Cole answers on the first ring. “Dude, what the fuck? One minute you were complaining about stubborn women and the next thing I know the call ends.”
“Yeah, sorry about that. Gwen’s daughter had an accident and I had to take her to the hospital,” I explain, sitting down on the edge of my bed.
“Jesus, is she okay?” Cole asks.
“Yeah, she’s fine, just bumped her head and had to get a couple of stitches. She was a trooper,” I tell him, explaining to him about how she sweet-talked the doctor into giving her an extra sucker.
“Well, well, well, listen to you,” Cole says with a laugh.
Cole chuckles again at my expense. “Austin Conrad is yammering on about a little girl like he’s a proud parent. Never thought I’d see the day.”
I scoff at him and roll my eyes. “Yeah, I don’t think so, asshole. We both know I’d make the worst parent in the history of the world.”
“You may think you aren’t father material, but I’m pretty sure most of the fathers in the world would disagree with you right now, and I’m right there with them.”
Gwen’s words from earlier echo in my mind, as well as the moment in the hospital when I told the nurse I was Emma’s father and how it made me feel. I’m so lost in thought I didn’t realize Cole has continued talking to me.
“…mentioned something about Dylan Callahan,” Cole finishes.
I’m confused for a minute until I remember that I asked him if he knew the guy from school and hung up on him before he could answer.
“So, you know the guy?” I ask, pretending like I’ve been following along the entire time.
I haven’t told Gwen yet that he stopped by the office; I wanted to get some background information on the guy first. Keeping it from her has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that I might have been a little jealous.
Right, keep telling yourself that.
“Yeah, I know him. Well, I knew him. Haven’t seen him in years. We didn’t go to the same high school, but he was friends with Brady and then dated Gwen for a little while, so he was always hanging around,” Cole explains.
Well, shit. Now I know I won’t be able to pretend like I’m not jealous because all I can think about at this moment is Gwen sucking face with that fucker and how she made plans to meet with him while he was in town.
Son of a bitch.
“Dude was kind of intense. Gwen broke it off with him after a few months, but the guy wouldn’t leave her alone. Sent her flowers all the time, notes in the mail telling her they should always be together… shit like that. It really creeped her out until I gave him a talking to.”
At the mention of flowers and notes in the mail a chill runs down my spine. What if William hasn’t been the one doing this shit to Gwen lately? I really hate to give that asshole the benefit of the doubt, but I have to be smart about this. I can’t go after a guy just because I know what he’s done in the past. I have to look at all of the variables and, right now, the fact remains that aside from Ellie, no one has seen William around town or heard from him in a week. Could Dylan have been the one behind the flowers and the letter Gwen got in the mail? Maybe he was the one Karen saw watching her and Emma that day at the park.
It still doesn’t make sense, though, that William would come all the way here from New York, rough up Ellie and then leave again without trying to make contact with Gwen or his daughter. Dylan might have had some stalker tendencies in the past, but William is a mean son of a bitch and I’m not going to let my guard down and allow him to hurt my girls.
There I go again with the ‘my girls’ shit.
“By ‘talking-to’, I’m assuming you beat the shit out of him?” I ask.
Cole laughs. “Obviously.”
“Why the fuck would Brady hire him to keep an eye on Layla then?” I question.
“Brady didn’t know everything that happened. Gwen came to me because she knew he and Brady were friends and she didn’t want to fuck up their friendship. She made me promise not to tell him. Brady and Dylan kept in touch over the years and, according to Brady, the guy is the best at his job in private security. Twenty years is a long time to hold on to a high-school obsession.”
I don’t care if it’s been ninety years, I still don’t trust his ass.
“Can you do me a favor and look into his records? He’s here in town and stopped by Brady’s office to see Gwen when she was out. I want to make sure he’s on the up-and-up before I let him anywhere near her,” I tell Cole.
Cole is the computer hacker on our team and if anyone can find the dirt on this guy, it will be him. Maybe we’ll get lucky and the guy was popped for stalking at some point in the last twenty years.
“You don’t think Callahan’s the one behind the shit going on with Gwen, do you?” Cole asks.
“I have no fucking clue, but I’m not about to make any mistakes when it comes to this.”
I can already hear Cole clicking away on his computer through the line. “I’m on it. I’ll call you as soon as I find anything.”
I thank Cole and hang up the phone, tossing it next to me on the bed. I can hear female laughter coming from the bedroom across the hall followed by Emma’s squeals and I can’t help but smile, which immediately pisses me off. Wiping the smile from my face, I flop back on the bed.
It’s strange for me to be in one place for so long. I’m used to coming home from a mission, getting a few days rest and then heading right back out to do it all over again. When I’m home, the only sounds I ever hear are whatever sporting event I’m watching on TV or traffic outside. I like my privacy; I like my quiet. I like being able to walk through my own house bare-ass naked. I like being single and not having any attachments or anyone to answer to. It’s who I am and it’s who I’ve always been.
“I never asked you to take on any kind of role in our lives. I don’t need that from you.”
With a frustrated growl, I rub my hands over my face remembering Gwen’s words. She made it clear she doesn’t expect more from me. She seems to be fine doing whatever it is we’re doing without making me feel guilty that I can’t give her more.
I should be happy about that. It means that when this is all over, I can walk out of here with a clear conscience and move on.
So why in the fuck does it piss me off to know there isn’t just a tiny part of her that wants me to stay?
Emma fell asleep at the foot of the bed a few minutes ago after a tickle fight. I don’t want to disrupt her just yet by moving her, so Ellie and I stay where we are at the top of the bed, leaning against the headboard talking about nothing.
“You like working for your brother as a private investigator?” Ellie asks.
“I love it. It’s exciting. William never let me have a job as you know so it’s nice to be able to do something like this.”
Ellie sighs and continues. “Is it a big office?”
“No, it’s pretty small. There’s an old restaurant next door that’s been abandoned for a few months that Brady wants to buy eventually when we have the extra money. It’s got a huge wine cellar in the basement that would be perfect for a file room, but Brady seems to think it should be a gym,” I tell her with a roll of my eyes. “He has a heavy bag hanging in our tiny file room now that he uses all the time and Austin has already put it to use, so maybe he’s got a good idea.”
Ellie is quiet for a few minutes and I look over at her.
“So, you really like Austin, don’t you?” Ellie asks softly so she doesn’t wake Emma.
I feel my face heat up as I think about what just happened in the shower – his head between my legs, his mouth on me…
“Um, yeah, I like him. He’s a good man,” I admit, shaking the thoughts of shower sex out of my head.
“You’re in love with him, aren’t you?” Ellie asks, smirking at me.
I scoff and roll my eyes at her. “Hardly. I haven’t known him long enough to be in love with him and besides, I’m not really in the market for love. My hands are full with this little one.”
We both stare down at the foot of the bed as Emma sighs and burrows deeper into the blankets. I leave out the fact that I’ve been obsessing about what Austin said to me in the shower ever since I walked out of his room. I’m sure he didn’t mean anything by it and it was just something that slipped out in the throes of passion.
It’s not like I want to be with him forever. That’s just silly. Right? He lights my body on fire and that’s enough to make any woman question her judgment, but he also takes care of Emma and he’s not afraid of my scars or what my past has done to me. He’s protective and trustworthy and he makes me feel alive.
I’m absolutely not in love with him, there’s just no way.
I decide it’s time to change the subject before I put too much thought into this and drive myself crazy.
“So anyway, how are you doing?”
Ellie shrugs and picks a few pieces of lint off of her sweater. “I don’t know. I feel like such an idiot. I didn’t want to say anything, but he’s called me a bunch of times the last few days.”
I look at her in shock and she quickly continues. “Don’t worry, I haven’t answered any of his calls. I let them go straight to voicemail and now I’m just keeping my phone off.”
Part of me wants to tell her to turn her phone back on and talk to him, find out where he is so we can put an end to this once and for all, but then I think about what it would sound like to her – like I didn’t care about her safety, only mine.
“You’re not an idiot any more than I was. You made a mistake and trusted the wrong person. I just have to know how it happened? How did you even start talking to him?”
Ellie sighs and leans her head back. “He came to my place looking for you and Emma a few days after you left. He was worried that someone had kidnapped you. As much as I hated him for what he did to you, I found myself feeling bad for him. He sat down on my couch and cried for hours. He told me he was a monster and that he needed help. He was ashamed of himself for what he did and he asked me if I would help him get better. He wanted to be a better person before he even attempted to contact you. At first I did it just as a way of making sure he stayed away from you and didn’t try to find you. I started going with him to anger management classes twice a week. After about a month, we started going to get coffee after the classes. We would just sit there and talk for hours and he made me laugh, made me feel special.”
Hearing this makes me sick to my stomach. William used to make me laugh too. He used to talk to me for hours and he used to tell me I was the most important person in his world. He made me feel loved and cherished… until he didn’t.
Looking at Ellie’s face, I see more than shame in her eyes, I see sadness. She really and truly believed that William had changed. She thought she was falling for a man who had gotten help and turned into a better person. It scares me to think that she might forgive him for what he did to her. I know that feeling well. You tell yourself you’ll never let it happen again, you’ll never be such a fool… and then he comes home with flowers in his hands and tears in his eyes and he reminds you so much of the man you fell in love with. He holds you like you’re the most precious thing in the world and he makes you promises that you’re sure he’ll keep this time. It turns into a never-ending cycle until one day, it’s ten years later and you’re crumpled up on the floor of his office sobbing in agony and wishing to die because you know that’s the only way you’ll ever be free of him.
I can’t let her make the same mistakes I did. I need to tell her what’s been happening. She hasn’t asked why Emma and I have been staying with Austin and it’s obvious she assumes we’re a couple. She has no idea that I’m here because the man she thinks she loves has been terrorizing me.
“I need to tell you something,” I start, reaching for her hand and holding it in mine. “Emma and I have been staying with Austin because there have been some strange things happening lately.”
Her eyebrows furrow and she cocks her head. “What do you mean strange things, like what?”
“Like someone watching Emma when she was with her babysitter and following them home, a creepy letter that came in the mail, hang-up calls and three bunches of purple orchards that were left on my doorstep,” I tell her.
Ellie knows all about the orchids. After a while, she would come over and dispose of them for me when their smell made me nauseous.
Her eyes widen in shock. “Oh my God, are you serious? Gwen, why didn’t you tell me about this?”
I sigh and squeeze her hand. “Because, you’ve had enough to worry about these last few days. I didn’t want to overwhelm you with the idea that William has been stalking me and doesn’t want to let me go.”
She yanks her hand out of mine. “He let you go months ago, Gwen. He moved on. I’m sure it hasn’t been him doing these things to you.”
I’m confused by her sudden anger, but not the fact that she’s defending him. I used to do the exact same thing with her when she would tell me to leave him.
“Ellie, look what he did to you. He came all the way here to Nashville just to tell you he was angry that you told me about the two of you? Listen to yourself, that doesn’t make sense,” I argue.
“Oh, but it makes perfect sense that he’s not over you and wants you back?” she asks sarcastically. “Even if he did do these things, it doesn’t mean he can’t let you go. Maybe it’s just his way of saying he’s sorry. He really wants Emma back in his life and maybe he just doesn’t know how to talk to you about it.”
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