The protector, p.32
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       The Protector, p.32
 

           Jodi Ellen Malpas

  “How have you been?” She turns with a tray and makes her way over, resting it on the table before taking a seat.

  “Alive,” I mutter, short of anything else coming to mind.

  “I can see that.” She offers a small smile that no matter how hard I try, I can’t return. “Why are you here, Jake? Why now, after all these years?”

  “I’ve met someone.” The confession fires from my mouth without warning, and her face drops as a result. That was so fucking heartless, but I’m in fucking turmoil here. I don’t know what the fuck I’m supposed to say.

  “I guess it was only a matter of time,” she says mindlessly, stirring an empty mug. “Can’t say I blame you.”

  “I didn’t plan on it,” I begin, wondering why the fuck I’m explaining myself. I don’t need to justify it, but I can’t seem to stop myself. “It took me by surprise, trust me. I wasn’t looking.”

  “So did you just come to tell me that?” she asks, looking up at me. “All this time I’ve been waiting for you to get in touch, to at least let me know you’re alive. Nothing, Jake. I didn’t stop caring about you.”

  “I can’t move on with my life with all these regrets hanging around my neck.” I push the words through my clenched teeth, needing some level of understanding from her. “I love this woman. I need to tell her everything there is to know about me. I can’t have a life with her without that. It’d be a lie.”

  “Oh.” She laughs sardonically, stripping away any hope I had left of her understanding. “As long as you’re okay. As long as you have peace and you can get on with your life, Jake.”

  “I haven’t got on with my life for four years, Abbie!” I yell, slamming my fist down on the table in temper. She jumps, stunned, and I immediately feel terrible for it. Her bottom lip is quivering. My elbows meet the table and my palms hide my face.

  Silence falls again, yet my brain is screaming at me, making me want to get my gun from the back of my trousers and blow my brains out. Put myself out of my misery, as well as everyone else affected by this.

  “You’re not the only one who hasn’t been able to get on with their life, Jake,” she whispers. “I’ve been raising your daughter on my own.”

  Everything inside of me dies a long, painful death, my fingers clawing into my face. “I’m going to make things right,” I vow, so meaning it. Cami has clarified so much for me. I just don’t know where to start and how.

  “Daddy?”

  The sweet voice has me up from my chair and backing up, trying to escape my reality. I throw a shocked look at Abbie. “You said she wouldn’t be here.” She’d agreed. One step at a time!

  I can’t believe she’s done this to me! This is emotional blackmail at its worst. I chance a quick look to the little girl and immediately regret it. She’s the spitting image of her mother. Her mother. The deceiving, manipulating bitch. Abbie rushes over and kneels before the little girl, but she doesn’t get her attention. Her curious eyes are nailed to me, judgment all over her little face. I look away, unable to bear it.

  “Charlotte, darling, I told you to stay in your room and play.”

  “He looks like my daddy.”

  I turn away, facing the wall, my vision blurring from tears that I can no longer hold back.

  “Why did you come down? Do you want a drink?”

  “No. There’s a lady at the door.”

  I whirl around on impulse. It’s not only Charlotte’s announcement that drives me. I can feel her close by.

  Cami is standing in the doorway, her face stained with tears. The crevice in my heart cracks, splitting in two. “Cami.” I move forward carefully.

  She turns and runs.

  “Cami!” I bolt out of the kitchen and fly down the hallway like a bullet, seeing her disappear past the front door. “Cami!”

  “Stay away from me!” she screams, sprinting down the street and jumping into her car.

  “No!” I keep going, my legs nearly numb from the force I’m injecting into them. “Cami, please!”

  Her car roars to life and she speeds off down the road, swerving all over the place. She’s going to fucking kill herself! “Fuck!” I pelt to my car and slam it into drive, pulling out and wheel-spinning after her. She’s gained some distance with her head start, but she’s just in my view. She takes a left at the bottom of the street, barely stopping to check for oncoming cars. “For fuck’s sake, angel!” I put my foot down, prepared to slam my way through any vehicles that get in my way. I turn the wheel hard, the back end of my car swinging out, but I pull it back into line, narrowly missing a black cab.

  I lose count of the number of turns I make, following her. She’s five cars ahead, her driving erratic and clumsy as she tries to escape me. I won’t let her. She’s going nowhere. I’ll make her understand.

  My hopes of catching her build when I register Charing Cross Road up ahead. No matter which way she goes, left or right, it’s going to be rammed busy with traffic. She’ll have no choice but to stop.

  She does a left. I wipe the sheen of sweat away from my brow and grip the steering wheel, racing to make it past the lights before they turn red. “Fuck!” They flick to amber, and I see a million pedestrians on the side of the pavement, waiting to flood the road once the green man illuminates. I’m not going to make it. I slam on my brakes, just screeching to a halt before I hit a group of tourists, bracing my arms against the wheel and heaving in my seat. They’re all frozen in the middle of the road, looking at me with cameras poised in their grasps.

  I exhale loudly when I see they’re all still in one piece. “Shit!” I jump out of my car and run around the corner, praying for the first time in my life for bumper-to-bumper traffic.

  I see her. Her red Mercedes is in the distance, caught up in the traffic. I break into a sprint, running up the center of the road, being shouted and beeped at. The other side of the road is clear, and I see the nose of her car start to jut out. She’s going to make a turn. I pump my legs with more energy, gaining on her. And then the door to her car swings open and she appears, looking down the road at me. “Don’t run, Cami!” I yell.

  “Stop!” she screams, and like a button has been pressed, my legs come to a screaming halt. “Don’t come near me, Jake!”

  I hold my palms up to her in surrender, blowing out my arse from exhaustion. “Just let me explain,” I call, not liking the fifty meters between us. I need to touch her, hold her while I tell her.

  “You’re married!” Her voice breaks, her accusing words fading into devastation. “You have a daughter! You’ve lied to me!”

  “No!” I shake my head, taking a step forward but stopping when she moves back. “I was married, Cami. Not anymore.”

  “You’re lying!”

  “I’m not fucking lying!” I clench my fists, knowing I need to spit the words out before I lose her forever. “She’s dead, Camille. My wife is fucking dead.”

  She blanks on me, making me go on.

  “That woman is my wife’s sister. I came back from tour and found my wife in bed with my best mate!”

  “What?”

  The mental flashbacks nearly have me approaching the nearest wall and smashing my head against it to crush them. But I need to persevere. I need to go on.

  “We had a baby, angel. While I was on tour, she had our baby. I was coming home to be a father and a husband. I was a week early. Thought I’d surprise her. I found her in bed with my best friend.” My fist comes up to my head and bangs against my forehead. “They’d been having an affair while I was fighting the fucking world!” I face her, physically shaking with returned anger and pure, raw fear. “I told myself the child wasn’t mine.”

  Cami looks like she’s in a state of shock. I can relate. My world ended on that one day. I died for four long years and I’ve only just come back to life.

  “I found them in bed and walked out.” I force myself on. “My wife came after me. Got in her car and chased me. She oversteered.” I clench my eyes shut and look to the heavens. She
s up there somewhere, probably looking down on me and thinking I’m getting what I deserve. “A bus took the car out. She was confirmed dead on the scene.”

  The whole horrific event I watched in slow motion in my rearview mirror is fresh again. Clear and vivid. I die on the inside all over again.

  “Oh my God.” I lip-read her sobbed words, just before her hand comes up to her mouth and covers it.

  “I went back to war.” I fight through my agony, reliving every second of my past. “I felt it was all I had left. I lost all sense of respect for my safety. For the safety of others. I didn’t want to be here anymore. Alive. They dismissed me after medical reports deemed me unstable. Being alive became a form of continuous torture.” I give into the swelling lump in my throat. I don’t swallow it down. I let the tears form and my voice crack. “Then I met you.”

  She grabs the side of her car to steady herself. The horns are blaring now, constant and piercing, and I look to see the traffic is moving on, slowly progressing around Cami’s car blocking the road. “Why didn’t you tell me?” she asks, oblivious to the chaos around her.

  I’m honest. “I was too bitter and twisted to face it. My wife betrayed me. I couldn’t even find it within myself to forgive her when she was dead. I left. Walked away. Shut down. I turned into a hateful, bitter bastard, Camille. My daughter was better off without me. I didn’t want to poison her with my blackness.”

  She wipes at her eyes, looking around her like the crowds of people can offer her some advice of what to do.

  “Cami, I love you!” I shout it, just to be sure she hears it, my arms swinging up in front of me before dropping to my sides. She looks at me, the tears still coming. “Nothing about the time we’ve had together has been a lie. Not one second.”

  “You should have told me.”

  “I had every intention of telling you. I just needed to find my own clarity before I could offer you yours. I needed to see my daughter, start to make things right. I want to make things right. You’ve made me see that I can do that.”

  She drops her gaze, nodding, and my hope is revived as she lifts a foot from the ground. She’s coming to me. I silently spur her on. I’ve never needed to hold her more than I do now. She takes a step, and not prepared to delay the comfort we both need, I begin toward her, too.

  I ignore the continued sounds of car horns screaming around us, my focus set only on getting her back where she belongs. In my arms. She wipes at her eyes again, her face lifting as she comes to me, her eyes alive with relief and hope.

  But then the loud screeching of tires adds a new ringing to my ears, and I find myself abandoning the comfort of her coming closer, searching out the source.

  The rest happens in slow motion.

  A van.

  A white van. The same white van that sped away from me when I approached it outside Cami’s agent’s office. It speeds toward Cami, and her attention is immediately grabbed by how close it’s come. I don’t realize I’m running until the soles of my feet start burning through my boots, my legs spinning in a sprint. I see her smile drop away. I see her body lock up. But she doesn’t seem to be getting any closer to me, no matter how fast I run toward her.

  I watch as the van pulls to a screaming stop next to her. I see the door on the side slide open.

  “No!” I bellow, the roar echoing through the streets of London. A pair of arms appear, covered in black material, and seize her, pulling her into the van. Screeching rings out through the air again, and the smell of burning rubber invades my nose. The van heads straight for me, forcing me to dive from its path. My body crashes into the tarmac with force and I roll, springing to my feet, sweating and heaving, watching as the van slams into Cami’s Merc and forces it into a nearby wall on an ear-piercing smash. I’m sprinting again, trying to make it to the van as it reverses. “No!” I bellow again. It speeds off, taking a corner fast, the door pulled shut as it goes. And I lose sight of it, my legs slowing until I come a gradual stop.

  Numb.

  I’m numb, cold…dying.

  The world is happening around me—people staring, taking a wide berth as they pass, cars moving. I feel as though everyone’s looking at me like I might have broken out of an asylum. No one asks if I’m okay. No one approaches me to see if they can help.

  I’m beyond help. I glance around, circling on the spot, the madness of London a blur of color and noise. She’s gone. I throw my head back to the sky and roar her name.

  Chapter 30

  CAMI

  I don’t know where I am. I haven’t seen a thing since I looked into the blackness of his eyes past the balaclava. I screamed and wrestled with him until exhaustion rendered me immobile. My brain isn’t working. My body is shutting down. The blackness is now constant, my eyes covered, and my ability to scream has been taken away by the rough gag strapped in my mouth. There has been no talking. I don’t know how many of them there are. I’m cold, too. Strangely, I’m not crying anymore. I’m scared, but I’m not crying. If I had the ability to think, I might wonder why.

  But I don’t.

  So I remain silent and unmoving on the hard floor, praying.

  Chapter 31

  JAKE

  My body is sore, my eyes are sore, my heart is sore.

  She’ll be frightened. She’ll be calling for me.

  I run back to my car, calling Lucinda on my way. “Hello?”

  It’s not Lucinda’s voice. “Heather?”

  “Oh…”

  I frown down the line. “Where’s Lucinda?”

  “Um, she’s waking up.”

  It falls into place very quickly. Lucinda wouldn’t have let Cami leave her apartment if she could physically stop her. Which means she couldn’t physically stop her. “What did you two do?”

  “What did you do, you arsehole?” she counters scathingly, making me drink in patience before I lose the plot. “Camille’s dad told her you’re married!”

  “Shut up, Heather,” I hiss, damning Cami’s determined little arse to hell. She didn’t know about Charlotte. Heather doesn’t mention that monumental point, and I could see by the shock in Camille’s eyes. Logan dug only deep enough to find out about my wife, Monica, and didn’t go any deeper, happy enough with the information he’d found to turn his daughter against me. “Cami’s been taken.”

  “What?”

  “She’s been fucking kidnapped! Put Lucinda on!” I jump into my car and waste no time running the red light, smacking my horn to startle the pedestrians crossing. “Move!”

  “Jake?” Lucinda sounds weary, and for a fleeting second I wonder again what the fuck Cami did, but I don’t have time to go into that now.

  “Cami’s been taken.” I swing a hard right, knowing exactly where I’m going. Blood is flowing through my veins like poison, threatening to turn me to a point of no return.

  “Oh, shit. Where are you?” Lucinda asks, warranted worry evident in her tone.

  “I’m about to go psycho on her father.”

  “Oh, fuck. Jake, don’t do anything stupid.”

  “Too late.”

  * * *

  I dump my car in a no-parking zone outside Logan Tower and race toward the building, pushing my way through the doors with force. The glass ricochets off the wall, sending a deafening crash through the lobby. Everyone falls silent and turns their attention to the doors and the murderous man steaming through them.

  I keep my focus forward, seeing the X-ray machines up ahead and the old boy who keeps watch. His eyes grow wider the closer I get, his stocky frame dropping from the stool he’s perched on. I don’t give him a chance to try and stop me. I reach to my back and pull my gun, pointing it straight at his head as I stalk forward. There’s no need to follow it up with a warning.

  Smart man.

  He backs up, hands raised, eyes now bulging. “Whoa, matey! Let’s not be hasty.”

  I snarl, passing through the machine and marching on, leaving behind the alarms going wild behind me. I push the call button with
the barrel of my gun and an elevator opens immediately. I walk in looking calm as can be, which defies the chaos coursing through me.

  I’ve never been in an elevator for so long. By the time I reach the very top of Logan Tower, I’m ready to shoot my way out of the
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