Britland – Chapter 2 – Twisted

Britland walked into the club beside Felix feeling somewhat conspicuous and ill at ease.

“Smile” Felix growled in his ear “pretend like you belong here or are at least having fun.”

He rolled his eyes shrugging off his friend’s hand on his shoulder. How had he let himself get talked into coming to a club? Any moment he was positive one of the bouncers were going to tap him on the shoulder and demand to see his ID. “I think I should leave” he shouted to be heard over the loud music.

“You can’t back out on me now” Felix protested taking a firm grasp on his friend’s arm and moving him towards a table near the dance floor. “What you need is a drink” he announced pushing Brit into a chair. “Wait here and I’ll get you something.”

He walked away before Britland could refuse. A few minutes later he was staring dubiously at the drink Felix got him. Sliding it towards his friend “you drink it.”

“No can do” Felix shook his head “I’ve got my own to drink.”

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“It’s pink” the way he said it made Felix smile with mischievious glee.

“What’s wrong with pink? Drink. It’ll make you feel better” Felix assured him.

The glimmer of mischief in his friend’s eyes made Britland frown even more. Lifting the glass he held it up to the poor light inspecting it. With a sigh he brought it to his lips. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you” a voice said from behind him.

Looking up Britland found himself meeting the steady gaze of a good-looking young man. “Why?” he asked setting the glass down to the consternation of his best friend.

“Despite it’s frivolous color it has a kick like a mule” the stranger said “if you want to spend the night talking gibberish, dancing on tables and possibly going home with anyone who asks than by all means drink it.”

Britland gave Felix a cold hard stare “you wanted to get me drunk.”

Shrugging Felix scowled up at the interloper “you spoiled some perfectly harmless fun. Go away.”

Ignoring him the man smiled a Britland “when you get tired of Bozo here. Come join me at my table.”

“Thanks” Britland stammered unsure what else to say or do. A sharp pain in his calf had him scowling over at his companion. “What was that for?” he demanded reaching under the table to rub his leg.

“You’re an idiot” Felix shook his head “that guy was coming on to you.”

“He was?” he asked twisting around in his seat until he found the guy. The guy smiled raising his drink in his direction. Averting his gaze, cheeks burning Britland’s eyes darted around the room searching for the nearest exit or bathroom.

“Geez calm down” Felix laughed pushing the pink drink towards him “why do you think I got you this drink? You’re too up tight.”

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Grabbing the glass, he took a large gulp. It felt like liquid fire going down. Choking, half of it came up shooting from his mouth, splashing to the smooth table top. Gasping for air Britland felt his head begin to spin or was it the room? His arms and legs felt disconnected from his body. Hazily he was aware of someone laughing at him. It sound suspiciously like Felix. He staggered to his feet. “I’m going to be sick” he wasn’t sure if he said it out loud or not.

Someone came up behind him putting an arm around him keeping him from falling on his face. “You’re friend is a jerk” a familiar voice spoke close to his ear.

“That’s Felix for ya” Britland said loudly unsure where the jerk was. “Said I needed to relax” his knees buckled giving him the impression they were made of super heated rubber. The room spun around him “I’m going to be sick.”

“Not on me you’re not” his benefactor said having gotten him into the bathroom and shoved him into a stall.

Collapsing to his knees he wrapped his arms around the dirty toilet and emptied his stomach contents into.

***

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Moaning Britland opened his eyes. Looking wildly around at the vaguely familiar room. Breathing somewhat easier, recognizing his own things he brought with him to furnish his room in the apartment he was sharing with Felix. He had no clear recollection of how he had gotten home the night before. He had a vague hazy memory of events after he drank that pink toxic drink. Squinting he brought a hand up to cover his face from the sunlight shining brightly into his room. No wonder Felix had taken the other room. It faced away from the rising sun. Every movement he made had his head pounding in protest. He sat up, head spinning. For a moment he thought he was going to be sick again.

Dragging himself from the bed, head throbbing, he staggered to the bathroom. He stood beneath the hot water of the shower head letting it soothe his head. After his shower he leaned against the counter staring at his reflection. “So this is what a hangover feels like” he mumbled observing his bloodshot eyes, the fuzzy cotton ball taste of the inside of his mouth with a hint of vomit after taste. This was not the way he had wanted to start his first day as a model.

Grabbing a towel, he wrapped it around his waist to shuffle into the kitchen. The apartment was quiet which could only mean one of two things: Felix was either still asleep or he hadn’t made it home the night before. Both were plausible outcomes considering how silent the apartment was. It was a blessing in disguise as far as Britland was concerned. If Felix had been there the stereo or the TV or maybe both would have been blasting. Felix hated silence where Britland much preferred it over constant noise.

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The tile floor was cool to his barefeet but oddly soothing. He inspected the coffee maker wondering how much coffee he would need to consume before he felt remotely human again. While he waited for his morning elixir he shuffled through the mail that had arrived the day before. Frowning he found his name written neatly on an envelope. There was no return address. Opening it, he took out the handwritten note. There were three words written neatly on it “You’ve been warned.”

He let the note and envelope slip from his numb and trembling fingers. How had the mystery writer known where he lived? It was the same handwriting as the first mystery letter he received. It had to be a joke. Felix must have written it to scare him. That had to be it. Britland’s lips twitched. Felix had to have written both letters. The idiot. Britland retrieved the letter, shoving it into the envelope. There was no way he was going to mention its existence to Felix. He wouldn’t give his soon to be ex-best friend the satisfaction.

Calmly he sat down to drink his morning go juice. It was dark and tasted like burnt mud but if it got him through the day then that’s all he would ask for. Glancing at the time he reluctantly placed his cup in the dishwasher, made sure the coffee pot was off before making his way to his room. It was time he got ready for work. His stomach twisted into knots. Anxiety, nerves and anticipation were making the coffee slosh around his empty stomach. For a moment he thought he was going to throw up again. Maybe he wasn’t cut out for this lifestyle. A model had to look his best at a moments notice. He had to be willing to meet new people. Be the center of attention. All the things he wasn’t comfortable with. Maybe this was more about his unique alien features than his ability. What if his parents had been right?

All his self-doubts descended upon him like a tidal wave on his transit to work. By the time he walked into the studio he was almost convince he should go crawling home with his tail between his legs. “Here take this” a gruff voice said as someone pressed a small bottle into his hand.

Looking down, he found a bottle of eye drops. Frowning “what’s this?”

“Your eyes” the same voice said “they’re bright red. You can’t be in pictures looking like that.”

“Oh” his mouth formed the simple word soundlessly as he carefully opened the bottle and applied the cooling drops to his rough, gritty eyes. Blinking several times he handed the bottle back “thanks.”

“Welcome” the voice said “you might want to hang on to that if you go out again with that so-called friend of yours.”

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Britland’s chin jerked up. Seeing the guy who helped him the night before. His cheeks flushed with heat again as he was overcome with how attractive the guy was/is. Glancing over his shoulder he wondered if he could just skip the photo shoot altogether. Anything to escape this moment.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you” his companion and apparent fellow model advised “the client is notorious for throwing tantrums. If you fail to make a good impression today you may never work again. At least not in the modeling field again.” Britland swallowed feeling his blood drain from his face. “Geez kid you’re not going to throw up again are you?”

Before he could respond they were ushered into the dressing room for fittings, makeup and styling. It was an all new experience for Britland who had up until that moment just worked for various catalogs. It was odd to dress and undress in front of so many critical eyes. He knew he was in reasonably good shape but to have so many eyes on him made him feel small and vulnerable.

Dazed and overwhelmed he was pushed into an area under bright lights and cameras. His forehead beaded with sweat as he tried to comprehend what he was supposed to do next.

“Breathe kid” his acquaintance from earlier said close to his ear. “Follow my lead and you’ll be golden.” The guy winked at him before walking towards the set.

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Taking a moment to take several deep breaths to calm his frayed nerves Britland followed in the guys wake uncomfortably aware of being watched.

A new booming voice made Britland jump as it yelled “you, over there.” Britland moved towards the spot the stiff jabbing finger pointed in. “No not you” the man scowled “you.” Britland’s acquaintance moved towards the indicated spot. Shaking his head the high-strung man heaved an aggrieved sigh “that’s not it either.” Rubbing his chin he motioned for Britland to join him at the spot. “On the floor” the man ordered. Surveying the scene his lips twitched in approval “better, better.” Snapping a few pictures he took a few steps back analyzing the effect with a critical eye. “Goldie Locks grab his leg like your pleading for him to stay.”

Hesitating a fraction of a second as his brain processed who Goldie Locks was. His acquaintance hissed “do it you idiot or we’re both out of a job.” He moved to comply before the photographer had a chance to scowl at him for not complying fast enough.

This went on for several hours. When they were finally finished Britland moved from the set jumping as someone’s hand-made contact with his ass. Turning he met the gaze of the photographer who winked at him. His cheeks flushed as he moved away uncomfortably aware of the man’s eyes challenging him.

“He likes you” his acquaintance whispered close to him.

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“How can you tell?” Britland asked walking towards the dressing room.

“Besides the wink and grabby hands?” his companion’s voice was full of amusement.

Groaning Britland slapped a hand across his face “don’t remind me.”

“Don’t worry that won’t happen again” the guy laughed “that was a test and you passed with flying colors.”

“What test?” Britland demanded feeling confused.

“One you didn’t overreact to his groping. You wouldn’t believe how many new guys either try to hit him or make a pass at him. Since you reacted with confusion and embarrassment. He know’s you’re ok and not likely to want to sleep with him to garner favors from him in the future. Plus you never complained about that awful nickname he gave you, which by the way, is here to stay.”

“That’s a relief I guess” Britland sighed as he pulled the too warm sweater over his head. “I had no idea what I’d do if he was actually coming on to me.”

“You straight?” his companion asked sounding surprised.

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“Um” Britland mumbled “does it matter?”

“Yeah well….” the guy shrugged smiling sheepishly at him “I was kind of hoping you’d go out with me sometime.”

“I might consider it” he smiled coyly at him watching the apprehension drain from the guys eyes “if I knew your name.”

Tossing his shirt aside his acquaintance flashed him a mega watt smile “I’m Carson.”

“It’s nice to finally put a name to the face” Britland shook his hand before shrugging into his pants “give me a call sometime.”

“Hey” Carson called after him “what’s your name? Unless you want me to call you Goldie Locks.”

Turning halfway through the door “Britland Olivia” he smiled as he slipped through the door closing it behind him.

***

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Felix rolled over with a groan. The rumpled blanket fell to the floor. The sudden cool air flowing through the open window raised goose-flesh on his bare skin. He reached across the bed shaking…the girl next to him until she moaned in protest. “You’ve got to get up” he said shaking her until she lifted her head from the pillow. Her red hair framed her face. Last night’s makeup left streaks and circles around her eyes

He should have insisted they go to her place. It’s so much easier to disentangle himself from his one night stands if he was the one doing the leaving. He had made it an art form to rise early, slipping from the bed, dressing without waking the girl asleep in the room with him. It was his specialty. It was always harder when he brought the girl home with him. This time was going to be no different. “Come on get up” he shook her despite her moans of protest. “You’re the one who said she had to leave early for work.”

“Alright I’m up” she yawned stretching “Can I at least clean up first?”

“Yeah yeah” he pointed towards the bathroom door “it’s in there.” He felt the bed shift as she got up. He grabbed her pillow covering his face blocking out the sunlight.

“Aren’t you going to join me?” she asked from the doorway.

He peeked at from beneath the pillow. She wasn’t at all appealing in the harsh light of the early morning sun. “Nope I’m good” he mumbled without moving from the bed. He heard her huff in displeasure at the way she was being treated. A moment later the shower turned on. Felix lay with his face covered until she left forestalling any attempt she might have made at getting him to promise he’d call her later.

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When he was sure she was gone he tossed the pillow aside. Standing he stretched the kinks from his back giving his neighbors a full frontal view of all his glory. He rather hoped someone was watching him from their window and getting off on the sight. He pulled on his boxers looking at the time. He had just enough time to shower and dress before his neighbor came home from work. He wanted to meet her at the mail slots. He knew, given enough time he would erode her walls down.

A half hour later he was sifting through his mail when his neighbor came through the lobby doors, her arms full of grocery bags. Rushing to her aid he took several bags from her.

“Thank you” she gushed “I thought I could make it without making two trips. I guess I was wrong.” She laughed at herself filling the lobby with her merriment.

Hitting the elevator button he gave her his best chivalrous grin. “I don’t mind helping a lady in need.”

They fell into an uncomfortable silence once they were inside the elevator. Felix selected the floor number without bothering to ask her which floor she needed. He realized a moment later his mistake when he saw the wary look in her eyes. “Sorry. Habit I guess. I selected my floor. What floor do you need?”

Her full mouth formed an oh before turning into a relieved smile. “We must be on the same floor” she said before lapsing into silence again.

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The elevator doors opened. Felix waited for her to exit first. Nodding towards his door he said “that’s my place.”

She nodded but kept on walking. Stopping in front of a door she said “you can put the bags down here. I’ll get them later.”

“I can carry them inside for you” he offered.

“No there’s fine” she indicated the space on the floor. She stood stiffly making no attempt to open her door while he stood there.

Reluctantly he complied with her wishes. “I’ll see you around then” he said moving past her.

“Yes thank you” she murmured as he left.

***

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A moment later there was a knock on his door. Smiling expectantly he let his smile droop and fade upon seeing the middle-aged woman who lived across the hall.

“Aren’t you going to invite me in?” she asked pushing herself into him.

He stepped aside allowing her to come inside. As soon as the door was closed she grabbed him pulling him close to her ample bosom. Her mouth hungrily devouring his. “You need a real woman” she breathed huskily reaching for his shirt pulling it over his head “not that little girl down the hall.”

His pulsed raced as her nails left a trail down his back. He helped her remove her flimsy barely there dress. “Have you been watching me?” he asked following her down to the floor.

“Just enough to know when your little tart from last night left” her deft fingers unbuttoned his jeans pulling them down. “I figured after that dismal failure with the resident nun you’d need some relief.”

His groan was the only reply he was capable of making as he lost himself in the moment.

***

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Britland yawned as he walked out of the elevator. He could hear his bed calling his name. He fumbled for his keys. Dropping them he bumped his head into the door handle. It opened slowly having not been latched. Cautiously he entered the apartment mentally preparing himself to seeing his new home vandalized.

He gasped in shock as his eyes widened in horror at what he did see. His gasp was lost to the moans of pleasure emanating from his roommate. Taking a step back he bumped into something or someone behind him. Turning he found the pretty girl from down the hall staring at him.

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“Felix dropped these….” her eyes widened as she noticed the scene behind Britland’s back. Grabbing the mail he tossed it inside hastily pushing the girl outside into the hall. Closing the door he hoped he’d be able to burn the image of his roommate having sex from his mind.

“Sorry” he mumbled mortified on behalf of the young girl.

Anger flashed in her eyes “you can tell your friend he can look elsewhere for his booty call.” She turned on her heels and stormed off towards her apartment door.

Leaning against the door feeling drained. Britland wasn’t sure what he should do. Follow the girl and try to apologize. Go back inside and hope Felix was finished. Hot tears of frustration rose up inside him. All he wanted to do was go to bed. He could already feel the way his pillow would cradle his head. He was so tired. He kicked off the door heading for the elevator in sudden need of some air.

Chapter 1 – Turmoil /

Britland – Chapter 1 – Turmoil

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Britland squirmed in his seat. The sounds of his mother’s muffled sobs making him uncomfortable. He stared straight ahead towards the coffin. His Grandpa lay unmoving. His face unnaturally still. Britland owed his existence to that man. His parents wouldn’t be together if it weren’t for him. Maybe not even be alive.

He looked down as a small soft hand moved to rest on top of his where it lay in his lap. He found his little sister, Ariel looking up at him with her large, sad eyes. He lifted his arm to pull her close to him. No sooner had he done that simple act, she clutched at his dark suit wrinkling the material. He squelched the annoyance he felt rise inside him as she buried her face in his shoulder. He cringed at the thought her tears and mascara were soaking into his suit, staining it’s delicate material. He knew this wasn’t the time or place to be fastidious about his clothes and appearance but he couldn’t help the irritation that rose inside him. He could only hope the dark fabric of his suit would camouflage any stains.

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He glanced over towards his parents. His dad was comforting his mom best he could. His arms wrapped around her shoulders, holding her tight. The pew where they sat shook with subtle vibrations from her sobs. Her shoulder’s shook as her body shuddered in a grief he hoped he wouldn’t feel anytime soon. What would it be like to lose one of his parents? It was to terrible to contemplate. He hoped that would be many years in the future before he’d have to worry about that. His parents were only forty. While that seemed impossibly old to him he knew they were still relatively young. He squeezed his eyes shut. Grandpa wasn’t that old either. Not really sixty-five. He had just retired from his law firm. He wasn’t ancient like the old people he visited with when he volunteered at the nursing home were. He should have had more time to spend with them like he had planned.

Once the service was over Britland rose from the pew stiff and sore from sitting too long. The minister had been long and dull. The speakers reminiscing about his Grandpa had been somewhat entertaining. Some had been heart warming and endearing especially when one of his colleagues mentioned how his Grandpa had climbed a tree to rescue a kitten. Grandpa had a severe fear of heights and had needed fire and rescue called out to help him out of the tree. The image of his stately grandfather petrified in a tree brought a low chuckle to his throat and a smile to his face.

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Ariel had given him a severe disapproving glare as if to say it was inappropriate for him to find amusement with the story. Maybe she was right and it was better to be sad and weepy like his mom and sister. Somehow Britland didn’t think his Grandpa would want that. Britland was sure he’d rather be remembered with smiles instead of tears.

It felt like forever before they finally made it home. Everyone was exhausted and Britland had his fill of shaking hands of people he barely knew or remembered. It was surreal to be thanking them for their kindness in coming and condolences. All he wanted was for this awful day to be over. He wanted to be alone. In his room. Throw the blankets over his head and pretend this was all a bad dream. Instead he found himself excepting a casserole from the lady down the street from them “thank you Mrs Carlyle” he murmured.

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Great more food he thought as he carried the well meant offering into the kitchen. They had more food then they could ever possibly eat. What were they supposed to do with it all? The idea of eating made him want to gag. He couldn’t remember the last time any of them had eaten more than a couple of bites at any one time. May be he ought to suggest to his dad they donate it all to the homeless shelter. His Grandpa would appreciate that gesture since he spent so much time volunteering there on the weekends. The idea that he wouldn’t be spending that time with him his Grandpa suddenly struck him like a bolt of lightening. The casserole dish slipped from his fingers, crashing to the floor with a loud clatter.

He could feel the curious looks from the people milling around the room. Several ladies rushed over to help clean up the mess he made. He stood frozen watching. Nothing was ever going to be the same again. There would be no more early morning walks. Just him and his Grandpa talking, discussing his dreams and hopes for the future. No more volunteer days at the homeless shelter washing dishes side by side.

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The first tears rolled down his cheeks as deep wracking sobs emanated from deep within him. It felt like his heart had suddenly defrosted and was in the process of breaking in two. No matter how hard he tried he couldn’t stop. He just stood there the object of everyone’s morbid fascination as he shattered in front of them. Strong arms embraced him. The scent of his dad’s aftershave calmed his beating heart. “I’ve got you son” his father’s deep voice reassured him he wasn’t alone.

“I miss him so much” he cried burying his face in his father’s shoulder.

“I know son” Robbie rubbed his back “it’ll get better in time.”

Time Britland thought. Such an illusive commodity. How was time supposed to heal the hole left where his grandpa used to reside. He pulled away from his dad’s arms “I’m tired” he said staring at the floor conscious of all the curious stares.

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“Why don’t you go get some rest?” Robbie suggested.

“But I…” Britland glanced around the crowded room of people pretending not to be watching “you need me.”

“I can handle it” Robbie assured him.

Britland gave his dad an uncertain look before nodding. “Thanks” he murmured as he shuffled from the room towards his bedroom.

***

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Flopping exhausted on his bed Britland let out a low groan. The sound of their house guests was muted by his closed bedroom door. Relief had him sinking into the comfort of his bed. He didn’t have to pretend to be strong anymore. He could let the tears flow without worry of someone watching.

Sometime later his door open opened unannounced. Assuming it was either his dad or sister coming in to check on him he kept his back to the door and his eyes closed. He half expected them to attempt to talk to him but they didn’t. There was some rustling around like paper was being folded then silence. When he was sure his visitor was gone Britland turned sitting up.

Rubbing his eyes he wondered who had come into his room. Shrugging he stood stretching. He wanted to sleep however sleep was a long way off. Moving towards his dresser he reached for his pajamas. Carefully he removed his suit making sure he laid it aside ready to be cleaned in the morning. He knew his fastidious and meticulous ways was a source of amusement for his family and friends but he saw nothing wrong with looking his best and making sure his clothes were treated well. He took as much care of his casual clothes as his more formal attire even if all he was doing was feeding the homeless, he still wanted to look his best.

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He pulled on his pajama bottoms leaving the top in the drawer. He stared at his reflection in the mirror making various poses to admire his well toned upper body. His mind skipped back in time to when he met that modeling agent at the model. Did he have the look to be a top model? It would be different than the modeling jobs he was doing around town for various catalogs for the local stores in town. He would have to move. Live in the city. Did he have what it took to be a city dweller? He’d miss the wide open spaces, the trees. Every time he had visited his Grandpa in the city he always felt somewhat claustrophobic from all the buildings and people crammed into tight spaces. The idea both terrified and energized him.

He wondered if Felix would come with him. They had been friends since they went to preschool together. He smiled as he recalled the last time he spoke with his best friend. The excitement in Felix’s voice as he enthused about the city and the opportunities they’d have if they moved there. Not to mention the girls….Britland sighed recalling the conversations.

When he had been in high school he could have had his pick of any girl in the school and yet he wasn’t interested. It wasn’t until he had a one on one conversation with his Uncle Terrell that he started to realize the reason why. He was far more attracted to the boys then he was to the girls. He could feel his cheeks flame as he recalled the basketball game he and a bunch of guys from school had. It had been skins against the shirts and he almost cost his team the game by his distraction of seeing his crush without a shirt on.

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Running his hands through his hair he walked over to the nightstand. He bent at the waist to turn the light off when he spotted the crumpled up folded piece of paper. His fingers moved of their own volition to pick up the note. Sitting on the edge of the bed he wondered if his mystery visitor had left it there. It was probably a letter condolence he thought as he carefully unfolded it. Frowning as he tried to make out the tight angled cursive writing.

His pulse raced as he read the words that each time he read them seemed more and more like a threat. Whoever had left hadn’t been there to console anyone. They had used his grandfathers funeral to deliver their threat. Why shouldn’t he move? Why shouldn’t he pursue a modeling career? Why would that be threatening to anyone? Re-reading the note?

Do not move to the city! Do not accept the modeling job! Heed my warning and live! Your mother refused my wishes and it almost cost you your life. This is your one and only warning! Heed it!

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What did his mother have to do with any of this? Who was this crazy person? How did they even know about his job offer? He had so many questions and no way of getting any answers. He stood up. Took a couple of steps towards the door. No he couldn’t as his dad for help. He had more than enough to deal with as it was. Now wasn’t the time to bother his dad with his problems.

Placing the note inside his nightstand drawer he decided it had to be someone’s lame idea of a joke. Something his so-called best friend would think was funny. Yeah that had to be it. His best friend was probably waiting for him to race out into the crowded living room half dressed in a panic. Well if his friend thought he was going to do that than he had another thing coming.

***

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“I don’t see how that has anything to do with me becoming a model” Britland slouched in his chair arms crossed staring across the divide at his parents.

Miranda shook her head her frustration mounting. “It’s a superficial world centered around your looks.”

“So” he shrugged nonchalantly “that doesn’t mean that’s how I’ll view everything. I was raised better than that.”

“Yes you were” Robbie acknowledged taking his wife’s hand in his “which is why this decision surprises us to much.”

“Why?” Britland demanded “don’t you think I can be true to myself and model at the same time? I’m not conceited or a snob. I just like to look nice.”

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“We know that” Robbie asserted “your mother and I thought you were planning on going to college. What happened to that plan?”

Britland exhaled slowly as he stared at the far wall behind his parents concerned faces. “That was never my plan. That was a ….” He leaned forward resting his elbows on the table “college was a fall back plan if modeling didn’t work. I know college is something you want me to pursue but….”

“You’re an honor student. You’ve gotten straight A’s the entire time you’ve been in school” Miranda pointed out “don’t throw all that hard work away for something so frivolous.”

“Just because you felt like your pageant career was frivolous doesn’t make my dream of becoming a model the same” Britland snapped offended his mom could disregard his aspirations so casually.

“I didn’t mean that” Miranda shot back determined to get her point across. “Pageants were never that important to me. They were supposed to be fun until my mother ruined it.” Her face crumpled recalling how her mother’s obsession had almost destroyed her family.

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Robbie squeezed her shoulder. “Son we aren’t making light of your dreams. We just want to make sure this is what you want to do with your life. Have you thought about what modeling entails?”

“Yes dad” Britland rolled his eyes as if to say this is a waste of his time “I’m not an idiot.”

“I didn’t say you were” Robbie said maintaining a cool calm reasonable exterior. “What about the costs of moving? First and last months rent? Do you have enough for a deposit? Not to mention enough for food, utilities, insurance, upkeep and gas for your car? It’s not easy getting set up. Modeling is an unsure business ….”

“I know I know.” Britland ran hand across his forehead pressing his fingers into his throbbing temples to relieve the pressure. He hadn’t given any thought to how much money he’d need to get started. “I’ll sell my car. That’ll give me the ready cash I’ll need to get started.”

“Then you’ll need to rent a moving van” Miranda said firmly her voice almost cold. “If you do this your father and I won’t help you.”

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Britland’s head jerked up at his mother’s announcement. He expected his parents to be unhappy with his decision but to not help him at all was something he hadn’t considered. “Fine” he snapped “I don’t want your help or approval.” He got up the scrapping of the chair across the kitchen floor loud and grating on everyone’s frayed nerves. Ignoring his parents stricken faces Britland walked past them to his bedroom.

Miranda watched him leave. Turning to her husband, clinging to him she cried “he doesn’t know what he’s doing. We’ve got to stop him.”

“I’ll talk to him” Robbie assured her.

“You have to make him see we’re right. He has to go to college” she asserted “he has too much potential to let it all go to waste modeling.”

“Miranda” he said her name in a cautionary way that had her blinking up at him. “We can’t force him to do something he doesn’t want to do. He’s eighteen. Old enough to make his own decisions.”

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“It’s the wrong one” she stated forcefully.

“To us maybe” Robbie sighed “don’t you see if we force him to go to college, it’d be like your mother forcing you to leave me, so you could continue entering pageants. It wouldn’t be right.”

She gasped “I’m nothing like that woman. She wouldn’t listen to me. I went along with doing the pageants to please her not because I enjoyed it.”

Taking her hands Robbie spoke gently “don’t you see if Britland goes to college it’ll be to please as us and not because he wants to? We’d be forcing him to do something he doesn’t want to do. It’s as wrong for us to insist he go to college as it was for your mother to force you into doing all those pageants.”

She nodded sniffing a little. “I know” her voice small, contrite “I just want so much for him.”

“I know sweetie” Robbie placed a soft kiss on her cheek “we’ve done all we can. It’s up to him now.”

***

“Can we afford this?” Britland asked gazing around the apartment with wide-eyed wonder.

“Of course we can” Felix assured him confidently.

Britland gave him a doubtful look “you did ask how much the rent was didn’t you? I mean you didn’t just sign a lease because some pretty girl lived down the hall.”

“Would I do that?” he asked with all the innocence he could muster.

“Yeah you would” Britland nodded not fooled by the show of innocence. “How much did you go over on our budget getting this place?”

“Don’t worry about it” Felix dismissed his concerns ” we can swing it. I know we can. I have plenty of money.”

“You do. I don’t” Britland crossed his arms gearing up to do battle. He should never have trusted Felix with finding a suitable, affordable apartment.

Throwing a casual arm across Britland’s shoulders Felix laughed “don’t sweat it man. This place is perfect. Plenty of room to party. It’s in the right part of town. We’re close to all the trendiest clubs.”

“I can’t afford it” Britland cut him off before he could continue to recite all the reasons why they should stay.

“Don’t worry about the expense” Felix said with a twinkle in his eyes “I’ll pick up the difference until your raking in the dough.” When he saw the obstinate stance his friend was making his tone changed to pleading “please say yes.” He transformed his face to give Brit his best puppy dog doe eyed look.

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“Alright alright you win” Britland sighed raising his hands in defeat.

“I knew you’d see it my way. This place is perfect” Felix enthused “when you need to entertain clients this will give them the right impression of you.”

Grudgingly Britland found himself agreeing with him. Impressions were everything in the modeling world. Your looks got the job. Sold the account. But it was the impression you made on the client that gave them confidence that you were the one for the job. “Where did all this furniture come from?” he asked noticing how well everything was decorated in the apartment.

“The parents” Felix shrugged “I guess they were so excited to see me leave that they hired a decorator and furnished the entire apartment for us. You know, as a house warming present.”

Britland stared at his friend. He had known Felix was from money but just how much money he had no clue. “Tell them thank you for me” he requested feeling somewhat unsettled by how easily they parted with their money. His parents would never do that. They’d help in an emergency but for the most part he was expected to make it on his own.

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Felix grunted as if thanking his parents hadn’t even occurred to him. “It’s getting late. Hurry up and change.”

“Change? Why?” Britland asked confused following Felix into one of the bedrooms.

“We’re going out of course” he said as if it should have obvious.

“Out where?” Britland asked in dismay. He had been looking forward to a relaxing evening at home.

“There’s this club I want to check out tonight” Felix informed him opening his closet.

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“We’re not old enough to go clubbing” Britland pointed out as he watched his friend take several shirts out before selecting one.

“Where there’s a will there’s a way” Felix moved to his dresser. Picked something up and tossed it to Britland “congratulations. You’re now twenty-one.”

Catching the flat credit card shaped object. Britland stared at the fake ID with his picture on it. “What if we get caught?” he couldn’t help but worry about what his parents would think.

“We won’t” Felix stated beginning to strip in front of his friend in full view of the open windows. “Don’t bail on me. That ID cost me a fortune.”

“Remind me why you’re my best friend?” Britland requested knowing he was going to give in to his friends demands.

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“Because without me your life would be boring” Felix shook his head at him sending his bright hair flopping into his eyes.

“True” Britland couldn’t argue that point “I don’t know about this. If we get caught we’ll be in a lot of trouble.”

“So?” Felix laughed undaunted “dear old dad will bail us out. Trust me. Nothing’s going to happen.”

Nodding Britland let himself be convinced into doing something he knew he shouldn’t. But you only live once, so why not have a little fun?

Chapter 2 – Twisted

Hannah – Chapter 39 – Second Chance

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Teasha retreated to the back porch. She just needed a moment to herself. Her timid, over emotional twin brother was engaged. He was a few short months from becoming parents of twin daughters of his own and getting married. She should be happy for him. She wiped at an annoying tear that rolled down her cheek.

“Sweetie” Bruce’s voice called to her from the open door leading into the kitchen. “What are you doing here by yourself?”

“I needed some fresh air” she sniffed hurriedly drying the wetness from her cheeks.

“It’s difficult isn’t it?” he said quietly coming up beside her “watching your brother be so in love and happy.”

Her face crumpled, bottom lip quivering “it’s not fair” she cried as she felt him pull her close “all my friends are engaged. I can’t get away from it. I want to be happy for them but I can’t.”

“It’s going to be alright” he rubbed her back in slow rhythmic circles “your day will come.”

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“When?” she demanded her voice muffled from her face being buried in his chest.

“When the time is right” Bruce sighed “I wish I could tell you when sweetheart. I simply don’t know. It could be tomorrow. Next year. Ten years from now.”

“That’s not helping” she laughed a little despite herself “would it be alright if I leave tomorrow for school?”

Pulling her close he placed a soft kiss on her forehead “if that’s what you think you need to do than yes. I wish you’d stay but I’m just your old man. What do I know?”

“Daddy I love you” she leaned in close placing a kiss on his stubbly cheek.

“I love you to sweetheart” he squeezed her tight “I know how it feels to have your world crumble beneath your feet. If you need someone to talk to I’m your guy.”

She gave him a curious look “didn’t you and Dad just fall hopelessly and madly in love from the moment you met?”

“I wish that were true” his eyes took on a far away look “when I met your dad I was the rebound guy. I was madly in love with him trying desperately not to show it.”

“Were you afraid he’d break our heart or something?” she asked as she toyed with her shirt.

“I guess in a way I was. He had been hurt by someone who hadn’t realized how much Ramsey cared about him. I was convenient. It didn’t work out.” He tweaked her nose playfully “sometimes magic happens the second time around.”

“Thank you daddy” she hugged him tight before leaving to go inside.

Bruce followed her inside, watching as she congratulated her brother and Waylon then moved to her dad. Ramsey gave him a startled look when she released him from the fierce grip she had around his neck.

“What have you been telling our daughter?” Ramsey asked a moment later coming along his side.

“Nothing much” he shrugged “just that sometimes happy endings sometimes required second chances.”

Ramsey snorted “she told me I better appreciate the second chance I had been given.” He pulled his husband close whispering softly in his ear “and I do.” He peered deeply into Bruce’s light blue eyes. The same blue eyes the majority of their five children had “I love you more and more with each passing day.”

Bruce gave him an impish grin “I love you more.” His eyes twinkled daring him to reply in kind.

Instead Ramsey pulled him closer, pressing his lips hard over his. Bruce’s lips yielded to his, their desire building as their bodies pressed hard against each others and their kiss deepened. “Let’s take this upstairs” Ramsey panted breaking the kiss. Without a word Bruce slipped his hand into his husbands following him the stairs.

***

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Teasha stared up at the dorm. It wasn’t going to be the same this year. All of her friends had coupled up. Her brother wouldn’t be here at all. She gave herself a little mental shake as a wave loneliness swamped her. She refused to believe she was petty enough to be jealous of someone else’s happiness. She couldn’t help but feel left out and left behind by everyone else.

She rubbed her hands up and down her arms. Shivering despite the warm breeze. She took a hesitant step forward when someone called her name. Stopping she looked around for the source. Frowning when she found who it was calling her name.

Her heart rose into her throat threatening to choke her. Indecision kept her rooted to the sidewalk while her thoughts raced through her head. Could she pretend not to have heard and hurry inside? With a sigh she turned with leaden feet to greet the individual calling her name. She hoped they weren’t in the same dorm. If they were all hopes of being able to avoid them would be gone. Swallowing she cleared her throat “hi Phoenix.” In vain she tried to keep her voice carefully neutral, devoid of all emotion.

Dispassionately she watched him maneuver his wheelchair along the sidewalk coming towards her.

He stopped a few feet from her. “I uh” he licked his dry lips as if he were nervous “I wanted to apologize for the way I acted when you came to see me at the hospital.”
She looked down at him anger flashing in her eyes. “Ok” she said expectantly.

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“Ok what?” he asked confused.

“Ok you can apologize” she crossed her arms waiting.

“Didn’t I just do that?” his brows knitted together.

“No” she shook her head “you said you wanted to apologize.” She tapped her foot on the sidewalk “so apologize.”

“You’re not going to make this easy are you?” he mumbled watching her intently.

“Should I?” she demanded “you told me to leave. That you didn’t want to see me. You made me feel like I was nothing.” A stray tear betrayed her forced facade of impassiveness.

“I’m sorry” he cried reaching his hands out to her “from the bottom of my heart I’m sorry.” He looked relieved and a little stunned when she took his hands instead of letting them dangle in mid-air.

“All I could think about was seeing you again” she blinked trying to hold back the tears she felt building behind her eyes. “I waited for weeks for any news of how you were. I wanted to be by your side the moment they found you.”

“Only to have me reject you” his voice full of regret “I am sorry.” He squeezed her hands tugging on them pulling her closer. “When I saw you. I thought I was dreaming. I realized then what an idiot i was for breaking up with you.”

“Why did you?” she asked “I would have waited for you. I would have supported you. Gone anywhere with you. Why did you not give me the chance to show you I would? Why did you let you mom and brother convince you otherwise?”

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“I was afraid” he looked shocked at his admission “I didn’t want you to turn into my mother, old and bitter before your time.”

“I’m not your mother” she told him kneeling in front of his chair “I know what it means to be the one waiting at home safe and sound while someone you love is in life and death situations. I’ve watched my parents do it each time Dad was called out on an emergency. The weeks he would be gone fighting wild fires. I watched daddy pace the floor worrying about him. Not once did I ever hear him complain about the time they were apart. Daddy always made sure when Dad was home he knew he was loved and missed.” Taking her hands she caressed his face “I could have been that for you. I wanted to be that for you.”

It was his turn to blink back tears. “I’m sorry I didn’t give you the chance. I thought I everyone would be like what I remembered my mom being like when I was growing up. I didn’t want that for you.” He glanced down at hands in his lap “you deserve so much more than I could ever offer you.”

“Who said I wanted more than you could offer?” she asked softly brushing his tears away.

He shrugged “I did. I should have talked things out with you.” His face crumpled in sadness “now it’s too late.”

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“You’re doing it again” she stood up her voice angry.

“Doing what?” he asked watching her.

“Assuming things” she crossed her arms glaring down at him.

“Look at me” he cried waving a self-deprecating hand at his legs “I’m in a wheelchair. I can’t walk. I can’t ask anyone to take on that burden.”

“You know what? You are an idiot” she whirled around and walked into the dorm without a second look back.

***

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Over the next few weeks she observed how others treated Phoenix in the course of the day. A few were cruel enough to purposefully do things to make it impossible for him to do things on his own without asking for help like moving things just far enough out of reach. Others would pretend he wasn’t there. Ignoring him every chance they had.

The worst, in her opinion, were the one who did things for him out of pity. It infuriated her to see them congratulating themselves on doing a good deed for someone less fortunate than them. He didn’t need pity. He needed friends. Someone who cared for him. Who would do things because they wanted to not because it made them look good.

There was a one girl who was a little to friendly, maybe even a flirtatious. It made Teasha’s skin crawl whenever she saw the girl slinking around the dorm. One evening Vincent looked up from the table where they were studying. He nodded towards the girl he whispered to Teasha “he should be careful.”

“What?” she asked blinking looking around “why?”

“That’s one of the girls who stole my wallet last semester after they got me drunk” Vincent explained.

“Are you sure?” she asked watching the girl “I thought you said they were blonde.”

“She was blonde” he shrugged “nothing says she couldn’t have changed her hair color.”

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Nodding Teasha stood up no longer listening. Walking over to Phoenix she asked “are you still looking for a tutor?”

Dragging his eyes from the pretty brunette Phoenix nodded smiling up at Teasha. “Yes I still need one.”

“Good” she smiled over at the girl “I’m available anytime you are.”

His mouth dropped open “you” he stammered “you want to be my tutor?”

“Sure why not?” she shrugged “I don’t have anything else to do.”

“Nixie” the girl whined ” why didn’t you tell me you needed a tutor? I would have been glad to help you.” She moved to sit seductively in his lap. Her hands slipping behind him.

Leaning over so that she was sure the girl would be able to hear her. “Take his wallet and I’ll break your arm” Teasha held the girls gaze until she wriggled off of Phoenix’s lap.

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“I never” she cried in a huff and stomped off her heels beating a hasty retreat.

“Feeling for his wallet Phoenix looked up at Teasha “how did you know?”

“She got a good friend of mine drunk last semester and stole his wallet” she shrugged as if to say it wasn’t anything. “It was just a guess she hadn’t changed her ways.”

“Thank you” he murmured preparing to leave.

“Where are you going?” she asked.

“I thought…” he glanced up at her with a sheepish grin “nowhere I guess.”

“Good because I was serious about accepting the tutoring position.” She sat down in a nearby chair. “So what do you need the most help in?”

***

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Over the next few weeks Teasha grew to look forward to the times she could spend with Phoenix. At first it was focused on studying eventually as they both relaxed they learned to enjoy their time together. Closing her book she looked over at him. “Would you like to go for a walk?”

“Yeah I’d like that” he gave her one of his rare sweet smiles.

“I’ll even let you carry my books” she laughed handing him her book bag.

Balancing it on his lap he mumbled “I can’t hold all of this and operate my chair.”

“Tonight I’m driving” she giggled getting behind him and pushing.

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“I demand you take a breathalyzer test” he grumbled “you’re driving like a drunk.”

“Am not” she protested laughing as she zigzagged across the sidewalk “I’m just not good at direction.”

“Where are we going?” he asked deciding to just let her do her thing.

“The park” she grunted trying to push his chair over a curb “this isn’t as easy as it looks.”

“How do you think I got these impressive guns?” he flexed his arms showing off his muscles.

“When we go back to the car” she panted “you can give me a ride. We’ll see how impressive those guns are then.”

“Prepare yourself to be amazed” he laughed.

“She came to a stop inside the small park. She looked around for a free bench before resigning herself to sitting on the ground.

“Not there” he grabbed her hand “there’s plenty of room right here.”

Putting the book bags on the back of the wheelchair she glanced into his eyes. “Are you sure?” she asked.

“Yeah I’m sure” he grabbed her wrist pulling her to him.

Giggling she halfheartedly struggled to get away. His face was mere inches from hers. His warm breath blew across her skin sending shivers down her spine. She stared into his eyes as he brought his mouth to hers. His lips brushed across hers in a light feathery kiss.

Pulling back his eyes showing shock as he mumbled “sorry.”

“Do it again” she requested putting her arms around his neck.

He gave her a small sweet smile before tentatively meeting her lips in a kiss that grew more passionate making their hearts hammer against their chests. Pulling away “I wish…I…”

“I love you” she smiled at him “I’ve loved you for months. I wanted to pretend that I didn’t. The more I pretended I didn’t have feelings for you the more mixed up I felt. I don’t want to pretend anymore. I love you.”

He gazed into her eyes “what about my handicap?”

Tapping his forehead she gave him a gentle smile. “The only handicap is the one inside your own mind. The wheelchair isn’t who you are. It certainly isn’t the reason I love you. I love you for you. Always have. Always will. With or without the wheels.”

Resting his forehead on hers he breathed deeply “you’re amazing. A gift I don’t deserve.” He gazed into her crystal blue eyes “how did I get so lucky?”

“Don’t question it. That’s how we got in trouble the first time” she kissed his nose ” just accept the second chance we have and we might get our happy ending.”

Chapter 38 – The Truth Comes Out /

Hannah – Chapter 38 – The Truth Comes Out

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“How many times do I have to tell you?” Waylon asked his frustration evident as he looked across the small table at his interrogators. “I did not kill Dexter Gage. Hell I wanted to but I didn’t do it.”

“You don’t expect us to believe that do you?” the younger man snarled “Dexter Gage spent months stalking the man you love. Terrorizing him. You saw your chance and took it.”

“Unfortunately for you the river didn’t carry the body far enough” his partner continued “you should have weighed his body down so it would sink.”

“No doubt you lost your stomach by then or maybe Dexter had waded out into the river in an attempt to get away from you. The current carried his body down stream before you could do anything about it,” the younger detective concluded.

Bile rose from his upset stomach. Swallowing convulsively in an attempt to keep his stomach contents down Waylon leaned over vomiting on the floor. Watching dispassionately the older detective continued “we have an eyewitness that confirms you had blood all over your clothes the night of Dexter Gage’s disappearance. They quoted you as saying it wasn’t mine.”

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Lifting his head as the smell of his own vomit assaulted his nostrils. His stomach rumbled uneasily. “I…” he shook his head trying to keep the men’s faces in focus “it wasn’t mine” he repeated “it was Zach’s.”

The men exchanged interested looks “you don’t expect us to believe that.”

“I don’t care if you believe me or not. Forensics will prove I’m telling the truth.”

“What about the trace amounts of Dexter’s DNA we found on your clothes? Care to explain that” the younger detective demanded.

“Transfer from Zach. He and Dexter had been in a fi….” Waylon slammed his mouth shut “I want my lawyer.”

***

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The detectives got up and left the room “What do you think?” the older man asked his partner.

“I believe him” the man glanced over his shoulder towards the one way window “he didn’t do it.”

“Let’s have a talk with the boyfriend” the older man suggested leading the way to the next interrogation room. Opening hte door the young blond male jumped up startled. His blue eyes round with fear.

“Waylon wwwwouldn’t hurt any anyone ” he stammered.

“What about you?” the older man asked “would you hurt anyone?” His voice conspiratorial, almost gentle.

Zach shook his head vehemently “I didn’t mmmean to hurt hhim. We were frfriends once.”

Like a cate about to pounce on it’s prey the detective asked “how did you hurt Dexter?”

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“I…I” Zach stammered picking at the cracks in the old table top “I ddddidn’t mmmean ttto hurt him.”

The detectives exchanged eager looks like a couple of bloodhounds picking up a scent. “What happened Zach? Did you snap after months of being stalked? Did you acquire a gun?”

“No” Zach hastily shook his head pushing away from the table his chair scrapping loudly across the bare floor. “Dex had the gun…”

“You fought over the guy” the older detective asserted “you wrestled the gun from Dexter and Bang” his fist slams down on the table.

His voice echoed in the small space. Zach yelped curling into a tight ball on the floor, hands covering his face and ears. “No” he wailed “I I hit him. I refused ttto dddo what hhhhe wanted. I kkkept hitting him.” Tremors make his hands shake as he brought them down. He stared at his hands as if he had never seen them before.

The older detective jerked his head towards the door. The men quietly left the room to the sounds of Zach’s sobs.

***

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“I don’t know about you but that felt like I was kicking a wounded puppy” the younger man observed.

“Yeah” the older detective grunted “we should let the kid’s shrink in to see him. Maybe she can calm him.”

The younger officer gave his partner a sideways glance “You don’t think he did it do you?”

“No” the man sighed “I think somewhere inside him lurks the truth though.”

“His boyfriend?” the detective asked.

“Maybe” the older man rubbed his chin thoughtfully “if Dexter was the one who had the gun we need to figure out how he’s the one who wound up dead. Where did he get?”

“His roommate?” the younger man suggested “he has a record.”

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“Let’s get him in here for questioning” the older man barked “that guy knows more than he’s letting on.”

“Should I have the kid’s therapist try to get the kid to remember that night?” his partner asked concern in his voice.

“Worth a try” the older man agreed “be sure to record it for review later. We may not be able to use it during the trial but it might point us in the direction.”

The younger man nodded “this Dexter Gage character got what he deserved as far as I’m concerned.”

“I might agree with you” the older detective said “but we’re not judge, jury and executioner. That’s what get’s me in cases like this. Instead of trusting the system someone took the law into their own hands.”

“Maybe” his partner grunted “it that’s what happened here. The system doesn’t always work.” He jerked his head towards the door they just came out of “you and I both know there’s very little we can do about stalkers until things escalate into violence. By that time it’s too late for one or both of the parties involved.”

“I know” the man grumbled “something about this case stinks.”

***

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A couple of hours later Zach sat with his eyes closed shaking his head back and forth. “No Please don’t make do this…”

Ramsey put a reassuring arm around his son’s shoulder. Bruce had stayed home with the triplets as their youngest son was still in hospital after being in a car accident. “I now this is hard.” He added the one thing he knew might convince his son to commit to hypnosis “this is the only way to help Waylon.” He glanced over his shoulder towards his son’s therapist who nodded back confidently. “You want to help him don’t you?”

“Yyyes” his voice was small and low.

“Alright then” Ramsey plastered a fake smile on his face squeezing his son’s shoulder “then let the therapist help you remember.”

“Alright” Zach’s eyelids fluttered open. His light blue eyes filled with terror “don’t leave me.”

“I won’t” Ramsey assured him “I’m right here by your side.” Zach clutched his father’s hand fighting for breath. “Zach look at me” Ramsey commanded grabbing both sides of his son’s face “concentrate on me. Breathe. In. Out. Nothing else matters. Just me. Breathe. In. Out.”

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Tears ran down Zach’s cheeks as he did as he was told. Concentrating on his dad’s voice. Matching his breathing to his words. In. Out. One breath at a time. “Ok. I’m ok” he gave his dad a lopsided smile that did little to reassure either of them.

“Zach” the therapists voice had them both jumping dazed and anxious. “We’re going to begin now.”

“Ok” Zach nodded clutching his dad’s hand like it was the only thing keeping him from drowning.

Once Zach was in a hypnotic state the therapist asked “Zach when was the last time you saw Dexter Gage?”

“On the bridge” his voice sounded confused.

“Are you sure it was on the bridge?” the therapist’s soothing voice asked.

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“No…yes” his voice rose in panic “I was upset. I wanted to think. Waylon yyyelled at me. I…” he stuttered shaking his head his agitation rising. “I don’t want to talk about this.”

“Alright” she agreed marking it down to discuss later “what happened after you met Dexter on the bridge?”

“He…I…” he licked his lips “I tried to get away from him. Ran across the highway to the other side of the bridge.” He moaned as if he were in pain “I don’t…please don’t make me” his voice little more than a whimper.

Ramsey could feel his anger boiling inside him as he listened to his son recount what happened that night. If Dexter had walked into the room at that moment he knew he would wrap his own hands around his scrawny little neck. His troubling thoughts temporarily blotted out Zach’s voice.

“Alright Zach you’re doing fine” the therapist assured him “I want you to think about what happened in Dexter brought the gun out.”

“He he” his breathing becomes rapid gulps “the barrel is pointed at my heart. Dex says “if I can have you…..no one can have you.” He flinches as if expecting to be hit “I thought….I should be dead.”

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“He missed” the therapist said her incredulity think in her voice.

Shaking his head “something…” his face screwed up remembering “someone knocked be down. Ssssave mmmy life.”

“Ramsey found himself wanting to thank whoever that faceless someone was for saving his son’s life.

“Think carefully” her voice broke through the stunned silence “who saved you Zach?”

He pinched his eyes shut “his voice. Someone I knew. Familiar.”

“Was it Waylon?” she asked probing his memories.

“No” he shook his head “not Waylon.”

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Ramsey took a shakey breath glad it wasn’t Waylon. One less thing to worry about. His son’s life was already in shambles he didn’t need to think his boyfriend was a murderer too.

“Bull” Zach said “Bull knocked me down. Saved me.”

“Bull” she said the name a little confused.

“It’s a nickname he got playing football in high school,” Zach frowned “why would he save me?”

A look of consternation flitted across her face. “We’ll figure that out later. Right now tell us what Bull is doing after he knocks you down.”

“Yelling at Dexter” Zach said “he keeps demanding Dex give him his gun back.”

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“Can you see them?”

“No” he shakes his head “I’m too scared to move. They’re so angry. Yelling at each other.”

“Are they still arguing about the gun?” she asks him.

“No” he sounds puzzled “it sounds like they’re struggling with each other. I doesn’t make sense. Why would Bull save me? He hated me….I don’t want to talk about this.”

“It’s alright Zach” she soothed “you’re doing fine. Just a few more questions.”

“Aright” sounding like a small child.

“They’re struggling over the gun, what happens next?”

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“The gun goes off” he tries to cover his face with his hands “something splashes in the water. Someone screams. I…” He looks up eyes wild “I ran. Ran until I couldn’t breathe.” He gulped “Waylon….”

“What Waylon?” she asks

“He was looking for me” he frowns “I think he carried me back to the dorm.”

“Why would he do that?” she asked concerned.

“I think a fainted” he sounded confused “I’m tired. Can we stop now?”

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“You doing great Zach” she assured him “when I count to three you’ll wake up. I want you remember everything we talked about ok?”

She started counting on three Zach blinked. Turning to his dad “I’m sorry.”

“You have nothing to be sorry for” Ramsey assured him “I’m going to take you to the house so you can rest.”

“Can Waylon come too?” he asked his blue eyes pleading.

Ramsey turned to look at the officer who gave him a curt nod “yeah Waylon too.”

***

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“I can’t believe he’s gone,” Zach mumbled about a month after Waylon had been arrested.

“Does it bother you he’s dead?” Waylon asked concerned peering into Zach’s eyes.

“It should” Zach said honestly “no one deserves to be killed least of all because of me.”

Waylon shook his head dismayed “he didn’t die because of you. He died because he was a sick SOB that couldn’t take no for answer. Plus he took another psycho’s gun who would have let us take the wrap for murder.”

“I know but…”

“No buts” Waylon smiled gently pulling Zach close “none of this was your fault.”

Zach snuggled into Waylon’s comforting arms. The sunlight glinted off his ring. He couldn’t believe Waylon had proposed to him. Once Bull had been apprehended and Zach was no longer confused over what happened that night things in their relationship had progressed rapidly. “I wish I could believe that” he sounded wistful like he thought it was an unattainable dream.

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Waylon’s arms tightened around him like he was protecting something valuable, priceless. “It’s not your fault” he repeated “I’ll keep telling you that until you believe it.”

“Why?” Zach asked moving Waylon’s arms to peer into his fiance’s gentle eyes “why put yourself to so much trouble. I’m not worth it.”

“You are to me” he insisted leaning down to softly kiss Zach’s cheek.

Blushing under Waylon’s discerning eyes Zach moved away waddling a little. “It’s peaceful here” he said turning to smile at Waylon “I think I’m going to like it here.”

“You won’t miss the city?” Waylon asked concerned coming up behind Zach and slowly putting his arms around him “it’s not exactly exciting living out her in the middle of nowhere.”

“I’m tired of excitement” Zach turned leaning his cheek onto Waylon’s chest “this is where I want to raise our children.”

Our children Waylon thought with a smile. It sounded weird yet felt so right. “We’re going to be parents” squeezed Zach tight with a happy little smile forming on his lips.

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“You believe me now?” Zach asked raising his head a little to look up.

“Do I believe you?” he asked confused.

“That they’re yours and not his” Zach whispered hoarsely looking away.

“Of course I do” Waylon moved so he could put a hand on Zach’s protruding stomach.

“They’re mine even if they aren’t blood related. There’s more ways to being a parent than sharing DNA.”

Zach gave him a quick smile despite the troubled look in his eyes. Reaching up he stroked Waylon’s face “I know you mean well, but I know these are your babies” he bit his bottom lip “there’s no need for you to doubt that. I know what happened now. There’s no doubt in my mind and there shouldn’t be any in yours.”

“There isn’t” Waylon assured him “I just wanted you to know that even if they weren’t mine I’d still love them like they were. I love you.”

“I love you too” Zach smiled and this time it reached his eyes giving him a peaceful rested look “I feel like I finally belong somewhere.”

Chapter 37 – Letting Go / Chapter 39 – Second Chance

Hannah – Chapter 37 – Letting Go

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Ryan set his duffel bag on the tile floor. He craned his neck to look around the resort lobby. He had hoped to see Charity as soon as he walked through the doors. He had wanted to see her eyes light up the way always did when she saw him. He wanted to see her lips twitch with barely contained amusement. Most of all he wanted to feel her slim firm figure in his arms.

“Ryan” Charity’s voice asked behind him.

Turning slowly he waved self-consciously at her. “Surprise” he announced as she jumped into his arms.

“Why didn’t you tell me you were coming?” she laughed as he twirled her around.

“It wouldn’t have been a surprise if I told you” he reluctantly set her down. His eyes drank in every nuance of her appearance. “You look different” he said breathing in the fresh mango scent of her shampoo.

A slight frown creased her brow “different how?” she gazed up at him.

“Where’s your hat?” he asked after a moment of silently gazing into each others eyes

“It’s too hot” she shrugged as if that was sufficient.

“I miss the hat” he teased running his fingers through her soft tresses.

Pulling away from him she said “I can go get it if you’d like.” She giggled as he pulled her to him. This time he brought his mouth down on hers, smothering any reply she might have made.

***

“Zane” Graham put a restraining hand on his husband’s shoulder. Zane turned towards him a baffled bewildered look in his eyes. Graham smiled shaking his head “she’s not a little girl anymore.”

Zane growled deep in his throat. “She’s my little girl” he took a step forward.

Clutching at his arm Graham guided Zane away from the happy oblivious couple. “She’s a grown woman in love.” He watched as his words sank into his husband’s conscience.

“But I….” he glanced over his shoulder “I’m not ready” he mumbled sounding defeated.

“Whether it’s now or twenty years from now” Graham chuckled a little “we’d never be ready.” He nodded towards Charity who was unaware of her parent’s distress. “She’s happy. Ryan’s a good boy. We’ve known him since he was a little kid. We couldn’t ask for anyone better for our daughter.”

Zane let out a strangled sigh “I still don’t like it.”

Shaking his head Graham at a loss at what else to say. “You don’t have to like it. You just have to tolerate it.” He brought his hands up to hold Zane’s face still. “Whether you like it or not Charity is in love. That boy is in love with our daughter. I will not have you spoiling this for them.” Graham still had memories of his father’s displeasure in the face of any small triumph he had. It was either not good enough. Not appropriate. He was too young. His father didn’t approve. He would not have that for his daughter.

“I’ll be nice” Zane conceded like a small child being made to apologize.

“Promise?” Graham prompted.

Nodding Zane mumbled “I promise.”

“Good” Graham smiled kissing his husband lightly on the lips “I knew I could count on you to do the right thing.”

“Yeah sure” Zane smirked “I still don’t like it.”

***

Two weeks later Ryan and Charity were strolling along the beach towards sunset. He held her hand marveling at how right it felt inside his. He turned to smile down at her when he found her gazing up at him. “What?” he asked reaching over to tuck a stray strand of hair behind her ear.

Shaking her head slightly she leaned her cheek into his palm. “I don’t want you to go home” she murmured.

“It’s only for a little while” he stroked her cheek “we’ll see each other again. Classes will be starting in a few weeks.”

“I know…it’s just” she sighed turning away from him. She hugged her arms around herself staring into the setting sun. The ocean slapped against her ankles. “Will you….” she turned around her words lost as she put a hand to her mouth a wordless cry escaping.

“Marry me” Ryan finished her question a huge earnest expectant grin on his face. He held up a ring, the last of the sun’s rays glinting off the heart-shaped pink diamond.

Tears gushed from her eyes as she nodded in response to his question unable to formulate coherent words. She held her hand out to him. He took her trembling hand, kissing the top of it with his firm soft lips. “Charity Hollis I love you. I’ve loved you since the moment we met. You let me be your protector when you didn’t need to be protected. You are one of the strongest women I know. I love that strength.” He slipped the ring onto her finger. Caressing her hand between both of his. “I love the moments when you let that strength slip and show me the vulnerable little girl you keep hidden inside. The moments when you look to me for answers you could find yourself. The times when you let me be your hero.” He stood up still clasping her hand “I want to live the rest of my life with you by my side.”

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“Yes” she cried throwing herself into his arms. “Yes I’ll marry you.” She peppered his face with light feathery kisses. She brought her hands up to hold his face while he held her securely in his arms. “Ryan Milton you used to infuriate me when we were kids. Always trying to protect me. I thought I didn’t need protecting. We grew up and I came to rely on your steady loyal support. I never knew how much until it was gone. I was lost without it. I was lonely.” She pressed her lips to his before adding “I wanted nothing more than to run into your arms and beg you to take me back. I’m sorry I ever believed anything that woman said about you. It was never your fault.”

“That’s all in the past” he carefully guided her down to the cool damp sand as he wrapped his arms around her. “From this moment on is what’s important. I’m yours. Your mine.”

She leaned into him “I like the sound of that.”

“Good because that’s the way it’s going to be from this moment on.”

***

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“Your dad doesn’t like me” Donovan whispered in Hannah’s ear.

She giggled looking across the room where her parents were comfortably snuggling in each other’s arms. “Of course he does” she contradicted him.

“Then why does he keep glaring at me?” Donovan asked his nose nuzzling into her sensitive skin beneath his ear.

She closed her eyes enjoying the sensual way his warm breath caressed her skin. “He’s not glaring” she moved in his arms before either of them could get carried away “that’s his over protective daddy look.”

Donovan glanced over her shoulder. “He has that look every time he looks at me.”

Shrugging she kissed his cheek oblivious to the glare her dad was giving them. “Relax his bark is worse than his bite,” she nodded towards her dads on the nearby couch. “They like you; otherwise they would have us sitting in between them.”

Donovan looked across at Rory’s serious no-nonsense face before replying, his voice losing all of his former playfulness. “I don’t like that look at all.”

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“Don’t worry” Hannah giggled as she took his hand “daddy won’t let him hurt you.”

Donovan relaxed a little reassured by her words. “Maybe we should just watch the movie” he suggested trying to move away from her when Hannah put a restraining hand on his shoulder.

“We don’t have to do that” she shook her head “give them time.” She indicated her dad’s with a nod “they’ll get used to it eventually.”

He gave her an uncertain look before settling back into her arms. “I feel like I’m taking my life in my hands.”

“Don’t be so melodramatic” she chided “if dad wanted you dead he could have left you under your car.”

He shivered a little remembering how helpless he felt pinned beneath his car. The thought that still haunted his dreams was whether he was the type to do whatever it took to survive or whether he’d give up and wait for death. Thankfully he hadn’t had to find out.

***

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Rory grunted rubbing his side where Eddie’s elbow made contact. “What was that for?” he demanded looking down at his husband.

“You know why” Eddie retorted his eyes on the TV despite having seen the movie a hundred times before.

“I honestly don’t know what you mean” Rory protested shooting the young couple a glare as the boy nuzzled his daughter’s neck. A low growl built up inside him.

“Down boy” Eddie squeezed Rory’s knee.

“I’m not a dog” Rory grumbled.

Chuckling a little Eddie crawled into his husband’s lap. “I can’t see the TV” Rory complained.

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“You’re not watching” Eddie said reasonably as he put his hands on either side of Rory’s face to keep him from watching their daughter. “Leave them be” he instructed firmly.

Rory resisted the urge to break the tenuous hold Eddie had on him. He heard the firmness in Eddie’s voice. “I’m sorry” he mumbled “I miss being the center of her universe.”

“I know” Eddie agreed “I miss that too.”

The sadness in his husband’s voice made Rory want to wrap Eddie up in a protective cocoon. “I haven’t been very helpful have I?” he asked contritely after realizing how difficult this must be for his husband.

“No not really” he shook his head slightly “but you’re forgiven.” Eddie leaned forward placing a kiss on Rory’s nose “you’ve been distracted.”

“I’m sorry” he repeated berating himself for not seeing the pain Eddie had been in. “I’ll do better. I promise.”

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The corners of Eddie’s lips turned upwards, “thank you” he murmured. “That means a lot to me. Hannah will appreciate it too.”
“She better” he grumbled “I just want her to be happy.”

“Then trust her” Eddie advised “Donovan loves her. He’s as protective of her as you are of me.”

Rory glanced over his daughter. This time without the glare of distaste. He sighed sadly “I miss our little girl coming to us to solve her problems.” He squeezed Eddie tightly in his arms “I don’t want to share her.”

“If you refuse to share we’ll lose her forever” Eddie said gently “don’t force her to choose. It’s not fair and we’ll lose.”

“I know” he leaned his head forward resting it on Eddie’s forehead “I wouldn’t do that to her. I love her too much.”

“Come on” Eddie climbed off of Rory’s lap. He held his hand out silently waiting for Rory to take it and follow him from the room.

***

“Where are they going?” Donovan asked his brows knitting together in concern.

“They’re giving us some alone time” she said with satisfaction. “It’s a good thing.” She moved into his lap. Smiling she ran her fingers through his red hair “now I know why daddy prefers sitting in dad’s lap.”

“Why’s that?” he asked unable to read the glint in her green eyes.

“It’s so much easier to do this” she leaned forward laying claim to his lips.

He jerked away from her “what if they come back?”

Don’t worry they won’t” she grinned grabbing his face between her hands “now hold still.”

He let her draw him close covering his mouth with hers. All he could think about was they way she felt grinding against him. He wanted to give in to his animal instincts. Fear that her parents would walk in on them held him back along with something else. Respect. Respect for the girl who was driving him crazy. Respect for her parents. In the past he wouldn’t have cared but he hadn’t loved any of them.

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As her kisses became more passionate and insistent he pushed her from his lap. “You don’t know what you’re doing to me” he panted in apology.

“If you wanted me to stop all you had to do was ask” she complained as her cheeks flared a brilliant shade of red.

“I didn’t want you to stop” Donovan explained “I wanted so much more but I ….” He bit his lip “what you and I have. I want it to be more than just a fling. I want…”

She snuggled into him taking his hand “yes” she asked expectantly “you want what?”

He turned towards her “I want forever. I can’t imagine my life without you. I don’t want to imagine life without you.”

Her eyes looked troubled “what are you saying? You’re not leaving are you?”

“No” he hastily assured her “I’ll never leave you voluntarily. I’ll go kicking and screaming if anyone tried to make me leave you.”

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“I’ll protect you” she said her voice solemn.

He smiled at her comment “I know you would.” He gently wrapped a strand of her long blonde hair around his finger. “I love you. That’s what I’m trying to tell you. I hope one day to prove to you that I’m good enough for you.”

She shook her head than took the hand that had her hair wrapped around uts finger. “There’s nothing to prove. You’re the one I want now and always. You’re a good kind-hearted person who would do anything for his friends. I love that about you.” She smiled at him “I may wish your methods were a little more orthodox but I can’t fault you for your motives.”

“Do you really mean that?” he asked eagerly almost bouncing on the couch cushion beside her.

“Yes I do” nodding her head vigorously. “You don’t know how happy that makes me to hear that.” He threw her arms around her “it almost makes me want to ask…”

Pulling away to look into his face she repeated “almost makes you what?” She watched the almost embarrassed way he looked at his hands.

“I have nothing to offer you” he hung his head.

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“I wouldn’t say nothing” she said gently tilting his chin up “you have all I’ll ever need.”

“What?” he asked giving her a miserable look.

“Love” she said simply “that’s all I need.”

“It’s not” he contradicted her his tone a little more up beat.

“It’s a place to start” she asserted “I don’t need much. Just you. That’s all that really matters isn’t?”

“Put like that” he grinned leaning in close “how can I say no?”

“You can’t” she smirked knowing she had won the battle.

Chapter 36 – Not Afraid / Chapter 38 – The Truth Comes Out

Hannah – Chapter 36 – Not Afraid

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Divia relaxed into Renee leaning her head back resting on the other woman’s shoulder. “I don’t want to go back” she sighed closing her eyes.

“You don’t have a choice” Renee chuckled entwining her fingers with Divia’s.

“Yes I do” Divia shook her head “I could stay here and work for McDonald’s.”

“No” Liono’s deep baritone caused both girls to jump.

“Dad” Divia sat up straightening clothes that didn’t need straightening. “It’s my choice.”
Liono’s eyes shifted towards his daughter. His chin lifted in challenge “you will not quick school to flip burgers. I won’t allow it.”

“You don’t have a say in what I do” Divia stood up facing her father slapping away her girlfriends hands.

“Divia” Renee’s harsh whisper barely registered on her radar.

“I won’t let you throw your life away” Liono took a step forward eyes glittering dangerously behind his dark lashes.

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“Who says that I’ll be throwing my life away?” Divia challenged swallowing hard to keep her nervous giggle under control. “I want to stay here with Renee.”

Crossing his arms he inclined his head “I can appreciate that. I doubt she wants you to sacrifice your dreams to stay home with her to play house.”

“We love each other Daddy. Not playing house” Divia protested biting her bottom lip “we’re going to be married.”

Liono’s eyes widened at the unexpected proclamation. “How are you going to pay for the ring? The wedding? The house?” He rattled off the list of things she hadn’t thought about. “Do you think you can afford those things on your wages from McDonald’s?”

Blood rushed from her face as she tried and failed to come up with an answer. She hadn’t thought about it. Her eyes turned towards Renee in silent appeal.

“No don’t” Liono barked “she’s not a part of this discussion.”

“I beg to differ” Renee said standing up to face the older man. “I plan on marrying your daughter. I am involved.”

His lips twitched a little. Ignoring her comments “what will you do when you want a child? It’s not going to be as easy as it was for your mother and I. You’ll need special procedures. Procedures that cost money. Where is that money going to come from?”

“We’re in this together” Renee blurted out taking Divia’s hand “it’s not all her responsibility.”

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This time Liono stared at the girl as if challenging her to continue. When she fell silent he nodded. “You’re correct but it makes things more difficult when the division of responsibility is unbalanced. Is this something you’ve discussed? Something you both agreed on?” He could see by the nonverbal exchanges that it wasn’t. “All I’m asking from you is you count the cost before you decide to do something. If you really want to flip burgers at McDonald’s I won’t stop you. I couldn’t even if I wanted to.” He eyed his daughter until she squirmed beneath is scrutiny. It wasn’t like it had been when she was a kid when she’d squirm from fright. This time it was because she was thinking over what he said.

“Renee” she turned to the girl “did you really mean what you said? That you wanted to marry me?”

“Yes” Renee nodded intensely watching the other girl’s eyes “I love you.”

“I love you too. I don’t want to flip burgers not really” Divia chuckled a little “I really do want to get my degree in psychiatry.”

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“I know” she whispered “it’ll only be a few months we’ll be apart.”

“We could call and text” Divia added.

“Plus you can home on the weekends” Liono added smiling at both of them. “So when’s the wedding?”

Both girls glanced at each other “we don’t have a date yet” Renee said.

“It just sort of came out” glancing at her hand “I don’t even have a ring yet.”

“We can help with that” Elyse said moving towards her room. A couple of minutes later she returned with a couple of small boxes. She exchanged a meaningful glance with Liono before saying “these were your grandmother’s rings. My mother gave me her engagement ring to give to my daughter and your father inherited his grandmother’s ring when his mother passed away.”

Clearing his throat Liono continued his husky as he held back his emotions “It would be an honor if you would take wear these rings as a symbol of your love for each other.”
He handed each of them a box his eyes unusually moist. Elyse kissed his cheek “my husband the old softy.”

 

“Dad I” Divia’s voice choked up as she glanced at the rings then at her parents. “I don’t know what to say” tears rolled down her cheeks and this time she didn’t feel the need to hide them. “Thank you.”

Slipping the ring on her finger Renee held her hand up admiring it. “It’s beautiful” her voice hushed as if she were afraid to break the mood.

“Your family now” Elyse beamed at the girl “you’ve made our little girl happy. Happier then we’ve ever seen.” She pulled the speechless girl into her warm embrace.

“Daddy” Divia cried throwing her arms around him. An action she never thought she’d ever feel comfortable doing a mere year ago. Now it seemed natural “I love you so so much.”

He grunted with the intensity of her hug. Somewhat awkwardly he wrapped his arms around her “I love you too. Even when I’m challenging you.”

“I know daddy” she pulled away to wipe at the tears flowing from her eyes. She no longer felt the fear she once had to show her emotions around the stoic man she no longer felt was hard as stone.

***

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Vincent glanced at the downcast face of the girl sitting across from him in the passenger seat. “Trinity is something wrong?” his gentle voice broke the silence between them. “We can do something else. We don’t have to go to the beach.”

“No it’s fine,” she murmured lifting her face up to watch the scenery pass by her window. “I want to go to the beach.”

Vincent glanced towards her. Her lackluster voice only emphasizing that there was indeed something wrong. He gripped the steering wheel tight enough to turn his knuckles white. She hadn’t been the same since he mother called a week or so ago. “Is everything alright at home? With your mother?” He asked hoping that she would open up and talk to him.

“Hmm what?” she asked turning to look at him a distracted look in her dark expressive eyes.

“Your mom, is she ok?” he asked watching the traffic ahead of him afraid to glance over and see confirmation in her lovely face of what he feared was happening. The last few weeks had been like a dream to him. More than anything he wanted this dream to last.

“She’s fine” she said turning to look out the window again “she’s always fine.”

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The lack of emotion in her voice only added to the ominous feeling he had twisting his insides into knots. If he wasn’t driving he’d pull her close to him. Something about the way she held herself had him thinking she was about to shatter into a million pieces like a fragile glass ornament would falling to the floor. He reached across the console dividing them. Took her hand “you know you can tell me anything right?” He squeezed her hand before she had a chance to tug her hand free. His hand felt empty afterwards matching the hallow feeling in his heart. He was losing her. He didn’t know how or why but he was losing her. “Trinity please tell me what’s wrong?”

Her head jerked at the entreaty in his voice. She could hear the hurt in his voice. She hadn’t meant to hurt him. She felt like she was caught in a riptide she couldn’t swim out of no matter how hard she tried. She kept getting further and further away from what she wanted most.

Moisture build up behind her eyes and a single tear rolled down the side of her nose. She hastily wiped it away before it had a chance to betray her true feelings. As perceptive as Vincent was to her moods he no doubt was aware of her melancholy state of mind.

With false cheer she forced a dazzling smile on her face. Turning towards her companion she said “what are we doing today?”

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Vincent shivered at the fake cheer in her voice so reminiscent to the way things had been before. Mentally he shook himself. He wouldn’t go down that road. He wouldn’t start looking for similarities to the past. “Um” he mumbled thinking he had already told her “we’re having a picnic at the beach…”

“Sounds romantic” she batted her eyes at him falling into the habit of flirting when she didn’t want to think about what she was feeling. The concerned rise of Vincent’s eyebrows had her murmuring “sorry I…” she groped for words “I’m just really excited. I really like picnics.”

“Try to contain yourself a little while longer” he said trying to sound as cheery as she was “we’re almost there.” He had looked forward to this picnic for weeks. Picnics had always been a favorite of his since he was a little kid. His parents would take him to the park. Spread a blanket on the ground and cuddle together while he ran off to play. The weekend picnics had become some of his favorite memories of his childhood. He’d been hesitant to share that with Trinity. Afraid it’d be too provincial for her tastes. To his surprise and delight she had suggested a picnic as one of their first dates. Now he wondered if she had been trying to hard to please him. Pretending to like the same things he did. She could have learned of his love of picnics from his parents. They hadn’t exactly been shy about telling her about his embarrassing childhood antics.

Prompted by his sudden fear she was toying with him he said “we can do something else if you’d like. I know you wanted to try out that new roller coaster at Simmerica.” His heart raced at the thought of standing in a long line to ride what looked like a death trap. The long slow chug up to the first drop. The hesitation at the top before the first car toppled over the edge. The thought of it left him breathless.

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“Why would I want to do that?” she asked evasively.

He could hear the irritation in her voice to match his own growing frustration. He felt trapped onto a course he couldn’t change like the Titanic going ever closer to the iceberg that was its eventual doom. Sighing he turned into a parking lot. Getting out he proceeded to unload the trunk handing her the blanket and beach umbrella while he took the rest. “Why don’t you choose the spot to set up our picnic,” he suggested. She simply nodded and walked towards the sandy beach. Two weeks ago she’d have insisted they walk together. Disappointment and fear made his chest feel heavy as he followed in her wake.

His mind distracted he didn’t notice where Trinity had spread their blanket until he almost walked past a couple flirting. Stopping his gaze riveted on the girl as she smiled up at the buff surfer dude as he wrote his number on her hand. “Give me a call sometime” the guy said flashing her his impossibly white teeth. He nodded towards Vincent as he walked off stopping briefly to pick up his surf board.

“Trinity” Vincent choked as if he were being strangled and his heart was being cut from his chest.

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The smile she worn moments before faded and disappeared. “Vincent I didn’t see you standing there.” She hurried over to him to help with cooler.

“Are you breaking up with me?” he asked his Adam’s apple bobbing up and done in distress.

“Yes…no” she fell to her knees beside the cooler she dropped.. The contents spilling over the blanket. “I don’t know” she cried “I’m so confused.” She covered her face with her hands sobbing.

Her distress broke through his own daze of misery. “Talk to me. Give me a chance to help. Don’t just walk away from me.” He pulled her close. He could feel her shoulders heaving against him as she sobbed on his shoulder. Her hands twisting into his shirt.
“My mom she called” she gulped trying to calm herself.

Vince remained silent letting her talk. He had known something was up ever since her mom called a little over a week ago. Trinity had started to act strange soon afterwards, pushing him away in the process.

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“I was so happy” Trinity pushed away from him sniffing, wiping at her eyes. “I wanted to share my happiness with her. I told her how you made me laugh. How special I felt around you.” Her eyes filled with confusion and hurt “she laughed at me. Said I was being naive and gullible if I thought you were different from any other guy.” Fresh tears erupted “she said I was a fool to believe in love. That I needed to keep moving on to the next fun interesting prospect and not settle for an ideal that would only leave me hurt in the end.”

“You believed her” it wasn’t statement of fact. He could see from her actions that she had. He wanted to pull her close, tell her she was wrong that she didn’t have to be like her mom. Then the image of the surfer and the way she leaned in close smiling up at him and he wondered.

“Don’t you?” she demanded “you saw what I was doing. Flirting. I promised I wouldn’t. I did. I didn’t even want to. I kept hearing me mother saying when the fun is over move on. I wanted to make it stop.” She looked up with troubled eyes “maybe she’s right. Maybe I’m not capable of love and relationships. Maybe I need to be with a different guy every week.”

“Trinity” he said her name hoping to catch her attention “were you happy before?”

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“Before what?” she asked confused.

“Before with us. When it was just you and me.” He moved closer, his fingers gently drying the tears on her cheeks “did you enjoy being with me? Did you miss being with someone else?”

“Don’t be silly” she took a deep breath “when I was with you it was like no one else existed. That’s why I…” she looked up eyes wide “that’s why I was so excited to tell her I had found the one and if I could she could too.”

“Am I the one?” he asked ears buzzing stunned.

“I think so” her voice was small like she was almost afraid to admit it. Her lips twitched as she repeated “yes, yes you are” her voice full of certainty “you’re the one. The one I’d be willing to give up all others for.”

“Are you sure?” he asked pulling her close against his chest.

“I’m sure” she lifted hand to run through his short blond hair “you’re mine and I don’t want to give you up.”

“Good” he smiled brushing his lips over her’s “I think I’ve fallen in love with you.”

“I know I’ve fallen in love with you and it scared me” she pressed her lips firmly against his showing him how she felt. Pulling away a moment later to gaze into his eyes. She smiled up at him “I’m not scared anymore.”

Chapter 35 – Reunion / Chapter 37 – Letting Go

Hannah – Chapter 35 – Reunion

Zach got slowly out of the car he rented at the small air port he had flown into. He had never been to Appaloosa Plains before even though his Grandfather had grown up here. He wiped his sweaty palms down the sides of his pant wondering if he should have called first. He inspected his clothes. His sweatshirt was a little baggy from the weight loss he experienced despite being pregnant.

He rested a hand momentarily on his stomach. They seemed to be healthy. Seemed to be growing despite the doctor’s concerns over his weight loss. He ate maybe not as much as everyone seemed to think he should but he did eat. He couldn’t help it if everything he ate tasted like card board or it just wouldn’t stay down once he did manage to choke it down.

An older woman emerged from the house stood for a moment on the veranda staring at him. “Are you lost young man? she asked walking towards him.

Jolted from his thoughts Zach stared at her “I wh…um” his voice tapered off as his mind blanked refusing to connect coherent thoughts into words.

“Aunt Beulah the….”Waylon stepped outside his hair longer than it had been the last time Zach had seen him. “Zach?” he asked eyes riveted towards the blonde standing in his drive way.

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“You know him?” his Aunt asked transferring her imposing gaze to her nephew relaxing just a little.

Waylon nodded eyes never leaving Zach’s face. “He’s the one…from university….I mean um.”

His Aunt nodded a look of understanding transforming her face into a genial hospitality. Moving past Waylon she stopped long enough to pat his shoulder. “Invite your young man inside. I’ll get the coffee.”

Waylon nodded walking towards Zach who appeared to have grown roots. “What are you doing here?” he asked once he was close enough to be heard without raising his voice.

“I should have called first” Zach choked out “I’m sorry. I…I should leave.” He reached for the door handle of his rental.

“Stop” Waylon cried “don’t go.” He leaned against the door preventing Zach from opening it.

A fleeting look of desperation crossed Zach’s face as he attempted to adjust to the situation. “I shouldn’t have come” he mumbled again backing away from Waylon.

“Zach it’s me” Waylon held his hands out to him “the same guy you shared a room with for almost a year.” He let his hands fall to his side taking a small cautious step towards the Zach who looked like he was about to break into a run. “I’m not going to hurt you.”

Zach closed his eyes as he attempted to slow his racing heartbeat and breathing. He struggled a moment when a pair of strong arms engulfed him in a warm embrace. Waylon’s familiar scent filled his senses momentarily giving him respite from his growing panic and anxiety. He trusted Waylon didn’t he? “I know you wouldn’t hurt me” he said hoping the doubt he felt didn’t come out in his voice “you know me I panicked.”

“I’m sorry” Waylon apologized stroking the blonde’s head “you got a hair cut. It looks good.”

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Zach heard the note of disappointment in his voice. He kept from saying Teasha had kept him from shaving his head. He kept remembering how rough fingers had snarled in his longer hair yanking his head around. He shivered breaking the hold Waylon had on him.

Waylon stepped back putting his hands up in surrender “why are you here?”

“I” he sighed knowing he couldn’t put it off any longer “I needed to talk to you.”

“We could have talked on the phone” he pointed out irritation making his voice gruffer than usual “but someone wouldn’t answer my calls.”

Zach shrugged fidgeting with his fingernails “I’ve had a lot of things on my mind lately.”

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Waylon grunted crossing his arms “Teasha mentioned you were seeing a therapist.”

“Uh huh” Zach looked up once wondering when Waylon had talked to his sister.

“Did it help?”

“Some” Zach mumbled “I don’t want to talk about it.”

“What do you want to talk about?” he asked his brows knitting together. Before Zach could respond the front door opened and Waylon’s Aunt announced coffee was ready. Smiling Waylon called back “we’ll be there in a minute.” Turning back to Zach he said “Aunt Beulah makes the best coffee.”

***

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Zach followed Waylon into the house his eyes wary. “Thank you Mrs Gil” he murmured politely as she handed him a blueberry muffin on delicate plate.

“How do you take your coffee?” she asked.

“No coffee” he shook his head “if it’s not too much trouble I would love some milk.”

“Since when do you drink milk instead of coffee?” Waylon asked “you practically lived off the stuff at school.”

“Things change” he ignored the look of astonishment on Waylon’s face.

“It’s coffee. What could have changed that you can’t have coffee?” Waylon asked incredulous.

“Waylon there’s plenty of reasons to not drink coffee” his Aunt interrupted him upon seeing how jumpy Zach was becoming under the barrage of questions. “I remember when I was pregnant with your cousin I would have killed for a cup of coffee.” She laughed at herself missing the dismayed panic in Zach’s eyes. “I’ll leave you two alone. I’m sure you have a lot to talk about.”

When she was safely in the other room. Waylon leaned towards Zach “are you pregnant?”

Zach glanced up misery in his eyes. His lips pressed into a grim thin line. He could see his hands shaking as he set the milk on a nearby table. “Yes” he whispered.

“Damn” Waylon growled “it’s his isn’t it?”

Zach’s chin jerked up. His eyes wide as tears swelled and rolled down his cheeks. “It’s not” he protested. “I knew you’d assume that but they’re not. I didn’t…I wouldn’t.” He clenched his hands together under the disbelieving gaze of his boyfriend. Ex-boyfriend he corrected himself as he staggered to his feet “I knew this was a mistake.”

“Zach” Waylon cried reaching out to grab Zach’s arm as he passed him on his way to the front door. “Don’t run away. I’m sorry. Of course the baby’s mine.”

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“You’re just saying that” Zach jerked his arm away “you think I’m so weak-minded that you can just say anything and I’ll believe you.”

“You know that isn’t true” Waylon protested anger causing his voice to come out gruffer than normal. He dropped his hand releasing Zach and took a step backwards “what did you expect me to think?”

“I expected you to believe me” Zach yelled at him. He crossed his arms hugging himself. Shocked at the vehemence he put into the words.

“Zach honey, you’re scaring me” Waylon said keeping his voice carefully neutral afraid to startle the blonde.

“I’m scaring you?” Zach demanded incredulous “why can’t I be upset? Any other person would be upset but I shouldn’t be? This is ridiculous. I shouldn’t have come.” He turned to leave stopping in mid stride as he was confronted by two men, one uniform.

“Waylon Gil” one of the men demanded in a deep no nonsense tone.

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“Zach what’s the matter….” Waylon’s voice faded upon seeing the unfriendly faces of the officers at the door. “Can I help you?” he asked.

“Are you Waylon Gil?” one of the men asked.

“I am” he confirmed puzzled “what’s going on?”

“You are under arrest for the murder of Dexter Gage” the officer informed him while the other pulled out a pair of handcuffs. “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney….”

Zach leaned weakly against the wall, ears buzzing, eyes growing dim as his vision narrowed. Why was this happening? Waylon wouldn’t hurt anyone, would he? He began to shake as a memory from that night forced its way to his consciousness. His heart was racing the way it had been that night as he stared down the barrel of a gun, knowing at any moment Dexter could pull the trigger. Someone had been screaming his name but all he could hear were the words Dexter was saying. Telling him that if he couldn’t have him then no one else could. Hearing the gun off.  Something slamming into his back. The wet cold grass scratching his face as he lay on his stomach. Slowly realizing he hadn’t been shot. Dexter had missed. Relief surging through his body as he slowly recovered his senses.

He cowered in the grass covering his face and ears while Dexter and someone exchanged words. Someone with a familiar voice was yelling. The gun going off for a second time. A loud splash. An agonized scream. Then silence. Without looking Zach pushed himself up and ran. Ran to the dorm. Ran home. It felt like he was still running. No matter how far or how long he ran he couldn’t run from that night.

***

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Teasha had sat with Zach while he waited for his fight. She worried about him going alone but with their younger brother being in a car accident neither of their parents could go with him and she was on her way to see Phoenix. At least it was a non-stop flight to Appaloosa Plains and Waylon would be there to pick him up she thought. “I’m glad you’re going to tell him” she said frowning at his lack of enthusiasm “is something wrong?”

“No nothing” he was quick to say sounding despondent to her ears. She couldn’t help but wonder why while she was waiting for her own fight to take off for Bridgeport. It probably wasn’t a good idea to let him go alone she realized now considering how despondent he was. Of course he had been that way ever since that night with Dexter. Trying to get him to talk about what happened was enough to make him close down, withdraw into himself. At least he seemed to be talking to his therapist.

As soon as she could she would call Zach. She had a terrible feeling something awful was about to happen. Although it could be her own apprehension over seeing Phoenix. She hadn’t seen or spoken to him in months. She had received a call from a hysterical woman who had called her to ask her to come see him.

Still deep in thought she collected her luggage and walked out to get a taxi to her hotel. She had just enough time to check in before going to the hospital to meet Phoenix’s mother. She’d have to wait to call Zach until afterwards she thought. She tossed her bags on the bed. Fished her brush out to remove the snags and snarls from a day on the run.

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She arrived at the hospital. Followed the directions the nurse had given her to the waiting room. Hesitantly she approached an older woman crying in a corner. An insolent teenage boy stood scowling at everyone within sight. Taking a deep breath she approached the pair “excuse me are you Mrs McBride?”

“Teasha” the woman cried jumping to her feet and throwing her arms around the startled girl. “I’m so happy you’re here.”

“Humph” the boy slumped against the wall “I thought Phoenix broke up with you.”

Her eyes narrowed realizing that these were the people who had convinced Phoenix to dump her. “He tried” she replied “when he’s better we’ll rectify that.”

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“Yeah right” the boy scoffed “take a look at her.” He pointed towards his mother “this is what being married to a military man does to a person. This is your future. You should run while you can.”

Teasha had to admit the boy made a striking point. Seeing the abject misery the woman was in didn’t paint a pretty picture. She had grown up with a father who was gone a lot fighting dangerous forest fires. Risking his life to save others. Her other dad had always supported him even though she could see the worry in his eyes every time Ramsey was called out. She could appreciate the fact Phoenix didn’t want her to worry like that over him but it wasn’t his decision to make.

“I think it’s my choice” she gazed steadily into the boys defiant eyes until he looked away first. Turning to the woman she asked “can I see him?”

“Yes” she nodded “just go in. The nurses know you’re coming.”

***

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She walked down the hall heart leaping into her throat the nearer she came to the door. What if he didn’t want her here? What if he wants her to leave? She hesitated hand on the door praying for the strength she needed to handle whatever came next.

The room was dim. Only the sounds of machines marring the silence. Phoenix lay motionless on the bed. She gulped suddenly afraid of what she might see as her feet propelled her forward. “Phoenix” she croaked in a near whisper almost afraid of disturbing the silence.

He stirred on the bed. Hand plucking at the blanket. “Who’s there?” he asked voice rough and scratchy.

“It’s me” she said moving into the light so he could see her better “Teasha.”

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He glanced in her direction than quickly away, a shimmer of tears on his once full cheeks. “What are you doing here?” he demanded.

“I came because you needed me” she spoke softly like she would to Zach.

“I don’t want you here” he grumbled swiping at his eyes with the back of his hand.

She glanced away, towards the door half tempted to leave and never come back. She tossed her hair back as if preparing for battle. Taking a deep breath she said “you don’t get to make that decision. Even if you tell the nurses you don’t want to see me I’ll sit in the waiting room.”

He turned to face the wall “you don’t understand.”

“Understand what?” she demanded trying to keep from feeling sorry for him.

“My back” his voice wavered “it was severed in the crash.” His face screwed up moaning he said “I’ll never walk again.”

The sound of thunder filled her ears. Feeling weak she dropped heavily to the bed. She tried to take his hand, to offer what comfort she could.

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He jerked from her touch “I don’t want your pity.”

“I wasn’t offering you any” she cried “you seem to have that covered all by yourself.” She stood up strode purposefully towards the door “you’re right you don’t need me. People survive worse things than paralysis. They don’t give up.” She looked back knowing this might be the last time she ever saw him “I thought I was offering something to live for. A life with me.” She opened the door “I won’t wait around for you to change your mind. I’m through waiting. I thought I could prove to you I’d make a good soldiers wife. I should have been asking if you’d make a good soldier.”

When he didn’t respond or even move to stop her she walked out. The click of the closed-door made her feel like she had given him a death sentence. Maybe she had. He would now have to live with his wreck of a mother and his brother who forever throw the fact he couldn’t walk because of his short-lived military career. While she waited for the elevator she was half tempted to turn around and try again. She didn’t want to leave him like that.

She took a deep breath as the elevator doors opened. If he wanted her, he knew how to find her. The ball was in his court now. There was nothing else she could do.

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She gazed out her hotel window wondering what she was going to do now. She had planned on being her at least a week if not more. She realized she had been overly optimistic despite her parents attempts to the contrary. Her phone rang. Racing to her bag she fumbled to find it. “Hello” she cried frowning as the sound of sobs reached her ears. “Zach is that you?” The sobs if anything got louder “Zach I can’t help you if you don’t tell me what’s wrong.”

“They. Arrested. Him” he said each word distinctly like he was unfamiliar with the words and what they meant.

“Arrested who?” Teasha asked confused.

“Waylon” he sobbed.

“Oh no” she murmured thinking the police had found out about what he and Donovan did. Hacking the guy who swindled his Uncle out of his lifesaving’s. She immediately started to worry about Hannah and how she was coping and whether she’d face prosecution for her minor part in the scheme. She licked her lips as she forced herself to ask “why was he arrested?”

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“Murder.”

The word hung in the air like an elephant in the room. Large and conspicuous. “What?” she gasped “who?” Her thoughts racing. Going back to the last time Zach had been at university. Waylon had opened the door. Covered in blood. What did he say? Oh that the blood wasn’t his. She had assumed it was Zach’s. She had trusted him with her brother’s life.

“They think he killed Dexter” Zach confided in her. She could hear the shock in his voice.

“Did he?” she asked.

“Did he what?”

“Did he kill Dexter?’ she wished she could reach through the phone and shake her brother to wake him up.

“No of course not” he said although his voice lacked conviction.

She could hear the doubt and fear in his voice. Was that why he had been so reluctant to talk to Waylon? Had he been afraid of him all this time? What was worse? Which was worse to have as the baby’s father, a murder or a rapist? “I’m on my way” she told him grabbing her bags from where she had tossed them on the bed and heading towards the door.

I’m curious who my readers think killed Dexter Gage. Please vote in the poll below. The most popular answer may be answer to the mystery of what happened that night. Vote as many times as you want.

This entry was posted on July 6, 2017. 6 Comments