I tug the grey cardigan over my blouse and wish my stomach wasn’t turning at the long, flowy skirt. Winston’d hated pants so I’d burned every long skirt I owned after a drunken night where I avoided the nightmares by taking them out to the barbeque pit, dousing them in lighter fluid, then tossing in a match.
It was stupid and reckless. Not to mention, I could have gotten arrested if I’d accidentally burned the grass of my apartment’s complex.
But I’d freed myself of Winston completely that night and this skirt only dredges up a life I no longer solely want to forget, but to leave behind completely.
The clothes are just part of the costume. My ex husband still thinks I’m the meek girl I let him knock around all those years ago, and I’m going to use that to my advantage.
When I pull up to the address, I have to say, I was expecting a creepy abandoned warehouse or maybe one of those dark lots out in the middle of nowhere. Not a cute brick home on the outskirts of Atlanta.
My anxiety prickles as I confirm the house number. Pulling into the driveway, I can’t help but feel like something’s off. Or maybe just the idea of coming face to face with Winston just feels like a trap in itself.
Clutching the sleeves of my sweater, I reach for the door and knock, my heartbeat in my throat. There’s the muffled sound of shuffling, then the door swings open.
A tall woman with silvery blond hair answers the door. Her surprised expression probably matches mine.
“Uh, hello. Can I help you?” she asks, frowning.
Huh? “I, um. I’m Holli DeLower. I’m supposed to be meeting someone at this address.”
“I’m sorry, hun. I think you have the wrong address. Maybe they accidentally mixed up the numbers?” she suggests, eyeing me wearily, trying to decide if I should be trusted.
I swallow, dread forming in the pit of my stomach. The text had said to memorize the address, then delete it. I didn’t remember it wrong. “Are you sure? This is 407o. I’m meeting Winston.”
She shakes her head, her smile apologetic. “Sorry, no.”
“Alright. Thank you anyway. Sorry to bother.” I wave to the woman and return to my car, confused and angry.
I should have known this wouldn’t be so easy. Winston is deceitful as hell and games aren’t his M.O., they’re a psychopath’s sole form of communication made to make those around them feel helpless.
“Asshole,” I mumble under my breath. I don’t hear the click of the gun behind my ear until it’s too late.
“Nice to see you too, Holiday.”
Blood freezes in my veins. I resist the urge to whip my head around to face him, but glance up to my rearview mirror to find my ex husband in my back seat.
“Hello, Winston.” No fear. You’re smarter than him.
“Aren’t you a sight. Even with that rat’s nest you call hair.” I used to have nightmares about that smirk. The evil one that’d made my blood curdle.
I’d always wondered what I’d feel if I ever saw him again. Hatred? Probably. Fear? Hopefully not. But even with his gun to the back of my head, the only thing I feel is indifference. Determination, for Dale.
“Yes, well straightening treatments are pretty expensive on a teacher’s salary,” I say, bored. “Is the gun really necessary? I’m unarmed and alone.”
“Shut the fuck up and listen. You were never good at that.”
I resist the urge to roll my eyes, but I’m not suicidal. In the rearview, I note the dark circles beneath Winston’s eyes and the deep exhaustion. He’s needed help for a long time, but this is a level I’ ve never seen before.
He looks desperate and that scares the hell out of me.
“Where is Dale? I thought we had a deal.” I don’t know how I manage to keep my calm, but I need to if I have any prayer of saving Lucas’s little brother.
“I had to be sure you wouldn’t betray me and drag the police into this. Start the car and drive out exactly the way you came. No funny business. If you so much as wink at a driver next to you, I’ll fucking shoot you.”
I gulp, steeling my expression. No fear. No weakness. “Relax. Just tell me where I’m going,” I say, starting the car. Then I pray I’m not about to make the worst mistake of my life.
I attempt to still my shaking hands as I park into the creepy fucking building I was expecting to see earlier. Except, barn is a more apt description than warehouse. I’d tried to keep track of where I was going but too many turns down roads I wasn’t familiar with, until all the eye could see for miles was dirt and country land, and I’d given up.
The farmland is deserted with a few stables for horses and the decaying structure before me, but there’s no sign of livestock anywhere on the property. It’s either abandoned or was purchased for the sole purpose of privacy and the idea of the latter makes my stomach roll.
I swallow down bile as Winston commands for me to get out of the car.
Dale’s in there. He has to be.
I hobble out of my little buick and reach for the sworn statement I’d written up yesterday, clinging to it like my last lifeline.
“I have what you asked for,” I say with more bravado than I feel at the moment. His eyes don’t meet mine. “In the barn,” he barks.
I follow Winston toward the peeling, wooden building, trying not to trip over my own two feet. With only my instincts to trust, I refuse to dwell on that fact, or that he’s deviating from the plan. The only thing that matters is saving Dale.
Winston holds the door open for me but I halt in place. “I’m not going in there until I see proof of life,” I say calmly.
“Your new boyfriend let you talk to him like that?” he asks, sneering.
Don’t let him change the subject. Focus. “Where’s Dale?”
“I said, In. The. Barn.”
“Enough with the games, Winston. Let him go. He’s just a kid. A seventeen year old, a senior in high school. He’s trying to turn his life around, get into college. Whatever our problems are, Dale has nothing to do with--”
My head whips to the side as a blow to my cheek nearly knocks me on my ass. The pain sears me from my scalp to my toes, but I don’t cry out.
Clutching my cheek, I’m about to ask him about Dale again when he grunts, wrenching open the door.
“Wait here. And watch your fucking mouth.”
My shot nerves and sweating palms make for a nightmare of an adrenaline dump. And fear begins to meld to helpless rage. If Dale’s life weren’t in the balance, I might try to fight back for all the times I hadn’t, but the only way to win against Winston is to outsmart him.
As I watch him disappear inside, I could swear the pounding of my heart reverberates through my skull.
“Oh my God,” I choke out a few minutes later, when the door opens again.
Bone crushing relief fills me as shaggy blonde curls and angry green eyes meet mine. I run to Dale, but I’m stopped short when the click of the gun Winston had pointed at my head earlier is pointed at Dale’s temple.
“Not another step.”
No! My breath catches in my throat on a scream. Dale’s face pales.
“Winston,” I breathe. “Please.” I slowly hold up the envelope in my hands, eyes glued to his finger on the trigger.
My ex-husband’s chilling grin makes dread swirl in the pit of my stomach. Those deep circles I’d noticed earlier, make him look hollow, menacing. Evidence that he and depravity had taken their relationship to the next level. I should have known he’d be unpredictable.
There used to be a part of me that thought he’d never be capable of this. Despite the domestic violence and his extreme anger issues, I never would have thought he could escalate to hurting an innocent kid. But he’d already gone on the run from the police, kidnapped, and threatened Dale’s life.
I shouldn’t have been so damn naive.
My brain filters and discards any information I have on negotiation techniques, a class I’d taken on the off chance I decided to work in an alternative school with a higher chance of violence, but this isn’t the rage of teenage hormones.
Winston’s a grown man who’d abandoned his soul somewhere along his life and I should have realized it when he’d murdered our baby.
Because that’s what he’d done, regardless of the fact he didn’t know I was pregnant.
“Cop’s wife for four years and you never learned shit. Guess I should be grateful for that,” he says, grinning eerily. “You’re still as dumb as the day I met you.”
Dale doesn’t say anything but his eyes flash with rage. There’s panic there as well and my heart squeezes.
“What do you want?” I whisper. I need to stall. I need to give the cops enough time to follow the tracking device in my car keys. I knew Winston would disable the one in my car and toss my phone, but I’d had a tracker put in my keys a couple weeks ago when I’d lost them just a few days after Andy bought me the vehicle.
“I thought I could do it. Move on with my life. I convinced myself that I could so long as I could be a cop. But looking at you… I don’t know if I can, Holli.”
My blood chills. “That’s not true,” I say. “Everyone deserves a second chance, Winston. Even when they make mistakes.”
He lifts his head, his eyes full of a hope that makes my stomach turn. “You think so?”
“Yes,” I lie.
“I have nothing to live for without you. When I found out about the miscarriage…” his eyes close as his face twists in anguish. “You don’t know how low I felt. And then you had to kick me while I was down by reporting me.” They open, flashing with betrayal. I stifle my reaction.
“You hurt me,” I remind him. “I could have died, Winston.”
“And you don’t think I feel horrible about that? I fucking loved you! Everything I’ve ever done in my life has been for you!” he shouts, the pistol jerking upward and off of Dale’s head. My heart lurches in my chest.
“Like stepping on my hands until you felt the bones crack?” I ask, the rage making me delirious. It was bad enough he’d brought up Ella as if he deserved to even think about her. But to try and guilt me into feeling sorry for him? Fat fucking chance. “Or kicking me so hard, my ribs fractured? Was killing my baby another thing you did for me?” I whisper.
Winston reels like he’s been bitch slapped. “You always were ungrateful. I bought you a house. When you were my wife, you wanted for nothing. And it was never good enough.” Winston points the gun toward me and I swallow.
No fear. No weakness.
I walk toward Winston slowly, keeping my expression calm. “Dale, run.”
“Stay where you are!” Winston barks.
“Dale,” I warn, moving in closer while Winston watches Dale. The gun still trained on me, I try to slow my racing heart. I hope I’m not making a mistake, but I can’t just stand here and let someone I love be another one of Winston’s victims.
“I’m not leaving you,” Dale says firmly. Winston whips his head between us, his brows furrowing. I wonder, not for the first time, if he’s on something.
“I appreciate that, honey. But I need you to trust me. You see, I know men like this, Dale. Men like the ones your mother used to date. You were right that day in my classroom. About all of it.”
“He’ll be dead before he takes the second step,” Winston snears, moving closer to me. Closer. Just a little closer. He takes his eyes off me for just a second to make sure Dale hadn’t made a run for it, but it's enough. “And what the fuck do you know about men li--”
I drive my knee right between Winston’s crotch, cutting off his words. The booming sound of a gunshot rattles my brain. My ears ring and I’m momentarily disoriented.
“Dale!” I scream.
“I’m okay!” he shouts, jumping on Winston as he drops to the ground. He kicks his hand until the gun skitters across the ground, then I watch as Dale kicks Winston in the jaw, knocking him unconscious.
Closer up, I can see dried blood from a busted lip, a nasty welt on Dale’s head and the dark circles beneath his eyes. His hands are also tied behind his back.
I cry in Desperate relief, throwing my arms around him. “I’m so sorry,” I say over and over. I don’t have anything to cut the rope his hands are tied with so I just hold him.
“It’s my fault. Holli,” he croaks. “Please tell me he didn’t get her.”
“Get who?” I ask, pulling away. I wipe my tears away, noting the faint sound of sirens in the distance. I glance at Winston, wondering if he’s dead.
“H-he said he had Belle. That he was gonna hurt her if I didn’t go with him. I left the necklace so you would know to look for us,” he says, his eyes glassy with unshed tears. “I don’t remember much after I got in the car. It was fuzzy. I think I was drugged, but when I woke up, Belle wasn’t here.”
Just then, all hell breaks loose as cop cars and a SWAT team descend on the barn, securing Winston first, then tending to his medical needs.
I throw my hands up as an officer rushes toward Dale and I. “Help him. He needs medical attention. Says he might have been drugged.”
A female officer with jet black hair takes out a scary looking knife and cuts the binds around his hands. “Both of you need to get checked out by the EMTs.”
We follow her to an ambulance where both of us are checked over for injuries. The shot fired from Winston’s gun had gone wide and barely missed Dale. I’d tried to get Winston to leave him and move closer to me. It was risky and reckless. He could’ve killed us both. But as I’m wrapped in a blanket, watching my boyfriend’s little brother get hooked up to an IV bag, I’m grateful I’d taken action.
I couldn’t save Ella. But I knew I had to try to save Dale. He might not be Lucas’s child, but he’s the only father figure Dale’s ever had. I couldn’t let Lucas experience that kind of pain.
I’m answering questions from the detective when cars pull up outside of the yellow tape the crime units put up around the barn and people exit the vehicles in a rush.
My heart kicks up when Lucas and Lilac, his mother, barrel toward us. Their mother flies at Dale, wrapping her arms around him with the fervor of a boa constrictor, her sobbing words incoherent.
“You scared the shit out of me when your phone went off line,” is the first thing Lucas says to me before pulling my face into his chest.
I wrap my arms around him, trying to control my shaking. Now that the adrenaline is wearing off, I can’t help the emotions I feel at having come so close to death. It’d been one thing when I was the one bleeding out on the floor, but my heart broke watching Winston point the gun at Dale.
If he never tells Lucas about today, I will take it to my grave.
“I’m sorry,” I choke out, unable to stop my sobs. “I had to get him back. It’s my fault this happened in the first place, I never would’ve forgiven myself if something had happened to him.”
“Baby, it’s not your fault. It’s Winston’s and he was arrested,” Lucas murmurs into my hair. “He was wanted by the feds for harassment, assault, and impersonating a police officer in two states, Holli. They’ve been looking for him for a while. As soon as you left, two of their agents met me and your brother at my condo and identified themselves. Told us they were tracking you. When the one in your car and your phone dropped off, I lost my fucking mind.”
“But they found the one in my keys. I knew they would,” I tell him. “Thank God Andy suggested it. Where is he, by the way?” I twist my body looking for my brother.
“On his way. He went to get his wife and your parents first.”
I shake my head. “He told him he had Belle,” I say, glancing at Dale and Lilac. “That’s why your brother went willingly. Gotta admit, that’s pretty romantic.”
Lucas snorts. “My brother is about as romantic as a wasp.”
“Or maybe he’s just a good observer,” I suggest, burying my head into Lucas’s safety. “Either way, you’ve got trouble on your hands with those two.”
After another hour of answering more questions from the detective and convincing my family I don’t need to go to the hospital, I finally let Lucas drive my car home. It isn’t until I look up to see the concrete structures that I realize we’ve been sitting in the parking garage for a while.
“Do you want to talk about it?” Lucas asks, breaking the silence.
“Do you hear that?” I ask, ignoring his question.
“For the past two years of my life, I’ve had this never ending stream of unanswered questions, worries, fears... It was always so loud that I didn’t realize I was tuning it all out until I heard nothing. For the first time in so long, my head is quiet.” Warmth spreads throughout my entire body when Lucas entwines his fingers through mine. “Don’t get me wrong, I hate that Dale was dragged into this, but… part of me finally feels like I’m finally free.”
I feel his hands reach across me to undo my seatbelt and I’m pulled from my seat into his lap. I straddle him, my back pressed against the steering wheel.
“I don’t think I’ve ever lived with my heart outside of my chest like I have today. I think I had all these worries that he knew how to get to you, manipulate you. But I didn’t have to worry at all. Dale said he was scared out of his mind, but not you. He said you stayed cool, level-headed. I should have said this earlier, but thank you for saving him. And I’m sorry if I ever made you feel like I doubted you.”
I press my forehead to his, enjoying the closeness. The peace. “I never believed you doubted me. You were scared for me. For Dale. I was too. I know we haven’t been together very long but he’s family to me.”
Lucas wraps his hands in my hair and pulls my mouth to his. My body lights with unspent adrenaline and I moan, my body involuntarily pressing into his. Warm and solid beneath me, I’ve never felt safer, more loved in my life. My cheeks heat at the sound of my ragged breathing as he pulls away from me.
“Damn, I love you, Holli DeLower.”