The protector, p.26
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       The Protector, p.26
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           Jodi Ellen Malpas

  Dropping a kiss to her head, I walk her back to the shower and flip it on. “Get showered,” I order softly. Then I rip myself from the bathroom to join her mother.

  After I’ve located Camille’s phone and switched it off, I wander through the palatial apartment, taking in all of the surroundings, trying to ignore the garish décor as I mentally calculate the distance I’m putting between Cami and me. I pop my head around the few doors I pass to check for windows and possible ways of entry, and once I’m satisfied that there’s no chance of anyone getting in or past me without being detected, I wander into the lounge.

  Ms. Bell is perched on one of the couches, which are definitely there for show rather than comfort. She looks up at me as I lower to the one opposite her. I don’t try to get comfortable. It’d be impossible. She hands me a tiny china cup, and I pass it between my hands a few times, the thing feeling like a thimble in my big grasp. I give up trying to hold it delicately and place it on the glowing gold table in front of me. “Thank you,” I say, feeling her studying me.

  My main objective these past few unbearable hours has been to find Cami. I haven’t given much thought to what I’d do beyond that. Now’s the time to figure all that out.

  “How did you get into my house?” she asks, her eyes running up and down my frame suspiciously.

  She should be suspicious. I think it best to avoid the details of how I slipped the locks, crept through the apartment, and sniffed her daughter out like I could be a bloodhound hunting a fox. “Cami let me in,” I reply smoothly instead. I can’t quite tell whether she believes me, so I decide it’s best to change the subject as quickly as possible. “Were you aware that your ex-husband paid off Cami’s ex-boyfriend and funded his rehab?”

  She laughs under her breath, stirring her tea. “It doesn’t surprise me. Does Camille know?”

  “I haven’t told her yet. There’s a lot I need to figure out.”

  “Like what?”

  “Like the true threat to your daughter. Something wasn’t sitting right from the day Logan hired me. He kept information from me and when I questioned him, he pulled my protection. I don’t think his disapproval of my relationship with Cami is the only reason he wants me gone. He’s hiding something, and I intend to find out what it is.”

  Her eyebrows jump up, surprised, but then she laughs. “He must really dislike you, Jake.”

  My cheeks puff on a little huff. That’s confirmed. He’s paid Cami’s scumbag ex to press charges against me. The one who’s slapped her around a few times. Anything to get me out of the picture, since I won’t be taking his payoff.

  There’s more to this than a simple disapproval of me. He’s worried I might find out something he doesn’t want found.

  “The feeling’s mutual,” I say. “I will find out what’s going on. She’ll be safe with me until then.”

  She smiles, telling me all I need to know. She approves. It’s a relief, even if I don’t give a shit in what capacity that is, whether she’s relishing the knowledge that her manipulating ex-husband has finally met his match, or whether she’s genuinely happy that I clearly feel so strongly for her daughter. Something tells me it’s both.

  “I have no doubt,” she says quietly.

  Looking past her, I see Cami entering the room.

  “Hey.” She pads over, looking like a beacon of glowing gorgeousness in a simple black dress. Her hair is cascading over one shoulder as she combs through it with her fingers, her face free from any makeup.

  “Sweetie pie,” her mother sings, joining me as I stand. Her sickly pet name for my angel is over the top and grating, and I can tell Cami feels the same about it. “Would you like some tea?”

  Cami shakes her head and homes in on me, tucking herself into my side. “Thanks for the clothes.” She indicates her dress, prompting me to take another appreciative peek.

  “You’re welcome. Now, I should be going,” Ms. Bell announces. “I’m already late.” She comes over, giving Cami a fond smile before taking her from my side and cuddling her. “You are more than welcome to stay here, sweetie pie.”

  “No need,” I say without thought or consideration for her mother’s feelings. That’s not happening.

  Cami looks up at me in question as her mother releases her. “Really?” she asks, her worry obvious.

  “Really,” I affirm, knowing exactly where I’m taking her until I sort this mess out. I ignore Cami’s evident curiosity and turn to her mother. “It was a pleasure.”

  She laughs and surprises me when she reaches up and forces me into her embrace. My arms remain by my sides, my whole body tense. “Don’t underestimate my ex-husband,” she whispers in my ear. “And don’t you dare break my baby’s heart.”

  I keep my mouth firmly closed. I’m not deluded. I’m not ignorant to the fact that I could hurt her more than anything else. More than her ex. More than her father. The way she sees me, the pedestal she’s put me on, I don’t deserve it. I don’t deserve her. If I were her father, I’d try to keep me away as well.

  But I’m too far gone now. I’m in too deep with this addictively gorgeous woman. My despair of the past few hours when she was taken from me was enough of a reality check, not that I needed one. I love her too much to give up. So fucking much, it hurts. I just hope she loves me enough to get past the shock when she finds out I’m not the man she thinks I am.

  Chapter 24


  Jake is agitated and tense as he guides me to his Range Rover, which is tucked away in a nearby alleyway. He doesn’t even settle once I’m safely in his car. He’s alert, scanning everywhere as he weaves through the back streets toward the outskirts of the city.

  His suspicion is rubbing off on me, my eyes darting also, keeping an eye out for any police cars. My father has reached an all-time low. The knowledge of his stunt, of the fact that he paid Sebastian to press charges against Jake, makes me sick to my stomach. It also makes me question what further lengths he’ll go to in order to keep Jake away from me. I’m trying to understand his reasoning, trying to locate a scrap of compassion for my dad that’ll dilute the hatred I feel for him now, but there’s none to be found. He’ll never succeed in tearing us apart. I swear, if he continues with this craziness, I will never speak to him again. He’ll be dead to me.

  I turn in my seat a little to face Jake. “What are we going to do about my father?”

  “Let me worry about that,” he replies coolly, completely together. Calm, even. Why doesn’t he seem as concerned by this as I am?

  “Jake, he’s trying to get you thrown in jail to keep you away from me!”

  “That’s not going to happen.”

  My mouth drops open in disbelief. Has he forgotten what my father is capable of? “How can you be so sure?”

  “Trust me,” he says, reaching over and taking my knee gently. “He isn’t going to win, Cami.”

  I look down at Jake’s big hand holding my knee, his touch warm and comforting, yet it doesn’t eliminate all of my worry. “You’re an ex-soldier.” I murmur. “You wanted to save the world, and all he wants to do is rule it.” I reach over and stroke the bristle on his jaw, and he closes his eyes briefly, removing his hand from my knee and placing it over mine on his cheek. He looks despondent all of a sudden, lost in thought.

  “I love you, angel,” he says quietly, pulling my hand to his lips and kissing it gently. “More than anything.”

  I smile, wishing I could convey exactly how much he means to me. There are no words. “Snap.” I return his gesture and bring his hand to my mouth, kissing his knuckles. “Where are we going?”

  “I have a little place in the countryside. No one knows about it.”

  “So you’re going to keep me holed up until when?”

  “Until your father sees sense.”

  I could laugh. “That’s never, then,” I mutter, relaxing back in my seat.

  He turns a half-smile onto me. “Then I’ll keep you there forever.”

  I shrug, unfazed. “
Fine by me.”

  * * *

  After two hours on the road, we turn onto a tiny country lane, edged tightly with hedges. We’re on the same lane twenty minutes later, the road seeming to go on forever, no end in sight, the twists and turns just coming and coming. It’s wide enough for only one car, and there have been no other drivers along the way. It’s a good job. No one would get past us, not even on a push bike.

  All I can see are fields for as far as my gaze can reach. Empty fields—no cows, no sheep, no life. I keep quiet as Jake negotiates his Range Rover down the narrow lane with ease, seeming to know exactly where every pothole, divot, and bump is. We start to climb a steep hill, and the clouds above seem to come closer and closer until we hit the summit and start a steady decline back down to earth. I peek out of the corner of my eye to Jake, seeing him more relaxed, all evidence of his tension gone. Then he smiles to himself. I look to see what’s spiked the sign of happiness. And gape.

  A little place in the country? The house stands proudly in the distance, surrounded by a number of other, smaller buildings—a garage, an outhouse, some barns and stables. It’s a big cream structure, with dark wood-framed windows, and a massive wooden front door.

  “Little?” I ask, wondering what I was expecting. A cottage, maybe?

  “It’s only four bedrooms. It looks more imposing than it actually is.” He takes a sharp curve in the road, forcing me to crane my neck to keep my eyes on the house. “My nearest neighbor is fifteen miles away.”

  “Sociable,” I mutter as he takes yet another turn in the road. We are literally in the middle of nowhere. “You don’t seem like the farmer type.”

  “I’m not.”

  “So why the stables, the fields, and the pig sheds?”

  “It was the most obscure and isolated place I could find.”

  “Why would you need an obscure and isolated place?” I ask, sounding casual though on the inside I’m itching with curiosity.

  He pulls to a stop and cuts the engine, then turns in his seat to face me. I can tell by the knowing smile on his face that he’s sensed I’m about to burst with questions. “Because one day I knew I’d meet a beautiful princess who’d need protecting from her wicked father.”

  My eyes narrow. “That’s not funny.”

  “You don’t approve of my attempts to lighten our situation?”

  Our situation? I hate that we’re in a situation. I hate my father. “I hate that we’ve had to run away.”

  Jake jumps out, circling the car and opening my door. Taking my hand, he helps me down. “Your father has the police after me, Cami. I’m not hanging around London waiting for them to catch up with me. We stay here until I’ve sorted it out.”

  “And how do you plan on sorting it out?” I ask, reluctantly letting him push me toward the front door.

  “I’m working on it.” He unlocks the door and pushes it open onto a massive square hallway, with doors leading off to various rooms and a staircase to the first floor.

  The realization of my current situation hits home. Maybe I’m not so bothered that we’ve been forced to run away. Me and Jake. Alone. In the middle of nowhere. Maybe he shouldn’t work on fixing it, because being locked up here for the foreseeable future is suddenly very appealing.

  “Is there much to do here?” I ask, wandering in, gazing around.

  “I can think of plenty of things to do.” His front meets my back, and I smile on the inside. “Just me and you here. No interference.” He kisses my neck, sending a flurry of activity to between my thighs. I sigh into him, shuddering. “But first I’m taking you out for dinner.”

  I frown into the space before me. I didn’t see any signs of life for miles. “Where?”

  “Let me worry about that.” He turns me in his arms and stares down at me, his dark eyes roaming my face, not missing a millimeter of my skin. I let him, happy to absorb him, too. He looks so content and at ease, something I’ve not seen very often from Jake. “For tonight we forget everything and just be together.” He dips and takes my lips gently, coaxing my mouth open with light, gentle pecks. I hum and relax into his kiss, more than happy to oblige. But what about after tonight? What happens then?

  * * *

  Jake shows me to a bedroom, a huge space with high ceilings and detailed cornicing. A glass chandelier hangs low over the huge well-made bed, and the walls are covered in a warm mink-embossed paper. There’s an open fireplace, too, loaded with logs. It’s sumptuous but not over the top, so cozy and welcoming. It’s a far cry from the minimal space of his factory apartment.

  After he leaves me to get ready for dinner, I head into the attached bathroom, finding a familiar bag. I pull out some of the contents, discovering my clothes and random cosmetics from my bathroom. I smile. How…?

  Looking up to the mirror, I study myself for a few moments, falling into thought. Just me, Jake, and this big country house on acres of sprawling land. I smile again, but it quickly falls when I realize I’ve not let Heather know where I am. She’ll be worried. My phone’s off, and I just know she’ll be trying to call me.

  “Shit!” I rush into the bedroom again, finding my phone on the bed, and as soon as I switch it on, I see endless missed calls from Heather. I ignore the ones from my father and call my best friend.

  She answers on the first ring. “Cami, there’s a shot of you and Jake in the magazines!” she says urgently.

  This is old news to me. I’m surprised. Heather is usually more up-to-date on things happening in London. “I know.”

  “You do?”

  “Yes, my father knows, too.”

  “Oh, fuck.”

  “Yes, he’s not happy.” I tell her what she’ll already know, but extend it and tell her something that she definitely won’t. “He’s paid Sebastian to press charges against Jake.”

  “What?” Her volume makes me wince. “Why would he do that?”

  “Because he wants Jake gone,” I breathe. “And I don’t.”

  “So, you’ve not fallen for your bodyguard, then?”

  “Cunny funt.”

  “Indeed.” She sighs. “Where are you?”

  I look around and find a window, then wander over to look out across the fields. “I don’t know,” I admit.

  “What do you mean?”

  “I’m with Jake. The police are looking for him so we’ve left London until he can sort this out.”

  “You’re on the run?”

  I laugh under my breath. “I guess so.” But I’m not entirely sure who I’m on the run from.

  “Oh, shit, Cami,” she breathes. “Why does your dad have to be such a dick?”

  “I don’t know.” I sigh, my fingertips coming up and pressing into my forehead. “Listen, if anyone asks, you’ve not spoken to me, okay? Especially my dad.”

  “Of course!” She sounds slighted that I even need to ask.

  “Thank you. I’ll give you a call tomorrow.”

  “Make sure you do.”

  I hang up, turn my phone back off, and throw it onto the bed. Then I rush to the bathroom, keen to get ready as instructed and find Jake. We’ve been practically touching for the past few hours. Anything more than a meter between us now feels wrong.

  * * *

  I have no idea what to wear. He’s taking me out. Where? Was there some hidden restaurant I missed along the way? I pad down the wooden steps, my black strappy wedges dangling from my fingertips, listening for Jake as I go. I have a grey parachute-style dress on, with thin straps and a band of embellishment around the hem. I figured I could dress it up or down, depending on where he plans on taking me.

  “Jake,” I call, rounding the bottom of the stairs and heading for the country-style kitchen. I enter and find no Jake. Frowning, I backtrack and make my way to the lounge, discovering the inviting space empty, too. “Where are you?” I ask thin air, backing up into the hall. I stand for a few moments, wondering where to search next, and deciding he might be out front, maybe waiting in his car, I turn toward the front door

  There’s a piece of paper stuck to it, and, curious, I approach and read the first line.

  Take this paper and follow the instructions.

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