The protector, p.36
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       The Protector, p.36

           Jodi Ellen Malpas
 

  father is suddenly at our side, trying to pull me away. He fails. My grip on Jake is as tight as his on me. He shakes my dad off with ease and determination as I cling onto him like he’s all I have. Because I feel like he is.

  Strong.

  Dependable.

  My protector.

  Chapter 35

  JAKE

  It was too late to save Logan. I didn’t want Cami to know the depths of his betrayal, but in the end I was powerless to stop it. He’d gone too far. I wanted to protect her from the hurt, but I also wanted to protect her from him.

  Logan was beyond help. The man who’s always been pissed-up on power was powerless. He was finished. Those pictures were never going to go away, not for all the money or contacts in the world.

  Lucinda traced the call from the disposable phone I retrieved from Scott’s body to a townhouse in North London. They found Vladimir Sochinsky and Logan’s first wife, TJ’s mum, and a mountain of evidence that will put them away for a long time, including details that matched the Swiss account mentioned in the messages to Logan. His first wife was broke. Logan didn’t have much to give, back when they’d divorced, and the bitterness, her lost son, and Logan’s obscene wealth today made a very tempting proposition for a twisted woman. She felt wronged, good for an heir and nothing more. Logan had always had it coming.

  I virtually carried Camille to hospital to have her checked out, even after she refused to go. That knife. I shudder every time I think of it: filthy and cutting into my girl’s flesh. She sulked, but she didn’t try to stop me. Not even when the police turned up. Watching my angel relay every moment of her time in captivity was the worst few hours of my life. Her strength and conviction staggered me. She’s a fighter. My little fighter.

  Her mother showed up, large as life, shouting orders to staff left, right, and center. Her mother. Oh, her mother. Endearing but testing. She has basked in the glory of being the only one of Logan’s wives’ that hasn’t turned on him. A ridiculous thing to be proud of, since I know for sure she’d love nothing more than to kick him in the balls and finish him off. The fact that her spousal payments might cease seems inconsequential, however. She’d rather have Logan’s arse on a plate than his money.

  The share prices of Logan’s companies dropped like stones once the pictures surfaced, and the papers all printed them. Whatever immoral relationship he had with the press was doomed. He was arrested for sex with a minor. His third wife left him, pregnant with another man’s child, and his first wife tried to extort money from him. He’s ruined.

  TJ is still in a state of shock. His integrity was questioned. He didn’t have a clue what was going on. He hadn’t seen his mother since he was three and had no idea what she was up to. The poor bloke is in tatters, feeling guilty, though he has nothing to feel guilty for. None of what happened was his doing; it was their father’s doing. That megalomaniac of a man has lost everything.

  The media have picked at the story like vultures, adding bits here and there, sensationalizing something that was already sensational enough. And through it all, Cami hasn’t shed a tear. She’s remained dignified, not speaking to the press and not voicing her opinions on her father. She was kidnapped and everyone wants a piece of her, but they can’t have it.

  The comfort I have knowing she’s not been mentally scarred by her ordeal is beyond explanation. All of the reasons why I fell in love with her hit me between the eyes every time I look at her. So fucking strong. And I feed off that strength. It drives me, makes me want to be the man I always should have been. The only reason I’m here now is because of her. I’ll never be able to repay her. But I’ll try.

  Just two days after the showdown at Logan’s office, Cami’s agent was on the phone, calling her about a meeting the next day with a new potential investor for her and Heather’s clothing line. I thought maybe it was too soon, though I kept that thought to myself. Cami was too excited for me to dampen it. Then the next day came and I wasn’t at all surprised when she was up and ready to head to her agent’s office, armed with files and files of designs, fabric swatches, and her best friend and partner. I offered them a lift. Camille politely declined with a knowing smile. After shadowing her for so long, I’m struggling to let go, have to keep reminding myself that she’s no longer in danger.

  While she was gone, I paced her apartment until I’d worn a track in the carpet. And the moment she got home, I knew by the twinkle in her eyes that she’d nailed it. Not that I had much doubt. They offered a diamond of a deal on Cami’s and Heather’s clothing line, and I got a blow-by-blow account of the meeting from beginning to end. Camille and her friend didn’t have to compromise on a thing. They got everything they had hoped for and worked so hard for. I’m so fucking proud of her. Of both of them, actually.

  I haven’t seen Abbie and Charlotte yet. We’ve talked on the phone, Abbie has kept up to speed on the crazy events, and she’s been understanding. She’s a good woman. I always knew it. I should have had more faith in that. She’s nothing like her sister. My dead wife. Abbie is compassionate and resilient. I’m grateful. Any lesser woman would have given up on me by now.

  I can’t wait to try to make it up to Charlotte, to be there, be a dad, but I need to do it the right way. I’ve been planning how to go about this since the moment I walked out of Logan’s office with Cami wrapped around me like a blanket. This will be a barrage of shit Charlotte’s little head might not be able to get around. But I pray she does. I pray she gives me the chance to explain my absence. I pray her four-year-old mind understands.

  It’s a week on and as I sit on the couch in Cami’s lounge, listening to her chat with her mum on the phone, her head on my lap, I try to psych myself up for the afternoon ahead. It’s been arranged, carefully thought out by me and Abbie. Cami knows what’s keeping me quiet and apprehensive, but she hasn’t made a huge deal of it. She’s simply told me that she’s ready when I am.

  I’m ready now.

  I wait patiently for her to wrap up her call to her mother, my eyes falling the length of her body and taking in the T-shirt I love so much as my fingers comb her hair. She’s looking up at me, her eyes alive with happiness.

  “What?” I ask, my eyebrow raised curiously. She’s trying to conceal a grin.

  Her shoulders shift on my thighs from a little shrug. “Nothing.”

  “Sure doesn’t look like nothing from where I’m sitting.”

  She loses the fight to restrain her grin. “Mum wants to know when we’re going out for dinner.”

  That’s it? “You can go out whenever you like.” The words sound far more sincere than I actually feel. Letting go is a challenge I’ve underestimated. Constantly telling myself that she’s safe is easier than believing it.

  Her grin widens. “She means all of us.”

  Oh. Like socializing? “All of us?” I mutter feebly, twisting her blond locks around my fist until my hand is a ball of hair. “I’m not sure that’s my thing.”

  “What is your thing?”

  “You.” That’s easy. “You are my thing.”

  “Will you think about it?” she asks, hope rife in her topaz eyes.

  How can I refuse? I’ve been alone for so long, I don’t know how to be sociable. To make normal conversation. “Yes,” I agree, nudging her to lift as I sit forward. For her, I’ll do anything. “Up you get.”

  “Why? Where are you going?”

  I get to my feet and look down at her huddled on the couch, looking unprepared to move. “We’re going out for the afternoon.”

  “We are?”

  “Yes, we are.” I take her hand and pull her to her feet, making sure I put enough force behind my tug to land her against my chest. Her tiny exhale of breath hits my neck and sends my knees weak. A lifetime of this makes every heart attack I’ve had since meeting Camille Logan worth the agony.

  “Get dressed.” I kiss her but push her away at the same time, mindful that if my pelvis captures a skimming touch of hers, I’m done for. We can’
t be late.

  She grumbles, relenting and detaching her mouth from mine, narrowing her eyes on me as she backs away. “I don’t know where we’re going. What should I wear?”

  “Something pretty. Girlie.” I wave a hand to her head. “And braid your hair down one side,” I order, meaning to be as demanding as I sound. I love her hair like that. Tousled and cute.

  “Makeup?” she asks, knowing damn well what the correct answer is to that silly question.

  “Are you trying me?”

  “Yes. I like it when you’re all bossy.” She blows me a kiss and pivots, heading for the bedroom, a tactical sway to her arse. That T-shirt. Simple and sexy. Camille Logan is not to be ignored. And I never plan to. I need to find out where she got it from. She needs at least seven of them on rotation.

  She likes it when I’m bossy? I can fully comprehend the weight of her admission. Cami Logan, miss headstrong and independent, loves me being bossy. It’s just as well. That isn’t going to change. She’ll never lose her feistiness, and I hope she doesn’t. It makes for good bouncing off when the time calls for it.

  Smiling, I head for the shower to get myself ready.

  * * *

  I’m waiting for the treacherous shakes to make themselves known. I’ve got out of the car, I’ve walked down the street, and I’ve been standing at the end of the pathway to the house for at least two minutes. Two silent minutes, with Cami on my arm. I feel too calm for such a monumental moment. What’s going on?

  “Okay?” Cami looks up at me, her arm linked through mine. My hand rests in my jeans pocket.

  “Yeah,” I answer, because I am. Calm, stable, and resolute. It’s the woman attached to my arm that’s helping. I glimpse down at her and siphon off some more of the purpose that she feeds me. “I never imagined I could do this.”

  She reaches up on her tiptoes and pushes her lips against my jaw. “You can do anything.”

  Closing my eyes, I push into her kiss and slip an arm around her tiny waist. “Only because you’re here,” I tell her, leading her on.

  Abbie is expecting us, so I’m not surprised when the door opens and she appears before we make it all the way up the path. She looks more nervous now than she did on that awful day when it all went so horribly wrong. She smiles and motions us in, giving Cami a reassuring rub on the arm as we pass. The gesture doesn’t go unnoticed by my angel. She swallows and glances up at me, tears forming in her eyes. She doesn’t let them take hold, though, shaking them away like the brave girl she is.

  “We’re in the garden,” Abbie says, gesturing toward the dining room off the hall. “It’s a lovely day. Thought it would be nice to make the most of it.”

  I nod, and Cami drops my arm, making my steadiness waver for a moment. I shoot her a look but she just tilts her head toward the door that leads into the dining room, her way of telling me I can do this.

  I can do this. Taking in plenty of oxygen, I clear my throat and slowly make my way through, feeling able to face the photographs lining the walls of the hallway this time. My little girl. She’s everywhere—posing, captured playing, dancing. I’ve never seen such a perfect little thing.

  My pace stutters when I come face to face with a picture of my dead wife, her expression bright and happy. Again, I wait for the shakes to attack me, but they don’t come.

  All the hatred and bitterness that’s weighed me down for all these years has vanished. Gone like it was never there. I’m looking into the eyes of the woman who destroyed me, and I feel nothing but sadness and sorrow. We both made mistakes. We both let our little girl down. But I’m the only one left who can make things right. Or as right as they can be. I pass a silent message to her, looking straight into her dark eyes.

  I’m sorry, Monica.

  I don’t know if she’ll hear it. Whether it would mean anything if she does. But I am sorry. I’m sorry for abandoning my little girl. I sniff, ripping my eyes away from the image of my wife. The sound of a child’s squeal floats into the house, and I peek my head around the door to the dining room, seeing the patio doors flung open. I’m aware that Abbie and Cami are hovering behind me, probably silently willing me on. Taking one hesitant step, I put myself in the room, bringing part of the garden into view. I don’t see Charlotte, but I can hear her. She’s chatting away buoyantly, and I turn to ask who’s out there with her.

  Abbie chuckles. “She’s having a tea party with her teddy bears.”

  “Oh.” I show acceptance and understanding, when what I’m actually thinking is, Huh? She’s talking to her teddy bears? Having a tea party? My silent bewilderment speaks volumes. I haven’t got a fucking clue how to humor or entertain children, least of all a little girl who talks to her toys. I’m suddenly very nervous, but I bully myself to move forward before I chicken out and run for the hills.

  When I round the corner, I can’t help but stare, a little taken aback. It’s not a tea party, it’s a banquet. The garden table is set and platters of fruit and cakes are positioned in the middle. A few bottles of water are scattered, and two of the six chairs have teddy bears perched on them. Charlotte, dressed in an adorable lemon cotton sundress, her dark hair in a high ponytail, is dishing up some grapes on the plates laid before her bears.

  “One or two, Mr. Piggles?” she asks seriously, holding up a spoon with two red grapes perched atop. “Two?” she asks, and I look to the bear like a twat, waiting for his confirmation. “Greedy!” she giggles, tipping the spoon onto the plate. The grapes roll around, one finding its way to the edge and toppling off the side. She tuts, grabbing it with her hand and tossing it back on the plate. “No, you may not leave the table.” She waves the spoon in the bear’s face. “Only when you’ve eaten all your supper.”

  I’m speechless. Turning, feeling a little lost and stupid, I find Cami and give her a pained look. I have no idea what to do, and she knows it, but instead of coming over and helping me out, she flips her eyes to Charlotte’s back and gives me an encouraging smile. Then Cami looks at Abbie and she nods, understanding, and they both turn and wander back into the house. I watch, mouth hanging open in stunned silence, as they abandon me, leaving me to fend for myself.

  Talk about throwing me to the fucking wolves! They disappear, not even flinging me a backward glance to check whether I’m still alive. I come over all stressed, my forehead prickling with sweat beads. I didn’t bargain for this.

  “Hello.”

  The sweet little voice has me swinging around more violently than I should, my expression undoubtedly panicked. She’s looking up at me, her tiny chin lifted high to get my towering frame in view. I feel like a giant. This little thing, she can’t hurt me. Coughing over my thick tongue, I yell at myself for being such a pussy. “Hello,” I reply—short, sweet, and simple, praying she takes the lead and gives me a heads-up on where our first ever conversation will go.

  But she says nothing. Just stares up at me, making me fidget and avoid her dark eyes. She’s inspecting me. I can’t help but wonder what her tiny mind is concluding. The silence becomes painful. At least, it does for me. Charlotte seems quite happy studying me.

  I cough again and offer my hand, not knowing what the hell I’m doing. “I’m Jake.” I keep my voice low and as soft as I can. I don’t want to frighten her. I’m terrified enough for the both of us.

  Her little face twists in amusement, her rosy lips tipping at the corners. “I know who you are.” She almost chuckles, but holds onto it as though she realizes it might make me feel a little stupid.

  “You do?” I retract my hand a little, cocking my head.

  “Yes. You’re my daddy.” She says it so matter-of-factly, with no hint of accusation or discontent.

  Fucking hell, I’m flummoxed. Just like that? My heart constricts in my chest, twisting painfully over and over, until I feel the need to push the side of my fist into my pecs in an attempt to ease it.

  She places her little hand in mine and I look down, seeing it looking like it could be the most delicate of birds perched
there. Those beads of liquid that were forming on my forehead have somehow made their way to the backs of my eyes. I blink the sting away and look at her, amazed. She smiles. It’s the most beautiful sight I’ve ever seen.

  “Nice to meet you, Daddy. My name is Charlotte. I’m your little girl.”

  My aching heart explodes in my fucking chest, shattering into tiny fragments that are all heavily weighted down with guilt, remorse, and so much sorrow. “Nice to meet you, too,” I reply, my voice broken as I smile through my emotion.

  I deserve to be hanged. After everything I’ve done—for abandoning this little girl to wallow in my pit of misery—I deserve to be sliced to pieces and left out for the vultures. I realize now that Charlotte would have helped me. We would have muddled through. She would have brought light into my dark world and given me determination to find my way. This tiny creature, so alive and resilient, is putting me to shame.

  I wrap my huge palm around her little one and apply a little pressure, hoping she reads into it as I want her to. I’m struck dumb for words.

  Giggling a little, she shifts her hand so she’s holding mine and starts pulling me toward the table. “We’re having a party.”

  I look at the table, reminded of what I first walked in on. Oh heck, she’s not going to make me talk to her stuffed toys, is she?

  “Looks fun,” I muse, trying to swallow down the lasting overwhelming feelings that Charlotte has stirred. It’s no good. It’s all wedged securely in my throat with no chance of going anywhere.

  “Sit.” She releases my hand and points to where she wants me to be, and I obey quickly, waiting for my next instruction.

  She looks delighted by my willingness, and my chest actually swells a little, proud that I’ve pleased her. “I have a table and chairs, too.” She points to the bottom of the garden, to a
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JODI ELLEN MALPAS SERIES:

One Night
This Man

 

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