Though he was too far away to hear the conversation, it was obvious to anyone watching how much she loved the kid. A maternal fierceness surrounded her. Yes, that must be her child.
This presented more unanswered questions. Was she married, or divorced? Was the father involved in her life? And why hadn’t Rick given him any of this information? A twinge of pain shot through his chest. This could have been his life, his kid.
A familiar sensation overrode the pain and filled him at the knowledge of all he’d lost. Icy anger. He embraced it and held on to it tight, using it as his anchor. The rage he felt for all those lost years bubbled up and Hunter funneled his anger at the one man who’d taken him away from Alexis. From a shot at a real life. At least if he was angry he couldn’t dwell on the fact that she’d never be his again.
He kicked his vehicle into gear when she pulled out of the driveway and punched the familiar number into his cell. As he dialed, he barely had time to keep up with her as she pulled away from the house.
“Why didn’t you tell me she had a kid?” he barked into the phone.
“Damn it, man, do you even know what time it is?” His friend’s voice was thick and slurred. “I had a rough night. Call me later.”
“It’s almost noon in London!” Hunter shouted in annoyance, and then heard the definite sound of the phone clattering to the floor. Any normal human being should be up by this hour.
“I guess you’re right,” Rick mumbled, and Hunter heard a rustling on the other end.
He also thought he heard a woman’s voice in the background. “Rick, why didn’t you tell me about her child? That’s what I consider relevant information.”
“You call me after six years and want an address. No, ‘how are you,’ nothing, nada. Go to hell, Hunter! You didn’t say you needed specifics.”
“That’s not the point. I need to know everything about her.” His fist tightened around the phone.
He should have given Rick more details, but he hadn’t wanted to alert anyone about Alexis’s importance in his life. Now it looked like he had no choice. He trusted Rick more than he trusted most people, but after the past few years in a permanent state of hell he couldn’t afford blind faith in anyone. He couldn’t risk anything happening to Alexis. Not after he’d come so far.
“Fine, fine, I’ll get right on it. I’ll contact you this evening.” Rick’s voice was clipped and he knew he’d made a mistake angering one of the few people who could help him.
Hunter swallowed his pride and rubbed a hand over his face. “I’m sorry. I know I wasn’t specific, but give me a break. I haven’t had much contact with the civilized world for six years. I’ve forgotten how to act like a human.”
“Nah, you were a Neanderthal back then too…but I’ve still missed you, man.”
“If you need to send me anything, email me.” After they disconnected, Hunter continued to follow Alexis at a distance. He wasn’t sure if she was in danger, and he didn’t plan to let her out of his sight until he knew she was safe. Watching her, then having to leave her again, would likely kill him but he had no choice. Not if he wanted to live with himself.
Alexis parked in front of House of Hope, the center where she worked. Soon enough she’d have to head to the bridal boutique for her final fitting, but right now she needed to see a friendly face.
As she walked into the office, she was greeted by smiles from the staff and vacant stares from a few of the newcomers. She recognized that look, had seen it far too many times from women escaping their abusers.
When Alexis first started the center, it had been solely a place for abused women and their children to find solace and help. Now, they also fought poverty and tried to break the cycle these women often found themselves repeating.
In the past few years their organization had evolved and grown at a rapid pace. With the help of some wealthy benefactors, she’d purchased a property in the downtown area and used it as a halfway house for women and their families. The maximum time anyone was permitted to stay was seven months, but most of them were on their feet in less than five.
More than most, Alexis understood the need for shelter. She’d gone on the run with her mom when she’d been sixteen, trying to escape her abusive stepfather.
As she entered her friend Gwen’s office, Alexis immediately smiled. If her office was representative of their organization, no one would think they knew what they were doing. Stacks of books were piled up against two of the walls, and files were scattered everywhere. Even Gwen’s artwork was propped up on shelves instead of hanging on the wall.
“Gwen?” Alexis leaned against the door frame, not bothering to search for her friend.
“Here.” A long, delicate hand shot up from behind the desk.
“What are you doing?” Alexis asked, even though she already knew the answer.
“Hiding. I need to review our accounts without any interruptions. If they can’t see me, they go away.”
“When has that ever worked?”
Gwen’s tall, willowy frame emerged from behind the desk. “Never,” she said with a sigh. “What brings you here? I thought today was your final fitting. You shouldn’t be here. We can handle things just fine without you for a few days.”
“I just dropped Jonathan off at school and thought I’d stop in and say hi.” Talking to Gwen always soothed her, and she knew her friend wouldn’t judge her. Still, she didn’t know how to broach the subject that had been weighing around her neck like a heavy chain.
“Uh-oh, I don’t like that look. Did you and Michael get into a fight?”
She snorted. She and Michael never fought. That could be part of her problem. “I guess I’m nervous with the upcoming wedding. What if…” She paused, struggling to voice her fears aloud. “What if I’m making a huge mistake?”
“That’s something only you can answer for yourself. I don’t think you have any fears that you’re like your mother?” Gwen’s dark eyebrows rose in concern.
Alexis’s mother had been dependent on one man after another since running away from home as a teenager. She’d never truly broken the cycle either, even after they’d settled in Hurley Beach, but at least she hadn’t settled for any more violent men. “No, no, I’m not afraid I’m making a mistake like that. Michael is so good to me and Jonathan. He’s dependable, loyal and everything I’ve always wanted in a man.”
“Honey, no one on the planet could question Michael’s loyalty or love for you. I’ll tell you one thing, though—what you described you can find down at the pound. Dogs are loyal and dependable too. But do you love him?”
“Of course I love him. What kind of question is that?”
“The kind of question that seemed appropriate for a woman contemplating her wedding, which is less than a month away, I might add.” Gwen’s sweet southern drawl did nothing to alleviate the sting—and truth—of her words.
“Forget this conversation. I’m just having typical wedding jitters.” She checked her watch and sighed. “I’ve got to go. I need to be at the boutique in less than ten minutes.” Alexis gave Gwen a quick kiss on the cheek and tried to ignore the nervous butterflies in her stomach.
Change was in the air. She could feel it down to her toes. Something had been hanging over her head for the past few weeks, like a violent hurricane ready to unleash all that power. Maybe it had something to do with those stupid dreams.
The crisp fall air bit through her jacket and thick sweater the moment she stepped outside. Jasmine’s Bridal Boutique was only a few blocks from her place so she opted to walk. For a Monday, Main Street was quiet. All the shops displayed Open signs, but with the overcast sky and icy weather covering the town, people were probably staying indoors.
As her boots crunched over dead, fallen leaves and bits of ice, something in her senses went on high alert. She glanced behind her and only saw an SUV with dark windows parked across the street. Had she seen the same vehicle outside the house that morning? Shaking her head, she picked up her pace.
The bell jingled as she stepped through the door to Jasmine’s place.
Immediately she stripped off her gloves and scarf.
“Hey, honey.” Michael’s voice caused her to jump. Her fiancé stood by a display of veils.
“What are you doing here?”
“I thought I’d surprise you and take you to brunch.” He dropped a light kiss on her cheek.
“Are you sure you can take off work?”
He shook his head and grinned. “I own the company. I can do whatever I want.”
She’d never heard of a groom being so involved in wedding planning. She just wanted to get this stuff over with, but he seemed to relish helping out with all the details. In her heart, she knew she should be thankful. She’d only ever heard her friends complaining about lack of involvement from the groom-to-be. “I think it’s bad luck to see the bride in her wedding dress.”
“It’s only bad luck if it’s on our wedding day.”
Alexis started to respond when Jasmine walked out from the back storeroom.
“Ahh, you’re both here for the final fitting.” The bright smile plastered on the woman’s face didn’t coincide with the blatant dislike in her dark eyes. When she turned to Michael, however, her eyes lit up. “It’s so good to see you again, Michael.”
“You too.” He smiled politely at her, then turned back to Alexis. “I’ll be right out here.”
“Come with me.” Jasmine’s voice immediately took on that slightly condescending tone Alexis had come to detest.
She gritted her teeth, but followed. Simply being in this store made her skin crawl, but Michael insisted on the best. Though she loathed admitting it, Jasmine was talented. Her handmade, one-of-a-kind wedding dresses were proof enough.
In uncomfortable silence, Alexis put on the strapless organza-covered, empire-cut gown.