I can’t believe what a fool I’ve been. I let my guard down for the first time in months and now I’m going to pay the ultimate price – the one person in my world that I love more than my own life will be taken from me in the blink of an eye because of my stupidity. I did everything I could to keep Emma safe; I hid, I lied and I worked my fingers to the bone, but it was all for nothing. This precious little being that came screaming into my world six years ago and gave me a reason to breathe every single day since then – I had failed her.
I watch in horror as my baby struggles to breathe through the tears and the thick, silver tape over her mouth. Her muffled whimpers are like a knife straight through my heart and I fight with everything inside of me to get loose from the bindings holding me in place. I scream and cry with a pain I’ve never felt before as I try so hard to get free. The ropes cut into my wrists and ankles as I twist and turn, thrash and fight. I need to go to her, I need to wrap my arms around her and calm her fears, tell her everything will be okay, but I can’t. How does a mother sit tied to a chair on the other side of the room from her child and just watch her suffer? The years of mental and physical abuse, broken bones and shattered spirit are nothing compared to this.
“You just couldn’t leave well enough alone, could you? We were supposed to be a family and you ruined it all.”
A fist connects with my cheek and for a moment, I close my eyes to ward off the pain. I don’t have time to wallow in my own self-pity though. I quickly blink my eyes back into focus and my gaze immediately goes to my little one across the room, staring at me wide-eyed. My pain means nothing right now; the only thing that matters to me is making sure Emma is okay. It’s been just the two of us against the world for months now. I had my brother, and I had Austin, but it’s not the same. Their love doesn’t even hold a candle to the love between mother and daughter. There’s a piece of my heart living and breathing outside of my body and for six years it’s been the most amazing miracle to watch her grow and change. Now, I realize just how fragile that piece of my heart is; I can’t protect her and I can’t save her. I don’t want her to see how scared I am, but I can do nothing to stop the sobs from escaping.
The fear and sadness I see on my daughter’s beautiful, perfect little face makes my stomach cramp and hurts worse than any blow I’ve ever taken to my body. I’m accustomed to the agony and humiliation of abuse. I’ve learned how to shut down my mind and my heart and pretend like it wasn’t really happening to me, but Emma was never supposed to witness this horror. She was never supposed to know how weak I really am. I did everything I could to shield her from this awfulness – I fled in the middle of the night with nothing but the clothes on our backs, I made a new life for us and I showered my girl with enough love to make up for the missing parent in her life.
I should have realized you could never outrun your past. It always has a way of catching up with you. My past and my present have collided and nothing will be able to heal the wounds from this devastation.
For a brief moment, I wish Austin were here. I tried so hard not to love him, not to trust him, but it was impossible. He was full of life and made me want things I knew I could never have. He made me promises I should have known he wouldn’t keep and he made me want things I had no business dreaming of. I should have known he’d run the first chance he got. I always trusted the wrong people and it always came back to bite me in the ass.
“You took everything from me. I had a plan. It was going to be perfect.”
As our tormentor stalks across the room towards Emma, I scream and cry so loudly that I’m certain someone must hear me, but no one does. No one ever hears me. Emma and I are alone in this nightmare. I’m going to have to sit here, strapped to this chair, bruises marking every inch of my body and watch as my child is taken from me.
“Please, don’t do this! You love her, I know you love her. I’m sorry the things I did hurt you but please, don’t take it out on her.”
I can feel layers of my skin being ripped to shreds as I continue to use every ounce of strength left in me to get free. Blood drips down my palms and off the tips of my fingers to pool on the floor as the monster I spent my life trusting aims a gun at Emma’s chest.
Oh God, this can’t be happening. I can’t live in a world where she doesn’t exist.
The click of a bullet being released into the chamber of the gun echoes around the room. “Now it’s your turn to lose it all.”
I hold Emma’s frightened gaze in my own and try to tell her with my eyes how much I love her and how sorry I am. With a sinking feeling of dread that makes me nauseous, I know our time is up. There’s nothing I can do now but pray that death happens quickly and painlessly for my beautiful baby girl – and that this asshole will show a tiny bit of mercy and put me out of my misery soon after.
The explosion of the gun going off happens without warning and I let out a blood-curdling scream.
Two months earlier…
“I just got your voicemail. Um, are you sure you want me to fill in for you at the office? I don’t think your sister is going to like that very much,” I state into the phone.
Locking the front door behind me, I head out into the bright morning light and slide behind the wheel of my rental car. I just flew back into the states five hours ago from Afghanistan. After six days in the desert doing surveillance and the fifteen-hour flights to and from the country, I’m surprised I even know what fucking day it is. As soon as I got to the rental house that I’ve called home for the last month, I passed out face down on the bed for a few hours before I checked my voicemails. The only reason I’m not sleeping the day away is because my SEAL brother needs me.
“Yes, I’m sure I want you to fill in for me at the office. Gwen’s got some personal things going on in her life, and there’s no way I want her handling any cases on her own while I’m gone,” Brady explains to me.
I can hear heavy breathing and kissing sounds through the phone line as I back out of the driveway and head towards downtown Nashville. I chuckle to myself and shake my head. A few months ago, Brady was hired to help with security for one of the biggest pop stars in the country – Layla Carlyle. I knew the first time he called me bitching and moaning about her that it wouldn’t be long before he’d go over to the dark side like our other team member, Garrett McCarthy. Both of those assholes gave up the single life in the blink of an eye. By the sounds on the other end of the line, I’m guessing that Brady’s decision to go on tour with Layla has proven to be a good idea.
“Alright, but don’t say I didn’t warn you. That chick will be pissed off when she sees me walk through that door,” I reply with a laugh.
There’s more shuffling through the line and I’m pretty sure I just heard a gasp.
Lucky fucking bastard.
“Austin, I have to go. Just remember one thing: no fucking my sister.”
The call ends abruptly and I laugh again as I toss my phone onto the passenger seat. I really can’t be offended at Brady’s parting words. I’ve made it my mission in life to screw beautiful women, and Gwen Marshall is a gorgeous fucking woman.
She’s also got an attitude a mile long and would probably chew off my head and spit it out if I ever banged her. To be fair though, we didn’t exactly meet under the best of circumstances a month ago. Brady called me when Layla went missing and I dropped everything, drove out here to bumfuck nowhere Tennessee, and helped him get his woman back. Gwen and I spoke on the phone a few times before I headed out here and let’s just say those phone calls were some of my best work. I could tell as soon as I heard her raspy, beautiful, attitude-filled voice on the phone that I would enjoy getting under her skin. My attempts at flirting were swatted away like an asshole housefly. But I’m a SEAL – we don’t give up easily.
“This is Gwen, Brady Marshall’s sister. Your friend Garrett gave me your number. I need some help finding information for a case we’re working on.”
I knew Brady had a sister; he’d spoken about her once or twice. I assumed she was still in high school. The voice on the other end of the line most definitely belonged to a woman.
“Do you prefer pancakes or eggs?” I replied nonchalantly.
“I don’t, I like…what?”
The confusion in her voice made me laugh.
“Well, I figure since you need a favor from me, the least I could do is make you breakfast the next morning when you pay me back.”
The silence on the other end of the line lasted for so long that I pulled the phone away from my ear to make sure the call hadn’t been dropped.
“You have issues. Can you help me get the information I need or not?” she finally asked sarcastically.
“I can get you anything you need, darlin’.”
I heard her sigh in annoyance and that just made me want to push her even more.
“We need everything you can find on a woman named Eve Carlyle. No one will give us anything.”
I smiled to myself. She wasn’t easily rattled; I liked that in a woman.
“I can always make a woman talk. I have this trick I do with my tongue where I swirl-”
“Okay, I get it. Stop talking,” she interrupted. “Just, send me an email with whatever you find.”
It’s not like I’d ever really sleep with her. She’s my best friend’s sister. There are rules in the Guy’s Handbook that you never fuck with your friend’s sister. Or fuck your friend’s sister. Brady knows I’m not the settling-down type and I’m sure his sister, with the giant stick up her ass, is the type of woman who would want the white picket fence and nine million snot-nosed kids running around while she nagged the poor bastard who married her day in and day out. No, thank you. One night is about all I can stand with any woman.
It would take a pretty strong woman to put up with a guy like me and the kind of job I have, which is why it’s always easy to sneak out the morning after and never call them again – I haven’t met any woman who could fit that bill. I’m a Navy SEAL for life. I can get a call in the middle of the night and be in another country with a gun in my hand and an insurgent in my crosshairs before the little missus even had her first cup of coffee. I live and breathe the job. It’s what I was made to do and even though some of the missions have left me with scars, physically and mentally that I’ll never be able to remove, I still love every second of it. I love the thrill, I love the unknown and I love the danger. I go into each mission knowing full well I might not come home, like so many of my SEAL brothers. There isn’t a woman alive who would understand that dedication and the need I have to take such dangerous chances with my life.
I’ve never had a family so it’s not like I know what I’m missing. To put it nicely, my mother was a whore. She tried to raise me on her own, since she had no idea which one of the many loser men in her life were my father, but after five years she realized that having a child interfered with her partying. She handed me over to the state and I never saw her again. I was passed around from foster home to foster home, each one slightly worse than the last, until I was eighteen years old. Knowing I had no other choice, I immediately enlisted in the Navy and I’ve never looked back. I never had parents with a wonderful marriage to look up to and I never had siblings to connect with. I have my SEAL brothers and that’s all that matters. Even if I were the type of guy to settle down, I wouldn’t know what the fuck to do with a wife and kids anyway.
As I drive through downtown Nashville, I wonder if the Ice Queen has melted a little bit since the last time I saw her. When I said I knew Brady had a sister, that was pretty much the extent of my knowledge of her until I met her a month ago. Brady was never the type of guy who opened up about himself or his family life. I knew she existed and I knew she was younger than him. I knew he came from a really well off family and that like me, as soon as he turned eighteen, he got the hell out of there. Since Gwen was younger, she stayed behind and up until recently, he hadn’t spoken to her much. Brady never talked about his reasons for leaving all that wealth behind and I never asked. Every man has a few skeletons in his closet and sometimes, those little bastards need to stay right where they are.
Then, I talked to Gwen on the phone and got to meet her in person while I helped to track down the mad man who took Layla. I’m not used to a chick practically hating me on sight, but that’s how it went down. We spent a few days together before and after Layla was taken and I’m surprised you can’t still see the stab wounds her damn attitude left on my ego. So why the hell am I more excited about this assignment than the one we did two years ago when we shut down a drug smuggling ring in Cuba? Good question. Call me a glutton for punishment.
At the mention of Gwen having some “personal things” going on her life, I immediately wondered what the fuck she could possibly have going on. The only thing I know about her is that she suddenly showed up in Brady’s life again a few months ago, has been living with him at his apartment and working for him at his PI agency. The little time I spent with her tracking down Layla proved she was determined and hard working. It also proved that everything I said or did bugged the shit out of her.
Pulling the rental car up in front of Brady’s office, I smile to myself as I get out and make my way up to the glass door. Gwen is not going to be happy to see me at all, especially knowing her brother called me and thinks she needs a keeper. I can already imagine the smoke coming out of her ears and the curses flying from her mouth.
With a cocky smile firmly in place, I pull open the door and saunter in.
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