“Who?” he demanded.
His looked at her sympathetically as he took one of her hands. “Are you all right?”
She yanked her hand away when she realized what he was thinking. “I’m not crazy. Your brother just called me without disguising his voice. It’s him all right and he wants me dead. And he definitely has Barbara. Or I think it’s her. I heard a voice say ‘help me.’ I couldn’t tell if the voice was male or female.” Even though he’d admitted to taking her during their last call, now they positively knew he had someone, even if it wasn’t Barbara. But Lilly didn’t have many doubts the person on the other end of the line was the missing woman. There was no reason for him to lie about it.
Braden scrubbed a hand over his face. “Honey, you’re not making any sense. My brother is dead.”
“Did they ever find a body?” She gritted her teeth as she waited for the answer even though she already knew what it would be. His pause told her everything she needed to know. “They didn’t, did they?”
“By the time the rescuers got to the plane, my parents’ bodies had been scavenged by wild animals. It was rough terrain. Either he was eaten by animals or died in the elements. They didn’t find my grandfather’s body either. Do you think he’s involved in this too?” His voice dripped with unexpected sarcasm.
She took a step back as if he’d physically slapped her. He didn’t believe her.
He reached out as if to touch her, but she dodged his hand, slapping it away. “Damn it, Lil. I didn’t mean that. I think you might be confused.”
“I’m not confused and I understand that this sounds crazy but it’s not. I’d recognize his voice anywhere. For the first time in a while, everything is perfectly clear. Call the station and have them trace the last call to my phone.”
Braden sighed, but didn’t make a move to call anyone. “Okay, let’s say my brother did call you. Why would he pretend to be dead for years? And why would he hate you enough to do this?”
“I have no idea why he’d pretend to be dead. Maybe because he’s a psycho? He blames me for getting sent to military school.” She knew he was frustrated and she didn’t blame him, but she didn’t know another way to tell him.
His frown deepened. “What did you have to do with that?”
“Until just now I didn’t even realize he’d been sent his senior year.” The first couple years she’d been in college, she’d basically banned her aunt from talking about anything or anyone related to Braden. That included his brother.
Braden shrugged. “Yeah, my mom thought it would be a good idea. He was only there a couple months though before he got arrested for something. They brought him back home so they could keep a better eye on him.”
Lilly glanced down at the sand before meeting his gaze. “There’s no other way to say this…About a week after graduation your brother tried to rape me. I stopped by your house to drop something off—I don’t even remember what it was now—and he attacked me. He’d always made me really uncomfortable but I never imagined…Anyway, your mother walked in on what was happening and freaked out. She called me a tramp and told me to get out. Remember that bruise on my cheek the last week of school? I think I told you I got it playing volleyball or something. Yeah, that was courtesy of James. I wanted to tell you but I didn’t think you’d believe me. It would have been your brother’s word against mine. Your own mother threw me out like I was garbage.” She couldn’t believe how calmly the words fell from her mouth. As she said them, it was like that proverbial weight lifted from her shoulders and she could breathe for the first time in years.
Braden stood there, silently staring at her. A muscle twitched in his jaw, but he didn’t say a damn word.
After a few moments passed, she shook her head. “Looks like I was right to trust my instinct. This is exactly why I left.” Without waiting for his response, she trudged up the sand toward the house.
She didn’t blame him for not believing his brother was alive but actually knowing that he didn’t believe James had tried to rape her was a lot worse than worrying he might not. Some small part of her had believed he’d listen with an open mind. Unshed tears burned her eyes as she increased her pace. She refused to cry in front of him. The man didn’t deserve her tears.
Braden stared at Lilly’s retreating figure and tried to figure out what the hell had just happened. Too many conflicting emotions surged through him as he tried to wrap his mind around everything she’d just said.
There was no way his brother was alive. To suggest it was ludicrous. Why the hell would his brother fake his own death? And how would he have made it out of the wreckage alive? And to suggest he was the monster who’d perpetrated all those vicious crimes just seemed crazy. Images of the dead, broken women penetrated his mind in an onslaught of vivid bloody snapshots. Braden shook his head disbelievingly.
He knew his brother had had anger issues and he’d always started fights on the football field and sometimes even in school, but he couldn’t imagine James assaulting Lilly. He and James had never been particularly close because his brother had always been so competitive but he’d never been violent toward him. And he’d never indicated any feelings for Lilly. Whenever she’d been around James had basically ignored her. Even thinking his brother tried to rape her made him want to vomit where he stood. He wanted to go after her, yell at her for lying, but his feet were leaden.
If there was one thing he knew for certain, Lilly wasn’t a liar. She might be confused or imagining what she’d heard on the phone, but she hadn’t been lying about why she left him. He might want to deny it, but he’d seen the painful truth in her green eyes. And the knowledge made him sick.
As he walked toward the house, he called the one person who might have answers for him.
“Hello?” His grandmother picked up on the first ring.
“Why did my mother send James to military school his senior year?” At this point, he couldn’t make small talk to save his life.
His grandmother’s silence spoke volumes.
“Why are you asking?” Alma’s voice was quiet, reserved.
He ignored her question. “Why?”
“Your brother had…problems. I don’t know the whole story, but I think he tried to hurt Lilly.”
He gripped his phone tightly in his hand, wanting to smash it into a thousand tiny pieces. Hell, he wanted to smash his fist through his brother’s face. “Why didn’t anyone ever tell me?”
“It wasn’t my place, Braden. I think your mother was in some sort of denial. She didn’t tell me what happened, but she alluded to it. Then, when Lilly left you so abruptly, I put two and two together.”
Braden jerked the back door open, but refrained from slamming it. He knew if he did, Lilly would think it was directed at her and that was the last thing he wanted. “Do you think he’s still alive?”
“What?” Her shocked gasp gave him his answer.
“Never mind. I’ve got to go, but I’ll check in with you later this week. Thanks for all you did today.”
As soon as they disconnected, he called the station. Thankfully Vanessa answered on the first ring. After asking her to track the last call made to Lilly’s phone, he raced up the stairs and stopped in front of Lilly’s room. He raised his hand to knock, then stopped. What the hell could he say? His brother had tried to rape her. The girl he’d loved. His hands balled into fists as he realized she’d had to deal with that all by herself. She’d been young, fragile and…shit, she’d been his. He should have protected her. Should have seen it coming. Or something. How could he have not known?
Rage and a deep seated protectiveness battled inside him. There was no one to take his anger out on now. If his brother was still alive, he’d…As dark thoughts of what he’d like to do accosted him, he paused and placed an open palm on the door. Hating what had happened to her, he leaned forward and pressed his forehead to the back of his hand. Lilly didn’t need to sense his anger or helplessness right now.
After a moment of staring at her closed door, he sucked it up and opened it. He wasn’t going to knock and give her a chance to tell him to get lost.
She was curled up on her side in the middle of her bed, but she turned at the sound of the door opening. Tears streaked down her face and her eyes were red and puffy. All because of him. Seeing her this way was like a punch to the gut.
“Go away,” she muttered, before turning her back to him.
Wordlessly he shut the door and got into bed behind her. He was still wearing his shoes, but he didn’t care. All that mattered was comforting her. Something he wished he’d been able to do a decade ago. She might be confused about his brother being alive but she needed comfort right now. At least he could give her that.
Almost immediately she pulled away from him and rolled out of the bed. “Don’t you dare touch me!”
His chest ached as she took another step away from him. “I’m sorry for what he did to you.”
“You believe me?” Her voice was a whisper.
“Of course I believe you.” The sheets and comforter rustled as he stood up.
Her eyes glistened with unshed tears. “Would you have believed me back then?”
“I can’t know for sure, but I think I would have. You were my world in high school, Lilly. You could have told me you were from another planet and I’d have believed you.” It was all he could offer.
He couldn’t know with absolute certainty how he’d have reacted years ago, but he remembered how in love with her he’d been. He’d have believed anything she said. His brother had been big and strong. He might have been a year younger than them, but he’d stood over six feet tall and he’d played football with Braden. Lilly was slim and petite now, but back then she’d been the size of a swizzle stick. She couldn’t have weighed more than a hundred and five pounds in high school. If James had wanted to hurt her, she’d have been no match for him. Thinking about it, he remembered how much his brother had ignored her but he also remembered the snide comments he’d made about her when she wasn’t around. He’d even told Braden that she’d leave him when she went away to college. He’d been so sure about that. Looking back it seemed so obvious that James had disliked Lilly. Until now, he’d never realized how much.