Surrender To Me (Book One)

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Chapter 13: Taken

I work incredibly hard to get my ministry projects up and going, but I’m making pitiful progress. There’s still no word on my tax-exempt status. I can’t find anyone with the IRS who will give me any sort of solid answer.

I get so tired of waiting that my frustration level motivates me to start with something small. I purchase a vacant city lot, hire a crew to clear it of all debris and open a community garden. Buying a piece of real estate inside the Chicago city limits is by no means an inexpensive start, but it’s small compared to providing residences and staff for my other projects.

The parents and neighbors all look at me like I’m crazy, but the children, especially the little ones, are enthralled with the project and are always up for whatever activity the day may hold. The hearts of children are so open to new ideas. They amaze and inspire me with their trusting ways.

There is a little girl in our community garden club whose name is Kanika. She’s seven years old and is so beautiful, both in appearance and spirit. I get to talk to her at length this afternoon. During our conversation I learn her mother has been ill. Kanika and her little brother, Tyreke, age five, are fending for themselves far too much.

We work to get the garden squared away for the day, and while doing so, I make it a point to find out where Kanika lives. After everyone leaves the garden I race to the grocery and secure food items that small children can fix for themselves. I have two large sacks filled with lunch meat and bread, microwavable soups and crackers, mac and cheese bowls, juice boxes, cereal and milk, salad greens with three flavors of dressing and a variety of fruits. While I visit I intend to find out what Kanika’s mother might need in the way of medical help.

My arms are so stuffed it’s all I can do to get the groceries carried to Kanika’s door. Three flights of stairs are a lot when you’re carrying this much. I’ve just set the bags of food at the threshold of their door when I hear someone behind me.

Before I can turn and say anything, or secure the identity of the person, I feel a small hard object pushed into the back of my head at the base of my skull. Instantly, I start talking and I mean every word that comes out of my mouth. “I don’t know who you are, but if you want the groceries, they’re yours, all yours. Just take them.”

“You, stupid bitch, I don’t want your lame ass groceries. Come on!” My kidnapper yanks me sideways, horribly stressing my neck, and half drags me up the stairs toward the roof. While he’s busy slinging me around I slowly reach into my jacket pocket and activate the panic feature Jackson installed on my phone.

The voice behind and above me is male but is slightly high pitched. I don’t know if the pitch of his voice is natural or if it’s adversely affected by drugs or stress. He’s tall and wiry and way stronger than I am.

Dear God, help me!

“What is it that you want?” I ask. “I think I have ten dollars in my pocket. It’s yours, just let me go,” I squawk hoarsely.

My captor seems incredibly insulted. “Ten bucks? Are you fucking kidding me? You think I’m in this for ten fucking bucks?”

“I’m trying to determine what you want. Why don’t you just tell me?” I beg as tears stream down my face. I’m wearing jeans, an old T-shirt and my back in the day sneakers. I have a light jacket on. There’s nothing in my wardrobe to indicate I have money, unless he saw me pull up in my car. Even so, I’m driving a Kia not a Tesla.

“Do you want more money?” I ask in a desperate attempt to understand his objective. He’s stout, I’ll give him that. He’s moving fast and has already dragged me up three flights of stairs. He’s practically carrying me and is still making incredible time. I’ve got to stall his ascent. I’ve got to give Jackson time to find help and get back to me.

A half dozen more flights of stairs and we’ll be on the roof. Whatever he has planned will happen there. Dear God, I’m coming home to meet you if you don’t send help! I intentionally drop my weight and make myself as heavy as possible. My neck is sure taking a beating. I suppose it doesn’t matter, though, because I’m going to die anyway.

“Tell me your name,” I state through clenched teeth. “You’re going to kill me, right? So what’s the harm?”

“My name is none of your damn fucking business, bitch.” He tosses me upwards as much as possible so as to get a better hold on me. He continues up the stairs towing my lolling body mass alongside him.

As we move forward and upward it occurs to me, we’re passing numerous apartments. I have no idea how many are occupied. If I could vocalize a decent, hearable scream someone might venture out to help me. Problem is that helping me will probably be the final thing they ever do. I can’t ask that kind of sacrifice of anyone. I’m simply very grateful that we don’t come across an innocent person who just happens to be coming or going for some reason.

Instinctively, I know I’ve got to get him talking. “Why do you want to harm me? I’ve never seen you before. What reason for hurting me can you possibly have?”

“Look, bitch. I don’t know you. I never said I did,” is his hateful, angry reply.

“Why do this to me then?” I ask, unable to comprehend such unwarranted behavior.

“Are you going to rape me?”

“I don’t take my ass from no one. Ass comes begging me,” he replies intensely. I can feel my captor nodding his head in affirmation of his own statement. “Yes, it does.” He’s so proud of himself. The male ego is such a strange animal.

“I know you’re going to kill me, just tell me why?” I plead tearfully.

“Look, bitch, all I know is some guy wants you dead. He gave me your picture, he told me where to find you, and what kind of car you drive. I followed you here to this low-rent hellhole. I couldn’t ask for a better place to end you. People die here all the time. No one will even care you’re gone.”

Oh, someone will care alright. You’ll learn that the hard way.

I want to know why I’m about to die. While this man may not know the actual reason, he certainly knows who’s behind all of this. So, against hope that a name will mean something to me I ask, “What guy wants me dead? Who is he?”

Suddenly, we burst out into the bright sunlight and onto the roof. It’s about three p.m., but in spite of the fact that it’s Saturday, no one else is present on the roof top. It’s no wonder. The roof is empty, and its emptiness is ugly. Large tar patches and cigarette butts are mostly all that’s present. Chicago’s breezes plaster random pieces of trash against portions of the rooftop’s anatomy. It’s a bleak, desolate place, one that will never entice anyone to visit voluntarily, well, not for a wholesome reason anyway.

Urgently, I ask a second time, “What guy wants me dead?”

“I don’t know his name,” my captor hisses at me. “I just know he paid me to do you in. So, guess what?” he asks jubilantly. I’m crying more earnestly now. At this point, fear isn’t the only emotion contributing to my tears. I’m leaving this world and I won’t get to say goodbye to Jackson or my boys.

Please, Lord, reassure them that I love them and didn’t leave them by choice.

Losing me is going to be terribly hard on Jackson. He’ll miss me fiercely. As much as I’d like for this creep to pay for what he’s doing to me, I don’t want Jackson’s life wasted on hunting down this guy. I want Jackson to spend his energy going forward and creating a life without me.

Dear God, please take care of Jackson. Please don’t let him dwell on losing me. Please send him someone who will love him like he deserves to be loved, someone who’ll lead him to you. Please keep my boys safe and help them live for you.

I return my focus to the task at hand. “So, you’re going to kill me because some guy you’ve never met paid you to?”

“That’s kind of the idea, bitch,” he growls at me.

“What if I paid you more?”

“From the looks of you, you don’t have it. Besides, that goes against my personal code of ethics.”

I nearly shorten the few seconds I have left on this earth by laughing out loud at him. At the last possible instant, I catch my laugh and manage to keep it contained within me. Still, my voice rings with incredulity as I ask, “You’re a contract killer and you have a personal ethics code?”

“Sure,” he says matter-of-factly, “everybody’s got a code. Even if it’s anything goes, it’s a code.” I can’t believe what I’m hearing. I’m going to die at the hands of a philosopher.

My captor positions us so we stand on the roof top next to the outer edge of the building, opposite the roof access door. In the back of my mind I begin to wonder if he really wants me dead. We’ve already been here long enough for him to have accomplished his objective and be long gone by now. Maybe my stall tactic is working. If so, I shouldn’t give up on it.

I continue to talk while I do my best to buy time. “I can’t imagine why anyone would want me harmed. Are you sure I’m the right person? Maybe you’ve confused me with someone else.”

“Don’t think so,” comes his arrogant counter.

“What’s the name of your target?” I ask, hoping for my miracle. “Why not be sure you’ve got the right person? I mean you wouldn’t want to kill someone you haven’t been paid for, right? That would violate your code of ethics, wouldn’t it?”

“Damn straight! Nobody gets a freebie,” he states adamantly.

I repeat my question because he seems to have trouble keeping up with our conversation. “Name, what’s the name of your target?”

“Dawes. Eliza Dawes. Is that you?” he wants to know as he looks sideways and down in an attempt to see my face.

“My name is Jane Dawes,” I reply honestly. Eliza Jane Dawes, but I leave out my first name, the part that will ensure my death.

Dear God! Help me! This is the end for me if you don’t show up!

Suddenly, from behind us, I hear a voice. “Let her go,” is the command. The voice is deep and masculine but altered somehow.

My captor quickly turns us so we can see the source of the directive. Standing there in skintight black leather is a man in a mask. I’ve never seen anything quite like him.

The most amazing thing about Leather Man is that he’s holding a bow with two arrows aimed directly at us. Are you kidding me?! It’s just my luck to get kidnapped on the day my abductor has a contract killer of his own after him. Or, maybe, the guy with the arrows is after me as well. I suppose it could be one arrow for me and one for my captor. Maybe the man who wants me dead decided to double up on his chances of making it happen. Maybe these two are in competition with one another in a winner-takes-all scenario. I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know! Dear God, where are you?

Leather Man speaks again. “I told you to let her go.”

Kidnapper man slings me sideways with the grip of his elbow and laughs at Leather Man. “You can’t expect me to take you seriously, not dressed like that!”

“You can’t possibly know how serious I am,” Leather Man replies. I’m looking right at him. His stance is strong and balanced as he uses his right arm to hold the bow at discharge height. He looks every bit as serious as he sounds.

I don’t believe what’s happening. I’ve actually got two men fighting over me and it’s over who gets to kill me? Who has luck like this?

Suddenly, my captor calms his sense of humor and returns his demeanor to manifested death mode. “Get lost you son of a bitch. This ain’t got nothing to do with you.”

With deathly resolve very much present in the tone of his own voice, Leather Man asks, “Are you willing to bet your life on it?”

I sense hesitation in the heart of my captor. Apprehension, caused by a growing understanding of his deteriorating situation, causes my captor to doubt his resolve. He’s deciding what to do. Turn me loose! Turn me loose! Dear God, please make him turn me loose!

Another threat comes from the man with the leather and arrows. “Final warning,” he says with dark earnestness as he pulls rearward on his bow string.

I latch onto my attacker’s arm with new fervor and try desperately to pull it away from my throat. Suddenly, against my influence, and without warning of any sort, my captor tightens his hold on me and yanks me up onto my toes. It appears as if he’s made his decision.

I claw at my kidnapper’s arm and gasp for air. My vision gets swimmy as he pulls the gun away from my head and points it at the guy in leather. I feel a deep breath in the chest of my captor. I instinctively know he’s about to say something, but for whatever reason, he pauses or changes his mind.

Having a gun aimed at him brings about no change in the demeanor of the man with the bow. I can’t see his eyes clearly enough to determine if the intimidating direction of the gun affects him emotionally in any way. Before my captor can say anything, or reposition his gun back toward my head, Leather Man releases his bow string and sends two arrows straight at us.

My very next breath is nothing but a gasp. This is it, Lord. I’m coming home to You. Before I can make any effort to refill my lungs with air the agonizing stronghold on my body is broken. My attacker releases me and falls limply to the ground behind me. I stagger and try to catch my breath. I touch my throat and try to ascertain if my kidnapper caused real damage by holding me so tightly. At the same time, though, I want verification that he’s not coming after me.

When I turn to look at him, I find that my captor will never again bother me or anyone else. He lies on the filthy rooftop with two arrows through the front of his forehead. A rivulet of blood drains from each wound toward the rooftop beneath him. I choke on a sob that catches in my throat. I’m fighting the urge to throw up when I suddenly remember the other assailant.

I turn to look at Leather Man. Slowly, he starts towards me. My kidnapper believed himself to be an assassin, but this guy with the mask and leather is truly deadly. It appears I’ve moved from the frying pan into the fire.

“You don’t need to be scared,” the man in leather says simply. By now I’m thinking clearly enough to understand his voice is masked by some sort of electronic device. “I’m not going to harm you,” he assures me.

“I don’t know that!” I shriek at him. I’d back away from him, but there’s only one step between me and the edge of the building.

Leather Man sets his bow aside by laying it on the ground at his feet. “I’m here to help you,” he reassures me.

“I don’t know that, either!” I shriek again. “Dear God! Help me! Please!” I’m crying so hard I can’t see where to go or what to do. Is there anything I can do? “You stay away from me! My husband’s on his way. He’ll pay for you to be good to me. You have my word!” I bargain desperately.

I hold my throat because it hurts like I’ve really been harmed, but I can still swallow normally so maybe fear is making the pain worse than it really is. While I try to assess the damage to my body I continue to look around. I hope I’ve missed some obvious escape and one more look will help me find it. I sigh heavily in utter resignation. I didn’t miss an escape route the first time I looked because there isn’t one. There is no safe way out or down.

Leather Man is big, much bigger than the first guy. I’ll never be able to fight him off. I’m worse than useless in my own defense. I understand so much better why Jackson wanted me to take fight lessons. I so wish I’d listened to him. I wish I’d tried harder for him, for myself. Oh who am I kidding? Nothing I could have learned would help me against a man with such obvious skills. I refuse to die while beating myself up for not being good enough. After all, a person can’t be good at everything.

The man with the mask continues our conversation. “Was he holding you hostage?”

I jerk my head up and look at Leather Man through a confused haze. I’m not certain I heard him correctly. Fear of finality is messing with my hearing same as my vision and my breathing. I ask him to repeat himself, “Wh…wh…what did you say?”

Patiently, if you can believe it, Leather man asks me again, “Was he holding you hostage?”

I answer honestly, but reluctantly as I hold my throbbing throat. “Yes,… yes, he was.” “Is he holding you hostage now?” Leather Man asks me. He seems so calm, so logical. I shake my head. “No…,” I admit reluctantly as my brain races to comprehend everything that’s happening.

Self-preservation exerts itself again. In an attempt to put greater distance between us, I back toward the edge of the building, availing myself of that one step. When I reach my absolute boundary I quickly glance out and down into the open space between me and the sidewalk twelve stories below.

I can’t imagine what unspeakable things Leather Man has planned for me. I could just jump. Hitting the concrete below might be preferable to dying at the hands of the man before me. I’m going home to Jesus when I leave this world, so I know there are things in this life far worse than death.

Leather Man seems agitated now that I’ve moved closer to the edge of the building. His demeanor makes it so incredibly obvious that he wanted to follow me as I backed away from him. He raises his right hand to reach for me but catches himself. It is so evident it takes great restraint on his part to keep from following his instincts.

He seems to understand I’m weighing my options. So, in lieu of action, he continues to talk. “Think about what you’re doing, okay?” he asks. The electronic component of his voice disguises any true emotion, but I gather, maybe from his demeanor more than anything else, that he’s nearly panicked at the thought of me flinging myself over the edge of the building in order to flee him. Why in the world would he care?

Leather Man continues his effort to calm me. “I laid down my bow, didn’t I? So, I helped you, right?” He’s very pragmatic and controlled as he speaks to me in his strange electronic tone. Now, though, I detect a component of urgency hidden beneath the vocal disguise. Leather Man wants me to understand. For some reason it’s extremely important to him.

I’m so terribly confused. Leather Man is correct in all that he says. My kidnapper can’t hurt me anymore. I’m no longer a hostage and my replacement menace has laid aside his bow. Doesn’t Leather Man understand that he’s as big a threat to me without his bow as he was with it? If he takes hold of me, he can easily force me to do his bidding whatever it might be.

Dear God, where are you?!

Slowly, and unrecognized by me because of my mental meanderings, Leather Man has closed the distance between us and is currently within two strides of me. I’m so anxious I start to quiver. My heart beat races in my chest. My knees are barely keeping me upright and I’m producing huge, fat, silent tears. My life is just about over. Help me, God. Please don’t let it hurt as I land on the other side.

More quickly than I see it coming, certainly more quickly than I can react, Leather Man comes forward, captures me and pulls me tightly against his body.

Instinctively, before I can even register the thought of a defense against his hold on me, recognition hits me like a tsunami. I know this body. I know the feel of this body against me, the way it fits me. Without even looking up at his face I know Leather Man’s identity.

I pull away from his torso and raise my gaze to meet his. “Jackson?” I utter loudly enough to be barely heard. Silently, he watches me from behind his mask and gauges my response. He’s close enough now that I can see the obvious anguish present in his gaze. He is not happy that I recognized him.

“Ellie….,”

My mind spins out of control. Jackson in a disguise? He came to help me, but didn’t want me to know? He nearly let me leap to my death out of fear? He’s slinging arrows across rooftops? How long…? How stupid…?

My mind can’t take the influx of information, the comprehension of Jackson’s betrayal plus the stress of having been held at gunpoint. My brain shuts itself off and costs me consciousness.

At some point my mind recognizes the sudden development of an awful windstorm. As violently as the winds rage around me, they aren’t enough to rouse me fully from my respite. There’s too much stress, too much confusion and too much uncertainty. I refuse to awaken. I reach for oblivion and hold onto it for all I’m worth.

When I regain consciousness, I find I’m in my own bed and have been stripped down to my underwear on both ends of my body. Jackson sits beside me on the edge of the bed and is dressed in black leather for some reason. No doubt about it. He’s got the body for it.

It takes just a moment for my memories to replay what transpired earlier today. When my near-death adventure leaps forward in my gray matter I gasp and pull away from Jackson.

Jackson reaches for me, but I dart away from him. I scrunch up in the far corner of the bed in a tight upright ball. My arms defensively pull my knees snugly into my chest.

“Ellie,” comes his plea. “Let me explain….”

“Explain?!” I shout at him as fury instantly consumes me. “How do you explain this… this… whatever this is?!” I shout with my arms extended, palms face up, and shoulders shrugged in my best ‘duh?’ impression. There is a hateful wounded edge to my voice that I don’t like, but I’m so angry I can’t fix it right now. I’m not sure whether I dislike the pain or the hate worse. I guess ultimately it doesn’t matter because both will eventually have to be addressed.

“Ellie,” Jackson begins, “I want to tell you about it if you’ll let me.” His face is ravaged with guilt and fear.

Now that I’ve recognized his inner turmoil, I call him on it. “What’s worse for you Jackson? Is it the guilt over having lied to me this entire time or the fear that I’m leaving because of it?”

Jackson drops his head in abject misery. “They’re both pretty damn bad, Ellie.”

“What did you think would happen when I found out? Did you imagine a party? What, Jackson? What was supposed to happen?”

“Honestly…,” he grudgingly admits as his shoulders slump, “you were never supposed to know.”

I screw up my face and shake my head in short aggravated spurts. “Are you freaking kidding me? You were going to keep this from me… what…like forever?! What’s wrong with you, Jackson? Who are you that you think you can rationalize this to yourself and ever justify it to me? Is there any part of our life that’s real or is our entire marriage one big lie?”

“I love you, Ellie, with all my heart,” Jackson says earnestly.

I shake my head in an adamant rebuttal. “No…no you don’t, Jackson. Love doesn’t lie and it sure as hell doesn’t manipulate.”

Jackson attempts a further explanation. “I did it for your safety, Ellie. In case we ever get caught and are prosecuted you’ll have plausible deniability. Also, knowing about this would be incredibly stressful for you. I wanted to spare you that. You have to understand, Ellie, there are elements in this city who will come after you if they know who I am.”

“What? Like the guy who came for me this afternoon?” I demand to know.

Jackson sits up straight once again, takes a deep breath and asks sternly, “Who was he, Ellie?”

I look at him like he’s lost his mind. “How am I supposed to know?! All he said was that he’d been paid to kill me. So, now, I guess I know why don’t I? It’s all because of you and some…some…game you’re playing?”

“Ellie,” Jackson counters, “all of this could have been prevented if you’d cooperated about using some personal security. You know that, right?”

The look of surprise in my features only increases at the lack of accountability, as well as, the absurdity, to be found within Jackson’s justification. “You’re blaming this on me?” I ask for confirmation.

Jackson sits before me and drops his head. Even he knows what a ridiculous position he’s taken. For argument’s sake, though, I humor him. “I explained to you that I can’t go down to that garden and work with people who live there if I have hulking bodyguards standing around scaring everyone. If they know the details of my life, that I have money and protection, they’ll never let down their guard long enough to get to know me, to know my heart, to understand that I care about them as people. I can’t reach them for God and make a difference if they won’t let me in. Surely, you comprehend that, Jackson.”

Jackson sits unmoving and silent before me for a moment. When he speaks it’s with mild condescension, “Ellie, the people you spend time with everyday have to know you’re wealthy. For God’s sake, how many people can purchase a vacant lot in Chicago? How many people have those kinds of resources? You’re not getting anything by them, Ellie.”

I nod my head in concession. “I’m not trying to get anything by them, Jackson. Actually, I’ve had two different people at the garden ask me how I came to be associated with this project.”

Jackson thinks he has me dead to rights. He’s so used to always being right that it’s fed his arrogance over the years. “Ok, then, what was your answer?” he asks with a gleam in his eyes.

“I told them the truth. I told them I work for a generous benefactor. That way the purchase of expensive real estate is explained, and I still get to be a regular person in their eyes instead of some unapproachable, entitled woman.”

Jackson shakes his head at me. “Don’t you think they’re going to feel like they’ve been lied to when they learn the truth?”

“Why would they feel that way? Unlike you, I didn’t marry them. I don’t owe them the private, sacred details of my life any more than they owe me theirs. Everything I offer them is true, right and real. I’m there because I care about them in every conceivable way. The details of my personal life don’t change or negate any of that.

“I’m not aware of the reason Kanika’s mom was so ill. It might have been a drug or liquor bender. It might be some terrible disease. The point is that the details of her life didn’t keep me from reaching out to her and her kids. Why they needed help doesn’t matter. All that matters is that they needed help.”

Jackson shakes his head at me. “Boy, Ellie, you’re sure willing to give a lot more than you’ll ever get back from them.”

“That’s the point of ministry Jackson. I can tell you Jesus sure gives far more than he’ll ever recoup. You promised me you wouldn’t interfere with my ministry work. You gave me your word before we married.”

“Yes, I remember. That promise is the reason I dropped the security detail from you. Look where it got you,” Jackson says like his observation should put a stop to what he considers nonsense.

“It doesn’t matter, Jackson. If I die doing God’s work, so be it. I get to be me. Unlike me, you knew exactly who you were getting as a spouse. I didn’t lie to you or hide anything from you. You don’t get to change the rules on me now that we’ve said our vows.”

I’m fuming mad, probably too mad to say things objectively, but I’ve got to say what’s on my heart, so I continue, “I’ve always known that I’d be at a disadvantage in my ministry work because people generally don’t like me. However, it never occurred to me that I’d be at an even bigger disadvantage because of your issues!

“Now, though, I know the truth. What happened today was not caused by my ministry work, but by your secret life. There’s no way I’m going to let you drop this in my lap.”

I pause for an instant and try to collect my erratic thoughts. I completely recognize that Jackson just tried to divert attention from his behavior by accusing me of the very thing of which he himself is guilty.

God, do I know this man at all? Am I dealing with Jackson in real life, in real time, or am I having a discussion with a personality disorder? Help me, Lord, to understand what’s going on!

In an attempt to dispel some of the pain and confusion I shake my head. I decide to come back to the gas lighting question, but, right now, I want more answers. “Jackson, one thing I don’t understand is how keeping me in the dark keeps me safe? I’d have been far more vigilant in my own defense had I known it was needed so badly. Keeping me out of the loop only makes me more vulnerable. How could you do this to me?”

Suddenly, an instant of clarity highlights my thinking process. It’s as if God flips a switch for me. “Oh!” I gasp as I nod my head. “I get it. Keeping me in the dark wasn’t about protecting me, was it? It was about protecting you, right? I mean if no one knows what you’re up to then there’s no one to slip up and reveal your secret. That’s it, isn’t it?”

Jackson grimaces. The nauseated look in his eyes confirms my suspicion.

Furious, I swing my fists upward and strike the mattress on each side of my thighs. God has already answered my prayer for understanding. “Right here, right now, while you’re trying to reconcile with me, you’re still lying to me!”

Quiet, earth shattering recognition hits me because I get an instantaneous glimpse of my own ‘big picture.’ “You simply couldn’t just trust me, could you? After all the promises about giving me all of you, about being the entire man I need. Everything you said to me that night in the maze was a lie. Every word was empty, lifeless, and useless. Yet, I’m supposed to believe you love me. How exactly does that work, Jackson?

“I have done nothing but trust you. From the words ‘Ask me again’ you’ve had every ounce of me: my trust, my hopes, my heart and my body. I can’t believe I’ve been so stupid.”

Tears fill my eyes. My heart fills with their unshed counterpart. A massive crack presents itself in the center of my heart and busts the stressed muscle into pieces. I put my arms across the tops of my knees and sob, seeking relief from the pain that rages within me. How is it possible that something so broken can hold so much hurt?

Jackson comes to my side of the bed and puts his arms around me. “I’m so sorry, Ellie. I know this is my fault, but I want you to know that hurting you was never intentional. I’ll make this up to you, I promise.”

My mind flounders in its attempt to process the events of the day, much less process how to respond to them. Forgiveness sure hasn’t entered the picture. I instinctively know that forgiveness of this magnitude will not be automatic. I’m going to have to work on this one.

I look at Jackson with blistering rage in my eyes. “Get your hands off me. Now!” I command. I wait silently and unyieldingly for him to obey. Reluctantly, and with great pain present on his face, Jackson does what he’s told.

“You. Stay away from me. You. Don’t touch me. You no longer have the right to any part of me. Do I make myself clear?”

Suddenly, another memory reaches my consciousness and I gasp in horror. “Jackson, you killed that man!”

Instantaneously, Jackson gets past his quiet, patient acceptance of my marital meltdown and roars at me. “He had a gun to your head, Ellie, do you remember that part?!” His raging reminder sobers me instantly. “What did you think he was going to do, Ellie? Jackson asks sternly.

I begin to sob again as I stammer my answer. “He…he…told me he was there to k…kill me.”

“Didn’t you want me to stop him, Ellie?” Jackson asks earnestly.

I nod my head in affirmation as I wipe tears from my eyes.

Jackson’s tone and voice soften. “What were my options, sweetheart? I know you. You’d already tried to talk him out of it. That didn’t work, did it?”

I shake my head, indicating Jackson’s accurate assessment.

“I couldn’t charge him, Ellie. I’m fast, but I can’t out run a bullet. I gave him three chances to walk away. All he had to do was let you go and he’d have skated. I’d have detained him for questioning because he knew more than he admitted about the man who hired him. He’d have given me answers and he’d have lived.

“He didn’t put down the gun, though, did, he? He didn’t release you, did he, Ellie? You know as well as I do, he wasn’t going to let you live. What other option did I have, sweetheart? If you’ve got an answer for me, then please tell me, I’m ready to listen.”

I shake my head and indicate I’m all out of answers. Out of morbid curiosity I have to know. “What did you do with his body? How do you keep from getting caught? How many others have you killed?”

This time Jackson shakes his head. “You don’t need to know about his body, Ellie. It’s all taken care of,” he says simply then moves on to question number two. “We don’t get caught because we’re extremely careful about moving in stealth mode. We’re exceptionally careful, Ellie. Believe it or not, it’s our objective to leave people alive. All we want to do is protect people who are caught as victims of crime.

“More often than not I engage criminals in hand-to-hand combat and don’t even use my bow. That’s why I come home with the bruises and wounds you’ve asked about repeatedly. If I used my bow more often it would save wear and tear on my body. My bow is only for situations like what you faced today, the one-shot scenarios. You’ve got one chance. Either you pull it off or you don’t.” Jackson’s voice softens even more as he takes my hand in his. “My bow is used when there isn’t room for do–overs, Ellie.”

My brain, no, my heart, still craves answers. “I nearly jumped from that roof today in order to protect myself from you, Jackson. I nearly took my own life because I was terrified of what you might do to me. You realize that, don’t you?”

Jackson slightly nods his head. “I was trying to calm you, Ellie. I tried to keep you talking, but I saw how scared you were.”

“You understood my fear and left your identity intact regardless.”

Another dismal, guilt ridden nod is Jackson’s non-verbal response. “I knew I could get to you before you jumped, Ellie. You were never in any real danger,” Jackson says to me.

“Oh, really, then why were you fighting the urge to reach out for me? It was written all over you that you were scared I’d jump. At the time it didn’t make sense to me, but now, of course, it all makes sense. You love your persona, your secret life, more than you love me. Yeah, I finally get it,” I wallow in my own personal expression of misery.

Jackson disagrees vehemently. “No, Ellie, that’s not true! You mean more to me than anything. I swear to you!”

I shake my head at him. “You know there’s something to be said for old adages, Jackson.”

He looks at me with confusion and hurt in his gaze. “What do you mean?”

I give Jackson my very best ‘you are so busted’ look. “I’m talking about the adage that reminds us actions speak louder than words.”

Jackson sits on the edge of the bed next to me. His forearms rest on the tops of his knees. He wrings his hands where they meet in the space between, and in front, of his legs. Quietly, he reaches up and pinches the bridge of his nose.

My brain wants more information. “Here’s something else I don’t understand, Jackson.”

Quickly, he looks at me. Mist is accumulating in Jackson’s eyes, but he stays quiet. He appears eager, as if he’ll explain anything necessary to remedy our wrecked marriage. Or, maybe his eagerness is more in line with getting himself out of trouble as opposed to fixing our marriage. I suppose it could be about both.

Jackson is still watching me, so I ask my question. “If you really wanted to keep all this hidden from me why did you come to me today on the roof? If you hadn’t pulled me up against your body, I’d never have known it was you. You could’ve walked away, left me alone on the roof, and I’d have stayed in the dark about all of this.”

Jackson vehemently shakes his head in disbelief. “Ellie, some punk ass street kid had a gun to your head. I can’t explain to you how terrified I was to find him a heartbeat away from killing you. Once I removed the threat, I had to, for my own peace of mind, hold you and know that you were okay. I had to see, to know, for myself,” Jackson pleads as he runs his hand backwards through his hair. He catches my gaze with his own. “In that instant, being certain of your well-being took precedence over my secret. I love you too much. I couldn’t help myself.

“After you blacked out, I did a cursory exam and determined you didn’t need emergency medical care. Once I got you home, I checked more thoroughly and all I could find is the bruising on your throat. I assume he dragged you up the stairs with his arm around your neck.”

I nod my head. Jackson strokes my cheek.

“Ellie, I made a promise to you on our wedding night. Do you remember what it was?”

From out of nowhere he brings up our wedding night? Instantly, my mind is flooded with images of my insecurity and intense incredible lovemaking. I’m nowhere near locating some obscure promise in the fury and fear drenched haze which has become my thinking process.

I shake my head this time. “Honestly, Jackson, I can’t tell you right now. My brain is on circuit overload. What was the promise? What are you talking about?”

With a compassionate gaze Jackson restates what he believes to be obvious. “I told you I’d kill anyone who hurt you.”

I gasp and look up at him with wide eyes. “Yes…, I remember you saying that to me. When you first said it, though, I thought you were teasing me.”

Another head shake by Jackson, another stroke to my cheek. “No, Ellie, I wasn’t teasing. I proved it this afternoon, didn’t I?” he asks sincerely.

I nod my head again. “Yes…yes, you did.” I admit quietly.

Jackson takes my hand. “Ellie, your safety means everything to me. I will always come for you no matter what. Do you understand?”

I look into his beautiful brown eyes. I can see for myself he means it. He really will come for me. “Yes, Jackson, I understand. Thank you for saving my life today. I was on the rooftop praying to God for help and He sent you. I’m very grateful for that.

“Now, though, I know you’ve been lying to me all this time and that’s not okay. As much as I appreciate your protection, I loathe the lie that I now recognize as my life. You need to go. I’ve got a lot of thinking to do. I’ve got a lot of praying to do.”

Jackson nods his head and rises reluctantly. I can tell he’d like to say more but is unsure of what’s left to say or if I’ll cooperate long enough to listen. He kisses me on the forehead and walks from the room. I get out of bed, find some clothes and immediately move my things down the hall to another master suite. I have to have some space so I can sort this out.

I take a seat on the bed in my new quarters and I talk to my Father. Dear God, I did this to myself, didn’t I? I knew when I married him, he wasn’t one of Yours and doesn’t answer to You the way I do. No wonder he thinks the rules of honesty don’t apply to him. Please forgive me for disregarding your reminders that day in Jackson’s office.

Disobedience aside, am I really this stupid, Lord? How did I miss this aspect of his personality? Did he marry me because I’m someone he can easily manipulate? If he doesn’t want to be honest and build a real life together why did he marry anyone? If he wants to play city hero, why drag a wife into it at all? Why not continue to live the life he led before he met me? Why shake things up, especially at my expense? I don’t know if I’ve ever felt so defeated in my life, Lord.

How am I ever going to recover? Can I recover? Jackson’s destroyed my trust in him as well as my confidence in myself. Dear God, help me cope, please. You are the only One I can trust. Show me what to do. Show me how to come back from this. Please don’t leave me on my own even though I know I deserve it. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

I miss dinner and I cry myself to sleep. I don’t see or hear Jackson, but when I rise the next morning there is a note on the dresser which sits nearest my bedroom door. In the note Jackson asks for my wedding ring.

So, he’s decided he wants out. That certainly saves me a decision. So much for his promise to always come for me. Will I ever stop believing the words that leave his mouth? I can’t help but sob out the anguish of my broken spirit. I can’t believe my marriage has deteriorated into a puddle of lifeless words.

I pull my ring off and leave it lying on the note. I’ll have to get my things moved out of the mansion, but I can’t just yet. I’ve got church this morning and ministry obligations for the remainder of the day today, as well as, most of tomorrow. Looks like moving will have to wait a couple of days. At least I have somewhere to go.

I’ll move back to the house Thomas and I built. It’s beautiful, it’s mine, and it’s available. I didn’t keep it for this reason, but it’s sure great to have it now that I need it. I’m certainly in no mood for real estate shopping.

I could move back home to Indiana. The upside is I’d be so much closer to my boys. The downside is that I’ve got ministry projects set up here in Illinois. I’d have to start all over with the IRS in Indiana. The community garden is really giving me a chance to get to know many of the kids and their parents. I can’t walk away from the relationships I’ve begun to build.

Pursuing ministry work is the reason I came to the city in the first place. Leaving my ministry in a lurch now would only reinforce the idea that God doesn’t care and isn’t trustworthy. So, no, I won’t make my new friends pay for my personal unhappiness. I won’t say that my ministry work is more important than the problems between Jackson and me, but it’s way too important for me to leave in the wake of my broken heart.

On Monday morning I get myself pulled together, for appearance’s sake, anyway, and head out for my day. I’ve got to go and check on Kanika and her family. Hopefully, they got the groceries, but if they didn’t, I’ll happily replace them.

Two days later I walk past the dresser in my room and notice my ring is still lying atop it. It’s been there ever since I took it off and left it for Jackson. I just now realize, though, that there’s a different note under it. Silly me, I’ve been assuming it’s been the same note this entire time.

The note reads: Ellie, I’ve returned your wedding ring. I had a GPS tracker put in it so now you have a backup in case you need help. Activate it by simply turning the diamond 45° counterclockwise and release it. Please use it. I’ll come for you, Ellie. I’ll always come for you. I love you and miss you terribly. Please forgive me for causing you so much pain. Jackson.

Surprise much? So, he doesn’t want out. Jackson treats me like dirt, then, does something nice for me. If he knows what’s good for him, he’ll be doing a whole passel of nice somethings for me. I’m sorry, Lord. Please forgive me for being bitter. Forgive me for wanting to get even.

I pick up my ring and put it back on my hand. Honestly, I’m afraid not to. What if I hadn’t had my phone with me that day? I’d be dead and gone, that’s what. I’ve learned how vulnerable I am when someone wants to harm me. No, I’m not so proud I won’t avail myself of Jackson’s provision of protection.

I don’t get moved from Dawes’ Manor like I’d originally intended. I’m certainly angry enough to go, but I’m also hopeful that maybe I won’t have to. The thought of giving up on my marriage makes me want to curl up and die. I so wonder how far Jackson’s dishonesty stretches, just how vast are its reaches? How hard must I work to come out on the other side of this mess?

Hope says he really loves me. Evidence says I’m a fool to believe it. Then again, maybe what Jackson and I share isn’t that black and white. Is it possible to truly care for someone and live dishonestly with them at the same time? Is it possible to live in a gray area?

Almost instantly, I know the answer to my own question. It doesn’t matter what’s possible for other people. I know a person truly loves what their heart craves. Whatever that might be will always come first for them. I can’t be married to a man whose true love is deceit and manipulation.

I go through the next couple of weeks in a fury fueled haze. I lose my appetite. My clothes get loose, even slightly baggy, against my body. I get a lot of ministry work done because I throw myself into it with everything I am.

I have several people ask after me. They want to know if I’m feeling okay. They want to know if I’m doing alright. I don’t know what to tell them, so I smile and make polite, but avoid any real connection with them. After all, it’s not their place to deal with my personal mess. My being here is about showing God’s love to them. It’s not about exploiting their care and concern for me. I refuse to treat them the way my mother treats me.

The only thing in my life of which I’m certain is that I’m miserable enough, inside my head and heart, to curl up into a ball and wish away the betrayal of my husband. Since that isn’t possible, I’ll keep putting one foot in front of the other, each breath ahead of the next, and go through the days as they come for me.

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