Dylan steps over to Brady and grabs onto the front of his shirt, yanking him close. “Dude, reel it the fuck in. I know you’re pissed, but beating the hell out of one of your best friends isn’t going to help Gwen and Emma. Calm your ass down right now.”
Brady takes a couple of deep breaths and his shoulders sag, the fight finally leaving him. The three men holding onto him finally let go and step away when they realize he’s calmed down. As they head into the kitchen with the rest of the team that have set up a make-shift command center at the table, Brady looks across the room at me, the disappointment on his face crystal clear and I completely lose it.
“I’m sorry, I’m so fucking sorry,” I tell him brokenly, my legs giving out as I slide down the wall into a heap on the floor.
I let my best friend down and I let Gwen and Emma down. They weren’t a job; they were more than a job. For the first time in my life, I don’t know what the fuck to do. I don’t know how to fix this. I’m crawling out of my skin with fear and worry and now that Brady’s here it makes everything worse. He trusted me to keep his family safe and I failed him.
Brady walks across the room to me and I’m more than a little shocked that he slides down the wall to sit next to me instead of kicking my ass some more. Closing my eyes, I let my head thump back against the wall and we sit there in silence for a few minutes.
“Next to Layla, they’re my whole life, man,” Brady says quietly. I keep my eyes closed as he talks, knowing if I look at him I’m going to start crying like a fucking baby. “I was the shittiest brother in the world. As soon as I turned eighteen I got the fuck out of dodge and left her alone there with our parents. I had no idea that asshole she married would turn out to be a monster. I had no idea what he’d been doing to her all those years because I chose to shut her out. It was easier that way. It made me feel less guilty for leaving. And then one night she showed up on my doorstep with her arm in a cast, broken ribs and a black and blue face looking so small and helpless with Emma by her side and I knew right then and there that I would never let her down again.”
I don’t want to hear this, but I have to. It’s my fault that Gwen was let down again. It’s my fault that she’s in danger.
“I’m sorry. Jesus Christ I’m so sorry,” I mutter.
“Will you stop saying you’re fucking sorry? It’s not your fault.”
I finally open my eyes and look at Brady in confusion.
He just rolls his head at me. “I’m scared out of my mind and I lost my temper, that’s all. It would have happened even if I’d been here. There’s nothing you could have done to keep that fucker away from them. There’s nothing either of us could have done.”
I shake my head in denial. “I left them, man. I just walked away. I got a call from Risner and I bolted. I thought it was best, I didn’t want her to have any more baggage than she already did and we both know I’ve got enough to fill a thousand suitcases.”
Brady studies my face and after a few seconds he curses. “God dammit. You slept with her didn’t you?”
At this point it’s probably best not to answer him. My jaw still hurts from his punches and even though I deserve more, I’m not in the mood for them right now.
“You’re lucky I didn’t know that when I first walked in here or your face would be a pile of ground meat right now,” Brady mutters. “What do the police know so far?”
I fill him in what I found when I got here and how once the police arrived and they bagged up the needle and the dish, we started going over all of the information I’d been collecting the past few weeks. Right before Brady got here, Mark called to tell me that Stratford’s lawyer wasn’t answering his phone so the two men were still MIA and another BOLO was issued for both of them.
“What about Ellie?” Brady asks when I finish.
“Same. Calls to her phone are going unanswered so they’re assuming Stratford has all three of them. Her car isn’t in the parking lot so he must have taken them in it. The cops have her license plate and the description of her car and they’re on the lookout for it now. They also put a call in to her parents back in New York and they haven’t heard from her in a couple of days. They were surprised to hear she was in Nashville, she never told them she was going out of town,” I explain to him.
“Speaking of calls, sorry for not returning the messages you left me right away. Living on a tour bus is fucking insane and who knows what city I lost my phone in,” Brady tells me in irritation.
One of the officers comes into the living room from the hall with a cell phone in his hand. “Hey, we found this cell phone in the back bedroom. Anybody know who it belongs to?”
Brady and I look up and Brady is the first to speak. “Yeah, that’s Gwen’s. Guess we know why it hasn’t been answered all day.”
Brady reaches for it, but I quickly push myself up from the ground and grab it out of the officer’s hand. Something Gwen said to me the day Emma got hurt and I took her to the hospital nags at the back of my mind.
“That’s weird, I didn’t have any missed calls from you. Something must be wrong with my phone.”
Brady stands up next to me as I quickly scan through all of her missed calls from that day. Not finding any from my phone to Gwen’s from the time I was busy driving like a maniac to get Emma to the hospital, I pull out my own phone from my back pocket and search the outgoing call log. My heart fills with dread when I don’t see one call made to Gwen’s phone that day.
“Just got a call from New York. Stratford and his lawyer just landed at LaGuardia so that’s why the calls to him went unanswered. They’ve been at the airport since they left the station earlier, we just confirmed it with the airlines,” one of the officers shouts from the kitchen.
So Stratford couldn’t have been the one to do this. Everything starts to quickly click into place. How could I have never thought it was odd that Ellie showed back up in Gwen’s life right when strange things started happening to her?
“Son of a bitch!” I shout, shoving Gwen’s phone back into the officer’s hand and stalking towards the door where I left my go-back when I brought it in right before Brady got here. Reaching inside, I grab my 9mm and check to make sure it’s loaded. I know exactly who has my girls and it fills me with rage. All this time the person we should have been looking at was right in front of our faces. Shoving my gun into my back waistband and turning around to face the room full of men with questions on their faces.
“I know who has them and I think I know where they might be.”
The place is suddenly a flurry of activity as phone calls are made and everyone scrambles around checking their weapons and making a plan.
“I hope you’re right about this, I need my girls back,” Brady tells me as we rush out of the building.
Sliding behind the wheel of my SUV as Brady hops into the passenger seat, I look over at him before pulling out of the parking lot. “No, we need our girls back.”
I peel out onto the street forcing another driver to slam on their brakes to make way for me.
Brady sighs as he grabs tightly to the door handle. “We’ll discuss that later.”
Ellie stalks over to Emma and rips the tape off of her mouth and I cringe as Emma cries out in pain.
“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 woman 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.
“William should have been mine from the beginning,” Ellie growls at me angrily as she starts waving the gun around. “Did you know I saw him first that night at the charity event? We danced and we laughed and he asked me out to dinner. Then he saw you and forgot all about me.”
I look at Emma again and try to hold her frightened gaze in my own. I want her to know that everything will be okay, but I don’t know if it will. For the first time since she was born, I don’t know how to protect her.
“I’m sorry, Ellie, I had no idea. Just put the gun down and we can talk about it,” I plead with her.
Ellie laughs manically and shakes her head at me. “I’m so sick and tired of talking to you. You think you’re so much better than me. You get the man I was supposed to have and you get the daughter that was supposed to be mine. I thought once you finally left William that he and I could finally be together, but all he did was talk about you and his stupid, perfect little girl for the first month. I figured if you thought he was stalking you, you’d be so preoccupied that I could come in and take Emma so that William and I could be a family. You had to go running to someone, didn’t you? As soon as Austin started sticking his nose into everything, my plan went to shit.”
After everything that’s happened today, you would think that nothing Ellie says would surprise me, but that’s not the case. She was the one behind the mugs and the letter and the flowers. All along it was Ellie terrorizing me, not William.
“And you thought this was a better plan? What are you going to do now, Ellie? Do you honestly think you can take Emma away right now after everything you’ve done?” I shout.
Ellie paces back and forth in front of Emma and I want nothing more than for her to move away from my baby. I want her to focus on me and not my daughter.
“I changed my mind, I don’t want her after all. I mean, William didn’t even want her anymore either. Did you know he was going to give you sole custody? He wanted the two of us to start fresh. I figured he would regret it so I wanted to surprise him by bringing his daughter back to him. But she’s more trouble than she’s worth. She used to be sweet when she was younger. She’s spent too much time alone with you and now she has your attitude.”
Emma looks up at Ellie and frowns. “I don’t like you anymore, Aunt Ellie, you’re mean.”
Ellie looks at her in disgust and rolls her eyes. “See what I mean? That child doesn’t know her place. William could have taught her a thing or two about manners.”
The idea that Ellie actually thinks having William discipline Emma in his own way is a good idea makes me sick. I need to keep her talking; I need to get her away from Emma.
“What about your black eye and busted lip? Was William trying to teach you some manners?” I ask her sarcastically.
I’d rather she be mad at me than Emma. I’ll take a hundred more punches as long as she leaves Emma alone.
“William was never here, you idiot. I did that to myself with the television remote from the hotel. He had no idea I was in Nashville, he’s been visiting his parents for the last week,” Ellie informs me, stepping away from Emma.
“Hey, Aunt Ellie!” Emma shouts.
Ellie whips around and I shake my head frantically, trying to tell Emma to be quiet and not bring any attention to herself, but she doesn’t notice.
“What?” Ellie asks in annoyance.
“When Austin gets here, he’s going to put you in jail with the bad Barbies,” Emma tells her proudly.
I sob as Ellie walks closer to her. “Ellie, please!”
Ellie ignores me as she squats down in front of Emma’s chair. “Your knight in shining armor doesn’t give two shits about you, kiddo.”
Ellie stands up and the click of a bullet being released into the chamber of her gun echoes around the room. Ellie points the gun at Emma again and stares right at her as she throws one last threat my way. “Now it’s your turn to lose it all.”
I hold Emma’s 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.
Ellie starts to turn her head in my direction when Emma brings her attention back around with another statement. “Austin will save us.”
Emma opens her mouth and screams at the top of her lungs while Ellie stares at her in confusion.
The explosion of a gun going off happens without warning and I let out a blood-curdling scream.
“So you’re sure about this?” Brady asks as we pull up to the front of the building.
“Gwen mentioned to me that she and Ellie talked about the old restaurant next to your office. Ellie isn’t familiar with Nashville and the police already checked the two hotels where she’s been staying. I can’t think of any other place she would have taken them,” I explain to him as we get out of my vehicle and head to the front door.
One of the officers comes running up from the back of building. “We got a positive on Ellie Larson’s vehicle packed around back.”
I turn towards Brady. “What’s the layout of this place? Should we go in the same way she did or try the front?”
Brady looks up and down the sidewalk, thinking for a minute. “There’s a walk-up basement that leads right into the wine cellar. If she parked back there, that’s probably where she’s keeping them. We won’t be able to sneak up on them if we go through the back. I think we should go in through the front and take the stairs located off the bar. When you get to the bottom of the stairs, there’s a long hallway that opens up to the cellar. That way we’ll at least be able to get a bead on the situation first and go from there.”
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