The protector, p.31
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       The Protector, p.31
 

           Jodi Ellen Malpas

  He looks through the peephole—instinct, I guess—before he swings the door open and Heather virtually falls through it, her auburn hair swishing, a bottle of Prosecco in her grasp. She gives Jake the once-over as she straightens herself out, her eyes smiling. “Hey, big man.”

  “Afternoon.” He strides past my best friend and disappears down the corridor. I breathe some strength into me. God knows I’m going to need it.

  “I love how he pulls the broody sexy persona with such ease,” Heather jokes, shutting the door before turning and waving the bottle at me. “I came prepared. I want to know everything.” She points to the sofa and I comply, leaving her to fetch the glasses from the kitchen.

  * * *

  An hour later, Heather is up to speed on the chaos that is my life. She’s swigged her drink in between the odd stunned gasp, and listened carefully. Honestly, I wasn’t particularly looking forward to relaying every tiny detail to her, but it’s been a great time killer. Jake’s been gone an hour. I’m expecting a call any minute to tell me that everything is settled, my dad has graciously admitted he was wrong and accepted Jake with open arms, and we can all live happily ever after. Then I fall back down to earth and remember who my dad is.

  “No disrespect, but your dad is being an arsehole,” Heather declares, finishing the last of her Prosecco. “I mean, come on! He’s on wife number three! What position is he in to pass judgment on what love is? And besides, if he didn’t upset so many people, he wouldn’t have got that threat against you and hired Jake to protect you.” She smiles a little. “The irony is really quite beautiful.”

  I hum my agreement, looking up at the clock.

  “Hey, what’s that on your finger?” She makes a grab for my hand, and I pull away on impulse, looking as guilty as I feel. There’s one thing I haven’t told her yet, mainly because what I’ve already shared is a lot to take in.

  “Camille?”

  I look away, evading her questioning eyes.

  “Is that a penned-on engagement ring?”

  “It was just a joke.” I don’t know why I’m behaving like I’m ashamed. Perhaps the absurdity of this has just filtered into my overloaded brain. I’ve agreed to marry a man I’ve known a matter of weeks. Maybe so, but I feel like I know him like no other person I’ve ever met. I dive into my glass of fizz, feeling like I’m under interrogation.

  “Cami, has he asked you to marry him?”

  “Yes!” I spit, waving my glass in the air, making Heather sit back, wary. “I know it sounds mad. I don’t need you to tell me so.”

  She purses her lips, looking like a duck, and I wait for the squeal of shock that I predicted. It’s a long few seconds before I conclude that it isn’t going to come. I give her an expectant look, rushing her along.

  She shrugs, and I frown.

  “Have you anything to say?” I ask.

  “Apart from the fact that he should have bought you an actual ring?”

  I toss her a filthy glare. “Yes.”

  Cocking her head to the side, she stares into her glass, contemplating my question. She has to be shitting me. Nothing?

  She eventually looks at me, and I see it. The bubbling scream working its way up from her toes. I bite my lip and move back, waiting to be blasted by the force. “Oh my God!” she screeches, her face reddening from the drain of air from her lungs, “Oh my God, Cami!” She puts her glass down and throws herself across the couch, tackle-hugging me. “Tell me I’ll be your maid of honor. Tell me the budget is colossal. Tell me we can have the hen party in St. Tropez!” she squeals in my ear, making my head ring.

  “I’ve not thought about it,” I admit, taking my finger to my ear and rubbing away the aftereffect of the ringing there as Heather detaches herself from me. “Kind of finding it hard to think beyond the thought of Dad and Jake at each other’s throats.”

  Heather laughs lightly, rubbing my arm in a sign of support. “I love how Jake isn’t afraid to stand up to your dad.”

  I nod, agreeing. It’s doesn’t make our situation any less extreme, though. Glancing at the clock again, I see another fifteen minutes have passed. At what point do I check up on him? Check to see if everyone is alive? This is painful.

  “Let’s look at dresses,” I blurt, taking drastic action in an attempt to distract myself.

  “Yay!” Heather’s totally on board. “Get the laptop. Oh God, Vera Wang has some beauties this season!”

  I grab my laptop and load Google, trying to match Heather’s enthusiasm. I don’t even get to load the first page. My phone rings from the table and I scramble to my feet, virtually throwing the laptop at Heather in my rush to answer.

  When I see Dad’s number, I freeze, unsure as to whether that’s a good sign. He’s still alive. It has to be good. I connect the call. “Dad?”

  “My little star!” he sings, immediately making me feel a million times better. The tension deflates out of my body like it’s sprung a puncture. “Darling, the last thing I wanted to do was hurt you.”

  I could cry with relief. “I love him, Dad.” I cut straight to the chase, feeling the need to enforce that. “I know it’s a shock for you, but he’s a good man.” I feel like the weight of the world has been lifted from my tired shoulders.

  “Camille, I need to make you understand.” His voice is less jovial now, more serious. It’s what I would from expect from a man who has never apologized in his life. This is a huge step for him.

  “It’s fine, Dad,” I assure him. I know he never meant to hurt me to the extent he has. I may not like how he’s conducted himself, but I understand why he did it. He needs to let go. Accept that I’m a grown woman with my own mind and my own decisions to make.

  “It’s not fine.” He sighs. “It’s not fine at all. I’ve failed you.”

  “No, Dad, you—”

  “He has a wife, Camille.”

  The room starts spinning and I reach for a chair to steady myself. “What?” I whisper, every drop of moisture in my mouth sucked up in a second.

  “Darling, he’s married,” he reiterates solemnly, punching the words into the crevice forming in my heart. “The bastard has been lying to you all along.”

  Stop saying that!

  I fumble for the chair and drop to the seat, staring blankly across the room. The woman in the picture. Jake’s happy face. I hate that what my father is telling me fits into place. Jake evading the question when I asked about the photo. Of course he would. But married? It doesn’t seem possible.

  “Camille?” Dad’s worried tone punches through my daze.

  “How do you know this?” I ask, needing details to try and process the shock. “Where’s Jake now? He said he was coming to see you. To sort things out.”

  “Well, he needn’t bother,” he scoffs, full of repulsion. “I’ll have him destroyed for hurting you, Camille.”

  I shake my head, frustration and hurt gripping me. “Tell me how you know this for sure.”

  “I had Grant follow him. He went to a woman’s house. His wife’s house. Grant just called to confirm it.”

  I shoot up from my chair. “He’s there now?” I’m on my way to the door before I get my answer. “Where, Dad? Where is he?”

  “Darling, I’m not having you go there alone.”

  I stutter to a stop. “You’re lying,” I goad him, knowing he’ll prove it if it’s true.

  “18A First Street.” He gives up the address easily. He’s not bluffing. My heart squeezes. “Wait for me, darling. I have something to see to and I’ll come and get you.”

  “Okay,” I lie and hang up.

  I’m not waiting for anyone. I grab my bag and swing the door open, forgetting that Heather is probably wondering what the fuck is going on.

  “Cami!” she calls, sounding totally perplexed.

  I skid to a stop halfway down the corridor, not because Heather is coming after me, but because someone is blocking my path.

  “And where do you think you’re going?” Lucinda looks like a stern headmi
stress, arms folded over her chest, her foot tapping the carpet.

  “He’s got you watching me?” I ask, somewhere between amusement and disbelief.

  “I’m not enjoying it,” she sniffs, looking past me to Heather. I don’t have to turn around and find my friend to know that she’ll be looking a bit blank, wondering what the hell is going on. This is just brilliant.

  “Am I to assume that your duty is to stop me from leaving?” I ask, my frustration converting into boiling rage.

  “You’ve got it.” She winks, and I want to punch her face in.

  “Why?” I ask. “The threats are redundant. My father told me it was all resolved.”

  She blanks on me. It tells me too much and not enough. “Jake’s simply taking precautions.”

  I nod, choosing not to argue or raise her suspicions. Precaution? Yeah, like guarding me while he pays a visit to his wife. I turn on my heels, wandering back to the apartment, Heather looking at me, all what the hell? But I just shake my head, my way of telling her not to ask. What would I say, anyway? She’s in there searching for wedding dresses and I’ve just found out my fiancé has a wife.

  As I enter my apartment I look over my shoulder, seeing Lucinda hasn’t budged and doesn’t look like she’s going to. Bitch.

  Shutting the door behind me, I shove my face straight into the wood, looking through the peek hole. She looks tiny. I pull away, thinking as I pivot, scanning my apartment for an escape. I run to the window and look out. I’m too high. “Damn,” I mutter, looking to my front door again. The fire escape is on the other side of the corridor. There’s no way past Lucinda.

  “What’s going on?” Heather asks from behind, and I turn to face her, chewing my lip, fighting down the emotion that's threatening to break free and hamper my clear thinking. She takes a step back, studying me with caution. “I don’t like that face,” she declares. She shouldn’t like it. It’s my determined face.

  I race to the kitchen and grab the only thing that can work, before dashing back to my lounge.

  “Why the fuck are you holding a frying pan?” Heather asks as I run past her. “Cami, will you fucking speak!”

  I quickly check the peek hole again and see Lucinda still keeping guard. I can’t believe this is what I’m resorting to! I turn to face my bemused friend. “I need you to do something for me.”

  She’s looking at me like I might be mad. I could well be. “What?”

  “That woman out there works with Jake.”

  “Why is she here?”

  “To stop me from going anywhere. Jake’s told her to watch me.”

  “Why would he do that?”

  Her question hampers my flow, and I pull up, realizing I’m not going to get away with vagueness, especially since I’m about to ask her to be my accomplice. I close my eyes and breathe some strength into my lungs, preparing to hear it out loud. “Dad told me Jake has a wife.”

  “What!” The decibel level of her yell knocks me back a few paces.

  “Shhhh!” I hiss, jumping forward and slapping my palm over her mouth.

  Her eyes go like saucers and she mumbles something against my hand. I have not a clue what it is, so I take my hand away, bringing my finger to my mouth in a sign to keep it down. “Do you believe him?” she asks.

  I swallow down my pride and admit what I’ve been thinking. “It makes sense. I saw a picture of him and a woman and asked him about it. He wouldn’t tell.”

  “It could just be another attempt by your father to tear you apart, Cami.”

  “He’s not stupid. He wouldn’t make shit like that up. Not unless he could back it up, and I doubt he’d go to the extreme of paying a woman to pose as Jake’s wife.” I laugh hysterically on the inside. Yeah, because that would be going too far. This is all adding up perfectly, and it’s tearing out my heart.

  “Oh, shit, Cami.” Heather’s sympathy could break me. “I’m sorry.”

  I smile. I don’t know why I’m smiling. On the inside, I’m dying. “I need to find out what’s going on.”

  “Of course.” She nods, understanding, but then her eyes drop to the frying pan I’ve almost forgotten I’m armed with. “What are you going to do with that?”

  “I’m going to knock out my replacement bodyguard.” I don’t beat around the bush. I haven’t got time.

  “I had a feeling you were going to say that.” Heather shakes her head in despair. “I don’t want to piss on your bonfire or anything, but I doubt the bulldog out there is going to let you walk right up to her and smack her around the head. And you can hardly tuck that thing down your knickers to conceal it.”

  “That’s where you come in.” I grab her hand and drag her over to the door.

  She comes, but I feel the reluctance traveling through her limbs into mine. “I had a feeling you’d say that, too.” She sighs.

  “How are your acting skills?” I ask, peeking through the hole again and spotting Lucinda holding position.

  “The last time I acted was in the school pantomime.”

  I smile, rather inappropriately, given our situation, remembering Heather playing Cinderella. “You’re going to open the door and throw yourself into the corridor. Look panicked.”

  “I can do that.”

  “Tell her I’m climbing out the window.”

  “I can do that, too.” She rolls her shoulders, readying herself, then drops her eyes to the frying pan again. “And as soon as she barrels through the door to stop you…”

  I smile and raise the pan. “I’m going to whack her over the head.”

  “Fabulous,” Heather mutters, putting her hand on the knob. “I only came over for wine and a chat,” she reminds me grimly. Then she opens the door and starts screaming like a deranged nut job.

  Chapter 29

  JAKE

  I’ve been sitting in my car across the road for…I don’t know how long. Time has slowed to nothing. My heart is slowing to nothing, too. All of the purpose I’d found slipped away the moment I left Cami in her apartment. The moment I left her. The urge to go straight to Logan Tower to sort that mess first was a constant challenge. But Camille is safe under Lucinda’s watch while I deal with this. Whatever Logan throws at me, I need to have made the first step to put things right. I can’t move on if I have this noose around my neck. I need to face my demons and find forgiveness. Then maybe Cami can forgive me for deceiving her. Cami. I close my eyes and start rolling through the endless mental images of her face, her smile, her eyes. She’s the clarity I’ve needed all these years. She’s the trigger I needed to pull myself together and do what I’ve been delaying.

  I reach for the car door and let myself out, shutting it softly behind me. My steps start slow as I cross the road, but get faster, more determined, the closer I get to the familiar house. It’s exactly how I remember. My heart starts to beat faster, and I’m quickly flooded with the memories of this place.

  I move up the path, my legs wanting nothing more than to turn and sprint away.

  I don’t have a chance to knock. The door swings open and I freeze.

  Tears burst from Abbie’s eyes the second she sees me, and she comes forward, but I move back. No touching. I can’t have her touching me.

  I look to the ground, escaping the desperation in her tear-filled eyes. I can’t speak through the bad memories attacking my mind. I can’t look at her. I haven’t planned what I’m going to say. I’m totally unprepared.

  “Come in, please,” she says, and I see her feet move back from my dropped vision, opening the way for me.

  Walking into this house could finish me off, but thinking of Cami, I step over the threshold and put myself in the closest place I can imagine to hell. The hallway walls are lined with photographs. Endless fucking photographs on both sides, caging me in. I don’t look at any of them. My gaze remains downward, claustrophobia overwhelming me, making every muscle tense.

  “Come through,” Abbie says, inching past me in the narrow space. I practically pin myself to the wall to avoid
the risk of her accidentally brushing past me, my eyes remaining on my feet as I follow her toward the kitchen at the back of the house.

  “Please, sit,” she says, indicating one of the chairs at the table. “Tea?”

  I resist asking if she has any Jack and nod instead, lowering to the chair. She busies herself preparing tea, leaving a long fucking awful silence lingering between us.

 
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