• Nancy C. Weeks

It's #FreeRead Friday!Let's Dig Deeper into In the Shadow of Evil- Chapter 3 and 4


As I have said before, Jared McNeil and Jennie McKenzie hold a special place in my heart. This was my first finished novel. And, this couple still lives in my head. By now, they have kids and a whole life together. Maybe one day I might just write it all down.


If you haven't had a chance to check out Chapter One or Two, you don't want to mess it. CLICK HERE!


I hope you enjoy the read. If you know someone else you think might enjoy my incredible sexy McNeil brothers, please share the post.


Stay safe and Healthy!

Hugs,

Nancy C. Weeks


In the Shadow of Evil

Book 2

Shadows and Light


Chapter Three

Fells Point, Baltimore

Louise Cunningham yanked the long, thin tube across the living room behind her from the ever-present oxygen concentrator and dropped gently into the chair by her window. She had made herself a cup of coffee, but her body acted as if she’d walked five miles. She reached over to the nebulizer that sat on the small end table next to her chair, switched it to the on position, and placed the tube-like mouthpiece between her lips. Closing her eyes, she concentrated on her breathing while she inhaled the medication her lungs required. With her chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) in its final stage, living on oxygen twenty-four hours a day was her life. And she spent much of her time in her favorite chair gazing out over the neighborhood of Fells Point.

The three-story brownstone had been Louise’s home for sixty-five years. Her doctors wanted her to move into an acute care facility, but she kindly suggested they go fly a kite. Louise still had things to do.

A negative energy surrounded her beloved neighborhood. Everyone was on edge, especially Jennie. Her boarder had been tightly strung since the day of the drive-by shooting eighteen months ago of Quinton Torres. What kind of person guns down a young boy? How anyone get over watching a ten-year-old boy bleed out on the sidewalk?

“How’s it going, Mrs. C.?” Danny Merlot’s face poked up against the window screen. “Is Ms. McKenzie home?”

Louise removed the mouthpiece, holding it to her chest. “Danny, you almost gave me a heart attack. Don’t sneak up on old people like that.”

“Sorry, I thought you saw me. So, is Ms. McKenzie home or not?”

Louise studied the young boy. “Those pants were designed to wear at the waist. If they were any lower, you would be tripping on them.”

Danny yanked up his Solos pants. “Ah, Mrs. C., that’s how we wear them now.”

“And you better not let Jennie see you with that cap, young man.” Louise pointed to the worn-out baseball cap popular with the largest gang in the city. Danny yanked it off his head like he forgot he had it on and stuffed it into his back pocket.

“Jennie isn’t home yet. Can I help you with something?”

Danny’s gaze darted up and down the street while his fingers nervously tapped the windowsill. “There’s something I wanted to talk to her about. It can wait. Thanks.” Without waiting for a reply, he moved away from the window and sauntered down the sidewalk.

As Louise followed Danny’s abrupt departure, Jennie pulled into the parking space in front of the brownstone. Something had happened. Louise could tell Jennie had been crying. Placing the mouthpiece back on the nebulizer, she stood and made her way to her front door. If she wasn’t standing in the foyer when Jennie came in, Jennie would run upstairs and Louise would never find out what had her so upset.

*

Jennie slammed the car door and hurried to the front of the brownstone. She had been driving around for more than an hour, afraid to come home. What if Noah sent a patrol car after her? What would Mrs. C. and her neighbors think if the police dragged her off in handcuffs?

She ran up the front steps, opened the outside door to the brownstone, and let herself into the cool foyer. This was her home, her sanctuary.

The stairs in front of her led to her own apartment on the second floor. The double oak doors to her right were open and standing in the doorway was Mrs. Cunningham. Forcing a smile on her face, Jennie approached her friend.

“How are you doing today, Mrs. C.? I need to run upstairs for a moment, but I’ll be down to fix us something for dinner. How does tilapia sound?”

“I could tell before you even got out of the car that something is wrong.”

“Things just didn’t go as smoothly today as I had hoped,” she said as she followed her friend into her apartment.

Louise dropped down on the sofa and patted the space next to her. “So, who made you cry? If it was that Jared, I swear I’m going to give him a piece of my mind.”

“I only saw Jared for a moment, but had a run in with his obnoxious brother, Noah.” She glanced down at her lap. “I kind of hit him in the middle of a squad room, made his nose bleed.”

“You hit a police officer? I have never seen you lose your temper.”

Jennie shrugged. “You have never seen me with Noah McNeil. He brings out the worst in me.”

“In that case, you need to stay away from him. If he can’t see the kind person you are it’s his loss.”

“That’s the plan.”

“What did he say to make you slug him?”

“It’s not really what he said, but what he implied.” Jennie took one of the sofa pillows and wrapped her arms around it, hugging it close.

“Which was?”

“That’s a long, complicated story.”

“Am I going anywhere?” Louise asked, pointing to the tubing in her nose.

Jennie shifted her position on the sofa to stare out the window. The only person in her life who knew all her secrets was her godfather, Father Michael Sweeney.

Louise reached for Jennie’s hand. “I know the kind of person you are inside. If you felt you had to strike that man, I’m sure he deserved it,” Louise said, with conviction.

“I don’t even know where to begin.”

“Start wherever you feel most comfortable.”

“It could change your opinion of me.”

“That’s not possible.”

Just tell her. Jennie took a deep cleansing breathe and stood. “I’ll be right back, Mrs. C.”

A few minutes later, she returned with a thick, brown case folder and sat down on the coffee table in front of Louise. Rubbing her hand over the folder, she said, “A few months ago, I asked one of my student’s parents who is a detective with the BPD for this file.”

“What is it?”

“It’s the police report on my father. I had so many questions about the day he died.” She opened the file, removed a picture of a young man in a police uniform, and handed it to Mrs. C. “That’s him, my dad.”

“He was a very handsome man. You have his eyes.”

“Right after he made detective, he got involved in this case that took all of his time. I never understood what really happened to him until I received this report.”

“Sometimes it is better to leave well enough alone.”

“Maybe I should have.” She swallowed the lump that formed in her throat. “I now know how my parents really died.”

“I thought your parents died in a car accident when you were ten.”

“They died on the same day. It was just easier to let everyone believe that’s what happened.”

“Did you discovered that from reading that file?”

Jennie glanced over at Mrs. C. Her cheeks were swollen and flushed, a side effect of her drug treatment and there was a constant strain in her eyes. “You don’t need to hear all of this. I should start dinner. You must be starving.”

“Jennie McKenzie, don’t you dare start treating me like a weak old bird who can’t deal with a little upheaval. I get enough of that crap from those well-meaning women who prance in and out of here from St. Luke’s. You need to talk, and I’ll be fine.” The last words were said almost breathlessly.

It was a moment before Jennie could bring herself to continue. She flipped through the folder and dug out a newspaper clipping of a group of politicians posing in front of a building scheduled to be demolished and replaced by a large sports complex. A man stood in the back row, his face circled several times in red ink.

“That man’s name is Elías Mendoza. He is pure evil and I have felt the evil here,” she said, pointing to her heart, “since the day my parents died.”

Unable to sit any longer, Jennie paced the room, pressing her fisted hand to her heart. “It hurts all the time. He watches me. He touches every part of my life and destroys anybody I love. He strikes without remorse, leaving nothing but fear and sorrow behind.”

“How did your father know this man?”

“Dad witnessed Mendoza’s father, Arturo, brutally murder a businessman in an alley off Franklin Street in D.C. After Dad arrested Arturo and processed him, he had a heart attack and died while in the holding cell. Within the hour, Elías Mendoza had my father picked up two blocks from our home. He was tortured…his body used as target practice. At the same time, he ordered his men to come after my mother and me.” Jennie walked over to the sofa and picked up the case file, opening it to a series of photos. “I dream what’s in these images.” Sinking back onto the sofa, Jennie placed her hands over her face, but the horrific crime scenes were embedded on her mind.

“He orchestrated my mom’s car accident to coincide with the death of my father within minutes of each other. The only mistake Mendoza made was that I didn’t die. I woke up in the hospital and he was sitting at my bedside.” She slammed her eyes shut, her breathing erratic.

Louise reached for her hand. “Jennie, it’s okay.”

“You know when you have a nightmare, and your heart beats so hard against your ribs you think everyone must be able to hear it? That’s how I felt in his presence . . . how I still feel in his presence.” Jennie gently pulled her hand out of Louise’s grip and wrapped her arms around herself. “I tried to lie very still with my eyes shut tight. He reached over, touched my hand, and spoke to me in Spanish, ‘Usted vive, porque yo lo permito. You live because I allow it.’ He stood and walked out of the room.”

Jennie’s voice dropped to a whisper. “For the next six years, he was a dream, a nightmare, but then I met him, but I was too naïve to connect him to my father.”

“Did he come for you?”

“Apparently, he has kept track of me since the day my parents died. But, when I was sixteen, I made stupid, selfish, mistakes.” She glanced at her friend. “My choices have caused so much pain for the people I care about.”

“You don’t have a selfish bone in your body.” Louise ran a hand down the back of Jennie’s head. She was silent for a moment then said, “Tell me how you met Mendoza.”

For the next several minutes, Jennie re-lived the four months she lived under his roof, meeting Jared, and finally describing Nick’s death.

“Why would Mendoza keep you and your brother? It doesn’t make any sense.”

“At the time, I couldn’t figure out why Mendoza was so nice to us. It’s not in his nature to do something for someone else unless he can gain from it. We saved his life, but that’s something he expects from the world. I’m sure the men sitting with him that day are fish food.”

Jennie’s nails dug into her palm. “We were in that house because of me. All of this, Nick’s death, the drive-by shooting of Quinton Torres, is about me, and Mendoza is at the root.”

“When was the last time you had any contact with him?”

“I haven’t seen Mendoza since the day Nick died. But I feel him all the time. It’s spine-chilling. I can’t see him, but he’s watching me.” She faced her friend. “I sense Jared, too, but that’s very different. I have trusted Jared since the day we met, and I can’t explain why. But Jared would die to keep me safe.”

“You listen to your gut.” Louise wrapped Jennie in her arms. “How I wish I could take this pain from you. No daughter should witness such horrific things about her own parents.”

“Mendoza is responsible for Quinton’s death. He was there. The police, they listen, and then do nothing because I can’t give them anything to go on.” She rested her head on her friend’s shoulder. “He’s coming back for me. It’s going to be just like eight years ago. He has to be stopped.”

*

A large pizza box and paper plates covered the surface of the coffee table. For the last hour, there was very little conversation between the two women. The only sound in the room was the constant hum of Mrs. C.’s oxygen concentrator. A light, cold rain fell steadily outside, the gloomy picture matching the mood inside. Wrapping her arms around herself, Jennie rested her head against the cold window glass and wondered if Jared had found the check.

“Please sit down, Jennie.” Louise’s voice was gentle, but firm.

Turning to face her friend, Jennie said, “Can I get you anything, Mrs. C.?”

“Just sit next to me, dear.”

“It’s getting late…”

“I have not gone to bed at eight o’clock since I was five, maybe not even then.” Louise repositioned the nasal cannula in her nose. “You can’t go after this man on your own.”

Not wanting to lie to her best friend, Jennie said nothing.

“There is no way on God’s green earth you can face him with only the self-defense classes you have taken.”

Louise’s last words were gasped for air.

“I never should have said anything. Look what I have done.” Jennie squeezed a capsule of medication into nebulizer’s cup, switched the machine to the on position and handed the mouthpiece to Louise. “Don’t talk. Just breathe.”

Louise took in a couple of breaths, inhaling the mist, but then yanked the mouthpiece free, the medication evaporating into the air.

“Stay away from that man.” Each word came out in a short, raspy breath. “Promise me.”

“Mendoza controlled the drug trade in Baltimore several years ago but had moved on to richer waters. He’s back. Once I prove that…”

“I’ll call Father Anthony up at St. Luke’s. He can get in touch with your Jared. I’ll tell him what you are up to. I can’t lose you to that maniac.”

“You can never call Jared. I’m to blame for what happened to him in Mexico. It’s why his brother hates me so much.” Jennie repositioned the mouthpiece, switched on the machine and slipped the elastic band around her friend’s head. “I’ll tell you, but only if you keep this in place.”

“Fine, but no sugar coating it. Just tell me like it is.”

“Three years ago, Jared went undercover and infiltrated Mendoza’s organization.”

“But Mendoza knows Jared’s a cop.”

“He changed his appearance and used his contacts to ensure a minion position to keep an eye on Mendoza. But the bastard pegged him the instant he entered the country, playing a cat and mouse game with him for weeks. He then…Jared was held in this dark hole…tortured just like my father.” Jennie clutched her father’s photo to her chest. “And I witnessed it, every detail.”

“How?”

“Dream…vision…I can’t explain what happened that night. But it was real. I called Noah and gave him everything I saw.” Jennie raised her chin and met her friends stare. “Noah hates me, and he’s not alone in that. Every time I close my eyes, I see the reverse cross that bastard carved into Jared’s chest—exactly like the one in my father’s chest. The image never fades, never goes away.”

Louise pulled Jennie into her arms. “What happened to your parents and your friend are Mendoza’s sins, not yours. You could still ask Jared for help.”

“I can’t bring Mendoza back into Jared’s life. That’s one promise I’ll never break,” she whispered.

“Then there has to be someone else you can tell. Mendoza is just a man, Jennie. You make him sound like he has superpowers.”

“Please, Mrs. C., finish the treatment.”

Jennie lifted the nebulizer’s mouthpiece from Louise’s lap.

“Fine, but talk to me,” Louise said, inhaling the mist into her inflamed lungs.

“It’s the evil in him. It gives him power, which feeds his obsession for me. He doesn’t care for or even like me. But no one is allowed to get close. Nick idolized him. Mendoza despised Nick because I loved him. I have this inexplicable channel into Mendoza’s thoughts. What if that channel is two-way and Mendoza tortured Jared because he felt the connection Jared and I share?”

How could she explain to this marvelous woman that it was her fault Mendoza wasn’t rotting in hell? Before she could stop them, the words came tumbling out. She picked up the police folder. “This file connected all the dots I’ve been missing for years. I’ve been so blind, so stupid to miss the feelings I have.”

Louise removed the mouthpiece and asked, “What feelings?”

“That creepy chill in my spine that was present when the faceless man sat on my hospital bed—the same feeling I had when I saved Mendoza from choking. Same feeling, same man.” She forced herself to face Louise. “Where is my sin in all this? I saved the life of the man who brutally murdered my parents.”


Chapter Four

Fells Point, Baltimore

Three hours later

I don’t like this. God I don’t like this at all.

Jennie tried to tighten the harness around her waist, but her hands trembled. Repelling over the roof didn’t frighten her. The building across the street did.

She rubbed her boot over the icy slush covering the surface of the rooftop then leaned over the edge to check for any ice developing on the side of the building. Water pooled near the edge, but so far, temperatures remained warm enough to keep them from freezing completely.

“Okay, only rain, a little slush, no ice,” she whispered to an empty rooftop. There were at least eight hours of battery left to power the older-than-dirt camera she had hooked beneath the eaves. She glanced at the thick snow clouds covering the moon. The burned-out streetlight in the next block added to her cover.

Tomorrow night was a full moon. Any chance of repelling undetected would be lost. The weather may not be ideal, but she had to change the batteries tonight or chance missing data.

She turned and studied the townhouse. There was no record that Mendoza had any connection to the property, but he was part of whatever was going on behind its closed doors. His foul presence enclosed the property like a thick dark fog.

The neighborhood was Mendoza’s territory ten years ago. His men were loyal and stayed with him for years. If she could identify one of his old employees leaving from the building, maybe she could convince the police to take another look at Quinton’s death.

The police didn’t believe her when she tried to tell them Mendoza was back. The bastard still controlled the drug routes into her neighborhood. Someone will mess up and she’ll be there. Or at least her cameras will. One way or another, she would avenge that happy faced little boy whose life was taken before he had a chance to live.

She attached the rope to her harness and inched her way over to the edge of the roof. She had repelled many times off rock walls while in college. This wasn’t that much different. She was anchored securely to the roof. If she couldn’t climb back up, she could always repel to the ground and collect her ropes.

Jennie checked her harness and hardware one last time. She slipped on her gloves then placed her toes on the edge of the roof.

“Jennie McKenzie, what in blazes do you think you are doing?”

Father Anthony stepped out onto the roof from the stairwell and charged over to her. He grabbed the rope and gave it a tug.

Jennie eased her grip and took a step away from the edge. “Good grief, Father Anthony, you scared the crap . . . I mean what are you doing here?”

“What am I doing here?” His deep baritone voice reverberated off the buildings, but he had only whispered his question.

Heat crawled up her neck into her cheeks. As the new music minister of St. Luke’s, the man in front of her wasn’t just one of her few friends but her employer.

When her godfather accepted the position in Rome, Father Anthony became her mentor. And he wasn’t a typical priest. He spent the first thirty years of his adulthood as a member of U.S. Army Special Forces. When he retired, he went into the seminary. One look at the expression on his face, and Jennie had no problem seeing the soldier behind the reverent, priestly garments. She wasn’t going to have an easy time explaining herself.

She took another step away from the edge and swallowed. “I’m changing the batteries in the cameras. It’s perfectly safe.”

“Perfectly safe . . .”

“I secured the lead rope to the brackets holding the HVAC units to the roof. They aren’t going anywhere.”

“Good God, Jennie,” he whispered, pent up frustration evident in his voice. “How many laws have you broken? And don’t think for one minute you can stand there and tell me you were safe hanging over the side of a five-story building with only a rope as your safety net. There’s a better way. Let me call in someone…”

“My problem. My plan.” Jennie didn’t have very many friends and Father Anthony was one of the few people she trusted. She hated upsetting him. But if anyone understood what she was fighting for, he did. “I can’t take a chance I missed someone involved.”

“How long are you going to keep this up? And with this out-of-date equipment?”

“It was free, and it works.”

“You need to turn this whole mess over to the people trained to do this kind of thing before I have to identify your flattened body in the city morgue.”

“Again, the people who are trained to do this don’t believe me. Father A., why are you here?”

“I was visiting with a family in the building and saw you heading for the roof. Poor Mrs. Perez must think I’m stark raving mad the way I dashed out of her apartment.” He pulled the collar of his coat up over his ears, picked up the excess rope. “But I can tell that nothing I say is going to keep you from carrying out your crazy plan. I might as well see that the people in this building don’t have to wake up with you splattered all over their front step.”

Jennie sucked in a breath. “You’re going to help me?”

“I want something in return before you dive off the roof.”

“What?”

“This is the last time you do this. We’ll find another way. I want your word on it.”

“I can’t give you that.”

“You think this is up for negotiation?” He glared at her. “I want your promise that this will be the last time you roam in the middle of the night, scaling over rooftops to repair those dilapidated cameras. I also want your promise there will be no more hacking of any kind looking for evidence on Mendoza.”

There had been people in her life she could eventually sway, but never the man in front of her. It must have been the cassock.

“I’m waiting, Jennie.”

She looked out over the rooftop then back at Father Anthony. “I promise this will be the last time.”

Father Anthony nodded and braced his boot against a cement block. Jennie gave him a quick hug and repositioned herself before he changed his mind.

“I can do this,” she said, bracing her left hand on the ropes at her waist and her right hand holding the section of rope around her back. She then stepped back to the edge of the roof and propelled herself into the air, controlling her descent down the side of the building for about four yards.

She pulled herself up against the brick and reached for the camera with her left hand while she held her descent with her right hand. She tried to flick the release button on the battery cover, but her wet gloved hand just wouldn’t cooperate. Using her teeth, she pulled the glove off each finger. While she held the soggy glove between her teeth, she released the latch and pulled out the battery. She slipped it into her pocket and took out the replacement. In seconds, she had the battery in position and the casing closed.

The climb to the roof was always the most difficult part of the exercise, but how was she going to replace the glove with only one hand.

She pulled the glove from her mouth just as an eerie feeling of being watched danced across her skin. Scanning the street in both directions gave her nothing. She gripped the rope and spun around to face the house across the street. Nothing looked out of the ordinary, but someone was there, the prickly goosebumps never lied.

She eased the glove opening with her teeth and wiggled her fingers into the section that rested on the center of her palm.

“Jennie, are you okay down there?”

“I can’t get my glove back on.”

“Why did you take it off?”

“I couldn’t unlatch the button on the battery casing. Can you hold me so I can use my right hand?”

“I have you. Just be careful. It’s icing up.”

Jennie released her right hand and quickly tried to yank on the glove.

“Shit.”

Anthony’s panicked whisper reached Jennie just as she dropped, her stomach plummeting with her. A gasp escaped her lips and the glove slipped from her fingers. The rope immediately went taut and she grasped it with her bare hand, her descent jerking to a stop. She clutched the rope with both hands as her body slammed against the bricks of the building. Her body twisted and she spotted a faint light turn on in the third story window. The dim light cast a shadow on the side of the house. Movement caught her eye and a man’s form appeared, his body plastered against the siding. The light switched off, she blinked, and he was gone.

As her heart hammered, she used all her strength and climbed the rope until Father Anthony dragged her over the edge.

“Are you okay?” The priest helped her stand.

Jennie began to remove her harness, but a sharp pain in her left hand stopped her. Raising it up into the dim light, she studied the long, red rope burn that ran across her hand from the middle of her fingers to the center of her palm. She couldn’t stop the moan.

“That’s got to hurt. I can bandage it back at St. Luke’s,” Father Anthony said, coiling the rope.

“A man, maybe six feet tall, hid in that shadow at the edge of the house. He backed behind the bush and disappeared.”

“Are you sure? Why didn’t he warn the guys inside the house?”

“I don’t know, but let’s get out of here.”

A deep grumble came from Father Anthony’s throat. “Last time, Jennie. I’m getting too old for this shit.”

*

Jared eased behind the large column and stood in the shadows of the sanctuary of St. Luke’s. Ceiling lights beamed over the altar, casting a light glow on the cross. The rest of the sanctuary was bathed in flickering candlelight. With his back against the cool marble, he took in a deep breath, filling his lungs with the familiar scents of incense, burning candles, and wood polish.

From his position, he had a clear view of the woman sitting at the grand piano. Jennie McKenzie. Except for the few moments in the squad room, it had been over two years since he stood this close to her.

There was a time he didn’t go a week without seeing her. After the fiasco on the Mendoza’s lawn, he should have disappeared from her life. But for some reason, he couldn’t stay away. His protective instincts wouldn’t allow him to rest until everything in her world was safe. Then a friendship like none other he ever experienced formed between them. Jennie had an exuberance for life, she lived every minute to its fullest. But it was her quiet maturity that drew him to her. Her very presence settled him and filled a hole that not even his twin could touch.

But after his screw-up in Mexico, he cut Jennie out of his life almost completely. It was the only way he could protect her. The painful scars he earned at Mendoza’s hands he could live with. What woke him in the middle of the night was the faceless voice from his dreams—Protect her. You are her only chance.

Night after night, the message screamed in his head. Ending all contact with Jennie was his only choice, but it was a damn hard one. The sick bastard watched her sleep, teach, live—and Jared was powerless to stop him.

The special FBI taskforce led by Jared’s brother Mac was finally closing in on Mendoza. Mac needed Jared completely off Mendoza’s radar. In order to ensure Jared stuck with the plan, Mac went against the brother code and obtained his superiors’ support. Jared would have done the same thing in Mac’s shoes. But relying on others to keep Jennie safe was hell. Mac’s team, who watched her every move, didn’t know her like Jared did. If they did, then they would know something was off.

He rested his head against the column and listened to the hauntingly sad music coming from the piano. As Jennie’s fingers waltzed across the keyboard, a tear slid down her cheek. Whatever gut-wrenching pain she was trying to rid herself of through the music, it wasn’t working. Every note echoed what could only be a deep hurt—the kind of hurt that dug itself into the darkest crevasses of the heart. Just listening to her pain ate away at him. What the hell had he missed that would cause this kind of grief?

Jared stepped out of the shadow and waited for her to notice him. It didn’t take long before her fingers froze on the keyboard.

“Jared,” she whispered.

He took another step closer. “Hey, Jennie.”

“What are you doing here?”

“I could ask you the same thing.” He strolled up the side aisle, keeping as much in the shadows as he could. The one question he wanted to ask all day came stumbling out of his mouth. “How could you just run off like that? You know Noah. He’s all bark. He never would have…”

“You shouldn’t be here.” Her expressive, deep hazel eyes widened as she searched the sanctuary. When Jennie turned and faced him, her features were clouded with fear.

Jared straightened his stance and his hand went to his weapon. “Who else is here?”

“No one, except Father Anthony.”

“Why are you so spooked? Hell, Jennie, you look like you are about to jump out of your skin.”

Jennie stood and lowered the piano lid over the keys. “It’s just late. I didn’t expect anyone to be here.”

Damn. What the fuck?

“I think that is the first lie you ever told me.” Jared took several steps, closing the space between them. Even in the dim light he could tell his words affected her. He reached for her hands clutched in front of her. His fingers rubbed against several layers of gauze wrapped around her left palm. He lifted it so he could get a better look. He couldn’t see what was under the bandage, but the skin was red, and blisters formed on each finger joint. “What the hell? You didn’t have this earlier.”

She yanked her hand free. “Nothing. It’s nothing.”

“That’s two lies. And this,” he said, holding up her hand, “is definitely something. How did it happen?”

In all the years they have known each other, Jennie never tried to close herself off from him. In fact, he teased often that her eyes gave away exactly what she was thinking. But not tonight. She was definitely hiding something.

Where was the smile that lightened his mood, or the hug that stayed with him for hours? Could the distance he placed between them have finally led her to stop believing in him? The idea, crushing.

“Why did you come to the station today?”

“I left you a note.”

Jared edged in close enough that her citrus and jasmine scent surrounded him. She didn’t back away but she kept her gaze on the floor. “Since when do you need to leave a note? Why didn’t you just let me know you were coming? I’m would have been there to meet you.”

Jennie brushed a hand through her auburn shoulder length hair while her eyes darted everywhere but at him. So many emotions passed across her features—desperation, guilt, sadness.

“Jennie, what’s wrong?”

“Read the note, Jared. It’s all in there,” she replied in a hushed whisper.

It took everything in him to keep from blaring out where she could stuff the damn note. “You could always talk to me before. What’s changed?” He cupped her face with both of his hands. His thumb caressed the tender skin along her jaw. “Please don’t shut me out.”

“You’re not here, Jared. I can’t…won’t—”

“Won’t what? Count on me, trust me?”

Shaking her head, she reached out her uninjured hand and flattened it against his chest. Her touch sent a jolt straight to his gut and he swallowed, hard.

She pulled back. Jared placed his hand over hers, capturing it against his chest. He traced his thumb along the outside of her wrist. Her pulsed raced against the fabric. “I’ll always be here for you—do you understand? You have to know that.”

“I’ve always trusted you, Jared. But I’m not that stupid kid anymore. I’m all grown up.”

“You were never a stupid kid. Maybe too trusting, but never stupid.” He brushed a strand of hair behind her ear. “And I stopped treating you like a kid a long time ago. All I want to do is help if I can.”

She dropped her arms to her side. “You can’t ride in and fix my problems. I need to fight my own battles.” She glanced over his shoulder at the entrance. “You shouldn’t even be here. You said we had to stay away from each other so…”

“Is this the result of you fighting one of those damn battles?” Jared lifted her injured hand.

The space between them went cold, empty. Unable to stop himself, he drew her back into his arms. Jennie gripped hold of his arms and her gaze bore into him. There was such longing in her expression which went against everything she said to him. “Don’t push me away like this. I need—”

He didn’t understand what came over him, but he brought his lips to hers until they barely touched. Every sense awoke at once, the heat of her breath on his lips, her body molding itself to his, the scent of her wrapping him in a sensual cocoon. All that missing was taste. He had to taste her.

Their gaze held, and when Jennie didn’t pull away, he curled his hand around the nape of her neck and covered her mouth with his. At first, there was tenderness, gentle, giving her time to shove him away. She matched his desire with her own, taking everything. And he loved her taste, mint, vanilla, and there wasn’t a tentative bone in her body. How had he missed this primal, sexual connection between them? Where in the hell did it come from? How long had it been staring him right in the face?

Jared’s hand caressed her spine landing at the base. He drew her into him. Jennie arched her back until there was nothing separating them but their thin layer of clothing.

The nails clutching his shirt relaxed. Jennie planted her hands on his chest and gave a slight push. It almost didn’t register. Then she broke the kiss. Her head rested on his chest while she caught her breath. Jared buried his fingers into her hair and cradled her to his chest.

Shit! How was he going to walk away from her now? How was he going to breathe without touching, holding, making love to her? He just opened a Pandora’s box he had no desire to ever shut.

“Jared?” Jennie’s voice was winded as she tried to speak.

“I know, Jennie.”

She raised her head and met his gaze. “We can’t…I can’t.”

“I know.”

He rested his forehead against hers. He was going to step away and leave her here. There was no other option for him until Mendoza was stopped. Mendoza will use Jennie to hurt him. He had to let her go. But what he unleashed tonight could not be taken back.

A door slammed from somewhere in the church. Jennie moved out of his arms. “That’s Father Anthony. He’s here to walk me home.”

“I can’t leave without knowing you’re okay.”

She leaned in and kissed him gently on the lips. “I’m fine.”

“You are not fine, far from it. And that’s lie number three.”

“You have to go.”

Jared cupped her neck and drew her to him. “It will not be like this forever. We have something damn powerful between us, and one day we’re going to see where it leads us. Believe in me, Jennie. Trust me like I trusted you. Can you do that?” Without waiting for her to answer, he placed a gentle kiss on her forehead, then the tip of her nose, ending on her lips. The kiss ended way too soon. He lifted his eyes and met hers, then stepped behind the large column just as the priest entered the sanctuary.

“Are you ready to go, Jennie?”

She stood alone at the piano with her eyes closed. The priest strolled up to her and placed a hand on her shoulder. “Are you okay?”

Jared didn’t miss the concern in his voice. Jennie turned and faced her friend. “Yes, just drained.”

“After your evening, I don’t doubt it,” the priest commented. They both turned and left the sanctuary using the door near the altar. Jennie never turned back.

Jared stayed in his location until he was sure he was alone. He moved from behind the column and approached the altar. He genuflected as his mom taught him many years ago. Raising his eyes to the man on the cross, he prayed, “Help me keep her safe.”

~~~


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Copyright @NancyCWeeks 2019

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