She’s mine to protect.
She’s my best friend’s little sister.
My job was to put away criminals. To fight the good fight and make sure justice was served. Only when she needed me the most, I couldn’t capture the man who deserved to rot in prison for what he put her through.
She looked to me for answers, but I had none to give. I couldn’t touch the case with a ten-foot pole. Damn conflict of interest.
The only option I had was to make her feel safe and remind her day in and day out she had a reason to keep living. To keep fighting to survive.
I’d do anything for her. Even if that meant keeping my love for her a secret so she could find herself again.
“Gabby, if you don’t tell him I’m going to strangle you,” Whitney squealed as we readied ourselves for a night out on the town. We’d decided a few months ago when I turned twenty-one that I had to take at least one night off a month from studying to have fun. Well, they decided. I just agreed. Against my will. And they made me stick to the plan. I appreciated it, but I couldn’t afford to lose focus. I had plans. Goals I was determined to meet. But one night wouldn’t kill me. At least I hoped it wouldn’t. Last month when we went to a new bar in town, they kept a drink in my hand the entire time and it took me almost a whole week to recover. I swore I had alcohol poisoning and almost didn’t agree to going out this time. My liver couldn’t handle their shenanigans. My head couldn’t either. I suffered from migraines, and a hangover didn’t help matters when the onset of one started to occur. I could feel one coming on, but I took some ibuprofen in hopes to hold it off until I could get home tonight. They wouldn’t let me live it down if I bailed on them.
“You know she loves to torture herself and that fine specimen of a man, Whit,” Lily said as she put in her silver hoop earrings. Both laughed, but I didn’t have a clue what she was talking about. I didn’t torture anyone. They just thought I did.
I shook my head as I walked over to the mirror and gave myself a once-over to make sure I was satisfied with my appearance. I was a jeans and t-shirt kind of girl, but I’d appease them one night a month and act like I cared. I even put on a little makeup so they could see that I gave it some effort. I had on a black sleeveless shirt that was tight around my chest and flowy down my stomach, and a pair of dark denim skinny jeans paired with red heels and matching jewelry. It wasn’t that I couldn’t dress to impress; it was that I didn’t see the point in always looking this way. I didn’t feel comfortable always wearing this type of attire and the more they tried to fit it in, the more I rebelled.
I met Whitney and Lily our first day in college, and we’d been inseparable ever since. They helped me through a tough time in my life where I needed my parents more than ever, and my brother decided it would be best to leave me behind to further his career. They became my sisters in no time at all, and I didn’t know what I’d do without them. Whitney was five-feet three, but she always appeared taller due to her obsession with heels and today’s hottest fashion trends. She had beautiful blonde hair and green eyes. And a spunky personality. She wasn’t afraid to speak her mind and tell me when I was wrong. Especially when it came to keeping my feelings for Tucker a secret. We were so different, yet so alike at the same time because our drive to be our best was the same.
Lily, on the other hand, loved to dress just like me most days, but when it came down to it, she could put together a gorgeous outfit in no time at all. She was taller than the three of us, five-ten almost five-eleven, and she hated wearing heels because she felt like she towered over everyone.
“I don’t know why either of you are laughing. You can’t torture someone who probably doesn’t feel the same way,” I said as I turned to the mirror to make sure my hair looked okay. I had long dark brown hair down the middle of my back, and tonight I put in some loose curls.
They both walked over to the mirror and stood on each side of me. Almost like they planned it, both threw an arm around my shoulder. I looked at them thorough the piece of glass in front of us, and they shook their heads and grinned.
“What?” I innocently questioned.
“You don’t see it, do you?” Lily asked.
“See what?” I asked as I looked back and forth between the two.
“How he looks at you, silly?” Lily replied with a smile.
“Y’all are seeing shit. He looks at me like his best friend’s sister. The same way he always has. I think telling him will be a lost cause,” I admitted what I’d been afraid to say out loud. Speaking the truth in my mind meant that I was putting it out in the universe to potentially be true. Plus, if I did tell him and he didn’t feel the same, my feelings could ruin everything between us and make everything awkward from that point forward. A risk that was the main reason for why I remained quiet.
“No, he looks at you like he’s smoldering on the inside with the way he feels about you. His looks are so intense I swear he could start a fire. That man feels something, and friendship isn’t it,” Whitney said as she pulled her lip gloss from her back pocket and applied it.
Nervous laughter escaped my lips as I tried to think back on if I saw what they implied, and I got nothing. Tucker looked at me like he had always looked at me. Treated me like he always had.
My phone vibrated on the nightstand beside my bed, and I thanked my lucky stars for the distraction. Walking over to where it sat, the screen displayed Tucker’s name. Immediately, I answered, hoping that nothing was wrong.
“Hey, T. What’s up?” I answered as I leaned back against the side of the bed. Whitney and Lily turned toward me with their faces lit up in smiles.
“Not much. Are y’all still going out tonight?” he asked.
“Of course. They wouldn’t let me out of it if I tried,” I replied and looked over to where they stood, their heads shook back and forth confirming what I just spoke.
“You know what to do. Stay safe and text me when you get home please,” he insisted, and I rolled my eyes at his antics. This was a brotherly type of treatment. Not an inkling of the romantic kind in sight. If I did decide to spill everything, I’d most likely make an ass out of myself.
“Hey, Tucker,” they both yelled toward the phone. I put the phone on speaker so they could hear his response. Instead, I heard Kai’s voice come out of the speaker. He was a friend to my brother and Tucker; they met the day they started in the police academy.
“You better tell her. Tomorrow,” Kai’s muffled voice demanded. I could tell the phone was covered, and my mind raced with the possibilities of what he’d have to say.
“Hi, girls. Be safe tonight. I gotta go deal with this crazy fool. We’re hanging around the house tonight playing pool, and he’s ready to get started. Talk to ya later, Ella. Don’t forget to text me,” he said and hung up the phone before I could reply. I stared at the phone for a moment, in shock that he just abruptly ended the call, before I shut off the screen and put the device in my back pocket.
“Ooohhh. He’s got something to tell you. Wonder what it is?” Whitney said as she and Lily sat down on the bed beside me.
“Probably something to do with my brother. But we aren’t going to think about that right now. We’re going to go and get our drink on,” I diverted as I grabbed my key that Tucker and my brother had given me with a clip that I could use to clip on the inside of my jeans so I didn’t have to take my purse. I pulled my license out of my wallet and some cash, shoving them in the other back pocket of my jeans and walked to the door, turning so that I could see if they were following.
Instead, they were still sitting on the side of the bed, staring at me like I’d lost my mind.
“What if he has to tell you he has feelings for you too?” Lily asked as she twirled her hair around her finger, something that she did when she was nervous to say what she thought.
“He doesn’t. Trust me. He talked to me like I was a sister just then. ‘Make sure you text me when you get home.’ That doesn’t scream romantic to me at all. It screams kid sister. Let’s go have some fun. No one is to mention his name. Got it?” I demanded as I turned without waiting for a response and left the room. They could sit there for all I cared. I put my foot down. For now, at least.
“We won’t mention his name. Until tomorrow, that is. You’re telling him if we have to drag you there ourselves and stand there while you do it. You’ve waited years. Years too long as far as we’re concerned. We only have your best interests at heart,” Whitney said from behind me. I knew they did, but they weren’t risking it all. I was. And I didn’t know if it was worth it right now.
My phone vibrated in my pocket as I reached the front door. The girls’ heels clicked on the floor behind me as I pulled the phone out of my pocket to see who it was. The security guard was calling from the gate. My brother had insisted that I move in here once the house came on the market because of the safety ratings, and I was glad that I jumped on the chance. I loved it here, and knowing that not just anyone could enter eased my mind since I lived in the three-bedroom house alone. Our parents had both died when I was fifteen and left us a substantial inheritance. Money I had only touched for school, this house, and the car that I bought myself when I turned eighteen. The rest of it sat untouched in the bank.
“Hello,” I answered, keying in the code to the alarm system before I opened the door so we could leave. Once the girls walked out behind me, I made sure the door was locked and then pulled it shut.
“Miss Hernandez, there’s a cab company at the gate that said you called. I just wanted to confirm before I let them inside,” he said in a firm voice. I swear, that man had one tone and that was serious. I couldn’t ever get him to crack a smile in the three years that I’ve lived here.
“That’s correct. Send them through. Thanks for the call,” I said before I slid the button on the screen to end the call.
“The cab is coming through the gate now. Perfect timing. Now, who’s ready to drink some fruity concoctions and dance our asses off?” I said as I raised my hands and shook my hips for dramatic affect.
“I’m ready to drink, but as for dancing our asses off, I think it would take more than a couple of hours for you to lose yours,” Lily joked as she looked at me and then behind me.
“Stop. It’s not that big,” I replied as I shoved her in the arm and turned to look for myself. Okay, it was big, but it wasn’t huge. It fit my body, and that’s all that mattered.
“No, you’re right, Gabby. It’s not big. Huge would be more accurate,” Whitney joked in return as she walked down the driveway toward the cab that was now stopping in front of the house.
“Y’all are downright hateful. Leave my ass alone,” I replied as I shook my head and followed them to the vehicle.
Once we were all inside, Whitney gave them the name of the club we were headed to. I rested my head on the headrest behind me and thought about the Blue Hawaiian that called my name. Refusing to think about the man who invaded my thoughts often, more often than I ever admitted to my two best friends.
“Why the hell did you do that, you stupid fool?” I gritted through my teeth at Kai as I tossed my phone onto the couch behind me. He knew I struggled daily to keep what I felt hidden, and he just had to go open a can of worms that I would’ve gladly preferred remained closed indefinitely.
I met him the day Alec and I started the police academy, and we’d all been like brothers ever since. His real name was Malakai Travers, but we called him Kai for short. Since we graduated the police academy when we were nineteen, we’d all taken different paths. Alec joined the Gang Unit and was currently on an undercover assignment that he’d been on for more than a year. Kai was in the Cybercrime Division at the state police office. And I had moved up the ranks and had made detective a couple of years ago for the state police.
“Because you’re too much of a chickenshit to do it yourself. Do you not see the stars in her eyes when you’re around? I swear you two are the only ones oblivious to the feelings of the other person. Her friends see it. The guys at the station see it. But you just can’t. Why are you so scared of telling her? What do you have to lose by telling her how you feel?” Kai asked as he tossed me a beer and opened the door to go into the basement of the house.
I followed behind him and thought about what he’d just said. Thought about the recent times I’d hung out with Ella. Everyone else called her Gabby, but I had always called her Ella. Or when I wanted to aggravate her, I called her Ella Mae. She hated her middle name, but I didn’t and I made sure she knew it often. Throughout all our recent memories, not once did I recall a time where she looked at me differently. Where she acted differently. She just acted like herself. Her, along with everyone else, was losing it.
Once we were downstairs, I sat my beer on the counter as he racked up the balls on the pool table while I grabbed my stick and chalked up the end.
“So answer my question, Tucker. What do you have to lose by telling her?” he asked again, not relenting on his search for an answer.
“Everything,” I whispered, hoping he didn’t hear me, only his head came up as he ignored the task at hand. He stared at me, waiting for me to elaborate further.
“I could lose her. My friendship with her brother. I could lose it all just by telling her how I feel. I can’t risk it. It’s not worth it in my eyes,” I said as I went to the end of the table, waiting for him to finish so I could break.
“But if you told her and she felt the same, you’d have so much more to gain. Plus, how are you going to feel if you remain silent and she meets some other guy, falls in love, and marries him? How would that make you feel?”
I gripped the stick almost to the breaking point. I couldn’t imagine her with anyone else aside from me. Doing so made me feel murderous. Made me want to stake a claim I didn’t know if I had. Made me want to break all the rules and confess. Only I couldn’t. The thought of her rejecting me and losing her entered my mind, and I lost the will to tell her. I’d love her from afar. Protect her from a distance. And let her go if I had to, if it meant she was happy. Even if her being happy meant being without her.
“What’s the matter, lover boy? Cat got your tongue?” he goaded as he waited for me to take the shot.
Instead of replying, I bent down and set up the cue ball where I wanted it to be and took the shot. The balls broke apart, scattering to every corner of the table. A few landed in various pockets. I looked in to each one and picked stripes since I landed a couple of each.
I stood stock-still holding the stick in front of me, waiting for Kai to take his shot; only he stood against the pool table and waited.
“I’m waiting for an answer.”
“You’re worse than a school girl, I swear. If she’s happy, then I’ll deal with that when the time comes. Besides, there’s just too much stacked against us for it to work.”
“Like what? From where I’m standing, there’s nothing in your way of going after what you want. When’s the last time you were in a steady relationship? Oh, that’s right. After you graduated the police academy, but that only lasted until Gabby turned eighteen. Then you ended the relationship. Coincidence? I think not.”
When was he going to give up? I didn’t want to talk about this. I wanted to just play pool and have a beer.
“Our ages. Her brother. She’s in college. The list just goes on and on.”
“Age is nothing but a number. There’s only a seven-year difference between the two of you. You could handle her brother. Hell, she can handle her brother. When they go at it in Spanish, it’s hilarious. And she’s only in school for another year. Try again.”
“Will you shut the hell up and play the damn game if I agree?”
“Possibly,” he said with a sly smirk. He loved that he’d won, but I still wasn’t sure this was a good idea.
“Fine. I’ll tell her,” I agreed. I just didn’t say when.
“When are you going to tell her?” he asked as he raised his eyebrow. I’d forgotten how well my friends knew me. Damnit.
“Tomorrow. I’ll tell her tomorrow when she comes over for our movie binge night. Happy now, asshole?” I said as I threw the chalk at him.
“No. I’ll be happy when you’ve finally told her. And just to make sure, I’m calling her on Sunday and asking her if you had the talk with her. I don’t trust your ass to not back out,” he laughed as he bent down and aimed for the shot at a solid color ball.
“Fucker. Just take the shot. That’s a low blow, and you know it,” I laughed in return at his antics and picked up the brown bottle of liquid, taking a long swig. This was going to be a long night. Panic already started to ensue as I thought of what I’d agreed to do.
I’d loved her for as long as I could remember.
Only it turned into more the day we moved her into her house. The day I saw a beautiful woman coming down the hallway toward me instead of my friend’s little sister. A breeze blew through the house and caught her hair just right. The smile on her face was endless as she came toward me. And everything in my mind just clicked. She was my more. My person, and I didn’t know how to handle the feelings that coursed through my veins. Anger at myself for having feelings for someone so young. Confusion as to what they all meant. But the love that filled my heart morphed into more than the love of a friend. So much more that I ended the three-year relationship I’d been in without reason.
Everything about her was made for me.
And now I’d have to tell her and hope I didn’t get rejected. Hope that she felt the same way.
“When did you know how you felt about her?” he asked as we continued to play the game.
I told him about the day we’d moved her into her house and how when she turned the corner the feeling slammed me in the chest. I felt like a pussy admitting this out loud, but talking to him helped me sort out what I was going to say. How I would approach the topic of my feelings for her.
“You’ve been pining over her for three years and haven’t acted. You’ve got more restraint than me, that’s for sure. So, wait? Are you telling me you haven’t gotten laid in three years?”
My lips drew into a straight line as I looked at him with a stern expression. We weren’t going there. I wouldn’t live it down if I told him the truth. Told him that I couldn’t do it because I wanted so badly for it to be her.
“What do you think?” I deflected as I let him ponder the answer to his question. I would never tell him the truth. That was for me to know. And for me to reveal to her when the time was right.
We pulled up in front of the club. I paid the taxi driver, and we all exited the vehicle. The line was down the sidewalk, but I had a connection. I knew the bouncer who worked the door at the club. He was a friend of my father’s who had retired from the police department after his twenty years were up. He worked here to get out of the house.
Instead of going to the back of the line, we walked to the door and waited for him to stamp the lady’s hand who had just paid him the entrance fee.
Before the next person could walk up to him, I called out his name to gain his attention. His head turned toward me, and a smile formed on his lips. I hadn’t seen him in a couple of months, but he hadn’t changed a bit. He was still the same man I remembered as a tiny girl in pigtails.
“Gabby, come here,” he said with open arms. I walked over, and he wrapped his arms around me and picked me up as he squeezed me tight.
“Big Pete. I kinda need to breathe,” I joked as I hugged him back.
“My bad. You here by yourself tonight?” he asked as he sat me down, putting his hands on my shoulders until I was steady, then stepping back.
The girl behind me huffed, but I didn’t care. She could wait.
“You know that’s against the rules. My girls, Whitney and Lily, are here with me tonight,” I replied as I turned around so he could see the girls.
He took in their appearance as I held out my hand so he could stamp it. They had
different stamps for the age groups. Tonight was twenty-one and up only, so the stamp was just a way to make sure you paid to get in tonight. Tomorrow they had an eighteen and up night which would require both stamps.
“We’re here to have some fun. We’re going to go in and get a much-needed drink. And I know…no taking drinks from anyone. I swear between you, my brother, and Tucker, I’m going to go insane,” I joked as I blew on the wet skin of my hand.
“It’s for your protection. We’re all you got, so we’ve gotta look out for our girl.” He winked as he opened the door for me to enter.
“Yeah, yeah. I hear ya. See ya later, Big Pete,” I said as I handed him the ten bucks to enter that I pulled out of my back pocket, knowing he’d hate taking it, but not caring either way. I waited for the girls to pay and get their hands stamped too, before we all walked into the building.
The music was at a deafening tone, and the space was already crowded for it to only be ten o’clock at night.
“Look at all the hotties in here tonight,” Whitney said as she leaned toward me so I could hear her better. I swear she had some sort of radar for spotting sexy men. I laughed inwardly as we walked in the direction of the bar.
Some techno song blared out of the speakers on the other side of the room, and I could feel the headache that loomed in the background coming to the surface. I put a fake smile on my face so they couldn’t see the pain that bubbled in the background and hoped that I could make it through the night.
We made our way through the crowd of people to the far-right side of the bar and waited for the bartender to make his rounds. I knew exactly what I wanted. A Woo Woo shot and a Blue Hawaiian. I loved Rum and Vodka, and these were the best of both of those worlds. I could almost taste the hint of Peach Schnapps mixed with the cranberry juice slide down my throat as I swallowed while we waited. These drinks were going to be much needed in gaining the courage for tomorrow. Don’t get me wrong. I wanted to tell Tucker. I truly did. I was just nervous of the outcome. When I pictured my future, he was always there. Not standing off to the sidelines cheering me on, but standing beside me as we faced life together. Only I never imagined that the dream would come true. I always thought I’d have to settle for the next best thing and live my life knowing the person I should’ve been with could only be my friend. Now, with that possibility looming in the near future, I allowed myself a moment to feel hope that the dream could become my reality.
While I was off in my own lala land, the bartender had walked over and now stood before us breaking me out of my thoughts.
“What can I get you three beautiful ladies?” he asked with a sly grin. I knew that grin. It was a smile that would make most women melt, but not me. I’d only ever had eyes for one man, and it would stay that way until I confessed my feelings tomorrow.
Before I could speak to say my order, Whitney ordered for us all. Thankfully, my friend knew me well and ordered exactly what I wanted.
“No problem. Coming right up,” he said before he turned around and started mixing the drinks. I watched like I always did, fascinated at how smoothly he moved behind the wooden surface. He picked up bottle after bottle, mixing each drink to what I was sure was going to be perfection. This was his element, where he shined the most. The way he moved with such confidence made me envy how passionate he seemed to be with each drink he served.
He brought over the shots first, then turned around bringing the drinks back moments later. We paid him the money for the drinks and gave him a tip. Starting a tab ended in nights like the last one, and I didn’t want a repeat ever in my future.
Whitney handed Lily and I our shots, and we held them up into the air.
“To secrets coming out and the happiness of Tucker and Gabriella,” she said, and I wanted to curse her for bringing up his name, but the gesture was just too sweet for me to utter anything other than cheers. We clinked the shot glasses together and brought the glasses to our lips. I tuned out everything around me and shut my eyes as I opened my mouth to let the tastiness of the shot inside. The cool liquid eased down my throat before I opened my eyes and slammed the glass down on the bar. I wiped off the sides of my lips where some of the liquid had escaped and licked my fingers, making sure I didn’t waste a drop.
“That was too damn good,” I admitted as I picked up the blue fruity drink that sat on the bar before me. I put the straw in my mouth and sucked down a long sip, relishing in how much the shot and the taste of the drink had already started to ease my inhibitions. I needed tonight because there was no telling what tomorrow might bring.
“Let’s go shake our booties. Lord knows you need to lose some of yours,” Lily suggested with a smirk as she took a sip of her Cosmopolitan. I didn’t like them very much, but she could down them with no problem at all.
We all carefully held our drinks as we turned left and right to walk through the mass of bodies that littered the makeshift dance floor. Whitney had us in the center of the floor in no time as the song changed to a hip hop song we all loved.
I took a sip of my drink to help quench my thirst then threw my hands in the air and started swaying my hips to the beat of the bass. I shut my eyes and allowed myself to get engrossed in the rhythm of the song.
I opened my eyes to take another sip of my drink and check on my friends when I saw Whitney’s eyes go wide and a grin spread across her lips. Just when I was about to scream above the noise of the music to ask her what she was grinning for, I felt a body come up behind me and a hand land on my hip. I wanted to turn around and tell him to back off, but I was here to have fun and one dance wouldn’t hurt anybody.
I threw caution to the wind as I moved my body with his. I had yet to see his face, but I looked down to where his hand had taken up residence on my hip and could tell by the size of his fingers alone that he probably was muscular in build. I leaned my body back against his and got lost in the song, letting my body sway freely to the beat while his hand helped guide me to the movements our body made in sync with each other. I knew that Lily and Whitney were silently cheering about this reaction because this wasn’t typical me, but tonight I wouldn’t overanalyze the amount of alcohol I consumed or how dancing with a random stranger may make me look.
The song was over before I knew it, and the warmth of the man’s hand went away as a new song quickly came blaring out of the speakers. I opened my eyes and turned to thank the mystery man for the dance, but he’d vanished into thin air. No one was behind me except for a group of girls who were staring as if they were envious of the me because of who I had just danced with.
Turning back to my friends, they’d gotten closer than they were before, and we all started dancing to the new song; only my mind drifted to the man who was just behind me. I hated that I didn’t have a face to the person who just had his hand on my hip, but I had to find a way to let it go and keep the anxiety that was brewing at bay. This was why I didn’t just throw caution to the wind. My brain didn’t know how to handle the random dancing with strangers. Hence, why I could never have a one-night stand with some random stranger. My mind wasn’t equipped to handle that type of situation.
“That man was hot by the way. Who knew a man in a beanie could be so hot? I certainly didn’t,” Lily said loudly as we continued to dance.
“Did you get a good look at him?” I asked, knowing I wouldn’t be able to let it go until I, at least, saw something other than the hand of the man I’d just danced with.
“Hell yeah, I did. You go, girl,” Whitney said as she downed the rest of the drink she had in her hand. Her action caused me to remember that I, too, still had half a drink in my hand as well, and I brought the still ice-cold beverage to my lips, tilting my head back so I could finish the rest before it got watered down.
Now left with a glass that was only ice, I told the girls I needed a refill and walked off the dance floor in the direction of the bar. I walked around to the right side again, since it was less crowded than the front, and leaned on the counter in wait of the bartender.
A few minutes passed, and I scanned the crowd while I waited. Water dripped down my hand causing me to look down and realize I still held the empty glass in my hand. I sat the glass down on the bar and twirled it around on the inside of my hands to calm the panic that ensued inside of me.
What the hell were you thinking, Gabriella?
I scolded myself inwardly. This wasn’t me. The drinking. The dancing. None of it. I could have fun curled up on my couch watching sappy movies with a glass of wine. Every time we’d gone out before, I politely declined to dance with anyone other than Whitney and Lily. I wanted to have fun and be carefree like they could, but it just wasn’t me. Tonight proved that.
When the bartender came over, he had a blue drink that looked awfully similar to what I’d just had in my hand.
“Awfully presumptuous of you, isn’t it?” I asked as I pointed to the glass and raised my eyebrows.
“It would be if I was the one who ordered it,” he joked as he sat down the glass in front of me.
“What do you mean?” I asked, taking the money out of my pocket to pay.
“The guy that was just standing at the corner of the bar told me to order whatever you had before. I didn’t know if you’d want another shot along with it, so I just made you the drink instead. You don’t owe me a thing. He’s already paid for it.”
“I’m not trying to be funny when I ask you this. But are you the only one who’s touched that drink? I have this rule about not taking drinks from strangers. You never know what could happen.”
“Yeah, sweetheart. Just me. I made the drink after he paid me and brought it right over,” he confirmed, causing the panic to relent slightly. Not much, but enough to where I felt comfortable taking it from him.
“Do you happen to see him anywhere? I’d like to thank him if possible,” I asked, hoping to finally get a look at the mystery man from before. I’d scoped the place when I stood at the bar waiting for him to come down here, but didn’t see anyone wearing a beanie.
He craned his neck as he looked down to the corner of the bar where he’d said he last saw the man, looking back and forth in search of him. He turned back toward me and shook his head.
“He’s not there anymore. He must’ve left right after he paid. Sorry about that. If you need anything else, you know where to find me,” he replied with a grin as he pulled a rag out from underneath the bar and wiped down the surface.
I nodded and took the straw into my mouth, sipping away at the fruity goodness that reminded me of the ocean, one of my favorite places to be. Within seconds, the slurping sounds came from the cup and I looked down, noticing that I’d finished the entire glass, which wasn’t my intention.
I turned around a little too fast and had to catch myself on the barstool. Someone came up behind me and grabbed my arm, causing me to tense and my body to come on high alert.
“Woah there, sugar,” he said as he helped me stand up straight. I reached over and sat the glass down on the bar before I turned to see who’d helped me.
A man stood before me at least six-feet-one, if not taller, with a dark complexion and the blackest eyes I’d ever seen. Eyes that you could easily get lost in because they were so dark and mysterious. Looking up so I could take in his whole face, I noticed the one distinguishable feature that my friends had noticed about him. The beanie. The infamous hat that I’d been searching for the last half hour.
“It’s you,” I spoke as I backed into the barstool, as far away as I could from him. My head started to feel fuzzy from drinking the alcohol so fast. That and the combination of the noise, the dimness of the lights, and the headache that wasn’t relenting, only intensifying the longer I remained inside the club, made me want to leave and be rescued by the comfort of my bed.
“I hope I didn’t overstep. You just looked so beautiful that I couldn’t resist,” he spoke with a Spanish accent, and I tilted my head wondering where this man was from and why his accent intrigued me so much.
“No. It’s not that. I think I need to leave. I’m getting a migraine, and I should be home resting when it hits me full force. Thank you for the drink and the dance. That was nice of you,” I said as I turned to walk away.
“You’re not driving home, are you?” he asked, causing me to go on high alert and wanting to get away from him as fast as I could. Something about him didn’t sit right with me. I got this uneasy feeling, especially now that he was asking questions he really didn’t have the right to be asking.
“No, I’m taking a cab,” I replied as I pulled my arm out of his grasp and went in search of my friends.
I spotted them in the same spot I’d left them, shocked that they hadn’t left the dance floor long enough to get another drink.
Once I reached them, I tapped Lily on the shoulder to gain her attention since she had her back to me, dancing like she didn’t have a care in the world. She turned toward me, a questioning look in her eyes as she waited for me to respond.
“I’m going to go. I’m getting a migraine, and I just want to be at home. Y’all stay safe and stay together. Please, text me when you get home. I’m sorry to cut the night so short, but I want to be home when it hits me,” I explained in her ear so I didn’t have to speak any louder than necessary.
“I’m sorry you’re not feeling well. We can leave with you right now. It’s not a big deal,” she suggested, and I loved that they would be willing to cut the night short for me. But they didn’t need to stop their fun on my account.
“That’s not necessary. I’m just going to go home, get in my pajamas, and cover my eyes with a cold rag. It’s just got to run its course. I’ll take some meds in the morning once all the alcohol is out of my system. I’ll text y’all when I get home. I’m going to go out front and call a cab,” I explained as I gave her a hug goodbye. The longer I stayed in here, the worse the headache started to get.
I turned and walked away before she would try to convince me they could leave as well. They deserved this night out even if I couldn’t finish it with them. I desperately wanted to stay and join in on the fun, but my head had other plans.
I walked my way through the crowd, weaving in and out of the mass of bodies that littered the club, until I made my way to the exit. I walked through the doors and the night air hit me in the face, giving my body temperature some relief. All the hot air inside caused my body to be covered in a sheen of sweat.
Walking around the corner, I saw Big Pete still at the entrance. I was thankful that I’d have him out here with me while I waited for the ride to arrive. Pulling the phone out of my pocket, I dialed the company that we rode to the club with and gave them the name of the club to pick me up at. Thankfully they had a car in the area and the driver would be here in a few short minutes. I walked the short distance over to where Pete stood against the building and stopped beside him, leaning my head back against the brick wall. I shut my eyes and thought of the waves crashing against the shore. The soothing sound in my mind usually helped calm some of the tension that would steadily build, but this time it wasn’t working. The pain became almost unbearable as the minutes passed.
“You okay, Gabby?” Pete asked from beside me.
I groaned in response as I turned my head toward him. Squinting my eyes once they were opened just a fraction, I told him that I was heading home due to a headache and that my taxi should be arriving momentarily.
“You sure you’re going to be okay going home alone? I can give Tucker a call. I’m sure he’d be happy to come get you and take you home,” he advised, but I didn’t want to ruin his night as well. Plus, I still needed to get my thoughts in order for what was about to occur in just a few short hours. The thought of telling him caused my heart rate to rise and the nervous energy to return. I didn’t know how I wasn’t going to be a babbling mess tomorrow, but somehow, someway, I was telling him even if I didn’t make sense in the process.
I shut my eyes because the glare coming off the street lights was unbearable as I shook my head in response to his suggestion.
“I can handle this. It’s nothing I haven’t dealt with before. Once I’m home and resting in bed, I’ll be fine.” I tried to appease him with my answer, but was unsure if he bought my response because my eyes were still closed and I couldn’t gauge his reaction.
“If you’re sure, I won’t give him a call. But if you need anything, anything at all, please call one of us so we can help you. Don’t suffer because your pride won’t allow you to ask for help,” he said as he pulled me in for a side-arm hug. I leaned my head against his arm and took in the comfort he was offering while I impatiently waited for my ride to arrive.
Pete nudged my arm, causing me to slowly lift my head and turn in his direction.
“I think your ride is here,” he said as he nodded in the direction of the car that had pulled up at the curb.
Thank God.I inwardly prayed, and I pushed my body off the building and turned to give Pete a hug goodbye.
“Thank you for waiting with me and for your concern. I’ll be fine. Until next time,” I promised as I walked to the car.
He followed behind and opened the door for me, waiting until I was safely inside before he shut the door and tapped on the hood, signaling the driver he could pull off.
I mumbled the address to him and leaned my head back against the headrest. My eyelids grew heavier by the moment as we headed in the direction of my home. I had no choice but to shut them to gain some relief as the passing lights caused more harm than good.
Thoughts of Tucker and the mystery man played in my mind throughout the drive as the ache grew in intensity. I couldn’t get over how uneasy he made me feel once I saw what he looked like. Something didn’t sit right with me by the way he looked at me, but there was nothing I could do about those feelings now. I got away as fast as I could, and I’d most likely never see him again. This town brought in more tourists this time of year due to its proximity of Myrtle Beach. We were twenty minutes away, and it wasn’t as crowded as the places on the boardwalk. Although they could get that way the closer that summer drew to an end.
The taxi slowed causing me to open my eyes and take in our surroundings. The car was stopped in front of the gate, and the driver peered back at me as he waited for me to speak to the security guard to gain entry.
I leaned up off the seat and pulled my license out of my back pocket, handing it to the guard through the window of the driver’s seat. He went inside the booth and checked the system to make sure I had access to gain entry. Once my identity was confirmed, he handed me back the plastic card.
“Have a good night, Miss Hernandez,” he said with a smile, something the other guard never did. I nodded my head and sat back in my seat. The driver weaved through the streets quickly and pulled up in front of my house moments after we entered.
I stepped out and handed him the amount I owed him plus a decent tip. I reached into the waistband of my pants and pulled out the key that I’d clipped there earlier, a trick that my brother taught me years ago so that I wouldn’t lose it while I was out and about.
My heels clicked as I walked up the stone path to the door. I couldn’t wait to get inside and relax. Couldn’t wait to soak in that big claw foot tub that called my name. I stepped up the two steps on the stoop and the key slipped from my fingers the moment I reached the door.
Bending down, I cursed at the fact that I didn’t leave the light on before I left. Something my brother would scream at me for if he knew. My hand touched the cool concrete as I rubbed my fingers across in search of the key. The rough surface scratched at my fingers as they met the mat in front of the door, and I heard a clinking sound.
“Ah. Finally,” I said as I picked up the metal key that had tried to play hide and seek with me. I stood up and put the key in the lock when I heard a sound behind me.
Turning my head around, I searched the dimly lit yard for anything that had made the rustling sound. When I didn’t see anything on the second pass, I turned back to the door and turned the key.
“Yes, finally,” someone said behind me as my hair was pulled and my head was slammed into the door. Fear coursed through me as I froze in place against the door, my cheek pressed painfully into the metal. Tears welled in my eyes as I shut them and pleaded for help. Help I couldn’t even scream for out of fear of what would happen.
“He’s going to pay for what he’s done,” the person said as my head met the metal frame for the second time and darkness took over.