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Reluctant Betrayal [MultiFormat]
eBook by Bruce Cooke

eBook Category: Romance/Suspense/Thriller
eBook Description: How far will a woman go to save the lives of her husband and children? Abbey Wilcox is forced into writing a Dear John letter to her husband and participates in an armed holdup under the threat of death for the people she loves. But when she learns she is expendable, then the chase is on to shut her up and recover the money she stole. The hair-raising pursuit takes her where she never thought she would go.

eBook Publisher: Whiskey Creek Press, Published: 2009
Fictionwise Release Date: October 2009


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Chapter 1

Twhack. The sound of the shot and the bullet hitting the tree centimeters from Abbey Wilcox's head came almost instantaneously. It sent a shower of chips into her face and hair that frightened the hell out of her. The burning sensation deep in her lungs clawed at her like a white-hot talon. It couldn't end here--it wouldn't end here. There was no time to rest; he was close, so close she could hear his heavy footsteps as he ran through the bush towards her. Thoughts flashed through her brain while she ran. She did have an advantage. In the last month she had learned every turn in the track, every boulder, every tree, the patches where the rain had formed muddy bogs. The advantage she had, she intended to use to evade this attempt on her life. Peter and the kids were everything to her, her whole life, and she wasn't going to lose them here.

She wore a tracksuit and joggers while his casual clothes and shoes were entirely unsuitable for the terrain. Again she broke from the tree she had paused against, terror on her face as she glanced back, knowing how near he was. The pain of fatigue racked her body, but no way was she going to stop. Her thigh muscles screamed agony, but he must have been in the same condition, maybe more so. The track followed the shore-line of Lake Eildon with its cool deep waters, but Abbey had no time to take in the scenic beauty. Some days the lake was shrouded in mist or encased in low cloud, for the mountain district attracted rain; however, today it was bathed in strong sunshine, making it easier for him to see her.

The branches of the gums stung her face as she desperately pushed them apart with her hands, but the stinging sensation was nothing to what he would do to her if caught. Expecting him to burst out into the open and send a bullet into her back without a second thought terrified her, but then common sense prevailed--he wanted her alive, at least until he extracted the information he needed. She'd seen what he could do, and that horrified her. There would be no mercy once his aims were accomplished, and she was sure she would finish in the deep waters of the lake, weighted down and never found. However, she did have a chance, albeit a slim one--but still a chance. Her desperate fight for life had now reached the last chapter. If only she could turn the clock back a few months, to when it had all started...

* * * *

Six months earlier

Darkness had fallen, and the security light coming on made things easier. Peter Wilcox fumbled in his trouser pocket for his key and opened the front door. Putting his leather briefcase on the floor, he noticed Karen Turnbridge, Abbey's best friend, standing by the kitchen door.

Seeing the puzzled expression on her face, he didn't have to ask. He knew, and it hurt like hell. Bile ran to his throat, a sinking feeling grasping his heart; oxygen seemed to have deserted him as he sucked in air. His heart suddenly began to race. It was the end of his safe and secure world.

Karen jumped in alarm as he slammed the door hard, the sound echoing across the room. His savage look made her step back. Why, she didn't know. All she knew was that she hadn't done anything. Something she couldn't understand was happening to her two friends, and that worried her.

"She's gone, hasn't she?" The look he gave her was mixed with anger and fear.

"Would you mind telling me what the hell is going on?" It was clear the circumstances were unknown to her. She felt affronted, for she considered herself one of the family, and to not know was alarming.

"Abbey asked me to come over and mind the kids until you came home. As soon as I arrived, she picked up a suitcase, got in a car driven by some man I've never seen before, and drove off."

He gave her an icy stare and paused before speaking. "Did she say anything?"

"Only to tell you she was sorry and handed me an envelope."

He snatched the envelope from her hand and tried to open it calmly. When that didn't work, he ripped it open with shaking fingers and read the words. They almost made him choke.

Peter, I know this will be a shock to you, but I have to leave. Somehow I think before I met Ray I was only half alive. I think of him every minute of the day, I tingle when I hear his voice, I tremble when he touches me. I can't bear to be apart from him. I never imagined such passion could exist.

It's something I've never experienced before, and I've given this decision long, hard thought. I'll always remember our time together. Our honeymoon at Macarthur was dear to me, but I was so young then. I'm about to start a new life, so please don't try to find me. I hope in time you will find someone else more reliable than me. L.y. Abby.

Karen waited until he finished reading before starting her questions. "Who was that man, and why has she gone?"

Peter ignored her words, his face a mask of despair. He pursed his lips and looked towards the bedroom door. Startled, Karen saw tears forming in his eyes. He tried to turn his head away, but it was too late.

"Kids okay?"

"Sure, they're in bed waiting for you. Are you all right?"

He handed her the note without answering and began to move toward the children's bedroom.

"Peter. Are you going to tell me what happened?"

"I'll be back in a minute. Read the bloody thing and make some coffee."

He took a deep breath, paused, then opened the door to see both Jane and Annie sitting up in bed reading. It was a nightly ritual that both he and the kids enjoyed. Annie was the eldest, only eight years old, while Jane was in her first year at school. For a six-year-old, Peter felt she was bright and eager, but also vulnerable. How this news was going to affect her, he didn't know.

"Hi kids," he said, masking a brave face. "Ready to go to sleep?"

"Daddy, will you read me a story?" asked Jane, her happiness at seeing him reflecting in her eyes. Sometimes he felt like a secondhand parent because of the hours he put in, but just seeing them both brightened his day and made the hard work worth it. But today was different. A day he never dreamed he'd have to face.

"How about a short one? I have a lot of work to do."

"Why isn't Mummy here?" said Annie, frowning. "She always reads us a story."

He bit his lip, trying to think of a possible explanation. "Mummy has a headache and has gone to bed. It's my turn tonight."

"But she was all right when Auntie Karen came. We saw her go off in a car."

"She was going to the doctor's. Now which story would you like me to read?"

Satisfied with his explanation, they settled back as Jane offered him the book she was reading. Peter blinked when he saw it. It was about a princess who runs off with her handsome hero and lives happily ever after. It seemed so ironic as he turned to the first page.

He knew he had to be brave for his children, but the ache in his heart was mixed with fury at what she'd done. Reading the words, he knew they made no sense as he stopped and started again, trying to compose himself. The blank look on the children's faces saddened him.

Holding the book tightly, he fought the urge to rip the pages out and hurl them across the room. Looking down, he saw the knuckles of his hands white with tension and felt relieved when a little voice interrupted.

"I think I'd like to go to sleep now," said Jane, losing interest in the story.

Relieved, he snapped the book shut. "Sure, goodnight, sweetie," he said, kissing her forehead. She reached up and clasped her arms around his neck, squeezing hard.

"I love you, Daddy," she whispered in his ear.

"I love you too, sweetheart."

She snuggled down under the quilt and closed her eyes. Peter walked to Annie's bed and repeated the process. "Goodnight, Annie, sleep well." She too stretched her arms out for him.

"Goodnight, Daddy. Is Mummy coming in?"

"Not tonight. Let her sleep."

"Okay," said Annie, happy for her mother to rest.

He walked to the door, but before he could shut it, Jane opened her eyes.

"Daddy?"

"Yes, Jane."

"Can you leave the light on?"

"How about the small table lamp on the cupboard?"

She smiled and nodded. He flicked on the lamp, turned off the overhead light and closed the door behind him. Resting against the door, he shut his eyes, wishing this nightmare would disappear. Now came the hard part: explaining to Karen what had happened. He really didn't want to talk about it, but she was his wife's best friend and deserved an explanation. He was going to need her help in the next few months, and she needed to know, even if he couldn't understand it himself. After all, she was like a sister.

Karen was already sitting at the kitchen table with a coffee in her hand. The table was set, and a meal of meat casserole and vegetables was in place at the head of the table.

"It was in the oven on low, so I suppose it's meant for you."

"I'm not hungry. There's probably rat-poison in it anyway."

"What?"

"I'm joking, Karen. It's been a bad day."

"Are we going to talk about your bad day, or are you going to tell me what happened to Abbey?" She stared at him, waiting for his explanation.

"When did she call you?"

It seemed to Karen that he didn't want to talk about it at all. Well, there was no way she was going to let him hide it.

"About five. No explanation, just a 'Karen, can you look after the kids until Peter gets home.' I told her I had a date, but she said it was important."

"I'm sorry. Thanks for coming."

"That's it? Thanks for coming?"

He looked down and saw the note was where he had left it. "Not quite. You haven't read it yet?"

"No, I thought I'd wait for you. It's obviously personal. Has there been an argument or something?"

"We've had a few arguments in the last couple of days." He looked grim, remembering the hurtful fights.

Karen began reading the note, her eyes getting wider and wider. Her mouth opened then shut as she gathered her thoughts. "But you two are the happiest couple I've ever seen. Ten years of marriage, two beautiful kids, hell, you have everything."

"I thought so too."

"Who is this man she went off with?"

"His name is Ray Carter. He is, or should I say was, a client."

"Are you telling me she's run off with another man, leaving you and the kids?"

"I always knew you were the smart one of your family."

Karen was stunned, not believing his words. "This is some sort of sick joke, right?"

"If it is, the joke's on me. Can you pass the sugar?"

She pushed the sugar bowl toward him, momentarily at a loss for words, watching him put two shaky spoonfuls into the cup and stir. Eyeing the sugar now spilled on the table, she said nothing for a few seconds, then found her voice again.

"Is this going to be twenty questions?"

Almost absentmindedly, Peter stared at the cup. "You know this is her favorite tea set. She only puts it out for special occasions."

"Peter, you're not making sense. Now tell me what the hell has happened. My best friend wouldn't just run off with some man and leave you and her family."

He looked at her and raised one eyebrow. Again Karen was at a loss for words.

"She's been having an affair?"

"Obviously," he said bitterly.

"How long?"

"As far as I know, about a week."

Karen almost gave a laugh. "A week? That's ridiculous. Have you been doing the same thing?" Karen thought she knew Abbey. Maybe a payback for some indiscretion on Peter's part. An affair for a week, then run off? It didn't make any sense at all.

"Jesus, Karen. I start work at eight a.m. I get home at seven thirty, exhausted. The thing that keeps me going is Abbey and the kids. You think I'd risk it all running after women? I've loved her from the first time I met her."

"And I thought she loved you. I still can't believe this."

"I thought so too. Just goes to show, doesn't it?"

"Maybe it's to teach you a lesson."

"Some lesson. She's destroyed not only my life, but worse, the kids' lives. I can't forgive her for that."

"Perhaps she's been kidnapped."

He gave a half hearted smirk. "Yeah, while she was packing a suitcase."

"Perhaps it was some family emergency."

He shook his head, thinking Karen was grasping for straws. "Isn't the note plain enough?"

Karen bit her lip. "Who is this man? She's never spoken about him to me. She would have said something."

"Well, she wouldn't, would she?" He took a sip of his coffee, then pushed the cup away.

"But Abbey is the most levelheaded woman I know. It's inconceivable. As her best friend, you'd think she would have given me some sort of clue."

"She said she's fallen hopelessly in love and can't live without him. Obviously she means it."

"This is insane. Nobody falls in love like that."

"We did when we first met." He stared at the wall, thinking back to when he'd first met her. The irony was evident in his voice.

"But Abbey doesn't change partners like a pair of shoes. She just wouldn't leave her kids. She loves them."

"It seems she loves him more. Perhaps it was my fault."

Karen shook her head. "How do you figure that?"

"Concentrating on the business and ignoring her needs. It must be awful being stuck at home with only the kids in your life. I should have paid more attention to her."

"She stayed at home because that's what she wanted to do. She still had interests when the kids were at school. Tennis, canteen at the kid's school, and social events."

"But I ignored her, trying to build up the business."

"You're looking for excuses, Peter. Now tell me how it all happened."

He nodded and took a deep breath, remembering how happy he had been and how it had all fallen apart.

Nothing was said for at least ten minutes. Peter stared into space, his eyes seemingly fixed to the kitchen bench where a framed photo of Abbey and the kids sat. He continually stirred his coffee, now cold and untouched.

Karen sipped her coffee, having no idea what to say or do. Hell, Abbey must be stark raving mad leaving a man like Peter. He seemed perfect to her.

Her thoughts were interrupted by the savage thump of Peter's fist on the table. It was so hard she jumped, and her saucer rattled on the table.

"This is bullshit." He snatched up the note and read it again, a deep frown creasing his forehead.

"What?" said Karen, startled by his outburst.

"Its bullshit, it has to be. There's absolutely no mention of the kids, hell, they are her life. It's inconceivable that she would not mention them."

He had Karen's attention with this statement. "That struck me too. Something doesn't ring true to me either."

"What?" Peter snapped a sharp look at her.

"The fact she says she has never experienced such passion before."

"Yes, that hurt. I still remember the way we met."

"At Uni?" Karen remembered it well. She'd lived with Abbey through the whole courtship.

Peter managed a soft smile at the vision of Abbey racing across the university grounds and colliding with him. Obviously late for a lecture, she appeared dismayed as she sat on the ground, watching her notes fly into the air and float down like autumn leaves.

"When I picked her up, it was as if we'd both been struck by lightning. We stared at each other, and I knew there and then that she was the one."

"Until you opened your big mouth."

He nodded with a grin. "I saw her reasons for Australia's participation in the Vietnam War and told her she would only get a C for her effort."

"Like a red rag to a bull. She always got at least a B+."

"Yeah, she snatched it from me and stormed off, muttering, 'dickhead.' I waited to see if she would look back just to confirm she was interested. She did."

Karen smiled at the thought. "I remember sitting in the canteen with her after her mark assignment came back, and sure enough, across the top was a big red C+. She spent the rest of the time telling me what a smart arse you were, and then described every physical feature about you. Your eyes, your hair, your body, and your smile. She nearly died when you walked in and sat at our table."

He gave a sad smile. "When you winked at me and left, we spent nearly two hours sitting and talking."

"Next thing you were knocking at our door and helping her with her assignments."

"It was just an excuse. She didn't need any help--we wanted to be together."

Karen sat back. Of course she knew that, but now he was talking. It had to help.

"It's a wonder you didn't move in with us you were together so much."

Keep him talking, Karen thought. He's in pain, and so am I. Losing Abbey was almost as hard for her as it was for him.

"I wanted her to move in with me. My parents left me their house and a great weekender at Eildon. We first made love there."

Karen sipped the last of her coffee from the cup while resting her elbows on the table. It was old news, but he needed something to snap him out of it. Abbey had often raved about the weekend shack in the beautiful Australian bush on the shores of the huge lake.

"I guess you knew all about her by then."

"Sure did. I found out all about her life in Shepparton, her family, her school, everything. She even talked about you, how you came from Mildura, how you met and set up house together, holidayed together. I guess I was head over heels even then."

"She talked about me when she was seeing you?"

"Don't be surprised--you were much more like a sister than a best friend."

"Yes, so was she. Everything was going for her except her brother Paul."

Peter looked at the wedding photo next to the family one. Abbey's brother filled in as best man when Alan Farmer, a law student and friend of Peter's, broke his ankle in a basketball game the day before the wedding. It was a crisis until Paul stepped in at the last minute.

"I never could take to him. Do you know he asked me for a loan at the reception after the wedding?"

"At the wedding? You can't be serious."

He nodded. "Abbey was furious. It seemed he had a habit of doing that and not paying it back. I guess she didn't want me to get a bad impression of her family."

Karen frowned. "I only met him at the wedding. Abbey never talked much about him."

Peter put his cup down and shoved it aside. "I shouldn't tell you this, but I guess it doesn't matter now. He moved to Sydney to avoid a scandal after being charged with possession of pot. You know what country towns are like."

"What does he do for a living?" asked Karen. She hadn't heard about him since the wedding.

"I asked him, and all he said was a bit of this and that. He was very evasive. I told him I was a financial advisor and if he ever needed sound advice, then come and see me."

"What did he say?" Karen listened closely. This was all new to her.

"He laughed and said he'd keep it in mind."

Again they sat, neither speaking, just thinking of the past. It seemed the good times were behind them all.

"What are you going to tell the kids?" asked Karen at last. She knew this was a task he had to face, unpleasant but necessary.

"I don't know yet. I'll have to sleep on it." How do you tell kids this sort of news?

"Jane will take it harder than Annie. She's more sensitive." Karen looked at the picture and sighed. The two angelic faces touched her as though they were her own children. Hell, this just wasn't fair.

"It will hurt Annie just as much. She tries to be the grownup, but she loves her mother more than anything."

"Remember when she was born? I've never seen Abbey so happy as when she was pregnant. Then when Jane arrived, it was as if they were two little angels made in heaven. She thought about them every minute of the day--that is, when she wasn't thinking about you."

He smiled sadly. "So did I. Now it looks as though I'm going to have to raise them alone."

That fact was becoming more obvious. Damn her, he loved Abbey, but he now had other duties that couldn't be ignored. He paused and looked across at Karen. "Can I ask you for some help?"

"Of course you can. I'll be here whenever you want me."

"It will be more than that. I won't believe she could just up and leave. There has to be something else. She said not to try and find her, but I can't just forget her. Damn it, I love her like life itself. I guess I always will, no matter whether she has been unfaithful."

Karen shook her head. "You don't even know where to start. She could be still in Melbourne or interstate. Do you know where he came from?"

"He said Sydney, but that could be a lie." He looked glumly at the table, head bowed, almost defeated.

"Peter, you just can't leave the kids and go and look for her. You have a business to run and the kids to care for."

"I know that. All I'm saying is that if she calls and gives me some idea where she is, then I can make a quick trip and try to talk some sense into her."

"You think she'll call?"

"Damn it, Karen. She might not love me anymore, but she wouldn't just dismiss the kids from her mind. I've been married to her for ten years, and I know her too well to believe that."

"Sure, and you knew she wouldn't run off with another man, didn't you?"

He sat stunned. Karen was right; it was the last thing he'd expected. They had been so unbelievably happy until Ray turned up, and that was only two weeks ago. Every couple had arguments, but the wife didn't leave with another man because of a brief fit of jealousy on her or the husband's part. Why he ever took this man on as a client, he didn't know.

He picked up the note again and stared at it. What was she telling him? They never went to Macarthur on their honeymoon, and she didn't even spell her name right. Can anyone be in such a hurry that they can't spell their own name correctly? There were so many unanswered questions.

* * * *

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