Houdini’s Box by Girl Bard

Houdini’s Box 
by Girl Bard

Part 2 in the Jaden and Grace Series

Part 1
June 19th, 2000

11:58pm
I can’t believe she’s here. I can tell she’s exhausted from her drive from Ohio, and even sleep doesn’t seem to relax her now. I know she’s tired when she doesn’t even want to wake up in order to eat.

Our pizza got here an hour ago and she was already asleep. I had to dislodge myself from underneath her on the couch to answer the door and have my dinner, a very interested Bean following me. I think I’m going to like having a dog around. I’ve never really liked dogs, but Bean is pretty cute. And smart too. I like that. And it might be nice to have company on my morning run.

Who am I kidding; I’m going to love having Grace here. I’m terrified beyond belief at having someone living with me and being in a relationship all of a sudden, but I know by looking at her sweet face that I couldn’t have it any other way.

She’s frowning in her sleep, and I notice faint lines of tension and worry. I gently trace her face with my fingertips, willing her tension away. She doesn’t stir under my gentle strokes, and as I glance at the clock I see it’s time for her to get in bed.

I disengage myself from the couch once again and put the remaining pizza in the refrigerator. I know she’ll be starving when she wakes tomorrow. Bean trots to the front door, looking at me longingly. I clip her leash to her cute pink collar and softly slip out the front door with her. I take her outside to do her business and shiver in the cool night, my flimsy top and shorts not protecting me from the strong wind that blows across the ocean. Bean sniffs quizzically at the air and as I take her inside I whisper to her, “There’s plenty of time to play on the beach tomorrow. It’s time for bed.” She walks with me inside and heads up the stairs like she’s lived here all her life.

I let myself inside, finding Grace predictably sound asleep. Unleashing the dog I head over to my sleeping beauty. “Sweetheart, time for bed.” I tell her, gently shaking her awake. She doesn’t budge and I shake her harder.

“STOP IT!” She suddenly screams, being jolted awake. “Don’t touch me!”

I back away from her, my hands held out in front of me. “Grace, it’s okay. It’s just me.”

She blinks a few times, her eyes growing wide. “Jaden?”

“Yes, sweetheart, it’s okay.” I soothe her, keeping a distance away from her.

“I’m sorry.” She whispers, hanging her head. I can see the tears forming in her soft green eyes.

“It’s okay. I’m sorry I scared you.” I tell her, slowly approaching her. She holds out her arms to me and I embrace her thin form. “I shouldn’t have shook you, I apologize.”

“It’s not your fault.” She responds with her face buried in my shoulder. I can feel her tears on my bare skin.

“Do you want to go to bed?” I ask her, feeling like a parent coaxing a child to go to sleep.

She shakes her head yes, pulling herself out of my embrace.

“Where do you want to sleep?” I ask her carefully. “I set up an air mattress in the spare bedroom if you feel more comfortable, or you can sleep here on the couch until we can get you a real bed.”

She looks at me quizzically. “Whatever you would like.” She states politely.

“Grace, I’m asking you what you’ll feel comfortable with. I don’t want to pressure you into sleeping with me if you don’t want too.”

“I want too.” She answers, and I nod my head.

“If you’re sure.” I tell her, extending my hand to her. She takes my hand and I pull her up.

“I have to take her out.” Grace motions to the small dog at our feet. Leaning down, I swoop Bean up in my arms.

“No you don’t, I already did.” I tell her and she smiles gratefully at me. “Where does she sleep?” I ask, tickling the squirming puppy’s body.

Grace smiles. “With me, usually. She’s a bed hog.”

“Both of you?” I tease. “I’ll never get any sleep or covers with the two of you.” Grace blushes and swats my arm playfully. “That’s fine.” I tell her, setting down the puppy.

We head for my bedroom, all three of us anxious to get a good night’s sleep.
June 20th, 2000

9:46am
I yawn and stretch, feeling Bean’s weight on top of the covers. The sunlight streams in through Jaden’s bedroom window and with one glance outside I can tell it’s going to be a gorgeous day. I sit up and comb my hands through my short hair, still marveling on how amazing it feels to have hardly any hair.

Jaden is nowhere to be found, and I listen intently only to hear no sounds coming from the apartment. She must not be here. Curiously, I get out of bed and head into the living room. Finding the apartment empty, I see a note from Jaden on the counter.

Grace,

I know, I know, it really sucks that I had to go into work. But believe me, I would have rather stayed home with you today. I have a few things I have to take care of this morning and then I’ll take the rest of the afternoon off. Make yourself at home; there is leftover pizza in the fridge. I’ll call you later.

Jaden

My stomach rumbles at the mention of pizza. I open the fridge and take out the box and a can of Coke. That does suck that Jaden had to go into work, but she’s already turned her life upside down for me and I can’t expect her to quit her job too.

Setting down the pizza box I notice that under Jaden’s note is a shiny gold key. Picking it up curiously, I decide it must be the key to the apartment. I forget about my breakfast and head for the front door to try out the key. It works.

This is all so new to me. I feel as if I’m going to cry, the simple act of Jaden giving me a key meaning so much to me. I can’t believe that she has turned her entire life around by allowing me to live here.

The phone rings, startling me out of my thoughts. I don’t know if I should get it or not. I fell asleep so quickly last night that Jaden didn’t have time to give me any ground rules. But her letter did say that she would be calling me later.

I decide to let the phone ring, and finally the machine picks up. Jaden’s smooth voice states in a no-nonsense manner; “Leave a message.” Followed by an annoying beep. I hate answering machines.

“Grace, are you there?” Jaden’s voice asks through the machine. I fumble with the receiver and pick it up.

“Hi!” I tell her brightly, only to be cut off by another loud beep. “Damn it!” I curse at the machine.

“Hit the stop button.” Jaden answers, laughing. I comply, and the machine turns off.

“Sorry, I wasn’t sure if I should answer or not.” I tell her.

“Of course you can, it’s your apartment too now.” She answers, adding, “I wasn’t sure if you were still sleeping. Did I wake you?”

“No, I just got up.” I clear my throat. “Thanks for the key.” I add shyly.

She is silent for a minute before responding. “I’m glad you’re here.”

Now it is my turn to be speechless. “Thanks.” I finally am able to mutter. “I’m glad too.”

I fell her smiling over the phone. “Well, I just wanted to make sure you were okay. I should be home around 1:00 or so.”

“Cool!” I tell her, excited that she will be able to get out of work early. “I’ll see you then.”

“Can’t wait.” She adds, and hangs up the phone.

I finish my breakfast and head back into the bedroom. Bean regards me sleepily and I crawl back in bed with her, shutting my eyes. I can’t believe how wiped out I feel. I know it’s partially from driving for so long by myself, and partially from the emotional strain I’ve been under for the past few days.

I need to decide what I’m going to do. I know that by now my parents are freaking out because I’m missing. Lydia has Jaden’s phone number, but I told her to call only if it was an emergency. Because my room is so neat, they probably don’t think I’ve run away, and I told Lydia to tell them that I said I had things to do and wouldn’t be around much for the next few days.

But my mother, I know her. She knows something is up and she won’t rest until she figures it out. And I don’t want poor Uncle Rick and Lydia to reap her fury when she finds out.

But I’ve made my respective bed, and will have to lie in it. And I don’t regret leaving, no matter how difficult it will be.

So, I have two choices. I can call home and tell them where I am before they send out the cavalry to come and find me, or I can lay low and stay hidden for a while and be nervous the entire time. “What do you think?” I ask my puppy, who opens her eyes at my question before ignoring me and snapping them shut again. “You’re no help.” I tell her as I climb out of bed and head for the living room again.

I pick up the phone. “Just dial, Grace.” I tell myself, forcing my hand to dial my phone number.

It rings a few times, and just when I get my hopes up that no one is home, my mother answers.

“Hello?” Her sharp voice demands. How can she sound like such a bitch just by saying hello?

“Hi mom.” I answer, determined to stay strong.

“Grace, where in the hell are you?” She answers me, her voice reaching screeching level.

“Massachusetts.” I respond.

“What in the fuck are you doing in Massachusetts?” She screams and I cringe. She usually doesn’t curse like that unless she’s really pissed off. “You’re lucky your Uncle called and let us know that you were okay.” She adds. “You don’t know what a scare you’ve given us!”

I don’t know how to answer her, and for a minute I feel as if I’m going to back down and apologize to her. I will myself to remember why I left, and remember how horribly she’s treated me my entire life.

“Well? I’m waiting, young lady.” She demands. “What are you doing there?”

“I don’t want to marry Scott after what he did to me. And I don’t want to live in Ohio anymore. I want to live here and go to a good college and become a writer like I’ve always wanted to be.” I blurt out before I can stop myself.

She doesn’t respond but I can hear her angry breathing. I figure I’ve already pissed her off enough, why not add to it? “I’m not coming back.” I tell her, and this pushes her over the edge.

“Listen you little bitch. You get back here or you’ll be sorry.” She snarls, her voice sounding almost inhuman. “You think you had it rough before? I’ll make your life a living hell you ungrateful…”

“Shut up.” I state firmly, surprised when she does. “You don’t have the right to tell me what to do. I’m 22 years old and you have been controlling me long enough. I’m not going to play the good little girl for you anymore mother.” I spit out to her, my voice filled with rage. “You’re a horrible mother to me and you always have been. I’m tired of trying to win your love and affection.” I am seething with anger now and I can’t censor the words coming from my mouth. “You want to know why I ran away? You. You’re the reason my life has been miserable. I don’t need you anymore and what you say means nothing to me.”

“You’ll be sorry.” She finally responds, her voice lacking it’s strength from before.

“Go to hell.” I tell her, and hang up the phone. My hand is trembling and my chest constricts painfully. I collapse on the kitchen floor, the cool tile chilling my flushed skin. Part of me begins sobbing with relief, and another part of me is terrified of what I’ve just done. I try to take deep breaths and calm myself down but I’m in too heightened of a state.

After a few minutes I am finally able to get myself up, wiping my damp face on my pajamas. I need some fresh air; even Jaden’s spacious apartment is feeling too claustrophobic for me right now. I change into a pair of shorts and a t-shirt, put Jaden’s apartment key in my pocket and call Bean. She trots to me, stretching her short legs as I leash her and lead her out the front door.

It’s a beautiful morning, sunny and warm with a slight breeze coming from the ocean. It’s so incredibly beautiful here, and I can’t believe the view Jaden has. The ocean is fairly calm this morning, and while I can look upon it’s beauty, I still can’t shake the memories of being stranded on its waters during the shipwreck. I head up the street, walking through Jaden’s beautiful neighborhood of old houses.

Bean trots eagerly ahead of me, excited about exploring her new neighborhood. She wags her stubby tail as she smells every inch of sidewalk ahead of her. Patting my pocket to make sure the key is secure, I break into a jog and she runs alongside me. I really hate to run except if I’m playing sports. But right now, the even pounding of my feet on the sidewalk comforts me and I focus on breathing even and deep. My mind flashes back to the last time I ran, running away from Scott’s house covered in his blood. I push that thought out of my mind and concentrate on the blue Massachusetts sky and the smell of the ocean nearby.

“He can’t hurt you, you got away.” I tell myself, my shoes hitting the pavement as I cross the street. I continue to jog for another block before I am too tired and break into a walk. Bean pants as she trots in front of me, her little legs having a lot more ground to cover than mine. We turn the corner and walk for a few more blocks before I decide we should head back. I’ve been careful to watch our way, not wanting to get lost in the old neighborhood consisting of winding roads and dead-end streets.

It’s easy, really. Just by following the ocean you can find your way. We reach Jaden’s apartment and I head up the stairs. Using the key to let myself it, I unclip Bean’s leash and she heads for her new water bowl. I open the fridge and grab another can of Coke. I really need to start drinking other things, but water tastes so disgusting.

The clock on the microwave tells me it’s 11:30 already. I really want to take a shower and unpack a few things before Jaden gets home. Rummaging through my bag I pull a bath towel and some clean clothes. Taking my toiletries and cosmetics, I head for the bathroom and turn on the shower.

Leaving the door ajar, I take off my clothes and get in the shower quickly. I still hate taking showers, even though the shipwreck happened a month ago. I have to reassure myself that it’s just a shower and I can get out any time that I want. I used to enjoy long, luxurious showers but not anymore. I get in and out as quickly as possible.

I shampoo my hair and rinse, and quickly wash my body. Rinsing myself off I grab my razor and shave. In world record time I turn off the water and hop out, amazed at how much better I feel when I’m clean and smell good.

After dressing, I towel my hair dry. Another bonus about having it short, no more blow drying or extensive styling. I hang up my towel in Jaden’s bathroom and look through my bag, trying to find my sandals. By the time Bean and I finished with our walk it was getting pretty warm out, and it was too hot to wear socks. My hand brushes against a thick envelope and I take it from my bag, looking at it curiously.

Strange, I don’t remember packing this. I don’t even know what it is. Tearing it open, I find a note from my Uncle.

I’m so proud of you. You are special, Grace, and don’t let anyone (especially your mother) tell you differently. You can do anything that you want to do and I have confidence in you.

Here is something to get you started. I know it isn’t much, but considering what I’m going to save by not paying you your salary to waitress, it’s the least I could do.

Uncle Rick

Smiling, I set the note aside and search the envelope, pulling out a thick stack of bills. My eyes widen as I count the money, realizing that he has given me almost a thousand dollars.

“Oh my Goddess.” I manage to state, my voice breaking with emotion. I can’t believe he has done this, what a wonderful man. I can’t stop myself from crying as I put the money back in the envelope, engulfing my head in my hands. I am so blessed to have him in my life, and I wish that things could be different for him. I head to the phone, eager to call and speak with him to thank him for his generosity. As I pick up the phone to dial, I suddenly hang it up. If I call him to thank him, he will act like it’s nothing and not a big deal. I know that for a fact.

There has to be something I can do to show him how much I appreciate him. What is the way to his heart? I muster, and glance down to see Bean sitting expectantly at my feet. “Just because I’m in the kitchen doesn’t mean you’re getting a treat.” I tell her, smiling at her wagging tail.

That’s it! I reach down and pick Bean up, laughing as she licks my face. “You’re a genius!” I tell my puppy, groaning when her sneaky tongue laps the inside of my lip. “Gross!”

I grab my address book from my bag and flip it open. Since I’ve had Bean so many people have asked me where I got her that I asked my mother for the breeder’s name and phone number. Finding her name in my address book I dial her number.

“Hello?”

“Hi, may I please speak to Mary?” I ask politely.

“Speaking, who’s this?” The sweet old woman’s voice inquires.

“My name is Grace McKenzie, and I have a puppy from your Valentine’s Day litter.” I explain.

“Oh really! What puppy?” Mary asks.

“The female black and white with the bean shaped spot on her back.” I answer, smiling.

“Oh, she is a sweet one. How is she?”
“Perfect.” I respond. “I’m actually calling because I was wondering if you have any puppies available? I would like to get one for my Uncle.” I tell her.

“Of course dear, I have a few left that are ready right now. Two boys and a little girl, and they are all half-siblings to your puppy.” Mary rattles on about her cherished pets. “They have the same father as your puppy and a different mother. One of the boys and the little girl are very bold, and the other male is shyer. He needs a lot of love.”

“The shy one sounds perfect. My uncle will adore him.” I tell her.

“He’s a cutie, white with a brown mask.” Mary finishes.

“I’ll take him.” I tell her. “Would it be possible for you to deliver him to my Uncle? I’m in Massachusetts.” I explain.

“Of course dear.” Mary answers immediately, and I can tell she’s thrilled to have found a good home for her shy little Jack Russell.

I work out all the details with her, and the puppy will be delivered to my Uncle this afternoon. I explain to Mary that I wanted Uncle Rick to be given a note expressing how grateful I am for him and I figure this was the best way to thank him. Mary happily thanks me and I hang up the phone excited.
June 20th, 2000

6:13pm
To say I’m worried would be downplaying the situation. When I spoke with Jaden this morning she said she’d be home by 1:00. It’s already after 6:00 and she’s still not here. I haven’t heard a word from her, and I’m freaking out, to say the least. Where could she possibly be? She would have called if she was going to be late, wouldn’t she?

I can’t stop myself from pacing. I tried watching television, but my mind kept wandering. I tried writing in my journal but all I could write was about how worried I was. I wanted to take Bean for another walk but wanted to be near the phone in case she tried to call. I’ve even picked up the phone a few times just to hear the dial tone so I can make sure it’s working.

I was fine for a few hours. When she didn’t make it home by 2:00, I thought she might have gotten held up in traffic or something. When she didn’t make it home by 3:00 I figured that something at the station came up and she was too busy to call. When four and five o’clock came around I began to worry. I turned on the news to see if some major police event happened, but I couldn’t find anything. And when the clock chimed 6 o’clock I began to pace.

What if she’s hurt? What if something happened to her in the line of duty? I guess I never really thought about her being a cop. I know she’s a mounted policewoman and all, but she still protects and serves. What if she’s been shot? I feel myself starting to panic and my chest constricts. I continue to pace, and concentrate on my breathing.

What if she’s decided she doesn’t want me here anymore and that’s why she’s not coming home? What if she realizes she’s made a mistake and wants me gone? That thought panics me just as much as the thought of her being hurt.

The sound of footsteps coming up the stairs startles me. Please let it be Jaden, and let her be okay and still want me here. I stare at the front door from the living room, willing it to open.

Bean jumps down from her seat on the couch and trots towards the door. I stand in the living room, frozen in place.

I hear the metallic clink of the key against the doorknob and I watch in fascination as it turns. The door slowly slides open to reveal a frightening Jaden. She looks so angry that a part of me is afraid of her.

“What are you staring at?” She asks me, her voice low.

My mouth feels dry and I can’t answer her. I am so afraid at this moment and I feel my heart pound and myself stop breathing.

One glance into Jaden’s ice-cold eyes tells me that I’ve made a mistake coming here. As she approaches me slowly I know it’s too late now to do anything about it.
Part 2

June 20th, 2000

6:36pm
“What are you staring at?” I ask Grace as I enter the apartment. She doesn’t answer and I angrily toss my keys onto the counter. Why is she looking at me like that? I walk towards Grace noticing that she looks pale, like she’s just seen a ghost.

She opens her mouth to speak, but no sound comes out. She’s acting so strange, and I grow concerned. I continue to walk slowly to her, wondering what in the hell her problem is. After the day I’ve had I was hoping that she would be happy to see me.

I finally reach her and extend my hand to hers. She flinches and pulls away. “What is wrong?” I ask her, making a conscious effort to keep my voice soft. She doesn’t answer and falls to the couch, bringing her knees up to her chest. “Grace?” I ask again, growing impatient.

She buries her head in her knees and begins to sob. I sigh and rub my forehead tiredly, willing my headache to fade. Why is she crying? Can someone explain to me what is happening?

“Grace, talk to me.” I plead, my voice demanding yet compassionate.

“You’re mad at me.” She manages to say, and I furrow my brows in confusion.

“What are you talking about?”

“You look so mean and scary, like you hate me.” She responds, her voice childlike. I gently and slowly wrap my arms around her and she tries to pull away from me.

“Shh.” I tell her calmly. “I’m not mad at you and I could never hate you.” I whisper, planting kisses all over her arms and legs. “I’ve just had a really crummy day.” I feel her relax under my touch and I breathe a sigh of relief.

I sit on the couch next to her and pull her into my arms, feeling only a mild ache from my ribs. They’ve healed up nicely from the shipwreck, but are still a little tender at times. Grace willingly collapses in my embrace.

I continue to hold her, rocking her gently in my arms. She is still crying, but I think she’s calmer. What a completely shitty day. “Are you okay?” I ask her, upset that I scared her.

“Yeah.” She answers, her voice muffled in my shirt. “I’m sorry I overreacted.”

“It’s okay.” I tell her, kissing the top of her head. “I’m sorry I looked so scary.” I shake my head from side to side. “I was excited to see you, I couldn’t wait for this day to end so I could come home.” I feel her smile, and I grin for the first time since this morning. Silently, I count to ten in my head. I know how curious Grace is and I guarantee that she won’t be able to last any longer in asking me about my day.

One. Two. Three. Four. Five.

“Why was your day crummy?” She asks, and I chuckle. She sits up from my embrace and looks at me, her beautiful green eyes marred by her running mascara.

I make myself more comfortable on the couch. “Well, it started off fine, right after I called you I had to drive to the Cape for a meeting.” She looks at me, confused, and I remember that she isn’t familiar with Massachusetts yet. “It’s south of Boston, almost to Rhode Island.” I explain and she nods in understanding. “It’s usually not a bad drive, and I made it in great time, had a short meeting that ran long, so I didn’t even leave there until one. Anyway, on the way back I get a call on my radio saying that I am supposed to be at the station for a departmental meeting that I knew nothing about.” I curl my lip and growl at this, recalling how pissed off I was. “So I had to drive all the way back to the station and deal with that bullshit. Then I finally was on my way home and I tried to call you but my cell phone was dead and I left the charger here.” Grace takes my hand in sympathy, but I know I’m not even at the really bad part yet. “I just had my police radio with me. Then I was coming through Boston and because of the stupid Big Dig I hit a pothole on the Storrow Drive Bridge and blue a tire.”

“Jaden, that sucks!” Grace exclaims, back to her normal self now. “Is your car okay?”

I snort. “Yeah, it’s fine. But I blocked up traffic that was already moving slow and I managed to get my car to the side of the bridge, blocking the lane completely and try to change the blasted thing.”

“Why didn’t you call the station on your radio?” Grace asks, smiling.

“Because I didn’t want them to know what an idiot I was and then the guys would laugh at me.” I admit, hanging my head self-mockingly. My pride is a bad thing at times, and sometimes I wish I could just suck it up and admit for help.

“Oh honey, that’s awful.” Grace says, laughing.

“So I had to change the tire by myself and I couldn’t get the lug nuts off and I finally put the spare on, only to find that it seemed to have a slow leak. So I had to go to a tire place.” I finish dejectedly. “And that’s why I’m so late.”

“I was worried.” Grace responds softly. “I thought something happened to you.”

“I’m sorry you worried.” I tell her, my voice calm while internally I’m screaming, “No! Don’t worry about me! I don’t want to be tied down in a relationship where I have to answer to someone!” Jesus Christ I’m terrified of this blonde girl across from me. She makes me feel things that I mocked others for feeling.

I know I need to deal with my commitment problems. I can’t hurt Grace the way others have hurt her. She doesn’t deserve that.

Sensing my discomfort, Grace changes the subject. “What’s the Big Dig?”

I sigh angrily. “It’s a stupid construction thing that Boston has been working on for the past 20 years. It was supposed to be done ages ago, and by the time it’s finished it will be technologically inferior to other roadways. Basically it’s a waste of taxpayer time and money.”

“Oh.” Grace says. “That’s stupid.”

“Yes it is. I can’t tell you how it holds up traffic.” I shake my head, clearing my thoughts from my horrendous day. “But that’s over. Let’s do something fun.” I tell her, standing up and extending my hand to her. She takes it and gets up, wiping the last of her tears away. “You okay?” I ask as she turns her eyes towards mine.

“Yeah.” She answers, engulfing me in a warm hug.
Journal entry

June 23, 2000
A girl could get used to this. I’m stretched out in Jaden’s comfortable bed, where I laid back down right after I took Bean outside to potty. When I woke up this morning, I glanced at the clock and saw that it was already 11:00am. Then I slowly get out of bed and headed into the bathroom I brushed my teeth and ran my hands through my hair.

“What are you going to do today?” I asked myself in the mirror, amazed at how healthy I look just after being here a few days. It’s incredible what actually eating and not worrying all the time does for me.

I decided that I wasn’t going to do anything today, and hence, that is why I’m back in bed. I’ve been lazy the past few days, doing nothing more than watching television, writing in my journal, and walking Bean around. Jaden has had to work quite a lot, but mentioned that she’s off for the weekend and some of next week. She’s being really cryptic about her job, but I’m not sure why. I’ve been trying to give her space because I know what a huge adjustment this must be for her.

I love it here. Bean loves it here. Jaden subtly asked if Bean and myself would be interested in going on a morning run with her. I looked at her like she had three heads and politely declined. I don’t think she could get me out of bed that early if she paid me. However, she has been taking Bean and they both have been enjoying themselves. Plus, Jaden’s apartment has a huge back yard that is fenced as well as the beach. But we haven’t taken Bean there yet. I can’t wait to see her play in the ocean, and I know she will have so much fun.

Speaking of dogs, Uncle Rick is completely ecstatic about his new little puppy. I didn’t hear from him the night that he got the puppy and I was worried that something was wrong. I called him, and it turns out that I forgot to give him the number at Jaden’s. Duh. He was in tears thanking me, and it felt to nice to know that I did the best thing for him that I could.

It seems that the shy little puppy isn’t shy one bit now that he’s away from his brother and sister. He’s a holy terror, according to Uncle Rick, but very sweet and loving. Little Hercules, that’s what Uncle Rick is calling him. That’s such a cute name, and I can tell that they are really happy. I can’t wait for Bean and Hercules to meet, but I guess I have to go home for that to happen.

I wonder if I’ll ever go back home again. I miss Lydia more than I thought I would, and I really regret that I never got to say goodbye to my grandparents. My mother’s parents are both dead, I was so little that I hardly remember them. But I was really close to my father’s parents, especially my grandmother. She’s the only one in the family that I kind of look like. I’m sure by now my mother has turned her against me.

Lydia hasn’t called. I know I shouldn’t be worried about her, but I am. I was hoping she’d try to sneak and call me when she was by herself.

Part of me feels some strange guilt for leaving, because I failed everyone’s expectations and didn’t play the role I’ve always played, I guess. But I know that I could never have been happy staying in SmallTownville, Ohio and marrying Scott. And isn’t that what life is really about? Making the most out of the time you’ve got?

I know I shouldn’t feel guilty for being here, and I wish that I could fully realize what a good choice I’ve made. I’m going to go to school out here, and have the kind of life I’ve always dreamed about.

And Jaden making this possible is just icing on the cake, so to speak. I couldn’t have done it without her.

But I’m worried about her. She’s still so closed off from me at times, and I don’t know if she’ll ever be fully able to open up. We still haven’t talked about her drug addiction besides when she blurted it out while half-asleep. We haven’t spoken about our future, or the status of our relationship. That scared me so much, that she could just come in from work one day and want me gone because I’m cramping her style. I don’t honestly think she’d do that, but the fear is there.

We’ve had such an amazing week together. She’s had to work all kinds of different shifts and then she stops out at the barn on her way home from work. She promised to take me to meet Studley this weekend, and I’m so excited to be around horses again. I’ve missed it so much.

I know that I need to get my ass in gear though. If I’m going to go to college here in the fall I need to get my financial aid stuff filled out and do student loans. I need to unpack my car so I can stop living off the few outfits in my bag like I have been, and I need to find a job. Uncle Rick’s generous money minus what I paid for Hercules will keep me afloat for a while, and I have a lot saved up but I refuse to dip into that. That’s for college and I plan on keeping it that way. So, first thing Monday morning, I’m getting motivated.

Hopefully.

June 23, 2000

3:45pm
The phone ringing brings me out of my catnap on the couch. Standing and rubbing my eyes, I click off the TV and trot to the kitchen to grab the phone.

“Hello?” I ask, my voice thick from sleeping.

“Did I wake you?” Jaden’s good-natured voice asks and I smile.

“Yes, but I can’t think of a better way to wake up. Unless you were here.” I tell her, surprised at how shy I am still with her sometimes.

“I wish I was there to see your bed-head.” She responds, laughing. That’s been a big joke between us since I moved here with my cropped hair. Regardless of how I sleep, my hair is always messed up really badly when I wake up. I really need to get it cut by a professional.

“Shut up.” I tell her jokingly.

“Listen, the reason I’m calling is because Diana and her husband wanted to meet you and I thought we could grab dinner tonight if you wanted.” Jaden asks, her voice casual but I can tell she’s nervous.

“Diana the dispatcher?” I ask, remembering the good-natured woman I spoke with when I was at the airport.

“Yep, she’s been pestering me all week about meeting you. I thought we could go out for drinks and dinner.”

“Sure!” I tell Jaden, excited to meet her friends. “That sounds fun.”

“Okay, I’ll let her know.” Jaden answers, sounding more relaxed. “I think you’ll like them, they are really fun.”

Ah, so that’s why she’s nervous. Jaden actually likes Diana and her spouse and really wants to go out. I thought she was dreading it, but it seems like she’s excited. Cool, I can’t wait to meet them.

“What should I wear?” I question, running through my possible choices.

“Something casual is fine.” She answers. “I’m on until 5 and then I’ll be home. They live close so we’ll go shortly after that, okay?”

I glance at the clock. Crap, it’s almost 4:00 now. “Okay.” I tell her, wondering if it’s possible to get a haircut right now. “Is there a Supercuts or anything nearby?”

She laughs. “Gracie, your hair is fine. But yes, drive down towards town and it’s in the shopping center plaza.”

“Great!” I tell her, hoping that I’ll be ready by the time she gets here. “See you then.”

“Love you.” She responds, hanging up the phone.

I smile into the silent receiver. That gets me every time.
Part 3

June 23, 2000
5:56pm
I nervously run my hands through my newly styled hair. It looks so much better; it now gently falls into place and I don’t look like a shaggy sheep dog anymore. I pick imaginary lint off of my pants and press the few wrinkles out of my shirt.

Jaden is standing at the door good-naturedly allowing me to primp before knocking. “Grace, you look wonderful.” She tells me and I roll my eyes. “Fine.” She adds, a smirk on her full lips. “You look devastatingly beautiful.”

I smile at her, taking one last calming breath before nodding my head, indicating that she should knock. She does, and I hear a dog bark, a child shout, and numerous sets of feet running towards the door.

It swings open to reveal a multitude of children and animals. I step back, surprised at the greeting and Jaden chuckles before pushing her way through. I follow her lead and join her, making sure to close the door behind me.

“Jaden! Jaden!” An adorable, yet rather sticky, voice emerges from the crowd. Jaden smiles and picks the little girl up, holding her at arms length when she realizes how thoroughly disgusting she is.

“What do you have on you?” Jaden asks, and the crowd of children giggle.

“Ice cream.” The girl responds, somehow managing to look dignified despite her chocolate-covered face. Jaden wrinkles her nose and sets her down.

“Kasey, this is my friend Grace.” Jaden explains, and the little girl looks up at me. She’s beautiful, probably around 3 or 4 with dark brown hair and an impish face full of freckles. Her sparkling brown eyes meet mine and she boldly smiles.

“Hi.” She says matter-of-factly. “You look like a pixie.”

“What?” I ask, laughing. Kasey just giggles and takes off running down the hall, the three other children following her.

Now the two dogs move in, greeting Jaden and I excitedly. “It’s crazy here, isn’t it?” Jaden asks while scratching the two golden retrievers. “I think she meant your hair, it does make you look rather pixie like.”

I smile while the other dog receives my attention. “Is that a complement?” I ask Jaden, receiving a radiant smile in return.

“Yes it is.” She looks at me with such intensity that I don’t know what to say.

“Jaden, is that you?” A female voice asks from upstairs.

“Maybe.” Jaden answers, laughing.

“Be right down!” The voice responds and Jaden shakes her head.

“It’s always like this here, it’s like a nuthouse. But it’s fun.”

“Is Kasey their daughter?” I ask, wondering if all the kids are theirs.

Jaden reads my mind. “Yes, I don’t know the other three, but both dogs are theirs.” I laugh in response and Jaden takes my hand in hers. “Don’t be nervous, Gracie. I love you and so will they.”

She’s so sweet, and sometimes she just knows exactly what to say. “Thanks.” I tell her, and stop when a man that can only be described as cute comes down the stairs.

“Hey Jaden!” He calls, wrapping her in a hug. “And you must be Grace!” He hugs me as well, and although I assume he’s Diana’s husband, I’m still on edge around men.

“Easy there.” Jaden growls, and after releasing me, he grins.

“I’m Joe, Diana’s husband.” He informs me and extends his hand.

“I’m Grace, and it’s nice to meet you.” I shake his hand. “You have a lovely home, and your daughter’s precious.”

“Wow, you’re polite!” Joe exclaims, chuckling. “We’ll have to break you of that habit.”

I laugh, immediately comfortable with his friendly nature. Jaden just shakes her head, punching him lightly on the arm.

“Hey, don’t beat up on him too much, I hate when I’m not the one to bruise him.” Diana responds, coming down the stairs gracefully. She bypasses Jaden and hugs me, her round body engulfing me. “Grace, it’s wonderful to finally meet the only person besides myself who can make Jaden smile.” Diana teases, moving on to hug Jaden.

“It’s nice to meet you.” I add politely, unbelieving to how beautiful she is. Diana’s dark brown hair is of medium length and wavy. Her brown eyes are identical to Kasey’s, as well are her light freckles. She is short, a little taller than myself, with a beautifully curvy body. Something about her makes her absolutely stunning, and Joe puts his arm around her with pride. They make a great couple; Joe is really endearing with light brown hair and an adorable face.

“I’ll take Kasey and her entourage next door.” Joe offers, calling the kids. They come running, trailed by the two dogs. “Say bye, Kasey.” Joe prompts and Kasey obliges, hugging Jaden’s knees.

“Bye Pixie-head.” She informs me as she hugs my knees also. We all laugh, and Kasey beams, knowing she’s the star of the show. She hugs and kisses her mother and Joe leads the group of children out the door.

“Pixie-head, huh?” Diana remarks, giggling. “She is something else, that kid. She keeps Joe and I in stitches.”

“She’s a riot!” I add. “How old is she?”

“Four, going on thirty.” Diana answers, laughing at the old joke. “She starts school in the fall.” She pauses, rolling her eyes. “We’re going to have a class clown on our hands, I can tell!” Jaden and I both agree wholeheartedly.

“Your neighbor watching her tonight?” Jaden asks, and Diana shakes her head.

“Yep, the other three hooligans are hers, and Joe watched them all day so she’s taking Kasey for the night.” Diana looks at me, explaining. “Joe stays home with Kasey during the day so she doesn’t have to go to daycare. He also watches neighborhood kids for extra money.”

“That’s so great.” I agree. “Kasey must love having her dad around.” I add, almost wistfully, remembering my father who was never around. Jaden moves closer to me as if she senses my sadness and rubs my back.

I wonder if she ever realizes how in tune to my emotions she usually is.

“Yeah, it’s nice to have a househusband.” Diana adds as Joe walks through the door.

“At your service, m’lady.” He adds in a perfect English accent, bending to kiss Diana’s hand. We all laugh and I’m so amazed at how comfortable I feel around Jaden’s friends already. They are such wonderful people.

We head out the door, leaving the two woeful dogs behind and head for Jaden’s Explorer.

“Where too gang?” Joe asks, as he and Diana get in the back.

“Chinese.” Jaden blurts out immediately, and Joe readily agrees.

“You guys, we shouldn’t do that to Grace, not on her first time.” Diana argues, only to be outnumbered by Jaden and Joe.

“Do what?” I ask, wondering what my blue-eyed, scheming, girlfriend has in mind. She looks innocent, but I’m not fooled. Joe just looks at me and grins, while Diana takes my hand.

“I’ll protect you, don’t worry.” She whispers, and Jaden and Joe crack up.

This can’t be good.
June 23, 2000

9:04pm
The look on Grace’s face was priceless.

It took us about an hour after leaving Joe and Diana’s house to get up to New Hampshire. A few hours ago we pulled into The China restaurant’s parking lot and went in for dinner. Joe and I managed to keep a straight face all the way through dinner, wondering why Grace didn’t notice the karaoke stage.

Yo-Yo the karaoke deejay starts taking names for songs at 9:00. Joe immediately scrambled up and put our usual requests in as well as getting a song list for Grace. When Grace realized that this was not only the home of New Hampshire’s finest Chinese food but a karaoke bar as well, I thought she was going to faint. She hasn’t really said anything yet, and it’s been four minutes already. That must be a record for my Gracie.

I hope she’s not mad at me. This place is really fun. Once she sees the losers that sing, she’ll think it’s a blast.

“Okay Grace,” Joe begins, trying to ease her tension, “That chain-smoking lady is Barbara Jo.” Joe discreetly points her out and Grace nods her head. “She always sings at least four Pasty Cline songs, and that Lovely Bunch of Coconuts song.” Grace breaks into a smile, and Joe looks at me and winks.

Oh yeah, this will work out just fine. We finish pointing out the rest of The China’s regulars and break into applause when Yo-Yo announces the first singer.

Our table immediately breaks into laughter, including Grace. Big John is striding up to the stage and Yo-Yo announces that the song will be Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line.” We told Grace that is what he would sing.

We order another round as Big John begins his song. Grace almost snorts her water out through her nose when she realizes that he sings exactly as Diana imitated, with completely no emotion and totally off-key.

Our drinks come, and Joe and I prepare our tequila shots. I never drink anymore unless I’m around Joe. He called me a pussy once because I wouldn’t do shots with him, and ever since I make it my goal to drink him under the table. Tonight is no exception, because Diana never drinks. Gotta love our designated driver.

Grace is drinking steadily, but I can tell she’s still a little green around the gills about that drinking episode that she had the last time we went out together. But I have to give her credit, she’s keeping up with Joe and I pretty well.

Downing our shot, Joe and I clink the shot glasses together. He’s such a fun guy. I wish that I came out with Diana and him more often, but I usually feel so emotionally exhausted after work that the last thing I want to do is socialize. Having Grace here makes it nice, and really fun. I’ve always been jealous of Joe because Diana is so great. Not that I would ever admit that because I don’t want Diana to get egotistical.

“Whoa, I’m drunk.” I tell the group and they all laugh. Joe is three sheets to the wind and Grace was a long time ago. We must be really annoying and I try to maintain a little of my professionality. Or whatever that professional word is. That’s why I like to come this far north, not many people would recognize me. I wonder if Grace is going to hate me when I tell her the truth.

That thought makes me sad. I pout, sticking my lower lip out and Grace tugs on it.

“Why so sad?” She asks, her gorgeous face flushed from laughing.

My lip trembles and tears well in my eyes. “You’re going to hate me.”

“Oh Jesus H. Mother of Christ!” Joe exclaims, interrupting us. “Would you stop with that shit Jaden?” He looks back and forth between Grace and I. “Grace, it’s the same shit every time. Whenever she gets loaded she goes on and on with this “You’re going to hate me” bullshit.” Joe laughs, bumping elbows with Diana.

She doesn’t look amused. “Jaden and Joesph, that’s enough.” Diana informs us seriously. “Shut up and have fun.”

“Yes mommy.” Joe and I answer in unison and my head hits the table as I break into giggles again. What was I talking about before? Oh well, not important.

I lift my head from the table, still giggling and peer into Grace’s moss-colored eyes. I think that’s the color of moss, I can’t really remember because I haven’t gone trail riding in so long. Next time I go I’ll get some moss to compare to her eyes. She’ll like that.

“Next song, Joe and Jaden, “I can’t get enough baby” Yo-Yo exclaims, and Joe and I whoop and head onto stage. The Smashmouth song begins and we are living it up, dancing around and twirling the microphones. I’m singing it to Grace because I can’t get enough of her.

I look out at my Gracie and she looks like she’s watching a rock star. I turn it on more, cause I know how hot I must look. Diana looks star-struck too and Joe and I add another notch until we’re almost breathless with our effort.

We should be in a band and tour the world. We’d be famous and Grace could be my groupie.

“Dear God they’re wasted.” Diana comments, watching her husband and Jaden leap around the stage like monkeys. She shakes her head and grins at me. “They are so embarrassing, I just wish they would stop.” She adds and I laugh.

“They aren’t even singing anymore.” I continue, now laughing hysterically as Joe tries to swing dance Jaden around. “Do they have any idea how ridiculous they look?”

“No.” Diana informs me seriously. “They never do.” She takes my hand and pats it. “Just be lucky that they didn’t decide to sing “When I Think About You I Touch Myself” Like they usually do.

I crack up, feeling the effects of my drinking. I’ve had as many as Joe and Jaden but I’ve been drinking Midori sours and they aren’t strong at all. I feel tipsy, but not as completely drunk as Jaden and Joe are. I can’t believe how stupid they look. Jaden is the hottest woman alive, but she really shouldn’t do “The Funky Chicken” dance.

I can’t wait to tease her about this tomorrow.
Part 4

June 24, 2000

2:30am
I splash some cold water on my face, trying to wake myself up. It’s not working. I hear Jaden and Joe laughing hysterically at the television and I groan into the mirror. Who knew Jaden was such a party animal when she was drunk? I sure as hell didn’t. She’s so sullen sometimes, and quiet but get her around tequila shots and her friends and she is a riot. So instead of enjoying her great mood I’m standing in here pouting.

I know I’m being childish, and that’s why I’m hanging out in the bathroom. They’re going to think I fell in; I’ve been in here so long.

I guess I never realized what a crummy drunk I am. I’ve only been drunk that one other time with Jaden and I had so much fun. But I think that’s because I was totally wasted. I drank enough tonight just to feel tipsy, and now that the effects are wearing off I’m in a crabby mood. Why did I think that I was the only person Jaden let herself have fun around? Why do I feel like Joe and Diana know her so much better than I do?

And why am I so selfish? That’s the real question. Shouldn’t I be thrilled that the person I love has two other friends? Why am I acting like such a spoiled baby instead of being thankful that her friends are so great?

I really do like them. They are genuine and fun and I know that they really care for Jaden. And that really matters to me, it does. But it isn’t stopping me from acting like a jealous wench.

I guess it’s because I felt special because Jaden needed me so much. But I have to deal with the fact that she can need me and have other friends. The last thing I want is for the two of us to be so tied into each other than we seclude ourselves from other people. And I would never want Jaden to resent me because I’m jealous of her other friendships. I’ve heard of so many relationships ruined by that. Believe me, you work in a bar long enough and you hear every customer’s life story.

I don’t ever want to control Jaden, ever.

“So suck it up, Grace.” I tell myself, smiling into the mirror. “Go laugh at your ridiculous girlfriend and have a great time.”

I head back out into the living room. Jaden and Joe are lying on the floor on their stomachs watching a tape of “Mystery Science Theater 3000” and crying with laughter.

What nerds.

“Gracie!” Jaden exclaims when seeing me. She leaps up from the floor, dizzy in her efforts. “Where ya been?” She asks, hugging me to her. “Did you fall in?”

I groan and roll my eyes. I knew she’d say that. “No sweetie, I didn’t fall in.” I tell her condescendingly. I reach up to pat her head and she takes my hand in hers, kissing my palm. I smile at the surprisingly intimate moment and my eyes meet hers.

Oh my. She looks downright dangerous, in a good way. Her clear blue eyes ravish mine as her lips make love to my hand. She nips and nibbles at my palm, and although we are standing in her friends’ living room I can’t help but want to take her on the floor, right now.

And then I shriek, because my devilish girlfriend licks my hand. And not a tender, loving, sexy lick, but rather a disgusting entire-palm lick that causes her and Joe to erupt with laughter. I pull my hand away, feigning anger and sit down on the couch, crossing my arms.

Joe slaps her on the back and Diana shoots me a sympathetic look. I finally give in and laugh myself, much to Jaden’s delight. She scoots over to me and plants a sloppy kiss on my cheek.

“You’re just lovely.” I tell her, wiping my cheek on her sleeve. “Thanks.”

“There’s more where that came from baby.” She says, giggling.

She’s giggling? This is a sight to behold. She looks so completely loving as she rests her head on my knee like a puppy. I run my hands through her thick hair and it feels like pure silk against my skin.

She is looking at me so devotedly, her cerulean eyes boring into mine. I smile at her and she sighs happily, her eyes closing slightly.

How could I think that just because she is having fun with Joe and Diana that she doesn’t need me anymore? From the way she’s looking at me know, how could I ever not believe that she loves me?

I need to get a grip on my issues. It’s not fair to Jaden that I’m so completely insecure all the time.

“Gracie, I’m tired.” She states, her eyes closing completely. I smile tenderly at her exhausted form and know that it’s time for bed.

“Okay, let’s go.” I tell her, easing her head out of my lap. “It was so nice to meet you. I had so much fun.” I tell Diana and Joe as I stand.

“Grace, you’re wonderful for Jaden.” Diana tells me, hugging me gently. “Thank you.”

I blush, and return her hug. We had some nice opportunities to talk while Jaden and Joe were acting like children. I think that Diana is a really intelligent and honest person. I like her a lot.

Joe hugs me, kisses my cheek, and heads up to bed without so much as a word. I quirk my eyebrows at him and Diana sighs. “He’s a horrible drunk.” She says, laughing.

“What do you mean? He was so much fun!” I tell her, surprised at how much I like Joe. He’s the most wonderfully sweet person, not to mention entertaining.

“He’s a crab.” Jaden says succinctly, despite being drunk. “He is fun and then he gets crabby.” She finishes, struggling to form the words.

“Exactly.” Diana agrees, hugging Jaden and handing me the car keys. “Drive safe.” She warns me and I nod solemnly. I stopped drinking before we left The China but Jaden and Joe just stopped a half and hour ago. I’m definitely driving, now that I’ve had hours to sober up.

We say our final goodbyes and head out into the cool summer night. I shiver slightly, wishing that I had brought my jacket. Jaden steps behind me and rubs her hands up and down my arms.

“Thanks.” I tell her softly as I let her into the passenger seat. She settles in, pouting slightly as I get into the driver’s seat. “What?” I ask, indicating her pouting face.

“You’re driving my baby.” She says, her voice childlike. I chuckle and start the Explorer.

“Jaden, I’ve been driving for six years. I’m fully capable of driving your “baby”. I tell her, shifting into gear. “You will have to tell me how to get home though.”

“Okay.” She agrees happily, grateful for a task. It seems that when she’s been drinking, her intelligent mind doesn’t disappear, like some peoples. I’m grateful for that, I’ve worked so long at the bar and seen so many drunks that it’s refreshing to be around Jaden who retains her intelligence.

But not her common sense, I laugh to myself as I remember her karaoke performances. She looked so hilarious.

It doesn’t take long to get back from Diana and Joe’s. There is hardly any traffic at this late hour, and I know that Bean will be in need of a definite potty break.

Using Jaden’s keys, I let us in and head back outside immediately with Bean. It’s so quiet; the only sounds outside at 3:30am are the gentle rustling of the trees and the soft movement of the waves on the ocean. The harsh streetlight provides ample light for me to see the empty street and surroundings. I silently plead with Bean to hurry up.

Regardless of the silence and my obvious solitude, I’m still scared. I expect an aggressor from behind every tree, every parked car. Hating my fear but powerless to stop it, I glance around constantly and prepare myself for anything. Seeing that Bean is finished I race into Jaden’s building and up the stairs as fast as I can.

Not seeing Jaden, I turn off the lights and lock the door. I head into the bedroom, grateful that she left the nightstand lamp on for me. She’s nowhere to be found, and I assume she’s in the bathroom.

I settle Bean in her bed and take off my clothes. Jaden’s introduced me to the wonders of sleeping naked since I moved here. I always used to wear pajamas, but now the only thing I crave is her skin against mine.

Crawling into bed, I pull the covers against me. They are cool against my skin but Jaden will be in soon and she will warm me up. I sigh, feeling the familiar pangs of guilt rear their ugly heads again.

We haven’t had sex since I moved here. And I feel completely guilty and saddened at that thought. I know that Jaden’s wanted too, and I’ve wanted too also, but there is something that won’t let me “go there” so to speak, yet.

I know I need to give myself time to heal after what happened with Scott. I understand that he took my trust and destroyed it and it’s no wonder that I can’t let myself be sexual yet.

But it’s Jaden, the most beautiful and utterly sexual person I’ve ever known. And since I’ve moved here I’ve wanted too…so many times. Like tonight when she was kissing my palm, I wanted nothing more than her.

She isn’t pressuring me. In fact, she’s been amazing. Telling me it’s not my fault and it’s perfectly natural to feel the way I am, she couldn’t be more compassionate. And I know that when the time comes, I’ll be ready.

And then she appears in the doorway, and I know I couldn’t ever be more ready than I am at this moment.

Lit only by the soft bedside table lamp, her bare skin is golden. Her hair is a smoldering fire; the bright copper highlights glittering, intertwined with her raven locks.

And her eyes, they are simply beautiful, the vivid blue color visible to me across the room. They beckon me to her, and I am unresisting to their call. I slide out of bed and across the room to her.

I meet her awaiting arms and am crushed by the force of her embrace. Her strength overpowers me and is almost frightening, but my desire for her overrides any hint of fear. Her mouth meets mine, and I waste no time, my tongue meeting her immediately. She groans into my mouth and my hands race over her body.

Her eager flesh is ripe in my hands, and I am mesmerized by the soft skin that covers each powerful muscle. Backing slowly to the bed, I pull her with me.

We hit the mattress a tangle of arms, legs, and writhing bodies. I can’t kiss her fast enough, or feel her body against mine enough. Her lips caress mine, moving down to kiss my neck and shoulders. She peppers kisses and nips across my collarbone, her hands tangled in my hair. Her weight on me feels so perfect, not scary like I had anticipated. She feels so different from Scott, soft where he was hard, gentle where he was rough.

Jaden is suckling my breast, and I don’t think there is a more divine feeling. She releases my hair, one hand stroking the breast her mouth is neglecting, while the other wanton hand trails its way down to between my thighs. My breath catches in my throat, stopping her motions.

“Are you okay?” She asks, resting her weight on her forearms. Her pupils are slightly dilated, and I almost forgot how drunk she really is.

“I’m fine.” I tell her, smiling gently at her concern. “It’s just been a long time and I forgot how good you feel.” I blush, still a bit uncomfortable being sexual around her. She beams, relieved, and delicately begins her motions again. “Oh Goddess…” I groan, grinding myself into her hand.

“Jesus Christ Grace!” She exclaims, her eyes darkening into an ocean of blue. She rolls me onto my side, lying herself next to me. I use this opportunity to touch her as she’s touching me and she groans, closing her eyes.

I kiss her, her full lips dancing against mine. If I had my way, I would never stop kissing this woman.

My hand caresses her faster, and I can feel how close she’s getting. I want to taste her, to feel her long thighs part in anticipation. I cease movement in my hand and before she can comprehend what I’m doing, I roll her onto her back and lower myself to her. As expected, her thighs part to reveal her essence. Tentatively at first, I kiss her thighs, my tongue moving teasingly across her.

“Grace, please!” She pleads and I cannot ignore the urgency in her voice. Moving my tongue, I gently part her and taste her very core. We sigh in unison, and I eagerly give pleasure to the woman I love.

I could never forget how she tastes, and as I slide my fingers inside her she reaches her climax, screaming my name into the night.

“Grace.” She states, and I know what she needs. I quietly crawl into her arms, resting my head on her heaving chest. “I love you.” She whispers.

I’m surprised at the sudden tears in my eyes. “I know.” I tell her, bringing her hand to my lips and kissing it. “I love you so much.” I answer her, the tears falling from my eyes onto her chest.

“You’re crying?” She asks sleepily. “Don’t cry.”

I lift my head and kiss her cheek, pausing to switch off the bedside lamp and pull the covers around our bodies. “Shh.” I tell her, my finger to her lips. “Go to sleep, Jaden.”

I settle in the darkness next to her, hearing her breathing grow even. She turns to hold me and I relish the sensation of her long body wrapped around mine.

I don’t really believe in God, I never have. Organized religion has never made much sense to me. But even though I’ve studied evolution, I still believe that there is something or someone up there.

“Please.” I implore, my voice barely above a whisper in the tranquil room. “Let her always be near me, and keep her safe.” My voice beckons to whomever may be listening. “Regardless of what she’s done in her past, please let her know that she can trust me.”

I can’t stop thinking of her cryptic statement earlier this evening. How I was going to “hate her” when I found out the truth. I could never hate her, despite her past.

“I can’t lose her.” I continue to my vacant audience. “Now that I’ve found her, don’t take her away.”

Closing my eyes, sleep herself begins to claim me. My body sinks further into the soft mattress, and Jaden’s body grows warm around mine. Memories flood my mind, memories of Jaden and the bluebirds and of a freezing ocean with only her to cling too. Memories of walking with her in the forest, riding with her into battle, eating ice cream with her, and of the blinking Christmas lights of the bar. I remember taking care of her when she was ill, dancing with her at the gay bar, and fighting for her life.

I have known Jaden forever. My sleep-fogged mind tells me that this cannot be so, but I know that it’s true. I’ve known her forever and I will know her forever.

I’ve found my soulmate.
Part 5

June 24, 2000

8:17am
“Jaden?” I call, stretching languidly in the soft bed. She doesn’t answer, and I honestly can say I’m surprised that she’s not still in bed. She was so drunk last night I expected her to have an awful hangover. Maybe she’s in the bathroom.

Wanting to make sure she’s okay I hop out of bed and head down the hall.

Wierd, the bathroom is empty. “Bean?” I ask, noticing for the first time that her doggy presence is absent. I check the entire house, not finding any sign of Bean or Jaden.

Huh. Where did the two of them disappear too?

Feeling grubby and smelling like a bar, I decide to take a shower, hoping that they will be back by the time I’m finished. I turn on the water and check the temperature. It’s funny; it gets easier every time I shower, hardly any feelings of claustrophobia or fear. I’m thankful for that, and maybe I’ll enjoy taking long hot showers again someday.

I quickly shower and brush my teeth, grateful that my cinnamon toothpaste erases the taste of alcohol from my breath. I always thought it was so strange that Jaden brushed her teeth in the shower until I tried it myself. It’s kind of cool, and I do it all the time now.

Jaden’s shown me a lot of things that I never thought were possible.

I shut off the water and towel myself off. Through the semi-open bathroom door I can smell something wonderful, and I assume that Jaden’s home.

Or a burglar has broken in and decided to cook me bacon and eggs.

Wrapping my towel around myself I head for the kitchen. Sure enough, my wonderful girlfriend is standing at the stove expertly flipping eggs and turning French toast. The microwave is running and the wonderful smell of burning pig flesh wafts to my nose once again.

Bean is licking her lips and standing next to Jaden, awaiting another morsel of food. Jaden spoils her more than I do.

“Hi.” I greet her slowly, wondering why she’s so hyper and alert. I think if I drank as much as she did last night I’d be in a coma.

“Morning sunshine!” She answers, smiling widely at me before turning her attention back to breakfast. “Hungry?”

“Yeah.” I answer, still completely confused.

“Good!” She replies, and it dawns on me that I’ve never, ever, not even once, heard her be this chipper. Did I miss something? I must have been sleeping way longer than I thought. Maybe it’s Sunday morning instead of Saturday. Because no one, not even Wonder Woman Jaden herself could be this excited, this early, after getting wasted last night.

“Jaden?”

“Yep?” She answers distractedly as she flips the French toast one final time.

“Why aren’t you drunk and puking in the toilet?” I ask, and she finally looks at me, laughing.

“I don’t get hangovers.” She answers, smirking.

“What do you mean? You drank like a fish last night!”

She shrugs and divides the French toast and eggs onto three plates. “I don’t know, I just don’t.” Smiling at me, she hands me a steaming plate. “Opps, forgot the bacon, hang on!” She takes it from the microwave and gives me a few slices. “Pretty cool, huh?”

I have no idea what she’s talking about. “What?”

“That I don’t get hangovers. It’s pretty cool.” She puts some bacon on her plate and a slice on the third plate.

“Yeah, it’s great.” I answer, my attention diverted as I watch her set the plate down for Bean. “What are you doing?” I ask as my little dog gobbles up her breakfast.

Jaden looks at me guiltily. “She was hungry. We jogged down to the market to get stuff for breakfast.” I laugh and shake my head at the two of them.

We sit and eat, and Jaden’s breakfast is wonderful. “You’re a great cook.” I tell her, “You should cook more often.”

She grunts as she neatly bites into her wheat toast. “Believe me, I can only cook breakfast.” She pauses, thinking. “And grilled cheese, and I can make popcorn.”

“Well, this is great, thank you.” I respond, finishing up my French toast. “I still can’t believe you’re not hungover.”

“No, in fact, drinking seems to do the opposite to me. I wake up early, and alert. I woke this morning around 7:00 and slipped out with the mutt to go for a run while you were dead to the world.” She laughs, and gets up to pour herself more juice.

“It was a late night!” I protest, but we both know that I just love to sleep. “So what do you want to do today?”

She lapses into thinking mode, her beautiful blue eyes narrowing. “Well, it’s a gorgeous day out. You up for a trail ride and to meet Studley?” I nod my head eagerly, and she smiles. I’ve wanted to meet Jaden’s beloved horse for months now.

“Okay, after breakfast we’ll head to the barn.”

Cool. I can’t wait.

The ride to the barn seems to take forever. I know it’s because I’m so excited to be around horses again. Bean is sitting on my lap; I thought Jaden was going to have a fit if we didn’t take her. The two of them have bonded, and if my sneaking suspicions are correct, I would bet that Bean actually loves Jaden more because she takes her for fun jogs in the morning while her hedonistic mother lays in bed.

We have left the large outcroppings of rock and forests that surround Beverly and are now more in farm country. Or at least New England’s version of farm country. In Ohio, all you see for miles are flat lands covered with crops. New England is drastically different, with ancient looking forests and huge boulders everywhere. It’s beautiful here, and so different from Ohio. Even the farmlands of New England are different; they are rolling hills separated by creeks and riverbeds.

The road curves sharply and Jaden makes a quick turn down a gravel driveway. It is encased with trees, but I can make out a small barn ahead. After maneuvering down the winding driveway, Jaden parks in front of the tiny gray barn and hops out of the Explorer.

“Should I keep Bean on her leash?” I ask, struggling to get out of the tall Explorer. I hate this stupid car.

“It depends.” Jaden answers. “Does she chase cats?”

I shake my head no. “Nah, she likes to play with them, but she won’t hurt them.” I answer, unclipping Bean who hops eagerly over to Jaden. That dog is such a kiss-up.

“Come on.” Jaden takes my hand and leads me into the barn. The familiar smell of horses and hay hits me and I’m almost doubled over by memories. It’s funny how much something as insignificant as a scent can bring the past flooding back. I miss Annie so much, and it hurts to think that Jaden will never get to know her.

The barn is impeccably neat and well kept. It only has four stalls, each empty and filled with clean shavings. The door of each stall proudly displays each horse’s name, Bonkers, Lucy, Star, and Studley.

“Where are they?” I ask, and Jaden grins.

“Outside.” She heads through the back door of the small barn with Bean in tow. I follow them out.

“Wow, this is beautiful!” I exclaim as I take in my surroundings. Behind the barn is a lovely pond and a huge pasture. An equally small gray house sits in front of the pond.

“Who lives there?” I ask, pointing to the house.

“A really nice couple with their four children. I gave them Studley after he couldn’t really be ridden anymore.” Jaden’s voice is sad, but she continues to smile anyway. “They take great care of him and love him to pieces. He couldn’t be in a better place.”

“What happened?” I ask, following Jaden as she enters the pasture.

“He was my first horse when I started working on the force.” She answers. “We were partners for years and then we discovered he had navicular.”

“Oh, Jaden that’s awful.” I respond. Navicular is a serious condition where a horse’s navicular bone in his hoof breaks down. There is no cure, and eventually the horse becomes so lame he has to be put down. “Poor Studley.”

“I know.” She remarks, her face impassive. “But he’s happy here, and I think he likes being retired.” We continue to head across the huge pasture in silence until we reach a small incline. I furrow my brows and wonder where the horses are. Jaden sense my pause and takes my hand once again, leading me up the slight hill. We reach the top, and I look down below.

Oh. That’s where they are. The hill curves gently down below us to reveal a shallow stream. Four horses graze near the stream, their bright coats gleaming in the sun. Bean spies them and cocks her head, unsure as to what these huge creatures are.

“Come on!” Jaden yells, running down the hill. Bean takes off after her, her small body leaping through the tall grass. I giggle and follow, the exhilarating yet scary feeling of running down a hill something I haven’t felt since childhood.

The horses, hearing us approach, lift their heads. None of them seem alarmed; in fact, they look like Jaden does this all the time. Which I’m sure she does.

Jaden’s longer legs allow her to reach them first, followed by a tentative Bean. “They won’t hurt her.” Jaden calls to me as I continue to run. “They’re used to dogs.” Bean looks curious but not fearful of the horses, and they completely ignore her and head towards Jaden. She pulls four carrots out of her back pocket and distributes them equally, the horses all delicately taking the treats from her hands. I finally reach them, gasping and out of breath. Jaden looks anything but winded, and I remind myself that if I got up early and ran every morning I wouldn’t be practically having an asthma attack right now.

“This is Studley.” Jaden tells me as I gasp for air. I recognize him from the picture she sent. He’s so cute, his rich bay coat gleaming in the morning sun.

“He’s wonderful!” I tell her, and she smiles like proud parent.

“And that goofy one is Bonkers.” she continues, pointing to the tall chestnut gelding with a perpetually confused look on his face. “Lucy is the gray mare and Star is the bay with the star.” Jaden grins and I laugh.

“They are all adorable.” I tell her, trying to pet each inquisitive horse as it sniffs me. I am particularly drawn to Lucy. The quiet and gentle look in her eye reminds me of Annie. I stroke her velvety pink nose and admire her light dappled coat.

Jaden begins walking back to the barn, the four horses following her. Bean races ahead, thoroughly enjoying her freedom in the field.

“Why are they following you?” I ask Jaden. “You don’t even have a lead rope!” Usually horses will do anything to stay outside.

“I give them treats.” Jaden answers, chuckling. I nod my head in understanding and concentrate on climbing back up the hill. It looked a lot less steep when I was running down it.

We reach the barn and Jaden opens the gate for Studley. “Barn.” She states, and I do a double take when he walks freely into the barn. She gently pushes Bonkers and Star away from the gate, allowing Lucy to pass through. “Barn.” She repeats, and Lucy follows Studley.

Shutting the gate, Jaden reveals another carrot that she divides between Bonkers and Star. They munch it happily and they trot off back down the hill.

Jaden and I head into the barn. “I’ve never seen horses that listen like these do!” I tell her, astounded at the fact that they seem to understand some English and actually comply. “How do you do that?” I question.

She shrugs, looking uncomfortable. “I don’t know.” She answers, “They just listen to me.”

“Jaden, that’s freaking incredible.” I tell her. “Horses just don’t listen like that.”

She doesn’t answer and begins to gently brush Studley’s gleaming coat. I follow her lead and brush the equally clean Lucy. I pick out her feet and comb her forelock, planting a kiss on her pink nose. “She’s so pretty, is she part draft horse?” I ask, noting her large feet.

“Yep, she’s half Percheron, half Quarter Horse. She lives here because she had a bowed tendon that never really healed.”

“What about Bonkers and Star?” I question, tacking up Lucy with the equipment Jaden pointed me towards.

“Bonkers was an abuse case, and Star is a broodmare that can’t conceive anymore because of an infection.” Jaden finishes, tacking up Studley with speed and precision. I hurry to finish, fumbling slightly with the girth. It’s been years since I tacked up a horse and although I could never forget how, my fingers aren’t as quick as Jaden’s.

“So all the horses here are living out the rest of their lives?” I ask and Jaden nods.

“That’s amazing.” I tell her. “They all would have been at the slaughterhouse, wouldn’t they?”

Jaden nods again, and leads Studley outside. I finish buckling Lucy’s bridle and follow. I pull down my stirrups and attempt to mount the tall mare. Annie was short, and I could mount easily. But Lucy is at least a hand taller and making it more difficult for me to mount gracefully. Jaden sees me struggling and gives me a leg-up, her powerful upper body lifting me gently into the saddle.

“Thanks.” I offer before adjusting my stirrups. She smiles before gliding onto Studley’s back. “Anything I should know about her?” I ask, gathering my reins in my hands.

“No, just be gentle.” Jaden answers, walking Studley over. “Grace, you’re a kind person. I’m certain that you ride the same way.” She smiles a dazzling smile, her eyes twinkling in the sun. “Just ride, and have fun.” She adjusts her helmet slightly, and I make certain mine is buckled. “Are you ready?” She asks, and I nod excitedly.

“Come on mutt!” Jaden calls to Bean, who is making herself useful by eating horse poop. “Let’s go!” She yells, leading Studley into the woods. Bean races ahead happily and Lucy and I follow.

This is heaven, I’m certain of it. Lucy and Studley walk calmly side by side, their heads lowered and relaxed. I’m sure they are having some important horse conversation. Jaden seems so peaceful, her posture relaxed and quiet. I am equally at peace, enjoying the warm summer day on horseback, something I haven’t done in years.

Jaden’s hand is in mine, her long fingers relaxed. I never once thought that I would be on horseback, holding my beloved’s hand, in a New England forest. I still can’t believe I did it, that I picked up and moved here.

I bet my mother is having a conniption. I sigh, not wanting to have to face anything negative ever again. If only life could be just like this.

“Penny for your thoughts.” Jaden’s low voice interrupts me and I glance over to her.

“Just thinking, that’s all.” I answer, changing the subject. “Thank you for this, it’s perfect.”

“Yeah.” She responds, smiling. “It’s nice to have someone to ride with.” She releases my hand and strokes Studley’s neck. “Huh boy? Nice to have some company.” Jaden looks to me, smirking and raising her eyebrow. “Ready to trot?” She asks, and both Studley and Lucy’s heads perk up. I nod, and gently squeeze with my legs. Both horses break into a slow trot, and I look over to Jaden to find what I believed to be certain; she’s an incredible rider.

Her lower body is relaxed and still as she posts to Studley’s trotting diagonal. Her upper body remains supple and elastic as she adapts to his rhythm. I, on the other hand, struggle to get used to Lucy’s jarring gait. Her leg injury has left her rather stiff and uneven, but after a few strides I am able to comfortably post to her rhythm.

“Are they okay to trot?” I ask, knowing that Jaden would never do anything to physically harm the horses, but curious to what they can do.

“Sure, they actually are both fine to canter as long as it’s slow and for only a short time. I usually let them decide if they want too or not.” She finishes, sitting in the saddle to sit Studley’s trot. He immediately springs into a relaxed canter, and I follow Jaden’s lead and steady myself in the saddle. Lucy prepares herself and canters as well. I sigh, thankful that her canter is wonderfully smooth compared to her jarring trot.

Bean scampers eagerly down the path ahead of the horses, the birds sing sweetly from the trees, the wind is gentle enough to keep us cool, and the steady beat of the horses hooves on the well-worn path is comforting.

I glance to Jaden, her long raven hair blowing from underneath her helmet and a smile on her lips. She looks completely free and beautiful. I grin and look ahead, seeing nothing but miles of trail in front of us.
Part 6

June 26, 2000
Wow, unpacking is way more fun than packing. I unfold my clothes from the various bags and boxes I brought with me. Bean sniffs the inside of the cartons with excitement, her little tail wagging frantically.

“I know, I know.” I tell her, scratching her black and white ears. “Your toys are in here somewhere.” She pants and continues her investigation of the cartons.

Jaden helped me unload my car last night. We had such a fun weekend, after our trail ride we went for ice cream and then yesterday we had a lazy Sunday in bed.

And a pleasurable Sunday in bed, I smile to myself as I think back to Jaden’s amorous mood of yesterday.

My smile turns to a slight pout as I continue to unfold my clothes and other personal items. Jaden had to go to stupid work today; she said that she had some time off this week. I was really looking forward to spending some time with her, and I know how much this time off meant to her.

Before she left this morning, she showed me where I could put my stuff in her spare bedroom. It is mostly empty and she’s using it for storage, but there is an extra dresser and a closet for my clothes.

I finish with my clothes and start trying to find a place for various things I brought. I give a grateful Bean the rest of her toys and she carries each one off to a different hiding place. We’ve discovered that when we’re not home she likes to sleep in Jaden’s dirty laundry basket. I’m sure she’s hiding a few in there.

I take my unicorn that Jaden gave me for Valentine’s out of the box. Smoothing his rumpled mane, I kiss his furry nose and head into the next room, placing him on Jaden’s bed. He looks like he belongs there, sitting regally on top of the unmade sheets.

I have a few pictures in frames that I brought, and I leave them in the box. I don’t know how many of my personal items Jaden wants around. She keeps her apartment so tidy, and has so few of her own personal things.

I leave most everything else in their boxes. Propping my guitar against the wall, I leave the room and head for the kitchen. I’m starving, and I need to eat breakfast before I head out.

Since Jaden had to go to the station this morning, I want to use this time to drive around and learn my way around here. Now that my car is unloaded, I should really take her for a spin.

I make myself a bagel and spread it lavishly with cream cheese. Popping open a can of coke, I walk over to the bay window overlooking the ocean. It’s a dreary day, the sun hasn’t come out of hiding yet.

It looks windy, if the ocean is any indication. The gray water carries each whitecap crashing towards the shore and I involuntarily shiver, remembering the last time I saw the Atlantic like that.

Too up-close and personal. As much as I love the water, I don’t want to be back out on it anytime soon.

I set my Coke down on the mantle of Jaden’s huge stone fireplace. I can’t wait for winter, to start a fire and have picnic lunches on a blanket on the floor.

If I’m still living here by then.

Since I moved here, Jaden and I have kept things superficial. We haven’t talked about how long I’ll be here, and what my plans are. We haven’t talked about Jaden’s history of drug abuse, or any more about her family.

And I still don’t know who that damned guy in the picture is. I study the picture again, the one on Jaden’s mantle of the dark-haired man with his arm around her. She looks younger in the picture, probably just out of high school and almost sickly thin. Her hair is dull compared to it’s usual healthy shine, yet she still regains her regal beauty.

I know we need to talk and clarify things. But right now I think the both of us are just trying to relax and become accustomed to each other.

Shower, get dressed, and make it to my car before the rain hits. That’s my goal for this morning.

I finish my breakfast and head for the bathroom.
Later that morning:
Tap. Tapity-tap tap tapity-tap. I tensely strike the edge of my insulated travel mug with my pen. Eyes peer at me from around the large conference table, and I return their gaze with a level, even stare of my own. As expected, their eyes dart nervously back down to the surface of the shiny wooden table and I smile.

This sucks. I hate new assignment day and I know that something bad is going to happen. Grace and I had a great weekend and I was really looking forward to some time off. I asked for a few days this week to have free so I could show Grace around and get her orientated with the area.

Last night when I received a call asking me to report for a new assignment this morning, I almost ripped the phone out of the wall. It has to be something shitty, or else it could have waited.

Whatever. I snort softly under my breath, continuing my assault on my defenseless mug. I can handle just about anything, but I really will not be able to deal if I have to work with these losers. Sitting at the table surrounding me are the most pathetic bunch of cops I’ve ever worked with. They are the ones on the force that make you wonder if monkeys could do this job. I’m sure the monkeys would do better.

The captain struts in, his large chest proudly puffed up. What a complete asshole to call me in here for some bullshit. He sits and slams his hand down on the table, causing everyone else to jump. Heh. I love it that he can’t scare me.

“New assignment, starting this morning.” He barks, and the heads of the other officers hang slightly. I just glare at him coolly, never ceasing my repeated tapping on my mug. He looks at me, frowning; his lined face set and hard. I smile brightly at him and continue my annoying drumming.

“Chaney, Williams, and Gillen.” He growls, and the officers stand up. I chuckle, noticing that Chaney is at least twenty pounds heavier than the last time I saw him. The captain ignores me and continues informing the trio of their new assignment. Williams is a rookie whose partner is now retired. My guess is that the captain is sticking him with Chaney and Gillen to get more field experience.

“Understand?” He finishes, and the trio nod their heads. “Dismissed.” The captain orders and the three men leave. Guess I was wrong. Chaney has desk duty until he slims down and Williams is now partnered with Gillen. If that isn’t the blind leading the blind….

“Parson and Carr, we need men on the canine unit. Report to Jacobs for training.” The two nod. “Dismissed.” The captain orders and the two exit quickly, leaving me alone with him. Great, now not only will they be idiots, but they will be idiots with dogs.

“Phillips!” My boss demands and I sigh. I don’t stand, but simply raise my eyebrows at him. Tap-tap-tap-tapity-tapity-tap. I love this job.

“You are officially removed from the mounted program.” He begins, and before he can continue I stand, dwarfing his seated form with my height.

“What?” I snarl.

He puts his hands up defensively. “Don’t be a hothead Phillips, let me explain.” Regardless of my personal feelings for him or for what he is going to say, I have to respect him. I don’t have to like it though. And I sure as hell don’t have to make it easy for him.

I take my seat again, and pick up my pen. Resuming my drumming I struggle to retain my cool persona from before.

“Continue.” I order him, regaining control of the conversation.

He pauses, looking briefly in his manila folder for the details of my new assignment. I recognize it as a stalling technique, as much as I love to antagonize him and call him an asshole, he isn’t that bad of a guy once you get to know him. He’s fully capable and intelligent in his role and it’s not his fault that most of this squad are idiots.

“Well?” I ask again, meeting his gaze.

“I need you to go under.” He begins slowly.

“Why?” I ask, determined to maintain the upper hand.

“We have a tip that a suspect involved with illegal drugs is in the area. I need you to help find and convict him.”

I raise my eyebrows, absorbing this information. Probably something I shouldn’t get involved with because of my history of drug abuse, but I can’t exactly say to the captain, “Oh, sorry, I used to be an addict, this is too personal.”

“Why me?” I answer instead, my voice even and calm. “I have no experience in this field.”

“Because you’re the best I’ve got.” He answers, his eyes beseeching. Jesus Christ, the man is practically begging. “Jaden..” He starts, and I look at him, surprised at his use of my first name.

“Listen.” He tries again. “This guy is good, and he’s not stupid. He probably has contacts around this entire city and knows the face of every one of my detectives. I need a fresh face, someone who has never done this kind of work.” He clenches his hands, and I realize how important this is to him.

“I don’t want to have to get the feds involved anymore than I have too, Phillips.”

Ah, now that makes sense. The captain wants to get this done quickly before the FBI or DEA moves in.

“Details.” I order, resolved to understand the depth of this assignment before I commit to anything.

“I need you to get involved in the culture, do some exchanges and purchases, party a bit, and find out any information that you can. After we process the information as well as this suspect’s other alleged crimes, we will move in to prosecute.” He continues, his words coming out in a rush. “With your help of course.” He finishes, and I smile.

That’s what I was waiting to hear. I don’t want to get involved with something only to have it taken out of my hands for some inept officer to finish.

“I always finish a project I start.” I inform the captain, and he nods slowly.

“I know Phillips, that’s why I need you.”

“What’s in it for me?” I inquire. He raises his heavy brow in question.

“What do you need?” He states, folding his large hands together.

“Time off.” I respond flatly. “My friend from Ohio just moved in with me and I need some time off.” I clear my throat. “I had requested some for this week, but that isn’t going to happen, is it now?”

He pauses, thinking about my request. “No, if you agree to this assignment, it won’t.” He answers honestly. “But after this is over, you make your own terms. As much time as you need.”

“A month will suffice.” I answer and he almost chokes on his tongue. He was thinking a week, maybe two. But he doesn’t protest, and instead just nods his head.

“This must be big.” I tell him, sipping the rest of my lukewarm tea. Insulating my ass, I tell myself as I look disdainfully at my mug.

“It is.” He answers simply, sliding over the manila folder.

I open it, and see the face of the man that killed my brother.
Part 7

June 26, 2000
I flip through the file, conscious of the captain’s eyes observing my every move. “Same old Ronnie.” I tell to myself as I look through Aron’s recent activities. Illegal drug smuggling, a few suspected rapes, and even more suspected murders.

“Why isn’t he locked up?” I ask, shutting the folder and passing it back to the captain. “Seems there is enough evidence here to convict him several times over.”

The captain raises his hands in question. “I don’t know.” He answers simply. “This guy is good, and we can’t get him.”

“What is he doing here?” I ask, my voice getting caught in my throat. He wouldn’t come after me, not after all this time. It must be a coincidence.

“We think he’s laying low. He ran into some serious trouble in New York, and then was spotted here.” The captain pauses, pursing his lips. “This is big, Phillips. Departments from all over New England have tried to go after this guy.”

I nod, deep in thought. “I need some time.” I tell him, standing up. “I’m taking my day off, and I’ll call in tonight with my decision.” Before he can protest, I exit the room and head as fast as my legs will take me to my car.

I need to think.

I drive erratically to the barn. My head is racing from the amount of information I’ve just received. Why is Aron here? And what does he want? I know him too well to just brush this up to coincidence. He’s been sloppy lately, he used to be untraceable. But his file, Jesus Christ, he’s gotten himself into some trouble and it is unlike him to not be able to get out of it.

I don’t know what I can do. The cop in me wants to go after him with everything I’ve got and finally put him behind bars. But the cop in me also knows that if I accept this assignment, I won’t be able to do it because Aron knows me. He’s so fucking smart.

But I’m smarter. I know that, and he does too. That’s why he did what he did to Jonah. He couldn’t beat my intelligence, so he hurt the one who meant the most to me.

“No.” I tell myself firmly, biting the inside of my cheek. “Don’t think about it.” I angrily wipe the tears from my eyes as I make the sharp turn into the driveway of the barn.

My tires crunch on the gravel and I park my car. Leaping from the drivers’ seat, I head out to the pasture running at full speed. The gleaming coats of the horses beckon me to them and I willingly oblige.

I reach Studley and his pasture mates, heaving from my unplanned run. I throw my arms around his neck and bury my face in his long black mane. He stands quietly, allowing me to regain my focus. The other horses approach me tentatively and I sink to the soft grass below, bury my face in my hands, and cry.

Hard, demanding droplets of rain awaken me. I rub my eyes and look around, momentarily confused as to why I am laying in the pasture surrounded protectively by four horses. I stand up, stretching my legs and look up at the offending sky. It’s overcast and gray, the rain falling harder now and my keen ears can detect the roll of thunder in the distance.

A bolt of lightning suddenly strikes, and the rain turns into a downpour, causing the normally calm horses to snort and prance.

“Come on!” I call to them as I run towards the barn. They follow me, their fleet legs carrying them far faster than I could ever hope to run. “Studley!” I call, and he obediently turns, trotting back to me.

I spring onto his back and gently dig my heels into his side. He races up the hill and stops when he reaches the gate. I jump down and throw the gate open, herding each horse into its’ stall.

“Better now?” I ask them as I throw each a flake of hay. They munch with approval and I check each one over carefully for any pasture injuries. They all seem fine, so I pat each nose and leave the barn.

Where do I go now? The thought of going home to Grace sickens me. One look at her will remind me of Jonah and how I was powerless to stop Aron from killing him. I don’t know what I would do if anything happened to her. If Aron hurt her….

Jesus Christ, I can’t even think about it.

And in that second, my mind is made up. I can’t let Aron continue to torment innocent people like Grace and Jonah. He needs to be stopped, and who better to stop him than the person that knows him the best.

Me.

I shake my hair, releasing the beads of rain and get into my Explorer. Starting and throwing it into gear, I head back for the station.

I have work to do.

That evening:
Shivering, I pull the blanket up further around my shoulders. Bean is curled up at my feet, her little black nose sticking out from under the blanket. It is now completely dark outside, and the thunder and lightning haven’t stopped since this afternoon.

The storm is beautiful on the ocean, but I guess I can’t really appreciate it yet. I hope someday I can look upon the Atlantic with the awe and reverence of how I first viewed it. But I guess being on a sinking boat rather destroys that.

As the lightning cracks again I glance at the clock for the thousandth time. It’s almost 8:00 and Jaden still isn’t home. It’s a really long day for her and I hope she’s not out in this storm.

I was driving around and came back as soon as the downpour happened, hoping she’d be here. But she wasn’t and I haven’t heard from her all day. She must be busy and really upset that she had to work today.

Sighing, I turn back to my book. Truthfully, I am enjoying this time to read and think, but I can’t rid myself of this nagging feeling of worry that has taken up residence in my stomach. I know Jaden’s a big girl who can take care of herself and I have to trust that she has enough sense to get out of the storm.

The front door creaks open, and I jump in surprise.

“Just me.” A weary voice answers and I turn to see a completely drenched Jaden standing in the kitchen. I set my book aside and go to her, my heart still racing from my surprise.

“Hey,” I tell her softly, “You scared the living hell out of me.”

“Sorry.” She answers equally as soft. She looks so completely uncomfortable and waterlogged in her uniform.

“Let’s get you changed.” I tell her as I take her hand and lead her to the bedroom. “You’ll catch your death in those clothes!” I tease her.

“Okay mom.” She answers, smiling finally to reveal perfectly white teeth. She fumbles with her belt, her frigid hands shaking.

“Let me.” I offer, taking the offending article of clothing from her. Deftly I release the buckle and finish helping her undress. She stands there like a small child, and I know she must be exhausted to be so helpless. “Goddess, Jaden, you are like an ice cube!” I exclaim as I unfasten her bra, leaving her completely nude. I’ve never once felt her be this cold, even on the boat she was warm.

I place my hand to her forehead. “Jaden, you’re burning up. Are you sick?”

“No.” She answers, her voice hoarse. “Just tired and hungry.” She looks so miserable as I wrap her in her fluffy bathrobe and usher her into bed. I pull the covers tightly around her and plant a kiss on her forehead.

“I’ll be right back, would you like some soup?” She nods her head, her lower lip sticking out in a defiant pout. “What’s the matter?” I ask her.

“I want you to stay with me.” She responds shyly.

I kiss her full lips gently. “I will stay with you, I promise. Just let me get you fed first, okay?” She nods in agreement.

I head to the spare bedroom and quickly find my small first-aid kit. I’m glad that I packed it. I figure I get hurt enough to constitute having it around, but I didn’t expect to have to use it on Jaden. Removing the electronic thermometer, I head back into the bedroom and place it under her tongue. She looks quite offended, but I don’t let her argue as I head to the kitchen.

She doesn’t have much for soup, but I finally find a can of tomato and heat it up. Thinking quickly, I pull out ingredients for a grilled cheese and make a few of those as I heat up her soup and a cup of tea.

Heading back into the bedroom, I find her with her arms crossed and a grumpy expression on her face. I roll my eyes good-naturedly as I remove the thermometer from her mouth. 98.5 on the dot. “You’ll live.” I tell her, showing her the number. “I’ve never actually known anyone to have a perfect temperature.” I remark offhandedly.

“I’m special.” She retorts grumpily and I snort as I head back to the kitchen.

My impromptu meal doesn’t take long and I put it on a tray to take in to her. She beams as she sees the sandwiches. “I love these!” She exclaims, her throat still sounding scratchy.

“I’m glad.” I answer her as I hand her the tea. “Be careful, it’s hot.” She nods in understanding as she takes a small sip. She sets her cup down and digs into her meal.

“Do we have an grape jelly?” She asks and I must look at her as if she has four heads because she begins laughing.

“For what?” I ask, wondering what she could possible want to put grape jelly on.

“My grilled cheese.” She answers. I scrunch my nose up, thinking of that disgusting combination.

“That’s gross.” I offer, but get up anyway to get her the jelly.

“No it’s not.” She argues. “What do you put on yours?”

“Ketchup.” I tell her, turning in the bedroom doorway.

“That is vile!” She answers, pretending to gag.

“Not as vile as grape jelly!” I dispute over my shoulder on the way to the kitchen.

“Here.” I state as I hand her the jar of Smucker’s. “Ruin my perfect meal with your artificial grape flavoring.” She chuckles as she takes the jar and dumps a mountain load of it on her plate. Handing me her empty soup bowl I set it on the bedside table and watch with horror and fascination as she manages to scoop a huge amount of jelly up with her sandwich. Taking a big bite, her eyes roll back and she smiles while chewing.

“Perfection.” She answers and I giggle. She’s such a clown sometimes. Finishing her bite, her face turns solemn as she takes my hand in her slightly sticky one.

“Thank you for taking care of me.” She declares seriously.

“My pleasure.” I respond, leaning forward and removing a glob of jelly from her nose with my tongue. “Feeling better?” I ask and she nods enthusiastically.

“Good. Now, can you explain why you were out in the rain all day?” I ask, putting my hands on my hips mockingly.

Her eyes become suddenly guarded as she answers. “Work stuff.”

Ah. I take it I’ve crossed a line. “Oh.” I answer, looking away. I know I shouldn’t pry into her business but it really hurts that she still won’t be open with me sometimes.

Jaden pats the bed beside her. “Want to join me?” I shake my head yes and take her tray to the kitchen.

“I’ll be in after I take Bean out.” I call to her, slipping on my shoes and grabbing Bean’s leash. Before I can even call the dog Jaden bolts from the bedroom, dressed in a pair of sweat pants and a rain jacket. How in the hell did she change so fast and where is she going?

“No, I’ll do it.” She answers breathlessly. I quirk my eyebrows as her.

“You just came in from the rain, and you’re not feeling well.” I protest to deaf ears.

“Grace, I want to take her out, okay? Go get in bed and keep it warm for me. I’ll be right back.” With her arms folded across her chest and that surly look on her face, I know I can’t argue with her.

“Fine. Thanks.” I tell her, handing her Bean’s leash. I retrieve the sleepy puppy from under the blanket on the couch where I left her. Bean absolutely hates to go outside when it’s raining. She hides wherever she can so she doesn’t have to potty in the rain. I hand the yawning dog over to Jaden. “She hates to go in the rain.” I advise her. “You better take an umbrella.”

Jaden swiftly pulls the hood of her rain jacket over her head. “Got it covered.” She tells me, slipping into her well-worn shoes and heading out the door.

The back of her rain jacket says “Boston PD” and I wonder why she chooses to commute into Boston rather than work closer to her home. And what is so secretive about her job that she needs to hide it from me? Why would she want to take Bean out in this weather when she’s been in it all day?

That woman just doesn’t make any sense. As much as I love her, she is the most confusing, infuriating, and frustrating woman I’ve ever met. I shut the front door behind me and head for the bedroom.
June 27, 2000

2:37am
The wind whips back my long hair. Frustrated, I pull the blonde strands behind me and tuck the rest of my hair behind my ears. It doesn’t work, and my hair immediately blows back into my face again. I sigh, aggravated and annoyed that my car has broken down on the worst day possible.

“I should have gotten a cell phone.” I tell myself as I begin walking again down the deserted street. My clothes flap in the strong wind and I keep my head down as my feet pound on the pavement. I hope there’s a gas station or something ahead where I can call my mom. She’s going to be so pissed at me for interrupting her soap operas. At least I know she’ll be home, she never misses General Hospital.

“Grace!” A voice shouts, and I struggle to turn around in the offending wind. I squint my eyes, just barely making out a small figure in the distance headed towards me.

“Grace!” The figure shouts again and I try to remember where I’ve heard the voice before. Suddenly, the figure is close and I see that it’s Scott.

“Grace!” He calls again, sweeping me up into his thick arms. “I’ve missed you so much!”

I push him away and struggle to break free from his grasp. “Don’t touch me!” I scream as I try to run away.

The cruel wind pushes me back against him regardless of how hard I try to run away.

“I’ve got you, Grace.” He whispers in my ear and I scream in fright.

“NO!”

I am jolted awake, twisted and caught in the damp sheets. I look around, and find myself in Jaden’s dark bedroom. My chest heaves with the effort of regaining my breath and my entire body is shaking.

It was only a dream, I realize. But it was so real. I could feel everything, my hair, my clothes, Scott’s body against mine. But it was just a dream.

I place my face in my hands and rub my weary eyes. The clock on Jaden’s dresser reads 2:37am. It was just a dream and I’m safe here.

I lay back down in bed, straining to untangle the sheets. I roll over to curl up next to Jaden, needing to feel her comforting presence.

It is then when I notice that she’s not here.

“Jaden?” I whisper to the dark room, and she doesn’t answer.

“Jaden?” I call, louder now, to the hallway bathed in darkness. Still no answer.

I’m still shaking with fear as I get out of bed and turn on the bedroom light. My eyes wince in adjustment to the sudden brightness and I pull on Jaden’s bathrobe to quell my body’s chills.

I turn on the hallway light, and then the bathroom. “Jaden?” I shout, now terrified. I race through the apartment, turning on every light possible. A confused and disoriented Bean trots out from the bedroom, blinking tiredly.

Jaden’s not here. A glance to the kitchen counter shows her car keys missing.

She’s gone.

And I’m alone.
Part 8

Journal Entry:

June 27, 2000

4:12am
It’s raining again. The steady pounding of water on the windows almost lulls me to sleep.

Almost.

Every time my head begins to droop and my eyes flicker shut, I jerk my head awake again, wondering if Jaden is home yet. So I decided to write, to keep myself awake.

It’s been almost two hours since I woke, and she’s still not here. Who knows when she even left. Right after I fell asleep? Or did she wait, to make sure I wouldn’t wake up to catch her.

To catch her doing what? That is the question.

Is she seeing someone else? I doubt that Jaden would do that to me. But why else would she leave in the middle of the night and where would she go? She was exhausted last night when she came home. I didn’t think she’d have the strength to do much of anything.

But she constantly amazes me. Sometimes she does the last thing I expect her to do.

No, I take that back. She always does the last thing I expect her to do.

And I know that I don’t have any hold over her, she isn’t committed to me, or our relationship. We never said that we were monogamous. But sneaking out in the middle of the night? Scaring me half to death when I wake up because she is gone?

Can’t she just use the “I have to work late tonight” line and have her affair then?

Or is she doing that too? Did she really have to work yesterday? Or the week before that? Or is it all a lie?

The picture on the mantle beckons me again. I stare into the stranger’s dark eyes, and from across the room I swear he’s laughing at me.

Jaden’s told me who the people are in all the other pictures. Except him. She conveniently forgot to tell me about the dark-haired man who has his arm wrapped so possessively around her.

Is that her lover? Is that who she is having an affair with? I had guess I assumed that Jaden was gay; but she’s never mentioned past lovers, male or female.

I guess I shouldn’t assume anything with Jaden. And it’s not like we’ve actually sat and spoken about anything deep or meaningful since I’ve been here.

But I know that I can’t do this. I can’t let her lie to me and keep things from me. My entire life I’ve been surrounded by people who did everything they could to keep problems hidden away. My family never talked about anything that was bothering us, just kept denying and denying and pushing our problems away until we can’t take it anymore.

I’m not going to start a relationship off the same way. I won’t do it.

I put down my pen and rub my eyes that are raw and red from crying. The apartment seems so scary to me tonight, and I know it’s just because I awoke from such an awful dream to an empty, dark apartment, and I don’t know where Jaden is. But for the last two hours I’ve sat here, trying to calm my nervous self down by writing.

It’s always been my saving Grace, so to speak. No matter how awful things were at home, or how stifled I felt, I could always pick up my pen and write down everything circulating through my head.

Tonight it’s not helping. I’m too worried and scared to concentrate on anything else but how worried and scared I am.

I stand up, heading over to the window that overlooks the ocean far below. The rain seems to be settling it down, no longer does it proudly carry the ferocious whitecaps of the afternoon. The downpour doesn’t seem to be stopping anytime soon and no matter how frustrated with Jaden that I am, I hope she’s at least somewhere dry.

I lean back against the fireplace, the cool stone sending shivers through my body. I stare at the dark water, lit only by the faint moonlight.

I hope she’s safe.

And I hope that she will come back to me.

****

Dressing quietly, I avoid taking any extra time, in fear of waking Grace. It wasn’t easy to slip out of bed; she was wrapped around me so tightly that I had to ease my way out in stages. Stage one, somehow untangle her small arms from around my waist and remove her hand from my breast. Stage two included rolling over quickly enough to evade her persistent grasp yet slow enough as to not rouse her.

I slip on my boots, remembering the rainy weather of before and softly walk to the kitchen. I put on my rain jacket, turning it inside out to hide the yellow Boston PD logo on the back. I zip it and pull on my black gloves.

Ever so carefully, I remove my car keys from the counter, taking great care to not have them jingle. That adorable mutt of Grace’s can hear the keys from a mile away and the last thing I need is for her to wake Grace.

I leave the apartment, closing the slightly squeaky door behind me and locking it. I have to remember to get some WD-40 for that.

I glace around in the dark hallway, glad for the comforting presence of my gun strapped to my back. I check to make sure I have extra ammunition in the zippered pocket of my jacket.

You never can be too careful. Especially when hunting Ronnie. He’s the worst kind of prey, because he is both psychotic and evil. Not a good combination.

On my way home from the station tonight I swore I was being followed. I worked all day on the street, disguised to visit some of the worse sections in town looking for information on Ronnie. I didn’t find anything, not that I expected too. Aron’s strong point is covering his tracks, which doesn’t explain for his recent suspected crimes. He’s never been that sloppy. Which means that subconsciously, he wants to get caught, or he’s doing it for some very purposeful reason.

That’s my guess.

I just wish that I had been on more alert driving home. It’s not like me to be distracted, but after the fruitless day of finding no real leads, I was tired, wet, hungry, and wanted nothing more than to crawl into Grace’s arms. When I got off the highway and made the short drive to my street, there was little other traffic. I pulled into the driveway and noticed a black Honda behind me, its windows tinted. My brain suddenly recalled that I had seen the same car when leaving the station.

I jumped out of my Explorer, prepared to draw my gun and the car took off around the corner. I ran through the back yard of the apartment in the rain, but couldn’t see anything.

That was stupid of me. I should have been more careful. My carelessness got Jonah killed and I won’t let that happen to Grace.

Taking Bean out was the perfect opportunity to scout the area. I didn’t want Grace stepping outside, I didn’t know if Aron or one of his flunkies was watching my residence. I sure as hell don’t want them seeing Grace. Even if they think she’s just another tenant in the building…I have to keep her safe.

When I took the dog out, I swore that I saw someone in the yard across the street, crouched in the bushes. I blinked, and after my eyes adjusted to the darkness and the rain, I realized that there was no one there.

That doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t be on my guard. I’m not taking any chances this time.

Reaching the front door of the apartment building, I glance outside through the window. There doesn’t seem to be any strange cars parked on the street, but that doesn’t mean anything.

I walk down the hall and slip quietly out the door into the back yard. I crouch down against the fence, growling to myself when my raincoat declares my presence. Could it be possible for some company to make a jacket that is quiet yet still protects from the rain? I strip the coat off and fling it back into the hall, leaving me clad in a black long-sleeved shirt which immediately absorbs every rain drop, leaving me soaked.

Great.

I continue my movement down the side of the fence, checking each area of the back yard. It’s empty, and quiet, like it should be. Looking down to the beach below, I find it also empty, the gentle waves rushing it to sweep the sand clean.

I snort to myself, I sound like Grace. All poetic and crap.

As much as I rather be laying in bed with her now, with Aron and the memories that surround him far away, I can’t say there isn’t a part of me that loves doing this.

I deftly spring over the fence, landing gently on the other side in a somersault. I drop to my belly, feeling the damp earth soak through my clothing and coat my skin with mud. I tuck my pony-tailed hair into the back of my shirt and crawl the short distance to the driveway.

Seeing that it’s clear, I crawl under my Explorer. I remove a tiny flashlight from my pocket and shine it into the guts of my car.

Nothing. I sigh in relief, knowing a favorite game of Aron’s is to blow his enemies up in their cars. Not that I think he would do that to me, he would much rather watch me suffer.

But you can’t be too careful. I turn off the flashlight, placing it between my teeth and crawl to Grace’s car. Hers is much more difficult to crawl under, but I manage, squeezing my tall body under enough to turn on the flashlight. Hers looks clear too.

Now what? I ask myself, not knowing what else I can do. I want to go back inside, shower all of this grimy mud off of me, climb into my warm bed with my warm girlfriend and feel the smoothness of her body.

My gut is ordering me to stay out here, and so I listen. Acting purely on instinct, I continue to crawl to the front of the apartment building, finding a convenient niche between the side of Grace’s car and the building itself. Here I’m protected on both sides as well as have a view of both front and back yards.

I take on patrol mode, grimacing as I take some of the sodden mud from the ground and coat my face and neck with it. I’m wearing all black, the sky is black, why should my big white face stick out like a beacon in the night? I know it’s pointless, that if Aron of one of his guys are already here, they’ve probably already seen me, but it makes me feel better.

I wait in a crouch, balancing my weight evenly on both feet. From this position I can do just about anything, and years of hard work and discipline has allowed me to stay like this for quite awhile.

“Come on.” I whisper. “I’m ready for you.”

****

Nothing has happened. I’ve been here since a little before midnight, and it’s after 2am now. 2:29am, to be exact, as I check my watch.

Suddenly a flicker of movement catches my eye. It was across the street, but I swear that I just saw something. I check behind me, and when I see it’s clear I train my eyes to where I saw the movement.

Squinting slightly, my ears do their job, tuning into the most obscure of noises. Someone is walking, across the street. The drenched earth and even tempo of raindrops makes it difficult for me to conclude where, but I know it’s not someone just out taking a walk.

Every step is deliberate; the length of time between them leads me to assume it’s someone doing exactly what I am.

I check my gun and I stand, flattening myself against the side of the apartment. My alert eyes detect movement and my ears tell me that the person is now crossing the street, their feet quietly hitting the pavement.

So, the fucker wants to play now? I’ll play. I smile, silently removing my gun and click the safety off in tempo with the person’s footsteps. It blends right in with the sound and is barely detectable to my ears. I glance around the corner again, seeing the person standing in the front yard, raising something towards the building. I squint my eyes again, trying to make out what is in his hand.

This is obviously not a well-schooled criminal. Besides the fact that he is completely standing out in the open, he’s dressed entirely in black with a ski mask on. I don’t think he could look more like he’s doing something illegal if he tried. If anyone would happen to look out their window at this moment, they would see this dumbass standing in the middle of a yard, and call the cops.

He has no weapons that I can see, but I draw my weapon and prepare anyway. If what he’s pointing at the building is a gun, I’ll have him exactly where I want him.

Suddenly, my bedroom light turns on. What the fuck? It must be both of our thoughts because he puts his arm down and runs like hell down the street. I contemplate giving chase, there is nothing I’d like to do more than to take that dumbass down and beat the information out of him, but that wouldn’t be law abiding or productive because I will put myself out in the open and I don’t think that’s a good idea if there are more where he came from.

I look above me, seeing now every light in the entire apartment come on. My watch tells me that it’s 2:39am. Why is Grace awake?
Jesus Christ, she’s going to be pissed at me. I just hope she’s okay. I know no one could be inside the apartment, I would have heard.

She must have woken up, found me gone and freaked out. My stomach clenches with the thought of her being scared and alone.

“I’m sorry.” I tell her, my voice a whisper above the falling rain. “But I have to protect you right now.”

I secure my weapon once again and resume my crouching position. I know it’s a lot to ask, but I hope that Grace will at least one day be able to understand why I have to do this.

4:30am. The sun will be up in a few hours, and my precious veil of darkness will disappear, leaving me a tired, wet, and dirty cop with mud on her face.

I haven’t seen or heard anyone in two hours. I think now that the ski mask-wearing guy was the only one here. But what was he doing? I don’t think he had a gun, Aron is very picky about who he gives power too.

Most likely, the ski mask guy was someone that Aron sent just to let me know that he knows what I’m doing.

How does he know? He has to have someone on the inside. As much as I hate to imagine it, I’m sure that is the answer. I don’t exactly hold a lot of the people I work with in high esteem, and Aron probably made him a deal he couldn’t refuse.

So first thing tomorrow, the captain and I will have a talk and keep things more private. Maybe even leak some fake information out to see if Aron takes the bait.

First, back to the intruder. What was he raising to the window? It was definitely aimed to my apartment; meaning Aron knows where I live. And if I was being followed earlier, he now knows what I drive too.

That sucks. Well, I can always do damage control. Get a rental car, stop driving to work, and maybe get a motel room or something for a while.

I stand up, working the kinks out of my legs. I kind of much rather stay out here; the thought of walking into an apartment with a very unhappy Grace doesn’t exactly make me excited.

I walk back through the yard, hopping the fence once again. I use my keys to let myself in, securely locking the door behind me and retrieve my rain jacket. I check the lock on the front door again, finding it tight and head up the stairs slowly.

Each step feels closer to my death. Each step fills me with more guilt. I need to be honest with Grace, but I don’t want her to know everything because it will put her in danger.

And because I’m scared that once she knows who I am, she won’t love me anymore.

I pause at my front door, my hands shaking as I turn the key in the lock. The door swings open, squealing again and I remind myself for the 2000th time to get WD-40. It’s squeaked since I moved in. And every time I open the fucking door I remember that I forgot to remind myself to get WD-40.

I bring my eyes away from the squealing door and into Grace’s shattered eyes. She’s sitting on the kitchen counter, her arms crossed over her shivering form. Without a word, she hops down, walks to the spare bedroom and slams the door.

Shit.

I take off my muddy boots and leave them to make a mess of my clean tiled floor. I take off my rain jacket, and hang it on the hook. I wash the mud off my face and undress, leaving my dirty clothes in a pile on the floor.

I head to the shower. I don’t know how to fix this.
Part 9

June 27, 2000

8:04am
“Grace?” I rap quietly on the door. She doesn’t answer, but I hear Bean moving around. She probably really has to go to the bathroom.

“Hey Grace?” I ask again through the door of my spare bedroom where she locked herself last night. Not that I blame her. I guess if I woke up in the middle of the night and she was gone, only to come back hours later covered in mud I’d be pissed and confused too.

I tried to talk to her last night after I showered, but she wouldn’t answer me. I left her alone, hoping that after she cooled down she would talk to me. No luck as of yet.

Bean woofs through the door and I make the decision to open it, despite Grace’s lack of response. I swing the door open and the little dog bolts out, heading for the front door. Grace is on the floor, covered with a thin blanket, soundly asleep. Her delicate face displays her anguish, her soft lips formed in a frown and a heavy creased line on her forehead.

Taking care not to wake her, I slip on my shoes and take the dog outside. I glance out the front door of the apartment first, and seeing nothing strange, I step outside. After last night my guard it up, and that’s how I want it. Bean does her business and I start back up the steps of the apartment, pausing to check the area once again.

Grace is still sleeping when I get inside, and I enter the spare bedroom once again.

“Grace.” I say again, sitting down on the floor beside her sleeping form. I should probably just let her sleep, God knows she didn’t get any last night while waiting up for me, but I can’t stand to have her here upset with me.

For once in my life, I want to talk about a problem instead of just pushing it away. Grace brings that out in me. She didn’t at first, I tried as hard as I could to push her away and ignore my problems and the past, and now I don’t want to do that.

I want to be as honest with her as I can. She deserves that. She’s given me too much of herself to be left out of my life, regardless of how afraid I am to tell her. I have to trust that she loves me and won’t leave me just because of my past problems.

I know her better than that. There isn’t a more honest and compassionate person alive than my Grace. I need to be honest with her in return.

“Grace.” I attempt to rouse her again, and she turns slightly onto her side, pulling the sparse blanket further around her shoulders. “Gracie, wake up.” I tell her, my tone more demanding as I gently shake her shoulder.

She bolts awake, her eyes wide with fear as she gasps.

“It’s just me.” I soothe, opening my arms to hold her. She resists and looks around the room, disoriented.

“Jaden, what are you doing?” She asks, her tone even and low. I believe this is her angry tone, but I’m not sure because I’ve hardly heard it.

“I want to talk to you, about last night.” I tell her, folding my hands uncomfortably in my lap.

She shakes her head slightly, the edges of her mouth turning in a frown. “Okay. Let me wake up first?”

“Sure.” I answer, leaving the room in order to give her privacy. I sit on the couch, listening to her patter around the room. Bean jumps up on my lap, her wiggling presence comforting me.

Grace enters the bathroom, closing the door behind her and turning the shower on. Wow, she must really want to stall this conversation if she rather shower than talk. She seems to be okay with showering, but she always has to work up to it. This morning it must seem like the lesser of all evils.

That sucks, that I have hurt her so badly that I’m the most evil.

I sigh, scratching Bean’s squirming body. This dog never sits still, always poking around and exploring. She is cute, and her personality infectious.

Just like Grace.

I sit with Bean, studying the rolling water outside. It looks like it will be a nice day, outside the breeze is strong, but the sun will be in full force soon. I don’t have to go into work until later this afternoon, to do more research.

And then sometime soon, after the captain and I have found what we need to find, I’ll go undercover.

I shudder at the thought. I’m not scared to do it, although I’ve spent the last few years on the mounted force, I still have my instincts and training required for such an assignment.

What scares me is that I’ll be out all night and not here to protect Grace.

I’m going to see if the captain will allow someone to stand watch. Not that I’d trust anyone on the force with Grace, but if there is a patrol car parked on the street, say, checking for speeders, it should keep all of Aron’s hired help away.

But then that brings up the sticky subject of telling the captain why someone needs to keep watch.

I sigh again, not wanting to have to deal with any of this.

The shower shuts off and I clear my throat in anticipation. A few minutes later Grace comes out of the bathroom, her short hair wet and dripping. She takes her towel from around her torso and dries her hair, giving me an ample view of her naked body.

Well, she can’t be that mad at me, right? Unless she’s trying to torture me by giving me one last glance at her gorgeous body before telling me to fuck off.

She enters the bathroom again, and comes back completely towel-less. Her clean nude form walks towards me, and I can’t help but be aroused by her body.

“Like what you see?” She asks, her voice quiet.

“I love it.” I respond, tearing my eyes away from her swaying breasts to look at her face.

She’s crying. I close my eyes slightly and curse myself before forcing myself to look at her again.

Tears run abundantly down her soft face, her eyes a green circle swimming in the depth of her tears.

“Shhh.” I tell her, pulling her down to me on the couch. She complies, her body going limp in my embrace. “I’m so sorry sweetheart, I’m so sorry.” I whisper to her again and again, hoping that it will sink in and she’ll understand.

She doesn’t say anything, just continues to murmur and whimper softly in my arms. Her head rests on my shoulder and I feel the flood of her tears dampening my t-shirt. I run my hands up and down the small of her bare back, relishing the feel of her skin.

Finally, she ceases her crying and sits up awkwardly, her breasts resting against mine. “Don’t you find me attractive?” She asks, biting her bottom lip as she always does when nervous.

I look at her, astonished. “Of course I do! You’re the most beautiful person I’ve ever known.” I tell her, taking her face in my hands. “How could you think that I don’t find you attractive?”

She shrugs slightly. “You were gone last night. I thought you were, well, you know.” She finishes, somewhat uncomfortably.

I have no idea what she’s talking about. “Huh?” I ask, my brows knit in confusion.

Grace looks at me expectantly, waiting for me to realize what she’s saying.

“For goodness sakes, Jaden, I thought you were sleeping with someone.”

I laugh at the absurdity of the situation, and a slightly pissed-off look registers on Grace’s face.

“Sweetheart, I would never, ever, ever, sneak out on you to sleep with someone else. I’ve been with enough people to know that what I have with you is real and important.” Grace looks at me skeptically.

“Grace, I love you. I don’t want anyone else but you.” My voice breaks, and my lower lip trembles. “Please believe that no matter what I do or what I say, that you will believe that I love you more than anything.” I feel my eyes start to water and I rush through my next sentence. “I know that I haven’t been completely honest with you, and I promise that I will tell you everything. I’ve just been scared that what I have to tell you will make you hate me.”

She wipes her tears away with her hand and looks beseechingly into my eyes. “You know that I could never hate you. Jaden, it just hurts me that you can’t be honest with me. It makes me feel like I’m not important to you and that you don’t care for me.”

“That’s not true!” I tell her and she nods.

“I know that in here.” She says, tapping her head. “But not in here.” She finishes, placing her hand on her heart. “Rationally I understand that you do things because you think it’s the right thing to do, that I need to be protected. I know you try to do the best for me. But don’t you understand that I need to decide what is best for me?” She questions, and I nod my head in understanding.

“I don’t need a mother, Jaden. I have one who tries to tell me what to do. I know that isn’t what you’re doing, but I don’t want that to be an aspect of our relationship. I want a friend, someone who confides in me things that she needs to talk about, and trusts me enough to decide what is best for me.”

Grace looks at me, her sweet face filled with love. I lean forward and kiss her, my lips explaining to her exactly how I feel.

“I promise, I’ll tell you everything.” I offer as I break the kiss. “I’ll trust you to make your own decisions based on what I’ve told you, okay?” Grace nods, breaking into a bright smile. “Tell you what, let’s get some breakfast first, okay?”

I stand up, pulling Grace’s nude form with me. She steps away, looking at me skeptically.

“You’re stalling.” She says simply, folding her arms across her breasts. I know she’s right.

“Yes, I am.” I answer honestly. “But I’m also starving and I know you must be too.” This makes her grin, and she nods her head in agreement. “So let’s have a nice relaxing breakfast and take the mutt to the beach.”

“Yeah!” Grace agrees, her pretty eyes sparkling with excitement. She’s wanted to take Bean to the beach since she moved in, and today will be the perfect day. The sun is out and it looks like the wind is dying down.

Grace heads to get dressed and I survey the contents of the fridge. “You like omelets?” I yell to her.

“Of course.” She answers enthusiastically. I pull a bunch of stuff out and place it on the counter, waiting for her. I hope she knows how to make them, I sure as hell don’t.

I don’t have to wait long. She comes down the hall, looking cute in her tank top and cutoff denim shorts. Well, maybe cute isn’t the right word; hot would be more like it.

Growling under my breath I make my way over to her and wrap my arms around her waist. She smiles and returns my hug. I sniff her neck loudly, humming in approval of her strawberry-scented skin. She giggles and struggles in vain as I gently tickle her ribs and stomach.

My intent turns serious as my hands slow, caressing her most intimate of places. She moans, throws her head back, and spreads her legs wider to allow my hand easier access. I chuckle as I kiss her neck, constantly surprised at how much she loves to be physical.

Meeting her lips with mine I taste her cinnamon-flavored mouth. I love that toothpaste she uses. Our tongues collide and she moans deeper as my hand deftly undoes her button fly shorts. I slide them down her hips and she kicks them off from around her ankles. Growing more insistent, I lift the bottom of her tank top and she breaks our kiss to remove it.

Her face is flushed, her eyes are a dark, and she’s practically panting. She is stunning, and she is mine. I am so lucky.

I strip her of her bra and too-cute Miss Piggy underwear. I need to feel her skin and I ease her onto the floor. She hisses in protest when her heated skin meets the cool tile floor, but she doesn’t move, instead urgently pulls me to her.

I undress faster than I thought possible and lower my body onto hers. Her eyes are wide and I plant a soft kiss on her parted lips. I know she’s still hurting over what Scott did to her; she hasn’t even begun to heal yet. It’s still hard for her to trust, but I will do whatever it takes to show her that I would never hurt her.

Smiling reassuringly, her hands run up and down my back as she moves her hips into mine. I kiss her again, my hand traveling down her body to find her wet and ready for my touch. She gasps when I stroke her and I whimper into her ear. She feels so good as I slide my fingers into her heavenly wetness.

I place one arm under her head to cradle it from the hard floor as I continue to devour her lips and stroke her, alternating between fast and slow movements. It doesn’t take long until I can feel her getting close, her muscles tensing and her breathing becoming erratic.

Suddenly she shudders under me and her thighs squeeze my hand between them as she comes. Making deep, guttural grunts, she comes down from her high. Her body goes limp and she pulls me down on top of her completely, burying her face in my neck.

I tell her words of love in her ear, expressing emotion normally so difficult for me to speak of. Holding her like this makes me feel like she is so tiny, every instinct tells me to worship her and protect her.

We lie here, on the kitchen floor, clinging to each other so strongly that nothing would be able to part us. I’m suddenly not afraid to tell her of my past; in fact, I’m almost looking forward to it. I think it will be a huge weight off of my shoulders.

My past, and now my present have been hanging over our heads. Will she hate me when she finds out? What will she think about what happened with Aron? Can she forgive me for what happened to Jonah? And most importantly, what will she do when I tell her of the assignment I’m on and the possible dangers to not only myself, but to her as well?

Embracing her here, right now, I believe that we are so strongly connected that nothing could change our feelings for each other. I’ve never felt like this before, and I’ve never let anyone get close enough to even worry about it. But Grace is so close to me, in ways that I never thought I’d be close to anyone. I love her, and I can’t imagine my life without her.

What if she had never moved here? What if the night I went to the bar, she wasn’t working? What if I let my fear take over and after meeting her the first time, I just never went back. It would have been so easy, to just walk away from her, thinking she was just a cute little waitress and not fall for her.

But I did fall for her, and I fell hard. And if I had the chance to do it over, I’d fall willingly again.

“It’s okay Jaden.” Grace says, her voice muffled by my neck. “Why are you crying sweetheart?”

I lift my head, surprised. There are indeed tears streaming down my face, and Grace reaches up to wipe them from my cheeks. Her face is tear-stained also, but from my tears, not hers.

“I just love you, that’s all.” I answer, slowly getting to my feet. I extend a hand down to Grace, helping her stand.

“I love you too.” She responds, hugging me tightly. We stand in contented silence for a few minutes, enjoying the feel of each other.

“I’m so hungry.” Grace finally states, blushing at her admission. I kiss the top of her cute nose and smile at her.

“Me too.” We dress quickly. “What do you want on your omelet?” I ask, taking plates down from the cupboard.

“Mushrooms, cheese, and bacon.” She answers, a wicked gleam in her eye. “You cooking?”

I shake my head. “I don’t know how.” I tell her sadly. “I can chop stuff though.” I want to at least appear to be useful.

“I’ll show you. It’s easy.” She says, and then orders me to chop the ingredients. I do, carefully avoiding cutting my skin with the knife. Mushrooms are really hard to chop. Grace browns the bacon in a pan and constructs the omelet in another pan. She shows me how to add the ingredients and get the cheese to melt just right.

I toast some bread and pour a glass of juice, retrieving a Coke from the fridge for Grace. I don’t know how she can drink that stuff as much as she does; it’s like battery acid. She puts the food on our plates and we eat, enjoying each other’s company. Everything tastes delicious.

After breakfast, I apply sunscreen to her shoulders and back, paying careful attention to her face. She’s got such fair skin; I’d hate to see her get burned. Taking the dog and her ball, we head down the stairs. I check the yard before we leave, and not noticing anything or anyone strange, I usher Grace and Bean out the back door.

We walk the short distance down the dirt trail that leads to the beach, Bean straining at her lease excitedly. It’s a gorgeous day, warm enough to be out in shorts but cool enough that you’re not sweltering in the sun. Grace is smiling, looking around her with as much excitement as the dog. We reach the stairs, and take off our sandals, leaving them at the top to avoid getting them filled with sand.

Then we let the Bean off her leash, and bound down the concrete stairs together. It’s too early for this beach to be crowded, and because it’s a private beach of the property owners it’s usually very quiet. Dogs are allowed, as long as they are cleaned up after, and it has a nice long stretch of clean sand.

Bean is so cute, she bounded up to the waves boldly only to come scampering back after getting her feet wet. It doesn’t take her long until she’s swimming like a pro, chasing the sticks Grace and I throw in for her. I swear she’s more Labrador than a terrier; I’ve never seen a happier dog than Bean retrieving from the water.

This is really nice. Grace looks relaxed, and we are having a great time. The last thing I want to do is ruin our morning with talk of my past, but I have to tell Grace. Besides, I promised her and I never break my promises.

We play with the dog for a while more, and then I sit on a large rock, motioning for Grace to come sit with me. Bean is perturbed to lose her playmates, but busies herself by chewing on driftwood and digging holes in the sand.

“Thanks Jaden, this is really fun.” Grace remarks, taking my hand in hers.

“Yeah, it is.” I agree, smiling at her. “I guess we should talk?” I offer nervously. I don’t want her to think that I’ve forgotten about it. She nods her head, cocking it to the side.

“Do you want too? As much as I think we need to do this, I don’t want to push you if you’re not ready.”

That’s my Grace, always thinking of me. “No, I can do this.” I tell her, preparing myself for the conversation ahead. Grace’s hand is warm in mine and I bring it to my lips, kissing each of her slender fingers.

“My mother moved back in with us when I was 15. I didn’t really even remember her or who she was. I hadn’t spent any real time with her since I was 8 or 9, and she was a complete stranger to me.” My voice is shaking, and I can’t believe how hard this is. I always try to forget these memories, to push them away and make believe they don’t bother me.

“I’m so sorry.” Grace’s soft voice offers. I squeeze her hand and continue, knowing if I don’t get this all out now, I never will.

“She was a horrible person, a heavy drinker and into drugs. The years in the industry made her care more about partying and having a good time then being sober and present. Honestly, Jonah and I hardly ever saw her, even after she moved in with our grandmother and us. My mother spent most of her time shacking up in Boston and going to clubs.” I smile wryly. “She was a big star there, the former model turned soap queen, and she had countless boyfriends.”

I glance at Grace, and notice how sad her eyes seem. She tries to smile reassuringly at me, but her lower lip trembles instead.
“You didn’t deserve any of that.” She tells me, and I nod my head.

“I know.” I respond quietly. “Either did Jonah or my grandmother. They are good people.” I state firmly.

“So are you.” Grace adds, scooting closer to me.

“Well, that summer my mother decided to move to Detroit with this guy she met. She said he was her “prince charming” and couldn’t live without him. It was really hard, Jonah didn’t want her to leave, and if she did leave he wanted to go with her. He was 17, and confused about what to do with his life. I wanted her to go, I was much happier alone with my brother and grandmother.”

I stop and clear my throat before continuing. “My mother didn’t want Jonah to come along. She wanted to disappear again, and leave us for good. My grandmother and Jonah fought constantly about it, and my mother made the decision easier by leaving in the middle of the night. Jonah made plans to go after her, and begged me to come with him.”

“How could she just leave you again?” Grace questions, her voice filled with disbelief. I shrug my shoulders; I’ve asked that same question my entire life. A mother is not supposed to leave her children.

“So we left my grandmother a note, and set out in Jonah’s car, driving to Detroit to find our mother. I went along with Jonah just because I was worried for him to go alone. He had such a pure heart, so trusting and innocent. Just like you.” I add to Grace, seeing a look of surprise register on her sweet face as she blushes. I love when I make her do that. “So Jonah and I had fun driving to Detroit, he was such a fun person to be around. We made it there and had no idea where to find our mother. Detroit is a big city, and we didn’t where to start.” I sigh, remembering Jonah’s determination and refusal to leave the city. “I wanted to go back home, I begged Jonah too. But he wouldn’t. He was convinced that we would find our mother and make her come back.”

“What happened?” Grace asks.

“Jonah got a job as a grocery store bagger and we stayed in a youth hostel. Jonah was working all the time to earn money so we could rent a room, and at night he would walk the streets, trying to get into the clubs to find our mother. He was crazed, Grace, the only thing he could think of was finding her. That left me with nothing to do, all I wanted was to go back home, but I couldn’t leave him. I started hanging around with some of the kids from the hostel, just to kill some time. I figured that once the summer ended, Jonah would take me back home so we could go to school. Jonah was so smart, and was excited for his senior year.” I pause, licking my dry lips. “The friends I made, they were awful people. I mean, they were fun, and I was a stupid kid who thought it was cool to be a rebel. They did drugs and I started too, just to fit in.”

I sigh, releasing Grace’s hand to rub my watery eyes. “I was an idiot, I had nothing. My brother was obsessed to find a mother that didn’t want us; I was in a strange and smelly city with no one to turn too except these kids who seemed to like me. I didn’t know they were just using me, I thought they were my friends.”

“How did they use you?” Grace’s calming voice caresses my ears.

“They started having me do their dirty work, make deliveries and collect money, the things that should have gotten a kid like me killed, and the things that had gotten some of them and their friends killed. I loved it, it was fun to me to be so important.”

I laugh sadly at the absurdity of the entire situation. “I was so good at what I did, I managed to evade being caught and intimidate people easily. I was only 15, but I was tall and I didn’t care if I lived or died. I had nothing to lose. And that was my weakness.”

“What did Jonah say when he found out?” Grace questions gently.

“He didn’t find out. He was on a mission, and I never saw him. I was earning so much money that I couldn’t wait to go back home and buy my own horse. And then I was introduced to Aron.”

“Who?” She asks, and the last thing I want to tell Grace is about this psycho who is now again a factor in my life.

“Aron was important. None of us really knew how much he controlled, but we knew it was a lot. He was only a few years older than all of us, but had seen and done everything. I was so drawn to him, and his power. I felt like he really cared about me, and wanted me to succeed. I felt abandoned by Jonah, and Aron was a substitution. He told me how important and talented I was, and what a great future I had if I just stayed with him. And I trusted him.”

Grace doesn’t say anything, and I glance at her face. She looks lost in thought, and so I continue.

“He told me he loved me, and I believed him. I thought I was his girlfriend, and as a teenage who had never had a boyfriend before, I felt so important to have this mysterious and handsome man as my lover. It was great for a while, and towards August when I spoke of going back home it became horrible. Aron was so degrading to me, he beat me up all the time and fucked me whenever he wanted.” I feel myself becoming angry and I clench my fists. Out of the corner of my eye I see Grace flinch at this and I take her hand again, using her as a grounding device to keep my anger in control. “He kept me high enough so I wouldn’t leave, and he made it very clear that if I left he would kill me. I was terrified, I couldn’t stand up to him and I desperately wanted to get away and go back home, but I was scared. And I was addicted to every drug he put into my body.”

“What happened to Jonah?”

“He finally wised up and realized that my mother was long gone. I don’t think she really was ever in Detroit. He wanted to go back home too, and he apologized for how he had acted and begged for my forgiveness. It wasn’t his fault Grace; he was just a little boy inside who desperately wanted his mother. I told him about Aron and the drugs and he thought it was his own fault. I couldn’t blame him, I was just a kid, but I should have known better.”

“Jaden, you were young and Aron took advantage of you. You can’t blame yourself for that.”

Her sweet voice makes me want to crawl into her arms and never leave. She is my safe haven in my internal storm, and all I want is to hold her. But I’m almost finished, and what I have to tell her is the most important, because it concerns her.

I open my mouth to continue with the story, but I can’t. The words won’t come out. My hands start to shake as I remember the following events and my throat constricts to the part where I cannot breathe. I shut my eyes, willing my inner turmoil to disappear long enough to say the words, but it won’t.

I stand up, frustrated and scared. “I can’t do this right now Grace. I’m sorry.”

She stands, wrapping her body against mine. “Shh, it’s okay. We have time.” She murmurs unintelligible sounds and phrases into my neck and I hold her to me, relishing in the feeling of us combined.
Part 10

June 27, 2000
I finish washing the few dishes we used for lunch. The apartment is silent other than the gently running water and I’m comforted by the rhythmic and calming sound. Bean is asleep on the couch, exhausted from her morning at the beach. I am equally tired, but more from emotional strain rather than physical.

I never realized how much Jaden has gone through in her life. When she said she had things in her past she needed to tell me, I guess I never expected them to be that bad. My entire being aches for the child that Jaden was, and for the woman that she is now.

Turning off the water, I dry my hands on the thin towel and leave the dishes to dry. I amble over to the couch, gently pushing Bean over to make room for myself. I lay down, eager to relax and rest before Jaden comes home and finished telling me her tale.

She was so emotionally devastated after talking to me this morning. She broke down crying and seemed to have a mild panic attack of some kind. It was so scary, not only because it’s so rare that she lets herself feel any emotion, but because I had to be the strong one.

I’m not used to that, in our young relationship it’s been Jaden who has constantly been there for me and allowed me to lean on her for support. Now it is my turn and I will do everything in my power to help Jaden in whatever way I can.

After talking at the beach, Jaden had to leave for work. I was concerned to see her go in that frame of mind, she seemed so dazed and out of it until we left the beach. The minute we returned to the apartment, she was her old self, and I was again surprised at her ability to hide her emotions.

“Turn your brain off.” I order myself out loud as I shut my eyes, feeling Bean stir at my words. I don’t want to lie here and think of Jaden all day. Worrying will get me nowhere. I am sure that she is fine, and she’s a big girl who can take care of herself. But I am madly in love with her, and can’t help but worry that’s she upset about our discussion this morning.

I know I didn’t force her into telling me anything of her past. She’s wanted to speak to me about her past for ages now, and it just has never been the right time. Now is the right time, because I can’t stand to have things like last night happen again.

I was so terrified, waking up alone to find Jaden gone. I honestly thought that she was having an affair until I saw her come into the apartment, covered from head to toe in mud, dripping from the rain. If she had slunk in wearing nothing but a trench coat and lingerie, than I guess I could suspect she was getting it on hot and heavy with someone behind my back.

But she had classic stakeout clothes on, complete with her gun. For some reason it didn’t quell my fears that she wasn’t having an affair, but hiding something from me about her job. I just want her to be open and honest with me. I don’t know why that is so hard for her to do, but it is something I need from her.

We’ve made no promises in our relationship. She is free to do whatever she pleases, but I love her too much to sit back and ignore what is going on around me. I doubt that I would have been thrilled if she would have told me; “Grace, I have to sneak out of the house after you go to sleep tonight.” But at least when I woke up to find her gone I would have not been scared out of my wits.

I know she loves me. I can see it in her eyes. The very same eyes that are so guarded about everything, I can see through them to the vulnerable soul that Jaden has so cleverly been able to hide from others. I just have to trust her and understand that she thinks she’s doing what is in my best interests.

I just wish she could do the same and trust me as well.

Sighing, I force myself to try and get some sleep. I was a nervous wreck last night, and only got a few hours of fitful sleep after seeing that Jaden made it home safely. I was too angry to speak to her last night; I think that I would have said some really hurtful things that I would never be able to take back. So instead of making myself speak to her like a rational adult, I was childish and shut myself in the spare bedroom. At least we didn’t get in a fight and were able to talk this morning.

It means so much to me that she was able to tell me a little of her past. I know how difficult it is for her, and as much as I am worried that she isn’t okay emotionally, I still am thankful that she was able to speak to me honestly.

A sudden white-hot streak of anger and hatred flares through me unchecked. How dare Aron put his hands on her. How dare he hit her and rape her. I can’t ever imagine Jaden in that situation. She always seems so strong, so invincible. I wish things had been easier for her.

My mind is jumping all over the place; I’m so tired that I can’t even keep the same train of thought. I snuggle down further yet into the couch, determined to nap. I concentrate on my breathing, forcing myself to take deep and even breaths while I picture a scene of serenity, Jaden and I riding Studley and Lucy in the woods. A smile breaks out on my face as I focus so intently on my scene that I can smell the damp sweat of the horses and hear their steady hooves clop on the dirt path.

Ring.

Shit.

I sigh and get up from the couch, disturbing Bean once again. I don’t miss the look of outrage that she gives me as I answer the phone.

“Hello?”

“Grace?” My sister’s voice questions.

“Lydia! Hey, how are you? Goddess, I miss you so much.” My words race out, I am so thrilled to be talking to my baby sister.

“I’m fine, I miss you too. A lot.” Lydia answers, her voice strained.

“What’s the matter?” I ask, concerned by her tone.

“Listen, mom’s on a rampage. She ransacked my room and found Jaden’s number. I wanted to warn you. She’s been crazy Grace, saying she’s going to call the police on you and everything.”

“Fuck.” I say, that single word conveying every emotion. A huge ball of worry forms in my gut. “Lydia, she’s not hurting you, is she?” I can’t stand to think of my mother hitting Lydia like she used to hit me.

“Nah, since you left I’m the poster child. She’s been spoiling me rotten.”

I sigh in relief. “Thank Goddess.” I murmur to myself.

“Dad’s still a loser though, he never wants to be here and when he is he doesn’t talk.” Lydia’s voice conveys her disgust of my father, and I can’t help but wonder when she’ll realize that the last thing he wants is to be bothered by his wife and children. I wonder why he even married and decided to have kids anyway.

“Yeah, well, some things never change.” I tell her, wishing I could give her a hug.

“Herc is so cute though! You should see him!” Lydia tells me, changing the subject. She rattles on and on about my Uncle Rick’s puppy from hell, and I chuckle and outright laugh when hearing his new adventures.

“I wish I could see him. He sounds great.”

“Yeah, well you’ll see him sometime, right?” Lydia asks, and I know that she’s asking when I’m going to be able to visit. I wish I knew what to tell her.

“I hope so, sis.” I manage to say. She doesn’t answer, and I hope she can understand why I’ve made the choices I have.

“As long as you’re happy. That’s all I care about. Everything else can suck it.” Lydia responds, in her usual matter-of-fact way.

I laugh, now that is the baby sister that I love.

“Listen, Jana, I have to go. I’ll see you in school tomorrow.” Lydia suddenly blurts out before hanging up the phone.

I put the phone back in its cradle, looking at it curiously. My mother must have come into Lydia’s bedroom, and Lydia intelligently tried to pretend that she was talking to her friend from school. A nice plan, but not one that my mother will buy. She’ll probably hit redial on the phone and…

Ring.

Yep, I knew it. I don’t answer and let Jaden’s machine pick up instead. After a few rings Jaden’s voice demands, “Leave a message,” to which my mother promptly obeys.

“Listen young lady, just because I haven’t spoken to you doesn’t mean I am going to roll over and disappear.”

Oh, how I wish. Funny, but my mother’s grating voice is exactly like I remember it. Have I only really been gone a week or so?

“You are coming back here and getting married. Do you hear me? You’re lucky that Mr. and Mrs. Spencer still want you after this little fiasco you pulled. And that officer that you sent over to their house beat Scott so horribly that the Spencers are threatening to sue. You better get back here immediately, or you will be in…”

Beep. I smile devilishly as the machine cuts her off.

Bitch.

Ring. I sigh and look at the phone with disdain. As expected, my mother has called back to finish her rambling message.

I can’t take this. Who knows how many times she’s going to call and fill Jaden’s machine with her insane ramblings. I have to get out of here, just to clear my head.

“Bean!” I call and my little dog jumps down from the couch and allows me to clip on her collar and leash. I grab my keys and my wallet and head out the door, eager to leave the annoying voice of my mother behind.

I decide to walk with Bean down to the shopping center, needing a few things from the drugstore. As much as I try to clear my mind and focus nothing on the gorgeous day and my prancing dog, I can’t help but think about what my mother spoke about.

What did she mean when she said I sent an officer over to beat Scott? I didn’t even call the police, as much as I would have loved too. It just would have been my word against Scott’s, and though I really hate myself for not pressing charges, it just wasn’t something I was strong enough to do at the time. So there was certainly not an officer of the law over there because of me, unless…

Oh. Jaden.

Of course. I’m sure that she went over there after Lydia called her and kicked the crap out of Scott. As much as that thought pleases a part of me, another part is horrified that she actually beat Scott. I can’t see her doing that, regardless of how angry she was. Hopefully she just went there to talk some sense into him, and my mother is lying. It wouldn’t be the first time.

****

We reach the shopping plaza quickly, and I head into Walgreen’s. I scoop Bean up in my arms, hoping no one cares if I bring her in with me. The store is pretty deserted, so I quickly grab a shopping basket and hook it over one arm, holding the solid 9lbs of Bean with my other arm.

I head down a few isles; grabbing some mundane things I need like shower gel and lotion. I head to the pet isle, choosing a plastic wrapped doggie bone that Bean smells eagerly. I remember that I need some new pens for my journal so I selectively choose a few that will be comfortable to write with and add them to my basket. Mulling over the rest of the list in my head, I head for the candy isle, wanting to get Jaden some of those disgusting toasted coconut things that she loves. I add a package of Dots and Jaden’s prized candy to my basket.

“I think that’s it, Miss Dog.” I tell Bean, who is being a very good girl and lying very still in my arms. I head up the aisle towards the register, only to find it blocked by a large and powerfully built man.

“Excuse me.” I tell him politely, waiting for him to move so I can squeeze by.

“Sure.” He answers, glancing at me while moving out of my way. He does a double take, looking at Bean and then at me. “Hey, isn’t that Jaden’s dog?” He asks, smiling at me.

He looks vaguely familiar, but I don’t know anyone from Massachusetts yet, so I realize that I couldn’t possibly know him.

“Um, no she’s my dog.” I answer uncertain to how he knows Jaden or Bean.

“Oh, okay. I just could swear that this is the same dog that Jaden runs with in the morning.” He smiles politely, stepping back to allow me to pass.

I feel very foolish, and very rude. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be rude.” I tell the man and return his smile. “I’m Grace, and I just moved in with Jaden, and yes, this is the dog that she runs with in the mornings.”

“Hi Grace, I’m Ronnie. Welcome to the neighborhood!” He answers politely, holding out his hand. I struggle to shake it and he helps me by taking my basket. “Let me give you a hand.”

“Thanks.” I tell him, grateful for the help. “It’s a beautiful neighborhood.” I respond, knowing now why he looks so familiar. I’ve probably seen him around the apartment.

“So, where did you move from Grace?” Ronnie asks conversationally.

“Ohio actually. Jaden was nice enough to let me stay with her.” I answer.

“Yeah, she’s great.” Ronnie responds, smiling. He seems really nice but there’s something about him I really don’t like. I glance up to the register, seeing no one in line.

“Well, it was nice to meet you.” I tell him, holding my hand out to take my basket back. “I better get going.”

“I got it.” He answers, walking up to the register and setting my basket down. I thank him while struggling to hold Bean and take money out of my wallet to pay for my things. “Here, I’ll take her.” Ronnie offers, wrapping his large hands around Bean. She turns and growls at him, showing him her little white teeth. Before I can scold her she snaps, narrowly missing his skin.

“Bean!” I admonish, stepping back to avoid any further strikes against Ronnie. Bean doesn’t listen to me and continues to growl at him.

“It’s okay, I just scared her.” Ronnie offers, still smiling. His eyes are set and angry, and I can’t help but think how evil he looks.

“I’m really sorry.” I tell him again, hoping he isn’t angry.

“No problem. Make sure that you tell Jaden that Ronnie said hello, okay? Nice to meet you.” He finishes, turning and leaving the store.

I turn my attention back to the cashier. “I’m so sorry, I don’t know what has gotten into her.” I apologize, surprised when the cashier chuckles.

“I don’t blame her, a little thing like that getting angry about a big oaf like him wanting to grab her. Besides, there’s something about him that isn’t right.” The cashier soothes me while taking my money.

“Yeah, that’s what I thought too. He lives around here, but I’ve never met him before.” I tell her.

The cashier eyes me skeptically. “If he lived around here, I’d have seen him by now. I’ve worked here 10 years. I wouldn’t forget someone like him.”

“Yeah, he had an interesting look, that’s for sure.” I agree with the cashier, taking my bag and heading out of the door. I set Bean down, still curious about her unusual behavior and head for the apartment.

It’s been a long day, and she was out in the sun all morning at the beach. Maybe she’s tired and cranky and didn’t want to be held by a stranger. I don’t blame her. I’m sure that’s it.

****

Reaching the apartment, I let myself in and leave Jaden’s candy on the counter. I know she’ll want it when she gets home. I unpack the rest of my purchases, giving Bean her new bone which she delicately takes between her teeth and trots off into Jaden’s bedroom. She’s probably going into Jaden’s dirty laundry basket. That’s Bean’s new favorite place as of late. I take out one of my new pens and sit down on the couch with my journal. Just as I’m about to write, the phone rings.

I sigh and roll my eyes, certain it’s my mother. Who knows how many messages she’s left while I was gone.

“Grace?” Jaden’s voice asks over the machine. I hurtle over the couch and pick the phone up.

“Yeah!” I answer, grateful that it’s her. “How are you?” I ask, still concerned about her.

“I’m fine. Why didn’t you answer?” She asks, sounding like she’s in a good mood.

“Sorry, my mother has been leaving me nasty messages. Jaden? Did you beat up Scott?” I ask, not wanting to talk about it over the phone but unable to get it out of my mind.

“What?” She answers incredulously. “No! I went over there and spoke with him but I didn’t lay a hand on him, well, wait. I pushed him once. But I didn’t hurt him.”

“Okay.” I respond, calmed by her answer. “My mother is such a liar.”

Jaden laughs on the other end of the phone, and I’m relieved to have her in such a good mood. “What did you do today?”

“Bean and I took a walk to the shopping center. It was so weird, Jaden, we saw this guy from the neighborhood that knows you and Bean snapped and almost bit him!”

“Really?” Jaden questions. “That doesn’t sound like her. Who was it?”

“He said to tell you that Ronnie said hello.” I answer.

There is a long pause of silence before Jaden responds.

“Grace, stay where you are. Lock the doors. I’m on my way.”

And with that, she hangs up.

What the hell was that about? Could this day get any more confusing? I hang up the phone, wondering if Jaden has a spilt personality. What about that conversation would make her respond with “Lock the doors, I’m on my way?”

I pace in the living room, confused. Jaden freaked out after I told her I spoke with Ronnie. So what about Ronnie made her so upset? I furrow my brow, trying to rationalize her behavior.

Who could Ronnie be? And why would that make her think I’m in danger? I sigh, pausing at the mantle when one of the pictures catches my eye.

That one photo, with the dark-haired man’s arm around a young Jaden, why is that so familiar to me now? I study it closer, noting how sick and frail Jaden looks. The man possessively holding her looks downright scary. His bearded face is young, but his eyes are old beyond his years.

His dark eyes, filled with coldness and anger. They are remarkably similar to Ronnie’s. As I examine the photo closer, I see other resemblances between this man and Ronnie, they have the same build, are roughly the same height, the only difference being that the man in the photo is younger than Ronnie.

But the resemblance is uncanny. And suddenly, when a clue kicks me in the butt, I realize that Ronnie and the man in the photo are one and the same.

So that’s what freaked Jaden out. She has a picture of herself from about 15 years ago with Ronnie. And because the time line is right, I can assume that Ronnie and Aron are one and the same.

Oh shit. No wonder Jaden was freaked out.

I suddenly get scared and check the front door, finding it locked and secure. I was talking face to face with her person that hurt Jaden. I am so angry and frightened right now, angry that I didn’t know who Ronnie really was so I could have made him pay for what he did to Jaden, and frightened because I’ve never heard Jaden’s voice be more scared than just now when she announced she was coming home.

All the lessons my mother drilled into me about never talking to strangers are hitting home right now. I wish I had listened to her.

I check the clock in the kitchen. It’s almost 7:00 and Jaden should be here any second. Usually the commute takes her almost an hour, but I know she’s driving like a bat out of hell.

Suddenly I hear footsteps coming down the hall. My throat goes dry as I stare at the front door, willing it to open to reveal Jaden. The footsteps get closer and closer and my heart starts racing faster and faster.

Please let it be Jaden. Dear Goddess let it be Jaden.
Part 11

June 27, 2000

7:52pm
“Grace!” Jaden yells, throwing open the door. She looks around the apartment frantically, her eyes wide and frightened.

“I’m right here!” I tell her, running from the living room and throwing my arms around her. I feel her panting and shaking with fear as we cling to each other. “It’s okay, nothing weird happened, I’m fine.” I tell her, trying to calm my normally unflappable girlfriend.

“Thank God you’re okay. I can’t begin to tell you how terrified I was when you told meÉ.” Jaden continues on, rambling like I’ve never known her to do. I pull away from her embrace and plant a kiss on her cheek.

“Shh, I’m okay. I’m so sorry for scaring you Jaden, I didn’t know.” I tell her, tears forming in my eyes. I feel so guilty for scaring her so. I hope she can forgive me.

She doesn’t reply, hugging me close to her again. She buries her face in my hair, and her frantic breathing finally subsides. “That was scary.” She remarks, her voice shaking.

“I’m sorry.” I respond, nuzzling her slender neck.

“Not your fault. You didn’t know.”

We hold each other in silence for a few minutes, until our pounding hearts return to their normal rate. It is then that we break apart, looking into each other’s eyes. Jaden has tears in hers, as do mine, and when I smile at her she smiles back uncertainly.

“Do you think you’ll ever come home normally?” I ask, giggling. She soon follows suit. “I mean, really Jaden, the few times that you’ve come home you’ve been either drenched from the rain, covered in mud, in an awful mood, or scared out of your gourd.” Jaden continues to laugh, the rich sound of her voice like liquid honey to my ears. “None of the normal, ‘Honey I’m home!’ with us, huh?” This is the final straw, and Jaden breaks into uncontrollable laughter, and I join her willingly.

We laugh like hyenas for a few minutes until I force myself to stop because my stomach hurts so. I don’t know what really else to say, and always having trouble with awkward silence; I decide to voice what I’m feeling.

“I don’t know what to say.” I tell her and she nods, her face now solemn.

“Let’s not say anything. Let’s get changed and go somewhere wonderful for dinner, okay?” She answers, and I couldn’t agree more.

We head into the bedroom, changing silently. Jaden pulls on a pair of black pants and a beautiful steel gray button-down shirt and I follow her lead of dressing nice and pull on a long flowered skirt and black shirt. Slipping into my low heels I head into the spare bedroom to use the vanity mirror for my jewelry and makeup. Recalling the probability of rain, I leave my hair slightly mussed and dust on some light makeup. I remove my light black dress jacket from the closet and my purse.

“You ready?” Jaden calls from the living room as I shut off the light in the spare bedroom. I swear she always manages to look incredible and take no time to get ready. I don’t know how she does it.

“Yep.” I answer her, heading down the short hallway. She looks incredible, her long black hair is shiny and slightly waved from the bun she had it in at work. “I already took the dog out.” She remarks as she helps me slide on my jacket.

“How? I didn’t even hear you go.” I tell her, patting Bean’s head as we head out of the door. Jaden doesn’t respond, and merely smirks at me. She’s such a smart ass sometimes, especially when she thinks she’s so cool. I love that about her. Hell, I love everything about her.

“You look lovely, Pixie head.” She tells me, ruffling my short hair. I stick my tongue out at her, recognizing Joe and Diana’s daughter’s nickname for me.

We head down the stairs and out of the building. We get in Jaden’s car just in time to miss the light sprinkling of rain. “Is it always this rainy in Massachusetts?” I ask her, it seems like it’s rained daily since I moved here.

“No, it’s usually too dry.” She remarks, putting the car into gear and backing out of the driveway. “We had a mild winter though, not much snow, so we need this rain desperately, regardless of how annoying it is.”

“Oh.” I answer, and then change the subject. “Jaden, will Bean be safe at home? What if Ronnie, er, Aron, is poking around and will hurt her? He was pretty mad when she tried to bite him.” I am suddenly nervous for my little dog, I can’t imagine what I would do if anything happened to her.

“Don’t worry about it.” Jaden remarks, pointing to a nondescript dark car parked on the corner. “Jake’s watching the house, and I can guarantee that Bean will be safe.” She takes her eyes from the road to look at me. “And what makes you think that Ronnie is Aron?” She remarks, her lip slightly curled.

I feel like a deer in the headlights, only her headlights are bright blue. Well, one set of her headlights is bright blue. The other set is a milky white golden pinky color with lovely round pinkÉ… I laugh to myself, my sides shaking with effort as I try to put on a straight face.

“What are you laughing at?” Jaden predictably asks.

“You really don’t want to know. Trust me.” I tell her, and she doesn’t push the issue, simply rolling her eyes and focusing her full attention on the road. “And I just assumed that Aron and Ronnie were one in the same. Did I assume wrong?” I question her, adding, “And who is Jake and why is he watching the apartment?”

“Okay Sherlock, Aron and Ronnie are indeed one in the same. In fact, Aron hates to be called Ronnie, and so after our relationship started to turn, I called him Ronnie constantly. He hates it. So that’s why he told you to tell me that ‘Ronnie’ said hello, because he knew I’d recognize who he was. Secondly, Jake is an old friend of mine and he’s watching the house because he’ll do a better job than any cop. I called him from my way home today after you told me about Aron. He and his guys are going to keep a constant watch on the place, so don’t blow their cover. No interacting with them for any reason. Ignore them and pretend they don’t exist.”

Goddess, that’s the longest thing Jaden’s ever said to me. Well, not really, but it sure seems like it. “Okay.” I reply, wondering how good of an ‘old friend’ Jake is and just how many ‘old friends’ does Jaden have?

“I thought we’d go to Capilano’s.” Jaden remarks. “They have fabulous seafood among other things.”

I scrunch my nose up. Ick, I hate seafood, and fish too. Anything that swims or lives in the water I can’t eat. “Okay.” I answer agreeably. “If they have other stuff besides seafood, I’m sure I’ll find something great.”

“You don’t like seafood?” Jaden asks, her voice surprised.

“Nope, it’s gross.” I offer as an answer. She laughs and shakes her head.

“We can go somewhere else.” She suggests, but I rebuff her.

Arriving at the restaurant, we enter the lobby and I find Capilano’s to be very small and cozy. The other diners are dressed nicely, and I’m glad I wore this outfit rather than the jeans I had on. A cute waitress seats us and I glance over the menu, finding everything to be expensive beyond my dreams.

“Thirty-eight dollars for a steak?” I whisper to Jaden incredulously. She nods her head, her eyes never leaving the menu.

“But it’s good steak.” She replies and I giggle. I can’t believe she brought me somewhere so nice. I thought Jaden’s idea of ‘somewhere wonderful for dinner’ was somewhere without a drive-thru.

I shouldn’t say that, Jaden and I have gone wonderful places together; I just didn’t think she’d be into going somewhere this dressy and expensive. But I’m glad we came here, the atmosphere is lovely and the food sounds delicious.

The waitress returns, and Jaden orders the steamed mussels as an appetizer and the swordfish for her main course. Double gross.

“And for you, Miss?” The waitress asks, her pretty brown eyes shining in the low light. She has light brown hair and freckles, and I feel she’s looking at me weird.

“Um,” I stammer, looking down at my menu again. “The filet mignon, cooked medium please, with mashed potatoes, green beans, and garlic toast.” The waitress scribbles down my order. “Oh, and can I start with a salad? Italian dressing?” I ask, seeing Jaden grin from the other end of the table.

Her warm hand finds mine and grasps it. I settle my fingers in between hers, the soft linens of the table proving to be quite comfortable. The waitress finishes writing my order and gives me a dazzling smile. Blushing, I smile in return and as the waitress turns to walk away, she notices our clasped hands and turns her gaze to Jaden.

Jaden smiles at her, almost menacingly and the poor waitress rushes away.

“She was looking at me weird.” I tell Jaden.

“She loved you, she wanted to kiss you!” Jaden teases, sounding like Sandra Bullock in that one movie, ‘Miss Congeniality’ or something.

“She did not!” I protest, my face flushing even more.

“She wanted to marry you, have your babies..” Jaden continues, and I laugh loudly, earning us a few looks from the diners around us. I instantly quiet, not wanting to make a scene in this nice restaurant.

I gaze at Jaden, finding her exquisitely beautiful in this soft light. She smiles at me, squeezing my hand. I return her smile, wondering how I’m going to pose this difficult question. I chew on my bottom lip nervously, wishing that our appetizers would come so I could procrastinate asking Jaden to finish what she started earlier.

Glancing around, I don’t see our waitress anywhere. Deciding that I might as well just bite the bullet, I begin to speak.

“Can you tell me why you’re so afraid of Aron? What happened after Jonah found out about you using drugs?” I am careful to keep my voice low, to avoid anyone else overhearing our conversation. Jaden stiffens, but from the look on her face I can tell that she was expecting me to ask this.

“It seemed so simple.” Jaden begins, leaning over the table to be closer to me. I take her unconscious cue and leave my seat from across her, moving next to her in the booth. She welcomes my presence by putting her arm around my shoulders.

“We don’t have to talk about this here.” I tell her, giving her the chance to back out from telling me.

“No, I want to tell you.” She answers, her voice grim. “If I tell you somewhere in public, then I have to tell you and I can’t get upset.”

“Jaden, it’s good to get upset and feel emotions, regardless of if they are happy or sad. Only be feeling things can you heal.” I tell her, hoping she can understand.

She nods her head in agreement. “I know, but every time I try to tell you I get so upset I can’t finish. You need to know Grace, you have to know.”

“Okay.” I tell her, letting the subject drop.

“It was simple.” She begins again. “I told Jonah that I would go to the police with what I knew about Aron. I had enough inside information about him to lock him up for years. Jonah didn’t want me too, as much as he wanted Aron to pay for what he did, he thought I would be at risk if Aron found out I told on him.” Jaden pauses, licking her dry lips before taking a drink of her soda water. “Jonah and I decided that we would leave in the middle of the night in two days. In those two days, Jonah would stay at the hostel and I would stay with Aron, like nothing had changed. I would get any and all evidence I could against Aron and turn it in to the police on our way out of town.”

“What happened?” I ask, scared to hear the answer.

“I was an addict, that’s what happened.” She answers dryly. “Suddenly I was faced with the prospect of choosing between my brother who I loved more than anything or the drugs that I thought I needed more than anything. I knew if I stayed with Aron he would keep me so high that I wouldn’t be able to carry out the plan.”

“What did you do?” I question her again, mentally slapping myself for interrupting.

“I made a tough decision.” Jaden answers only to be interrupted again by the waitress who is delivering our appetizers. She hurriedly sets the plates down, not remarking on my changed seating arrangement, and leaves us to eat. I look disdainfully as Jaden eagerly digs into her mussels.

“I left Aron.” Jaden continues succinctly. “I packed up my few things, went to the hostel and told Jonah not to contact me and that we’d leave when I was ready, and using the money I had earned I got myself a hotel room.” She finishes another mussel before continuing.

“I didn’t want Jonah at the hotel with me in case Aron or his loser friends tried to find me. Aron said he’d kill me if I left, and I believed him. I spent weeks in that hotel in agony, trying to get the drugs out of my system.”

I almost choke on my salad. “I can’t believe you did that, how did you have the strength to kick yourself of a drug addiction?”

“Shh.” Jaden admonishes, giving me a harsh look. Oops, I guess I did say that a bit loud. None of the other diners seem to notice, but I still feel awful.

“Sorry.” I mumble, turning my attention back to my salad. Jaden leans over and gives me a sweet kiss on my cheek.

“Not a big deal.” She says, and I don’t know if she’s speaking of my outburst or her kicking her own addiction. “So after I was better, I turned my full attention to screwing Aron for all that he was worth. I went to the police and gave them a list of all of Aron’s inside people. Then I told him the usual locations where things happened as well as everyone and everything else I knew about. The police were ecstatic, here I am, this stupid fifteen-year-old kid completely giving them everything they need to know to cut down on Detroit’s drug problem.”

“You are so brave.” I tell her.

“I was stupid and naive.” She answers. “I honestly thought that I was smarter than Aron and that I could beat him.” Pausing, she adds softly. “I guess I was, and that’s why he did what he did.”

“What did he do?” I ask, already knowing the answer.

“Everything worked perfectly. The police were prepared to make their move on Aron. They had already arrested most of his group, and Aron’s so-called ‘trusted inner circle’ all ratted on him. The police had more than enough information to arrest him, and they were searching everywhere for him. I had called Jonah, told him to be ready and I would come to the hostel and we’d go home.”

Jaden stops speaking, and I see her trembling. Giving her all the comfort I can, I press my body next to hers and hold her hand. “It’s okay sweetheart, you don’t have to tell me, it’s okay.”

“No.” Jaden whispers, and I see her face, filled with emotions slowly fade and become stoic, her sad blue eyes becoming set and cold. “I was in the hotel, checking myself out and paying in cash. As I walked outside to get a cab, Aron grabbed me. He had a gun and it was pointed into my back. He told me that if I moved that he would kill me. We walked forever, it seemed, until we got to a bad part of town.”

“What happened?” I ask again, riveted by her tale.

“Well, what Aron didn’t know is I had someone from the police force following me. The police assigned me a bodyguard because they knew my life would be in danger. This officer saw Aron grab me and had followed us the entire way.”

“That was smart.” I add, not wanting to think about how much trouble Jaden would have been in if no one had seen Aron grab her.

“We went to this warehouse, Aron going in the back door. I couldn’t see the officer, but I knew that he had probably called for backup a long time ago and that Aron was going down.” She clears her throat. “What I didn’t know was that Aron had a trump card.”

“What?” I ask.

“Jonah.” She answers, her voice breaking. “Aron led me to a room, and I saw my brother, tied up in a chair. He looked so scared, Gracie.” My heart breaks at the anguish Jaden must have felt, and is still feeling.

“I’m so sorry.” I whisper to her, wishing I could take away her pain.

“Aron told me that if I didn’t go to the police and tell them that I was lying that he would kill Jonah. I wasn’t an idiot. I knew that Aron brought us both here to kill us. I was hoping that by agreeing to him I would buy us some time until the police got here. I told Aron I would, if he’d let Jonah go.”

“Did he?”

Jaden signs angrily and shakes her head. “He untied him and walked him to the door. I didn’t know if he was going to let him go or if it was just a plot. But Jonah refused to leave without me, and it took all of Aron’s strength to push Jonah out the door. Aron then shut and locked the door, telling me that he had a lot more to do to me than just kill me.” She shudders and regains her composure before continuing. “I don’t know what came over me. I lunged at him, taking him by surprise and knocking him over. The gun went flying and I managed to grab it first, pointing it at him. He laughed, taunting me and saying that I would never kill him. My finger tightened on the trigger, knowing how easy it would be to end it all. Jonah was banging on the door, screaming my name. I was so confused, I had a gun pointed at Aron and I didn’t know what to do, and Jonah wouldn’t stop screaming and banging. Holding the gun on Aron I opened the door and Jonah came running in. In the commotion, I never even saw Aron reach down to his leg and pull out another gun. He pointed it at Jonah and fired, the same time I fired the gun I had pointed at him.” Jaden’s words come out in one single breath and she has to stop to catch her breath before continuing.

“Aron killed him, instantly. I put a bullet in Aron’s shoulder, and before I could finish the job the police barged in. Aron held the three officers at gunpoint, and managed somehow to escape down the alley. He had someone waiting outside for him, and they couldn’t find him. Jonah was dead by the time that I reached him.”

“Oh Jaden, I am so sorry.” I tell her, pulling her into a warm hug. “I am so sorry you had to go through that.” She doesn’t respond, her arms hanging lifeless and I hug her closer. “You didn’t deserve what happened, and you didn’t kill Jonah. Jaden, it wasn’t your fault.”

“I don’t know why Aron is back.” Jaden begins, her voice gentle in my ear. “But I’m doing my damnedest to find out. I won’t let him hurt you.”

“I know.” I answer honestly.

“Our food, Grace.” Jaden remarks in my ear and I release her to find the waitress has appeared with our dinners. Even my remarkable appetite has been squashed as I look into Jaden’s haunted eyes. “Let’s eat, I’m starving.” She tells me, pushing her plate of half-eaten mussels away. She puts lemon on her fish and cuts one piece off. “Wow, this is incredible.”

I look at her like she’s just gone crazy. I don’t understand how she can be hungry after telling me what she just told me. “Jaden, are you okay?” I ask, and from the look she gives me I wish I hadn’t asked. Her beautiful eyes are guarded and cold. I realize that this is how she copes with things, and that it’s the only way she can function despite the pain she’s in. I nod in understanding, and turn my attention to my steak.

“Thank you for being open with me.” I tell her. “I really appreciate it.”

“I appreciate you.” She answers, her lips quirking slightly as I look to her. “I don’t mean to be a bitch, Grace.”

“I know.” I answer, smiling at her. She smiles in surprise and continues devouring her dinner. I dig into my steak, feeling strangely at peace regardless of what I have just learned.
Part 12

June 28, 2000
“Can I talk to you?” I ask, my voice low as I address my captain. Without a word he heads for his office and I take that as my cue to follow. I shut the door firmly behind me and sit at the chair across from his desk. He seats himself behind his desk, and takes out a pad of notebook paper.

It’s safe; I had it checked this morning. But we can’t be too careful.

He turns on his radio, the annoying sound of classic rock filling the office.

I nod; having spoken to him about my thought that there was a good chance Aron has someone on the inside who could bug the place.

“Let’s do this.” I tell him, and his grayed brows rise in surprise. “We’re not ever going to be more ready, let’s do it now.”

“Okay.” He answers, and I’m surprised that he’s not going to put up a fight. He smiles gruffly at me, adding, “I trust you, if you say you’re ready, I believe you.”

“Thank you.” I tell him honestly. “I want to get this over and done with. Where do we go from here?” I ask, handing him my file I’ve put together on Aron.

He efficiently flips through it, making grunts of surprised approval. “Good work, you’ve managed to find out more in a few days then any of our specialists have been able to do in months.” He looks at me in astonishment. “How did you do this?” He questions, his intense face studying mine.

I shrug, looking into his eyes. “You told me you needed me because I’m the best. I don’t plan on proving you wrong.” He slowly nods.

“I guess so. You interested in moving form the mounted department? If so, let me know.”

I grin at him, shaking my head. “You know me better than that sir. I love what I do.”

“Just a thought.” He finishes, clearing his throat and opening the file again. I know he wants to get down to business. “You and detective Steele will work together. He’s a specialist that’s been brought in.”

“No.” I tell him simply. “I work alone on this.”

“I won’t have it Phillips, the suspect is too dangerous. I need you with Steele.”

“No.” I repeat again, standing firm. “I have reason to believe that the someone in this department has led the suspect on to our investigation. I don’t trust anyone.”

“Not even me?” My captain asks, his voice low. I look into his weathered eyes, finding nothing there but openness. I hope I can trust him; I sure as hell want to have someone on my side here. My gut tells me to trust him.

“I trust you sir. But I don’t know detective Steele.”

“You’ll get to know him. He’s earned my respect Phillips, and that should mean something to you.”

“Fine.” I answer him, effectively dismissing the argument. If I have to work with him, I will. But I don’t have to trust him.

“You and Steele need to meet the suspect and exchange him in a sale. If that goes cleanly, we move in to take him out. It should be enough to put him away.”

“It won’t work.” I argue. “He’s too smart to fall for that.” I sigh, exasperated. “It’s been tried with him before. We need to get someone on the inside, someone who can get recorded evidence of his past crimes. That’s our only way.”

My captain looks at me warily. “What do you propose?” He asks, and I’m surprised that he didn’t overrule me. He must agree with my opinion on the plan.

“Either detective Steele or myself must find our way into his inner circle and get hard evidence, or find someone willing to testify against him.”

“Too dangerous.” He adds. “It will never happen.”

“I’ve done it before.” I tell him quietly. He looks at me in question as I slide a piece of paper over to him. It’s the information I purposely left out of the file, the information about my history with Aron and my role as an informant with the police.

His eyes register shock as he reads the paper. “What happened?” He asks, his voice hushed.

I tell him the entire story, from my drug abuse to Jonah’s death. To his credit, my captain doesn’t flinch once, even when hearing of my illegal activities. He holds all of the power right now, the ability to kick me out of law enforcement for good, the ability to arrest me, and most important, his ability to lose all respect for me.

He sits back in his chair, folding his wide hands over his trim stomach. I sit before him, open and vulnerable, nervous since my first day on the force.

“There isn’t anyone here who has been a completely upright, law-abiding citizen. Phillips, you’re too good of an officer to be punished for mistakes you made as a kid.” I let out the breath I was holding, relieved. “The fact that you had the guts to go after this guy then and now means more to me than your past. I’m honored to be working alongside you.”

He stands, moving from behind his desk to pull me into an awkward hug. He breaks it uncomfortably, sitting down again once more. “If you don’t mind me asking, how did you pass background checks to be eligible for law enforcement?”

“I lied.” I tell him. “I was 15 and scared out of my mind. I refused to give the police my real name and they knew me only as Jay. I told the police that my brother Jon and I were on our own, and that our mother abandoned us. Which was true, in our case. The police only knew us as Jay and Jon. When Jonah died, I fled and came back to Massachusetts. I was too scared to stay there.”

He nods, his eyes compassionate. “I’m sorry.” He offers, and I smile tersely, anxious to get this conversation over with.

“Thank you for understanding sir.” I tell him, and he clears his throat in acknowledgement.

“Back to business.” He states. “I think you should excuse yourself from this assignment. You should have from the beginning.” From the look on his face, I know he’s expecting my argument.

I sit and think, pondering the option he just gave me. He’s just allowed me permission to back down and away from this. To put Grace and myself out of danger. I could take her away somewhere, maybe even out of the country until this is resolved and Aron locked away. We could relax and spend some time together, no worries, no cares. The ticket to freedom, or I can be stupid and go through with this mission and put Grace in danger. Be stupid and get Aron out of my life once and for all.

“I’m no quitter.” I tell him, effectively making up my mind. I never said I wasn’t stupid. “I know this guy, better than anyone else you have. I can do this, and I need to do this. Not only for the safety of others, but for personal reasons.”

The only sound is from the radio, the captain tensely going over what I’ve said. He is lost in thought, his eyes darting back and forth. His ass is on the line, if anyone finds out about this he has as much to lose as I do.

“I’ll go get Steele.” The captain finally mutters, standing up and walking towards his office door. “I don’t feel right about this Phillips, but I need you.”

I smile at him, my eyes narrowing at the thought of finally being able to get the best of Aron. “I won’t let you down.” I tell the captain and he exits the office.

Returning shortly, the captain enters the office trailed by a guy that might as well be a Greek God. He’s tall, with long sandy brown hair and chiseled features. Jesus Christ, he’s so big he should be a wrestler. I stand, shaking his hand and observing his clear blue eyes. My first impression tells me that he’s honest and a good person, the innocent intelligence in his eyes reminds me of my Grace.

“Detective Steele, Detective Phillips.” The captain offers as a quick introduction. “Please be seated officers.”

We all sit. “Why are you only a detective?” I ask Steele before we can get the conversation started again. “If you’re as good as the captain has been making you out to be, I’d think you would be a bit higher on the food chain.”

Steele smiles, a friendly and handsome smile. “I haven’t been in law enforcement that long, not nearly as long as you have detective Phillips.” He adds, emphasizing the detective part.

“Point taken.” I add, smiling at him, glad he stood up to me.

“How do you think we should do this?” I ask Steele. His light eyes eagerly tell his thoughts on our assignment.

“Move in and take him out. Easy as that.” He responds, and I am surprised at his confidence.

“It’s not that easy. This suspect is good at what he does.”

“I’m better.” Steele answers easily, and for some reason I believe him.

“What makes you so sure?” I argue, not wanting him to think I’m impressed with him.

“Something has got him scared. The suspect has been running lately and making mistakes. With careful review of his history, I first that that he was purposely being sloppy, but now I don’t think that’s the case. He’s afraid of something, and we can use that to our advantage.”

I nod, thinking about what he’s said. He’s exactly right. The captain is saying nothing, simply listening to our ideas and allowing our new partnership to work itself out.

“This is what I want to do.” I begin, both the captain and Steele’s eyes avidly watching me. “I want Steele to move in on the suspect’s inner trusted circle. Aron’s got them on high alert now, so we don’t want to do anything that will tip them off. From what I know of Aron, he’s eliminating everyone know how he doesn’t trust. We need to get information from these people before they are killed.”

“And stop them from being killed.” Steele adds.

“Right.” I offer and the captain nods in agreement.

“If you think it’s the only way.” The captain relents, not liking the plan.

“It is.” Both Steele and I answer. I look to him, smiling at his excited face.

“Okay, we meet tonight at the location detailed in my report.” I stand.

“I’ll be there.” Steele responds, shaking my hand again. I nod at him, trusting my first impression that he will be okay.

“Good luck you too.” The captain offers, and I give them both a reassuring smile.

I leave the office, stopping quickly at my desk to collect my things before heading home. I take the stairs down a floor and pause at the dispatch desk to visit my second favorite girl.

“Hey.” I say to Diana, glad she’s not on call at the moment.

“Hey yourself.” She answers, standing up to give me a quick hug. What’s with everyone hugging me today? I’m not exactly a huggable person. “How’s Grace?” She asks, smiling.

“She’s going back to Ohio.” I answer her, my eyes low. “Can I talk to you in private?” I ask, my voice on the verge of tears.

“Of course!” She answers, telling the other women working dispatch that she’s taking a quick break.

We walk out to the hall and I pull her into a back corner that sees little traffic. Seeing there’s no one around I start the conversation again.

“How’s Joe and Kasey?”

“Wonderful.” Diana answers, confused by my actions. “What did you do to Grace? I can’t believe you’re splitting up! You idiot Jaden, what is wrong with you? I’m going to kick your stupid butt!”

I put my hand on her shoulders to quiet her down. Leaning towards her, I whisper in her ear. “I need you to act like Grace is leaving, okay? I’m on a really dangerous assignment and Grace is in danger.” I pull back away from Diana, feigning sobs in case the hallway is bugged.

“Shit, Jaden that sucks. I’m so sorry. You guys were great together. That really sucks that she’s leaving.” Diana adds, playing her part perfectly.

“I know.” I add, sobbing louder and leaning down to whisper to her again. “Can I send her up to your cabin in Maine until this is over? A few weeks, maybe I’ll need it.”

“Anything I can do to help, Jaden.” Diana adds, shaking her head yes.

“Thanks. I’m so glad to have such a good friend.” I tell her. Whispering once again, I add, “Someone in the department is tipping the suspect off. Do me a favor and try to spread it around that my roommate is moving back to Ohio, okay? And I’ll get the keys from Joe on my way home.”

“You do have a good friend. Why don’t you come over for dinner tonight, okay?” Diana finishes, giving me a perfect excuse to be seen going over to her house. “I’m leaving soon.”

“Great, I’ll head right over.” I tell her, smiling and hugging her. She’s a wonderful friend; I have to remember to treat her better.

I get in my Explorer and leave the parking lot, and as expected a dark car slides out of a parking space near mine and begins to trail me. I have a little fun with my follower and take the long and winding back roads to Diana and Joe’s, allowing Diana to make it home before I do. I get to their neighborhood and park, seeing her car in its spot.

I leave my car, watching my follower speed off down the street as I make my way to their walkway. I’m greeted with the usual amount of chaos, dogs barking and Kasey loudly exclaiming my presence.

I pick her up, giving her a kiss on her cheek. “Hi munchkin.” I greet her and she giggles.

“Where’s Pixie Head?” She asks, pouting.

“At home.” I tell her. She looks perturbed and I set her down, shooing her off to her playroom.

Joe hands me the keys and I quickly shove them in my pocket. “Thanks.” I tell him, and he puts his arm around my shoulders.

“That blows that she’s leaving.” Joe mentions. I nod, agreeing with him. Diana is a goddess. She probably realizes that her and Joe might be being watched and followed and is going to keep this going. She rules.

“Smells good.” I tell them as I sit at the table.

“Ordered it myself.” Joe adds, laughing as he takes the pizza from the counter and sets it on the table.

“My hero.” Diana tells him, putting her hand to her head and swooning. We all laugh as we eat our pizza. Kasey is singing loudly in the other room to the chorus of the dogs barking. Even if Aron does have this place bugged, he’d never be able to hear anything with all this racket.

After our quick dinner, I make my way to the door. I’m tired and really want to spend a few hours with Grace before meeting Steele again. I need to convince her to go to the cabin, and I know she’s not going to like it.

“Thanks guys.” I tell them at the door. I hug Diana and then Joe, mentioning in his ear, “Be careful, I don’t want you in danger.”

Joe smiles at me, understanding what I mean. He’s from an old Italian family that probably invented the Mafia, so I know he’ll make sure Diana and Kasey are guarded. We love to tease Joe about his family; they make the cast from the Godfather look like pussies.

I’m surprisingly not being followed home, and I enjoy the quick drive. As I round the corner to my street I see Jake’s car parked. I take comfort in the fact that I’ve had Jake and his guys watching the place. I wanted someone here to protect Grace especially after her run-in with Aron, but I didn’t want to ask another officer in case they weren’t trustworthy.

Jake was one of my best friends in the academy, but instead of going on to become an officer he decided he rather be an investigator. This led to him starting a very lucrative bodyguard business. I’m sure that 100% of what he does is not legal, but I trust him and most importantly, I trust him with Grace.

I check my mailbox, knowing Jake will leave a printout of any activity of my place for me. As expected, there is an envelope confirming my subscription to “Playboy.” I snort, admiring Jake’s sense of humor and open the envelope, revealing the white paper that tells me that nothing suspicious happened today. It should make me feel better, but it doesn’t.

Aron won’t give up.

I stand in the hallway of the apartment building, dreading the walk up the stairs. I have to go and break the news to Grace that I need her to leave for a while. She’s not going to take it well, but how can I expect her too? She just got here to get away from trouble and now I’m putting her right back into it. I know it’s not my fault that Aron just showed up out of nowhere; it’s just rotten luck.

I talked to Jake and he agreed to have one of his best guys accompany Grace up to the cabin just in case Aron found out. She will be completely protected, and get to spend a few weeks on a beautiful and quiet lake with her dog. She should have a wonderful and relaxing time.

But I know Grace and I know she’ll worry. She won’t want to go and I don’t want her to go. I’m going to miss her.

I have to do what’s best for her though, regardless of my feelings. She’s going to be so pissed.

I sigh and begin walking up the stairs. Can’t I ever just come home with good news?
Part 13

June 28, 2000
“No.” I state, folding my arms over my chest. I can’t fucking believe this.

“Grace, please.” Jaden answers, her blue eyes pleading with me to give in.

“I will not leave. This is bullshit, Jaden!” I tell her, raising my voice. “Didn’t we just talk about this? About you allowing me to make my own decisions?” I uncross my arms, angrily slamming my fist down on the counter. “Why don’t you trust me to do what’s best for me? You’re not my fucking mother!”

Jaden doesn’t flinch as I continue to assault her tiled countertop. “I do trust you Grace, I just can’t see you hurt.”

“Why do you think I’m going to get hurt? I’m a big girl, Jaden and I can take care of myself!” I sigh angrily, running my hands through my short hair. “It’s bad enough I can’t even take the dog out to pee without those goons you hired watching my every move. Now you want to send me away to the middle of bumfuck so you can run around after some lunatic?”

She doesn’t answer me, her cerulean eyes angry. Despite my frustration and pissed-off attitude, I find her eyes mesmerizing and I can’t help but watch the beautiful intertwining of colors as she glares at me.

“Grace, listen..”

“No, you listen to me.” I interrupt her, and I don’t know who’s more surprised at my forcefulness, Jaden or myself. “I will not be in a relationship where I am told what to do and when to do it. I don’t want you to control me Jaden, for the first time in my life I feel like I’m in control of myself. I’m not willing to give that up.”

“I’m not asking you to give that up!” She states, her voice angry. “I am asking you to think intelligently about this situation. Jesus Christ Grace, Aron has already approached you once! He knows you live here, and he’ll do whatever he can to get at me. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the way to get to me is through you! Will you just take a step back and look at this situation?”

“Don’t you dare call me stupid!” I respond, putting my hands on my hips. “I am thinking intelligently about this! I don’t want to go live in a fucking cabin by myself until either you get killed or you kill him!”

“It will be relaxing!” Jaden argues, raising her voice above mine. “You and Bean can sit by the lake, you can write and have a vacation!”

“Oh, yeah, real relaxing. Sitting by the lake, writing in my journal about how I wonder if you’re dead. That’s my idea of a fucking vacation.” I retort sarcastically. “I care about you Jaden. Do you really think I’m going to be able to sit up there not knowing how you’re doing? Or what you’re doing?” I pause, the anger seeping from my voice, leaving me emotionally drained. “I don’t want to lose you. I love you so much that it hurts me.” I step towards her, and place my hands on her arms folded across her chest. “Please don’t send me away.”

“Gracie, I don’t want to send you away.” She says softly. Her angry eyes begin to settle, looking much like the Atlantic after a rainstorm. “But why can’t you see that it’s my only choice?”

“It’s not your only choice.” I argue, not ready to give in to her request. “Why can’t I stay here? You have people watching me!”
“It’s not enough.” Jaden responds, her face tired and set. I know that face; it’s her ‘I’m not giving up no matter what you say’ face. Fuck. I don’t want to go to a cabin by myself. I don’t want to leave her.

“Why?” I ask her, my face equally as tired and set.

“Why what?” She responds, confused.

“Why is it not enough?” I clarify and she gently removes my hands from her crossed arms and exits the kitchen. Where the fuck is she going? I really hope she doesn’t leave this argument like this and just expect me to go.

I barely hear her rummaging around in her bedroom over the insanely loud Aerosmith she insisted on blasting as soon as she got home. The neighbors must love us.

She returns, a picture in hand. Showing it to me, I see a picture of a teenaged Jaden and an older boy, both with equally striking good looks and dazzling smiles.

“This is why it isn’t enough Grace.” She speaks, her voice low. “Jonah’s blood is why it isn’t enough. The death of the person I love is why this isn’t enough!” Her last sentence comes out in a screech and in a flurry she throws the picture down and roughly grabs my arms. “Listen to me.” She yells, shaking me. “I won’t have you die. I love you and I won’t have you die! He will kill you Grace. Kill you!” Jaden’s voice is pure rage and she violently shakes me back and forth. I struggle in her grasp, and find her stronger than Scott could ever hope to be.

I’m surprisingly not scared, regardless of Jaden’s strong grip. She could hurt me easily, even kill me. I know she won’t do that. She could never hurt me. I stop struggling and let my body go limp. She releases me with a sob and falls to the floor.

“Jaden, shhh.” I kneel down on the floor next to her prone body. “It’s okay.” I don’t really know what else to say to her so instead I just wrap my arms around her and hold her. She cries into my embrace and I stroke her thick hair.

“I don’t want you to get hurt.” She says in-between sobs. “You mean so much to me and I can’t see you get hurt because of me.”

“I know that scares you.” I tell her, continuing to run my hands through her raven hair. “But Jaden, you need to let go of your guilt. It was horrible that Jonah had to die, and even more horrible what Aron did to you. But it wasn’t your fault.” I try to tell her with as much conviction as I can, knowing that even if Jonah came back from the dead to release Jaden of her guilt it wouldn’t work.

“It was my fault.” She mumbles into my shoulder.

“No, it was a horrible accident.” I respond, pulling her up to look in my eyes. “No one blames you for Jonah’s death Jaden. No one but yourself.”

Her blue eyes vacantly look into mine and I can’t help but wonder how much of Jaden is really present right now. She looks like she’s miles away.

“Jonah wouldn’t want you to feel guilty Jaden. He loved you so much, as much as you love him.” I cock my head to the side, trying to meet her averted gaze. “Let your guilt go.”

“I can’t.” She whispers, looking like a terrified child. “Not while Aron is still around. I have to stop him for good.”

“Revenge isn’t the answer.” I plead with her. “Please Jaden, what good will come out of you killing Aron? It won’t bring Jonah back.”

“I’ll feel better.” She argues, her face still dazed and emotionless.

“No you won’t.” I argue. “Killing Aron will only make you a murderer.”

“I’ll have avenged Jonah’s death.” Jaden responds, her eyes now coming to life. They look like ice fragments, and just looking at them makes me shiver.

“He wouldn’t have wanted that. Do you think Jonah wants his little sister to be a murderer?” I am getting angrier than I should and I struggle to keep my voice calm. Jaden doesn’t deserve to be yelled at right now. “Please Jaden, think about what Jonah would have wanted.”

She doesn’t answer, and her face suddenly breaks from its’ stoic mask. Wiping the tears from her face with the back of her hand she avoids looking at me. She starts to stand up and I reach for her arm and pull her down.

“Don’t run away from me. Please.”

Jaden sighs and sits back on the cool floor. “I don’t know what you want me to say Grace.” She looks warily into my eyes.

“Tell me how you feel.” I beg her, wanting her to be open.

“I feel like shit.” She begins, the corners of her mouth turning into a wry smile.

“I know you do.” I answer her.

“Listen, Grace, I’m really sorry for grabbing you. Did I hurt you?” She asks, her eyes expressive and apologetic. I rub my upper arms, tender from where she shook me.

“A little.” I answer her honestly. She looks as if her heart is breaking as she struggles to apologize.

“I know you didn’t mean to hurt me. I know that you were just upset in the moment. I’m not mad at you Jaden, I understand.”

“Thank you.” She says softly. “I’m sorry.”

“I know.”

She clears her throat nervously. “You’re right. Jonah wouldn’t want me to become a murderer. And I don’t want that for myself either. I’ll do whatever I can to have it not come to that.”

I nod my head. “I’m proud of you.”

“I’m sorry I put you in this situation.” She adds.

“No. You didn’t put me in this situation, remember? I’m a big girl who made her own decision to move here. Though, maybe a heads up about Aron would have been nice.” I smile at her to let her know I’m only joking. “We all have secrets Jaden. Just try to keep me informed for the future, okay?”

She nods solemnly. “Promise.”

I stand up, offering a hand to help her up. It’s so strange, we’ve done this before but it’s always been Jaden helping me up. I know that she needs me to be strong right now, and that she is trying to do what is the best for me. But that still doesn’t make me want to go live in a fucking cabin.

“Grace, you know me well enough that I wouldn’t ask you to do this unless I thought it was necessary.” She begins, her voice calm.

“I know.” I answer.

“So just hear me out, okay?”

“Okay.” I relent.

“Joe and Diana have a cabin in Maine. It’s really pretty; I’ve been there before. It’s right on the lake, and there is no one around for miles. Your nearest neighbor is the grocery store plaza two miles up the road. The lake is beautiful, and you can swim. There’s a rowboat you can take out, woods to walk through, and everything. I think you and Bean will have a great time.”

“Do they have TV?”

She smiles at me. “Yes, you won’t have to miss ER.”

I sigh. “How about a phone? Can I call you?”

She shakes her head solemnly. “I can’t be in touch with you, I don’t want to put you in danger.” She pauses. “But yes, there is a phone. I talked to Diana today and got the keys from her. Everything is in working order; there is a caretaker that sees to the place every once in awhile. It’s stocked with food, and ready for you to go.”

“When?” I question, not liking where Jaden is going with this.

“Tonight.” She answers.

“What?!” I exclaim loudly, grateful for the loud music still blasting fro the stereo. Jaden isn’t convinced that this place is bugged and didn’t want anyone overhearing our conversation.

“It has to be tonight.” She continues.

“Why?”

“Because it just has too. I told everyone at the station today that we broke up and you’re moving back to Ohio. It has to look real.”

“This is crazy.” I argue, pacing back and forth.

“Grace, everything is set for tonight. Please, believe me that this is my last resort.”

The most insane thing about this entire fucking plan is that I do believe Jaden and that this is her last resort. I still don’t like it, but I don’t know how to stop it.

“What do you need me to do?” I ask her, resigned to my fate.

“I need you to pack your things. Take anything that is important to you; make it look like you’re leaving for good. Then I need you to yell at me to turn the music down and we need to have a huge fight that ends with you leaving for Ohio. If we are being bugged, that should be enough to make them think you’re leaving.”

“Okay, then what?” I question unbelievingly. I can’t believe I’m going along with this.

“One of Jake’s best guys is coming over with a double for you. She’ll come in and will leave in your clothes and get in your car, hell bent on Ohio. You will get in her clothes and leave with Jake’s guy for the cabin.”

“What the fuck?”

“I know it sounds crazy Grace, but it will work. Trust me.”

I sigh. I do trust her, and maybe that is what’s wrong with me.
Later that evening:
I can’t even believe this. I’m in the car with Ian, who looks very much unlike what I pictured a bodyguard to look like. He’s short, with shaggy curly blonde hair. He is very nice though, talking easily about the beautiful scenery. He’s lived here all his life and was born in Maine. He said the lake we’re staying on is great for fishing.

Wonderful.

Jaden’s “plan” went over easily. Ian showed up with Jody, a woman who was my exact body type and height. They knocked on our door in the middle of my and Jaden’s “breakup fight” and Jaden introduced them as friends of hers. I took my cue to announce that I was leaving for Ohio and I was sick and tired of Jaden’s ways.

The next events of Jody and I switching outfits and exchanging wigs will forever be burned into my memory. I don’t know if it looked convincing should anyone be watching, but with Jaden’s attention to detail never failing to amaze me, I’m sure that it looked like Grace got in her car, headed for Ohio, and Jody and Ian went on their way.

Bean is snuggled in my lap and I stroke her absently while I look out the window. She was a good puppy for the way out to the car. We shoved her in Jody’s large handbag, and much to my puppy’s credit, she didn’t stir.

Jaden made sure that a bag of my important belongings including my journal and few treasured items found their way into Ian’s hands. Before I left she shoved an enormous amount of cash into my hand so I could buy food and clothes as well as a note.

I haven’t read the note yet. I think I’ll wait until I’m by myself and Ian is fishing or something.

“Welcome to Maine!” The roadside signs boldly exclaims.

I shut my eyes, feeling the tears well as if I am powerless to stop them.

Welcome to Maine.
Part 14

June 29, 2000

1:02am
I sigh, fiddling with the earpiece of my surveillance equipment. I wonder what Grace is doing. Probably sleeping or writing in her journal about how mad she is at her big dumb girlfriend who is sent her to a secluded cabin.

I hate this. Steele is in this trashy bar that has had a few too many Aron sightings to not check out. He’s wearing a wire as well as a tiny camera that is recording his every move. I have to admit, he’s pretty good. He’s doing a great job at making himself blend with the crowd as well as seek out the important people and make small talk.

No sign of Aron, not that I expected there to be. I’m assuming that he has my apartment bugged and has heard that Grace is gone. I hope that our big “fight” we had where she said she was going to leave worked to make Aron believe that it’s over between her and I. Aron is probably either checking out my place as we speak or having one of his idiots do it for him.

They won’t find any trace of Grace or where she’s gone. In case she’s being followed, I told Jody to drive all the way to Ohio and then double back and head for Toronto. None of Aron’s crew will want to cross the border; I’m sure they all have warrants so they will give up the chase. And by the time that Jody finishes the drive, the problem that is Aron should be taken care of.

Grace doesn’t want me to kill him. Truthfully, as much as the thought of watching him die pleases and excites me, I don’t really want to kill him either. I may be a lot of things, but a cold-blooded killer I’m not. But that doesn’t mean that I won’t take him down and enjoy it if I see it’s my only option.

I sigh again, listening to Steele try pathetically to hit on one of Aron’s trusted informants. She’s a tall blonde that changes her name so frequently I’ve only been able to keep track of her by her appearance. She’s gorgeous, but must be really fucked up to want to hang around Aron.

Actually, Steele isn’t all that pathetic. He’s handsome and quite charming without being fake. It just doesn’t do anything for me, I guess. He’s nothing like my Grace.

Grace. I hope she doesn’t hate me. I hope that she can read the letter I wrote her and maybe understand things better. Not that I’m any great letter writer, but I wanted her to have something before leaving for the cabin.

I shift in my seat, my eyes never leaving the tiny screen displaying Steele’s movements. He’s been playing pool with a few of Aron’s people for the past hour now, and the detective doesn’t have that bad of a shot. But now, Steele is moving. He’s going somewhere, and somewhere fast.

I don’t hear any sound in my earpiece other than normal bar sounds. The screen shows that Steele is climbing up some stairs, and I can hear his heavy breathing in my ear.

“Where are we going?” Steele’s voice asks, and I almost jump at the sudden sound of his loud voice in the earpiece.

“You’ll see. It’s a surprise.” The blonde’s voice purrs, answering him.

Shit. This isn’t good. Something tells me that this isn’t right. Clicking the button on the equipment that allows me to speak in Steele’s ear, I softly try to convey my feelings of alarm.

“Don’t trust her, it could be a trap.” I tell him, hoping he’ll listen.

“I don’t like surprises.” Steele voices loudly to the blonde, who responds by laughing.

“Bathroom.” I whisper quickly.

“I have to take a piss, I’ll be up in a minute.” He remarks to the blonde, and then calmly turns and heads down the stairs.

“Classy.” I remark.

“When in Rome….” He whispers back once he’s free of the blonde. I laugh silently as Steele pushes the door to the men’s room and heads for the urinal.

“Please don’t make me watch this.” I beg him jokingly while averting my eyes from the video screen.

“Jealous?” Steele responds to me, but looks at the guy at the urinal next to him. Jesus Christ, he’s a riot.

The guy nervously looks away and Steele’s low voice chuckles in my ear.

“What exactly am I supposed to be jealous of?” I ask Steele. “Doesn’t look like there’s much there.” I joke with him, forgetting for a minute how dangerous of an assignment we really are on.

“Ouch.” He answers, muttering under his breath as he washes his hands.

“Listen.” I command him, wanting to get back to business. “Don’t trust the blonde, she’s trouble. Watch your back with her, and don’t let her get you alone.”

Steele doesn’t answer, simply clearing his throat and leaving the bathroom. Aron’s blonde spots him quickly and rushes over to him.

I sigh for the umpteenth time, wishing I was at the quiet lakeside cabin with Grace.
June 29, 2000

9:54am
Slipping on my running shoes I walk to the back door of the cabin and open it slowly. The bright morning light streams in and my eyes involuntarily wince in reaction.

Bean stands on the threshold of the doorway, looking outside at the gorgeous wooded property and pristine sparkling lake with the reverence of a child on Christmas morning. She glances back to me and than outside again.

I smile at her fondly. “Go on.” I urge her, and she needs no further words. She bounds outside, racing around the backyard and down to the lake immediately.

By the time we arrived here last night, I was so upset and emotionally drained that I bid Ian goodnight and went straight to bed. Bean wasn’t really sure of where we were, but seemed content enough to sleep at the edge of my small bed.

Jaden was right about one thing, the cabin is beautiful. Small and quaint, it is furnished simply, with comfortable furniture inhabiting each tiny room. My bedroom has a beautiful view of the lakefront, and after I fell into the soft mattress I at once fell asleep.

Bean is now entirely in the lake, and seems to be paddling around much to her delight. Knowing that she’s a strong swimmer and won’t run off, I head back into the cabin and softly step into the tiny kitchen. There’s no sign of Ian this morning, and as nice as he was, I’m grateful to have some alone time. I need to debrief, so to speak, and sit and do nothing but have some breakfast, watch my dog play to her heart’s content, and think about what to do next.

I open the fridge, only halfway surprised to find it stocked to the gills with my favorite foods. Jaden wasn’t lying when she said she had a plan and everything worked out. I grab a Coke and put a bagel in the toaster, grateful that if I must spend time alone here that at least I’ll be fed well.

I make my breakfast leisurely, enjoying the quietness of the morning. Spying fresh fruit on the counter, I grab a banana for myself and an apple for Bean. She loves to play with them, for some strange reason.

I head back outside through the back door and walk down to the lakefront. Bean has already managed to dig a few harmless holes and chew numerous pieces of driftwood. She looks up at me when she hears me approach, her puppy face delighted to be here.

Well, at least that makes one of us. “Here girl.” I tell her, offering the apple. She grabs it out of my hand and proceeds to roll it around on the sandy shore before dunking it in the water and playing her own mini-version of apple bobbing.

Crazy dog. She must be part raccoon, seeing she loves to wash her food before eating it so much.

I sit on a semi-dry piece of sand and survey my surroundings. The lake is so pretty, absolutely a pond compared to Lake Erie but large enough to provide fishermen and boaters alike with plenty of entertainment.

The woodlands surrounding it seem to be completely untouched, despite the few houses that dot the distant shore. On my side of the shore, the cabin seems to be the only dwelling.

I recall the long and winding road that led to the cabin’s driveway. Jaden was right, there really isn’t anything around here for miles.

That thought both comforts and terrifies me.

What if Ian isn’t what Jaden thought? I know she would never intentionally put me in harm’s way, but how does she know that Ian isn’t working for Aron? It makes me nervous to think that I’m so helpless here, my only company a small but wimpy dog and a man I’ve never met before.

My real fears concern Jaden. How do I know that she’s not getting herself killed? Or has already? I feel nauseous at this thought. I would have known if something was the matter with her, wouldn’t I?

I hope so. I hate to think of her risking her life for Aron, or for anyone. She’s so important; I just wish that she knew that.

I kick the sand angrily. I hate this. I am so full of anger right now. I want to find Jaden, to scream and kick and argue until I get my way and she abandons her goal of catching Aron.

But I know it’s something she needs to do. Not only for Jonah’s memory, but also for her own soul. Maybe if Jaden catches Aron and he is punished for his past crimes, she will allow herself to be rid of her guilt.

I wish she were here with me. I wish that I could hug her and tell her that Jonah’s death wasn’t her fault and have her believe me. But I don’t know if she ever can.

Suddenly restless, I finish my breakfast and stand up. I need to burn off some of this mental energy. I don’t know how long I’m going to be able to stay here without going insane.

“Bean.” I call to her, and she comes running, the remains of her apple in her mouth. I glance back to the cabin, and still seeing no signs of Ian I shrug and head off towards the woods. The thought of being isolated in the cabin is too much for me, and I have an almost primal urge to explore the land around it, to orient myself in case of something.

What something? I’m not really sure. But if I can at least get my bearings and explore the woods and shore I know I’ll feel more comfortable being here in the middle of nowhere.

Seeing the makings of a trail, I squeeze through the brush grateful for the jogging pants I decided to wear this morning. Reaching the trail I look down each path before deciding on one. Bean drops her apple and trots at my heels as we head down the well worn and now overgrown lane.
Later that afternoon:
“What do we do now, Jaden?” Steele asks me. I really hate being asked that sometimes, especially if I have no clue to the answer. I take a moment in responding, pursing my lips in thought.

“I thought you had all the answers.” I answer, smiling at him to take the sting out of my words. “It just doesn’t make sense.” I mutter under my breath, as I sit back into the plush seats of the car.

“I know.” Steele muses, his light eyes equally as far away in thought. “Blondie was so into me, I don’t know what happened.”

I snort softly. “Aww, someone’s pride is bruised.” I tease him, trying to lighten the incredibly tense mood. Since last night we’ve been at each other’s throats.

“Yeah, like you could have done better.” Steele adds, baiting me. I just glare at him, and after seeing the feral look in my eyes he backs down quickly. “Sorry.”

“Whatever.” I respond. The silence following is deafening and both Steele and myself are too damn stubborn to be the first one to speak.

Luckily, the phone does it for us. The shrill ringing of Steele’s cellular pierces my sensitive ears and I rub my eyes tiredly as he answers.

We stayed out all night last night, at that stupid club. Aron never showed, not that we expected him too, but Steele seemed to have Aron’s blonde wrapped around his finger. After he returned from the bathroom she breathed into his ear that she’d be back in a few minutes.

She never came back. Steele waited there until well after last call, until he was all but thrown out. I sat in the car and watched the perimeter, and got the license plate of the car that the blonde got into. It’s registered to a Carol Ann Silva, and was reported stolen last night.

Of course, by the time that I found that out it was too late to give chase. I refused to leave Steele at the club with no backup to follow the blonde, so I called in the license plate and requested another patrol unit to check it out. No one could find any trace of the car; the blonde was already long gone. At least we have some real charges to bring her up on if we ever see her again.

“Okay.” Steele finishes definitely. “We’re on our way.” He looks at me, his intelligent eyes carrying a sense of disappointment.

“What?” I snap impatiently.

“It’s Aron’s blonde.” He begins, clearing his throat. “She’s dead.”
Part 15

June 29, 2000
“There you are! Where the hell were you?” Ian exclaims in frustration as I walk back into the cabin. I am dirty and sweaty from my walk in the woods and not really in the mood to report to him.

“I went for a walk.” I answer defensively.

“You really had me scared, Grace.” He responds quietly, and I can’t help but feel like a jerk.

“I’m sorry.” I offer. “I didn’t know where you were this morning so I couldn’t tell you where I was going.”

He frowns, digesting what I’ve said. “You didn’t get my note?”

I shake my head. “No. Where did you leave it?”

“On the counter.” He responds, going into the small kitchen to look. I follow him, wondering if I was so out of it this morning that I totally missed the note he left. The counter is empty, however, except for the large shopping bag Ian must have just brought in.

“I could have sworn I left it in here.” Ian mutters, looking under the bag and around the kitchen’s tidy floor. “Next time I’ll just stick it to the fridge.” He remarks offhandedly, smiling at me. “I’m sorry for acting like an overprotective father, but I’m afraid of what Jaden would do to me if anything happened to you.”

I smile at him, only imagining the threats Jaden delivered to Ian. “I’m sorry too for not leaving a note.”

“No harm done.” He says, ending the conversation as he begins to unload the bag. “Did you have a nice walk?” He asks conversationally.

“It was beautiful. There are a lot of trails and it was really peaceful.”

“Sounds like it. Be careful though, I don’t want you getting lost out there.” He adds, taking a white Styrofoam container out of the bag.

“What’s that?” I ask curiously, pointing at the container.

“Bait.” He answers, laughing.

“Bait for what?” I question, taking the lid off of the container to reveal a billion fat and entangled earthworms. “Ew.” I remark, put the lid back on and set it on the counter. “What do you have those for?”

“You, my dear,” Ian begins as he removes two small fishing poles from the shopping bag, “are going to learn how to fish.”

I wrinkle my nose, not nearly as excited by this prospect as he is. “Isn’t that mean?” I ask, not liking the thought of killing innocent fish just for sport.

“We’ll throw them back.” He promises, and I relent. What can it hurt? At least it will make the time go by faster until I can see Jaden again.
June 29, 2000

That afternoon
Steele and I sit in the captain’s office, trading nervous glances. We couldn’t go to the scene of the blonde’s death, in case it was being watched. So we came to the station, and are anxiously awaiting the captain’s return.

He was the one who called Steele. It seems like Blondie was stabbed and left for dead in a back alley not far from the club where Steele and I were last night. A homeless man supposedly witnessed the event and contacted the station. I can’t believe there was a witness, that’s unlike Aron to be this sloppy.

Lucky for us, our captain is a pretty smart fellow and contacted Steele and I as soon as he caught wind of her murder. He advised us to get down to the station immediately and that he’d be here ASAP to brief us of the situation.

“This sucks.” I mutter, having no idea of what to do now. It’s obvious that the blonde’s death wasn’t any accident or random murder. The last person she spoke with was Steele. So for Aron to suddenly murder her or have her murdered, he must know who Steele is. That’s not good for us at all.

“Sucks hard.” Steele offers, not looking up from his folded hands.

“Why was she taking you upstairs?” I ask, pursing my lips in thought.

“I don’t know.” Steele answers, thinking back to his conversation with the blonde at the club last night. His intelligent eyes meet mine. “But whatever was up there is what I think got her killed.”

“Me too.” I add, much to my surprise I actually like working with the guy. “Go over the conversation you had before starting upstairs with her.” I order, having already committed the exchange to memory, but I want to see his take on it.

He shrugs, pausing to think before speaking. “We were talking about how I was new in town and I asked her if she knew how I could get fucked up.” He’s silent for a moment, his handsome face blushing at his use of fowl language in front of me. I roll my eyes at him, and gesture for him to continue. “Anyway, she asked if I had the resources to make it worth her while and I said that money wasn’t an issue. Then we started up the stairs and you told me not to go.”

“Not exactly.” I interrupt him and he looks at me in surprise. “Blondie asked you to follow her upstairs, but as soon as you agreed, she paused to whisper into some guy’s ear. I couldn’t hear because your microphone didn’t pick it up and it was so loud in the club, but it made me have second thoughts about you going up there with no backup.”

“Yeah, I had a bad feeling too. I thought it was too easy, and she seemed to eager to get me upstairs. If she was really one of Aron’s best, there’s no way that I would have been able to breech her defensives that easily. Regardless of my good looks and incredible charm, I mean.” He adds, chuckling.

“Yeah, you’re a regular ladies’ man. That must explain why I haven’t fallen for you so-called good looks and incredible charm, right?” I retort sarcastically.

“There’s still time.” He responds confidently.

“There’s not enough time in the world.” I snap good-naturedly. “Besides, you’re not that good looking. And you could use a few tips on charm.”

He claps his fist over his heart. “That hurt, Phillips.” We chuckle and are relieved by the tension-breaking sarcasm. The door swings open, revealing the captain’s impressive form. Steele immediately stands up to nod at the captain. I groan, muttering to Steele about being a kiss-up and pull myself to my feet.

The captain nods at us both, giving us a tense smile. “She was murdered.” He begins, wasting no time. “No signs of struggle, she knew her attacker. The coroner is running a tox screen, and I expect it to come back positive for who knows what. The murderer slit her throat and left her for dead.”

I clear my throat. “What about the witness?”

“A homeless man who supposedly makes his home in that alley. He says he saw a tall bearded guy arguing with the blonde, he suddenly picked her up and slit her throat. The witness hid, but was discovered by the murderer. He says the murderer gave him a message.”

The captain stops unexpectedly and I try and contain my impatience. “What was the message?” I finally ask.

“I don’t know.” The captain answers quietly. “The witness said he’ll only give the message to you, Jaden.”

“What?” Both Steele and I respond in unison.

“He won’t talk to anyone but Jaden.” The captain repeats and looks at me, his weathered eyes unsettled.

I sigh and nervously run my hands through my hair and look back and forth between Steele and the captain, unsure as to what to say.

****

“What kind of fish are we fishing for?” I ask Ian, waking him from his doze.

“Whatever kind is hungry.” He responds without opening his eyes.

“Ha ha.” I answer sarcastically. “Well, nothing seems to be hungry except for me.”

“Me too.” He responds, sighing and stretching in his chair. “Wanna get dinner in a few?”

“Yeah.” I remark. I’m bored to death and so is Bean. She is sitting next to me, looking longingly at the water. She’s been forbidden to swim during fishing time because Ian claimed that she was scaring all the fish. I don’t think there’s any fish to scare, we’ve been out here all day and only caught one fish. Well, Ian caught one. I didn’t catch anything.

“I’m hungry, let’s go in.” Ian says finally, looking up at the late afternoon sun. “What do you want to have?”

“Pizza.” I answer, not in the mood to cook. I’m pretty grumpy but trying really hard to not take it out on Ian. He’s probably just as thrilled to be stuck here with me as I am with him, so we might as well make the best of it.

I stand up and dust off my shorts. He stands with me, reeling in his line. The poles he bought were actually pretty cool, they were in two parts and it was really easy to put them together and get them all hooked up.

“How about I do dinner, okay? I’ll go put one of those frozen pizzas in the oven and make salad if you clean up out here.” He smiles, handing me his fishing rod. “Deal?” “Deal.” I agree, taking the fishing rod. “You just don’t want me touching dinner because you were such a baby about taking the only fish we caught today off of the hook that you made me do it!” I tease him with my fishy hands and he throws his up in mock defense.

“He was scary and had all those spiky fins! They’re sharp!” Ian says, struggling to retain his pride.

“Just admit it, you’re a scaredy cat.” I continue to tease him and he laughs. “Geez, I feel so safe with you defending me.” I add, now laughing myself.

“Hey, just remember,” He says, waggling his eyesbrows, “I’m the one with the gun.”

****

The three of us walk in silence down to where the witness of Blondie’s murder is being held. The tension is so think I feel like I’m choking on it.

“We appreciate you keeping this discreet.” I mention to the captain and he nods tersely. Sometimes I think that a terse nod is his response to everything.

“I’m going in with you.” Steele mentions as we reach the door to the room containing the witness.

“No you’re not.” I argue. “This could be a trap, this guy could work for Aron and I don’t want you being seen.”

“Wise up, Jaden, he’s on to us. Me going in there isn’t going to change anything.”

“He’s right.” The captain agrees, his voice low.

“I don’t care. This witness said he’s only talk to me, and that’s the only one he’s going to talk too. There is no reason why you should go in there and possibly influence what he’s going to say when you can just sit in the room next door and turn the speaker on!” I allow the last words to impact both the captain and Steele and I burst through the door alone.

The witness seated at the table looks up and smiles nervously. At once I can tell that he is someone working for Aron, most homeless don’t have shining white teeth. And most unfortunate people that end up homeless are honest and intelligent people who are fighting a bout of bad luck, not sly and smirking like this man.

“Good afternoon sir.” I tell him politely, willing to keep the façade as long as he is.

“Cut the bullshit Jaden.” He responds, folding his arms over his dirty coat. “You’re not stupid, you know who I work for.”

I smile dazzlingly at him. “Should I be impressed?” I lean back and mimic his pose, studying his face. Stupid kid. He’s younger than I first thought, probably only 18 and he has no idea how badly he’s just fucked up his entire life.

My expression seems to have unnerved him. “I have a message for you.” He responds, attempting to regain the upper hand.

“Go ahead.” I tell him, a bored expression on my face.

He clears his throat, smiling confidently at me. “You’re not going to like this.”

****

I finish cleaning off the small beach, carefully placing the fishing poles against the side of the cabin. I fold up the lawn chairs and put them away, determined to keep Joe and Diana’s cabin as neat as I found it.

“Come on Bean!” I call to my puppy and she runs obediently from the hole she’s started digging. She’s such a scum since we began staying here, always dirty and smelly. But she’s having a wonderful time and that’s what is important.

We enter the cabin, and I’m surprised to find it quiet. I thought Ian would be here in the kitchen making dinner. I shrug and put the container of earthworms in the fridge, knowing that Ian will be gung-ho on fishing again tomorrow.

Opening the oven, I’m surprised to find it cold and lacking a pizza. What the heck?

“Ian?” I call, getting no response. I begin to search the house in earnest. “Ian?”

“I’m waiting.” I tell the kid, waiting for him to deliver his so-called message.

He smiles, his young features twisted in cruelty. “Okay.” He begins, pausing to chuckle sinisterly.

“Cut with the dramatics. Do you want to tell me or not?” I question, standing up as if I’m going to leave.”

“Okay, okay, jeez, I’m just trying to have a little fun.” He remarks and clears his throat importantly. “Aron said to tell you…” He begins, drawing out his words.

“Get on with it.” I mutter angrily, not having the patience to deal with this idiot kid.

“Aron said that since you made him kill his blonde, now he’s going to kill yours.”
Part 16

June 29, 2000
Above all, I attempt to remain calm. Aron’s creep is grinning at me like a Cheshire cat because he’s so proud of himself. There is nothing I’d love to do more than reach across the table and beat the smirk off his face. But I need more information from him, and kicking his ass won’t help me get that.

“What are you talking about?” I ask him, raising my eyebrows as if I have no idea what blonde he’s talking about.

“Aron knows about your little whore you sent to Maine.” He replies, trying to bait me by calling Grace a whore.

I fake a blank stare. “Who?”

The kid laughs briefly, and leans across the table towards me. “You’re not fooling me. Aron knows what he’s talking about. After he slit the throat of his blonde, he told me all about your Grace.”

I refuse to play into his game. “How do you know he slit the blonde’s throat?” I ask, glancing to the mirrored wall where I know Steele and the captain are watching from the adjoining room.

The kid laughs again. “I was there.”

I stand up, looking down on his pathetic form. “That’s all I need to know.” I motion to the mirror, and Steele and the captain let themselves into the room. “Stand up.” I order the kid, and he looks around, confused.

“What’s going on?” He asks, subconsciously backing away from Steele’s intimidating form.

“You’re under arrest.” I tell him simply, turning him around roughly and snapping the cuffs around his wrists.

“For what?” He blurts out, losing his composure.

“Accessory to murder.” I tell him, and astonishingly, the kid laughs.

“You can’t prove anything. Aron said this would happen. He said he’d get me off.”

I look at his young face, wishing he could see how stupid he is. “Dream on kid.” I tell him, my voice surprisingly compassionate. “Aron used you like he uses everyone. He’s already forgotten about you.” I shove him into the captain’s hands and let myself out into the hallway. Steele follows me, peppering me with questions but I ignore him, and try and figure out how in the hell I’m going to save Grace.

************

I hear muffled movement as I stand outside of Ian’s closed bedroom door. I’m creeped out, honestly, and my intuition is telling me not to go into that room. My stomach clenches with fear, and I slowly step away from the door. Bean joins me in the hallway, sniffing underneath the door. She turns her liquid brown eyes up to me and emits a singular low muffing sound. I slowly turn and head back down the hall, slipping on my sandals and letting myself and Bean outside. Something is not right here.

I don’t know what to do. Everything in my being is telling me to get out of here and never look back. But I can’t bear the thought of leaving Ian.

What if Ian is working for Aron? I can’t imagine that to be true. At first I was suspicious of him, but he’s a really nice person and after spending the entire day with him I can’t think of him as a killer.

So what do I do? Run away? Run to where? I guess I could get in Ian’s car and drive somewhere, but I don’t know where in the hell I am. I could find my way to the nearest town and call the cabin from there, making sure Ian was okay.

But I don’t know the phone number. I walk over to Ian’s car, and open the driver’s door. Bean jumps in eagerly, prepared to take a car ride. I get in the driver’s seat and notice that the keys are missing. Shit. I check the dashboard and in the glove compartment, not seeing the keys. They must be on the counter, or in Ian’s pocket or something.

I get out of the car, calling Bean as I prepare to shut the door. She doesn’t listen, still sitting on the passenger seat and panting with excitement.

And then I practically jump out of my skin when I hear a gunshot. My eyes widen in fear as I hear another, and than another. I need to get out of here. I roll down the driver’s window just enough to give Bean air and then I lock the door, shutting her in. I don’t want her getting hurt. “Stay.” I order her, and she looks at me with uncertain eyes. “Lay down.” I command, and she immediately jumps to the car floor and lays in the cool shade. “Shhh.” I tell her, putting my finger to my lips. This is her command to be silent, and she always listens to me.

The woods. It is my only conscious thought as I say a quick farewell to my beloved puppy and run like hell for the trails we walked this morning. I don’t know who is shooting whom in the cabin, but I know that it’s not a good sign. The only person wanting to come here and shoot things would be Aron.

Thankful for the cool evening air I continue to race towards nowhere. I fucking hate running and I fucking hate whoever is in the cabin that is forcing me to run. I channel my anger into my physical actions, concentrating on making as little noise possible.

I’m not scared. I don’t know why, but I’m not. I’m scared for Ian and for Bean, but not myself. Maybe it’s my way of coping with this situation.

I reach an impasse of trails. I stop, disorientated and confused about which way to head. I cock my head, listening for any sounds confirming that I’m being followed. I struggle to regain my breath and it catches in my throat as I hear a large body crashing through trees not that far behind me.

Oh shit. Remember what I said about not being scared? Strike that thought. I quickly decide on a trail and bolt down it, determined to get away from my follower. You know that Ashley Judd movie, where that psycho is chasing her through the woods? She got away by running her ass off and jumping off of a cliff. I’ll get away too; I just hope I don’t have to jump of a fucking cliff to do it.

I try to think positively as I continue to run. My lungs are burning in my chest and I’m suddenly flooded with memories of the shipwreck, and not being able to breathe. I gasp for air as I concentrate on just getting away. I have to get away. I have to see Jaden again and write my best-selling novel and do all the things I’ve always wanted to do.

My eyes tear with the exertion of running combined with thoughts of Jaden. If Aron is here, than she must be dead. She would never tell him where I was unless he made her.

Please let her be alive. Oh Goddess, please let her be alive.

*************

Racing to the parking lot, I jump in my Explorer and start the engine. As I back out of my parking space, Steele bangs his fist on the passenger window.

“Let me in!” He demands, his voice muffled through the class. I hit the unlock button and he jumps in. “What is going on?” He asks, and I hand him my radio.

“Radio the dispatcher named Diana. Get us a police escort to Maine.” I order, and he looks at me quizzically. “NOW!” I yell as I screech out of the lot. He fumbles with the radio as he obeys.

Diana’s voice answers quickly. I grab the radio from Steele as I weave through traffic. I’m driving only like I’ve seen in car racing video games, but I don’t care if I get in an accident. All I can think about is Grace.

“I need police to your cabin, now.” I tell Diana, knowing she’ll pick up on my inflection.

“Shit Jaden!” She answers and I nod numbly, forgetting she can’t see me. “Hang on.” I hear her radio the department in Maine. A few seconds of silence goes by and Diana answers quietly. “It will take them twenty minutes.”

“It’s a fucking emergency!” I scream into the radio. “There is a professional hit man who is going to kill Grace.”

I don’t want to think that she might already be dead. I would have known, wouldn’t I? I would have felt something, I know I would have.

“Okay Jaden.” Diana says, her soothing voice having no affect on me. “Give them 10. They’ll be there.”

“Thank you.” I tell her, my voice shaking. “Where’s my escort?” I ask her as I merge onto the highway.

“Waiting for you at exit 48.” She answers calmly. “She’ll be okay, Jaden.”

I hand the radio back to Steele as I gun the Explorer. Grace always makes fun of my big tough car. How I wish now I had chosen some hot rod that could do 120+ just so I could get there faster.

“Can you tell me what’s going on?” Steele asks uncertainly.

“No.” I snap, focusing only on getting to the cabin as fast as I can. It takes an hour and a half to get to the cabin from here. That’s going 70mph. My mind is too jumbled to tell me how long it will take going over 100.

I fly by the other traffic, flashing my lights and beeping like a lunatic at anyone who dare get in my way. Steele puts on his seatbelt and sits back in his seat.

“There’s your escort.” He remarks, seeing the flashing lights ahead. I purse my lips and nod. Steele gets them on the radio and tells them our location and destination. He must have gathered where we were going from my conversation with Diana. He barks a few other orders to the three cars waiting ahead and they pull out like a well-trained team. They quickly reach my speed and pull in front and to the side of me.

I glance at Steele, impressed. “Thanks.” I offer him and he smiles tensely.

“No problem.”

The police escort clears all traffic from our lanes of the busy highway and we tear down the road, the exit signs flying past us.

“Check the status of the Cape Neddick department.” I ask Steele and he radios Diana again.

“Five minutes. I gave them directions.” Diana’s voice answers. Steele thanks her and clicks the radio off.

Five minutes. In five minutes, I will know if Grace is all right.

Suddenly nauseous, I glance at the dashboard clock. It reads 6:12.

I don’t know if I ever want it to reach 6:17.

*****************

I’m bleeding. I slow to a jog, unable to see because of the blood seeping into my eyes. I wipe my face on my t-shirt, and find it covered with the glossy redness of my blood.

“Stupid idiot.” I curse myself as I tenderly feel the lash on my forehead. As I was running, the path narrowed and instead of slowing to carefully ease myself through, I bullied right through it and in return, received a nasty cut from the thorn bush that I ran through.

Wiping the last of the blood away I take a deep, burning breath and begin to run again. I still hear him behind me, but I feel I’ve managed to put a considerable distance between us. That thought doesn’t slow me down as I race on.

He has a gun. It doesn’t matter how far away I am from him, he can shoot me just as easily. I wipe my forehead again, shocked that a stupid pricker bush could make a cut that deep.

The path veers off sharply to the left. I run shortly down the path I am on and then double back down the veering path. Maybe I can trick him into thinking I took the other direction.

I slow down to a fast walk, impressed with myself for being able to move so quietly as I strain my ears to listen to my pursuers’ progress. I don’t hear anything now but I’m still uncertain if I threw him off of my trail so I break into a run again, panting and heaving from the exertion.

The trail widens and I look around when I recognize where I am. This is one of the paths that I walked down this morning, I’m sure of it. I must be close to the cabin.

I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not. Goddess, I hope Ian is okay. Who was shooting? And who is shot and who is chasing me? And most importantly, are Bean and Jaden okay?

My heart clenches in fear as I think about them. If they are hurt or dead, I won’t be able to live with myself.

I suddenly lose all of my strength. The anger that has kept me running dissipates from my body and all I can think is how nauseous I feel. I fall to the ground, dry heaving and coughing when my parched throat burns with stomach acid. Now isn’t the time to lose it. I have to remain strong. I try to tell myself to get up and keep moving, but my exhausted body prevails and I crumple to the ground, defeated.

I lay on the ground, panting and shaking with chills. I don’t know how I can be freezing when I’ve been running forever, but I am. I think I must be going back into shock. Just like during the shipwreck.

No. I won’t do that again. Jaden isn’t here to save me this time, I have to save myself. I’m not going to be like some idiot stereotype of a girl in horror movies who fall and don’t get away. I have to get up and keep going. I can do this. I can save myself.

I have to save myself. I have to save myself.

I chant it over and over in my head as I force myself to stand up and continue towards the cabin. My legs are shaky and wobbling but I manage to walk, and then jog, and then run again. If I can get back to the cabin before my pursuer does, then I can find the car keys and drive the hell out of here.

The trail breaks and I see the cabin. It looks peaceful and undisturbed. I glance to Ian’s car, and find it exactly the way I left it. I hope to Goddess that Bean is sleeping peacefully on the floor.

I cautiously let myself in through the back door, wishing I had some kind of weapon but not knowing what I would do with it if I had one.

I creep over to the kitchen. Searching frantically, I can’t find the keys. They must be in Ian’s room. Oh shit, I don’t want to go in there.

Maybe I should just go get Bean, and run down the driveway and down the road. Someone would surely drive by and find me.

Maybe that’s what I should have done in the first place. Not lead the shooter on a chase through the woods.

But both Jaden and Ian said that these roads are hardly traveled. And it would have given the shooter a clear shot at me. Maybe this way I’ve tired him out.

I have to go to Ian’s room. I have to make sure he’s okay and maybe he’ll have the car keys. I just could have sworn that I saw him put them on the counter.

My heart pounds in my chest as I head down the hallway. Only this time, instead of finding his door closed, it is now ajar.

I push it open slowly and step inside. I close my eyes immediately when greeted with Ian’s body, prone on the floor in a pool of blood.

***********

6:16. The ominous clock on my dashboard taunts me, refusing to change. “Check..” I begin, only to have Steele interrupt me.

“Diana.” He speaks and she responds.

“Give them two more minutes, Jaden.” She says. “They are just getting off of 95.”

“Dammit!” I growl in frustration, knowing that they are at least 5 minutes away. I tap my hands nervously on the steering wheel. If anything happens to her, I don’t know what I’ll do.

************

“Ian?” I ask, forcing the bile back down my throat. I know it’s no use, he’s dead. His blank eyes stare at me lifelessly, his mouth agape in surprise. I feel a wash of sympathy for him and I close my eyes in disbelief. “I’m so sorry.” I tell him, knowing that his death is my fault for him being here.

I see his handgun on the floor. I pick it up gingerly, not even knowing how to use one. I’ve seen enough movies to feel comfortable enough to open the bullet chamber. It’s fully loaded. So that means that obviously Ian hasn’t done any shooting, meaning his murderer is unharmed. Great. I click the safety off, knowing that I have to do that to shoot.

The gun feels so heavy in my hand, so promising of the death it brings. I feel nervous holding it, knowing that at any second I could take anyone’s life, including my own.

The keys. I have to find them. The dresser in Ian’s room is bare, except for his watch and some money. I quickly glance around the rest of the room searching for them, trying to look everywhere but at his dead body.

I have to check his pockets. The thought enters my mind and festers. It’s the only other place they could be. I gingerly step over to him, holding the gun in one hand.

“I’m sorry.” I whisper, as I put my hand in one pocket, finding it empty. My stomach clenches at the thought of touching him again, but I grit my teeth and feel around in his other pocket.

Empty.

“Tsk, tsk.” The deep male voice chides me and I look up in alarm to find Aron standing in the doorway. I step back from Ian’s body and point the gun at him.

“Going through a dead man’s pockets. What has become of you, sweet Grace?” He asks, his lips curling into a feral grin.

I refuse to give him the satisfaction of an answer.

“What a big girl, holding on to a grown-up gun like that.” He remarks, holding up his own gun. “But mine’s bigger, don’t you think?”

Keeping my mouth shut, I don’t waver from his intense gaze.

“Cat got your tongue?” He offers, “Or maybe dog?” Chuckling at his own joke, he finally gets a reaction out of me.

“What did you do to Bean?” I demand, waving my gun at him erratically.

“Nothing. Though I’ll enjoy running that little mongrel through.” He adds dramatically. “I was too busy chasing you.” He adds, grinning again. “You’re pretty fast, but you have a lousy sense of direction.”

I clamp my mouth shut, determined not to further the conversation.

“Don’t you want to know why I’m here?” He questions, stepping towards me. I know he wants me to step back so I refuse, standing my ground like I’ve seen Dana Scully do.

“Well, I guess I’ll have to tell you anyway.” He remarks, running his free hand through his unruly hair. “Once upon a time, a beautiful princess double-crossed her handsome king, so the king killed the princesses’ brother.” He laughs again, and I realize that he is truly insane.

“You would think that the princess would learn her lesson and not mess with the handsome king. But the princess was a dumb princess, and had to interfere in the king’s business.”

“Jaden isn’t stupid.” I tell him angrily.

“Aw, how sweet.” He replies sarcastically, taking a step towards me again. “But you didn’t let me finish my story.” He states menacingly. I don’t flinch and continue to stand my ground, my hands tight around Ian’s gun.

“Anyway, the dumb princess and her knight in shining armor started nosing around the king’s castle and servants. This made the king very angry. Angry enough that he had to kill.”

My eyes widen in fear. Surely he doesn’t mean Jaden. “Kill who?” I ask.

He giggles, a truly disturbing sound. “My servant seemed to take a fancy to the knight, so she had to die.”
I sigh, relieved that Jaden is still alive. I hear police sirens in the background. Aron hears them too, rolling his eyes.

“So the end of the story is, that the princess needs to be taught her lesson all over again. Only this time, instead of the princesses’ brother, the handsome king will kill the princesses’ wench.”

I tighten my finger on the trigger. “I am not a wench.” I tell him, my voice low.

“Yes you are.” He jibes. “You’re a plain little white-trash stray that she picked up. She’ll keep you until she’s bored, and then double-cross you.”
“You’re wrong.” I tell him, my voice rising. “She left you because you are evil.”

He sighs. “I have a beautiful soul.”

“You have no soul.” I respond.

The sirens wail in the background, closer to us now. Aron does not attempt to move as I hear the tires of the police cars crunch in the gravel.

“Time for the fairy tale to end.” He remarks. “But instead of a happy ending, both the wench and the beautiful princess will die.”

“I won’t let you kill her.” I tell him, the rage in my voice unfamiliar to my ears.

“You can’t stop me.” He says, advancing closer to me. “I’m going to kill you and then I’m going to relish in killing her once and for all.”

I don’t answer him as I point the gun at his head and shoot.

The next thing I feel is the white-hot searing pain of a bullet piercing my flesh.

***************

6:24. “Where are they?” I scream into the radio. Diana’s normally upbeat voice answers softly, “They just got there.”

“Is Grace okay? What is going on?” I ask as I cross the state line into New Hampshire.

“They have reports of two shots fired.” She responds, her calm composure slipping as her voice shakes. “They have one man down, and two are dead.”

I drop the radio, unbelieving what I have heard. Grace is dead.

I struggle to keep my car on the road as the news sinks in. How can she be dead?

Shaking my head to relieve myself from the fog I gaze uncertainly at the road ahead. Nothing matters to me anymore.

I feel like I am wrapped in chains and drowning, trapped in Houdini’s box, and sinking to my death.

 

 

The End

Continued in We Do What We Can

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