The Obsession

By: Nora Roberts



“I’ll crawl if I have to.”

She got to her knees, levered herself up with Naomi’s help. It was slow, and Naomi knew from Ashley’s labored breathing that it was painful. She found a downed branch, and that helped a little, only a little, as the trail went to mud in the storm.

They crossed the creek—running fast now, from the rain—and kept going.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I don’t know your name.”

“Naomi.”

“That’s a nice name. Naomi, I have to stop for a minute.”

“Okay, but just for a minute.”

Ashley braced against a tree, breathing hard, leaning heavily on the broken branch while sweat and rain ran down her face. “Is that a dog? I hear a dog barking.”

“It’s probably King. The Hardy place is right over that way.”

“Can we go there? We can call the police, get help.”

“It’s too close.” Mr. Hardy was a deacon at church with her father. He’d call her father before he called the police.

“Too close? It feels like we’ve walked miles.”

“Not even one.”

“Okay.” Ashley closed her eyes a moment, bit down on her lip. “Okay. Do you know the man? The one who took me, the one who hurt me?”

“Yes.”

“You know his name, where they can find him.”

“Yes. We have to keep going now. We have to keep going.”

“Tell me his name.” Wincing, Ashley pushed off the tree, began her hobbling walk. “It’ll keep me going to know it.”

“His name is Thomas Bowes. Thomas David Bowes.”

“Thomas David Bowes. How old are you?”

“Eleven. I’m going to be twelve on Monday.”

“Happy birthday. You’re really smart and strong and brave. You saved my life, Naomi. You saved a life before your twelfth birthday. Don’t ever forget it.”

“I won’t. I won’t forget. The storm’s passing.”

She kept to the woods. It took longer that way than it would have if she’d gone out to the road. But she knew fear now, and kept to the woods until the edge of the little town of Pine Meadows.

She went to school there, and to church, and her mother shopped in the market. She’d never been inside the sheriff’s office, but she knew where it was.

As dawn lightened the sky to the east, and the first light glimmered on puddles, she walked past the church, over the narrow bridge that arched over the narrow stream. Her flip-flops made soggy flaps on the street, and Ashley limped, the branch clomping, her breath a raw pant with each step.

“What town is this?”

“It’s Pine Meadows.”

“Where? I was in Morgantown. I go to college at WVU.”

“It’s about twelve miles from here.”

“I was training. Running. I’m a long-distance runner, believe it or not. And I was training like I do every morning. He was parked on the side of the road with the hood up, like he’d had a breakdown. I had to slow a little, and he grabbed me. He hit me with something. And I woke up in that place. I’m going to have to stop again.”

No, no, no stopping. No thinking. Just doing.

“We’re almost there. See, right down the road, that white house—see the sign out front?”

“Pine Meadows Sheriff’s Department. Oh thank God. Oh thank God.” Ashley began to weep then, racking sobs that shook them both as Naomi tightened her arm around Ashley’s waist, took more weight, and trudged the rest of the way.

“We’re safe now. We’re safe.”

When Ashley collapsed on the narrow porch, Naomi wrapped the blanket closer around her, then knocked hard on the door.

“Is someone going to be there? I didn’t think. It’s so early.”

“I don’t know.” But Naomi knocked again.

When the door opened, Naomi had a vague recognition of the young face, the tousled hair.

“What’s all this?” he began, and then his sleepy eyes shifted by her, landed on Ashley. “Well, Jesus.”

He shot the door open, jumped out to crouch beside her. “I’m going to get you inside.”

“Help. Help us.”

“You’re all right. You’re going to be all right.”

He looked scrawny to Naomi’s eyes, but he hefted Ashley like she was nothing—and flushed a bit when the blanket slipped and the torn shirt exposed most of her left breast.

“Honey,” he said to Naomi, “hold the door open now. Y’all have an accident?”

“No,” Naomi said. She held the door open, had one instant to think whether she should run away, just run, or go inside.

She went inside.

“I’m going to set you down right here. All right now?” His eyes studied the bruising on Ashley’s throat, and knowledge came into them. “Sweetheart, you see that water fountain over there. How about you get—What’s your name now?”

“Ashley. Ashley McLean.”

“You get Ashley some water, would you?”

He turned as he spoke, then spotted the knife Naomi held at her side. In that same easy tone, he said, “Why don’t you give that to me, all right? There you go.”

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