By the time Leila was fast asleep, I was both mentally and physically exhausted. I showered alone whilst Spencer cleared away the kitchen and returned downstairs to him putting away the last dish. For a while, I just watched. I enjoyed the way his back flexed whenever he held onto something and took great satisfaction from seeing him move around his kitchen. He didn’t let his limitations stop him for performing the simplest of tasks. So what if toast was his go-to-meal? It didn’t matter. The thought behind his actions were what amazed me about him every time. He was determined and strong and I loved that. He protected everything he loved, myself included.
“I miss her,” I admitted, finally gaining his attention.
He spun around at the sound of my voice and attempted to locate my whereabouts by squinting his eyes. The lights in his kitchen were bright, meaning he was able to do so relatively quickly.
“I know, baby. Come here,” he encouraged, holding out his arms.
I went to him in an instant and relaxed against his brilliant form, smelling him thoroughly as I went. His signature aftershave mixed with his natural scent initiated immediate comfort, though such a thing prompted the beginning of my tears.
“I just want to see her again,” I sobbed, burying my face in his chest. “It’s not fair.”
Huge hands encased my back; strong yet lovingly gentle. He didn’t say a world as he held me close, rocking us both into a soothing motion. An unspoken exchange took place wherein which I expressed my deepest grief and he simply accepted my need to be held.
“It’s normal to feel like this, Jess,” he insisted, pulling back an inch. “Grief hits everyone at different times.”
“It feels so fresh,” I whispered, struggling to get past my words. “I hate feeling like this.”
“I won’t always feel this way, I promise. It gets better.”
I looked up at him staring at me, too overcome with emotion to reply. Instead, I rested my head on his shoulder and positioned my hands around his waist. I needed his familiarity wrapped around me, all consuming. I needed his touch. I needed his love.
“Promise me you won’t ever stop fighting for us,” I pleaded, unknowing as to why such a thing needed to be said.
“You know I won’t, Jessica.” His tone was firm and direct.
“Just say it anyway. I need to hear it.”
His sudden shift took me by surprise, yet his warm hand on my chin acted as a consolation. Fierce, green eyes shone directly into mine, taking no shit with regards to my self-consciousness.
“You and me. It’s forever. You’re my forever,” he informed, grazing his lips along mine.
I liked the sound of that.
With Leila gone and Spencer off signing papers at his lawyer’s office, I took some time for myself and decided to make the most of it by reading. To my surprise, I was almost half way through my crime novel when my phone went off in the kitchen and even more surprised when an unknown number flashed before me. Suspecting it was Roger, I immediately answered and reminded myself to calm down as I spoke.
“Hi, Jessica? It’s Roger.”
He sounded strained in his greeting and above all else, a little defeated.
“Hi. How are you?” I asked, conducting my usual politeness.
“I’ll be better when it’s Friday.” He laughed, letting slip some of that sly sense of humour of his. “Yourself?”
“I’m fine.” LIE!
His sudden need to sigh failed to provoke confidence. We had a lot riding on this and if Alister came up squeaky clean, we were fucked. It didn’t matter that we had our suspicions. We needed solid proof if we were to play him at his own game.
“You might not like this…”
My heart sank. “Oh?”
“I can’t find anything on Alister Branning.”
“You’re kidding me?”
My mind instantly went into overdrive, thinking of other ways to resolve the issue. Perhaps we could get in touch with Isy on social media? Would Alister have access to that? Surely not.
“Jessica, you’re not following.” Roger’s tone was accusing, though remained gentle. “I didn’t find a single thing on Alister Branning because Alister Branning doesn’t exist.”
“How is that possible?” I asked, more than a little confused. “Everyone has a trace, right?”
“Usually,” replied Roger, releasing yet another sigh. “Which leads me to the assumption he’s changed his name.”
“Why would he do that?”
The line went silent for a moment, followed briefly by the rustling of papers.
“Various reasons lead to a person changing their identity. Often, it can stem from family issues. People no longer wanting to be associated with a surname.”
“Or…” I prompted, desperate for something more substantial.
Alister’s Daddy issues would hardly withhold in court.
“Or he has something to hide.”
Now you’re talking, Roger!
“Is it possible to track his real name?” I asked, suddenly pacing Spencer lengthy kitchen.
This morning’s breakfast dishes were drying on the draining board, taunting me. So much so, I decided to put Roger on speaker and set about putting them away. Unnecessary mess translated to chaos in my mind and now that I was low on luck with regards to this Alister nonsense, I was in need of some clarity.
“It’s possible but it’ll take more time,” he shared, expressing sure signs of exhaustion.
“I can pay…”
“Roger, please. I feel awful making you do this. You sound stressed.”
“I’m always stressed.” He laughed. “I’ll be grey by the time I’m thirty.”
“You and me both,” I said, trying my hardest to think back to a time when I wasn’t under tremendous stress.
“Can I ask you a question?” he broached, cautiously.
I took him off speaker and held the phone to my ear.
“Why am I looking into this man? Is he a threat to you?”
I let my shoulders sag and braced myself on the kitchen counter, unable to answer him straight away.
“He’s trying to deny Spencer of his rights as a parent. Both him and Spencer’s ex-wife are, although I have reason to believe Alister is the one orchestrating everything.”
“And you think he’s violent? Towards Spencer’s ex?
“And the kid? Leila, is it? Is she okay?”
In a second, I was on high alert, defending mine and Spencer’s reason for not taking immediate action. “Yeah. He hasn’t touched her. He’s away at the moment. On a business trip.”
Roger sighed, sounding a little relieved. “You don’t think she will leave on her own accord?”
“I think domestic abuse is a complex situation. I’m beginning to think there’s another reason she’s staying with him.”
He exhaled loudly and began rustling more papers.
“Let me dig a little deeper. Now that I have more information, I might be able to find something.”
“Thanks, Roger. Are you sure I can’t stop by your office? I don’t mind looking through some payment options.”
“Pay me in Red Bull. I’ve a feeling I’ll need it.”
His attempt at a joke failed to make me laugh. I worried about him. Why? I had no idea. Sure, Roger was someone I classed as a family friend and I’d known him since school but I’d hardly say we were close. His work seemed stressful and the thought of adding to it weighed heavy on my mind. Still, he was stubborn and I knew getting him to see my side of things was an impossible task. I’d have to settle with energy drinks as payment.
“Don’t overexert yourself.”
“I won’t,” he promised. “How are you? Feeling any better?” he asked, no doubt regarding the situation with Mum.
“I’m worse if truth be told.”
“I think the reality of it all is finally sinking in. I’m staying with Spencer for a while.”
“That’s probably for the best. We all need someone in times of crisis.”
I wanted to ask him who he would turn to in a time of crisis but felt out of place bringing it up. Roger was very reserved and kept his private life exactly that. Private.
“Thanks for asking .”
“No probz! I better shoot off. I’ll be in touch soon. Hopefully we can uncover something solid.”
“Hopefully,” I reiterated.
“Speak to you later.”
“Make sure to take a break soon.”
He laughed. “Will do.”
“And eat lunch!”
Christ, I sounded like his mother.
With that said, we both hung up and I was forced to succumb to the inevitability of Alister being far sketchier than I had originally thought. I had no idea why he would change his name. If Roger was right and he did indeed have something to hide, I feared his past record went deeper than domestic abuse. Don’t get me wrong, domestic abuse was bad enough but something in my gut told me we were about to uncover something such more sinister. When I first conducted my search, I was looking for little things that would give Isy reason to leave, yet it seemed I had bitten off more than I could chew. That being said, I was still determined to see it through for the sake of Leila and Spencer. If we played our cards right, Alister would not only be completely blindsided but unable to cover up his tracks. We would eliminate him from the equation and hopefully help Isy out in the process. Karen said it had taken her years to get the courage to leave her ex and perhaps Isy felt like she had no one to turn to. Spencer and I were hardly the ideal fit but often we didn’t get the luxury of choosing. If we were going to do this, we needed all the evidence lined up and one-hundred percent clarity. We needed to play it cool, confident and downright dirty.