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Fake Fiancée
Author: Ilsa Madden-Mills

Sunny

A WARM SUMMER NIGHT.

Music on the radio.

A young girl driving a red Mustang convertible.

It sounded perfect—only the evening was humid as hell, the radio was stuck on a stupid gospel station, and the car, well, it was stolen.

Chewing on my nails, I debated on pulling off to the side of the road and putting the top down, but this wasn’t a pleasure ride. Obviously. I had to get out of Snowden, North Carolina before I lost my nerve to run away.

An image of my father loomed. He’d pop a blood vessel when he discovered I’d not only stolen his car but also most of the money from his wallet. I pictured his barrel chest and the way his thick fingers clenched when he was angry. He’d be grabbing his Bible and snapping his belt up. If he found me, he’d—

Stop.

I shook myself, focusing on Atlanta, Georgia. I had family there on my mom’s side, people my father refused to talk to. I’d be safe . . .

For the hundredth time, I checked the rearview mirror and saw nothing but black highway, pine trees, and mountains. No one was following me, and I hadn’t met a car in half an hour. I could almost imagine I was the only person alive in the world.

I fiddled with the radio station to find something besides gospel. I got nothing but static. Suddenly a raccoon dashed in front of me, and I swerved.

Wrong move.

The tires locked and the car went into a tailspin. I froze up, helpless as I was pressed against the seat of my Tilt-A-Whirl. A thud. Screeching metal. The car ground to a halt against a guardrail that lined a narrow bridge.

Shit!

I ran shaking hands over my face and the rest of my body. I was injury free except for my chest aching from the seatbelt catching me. No airbag had gone off and the engine was still running. Thank God. Maybe if I made it to Knoxville, I could ditch the car and buy a bus ticket to—

Everything went to hell.

The car lurched forward with a groan that sent chills up my spine as the guardrail gave in to the weight of the front end. My world tipped and then froze again. I could see the murky lake below rippling in the moonlight. I recoiled in my seat, willing the car to not move another inch.

It didn’t work.

The Mustang slipped down the rocky side, nose-dived off the edge, and slammed into the water below. I screamed the entire way down, my hands like a vise around the steering wheel.

This wasn’t happening.

It was.

I clawed at the seatbelt and unlatched it, but when I went to open the door, it refused. Water pressure blocked my way out.

Dosomethingdosomethingdosomethingdosomething . . .

The smell of algae surrounded me as water seeped in from the floorboard. It crept up my legs, my chest, my chin. I scrambled away from the cold but there was no escape. I took one last gulp of air as the vehicle sank below the surface, water gushing in through the soft top. Light as a feather, the car drifted down several feet and settled on the bottom of the lake.

Silence.

I watched my blond hair float around my face.

I looked around at the watery darkness.

The car should be pressurized.

I could get out now, right?

God, I didn’t know.

I was only seventeen.

I didn’t know anything about anything!

I tugged at the door handle again. Nothing.

I tried to roll down the window, but the electric wasn’t working.

Break the windows!

I positioned my legs on the glass and shoved.

Stomped.

Beat.

I was never getting out.

Dizziness.

Panic.

My chest burned.

My nails scrabbled at the vinyl top of the vehicle. Searching for a tear. Anything.

I closed my eyes and wished myself out of the car. I even wished myself back home in that shabby house on the side of the mountain.

God, please.

Bubbles came out of my mouth.

IwasgoingtodieIwasgoingtodieIwasgoingtodieIwasgoingtodie . . .

Then I heard it—a tap, then a scratching sound. My eyes flew open.

The top of the Mustang moved. A small hole appeared and then grew bigger.

My heart surged.

Someone was there.

Someone was tearing into the car with a knife.

Everything went black.

Consciousness came slowly, dragging me along in bits and pieces.

Something warm touched my lips, and I coughed as pain rippled through my throat and chest. Hands turned me on my side and water gushed out.

I struggled to suck in precious air as my eyes cracked open.

Where was I?

Who had saved me?

I was lying on a shore with sand, cattails, and wild grasses. Mountain evergreens lined the perimeter.

But that wasn’t what got my attention.

A young man—or angel—huddled over me. I blinked, zeroing in on him. Even wet he was handsome with a jaw that was wonderfully chiseled, lips that were lush, and broad shoulders that looked as if they could hold the weight of the world. Water lingered on his way-too-long-to-be-real black lashes. Even in my state of shock, I recognized he was flawless.

Heavy breathing escaped his lips, and I gingerly touched my own. He’d kissed me.

It’s called mouth-to-mouth, you hillbilly.

“I thought you were dead,” he said as if he could barely believe I wasn’t. He rubbed his face briskly, pushing wet hair out of his face. “Was anyone else in the car?”

“What?” I croaked. My brain hadn’t caught up yet.

He stumbled as he stood and weaved on his feet. “Wait here. I’ll try to get them—”

“N-no,” I whispered, reaching a hand out to stop him. My voice was ragged. “Just me.”

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