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Ending the call, I weave in and out of traffic, hoping that this is all just a misunderstanding and Gwen and Emma are safe at home. Something doesn’t feel right about any of this though and I’m scared to death that they won’t be there. Even though I don’t like the guy, my gut is telling me Dylan doesn’t have anything to do with this. Better to be safe than sorry and needing to cross one last suspect off of my list, I scroll through my phone and find his contact information that I programmed there just in case when he stopped by the office.


“Dylan Callahan,” he answers.


“Callahan, it’s Conrad. Have you talked to Gwen at all today?” I ask him as I pull into Brady’s parking lot and find a spot right in front of the building.


“Yeah, she called earlier and apologized for you, saying you never told her I showed up looking for her. I guess I should have expected that. You looked like you wanted to rip my head off when I told you we had plans to meet while I was in town,” he says with a laugh.


“I’d say I’m sorry, but I’m not,” I tell him as I get out of my car and race into the building. “Are you still in town? I think something might have happened to Gwen and I need your help.”


Deciding to skip waiting for the elevator, I take the stairs two at a time.


“Jesus Christ, are you serious? No, I finished the job early and just left this morning, but I’m only a few hours away, I’ll turn around now and head back,” Dylan promises. “I’ll call the chief at the Nashville PD too, he owes me a favor.”


Even though this guy was most likely going to make a move on Gwen when he was in town, something tells me to trust him right now. I have a feeling I’m going to need all the help I can get.


I end the call with Dylan right when I get to Brady’s door. Sticking my key in the lock, the door pops open before I even have a chance to turn the key. Dread overwhelms me as I push the door open and walk inside the apartment. Gwen would never leave her door unlocked, even if she was home.


Before I even have a chance to call her name, something on the floor in the middle of the room catches my eye. Rushing over to it, I bend down and see the ugly glass candy dish Brady had on his coffee table. Picking it up, my heart skips a beat when I see blood caked on the side of it. Even though I want to hurl the dish across the room in fury, I quickly set it back down where it was in case the police can dust it for fingerprints.


Standing up, I take off running through the rest of the apartment, calling for Gwen and Emma as I check each room. I know it’s silly, I know they aren’t here, but I have to do something. I keep having a fleeting thought that I’ll open up a closet door and they’ll both be in there laughing because they pulled a prank on me. It’s the dumbest fucking thought in the world, but I can’t stop hoping it will be true as I fling open the last door and find it empty.


As I run back out into the living room, my boot crunches down on something I must not have noticed when I first got here. Lifting up my foot, I see a broken needle crushed into the carpet and the airport food I had earlier threatens to come up.


No, no, no… this can’t be happening.


I stare in horror at the hypodermic needle broken in half. I feel like I’m living in a nightmare. I thought Gwen and Emma were safe. I left because I was sure they’d be okay and now look what happened? Stratford hurt them; he took them and I’m scared to death I may never see them again so I can tell them what an idiot I was. I should have told Gwen I loved her; I should have told Emma I had no idea how to be her dad, but that I hope she would give me a chance and teach me how. Right now, I would sit in a room filled with a thousand pink Barbies if it meant Emma was sitting next to me and I could hear her laugh.


Hearing the sounds of police sirens outside, I’m thankful that at least Dylan came through with help. We have to find them; they have to be okay. I’ve been on plenty of missions that didn’t go according to plan and lives were lost, but right now, failure is not an option. These girls are my whole life. If anything happens to them, I’ll never forgive myself.


Chapter 30


Gwen


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 a 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 was 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 in 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.”


I look at the person standing in front of me and can’t believe this is really happening. When I was so frantically trying to get Emma to wake up earlier, I assumed Ellie had finally had enough and left to go back to New York without telling me. I didn’t even notice that we weren’t alone in the apartment. I didn’t anticipate that someone I’ve trusted my entire life would turn on me.


When I came to a little while ago, my head hurt so bad I thought I would throw up. I could feel blood dripping down the side of my face and knew from experience that I had a concussion. When I tried to reach up to wipe the blood off of my face, I realized I was tied to a chair. A whimper from across the room made my heart clench in fear and when I looked up, I saw Emma tied to a chair much like I was.


Soon after, the nightmare grew increasingly worse with each word that was spoken and each punch I took to my face and body when my answers weren’t the ones expected. I don’t know what to do; I don’t know what to say to make this nightmare end. My heart shatters as I think about how we got here.


My eyes flew open and I ignored the pain in my head and the person standing in front of me with a gun aimed in my direction as I quickly scanned the apartment in search of Emma.


“Where’s Emma? She’s hurt. What did you do with her?” I asked angrily, pressing a hand to my aching head.


I had to push aside the shock and confusion that filled my mind. I don’t know what’s going on and I don’t care what happened to me. All that mattered was making sure Emma was okay. I am not the same weak, defenseless woman this person used to know. I am a fighter and I will fight to the death for my child.


“Emma is tied up in the back of my car so don’t think about doing anything stupid or I’ll just shoot you now without letting you say good-bye,” I was told as my arm was suddenly grabbed and I was pulled roughly up from the couch.


Maybe it was a lie. I couldn’t believe this person would ever hurt Emma.


My head throbbed and my vision swam as I was dragged through the apartment and out the front door, the gun shoved roughly against my side.


“Why are you doing this?” I demanded as I was pushed down the stairs and out the door into the parking lot.


Everything in me told me to run and scream for help. As soon as we got to the car though and I saw Emma with tape over her mouth and rope around her wrists and ankles, slumped against the door in the backseat, thoughts of causing a scene escaped from my mind and all I could think about was getting to my baby.


I flung open the back door and scrambled inside, sobbing as I pulled Emma onto my lap and started to remove her bindings.


The feel of hard metal against the back of my skull halted my movements and my hands froze.


“Put her down and get in the front seat or I’ll shoot you both right now.”


If I were alone, I would have turned around and knocked the gun away. I would have put all of those self-defense videos Brady made me watch over and over after I moved here to good use and fought. But I’m not alone. If something went wrong, my daughter could be caught in the crossfire. I had no choice but to do what was asked.


With a tearful kiss to the top of Emma’s head, I gently laid her down on the seat and backed out of the car, moving to the front as the gun remained on me.


The entire drive to downtown was quiet. No matter how many questions I asked, they were refused an answer. When we pulled into the back parking lot behind Brady’s office and I was forced towards the stairs of the walk-in basement to the abandoned restaurant next door, I tried to fight since Emma was still in the backseat of the car and out of harms way. I punched, I hit, I kicked – whatever I could do to try and change the outcome of this nightmare. I didn’t care that there was a gun aimed at me, I didn’t care if I was too weak to do any real damage, I had to try. In the middle of the scuffle, right when I thought I might get the upper hand, I lost my footing and was shoved down the hard, concrete steps. I landed at the bottom right on top of my bad arm. As soon as I heard the snap of bones breaking in my already fragile arm and the pain shot through me, I lost my battle with consciousness.


I don’t know how long we’ve been down here in this wine cellar, but I hope to God it’s long enough for someone to be looking for us. I hate that my blind trust has put my daughter in harm’s way. If anything else happens to her I’ll never be able to forgive myself. She is the one perfect thing in my life and I can’t stand the thought of what she must be thinking and feeling right now. She trusted me to keep her safe and I couldn’t do it.


Austin would tell me to stop being such a damn martyr and suck it up. I hate that my thoughts immediately go to him when he walked away without a backwards glance. I wish he would have trusted me as much as I did him; I wish he would have known that I would take any part of him he could spare, just as long as he promised to come back to us when his job was finished.


My whole body aches and my spirit deflates as I stare across the room at my baby and come to the realization that we might not get out of this basement alive. The damage done to my arm when I was pushed down the stairs has left it completely useless. I can’t even wiggle my fingers and any type of movement in my body, no matter how slight, is enough to have me seeing stars and swallowing down bile. The pain of having it pulled behind me and tied to a chair is so acute that I don’t know how much more I can take before I pass out again. I force myself to smile at my girl and give her hope, even though I’ve lost all of mine.


Chapter 31


Austin


“You son of a bitch! You had one fucking job. One job and that was to keep them safe!”


I look up as the door to the apartment crashes open and Brady charges across the room at me. His fist slams into my cheek and I don’t even bother fighting back when he punches me again. I’m perfectly fine with letting him beat the shit out of me, but the police officers that fill the room have other ideas. They pull him off of me and drag him back over by the door as I cradle my jaw in my hand.


“God dammit, let me go! Let me fucking go!” Brady shouts as he fights against their hold, his eyes wild and full of anger.

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