"He's killed my best friend and now Bill. Do whatever you can to lose him." She grabbed Tom's hand that remained on the gearshift. "No place is safe. He has people all over the state that work for him and he'll have no problem getting rid of you if you stand between me and him."
Tom glanced from the road to Charlise and studied her face.
She stuck up her chin, and nodded her head. She gave him the truth, and if he'd learned anything, he'd better take the information and run.
"Hold on." He shifted gears.
The force of the car doing a one eighty pulled her against the car door. The scent of burning rubber assailed her nose. Gravel hit the underside of the car
"Hurry," she pleaded.
Tom checked the rearview mirror. "He didn't make the turn, and there are cars behind me getting in between, so he can't tail us. We need to get off this road and find another route."
"Where are you planning on going?" The blanket slid off her and she tossed it into the back seat.
"I'm not taking you back to the office." Tom passed another car on the highway. "It'd be too easy for him to find out which agency I work for and beat us back there."
"Yes, he will. Nowhere is safe."
Tom took the next exit, drove a few blocks, and pulled in behind a tire repair shop. He parked so that he could watch the exit ramp and turned to Charlise. "We'll see if we lost him or if he's better at tracking us than I give him credit for."
Her legs jumped with pent-up energy. The idea of waiting for Jared to show up made them a sitting target. They might as well stand out on the interstate and flag him down. Her instincts shouted for her to get out and run for her life.
"Can't we go?" She peered out the window of the car.
"In a minute. Knowing if he's following us will be better than being caught by surprise." Tom stared at the off ramp. His hands remained still on his thighs with his fingers spread wide.
She gazed down at his steady hands. Not knowing his background or training, she shouldn't trust him, but who else did she have? Her family was gone, her best friend was dead, and Jared had alienated her from everyone else.
She went on her gut feeling. "His name is Jared Blatwell."
Tom's head whipped around.
She nodded and gave him time to absorb the harsh reality. Everyone knew her ex-husband.
He whistled softly between his lips and ran both hands through his hair. She'd expected this reaction. She hated it.
"Let me get this straight." He held up a finger for emphasis. "Jared Blatwell. The dirty business conglomerate rumored to have his hands in the drug industry?"
"Yes." She pressed her lips together and stopped herself from chewing on the tender spot inside her mouth.
"The same man the FBI's been trying for the last year to get inside his operation?" His blue eyes never left her face.
"Yes. The Jared Blatwell that people fear, yet wish they had his power." She snorted.
Tom turned back to the front. She held her breath and waited. He'll realize who he promised to protect and will change his mind about helping her. She didn't blame him, and he had a right to be afraid.
"Why didn't you go to the police when you were married to him?" Tom rubbed the back of his neck.
The muscles in her shoulders tightened. "I did. I even had the evidence to have him put in prison for a long time." She swallowed. "When Jared showed up at the police station he told them we were having a marital spat. He padded their wallets, promised to make his wife mind, and threatened me when we got home."
"How?" Tom asked.
She ducked her face out of his view. "He said he'd kill my best friend."
She inhaled deeply and sighed. "The police slapped my wrist for wasting tax payer's money and my credibility was blown to shreds. The papers I gave the police about his involvement in illegal arms and drug dealing disappeared when the police gave them back to Jared."
Tom kept his face averted. "You said ex-husband?"
"Yes. He agreed to the divorce after I promised to disappear and keep quiet." Her voice barely a whisper, she cleared her throat. "He lied."
"Why is he after you?" Tom's questioning gaze met hers. She didn't see contempt or distaste there, but genuine concern.
Her head fell back onto the headrest. "He thinks he owns me. It doesn't matter that I have a piece of paper saying we're not married anymore, he won't let me go. What Jared wants, he takes. I told him I would stay until the divorce was final. The day the judge signed the papers I packed a suitcase of clothes and went to stay with my best friend…the same one he'd always threaten to go after if I caused him any trouble."
That day was etched in her mind forever. A long year ago, yet it seemed only yesterday. Poor Julie.
"Julie—" She squeezed her eyes shut. "We grew up together. We planned to get married at the same time. We even planned to get pregnant at the same time, so our kids could grow up to be best friends, like us." Her laugh was harsh and she sucked in a breath to keep from bawling.
"But it didn't happen…" Tom laid his hand on her leg.
"No. Jared didn't allow us to remain in contact during our marriage, but I knew Julie would take me in and help me get back on my feet after the divorce." She paused. "She was the best friend I could ever have." A sob escaped and she covered her face with her hands to collect herself. She only blamed herself. "I should never have gone to her that night."
"What happened?" he asked.
She needed the contact and laid her hand on top of his. "Late that night, Jared rang the doorbell at Julie's house. I was in the shower. She shouldn't have opened the door. If I'd been with her, I wouldn't have let her."
She shivered and wrapped her arm around her waist. "He dragged me out of the shower, and it wasn't until I had to step over Julie's body inside the front door that I knew he killed her. The divorce papers would not stop him from having me."
She glanced at Tom when he cursed. "No one knew he kept me locked in his house for ten months afterward." She leaned forward, wanting to roll into a ball and disappear. "He was afraid I would go to the police again, but I suspect he just wanted to keep me there to torment me." She lifted her chin. "He's gone too far though. If he catches me, he'll kill me."
"Son of a bitch." Tom rubbed the whiskers on his jaw.
"I left a couple of months ago. Changed my name from Charlene to Charlise, dyed my hair, bought a car with cash and never changed the title. I thought I could hide." She grasped the hand he offered. "He's a sick bastard that can't be trusted. His hands reach out and grab you even when he's not around. Even his employees will do his dirty work."
"Charlise—" Tom paused. "Charlene—"
"No." She squeezed his hand and shook her head. "I'm not Charlene. I don't want to be Charlene anymore."