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Chapter 20

Jason felt his skin crawl, looking at this horrid creature with stringy blond hair and Jessie’s hazel eyes.

“So, if you wanted to hang on to Welling, why did you do it? Why the faked death? Why come back and kill so many people?”

Gloria gave an inelegant grunt. “Adam was going down hard and I wasn’t going to go down with him. Who was going to associate with the wife of someone like him? I had to reinvent myself. I got a new face, a new name, courtesy of a few Swiss bank accounts he knew nothing about. Voila! A whole new me.”

“But you didn’t change everything, did you?” Jason asked, his eyes raking over her golden pantsuit. Your signature color suits you. Bet you didn’t know you left a little of it behind with the governor’s body.”

“The ME declared you legally dead,” I said. “He had proof that you died in that fire.”

“People are easily bought, Jessie, dear,” she said, gloating.

“But you didn’t pay him, did you?” Jason asked, thinking about Dr. Voorhees and his unexpected death. “You shot him. You murdered him and made it look like suicide.”

Gloria shrugged her shoulders. “He knew too much.”

“Why come back?” I asked, cringing at the plea I could hear in my voice. A plea for answers? For understanding? For this woman to be anyone other than who she claimed to be?

“I couldn’t let that man, with his ‘woe-is-me, I was framed’ sob story, go digging around into the past and discover too much. Gloria Welling is going to stay dead and buried.” Her eyes were fierce. “I don’t care how many people I have to kill to make sure that happens.”

“But neither Cara nor Milston knew anything,” I protested.

She jerked my head hard enough to bring a new sheen of tears to my eyes.

“Shut up!” she screeched, her control slipping. “I’m done talking. It’s time to finish this.”

Fear, bitter and hot, exploded behind my eyes. Yes, I thought, it was time.

With no real plan in mind, I stomped down on Gloria’s stiletto-shod foot with all my strength. Apparently, I had a lot of rage behind the move, because the skinny heel snapped like a toothpick and, with a cry, she listed to the right. I jumped in the opposite direction as the room was filled with the loud BANG of a gunshot.

Jason felt the sharp bite of cordite singe the back of his throat, heard the roar of blood in his ears, felt the weight of the gun tremble in hands that had been rock steady when they had needed to be.

“Jessie!” he heard himself roar through the ringing in his ears. “Jessie!”

He took a step toward her, where she lay crumpled on the floor, but the room erupted with shouts and the pounding of feet as officers came storming in. They surrounded Jessie, and he could no longer see her.

“Jason,” Dillon was in his face, holding him back. “You okay, man?”

“Jessie,” Jason repeated, shaking off his partner and pushing past him.

“She’s okay,” Dillon called after him. “She’s fine.”

Jason didn’t slow. He stepped around the officers and paramedics working on the inert form of Gloria Welling and forced his way into the group blocking the woman he loved.

And there she was, sitting up and sipping from a mug of water someone had placed in her hands. The cup shook so violently he heard it rattle against her teeth. She was pale and her hazel eyes were huge and glassy with shock, but she was alive.

His head swam with relief and he, too, sat down before his knees could give way.

“You hurt?” a young uniformed officer asked with concern.

“I’m fine,” he said. Or at least he would be as soon as he could touch Jessie and feel for himself that she really was okay.

Jason laid a hand on her shoulder, careful not to startle her. She turned those haunted eyes to him and crawled into his arms. He held her as the cops and EMTs hurried about like ants scurrying to and from their hill. He was more than fine. He was better than he had been in a long time.

I sat upright on my shabby sofa, an uncomfortable distance, both physical and emotional, separating me from the man I loved. Three days had passed since our terrible ordeal, and most of the shakes had gone. Despite my recovering nerves, I didn’t want to let Jason out of my sight. I had thought I was going to lose him that night, and I still needed to keep him close, just not too close.

He must have felt the same way, because he hadn’t left my house since he had picked me up and carried me out of Cara’s bloodstained living room. He’d FaceTimed his daughter every day, and I could see that she was an adorable creature with a winning smile and feisty spirit. She was going to be a real heart breaker someday. I smiled to myself, wondering if Jason had any clue about what he was in for.

“What’s so funny?” Jason asked, reaching out as if to touch me, but letting his hand fall to his lap instead. I felt the absence of that hand as strongly as I would have felt a slap.

“Nothing,” I said, my amusement crashing as quickly as it had arisen. I was still trying to wrap my head around everything. It was hard to come to terms with the fact that everything I had believed for nearly twenty years was a lie. Worse, I still didn’t have the whole truth. Gloria may have murdered my father, but she wasn’t responsible for the corruption that cost him his career. I needed answers, all of them. I’d never be able to rest until I had them.

I was coming to realize what I had to do. I was going to have to face the monster that brought me into this world only to tear me apart. The only way I was going to find out what I need to know was to talk to Gloria.

“I have to see her,” I whispered.

“I know,” Jason said. “We’ll go whenever you’re ready.”

“Tomorrow,” I said. “We’ll go tomorrow.”

I could see the world passing outside my window. Houses, trees, and mailboxes were there and then gone, so I knew we were racing along. Still, it felt like we had been on the road for hours and had gotten nowhere. I glanced at the clock. It had only been ten minutes since we had left my apartment! That meant we still had about forty-five minutes to go. How was I going to make it?

Once I had decided I needed answers, I had been seized with the desperate need to have them now. Electricity zinged through my body, making it impossible to sit still and enjoy the scenery. I twisted and turned, I tapped my feet, I raised my butt off the cushions and repositioned myself. Nothing helped.

“You’re going to drive us both crazy if you don’t settle down,” Jason said from behind the wheel.

“I can’t help it,” I said, rolling my shoulders. “I just need this to happen.”

“Here,” he said, snapping on the radio. He twisted the knob until the rich strains of classical music filled the vehicle.

I had no idea who the composer was but, oddly enough, it helped. I wasn’t a superhero able to bend time or hurl myself down the road at the speed of light, so I leaned back against the soft leather seat of Jason’s SUV and closed my eyes. I forced myself to imagine the music was actually sliding over me in a soothing wave. My heart rate slowed and the panic began to seep out of my skin and roll away. I can’t say that I was tranquil when we finally pulled up in front of General, but at least I had survived the car ride without jumping out of my skin.

Knowing my answers were just minutes away set my heart hammering again, though, and the anxiety was accompanied by a leaden sense of dread. I wanted the truth, but I wished with all my heart that I didn’t have to see Gloria to get it. I wanted to forget about her, exile her memory to some distant part of my brain where I could lock her up and never see her again.

The inner war of opposing instincts was so overwhelming that I couldn’t move for a moment. I sat frozen until I felt a gentle hand on my shoulder.

“Jessie?”

I looked up into Jason’s concerned face and my resolve returned.

“Let’s do this,” I said, climbing out of the vehicle.

A stern-faced policeman guarded Gloria’s door but with a nod to Jason, he let us pass. Seeing Gloria was like a sucker punch. She was pale and her face had been altered a bit from the one I remembered from childhood, but she still looked way too much like the woman whose indifference had influenced me for too much of my life.

“What are you doing here?” she snarled, eyes growing less vacant and a look of disdain twisting her features.

That pushed me back into myself faster than anything else could have.

“I want answers, Gloria,” I said in a cool, even tone that surprised me. No hesitation, no plea, no tremble – completely matter-of-fact.

“Well, I want out of this bed,” she said, “but I don’t think that’s gonna happen, either.”

Her eyes followed me as I walked over to the bed and picked up her call button, holding it out of her reach. One way or another, I had to know the truth.

“Hey, give me that!”

I leaned in and felt a little thrill of pleasure as she cringed away from me. I placed a steady right on hand on the arm strapped to her chest by a sling.

“Get away from me!” she shrieked.

“Who framed my father?” I asked.

“No one. The jackass dug his own grave.”

I applied the tiniest bit of pressure to the bullet hole.

“Ow! Shit, that hurts!”

“Tell me who framed my father.”

“What do you care?”

I pressed again.

“Okay,” she gasped. “It was that pissant Milston! Why do you think I shot at him?”

“That bastard!” He was the governor’s man that Jenkins had been dealing with. I released Gloria’s arm and she jerked away from me. “He tried to tell me it was all Candice.”

“Candy?” Gloria hooted. “That bimbo couldn’t plot her way out of toilet paper.”

A new fury burned now. That little troll was responsible for everything that had happened. He may not have murdered my father or Cara with his own two hands, but his actions had indirectly resulted in death. He had started it all, and he needed to pay for that. He would pay for that.

“Jessie,” I heard Jason call as I swept past him, but I didn’t stop until I felt his hand clamp down over my shoulder.

“Jessie,” he repeated. “Hold up.”

“Can’t,” I said, not daring to look at him. “He’s probably already on his way out of the country.”

“No, he isn’t. We’ve had him under surveillance since that night at the bar.”

He turned me to face him, forced me to look into his eyes.

“He’s not going to get away with anything. I promise.”

“But, I . . .”

He cut me off. “I have already called it in. He’ll be in custody before you make it across the parking lot.”

“I want to see him,” I said, trying to pull away, even though what I really wanted was to crawl into Jason’s arms.

His voice was as soft as the gentle caress of the hand on my cheek brushing away tears I hadn’t realized I had shed.

“Will it really help, Jessie?”

A stark, icy wave of despair washed over me. I knew, deep in my inner core, that Jason was right. Confronting Milston wouldn’t change anything. It wouldn’t dissolve the hard stone that had settled in my chest the moment I learned my father hadn’t thrown away his life, that it had been stolen from him. And it wouldn’t ease the guilt that had been eating at my soul.

I shuddered as the knowledge slammed into me. No one, neither Milston nor Gloria, was going to make this better. I was going to have to let go. I had to release all the anger, resentment, and regret that I had unknowingly been harboring deep inside. Knowing this didn’t make me feel better. In fact, it was far worse. The only person left to direct my negative energies toward was me.

I felt Jason’s arms around me, pulling me close as I cried against his chest. Losing this man was one more regret to add to the already crushing pile. I couldn’t take it any longer. I jerked free and raced through the hospital corridors, too blinded by tears and self-loathing to see where I was going. I could hear Jason shouting my name, but I didn’t stop. I couldn’t stop until everyone and everything was left far, far behind me.

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