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I realize quickly that I can’t discuss this with her right now. She’s hurt, confused and angry. Both of us are going to say things that we can’t take back if I go on. She’s so messed up in the head right now that she isn’t thinking clearly and I totally get that. I understand how she feels, which is why I’m leaving it alone for now.


“You know what, it’s getting late,” I tell her, scooting off of the bed. “I’m sorry for upsetting you. Get some rest and we’ll talk more in the morning.”


I walk to the end of the bed and pull the blankets up over Emma’s shoulders before leaning down and kissing her on the cheek.


Ellie doesn’t say anything until I’m across the room and my hand is on the doorknob.


“I’m sorry, Gwen.”


I look back over my shoulder at my best friend and give her a smile. “I know. It’s okay.”


I leave the room and walk across the hall to Austin’s room, seeing him lying on his back in bed with his legs hanging off the edge and his arms thrown over his eyes. I quickly close the door behind me and creep over to the bed.


Climbing up his body, Austin doesn’t open his eyes until I’m straddling his hips. Leaning over him, I rest my hands on the bed on either side of his face, my hair falling around us like a curtain. Austin reaches up with one hand and brushes my hair away, tucking it behind one ear. Without saying a word, he puts both of his hands on my hips and pulls me snug against the erection I feel straining against his pants. I smile down at him before leaning back on my thighs and pulling my shirt up and over my head.


Austin quickly sits up, wrapping his arms around me so I don’t fall to the ground. He doesn’t move, just sits there at the edge of the bed with my legs straddling him while he stares into my eyes. He looks sad and I wonder why. His arms tighten around me like he’s afraid to let me go. Just when I start to ask him what’s wrong, he leans forward and kisses me.


He kisses me softly and his hands caress every inch of my body before he gets up and places my feet on the floor. He finishes undressing me, making quick work of his own clothes before throwing back the covers and getting into bed, pulling me down on top of him.


We take our time tasting and touching every inch of one another’s bare skin before Austin rolls me over onto my back and slowly enters me. He rocks into me gently, never taking his eyes off of me. I wrap my arms around his back and pull my legs up on either side of him so he can go deeper, loving the way he feels inside me.


I pull his body closer to mine until his chest is pressed against me and I can feel his heartbeat. Our eyes stay connected through my release and his own as I cling to him tightly, never wanting to this feeling to end.


After he moves away from me, curling up at my back with his arm securely around my middle, it doesn’t take long before I hear the deep, even breaths signaling that he’s asleep. Only then do I admit to myself that Ellie is probably right.


I’m in love with Austin.


Chapter 25


Austin


Gwen’s going to kill me.


I should feel bad about what I just did, but I can’t. The past two days have been nothing short of amazing – hanging out with Gwen and Emma, working together on some of the paperwork for her cases that she brought with her, playing Navy SEAL with Emma before bed and spending every night kissing every inch of Gwen’s body, showing her what I just can’t bring myself to tell her. I can’t regret the choice I made tonight while Gwen and Ellie gave Emma a bath. When I leave, I need to know Gwen and Emma are safe and that nothing will happen to them ever again. The only way to make sure that happens is to put William Stratford behind bars for a very long time.


“You got all the pages I emailed over to you?” I ask, as I pace back and forth in my room.


I can hear Mark shuffling papers through the line. “Yep, got everything – twenty photos and fifteen pages of notes. Jesus Christ, this guy is an asshole.”


I close my eyes and do something I’ve never done – I pray that Gwen will forgive me for violating her privacy. When she was busy packing up Emma’s things to come and stay here with me, I went into her bedroom and took the file documenting her abuse out of her dresser and shoved it in the waistband of my jeans against my back and under my shirt.


Looking through all of those photos again as I scanned each one and sent it off to Mark, convinced me that I was doing the right thing. She should never have to look over her shoulder ever again and I need to know there will never be another photo to add to that pile after I’m gone. The only way I’ll be able to walk out that door is by knowing she’s protected; that she and Emma can live a long, happy life.


“I’ll start filing the report against Stratford this morning, but you know Gwen’s going to have to stop by the station in Nashville and sign off on it. I’ll make sure to send them a copy of it, so you’re going to have to convince her this is in her best interest and get her in there as soon as possible,” Mark reminds me.


“I know, I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.”


I hear a muffled voice through the line and Mark telling someone to hold on before coming back to me. “Shit, I gotta go, there’s a call on the other line I have to take.”


I thank Mark for all of his help and end the call just as a knock sounds at my door. Pulling it open, I look down to see Emma standing there looking up at me with a smile.


“Can you tuck me in, Austin?”


Poking my head out of my room, I look down the hall and then back at her. “Where’s your mom?”


Emma grabs my hand and starts to pull me across the hall. “She’s taking a bath and I’m sleepy. Aunt Ellie already fell asleep.”


I smile as she tugs harder on my hand, following her to the bedroom. She scrambles up in bed and gets under the covers.


She looks up at me expectantly and I’m at a loss. What the fuck am I supposed to do now? How do you tuck someone in?


Leaning over her, I pull the covers up a little higher until they’re under her chin. “Uh, so… have a good night.”


I start to turn away when she giggles. “Austin! You have to sit next to me until I fall asleep. That’s what mommy always does.”


Scratching my head and looking behind me to the door, I wonder how long Gwen’s going to be in the bath.


Emma pulls one arm out from under the blankets and pats the bed next to her. With a sigh, I sit down on the edge of the bed. “So, how long does it take you to fall asleep?”


Emma laughs and shakes her head at me. “I don’t know, silly. Put your feet up and lay down like me.”


Figuring I might as well do as she says or it’s going to be midnight before she finally falls asleep, I pull my legs up onto the bed. Emma scoots over away from me and pats her hand against her pillow, signaling me to lie next to her.


Once I’m flat on my back, she moves closer to me, grabbing my arm and lifting it in the air. I hold it up for her with a confused look on my face until she slides closer and rests her head in the crook of my shoulder. I bring my arm down around her and wonder why this feels like the most natural thing in the world. I stare down at her face as she closes her eyes and wonder what she’ll be like when she’s ten, fifteen, twenty… I wonder if she’ll still be this sweet and trusting. I wonder if Gwen will have remarried by then and if the lucky bastard will cherish every single moment with these two women. I wonder if Emma will remember the man she lived with for a week when she was six who taught her how to create a diversion to get the innocent Barbies out of harm’s way.


A sad laugh bubbles out of me when I think about how Emma screamed at the top of her lungs that the couch was on fire so I could grab the dolls and chuck them into the kitchen. Gwen came running into the room with a cup of water from the bathroom in her hand, shouting about how she’d put the fire out. Emma and I fell to the floor laughing until we couldn’t breathe and Gwen stomped out of the room angrily when she found out it was a false alarm.


Emma shifts next to me trying, to get more comfortable, and brings her hand up to rest on my stomach. I can’t help myself; I wrap my large hand around her tiny one and hold on tight.


“I love you, Austin. Can you tuck me in to bed every night?” Emma whispers sleepily.


Closing my eyes, I don’t say anything in return. I’m afraid if I open my mouth now, I’ll cry like a fucking baby.


An hour later, the feel of my phone vibrating in my pocket wakes me up. I slowly slide out of bed, trying not to jostle Emma too much. She doesn’t even stir when I pull my arm out from under her. I quickly exit the room and pull my phone out, not at all surprised when I see who’s calling. He approved me taking some personal time off, but I knew he wouldn’t be patient for very long.


“Conrad, how’s civilian life?” Captain Risner asks.


“It’s good, sir.”


He gets right to the point. “I know you said you’d give me a call when things were wrapped up there, but we have an emergency in Kuwait that I could use you on. I need to know right now if you’re in.”


I lean back against the wall and bow my head. “How soon?”


“You need to be briefed before you fly out, so I’d need you here in Virginia by oh-eight-hundred on Wednesday.


Two days from now.


“Sir, things aren’t quite finished here yet. I’m not sure if I could make it to Virginia in time,” I tell him.


There’s no way in hell I’m leaving Gwen and Emma before Stratford is behind bars.


“Well, get it done, Conrad. If this mission goes well, I’ll be able to sign off on that Lieutenant paperwork you put on my desk three months ago.”


Shit. I forgot all about that. It’s what I’ve been working my ass off for, the only thing I’ve ever wanted – to be in charge of my own team. Cole was our lieutenant until he decided to take a leave of absence and Risner assured me the job would be mine if I kept my head in the game and kept doing what I’ve always done – live, eat and breathe Navy.


“I understand, sir. I’ll make sure I’m there,” I tell him before ending the call.


I knew this moment was coming, I just didn’t expect it to be here so soon. I’ve been preparing myself to leave them from the moment I got here. This is the only dream I’ve ever had and I seriously can’t believe I’m standing here in the hallway wishing for something else, something I can never have.


Without thinking about it, I place another call to Mark, telling him to get a BOLO out on Stratford immediately. This needs to be finished now so I can get on with my life the way I always planned.


Tomorrow, I’ll talk to Ellie and get her advice on breaking the news to Gwen about the fact that I completely violated her trust and gave her personal file over to the police without her knowing. Tomorrow, I’ll shut everything off and make myself remember what I’m here for – to do a job.


But right now, I’m going to spend one last night holding my girl close and memorizing the way she feels in my arms.


Chapter 26


Gwen


As I lie in bed waiting for Austin, I think about the scene I saw a half hour ago on my way in here and my heart constricts – my baby girl, snuggled up next to Austin, his arm around her, holding her tight. She told him she loved him. She never said those words to her own father, always keeping her distance from him as if she instinctively knew what kind of man hid underneath the perfectly styled hair, three piece suits and expensive gifts he showered her with week after week, trying to make up for the fact that he knew nothing about being a father. In just a week, she trusted Austin more than the man she lived with for six years.


I hope to God Austin realizes the magnitude of what she said to him. I know I told him I didn’t expect anything from him, but at this point, how can I not? He’s wormed his way into both of our hearts and I fear that we’ll never be the same if he leaves. I can’t ask him to stay; I would never put him in that position. I know he has a job to do that is very important to him and I respect that about him. It would be nice to know he wanted to stay, though; it would be nice to know that even if he had to leave, maybe he’d come back to us. Austin thinks he has no idea how to be a father, but he has no idea that he’s already twice the father William ever was.


I’ve spent all this time fighting the feelings I have for him because I was afraid he would try to change me like William did. The thought of losing my independence that I just got back and having no control over my own life petrifies me. Austin is protective, but he would never hold me back. He wants me to be strong and he wants me to be who I want to be. He gives me strength I never knew I had. I just hope I’m strong enough to let him go if that’s what he chooses to do.


Closing my eyes and breathing in the scent of Austin on his pillows and blankets, I hear a muffled voice out in the hall. I drift off to sleep hoping that Austin can see what’s standing right in front of him.


* * *


Reaching over in bed, my hand pats against a cold sheet instead of a warm body. Blinking my eyes open and glancing around the room, I see that I’m alone. I felt Austin come to bed sometime in the middle of the night, sliding in next to me and pulling my body against his. I fell back to sleep immediately and had a dream where Austin kissed the side of my neck and whispered in my ear that he was sorry and that he loves me. It was a wonderful dream, but it’s sad to know that’s all it was.


Hearing Austin and Ellie talking in the main part of the house, I roll out of bed and throw on a pair of jeans and a sweater. Ellie slept on the couch last night when she saw Austin and Emma curled up in bed together. After I took a bath, I tried talking to her again while she was busy making up her bed in the living room, but she brushed me off. She apologized again for getting upset, but I could tell she didn’t mean it. She wouldn’t look me in the eye and she immediately changed the subject. All she wanted to talk about was Emma – how beautiful she’d gotten, how much she’d grown, how lucky I was to have her. I know she needs time to process everything and I don’t want to push her. I just want her to be safe; I don’t want her to make the same mistakes as me.

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