Convicted, стр. 103

Courtney shrugged. “How can we do this?”

With the animosity gone, the two women worked toward a common goal and brainstormed ideas. During their second or third glass of wine, Courtney and Meredith devised and tweaked their plan. Though it was almost October, the days were staying warm with a sunshine whose rays shone until early evening. Meredith would take Claire on a walk, and Courtney would join them at the far west end of the grounds. It would be a short hike for Courtney to park and meet them undetected, but she didn’t mind. As long as it didn’t rain, they planned a visit for the next evening. When they left the restaurant, Courtney hugged Meredith. “I can’t tell you how excited I am. Thank you for all you’ve done.” Still gripping her shoulders, Courtney’s speech slowed and she added, “And, if you use any of this to write another book, I will personally come after you.”

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The late afternoon September sun glistened through the trees. Claire didn’t know why Meredith rushed her dinner. It wasn’t that she minded, but she could tell something was different. It wasn’t until they were away from Everwood’s immediate grounds and into the paths through the woods that Meredith finally explained, “I have a surprise for you. I hope you’re all right with it.”

Claire eyed her friend suspiciously. “I trust you; however, I’m just not a fan of surprises.”

“I think you will be this one time. I know Emily has made it difficult for you to reconnect with anyone.”

Claire exhaled. “Difficult is a nice word. I mean, I understand her reasoning with Nichol—I do. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to see her. I think about her constantly. It’s just that I want to see others. It almost feels like—”

The squeeze of Meredith’s hands stopped Claire’s words. She saw a figure up ahead, through the darkening forest. Unconsciously, her steps slowed. Claire could tell it was a woman. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she heard the numbers—suddenly, she realized she was counting her steps—twenty-three, twenty-four, twenty-five—She worked to block out the numbers and concentrate on the person ahead.

Claire continued walking.

Slowly, the figure came into view—the person took shape and her face became clear. Gasping—Claire realized it was Courtney—merely yards in front of her. She dropped Meredith’s hand and ran to her friend. By the time they embraced, tears covered both of their cheeks.

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Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will .

—Mahatma Gandhi

Claire woke with a start. Blinded by the sunlight streaming through the unblocked window, she tried to focus. The split second of disorientation faded as she remembered they were at the Simmons’ home. Reaching for her husband, she found only an empty bed. Claire crawled to the end of the mattress and peered into the empty crib. Her eyes searched for a clock while questions bombarded her thoughts: How late had she slept? Why hadn’t Tony brought Nichol to her to feed? Was he still here or had he and Phil already left?

Panic boiled through her veins as she wrapped a robe around her nightgown and rushed toward the kitchen. By the time she reached her destination, tears teetered on her lids and breathing required thought; then all at once, the tension severed—her world was right. Tony was seated at the table, coffee in hand with Nichol in his arms. Phil was seated across from them as Courtney stood by the stove. The wonderful aroma of coffee and fried food filled the room as Courtney’s voice chatted on about nothing. Despite the worries of the world, Claire had entered the calm in the midst of a storm.

Hearing Claire enter, Tony looked up. Immediately, his expression darkened. “Claire, what’s the matter?”

Shaking her head, she exhaled the breath she hadn’t realize she’d been holding. “Nothing”—going to him and Nichol, she kissed his cheek and reached for their daughter—“I was afraid you’d already left for the estate.”

“I wouldn’t do that,” he answered. Petting Nichol’s head, he straightened the fine strands of brown hair, and his tone lightened. “We were going to need to wake you soon. Someone was becoming impatient.”

Claire’s breasts ached as she settled into the nearby sun porch with Nichol. The windows offered a bright spring view. The earth had yet to wake from its winter nap, but the blue skies and warm rays of sunshine were promises of a greener world to come. The porch offered Claire modesty while keeping her close enough to hear the men discussing the logistics of the upcoming day.

Emily and John were due to arrive in Iowa around 3:00 PM—Eric filled Phil in on the itinerary, would keep them up-to-date, and promised to get them into the house unnoticed. While they talked options and scenarios, Claire had visions of a bad spy movie. Tony knew every inch of the estate—he explained entrances and exits while discussing security. For the first time, it seemed as though Tony wished he hadn’t installed the finest in security software.

Phil assured him, he’d check everything first. There wasn’t a security system he couldn’t disable or manipulate. With Tony’s intimate knowledge of the surroundings, Phil promised he could have it figured out in no time. Tony wanted to get to Catherine before the Vandersols arrived. His plan was to talk with her and stop anything from happening—before it even started. He had a valid concern that the Vandersols wouldn’t understand his presence, and, therefore, contact the authorities. Early intervention was safer for everyone.

Claire liked their confidence. For a plan that sounded like James Bond meets Inspector Gadget—they actually made it sound plausible. By the time she joined them at the table, she began to feel more confident herself. Hadn’t Phil once told her about his military career? Hadn’t he mentioned his history with the special ops? Surely, he’d dealt with enemies better trained and more frightening than Catherine London; besides, Tony had the element of surprise on his side. As long as Eric was truly trustworthy, Catherine should be caught unaware.

It was nearly noon when Phil’s phone buzzed and everyone stared. “It’s Eric, excuse me a second.” When he stepped from the room and walked down the hall, the room where they sat was, once again, taut with tension. The earlier calm evaporated with the sound of Phil’s fading steps. Even Courtney remained silent as they waited for Phil’s return.

From out of nowhere, a forgotten memory returned to Claire. The room where Phil now stood—talking on his phone—was the same room where Marianne and Bonnie stood years ago. She remembered the cattiness in Bonnie’s voice as she discussed Claire’s clothes and undeserved devotion from Tony. At that time, Claire’s world was a lie. Every move she made and every word she said was solely to pacify the man Bonnie deemed as her sugar daddy. Looking at Tony now, she recalled the man he’d been and remembered the fear of disappointing him.

Today, her fear wasn’t the same—Claire didn’t fear disappointing Tony—she feared losing him. While they waited for Phil to return with his news, she yearned for the simplicity of a life with one goal—to please one man. The obstacles currently before them seemed insurmountable—Emily and John’s safety—Catherine’s plan for vengeance—the authorities—and their safe return to paradise. For a moment, she wished for the two of them alone in the beige walled suite with heavy golden draperies. Never had she imagined those memories would be her go-to safe spot.