He brought me up to my feet and wrapped me in a tight hug, his hand at the back of my head, cradling me. “I’m sorry. We have to go. I can’t lose you now.”
I tried to nod but nothing came out. Camden brought out his gun and kept a firm grip around my arm as he led me across the room. I kept staring at the blanket on the ground, knowing what it was hiding.
He opened the door and looked around to make sure the coast was clear. When it was, we hurried down the corridor and back the way we came in. I don’t know how I got over the fence but I did. I don’t know how I walked over to the car but I did. I don’t know how we got in the car and drove away down the country lane with our headlights off, searching for a hidden way out of town, but we did.
I don’t know how we got onto the side roads that took us to Temecula.
All I did know was that my uncle had betrayed me for fifty thousand dollars. And now my uncle was dead.
When I woke up the next morning I had that beautiful split second of peace and warmth where your brain hasn’t caught up yet to the events from the night before. You think everything is fine, everything is normal, until that realization hits you like a sledgehammer, shattering your insides, shattering your world. Nothing is normal. Everything is forever changed. It wasn’t a dream. You’re alive and awake and now you have to deal with putting the pieces back together.
It was a shitty fucking job.
We were staying in a basic cabin just outside the city of Temecula. Camden wanted something that was off the beaten path, some place Javier wouldn’t think of checking. The cabins were part of a campground and nestled in hills of ponderosa pine. It was beautiful and quiet, the kind of place where you’d stay for a few days while you tried to make sense of life all over again.
But I wasn’t coming up with anything. My life was rendered senseless. I’d spent the whole night crying, rocking back and forth on the bed. Camden. I don’t know what I would have done without him. He held me in his arms, staying awake with me. He never said a single word, he just held onto me like he was afraid of letting me go. His heartbeat, steady against my back, kept me sane and allowed my grief to flow without consequence.
“Hey,” Camden’s mouth was at my ear. “It’s a beautiful day outside.”
I rolled over under the covers and looked around the room, at the stream of golden sunshine that was coming through the windows of the A-frame. It was a lot nicer than a motel room that’s for sure. But all the sunshine in the world couldn’t clear up the blackness I felt in my heart.
I leaned back on the down pillow, relieved that no tears were coming. I must have cried them all out. “I can’t believe it,” I whispered, staring blankly at the wood beams in the ceiling.
“I know,” he said, wrapping his arm across my chest. He kissed my temple, letting his lips linger there.
“But you knew.”
He shook his head and kissed my ear lobe. “I didn’t want to believe it. I was just trying to protect us. I didn’t actually think he’d do that to you.”
“But he did…”
“Some men are weak, and when they’re desperate, they grow weaker. I know your uncle wouldn’t have let anything happen to you.”
I stared at him from the corner of my eye. “He tried to hand me over to Javier. For fifty thousand dollars.”
Camden’s smile was tight-lipped. “I know. But I think Jim really believed that Javier wouldn’t hurt you. You’re such a tough cookie, Ellie. He probably thought you’d be fine in the end.”
“You’re sticking up for him.”
“He’s dead, Ellie. He doesn’t need me to stick up for him. I’m just trying to figure him out, the same way that you are.”
I shook my head. “He held a grudge against me, all this time.”
“Then you can understand how weak a grudge can make someone,” he said softly. I stared up at him, his full lips and the three-day-old beard that was scrawled across his strong face. His eyes were tired though, with bags that pulled at them, and his brow was lined with worry. Worry for me.
“We’re going to have to get you a new pair of nerd glasses,” I told him. “Can you even see me right now?”
He raised his brow. “I can see enough. What’s wrong with my reading glasses? Not hipster enough for you?”
I shook my head. “They’re okay, if you like sexy, intelligent men. But it doesn’t do much to disguise you. Remember we need you feeling like a different person as possible when you start your new life.”
His lips twitched. “I already feel like a different person, Ellie. I don’t think I can ever go back to the person I was before. I think the real Camden McQueen died somewhere in the night.”
I pushed my breaking heart away. “I know. I think Ellie Watt did too. I think she died right there in the room with Uncle Jim. I think she’s died a million times before.”
He reached for my hand and grasped it hard. “We can do this, you know. We’ll figure things out here, but then we’ll be gone. I’m not giving up on a new life and I’m not giving up on you. I don’t care if I have to be Connor Malloy for the rest of my life, as long as you are in that life with me.”
“But doesn’t this seem hard?” I asked. “Doesn’t it seem impossible? Day after day our new lives are slipping further and further away from us. We were so close…so close and then…”
“And then you decided to save your uncle. You did the right thing and you know it. You had every reason to trust him and if you’d turned your back on him, sure none of this would have happened. But you’d hate yourself. Now, at least you know. You tried to help him. That’s all that counts. You tried to make things right and that’s more than you can ask from anybody, let alone someone who has only been burned by life.”
Fear ran its cold fingers down my back. “But he’ll never stop looking for me. Everywhere I go, he’ll be there. He won’t stop until he has me in his hands.”
“Listen to me,” Camden shook me, his voice hard. His eyes were flashing with determination. “I will not let him find you. I will not let him take you. We can do this, you and me. We can live our lives in peace. Maybe you can never be Ellie Watt again. Maybe you can dye your hair red, get a cute little haircut or grow it long, or get a wig. Colored contacts. Different style. We can make you someone else and I’ll take her as I take you now. I know the real you is always underneath, still alive, no matter what name you go by on the outside, and that’s all that matters. This doesn’t have to go on forever. We can shut the door on the past and start over.”
What he was saying was so honest, so real, so incredibly romantic. But I couldn’t ignore the guilt. I got us into the mess. It should be my cross to carry, not his.
But whatever I thought, he didn’t agree. He wanted this mess. He kissed me passionately, his tongue soothing mine, his lips giving me life, fanning the joy I had somewhere inside, the joy I was too afraid to feel. I might end up loving this man, I thought as his lips caressed the skin of my throat. It would be so easy to do.
So, for a moment, I gave into him and focused only on the physical. I only felt what he coaxing me to feel. His firm, talented hands as they skimmed down my body, his tongue as it lapped behind my ears. He peeled back my camisole, his fingers gently brushing my nipples until they hardened, then he pinched them with delicious pain. I slipped my underwear off as his hand traveled south to join mine. He started stroking me, inserting his fingers slowly, one at a time, until I was open, wet and begging for him.
He flipped me so I was on my side and brought my back to his chest. He bit my neck, sucking hard; unlike the pain I had inside, his pain was seductive and sweet. I let myself surrender to it, for whatever he wanted to do to me, for whatever he wanted me to feel.
He pushed in between my legs, his hands running up and down my ass, pinching here and there, drawing a gasp from my mouth until he slowly slid himself inside, filling me with something more than physical. He filled me with light. With effervescence. With hope.
We made love slowly, savoring each touch, each sensation. His hands explored my body like I was a work of art he couldn’t quite believe was real. With us on our sides, he pushed in and out in keen deliberation, making me pant, making me sweat, making me want more. He finally gave it to me, his fingers swirling around my clit with precision, his other hand squeezing my breasts until they hurt, his lips enveloping my ear lobe.
“I love you,” he whispered. “From now until the end, under any name you choose.”
That was all it took. The pressure built in my core and I came in dizzying waves, calling out his name. A few tears leaked out of my eyes as I felt everything I could possibly feel.
He came soon after, his groans and grunts filling my ears, filling the room. He gasped for breath and held me close to him, tight as ever. “I’m afraid,” he whispered.
“Why?” I whispered back, wiping away the tears, my body somewhere on a cloud.
“I can’t ever lose what I just felt.” He kissed my cheek. “I’m afraid if I did, I’d come looking for you too. I’m afraid I can relate…to him.”
I turned my head to look at him. “You’re not him. You never will be.”
He seemed satisfied with that. We lay in each other’s arms, staring out the window, at the birds that flew from tree to tree, bustling with the nature of things.
After a while he got up to take a shower. I joined him, making sure to keep my leg as clean as possible. The tattoo looked really good. The scabs were starting to crust over which is never fun, but even with that the image was stunning. I actually couldn’t wait to wear shorts for the first time in my life.
We got dressed, taking our time. There was no hurry now. We needed to come up with a plan, I needed to talk to Gus, we needed to start living again. But there, in that cabin, there was no hurry. It was a hamlet for love and for grief. I let both of those emotions cloak me like layers of silk. I let them slide over me, through my fingers, to the earth, working my way through them. There was no escape from the hurt, but Camden’s love made handling it easier.
We were sitting outside on the Adirondack chairs on the porch, bundled in warm sweaters and drinking spiked apple cider, when my phone rang.
My heart made itself known with a single boom. The last time I’d answered the phone…
I exchanged a worried glance with Camden and quickly got up and went inside. I snatched my ringing, flashing phone off the table.
The call was coming from Uncle Jim. Or at least it was coming from his phone. Not many people would probably have access to it.
I answered it. “Hello.”
It was time to stop running.
“Hello, angel,” came the smooth voice of Javier over the line.
Camden came in the room, shutting the door behind him. I swallowed hard, my eyes on him as I said, “Hello, Javier.”
He chuckled warmly. “So formal with me. You’d think after the other night, we’d be a bit more relaxed. Old friends, you see. That’s what we are.”