The protector, p.37
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       The Protector, p.37
 

           Jodi Ellen Malpas

  minuscule table and chair set. My foot is bigger than the seats of the chairs. “Aunty Abbie said you might be too big and break them.”

  Thank God for Aunty Abbie. I’m already frightened of breaking this fragile little girl. I don’t want to risk damaging her toys. “I think Aunty Abbie is right.”

  Charlotte pushes herself up onto a chair, looking even smaller as she shuffles her bum forward to the edge so she can reach the table, the long, dark strands of her ponytail jumping across her little shoulders. She takes a little teapot and pours some water into a thimble of a teacup.

  “Have some tea.” She passes the cup over and I grip it between my thumb and forefinger awkwardly, trying not to look like a big clumsy oaf.

  “Thank you.” I give up on the tiny cup and place it down, reaching for my inside pocket. “Can I show you something?”

  Her excitement is instant. “What?”

  “I’d like to show you a photograph of your mummy, if you’d like?”

  “I’ve seen lots of photographs of my mummy.”

  Her reply gives me pause. Of course she has. The hallway is lined with reams of them. But not like this one. This is the only picture of me and Monica together. “This one is a little different.”

  Her hairline drops as her little forehead furrows deeply. “Why?”

  Fingering the picture inside my pocket, I momentarily question if this is the right thing to do. “Well, because I’m in the picture, too.” I blurt the words, nervous, and pull it out before I can convince myself it’s a bad move. “Here.” I hand it over, trying not to take a peek myself.

  I don’t know why I’ve kept it all this time. Personal torture, perhaps? Seems like a reasonable explanation. I’ve been hell-bent on it the past few years. Or maybe I knew deep down, beneath all of the twisted bitterness, that I’d one day see sense and do anything to get my little girl back. I prefer that conclusion.

  I watch, fascinated, as her eyes shine like diamonds, seeing her mummy and daddy together for the first time. She studies the image for a long time, her gaze roaming every inch of the photograph.

  “Did you know my mummy?” she finally asks, looking up at me.

  “Yes.” I point to the picture, but she doesn’t look again, keeping her curious eyes on me.

  “What was she like?”

  What was she like? I know Abbie has filled her little head with an abundance of information that will shine her mother in the best possible light. And so she should. “Aunty Abbie has told you all about her.”

  “I want you to tell me.” She places the picture down and continues to watch me, waiting.

  What can I say? Monica broke me. Made me want to kill someone every day for the rest of my life. The reason I’ve been missing from my little girl’s life is because she screwed me over and made me a hateful, selfish bastard and I wanted to shelter my baby girl from that?

  “She was wonderful and beautiful, just like you.” My answer fights past all of the nasty shit with ease as I bully myself into remembering the better times. Like how we met. Like how fast we fell in love. It’s the first time in years that I’ve allowed my mind to venture that far back into my past—to the times before the shit and anger and hurt. They were buried too deep. The memories were too hard to find. Somehow, it seems easy to locate them now.

  She giggles, her long lashes fluttering. “Have you finished fighting the bad men now, Daddy?”

  Her curveball question has me looking up, startled. “Huh?”

  “Aunty Abbie said you would be home one day, when you finish fighting the bad men.” Her little head cocks in question. “Have you finished fighting the bad men now?”

  I could crumble. Good God, I’m on the verge of pooling into a huge blubbering mess. “Yes.” I clear my throat and take the photo off the table, tucking it back in my pocket. “All the bad men are gone.”

  They aren’t. Never will be. But they are from my life, and that’s what matters for now. I haven’t got the heart to dash that notion. Her innocence is infectious. I want in on it.

  “Does that mean you can start being my daddy now?”

  That’s it. I can’t hold them off anymore. There are too many and nowhere for them to go but down my cheek. I wipe them away furiously, sniffling like a fool. I nod, the emotion strangling me.

  “Why are you crying, Daddy?” She reaches over and places her hand on mine.

  “I’m crying because I’m happy,” I tell her. “I’m really happy that I can be your daddy now.”

  I have no fucking clue how this is going to work. My sense of possession toward her is growing with every second that I sit here. I’ve fallen in love with her. Madly. So fucking madly. This smart, sweet, vivacious little girl is mine. I realize we need to do this slowly. Get to know each other. Form a bond. I have no right or claim on her, but as I look across the table to her, I find her big brown eyes alive.

  And I realize…

  She’s made a claim on me.

  Chapter 36

  CAMI

  Watching him from the kitchen window handling the spirited little girl has me all choked up, wrestling down the lump in my throat. He looked so terrified. Leaving him to it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. But I have every faith in him. He needs to do this, take that final step into his past and make it right. The past week has been spent quietly, me coming to terms with my father’s betrayal, and Jake wrapping his mind around his future. A future with me, and hopefully, with that little girl, who is currently introducing Jake to her teddy bears. I smile as I watch him gingerly reach forward and shake a limp paw. God love him, he looks petrified of the tiny girl and her collection of stuffed bears.

  “He’s doing okay.” Abbie appears beside me at the window, smiling fondly. “She’s a character. No nonsense and matter-of-fact.”

  I laugh a little, thinking of someone else with similar qualities. “She’s adorable.”

  “Yes, she is.”

  “How have you coped?”

  “You just do, don’t you? I always lived in hope that Jake would come back. She knows Mummy is in heaven, and she thinks Daddy has been fighting all the baddies.” She laughs, and I join her.

  “It’s true, I guess.”

  “Yes,” Abbie agrees, nodding to herself. “I didn’t know Jake for very long, but I know a good man when I see one. It’s a shame my sister toyed with that.”

  “What was she like?” I ask, feeling comfortable. I’ve been in the kitchen with Abbie for less than half an hour and feel so relaxed. She has a serene, calming aura surrounding her that you can’t help being affected by.

  She folds her arms across her chest. Her dark hair is tied up loosely, and she’s dressed in a tie-dye shirt and jeans that have paint splattered up the pockets.

  “We were very different from each other,” she says wistfully, gazing out into the garden. “Monica was bold, highly strung, and daring. I often wondered how we came from the same parents.”

  “My brother and I are very different, but we have different mothers.”

  She looks at me and smiles. “I know.”

  I feel a blush creep up on my cheeks. Of course she knows. Everyone in London knows.

  “Monica and Jake’s romance was a bit of a whirlwind,” she goes on, surprising me. I had no intention to ask or pry about that part of Jake’s life. Silly as it sounds and despite it all ending so horribly, I can’t help but feel a smidgen of jealousy. There’s also a bit of resentment, coupled with a hint of gratitude. It’s a strange mix of feelings toward a woman who is dead. I resent her for destroying Jake, but I’m grateful that her bad choices meant I could one day fix him. I’m jealous that she had that effect on him.

  “They met when Jake was home on leave,” she continues, pulling me from my thoughts. Then she laughs. “They were married before he returned to Afghanistan. She found out she was pregnant soon after and that was that.” Abbie sighs and collects her mug, sipping thoughtfully. “I knew she was making a mistake. Monica was a demanding w
oman, craved attention, and Jake couldn’t very well meet those demands from the Middle East.”

  Step in his best mate, I think to myself, joining Abbie and having some tea myself.

  “I loved my sister dearly, but she was a selfish girl.” She looks at me, a sad smile on her face. “She was so caught up in lust, she didn’t consider being a wife and a mother at home alone.”

  I don’t know what to say, so I go with the only thing that I have. “Thank you.”

  She looks at me, interested. “For what?”

  I feel a bit silly, wondering if it’s my place to say, but I kind of feel like I should. “For looking after Charlotte. She’s a credit to you.” This woman didn’t ask for any of this. She picked up the pieces and got on with things, and has kept Jake alive in his daughter’s eyes. She’s a sincere, good woman. Jake will never be able to repay her for what she’s done.

  “I love her.” I can hear the quiver in her voice, and compelled to try and ease her sadness, I place a hand on her arm. She laughs, chasing away the emotion. “I’m being silly. I’ve wished for this day all her life, and now that it’s here I feel a little overwhelmed. I wanted him to see what an amazing little girl she is. I knew he’d fall for her the moment he saw her.”

  Her faith and empathy is beyond my comprehension, and I look out of the window again, seeing Jake now with a bear on his lap, feeding it a strawberry, and Charlotte showing him how it should be done. I laugh, savoring the beautiful scene. Jake’s smiling, his eyes bright and happy, but there’s pure wonder on his face, as if he just can’t fathom how that little girl has him doing such a pansy thing.

  “I think he’s fallen,” I muse to myself.

  “It was a given.” Abbie places her mug down. “Oh, they’re coming back.” She turns laughing eyes onto me. “Shall I get him something stronger than tea?”

  “Yes!” I giggle, just as Charlotte marches into the kitchen dragging Jake along behind her. I purse my lips and take him in, finding a far more relaxed Jake than when I left him to go into the garden on his own.

  Charlotte puts herself in front of me, keeping hold of Jake’s hand. “My daddy said you’re his angel.”

  I dart a surprised look to Jake, and he shrugs nonchalantly. Wow. I wasn’t expecting that. “Um…I…” I stutter like a fool.

  “Like my mummy?” she questions with an innocence that melts my heart. “Are you an angel like my mummy?”

  “Well…I’m…” I search for what to say to her in language she’ll understand, turning into a nervous wreck.

  “Not quite like your mummy.” Abbie steps in, detecting my struggle. “Mummy is an angel because she has gone to heaven. Cami is an angel because she’s Daddy’s savior.”

  I inhale sharply, looking to Jake. He looks a little shocked, too.

  “What’s a savior?” Charlotte asks.

  Abbie, oblivious to my and Jake’s stunned faces, bends a little and rests her palms on her knees, getting closer to her niece. She smiles at Charlotte, content and calm. “A savior is someone who makes another person happy when they have been sad.” She reels off the simple explanation like she’s practiced it, handling the little girl’s inquiry with ease and calm, whereas Jake and I have disintegrated under the pressure. Christ, I’m getting more nervous about this by the minute. How is this even going to work? We haven’t spoken about the logistics or what will happen.

  “Why was Daddy sad?” she asks, sounding so sad herself at the notion.

  “Because he wanted to be here with you and he couldn’t be,” Abbie says gently, pacifying her.

  My gaze shoots to Jake, finding his eyes fixed on the little girl, emotion pooling in them. I don’t know if I can hold myself together for much longer.

  Charlotte seems quite satisfied with the answer, turning away from her aunty and back to me. “Thank you for making my Daddy happy!” she sings, beaming up at me. “Now I can help you make him happy, too! Because he’s fought all the baddies! And now he can be my daddy!”

  Oh my God. I swallow repeatedly, forcing a smile before I have a quick peek at Jake to gauge what’s going through his mind. I can’t tell. He looks lost between wonder and confusion. “You’re welcome,” I whisper.

  “Daddy asked me to help him with something,” she declares, her little chest puffing out proudly.

  My recoil is mild. “He has?”

  She nods, taking Jake’s hand in both of hers, hanging from him. “You have to come into the garden.”

  I throw Jake a questioning look that goes right over his head. “I guess we should go in the garden,” he says, coughing his throat clear, gesturing for us to lead on.

  I look to Abbie and she shrugs, a hint of a smile on her face. “The garden,” she affirms, placing a hand on my back to encourage me onward.

  With nothing left to do except as I’m bid by all three of them, I follow Charlotte until I’m in the lush green space that boasts a vegetable patch as well as a shed that has had each panel of wood painted a different color. The mix of colors between each plank tells me Charlotte may have helped out.

  “Would you like to sit?” Jake asks, circling me and pointing to an empty chair.

  “I don’t know. Do I need to?”

  “Yes!” Charlotte squeals, excitement building, pushing me on with a strength that defies her little frame. I plop down into the chair and she assesses my position, then looks up at Jake. “You’re tall, Daddy. You need to kneel or you won’t be able to kiss her.”

  I sit up straight and Jake laughs, bringing a finger to his lips. “Shhhh.”

  Charlotte’s eyes go all round and she slaps a hand over her mouth. “Oops!”

  “What’s going on?” I ask, not liking being in the dark or the center of attention.

  Jake’s happy smile turns shy as Charlotte pushes into his hip, forcing him closer to me. I look up at him, and it takes me a few blank moments to realize that his face is coming closer.

  Because he’s dropping to his knee.

  I sit back in my chair, anxious. Oh my goodness, what is he doing?

  He lands on his knee and takes my hand, pulling me forward. I make it as hard as possible for him. Cocking his head curiously, he tugs so I jerk forward. “When I told Charlotte that we were going to get married,” Jakes begins quietly, “she asked me how I’d asked you.” He looks at his grinning daughter and laughs a little, raking a hand through his hair nervously. “She wasn’t very impressed.”

  She wasn’t? But it was perfect. I don’t say that, though, because Charlotte is nodding her agreement, her little head bobbing fast. Abbie laughs from behind.

  “She said it wasn’t like the fairy tales,” Jake goes on, his voice breaking a little, but he fights his way through it and pulls in air.

  “Why?” I look to Charlotte and her little eyes roll impatiently.

  “Because he didn’t give you a ring!” she cries. “All the princes have a ring for their princess!”

  “Ohhh,” I breathe, thinking it best not to tell her that I did, in fact, have a ring. Until it washed off in the shower.

  “Now he has a ring!” She’s virtually shaking with excitement. “Give it to her, Daddy!”

  He does?

  I bite my lip, feeling Jake flexing his fingers around mine.

  “Do you mind if we do this again?” he asks, a little embarrassed.

  I could cry. I’m about to tell him that he doesn’t need to, but I’m interrupted by Charlotte crawling up the side of my chair, pushing something onto my head. “Now you’re a proper princess,” she declares, climbing down.

  I reach up and feel the plastic of a tiara resting in my hair.

  “It was Cinderella’s,” she tells me, all matter-of-fact.

  I laugh nervously. “Thank you.” She looks so proud of herself.

  Jake looks to his daughter for permission to go on, and she nods her agreement, grinning. Then he turns to me and pulls out a ring—a beautifully simple diamond ring. “Camille Logan,” he breathes, and I choke up, straighten
ing my lips to prevent showing myself up and blubbering like a fool. I’m certain Charlotte wouldn’t be impressed. Cinderella didn’t cry. Jake smiles, so dazzling and happy. I swear he’d give Prince Charming a run for his money. He squeezes my hand. “Will you have me forever?”

  “That’s not how you do it!” Charlotte jumps in, annoyed.

  “Okay!” Jake laughs, giving me sorry eyes. He breathes in deeply. “Will you please do me the honor of becoming my wife, Camille Logan?” His hand constricts around mine, his smile shy. “I can’t imagine my life without you. I want to be by your side for the rest of our days on this earth. I want to see your beautiful smile, hear your voice, watch you work. And I want to share my
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