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Hold Back

By Vikki Holstein All Rights Reserved ©

Drama / Romance

Blurb

Kelsey can’t run anymore, not when a little girl’s life is on the line. Her only hope is to return to the town, and the man, she’d run from five years ago. Scared her confessions about the little girl’s mother will not only drive her and Ethan further apart, but land her in jail, Kelsey has to trust Ethan’s promise to protect them. Faced with the reality of her own parentage, identifying the body of the little girl’s mother, and being held hostage by a deranged drug dealer, Kelsey learns that trust and truth can set you free.

Chapter 1

Sweat skimmed warm fingertips down Kelsey Davidson’s back. Made her palms slippery on the steering wheel.

Pulling into a parking space where she’d often sat in other cars and waited, she stared out the windscreen at shopfronts that hadn’t changed in five years. Wondered if it was good or bad that everything outside her little car had stayed the same, while everything inside her had changed so much.

Nausea slid a creeping burn up her throat.

Swallowing, Kelsey tried to blame it on the restless night she’d spent tossing and turning, while the hotel air conditioner had struggled to keep the room below boiling. Or at least on the three hour drive while the sun slowly crept over the horizon behind her, pushing her along increasingly familiar roads until she could have driven the curves and hills with her eyes closed.

Or she could stop lying to herself, acknowledge the fear, the guilt that swirled through her system.

Shifting the blame, though, had made it possible for her to get out of bed this morning, to make the decision that would change everything.

Or nothing.

Toying with one of the smaller lies she carried in her heart, her soul, Kelsey looked up, then down the main street of Wallarton. Noticed with an odd satisfaction that the trees dotted along the sidewalk had grown since she’d left, their shimmer-green leaves not yet turning with the call of autumn.

Summer would hold them until bitter end. It always did.

Like the town itself, the seasons gripped, choked, gritted until nothing but the husk stayed.

She’d slipped away from the grip of summer, and the town, five years ago. Now she came back, knowing the town, like the heat, would dig its claws in once more.

This time though, more than her heart could be damaged.

Half turning, Kelsey rested her chin on the back of the driver’s seat, counted the rise and fall of Pipa’s little chest. Felt her own stutter at the awe that something so small could mean so much.

Determined not to let the guilt drag her shoulders down, burn her heart, she took a deep breath. Pulled her game face on, and prepared for the act of her life.

Because the lie that she’d pulled out, let hover around her heart, had a name.

Ethan Ryder.

He’d known her better than anyone for ten years.

He knew the reason she’d left all those nights ago.

He knew nothing of what had happened since.

Facing the front again, Kelsey rubbed her palms on her thighs, bit her lip.

Ethan knew nothing, because once she’d left, once she’d no longer been in his life, he hadn’t cared.

Would he care now?

Once the shock wore off, would he start asking questions? Or would he just kick her out.

Either option had her chest vicing.

Rejection would hurt.

She swallowed a laugh that threatened to turn into sob.

It would hurt like she’d lost everything all over again.

But if he asked questions, even though the reason she came back was to answer them, it wouldn’t matter how much fuel she had in her little car, how good she’d become at disappearing. There would be no where she could go, nothing she could do or say that would make Ethan step back from what needed to be done.

Even if it was to send Kelsey to jail.

Reaching for the key, she turned the car off, pulled the handbrake on. Slid the key from the ignition as she sucked in a breath. Eyed the still nearly empty street again, then pushed her door open and stepped out. Closed her door before the rumble of a passing sheep truck could wake Pipa.

Wrinkling her nose at the smell that trailed the truck, she scanned the vehicles across the road, noting the dirty utes, dogs tied to the back, ready for a day working in the sticky dust.

Before the next truck could clatter its way down the main street, Kelsey quickly opened the back door and unclipped Pipa from her seat. Lifting the little girl out to cradle her against her shoulder, she hipped the door closed, scanned the street again.

Though Kelsey couldn’t see anything out of place, no shiny clean city cars, no one watching but-not-watching, she hurried up onto the footpath.

Now that she’d made it this far, she hesitated. What if she got in there and broke? What if she told Ethan more than she should?

What if she confessed?

Because Ethan could make her.

He’d always been able to make her do things she didn’t want, or didn’t mean.

Like make her fall head over heels.

Make her think he felt the same.

That had been before, though. Before she’d found out exactly what she was capable of. Before the threat of losing someone so precious moved her boundary line so far off the field, she couldn’t see it anymore.

Chest tightening until her lungs burnt, she forced her feet to cross the cracked pavement to the ugly brown building that would swallow her up, and either spit her out like a piece of gristle, or bury her forever.

Either way, her future, their future - she pressed her cheek to the crown of Pipa’s head - would be decided today. Before the fear could take root, she pushed open the tinted glass door, and stepped into the building.

And stopped.

Expecting the dark wood floor and salmon walls of five years ago, the deep green carpet and bright pictures hanging from peppermint walls made her glance over her shoulder, make sure she had the right place.

The sweet scent of cinnamon tickled her nose, grumbled her stomach.

Ignoring it, she glanced at the polished pine desk that sat away from the right hand wall, an empty chair behind it. Along the front wall, four soft, deep cherry-red armchairs bracketed two small tables piled with magazines.

Kelsey turned her back on the chairs.

Pipa stirred, rubbed her forehead on Kelsey’s shoulder, then yawned stretching her little hands over her head. Letting her arms drop to rest between them, she smiled up at Kelsey.

‘Did you have a good sleep?’ Kelsey ran a thumb across Pipa’s warm cheek.

‘Mm hmm.’ Pipa nodded and looked around the room. ‘Where are we?’

Kelsey took a deep breath. ‘We’re home,’ she said, wishing it were true.

She’d dreamed of coming in here just like this, a baby on her hip, heart thumping in anticipation of seeing the man she loved. Back then, she’d always imagined a ring on her finger, the knowledge that Ethan loved her as ingrained as breathing.

Now, here she was. The hopes and dreams of that young girl buried in a shallow grave. Because Ethan was a law abiding man, a lawyer, and Kelsey had broken so many rules she’d lost count.

That itself would have Ethan turning his back on her.

Maybe turning herself in to the police would be better. Ethan could read about it in the paper, shake his head, tell himself he’d been right to kick her out all those nights ago.

But going to the police would leave Pipa alone, unprotected. They might put her in protective custody, or a foster home. Kelsey had come too far, done too much, lost too many, to let that happen now.

Letting old feelings for Ethan interfere with what came next would be another mark against her soul.

‘Mummy, look.’ Pipa squirmed and pointed towards the desk. ‘A horsie.’

Kelsey stared at the picture on the wall behind the desk. ‘It’s beautiful.’

Neck arched, brilliant white feathers flying, a Clydesdale reared under the blooming gold of a wattle tree. The power, the beauty of it pricked a hole in her heart. She could almost smell the warm scent of horse and grass. Missed it so much it stung her throat.

Swallowing, she kissed Pipa’s cheek. ‘One day, we’ll get a pony.’

‘Where would we put it?’ Pipa tilted her head.

The sting in her throat grew to an ache. ‘That’s my line.’ Rubbing a knuckle across Pipa’s cheek, she mentally flicked through all the reasons she stood here.

All the reasons she couldn’t just turn and walk away.

Didn’t get her heartbeat even half normal before the door beside the desk opened.

Kelsey froze. The script she’d planned, the carefully chosen words, the tellable truths, all fled as Ethan stepped through the doorway, looked up from the papers in his hand, and stopped.

Eyes wide, mouth open, he stared at her as though she were a ghost.

Kelsey could only stare back, the familiar buzz tingling through her stomach.

Five years had sharpened his features, hardened muscle. His sun-bleached brown hair, still longer than lawyerishly acceptable, fell across his forehead. Those summer-blue eyes travelled over her, taking everything in.

Then they landed on Pipa.

She could almost see his brain connecting the dots, answering silent questions as fast as his mind asked them. Coming to conclusions he would never understand.

Kelsey swallowed, determined not to fidget or apologise.

Or worse, cry.

Then Ethan drew a breath, squared his shoulders and closed his mouth. Eyes shuttered, he jutted his chin. ‘Kelsey?’

Kelsey kept staring.

She was back at that night five years ago, stowed in his bed, naked, heart hammering with excitement.

‘Come back when you’ve grown up, Kelsey.’

Squeezing her eyes closed, she forced her breathing to slow, the memory to get back in its box.

‘Kelsey?’ His voice, closer now, made her heart give a heavy thud amongst the clattering.

Opening her eyes to look up at him, the lump in her throat unmoving, she realised lying to Ethan was going to take skills she wasn’t sure she had.

She should just turn away, walk out, never look back.

Feet obeying the unconscious demand, she swayed as the room tilted.

‘You look like you’re about to fall down.’ Ethan reached for Pipa.

‘No.’ Instinct twisted her body, blocked Ethan’s outstretched hands. Hugging the little girl closer to her chest, she shook her head, calmed herself, and caught the scowl scrunching Ethan’s mouth.

Half facing him again, she forced her shoulders to relax. ‘Sorry.’

Ethan didn’t move, didn’t shift his narrowed gaze from her face.

‘Mummy?’ Pipa curled her arms around Kelsey’s neck, hugged her so they were cheek to cheek.

‘It’s okay, Sweet.’ Kelsey added another silent curse. Patting Pipa’s back, she lifted her chin, ignored the familiar pull Ethan had on her body, and looked up at him. ‘I need your help.’

‘With what?’ Dismissive, almost mocking, he crossed his arms over his chest.

‘To find a will,’ Kelsey said, and watched those blue eyes sharpen, that brain search files and folders, scrambling to understand.

‘I think you better come in.’ Sweeping his hand wide, Ethan stepped back, effectively herding her into his office.

Mentally dragging the tattered remnants of strength and composure back over her shoulders like a mantle; Kelsey shifted Pipa to her other hip and stepped past Ethan.

***

Despite the air-conditioner pumping cold air around the room, sweat stuck Ethan’s shirt to his shoulders, his hair to his nape, skipped down his spine like a finger nail ready to dig in.

Five years, he thought. Five years to the day since he’d sat with his head in his hands, cursing Kelsey for running away before she knew about the world. Before she knew how to protect herself.

One thousand, eight hundred and twenty six days since she’d left him cursing her for leaving a memory in every part of town, every part of his home, every part of his life, and giving him no way to take it all back.

No way to settle the instinct to scrutinize every strange car that came to town. To second glance every red-headed girl that crossed his path.

This morning, on the fifth anniversary since she’d cut him out of her life, he’d been sitting there, head in his hands, praying to anyone that would listen to keep her safe, to guide her back home.

Now here she stood, in his office, and he had no idea how to contain the urge to slam the door, lock it, and let all the frustration and rage flood out in a hieroglyphic dance.

Closing his eyes a moment, he snapped them open at the images burnt into his subconscious.

Because of the last time he’d seen her, he told himself.

Yeah, right.

Resisting the urge to knock his head against the door, he slowly closed it behind him. Hoped she didn’t notice the time it took him to face her again. When he did turn, he blinked. She didn’t stand watching him, but sat perched on the edge of the seat facing his desk, waiting.

While he stood staring, she glanced over her shoulder at him. No laughter glinted in her eyes. No mischief. No spark of the old infatuation.

Walking to his desk he sat down. Tried not to be obvious about adjusting himself.

He shouldn’t have this reaction to her.

Not now. Not after all this time.

And not with the whirlwind inferno searing his insides.

The need to grab her close, wrap his body around her, devour her, mocked everything he’d promised to be, everything he should be for her.

Readjusting his tie, he picked up a pen, put it down again. Realised he fidgeted. Opted for the casual indifference of leaning back in his chair and linking his hands behind his head.

It had taken her one second to throw his world into chaos five years ago, another to surge it into a storm again now.

One second.

Yet she sat so quietly in the seat across the desk, watching him, the little girl on her lap watching him too.

Didn’t she have any idea what he’d been through, worrying about her?

Something in her face, her eyes, told him all his fears may have come true. She’d learnt the hard way what the world could be like.

He dropped his gaze to the little girl.

Was it guilt that held Kelsey’s tongue?

Regret?

That the guilt was his, the regret, too, stung.

Unclenching his jaw, he didn’t clear his throat, just hoped his voice came out clean. ‘You changed your hair.’

She raised, then lifted one shoulder in a shrug. ‘A few days and I’ll be a ranga again.’ She twisted a strand around her finger, no depreciating smile tugging her lips.

‘Your daughter didn’t inherit your carrot top?’

Her chest froze for just a second. ‘No.’

‘How old is she?’ Though the question twisted his gut, he had to know.

‘She’ll be four in a week.’

‘Three months...’ he said, knowing she understood his implication.

Triumph fell on its face as Kelsey’s eyes widened, the colour draining from her face.

You want her to run again?

He mentally shook his head. It was the last thing he wanted.

He’d already broken the promise he’d made to both their fathers, and let trouble find her. He wouldn’t be breaking it again.

He would remain in control; he would curb the impulsiveness that had obviously gotten her into whatever trouble she was in now.

Groaning at the way his thoughts had gone, he focused back on Kelsey. Looked past the steady quietness, the calm, and saw a stillness, a fear he didn’t understand.

Was she scared of him?

Did she think he would rant and rave?

What would make her think that?

He wiped a hand over his face. ‘I’m sorry. That was uncalled for.’

‘I don’t blame you.’ Still, she didn’t move, didn’t relax. ‘Ethan, I want you to meet Pipa,’ Kelsey said, brushing the little girl’s sleep-flattened hair off her cheeks. Gently, she turned Pipa to face him. ‘Pipa, this is Ethan.’

He looked into dark blue eyes too old for such a young face. The girl stared back, unblinking.

He didn’t want to know what man had given her those eyes, or the blonde hair. She looked nothing like Kelsey.

Except for the wary stillness they both shared.

‘Hello, Pipa.’ He tried for a friendly smile.

‘Mummy?’ Pipa tilted her face toward Kelsey, but kept those wary eyes on him.

Slick heat uncurled in his gut. He’d been told by kids he was big, a giant even, but none of them had ever looked at him with open fear.

‘You can say hello,’ Kelsey said, kissing the girls head.

‘Hello,’ she said, then snuggled her face against Kelsey’s shoulder.

Forcing himself to focus, he concentrated on cracking the walls Kelsey had stacked against him. Common ground wasn’t a tool when he couldn’t read her anymore, and bringing up the past only caused blood to ooze from old wounds.

So where to start?

Glancing at her hands, fingers empty of rings; he gave a silent sigh.

Gritted his teeth harder.

Pushed away the relief that only a fine silver bracelet hung on her right wrist. No rings, or lines from absent rings hugged her fingers.

Still, there had been someone in her life. Someone who hadn’t been him. Someone she’d turned to because he’d been so god damned stupid.

But she’s back now.

Yes, she was back, in his office, under his skin.

This time though, he wouldn’t be letting her go without an explanation.

Wouldn’t be letting her go without telling him where the hell she was going.

Wouldn’t be letting her go, period, if he had his way.

***

The ache at the base of her skull sending nausea down her spine, Kelsey stiffened as Ethan straightened in his chair, his shoulders shifting under his shirt as though settling a weight.

The war that had raged in him seemed to come to a conclusion, or at least a truce, and she wondered what he’d decided so far.

Could guess one thought, at least.

‘So.’ He tilted his head. ‘What have you been up to?’

How did she answer that?

History is written by the winner. She only hoped it was true, and that she would be that winner.

Still, it stuck in her throat, all the carefully planned words, the truths skirted.

Lying to Ethan had always been hard.

At least it was something that hadn’t changed. ‘Lots,’ she said.

‘And you’re here now…?’

‘Because I need advice.’ Not quite a lie.

‘It’s a bit late for that, don’t you think?’ His gaze dropped to Pipa.

Swallowing back the creeping nausea, she stared at the intricate knot pattern on his green and white tie.

Before, she wouldn’t have had to ask. He would have known by just looking at her something was wrong.

Then she’d ruined everything.

Lifting her gaze to his, she started with the smallest box she could safely open. ‘I’ve lost track of the will written when Pipa was born.’ More truth than lie at least. Still, it sat heavy on her shoulders, peeled away another layer of her heart.

Ethan stared at her a moment, then sorted through some pens in a cup on his desk, even though one sat in front of him, picked a green one, and opened his notebook. ‘I’ll need to ask a few questions.’ Jaw set in business mode now, Ethan began writing.

Heart still hammering, Kelsey tried to swallow, to get more than a thimble full of air into her lungs.

She’d avoided questions until now.

She’d avoided everything.

Now she stood on the edge of an abyss, the menacing shadow at her back pushing her ever closer to the free-fall into nothing at her feet. It took her breath away, choked her until she thought she would plummet, screaming into blackness.

‘Kelsey?’ Ethan glanced up, those summer-blue eyes boring into hers. She’d looked into those eyes so many times, trusted him with everything. Thought he’d always be there for her.

How wrong she’d been.

Licking her lips, she dropped her gaze to his hands resting on Pipa’s lap. ‘What do you need to know?’

‘First of all, your full name?’

Mouth dropping open, she gaped at him. ‘You know my name.’

‘You haven’t changed it?’ His gaze dropped to her naked fingers.

Mutely, she shook her head.

He was as much a stranger to her now, as she seemed to be to him. She didn’t recognise this Ethan. Couldn’t fathom the cold anger emanating from him. The almost impatience he treated her with.

Sure, she hadn’t expected a warm welcome, with open arms and tears, but she’d thought he would at least show genuine interest in what had happened, where she’d been, what she’d done...

She glanced down at Pipa.

Of course.

It made sense then. She’d misinterpreted his cold anger. His real feelings were worse.

Displeasure at her return.

Disappointment with her assumed choices.

That’s what kept his voice tight, his body tensed.

Just like her mother had been the night Kelsey had come home crying, nursing her broken heart.

‘Pipa’s father’s name?’ Ethan’s voice pulled her back from dwelling on the past.

Staring at Ethan’s downturned face, his gaze on his notepad, pen hovering over it, she knew being back here would burst the dam, make her rehash the past in all its glorious colour.

Make her face reality.

That everyone she loved either died, or didn’t give a damn about her in return.

Her father had told her he’d never leave her. Death had made him a liar.

She couldn’t remember her mother ever hugging her, holding her.

Ethan had been her outlet. He’d made her laugh, made her mad, made her argue. Made her strong enough to face the world. To survive the nightmare she’d found herself in the last five years.

Then he glanced up, those blue eyes edged with steel, and she realised he waited for an answer.

‘Her father is Spencer Bristow,’ she said, consciously not gritting her teeth on the name. Studying his face to keep the darkness at bay, she slowly inhaled, drew in his familiar scent, made herself relax.

‘And you’re currently with him?’ He dropped his gaze back to the notebook, pen held over the page.

‘No.’ Her heart kicked up another gear, pumped heat into her cheeks.

‘Why not?’

‘He’s a bastard.’

Ethan shook his head, eyebrows shooting up. ‘That seems to be a common reason.’ He rolled the pen between thumb and forefinger. ‘Have you tried contacting him about the misplaced will?’

‘No.’ Lips numb, she locked her joints so Pipa didn’t feel her shaking.

‘Give me his number and I’ll make some enquiries.’

Kelsey’s stomach dropped while time paused a moment. ‘You can’t...’ The walls swelled, closing the room in, pressed the air hard against her chest.

‘It’s the easiest way, Kelsey. Probably the only way. This isn’t a law matter; it’s between you and the child’s father.’ He lifted a shoulder in a lazy shrug. ‘I’m sure if you give him the chance, he’d help you.’

‘He won’t.’ The words burning her throat, Kelsey tried to swallow. ‘Please don’t...’

Too late, she realised she’d been wrong coming home, to come back to Ethan. Without even trying, he was burying her. In guilt. In terror.

She had to leave before he started digging her out again, exposing more than she could hide.

Because once he did that, no amount of lying, begging, or history would save her. ‘I’m sorry I wasted your time.’ She shifted Pipa, got ready to stand.

‘What are you running from, Kelsey?’ He didn’t move, just sat watching her. Then his gaze sharpened, fist clenching on the desk. ‘Did he hurt you?’

She shook her head, the fib refusing to push past her lips.

His chest strained against his shirt, then he blew a breath out past pursed lips. ‘You’ve never lied to me before.’

‘Because I’ve never needed to.’ It broke something in her chest.

She couldn’t abandon Pipa now. Couldn’t entrust her safety to someone else. Couldn’t put a target on someone else’s back.

Especially not Ethan’s. Rubbing the rapidly expanding ache in her breast, she slowly lifted her gaze to his. ‘Goodbye, Ethan.’

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