorrow to discuss how we can protect you, Miss Courtney. You’re in a secure wing of the hospital for now. Don’t worry about a thing. You should concentrate on feeling better.”

It took everything Liz had not to throw something as the officer walked out the door. Don’t worry? She’d been through hell for the last year. It had started simply. It had been a blind date with a friend of a friend. Tommy Lane had set off a few red flags, and Liz had politely declined his offer for a second date. That should have been the end of it. But one year’s worth of creepy phone calls, letters to her boss, and vandalism had finally led to him torching her small townhouse. She had lost everything. It was good to know the police didn’t want her to worry.

Liz looked over at the doctor. He was a nice-looking man in his mid-thirties. He’d been kind to her. Everyone in the hospital had gone out of their way to make her feel safe. “Why did you lie to the cop? Is there something else wrong with me?”

Dr. Wright took a deep breath. “You’re fine. I lied because I don’t want anyone to know where you’re going.” The door to her room opened, and one of the night nurses walked in. Liz remembered her name was Sandy. She must have changed shifts because it was still light outside. She carried a duffel bag.

“Everything’s ready,” Sandy said to the doctor.

“Good.” The doctor rubbed his hands together and nodded. He turned to Liz, and there was a wealth of sympathy in his eyes. “I’ll leave you in Sandy’s capable hands. I wish you the best of luck, Ms. Courtney. My card is in that bag. If you need anything, please call me.”

Liz watched the doctor exit the room before turning her attention to the nurse. Sandy was an older woman. She looked to be in her mid-fifties and radiated an air of confidence that came with extreme professionalism. She was brisk and efficient, but now she smiled kindly. “Liz, you don’t have any family, do you?”

Liz shook her head. Her father had died of cancer ten years ago and her mother in a car accident three years later. She only had an elderly aunt in San Diego. She adored her Aunt Sadie, but she couldn’t exactly count on her for protection. Liz had been on her own for a long time, but never before had she felt so isolated and alone. Tommy had done that to her. In the last year, he’d managed to drive off every friend she had.

“I lost my daughter,” Sandy said, tears welling as though the loss happened yesterday. “It was ten years ago.”

“I’m sorry.” Liz murmured all the words she knew she should say. She couldn’t imagine how awful it was to lose a child. Losing her parents had been hard enough. Still, her mind was focused on one problem and one problem alone. How was she going to survive when he was still out there?

“Her ex-boyfriend walked into the place she worked and shot her three times in the heart,” Sandy explained matter-of-factly. “She’d done all the right things. She got restraining orders, called the cops on him. It didn’t matter.”

She’d done all the things Liz had done, and she’d still died at the hands of her stalker. Liz felt her whole body tremble. She had nowhere to go. Tommy was very savvy when it came to tracking a person. He could track her with her credit cards or trace her through her cell phone. Once he had found out she’d gone to a bar with some girlfriends and accused her of cheating. He’d left numerous voice mails detailing a relationship that didn’t exist. It had proven to Liz that he was completely insane. Liz had been shocked to learn he’d been tracking the license plate on her car as she drove through intersections with cameras. Anywhere she went, he would find her.

Sandy shook her head as though trying to pull herself back into the present. “If she was alive today, I’d tell her to do the one thing I’m telling you to do.”

“What?” Liz’s tears were falling freely now.

“Run, sweetie.” Sandy reached out and took her hands. “You gotta run. Until they have enough evidence to put him in jail, you aren’t safe. He’ll just come after you again. The nurses took up a collection. There’s five thousand dollars in that bag. It’s not much, but it’s a start. I have a friend who helps out in situations like this. He made you three new driver’s licenses and passports. They’ll pass the tests. There are social security cards, too. It’s everything you need to start a new life.”

Liz looked down at the duffel bag and then back up to Sandy. If she had a new identity, maybe he wouldn’t be able to find her. He wouldn’t know what car to watch for or what name to track on her credit cards. She could start over and leave this nightmare behind. Something like hope was starting to bloom inside her. “Why are you doing this for me?”

Sandy’s face was lined with heartache. “I do this for a lot of girls, more than I care to think of. I do this because I wish someone had done it for my daughter.”

Two hours later, Liz sat in the front seat of a beat-up sedan. There was a black wig covering her golden brown hair. She had instructions to dye her hair at the earliest opportunity. There was a box of L’Oréal in her bag. Liz smiled slightly as she thought about it. She’d always wanted to try blonde.

“I have a blog at this address.” Sandy pressed a piece of paper in Liz’s hand. “Check it every week if you can. I’ll post information there when I get some. I’ll let you know if it’s safe to come home, okay?”

Liz nodded, her heart filled with gratitude. These people had given her everything. The doctor had bought this car and then made sure the plates couldn’t be traced back to any of them. The day shift nurses had purchased clothes for her. What they had really bought her was a chance at survival. “How can I ever thank you?”

Sandy’s smile was watery. “You thank me by living a good life, sweetheart. You go out there, and you find your heart’s desire. Don’t you let him win. Fall in love and have a bunch of kids and just live. You hear me?”

Liz nodded, unable to stop her own tears. She started the car and waved at the woman who’d given her this completely new life. It was scary. She looked at the entrance to the garage. There was a brilliant light at the end of the tunnel. It led to Amanda Cooper. She was Mandy Cooper now. She had to figure out who that was. Despite the horror of the past year, there was a little excitement in her stomach, like little butterflies that were excited at the prospects opening up to her.

Mandy Cooper drove toward that light, already shedding the vestiges of her old life. She would take the good stuff, her parents’ love and the lessons she’d learned, with her. She would toss away everything else. She didn’t need it. When she drove into the harsh sun of the Dallas afternoon, she turned her face to the light. The warmth of the sun felt like a benediction on her skin.

She pointed the car toward the highway and didn’t look back.

* * *

Sheriff Ryan Harper sat on the porch watching Nina pack her cute little convertible. His dog, Quigley, lay at his feet, a tennis ball in his mouth, patiently waiting for someone to toss the nasty old thing. Rye wasn’t in the mood to play. If he was half the gentleman his mama had raised him to be, he would get off his butt and help Nina. He tipped back his bottle of beer and watched her. He should have known it wouldn’t work.

“You’re a bastard, you know.” Nina’s pretty face was flushed with exertion. She shoved her platinum blonde hair out of her eyes.

Rye shrugged. His Stetson sat low on his forehead. The heat of the Colorado summer was starting to make him sweat. He knew he should get out of his sheriff’s uniform when he was drinking, but he couldn’t work up the will to care. “I’m not the one running out on my wedding.”

Nina sighed. Her shoulders slumped, and she seemed to get smaller. “I’m sorry, Rye. I got a better offer. You know how that goes.”

Rye huffed. “Yeah, someone with more money comes along, and you run off chasing him. Don’t think you can come back here when it goes bad for you in Denver.”

Nina flashed him a superior smile and was right back to being her arrogant self. “I’m never coming back here. I’m going to be a rich man’s wife.” She leaned against her trunk, seemingly more comfortable now. “Look, Rye, don’t take it bad. You know I care about you. I just care about me more.”

In the distance, a truck pulled up the long drive. Quigley’s tail began to thump. “Didn’t you want to be gone before Max got home?”

Nina’s brow wrinkled as she took in the sight of that Ford coming up the dirt road. “Damn it, I told you not to call him.” She worked overtime shoving suitcases into the car.

“I didn’t,” Rye said calmly. He knew something Nina didn’t know. Max wouldn’t care. Rye appreciated Nina’s fear too much to tell her differently. “Big Brother just has impeccable timing. He always has.”

Nina was trying to get the trunk closed when Maxwell Harper slid out of his old truck. Quigley, drooling around the tennis ball, ran to his master. That old dog knew what Nina didn’t. Max had always liked animals more than humans. Max didn’t miss a beat. He pulled the ball out of his dog’s mouth and threw it as far as he could. Quigley ran off, happy to have found a playmate. Max’s eyes slid from his younger brother to the blonde and back again. “The wedding’s off, then?”


“Thank God.” Max didn’t even attempt to hide his relief. He smiled broadly. He wore blue jeans and a neatly pressed shirt. It was what he wore when meeting with clients. Rye took note of the paperwork sticking out of his small laptop bag. At least someone had scored.

“Asshole,” Nina spat, looking at the older of the two brothers. “I can’t believe I wasted my time on you two. You know what, Ryan Harper? I’m going to give you a piece of advice. If you ever want to get married, you better dump Max. It’s fine for a night, or even a couple of months of sex, but no woman is going to put up with his shit. You’re going to be alone for the rest of your life if you insist on this perverted lifestyle.”

“You didn’t think it was perverted last night,” Rye replied. Last night she’d seemed pretty damn happy between them. Max had never thought Nina was the one for them, but he hadn’t minded fucking her.