The protector, p.35
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       The Protector, p.35
 

           Jodi Ellen Malpas

  “Don’t look,” he orders softly as he turns away, my eyes just catching a glimpse of a body sprawled on the floor, arms splayed out at the sides. The horrific sight of the pool of blood growing around his head doesn’t deter me. I look at his face. His eyes are wide open, his mouth lax.

  “I don’t know him.” My confused statement comes from nowhere, my voice found.

  Jake releases one hand, keeping me secure against his chest with his other, and pushes his palm into my cheek, encouraging me to rest my head against his chest. “Shhh,” he hushes me, and my body begins to sway in time to his long strides as he carries me away.

  I look up at his bristly neck and listen to his heart beating evenly under my ear. He’s focused forward, his face straight, but his jaw is tight.

  When we make it outside, I bury my face against his chest and hide from the glare, drawing in long breaths through my nose, making the most of his scent and the fresh air. The walk to his car is long but he doesn’t tire. His hold of me doesn’t shift, and his pace doesn’t falter. He’s like a machine, programmed with purpose.

  He sits me in the passenger seat carefully, letting me take my time to accustom my body to my new position. Everything is suddenly aching. Pulling open the glove compartment, he takes a tissue and starts wiping at my face, ridding it of blood and dirt with painstaking care. His finger meets my chin and lifts a little, and he homes in on my neck, prompting me to lift my hand and feel.

  He stops me. “Don’t touch it.” Pressing my hand back to my lap, he lets it settle and then pulls my seat belt across, securing me in my seat. He doesn’t miss the opportunity to push his lips into my forehead as he steps away.

  The door closes and he’s next to me in a heartbeat, starting the car, pulling his phone from his pocket and dialing. “I’ve got her,” he says, to Lucinda I expect. “There are two bodies in the old Warston factory off the A505.” He pulls out onto the bumpy lane and turns around in two quick moves. “Let Logan know she’s safe.” He falls silent, listening carefully, his eyes flicking briefly to mine. “I have one of their phones.”

  I frown, trying to keep up with the conversation, but what I can hear is too sketchy.

  “Whoever it is should be calling soon,” Jake says.

  I’m confused. Whoever it is? Didn’t he just kill them?

  “See you there.” He hangs up and looks across to me. “Okay?”

  “What phone? Who will be calling?” I ask, relief disappearing, replaced by anxiety.

  “I don’t know,” Jake admits. “Your dad hasn’t been entirely honest with us.” He says this tentatively, like he doesn’t want to tell me. “He’s chosen to keep certain things to himself.”

  “Like?”

  “Like information on the threats he received—information that would have helped us find the people who sent them.”

  “Why would he do that?” I ask, perplexed. “He called off your protection! Said he’d dealt with it! Why would he do that if he knew I was at risk?” This doesn’t make any sense. Even his tenacity in thinking that Jake isn’t good enough for me isn’t a good enough reason. It’s crazy that he’d behave so heedlessly.

  Jake’s expression takes on a frightening edge of anger, his jaw ticking violently. It’s a hint that he’s thinking the exact same thing. “He was a desperate man,” Jake spits, and I sigh, unable to comprehend why Dad would go to such lengths to keep Jake away from me rather than accept him and take comfort in the knowledge that I’m safe with him. I feel like he’s gambled recklessly with my life. How could he? My own father?

  “How did you find me?”

  Jake smiles now, keeping his eyes on the road. “I’ve told you before, angel.” His hand takes mine in my lap and squeezes. “I’ll always find you.”

  I smile and rest back in my seat, returning his squeeze. All of my life I’ve strived for independence. I’ve repelled attempts to have that taken from me. Now I would surrender it all to Jake in a heartbeat. If I had to choose, I would always choose Jake. But I know I won’t need to, which makes me love him all the more. I’ve found someone who sees me as me. Someone who encourages me. Someone who I know will always be with me, no matter what. No judgments. No conditions. No gain to him except my love. It’s his. Unconditionally. Just like I know his for me will be.

  “Where are we going?” I ask.

  “Home.”

  “Where’s home?”

  “Where do you want it to be?” He looks across at me, keeping his face blank, waiting for my reply.

  “You’re my home now,” I tell him. “Wherever you are, that’s my home.” I don’t care where that may be.

  Nodding his understanding, he returns his attention to the road. I let my head fall to the side and I study him for the entire journey. He looks like he’s been to hell and back, his hair askew, his stubbled face covered in a sheen of sweat, his eyes tired.

  “I love you,” I say to him, thinking he looks like he needs to hear it. “Whatever you need to do to make things right, I’ll be here for you.”

  He looks across to me, but he doesn’t say anything. He just smiles a little.

  * * *

  I don’t realize where I am until Jake pulls over and cuts the engine, and I break my stare at his profile.

  “Dad’s office?” I ask, bewildered. “You said you were taking me home.” I know I said my home was with Jake, but not here…

  “Just a small detour. I’m not overly happy about bringing you here, but I’m not prepared to let you out of my sight.” He gets out and rounds his car, coming to collect me. The shakes set in. I didn’t anticipate this. I haven’t the strength to face my father. Not now.

  Jake opens the door and helps me down. “Jake, why do we have to do this now?” I ask, looking up at the building. “I can’t—”

  “Hey.” He places a finger over my mouth and hushes me. “There will be no arguing or attempts to pry you from my arms.”

  How does he know that? This is my father we’re talking about. Hasn’t he learned a thing? “I don’t—”

  His palm rests over my mouth. “Trust me, angel.”

  Trust him. I could search far and wide for a lifetime and I’d never find a reason not to trust him. He’s been protecting me the whole time. From my father, from my ex…from his secrets.

  I nod and look past him to the glass doors, bracing myself to face the last man in the world I want to see right now. Everything that has happened is because of him. His selfishness. His obsession with power and victory, in every capacity.

  He’s lost this time, the biggest loss he’ll ever suffer. He’s lost me.

  “Come on.” Jake tucks me into his side, taking slow steps, letting me take my time. I don’t need it. I decide I want to get this over with as soon as possible.

  Strangely, the security guard doesn’t bat an eyelid when Jake skips the machines and walks me straight through to the elevators. Barbara, dad’s long-suffering PA, doesn’t question my unexpected visit or the man who’s with me when we pass her desk. And Jake doesn’t knock on my dad’s office door when we arrive, instead pushing his way in. I frown at the sight of splintered wood on the frame as Jake walks me in, his hold of me increasing as my dad’s office comes into view.

  My father’s not sitting at his desk holding court. He’s pacing, looking the most disheveled I’ve ever seen him. When he looks across the room and spots me, I fall into shock when he breaks down, tears streaming uncontrollably down his face.

  “Thank God!” He hurries over but pulls to a sharp stop before claiming me in his arms. I’m astounded when he looks to Jake for permission. What the fuck? I silently curse Jake for releasing me and exposing me to the corrupt clutches of my father.

  Dad flings his arms around me and hugs me like he’s never hugged me before. I don’t return it. How can I when I’m less than pleased to see him? He’s lied to me. He’s tried everything to convince me Jake was bad for me, and when those efforts failed he manipulated the truth, told me Jake had a wife. He neglect
ed to mention that Jake’s wife was dead. On top of all that, he paid Sebastian to press charges against Jake to get him away from me. I always knew my dad was ruthless, but this? This I’ll never understand. I never want to see him again.

  “Camille, I’m so sorry.”

  I look at Jake and sense his inner battle to reclaim me. I want him to. I’m his. “I want to go home,” I say, uncomfortable with Dad’s guilt and his over-the-top attention.

  Dad pulls away and swallows, scanning me up and down. I remain still and let him absorb my state. The state that he’s responsible for.

  “I’m so glad you’re safe,” he says.

  “No thanks to you,” I retort mechanically, shutting down completely. I need to leave. Not give him the opportunity to offload his reasoning on me. It won’t wash. None of it.

  Dad flinches, wounded, but I have no sympathy for him. I’ve turned into a cold-hearted cow. “My little star, please just—”

  “Don’t!” I yell, stunning myself with the decibel level of my voice, moving back. Jake seizes and hushes me, tucking my face into his chest and stroking my hair. “Take me home,” I beg, feeling his chest expand. “Please.”

  “Camille, please. I must explain.”

  I turn my most disdainful look onto my father, but before I can hit him with my scathing words, Lucinda comes flying in the door, looking grave. She claps eyes on me, assessing me up and down, and gives me a small smile. I return it, feeling so fucking remorseful for clouting her over the head and running.

  She turns her focus to Jake, her face serious again. “I might have something,” she declares.

  Jake goes rigid against me. “What?”

  Lucinda’s eyes bat between us. I know why. It’s sensitive. Maybe not for my ears. I couldn’t suffer any more than I already have.

  “Go on,” Jake prompts, and I look up, finding him staring at my father. He looks…apologetic?

  Dad shifts, nervous and uncomfortable. “Go on,” he breathes, walking over to his desk and dropping onto the chair heavily. “It’s too late, now.”

  Lucinda marches over to the desk, pulling her laptop out as she goes. “I have a contact who tells me Scott had an unusual friendship in prison.”

  She’s talking gibberish. I haven’t the first idea what she’s going on about.

  “‘Unusual’ usually means ‘significant,’” Jake says, turning us toward Dad’s desk. My father holds my attention. He looks like a broken man sitting in his chair, a far cry from the man I know.

  “He shared a cell with Vladimir Sochinsky.”

  I draw a total blank, the name meaning nothing to me. At least, it doesn’t for a few seconds.

  Dad’s eyes enlarge. “Sochinsky?” he questions. “Sochinsky was TJ’s mother’s maiden name. Vladimir was her eldest brother.”

  And like an omen or something, TJ bursts into the office. “Oh God, you’re safe!” He launches himself at me, knocking me back with the force of his hug. “Jesus, Cami, I’ve been so worried.”

  One minute I’m warm in my brother’s hold, the next I’m not. Jake’s claimed me and pulled me in, giving TJ a murderous glare. “Where have you been? How did you know Cami was missing?” Jake asks suspiciously.

  “Dad called me.” TJ frowns, taking in everyone in the office. I know what’s running through Jake’s head right now, and I have to put it to rest. Never. TJ loves me!

  “No, Jake,” I warn, wriggling free of him.

  “Don’t you dare throw your accusations around!” Dad’s disgusted boom comes from behind, and I’m suddenly facing him again, courtesy of Jake moving us. “TJ is loyal through and through!”

  “Forgive me,” Jake grates, beginning to twitch, his potent anger making a swift return, “but I have little faith in your family’s integrity.”

  Dad backs down in a second, his eyes flicking to mine. “TJ wouldn’t do such a thing,” he whispers. “He’s my son. Camille’s brother!”

  “What?” TJ asks, truly exasperated. “Is someone suggesting I’d kidnap my own sister for a ransom from my own father? How the hell would someone come up with that stupid explanation?”

  “Because,” Lucinda pipes up, walking forward, eyeing TJ carefully. I don’t like all this suspicion pointing at my brother. It’s crazy! “The man who took Camille, and the man who is now lying on a factory floor with a bullet in his head courtesy of Jake, shared a cell in Borstal with your uncle.”

  TJ’s face drops. “My uncle?” he whispers quietly, looking at me. He looks lost. A bit confused. He hasn’t seen his mother since Dad divorced her and won TJ in the custody battle. She went back to Russia.

  “Vladimir Sochinsky. Your mother’s eldest brother.” Lucinda goes on, looking for TJ’s reaction. “He’s been blackmailing your father.”

  “She tried to connect with me,” TJ breathes, his hand coming up to his chest and applying pressure. “I told her I didn’t need her.” He looks to Dad, his idol, and deflates. “I told her that Dad and I were fine and she wasn’t wanted. I haven’t heard from her since.”

  “When was that?” Jake asks.

  TJ shakes his head, confused. “I don’t know…three months ago?”

  “When did you get the first threat?” Jake asks my dad.

  “Two months ago,” he says. “Her brother’s always hated me. But I have no idea how they got those pictures.”

  “They were obviously following you, Logan. Looking for something, anything to use against you. Probably even set you up.” Jake gives my father an accusing look. “And you gave them what they wanted.”

  What they wanted? What did they want?

  TJ looks at me, sorrow drenching his eyes. “This is all my fault.”

  Dad’s up from his chair and racing to his son, taking him in his arms and hugging him. It’s a strange sight. I’ve never seen my father hug my brother. It’s always been hard love. Cruel to be kind. “It’s not your fault, son. It’s all me. My choices. My mistakes. I’ve made some terrible mistakes.”

  I could pass out with shock. My dad has admitted to making mistakes? “What mistakes, Dad?” I ask. “What did you give them to use against you?”

  He stops comforting my brother and kisses the top of his head before facing Jake. “You’ve not told her?”

  “I won’t turn her against you. You’ve done that yourself,” Jake says quietly.

  “What?” I push, looking between them.

  “I made a poor decision that gave them ammunition against me,” Dad mumbles, defeated.

  “Poor decision?” I ask, looking up at Jake when he moves in and places himself next to me. Why do I get the impression that he’s got so close because he thinks I might need the support?

  “There are some photographs.” Dad sighs, his body squirming with discomfort. “Some compromising photographs.”

  “Of what?” I look around me to the other people in the room, noticing Jake looks uncomfortable; Lucinda, too. TJ looks totally bewildered.

  “Me. And a woman.” He’s holding back. The sweat on his forehead and his refusal to look at me are making it obvious.

  “What woman?” I grate, my anger working up without the need for the whole truth.

  “A young woman.”

  “Just tell me!” I scream, batting Jake away when he tries to calm me down. “Stop fucking about and tell me!”

  “She was fifteen,” he whispers, ashamed. “I didn’t know!”

  TJ gasps, looking at his hero with disgust, and I fold.

  “I was being blackmailed. It ran away with me. I thought I could handle it on my own. I got Sharp in to protect you. That’s all that mattered, my little star! Your safety! He started digging, getting closer to the truth. I didn’t want anyone to know!”

  And there we have it. I was all that mattered? My safety? Then why the fuck did he call Jake off? He’s a joke! All he cares about is his reputation. His business and his money. “I need to go.” I look up to Jake, making sure he sees my desperation. I’ve heard enough. “Please,” I beg. He knew.
Jake knew, but I can’t be mad with him. I can’t hold him responsible for keeping me in the dark. He was protecting me. Even now, after everything my father has put us through, he didn’t want me to have the extended burden of my father’s shameful exploits.

  Jake nods, but is distracted from coming to me when a phone starts ringing. He frowns and rummages through his pocket, pulling out a cheap, unfamiliar phone. “Unknown number,” he says, looking up at Lucinda.

  “Not for long.” She takes the phone and accepts the call, but she says nothing, indicating with a held-up finger that everyone should remain quiet. She listens. And listens, and then she smiles, mouthing Russian accent to Jake. She hurries over to her laptop and plugs the phone in, holding up a silencing hand.

  Jake opens the door and motions everyone out of the office, leaving Lucinda to it. Once he’s closed the door, he strides past my father and lifts me so my legs wrap around his waist, then walks down the corridor toward the elevator, not even faltering when my
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