Book 4 of The Bully series:
Proud yet vulnerable April Locke only wishes to be free from a father who f****d her to endure and live a nightmare all her life. Her savior comes in the form of the man whose love she had cruelly rejected not once but twice. She’s still having none of him. Unfortunately, he’s having none of her rejections anymore and pledged to protect her with his life. But how can she let herself love him when she knows of a secret that will still make her lose him in the end?
Fish was going to be the menu for today.
I stared down at the bucket full of water and fresh fish on the kitchen floor. Then I looked around to see stacks of dry logs at the sides in the living room. I sighed.
Dan had come by again. And he didn’t even wake me up.
"Dan?" I called out.
"Dan, are you here?"
Still nothing. He must have left. But I doubt he really did.
A quick glance around had me spotting more things that had not been there before I went to sleep last night. There were groceries on the counter. Some packages on the small dining table and some novels beside them.
On top of the groceries, I saw a note. I picked it up and read it.
"I'll be back for lunch."
A sigh escaped my lips again. Dan really did as he pleased. And this didn’t please me because he wasn’t supposed to visit me today. Or not at least another two weeks.
I peered out the window of my small kitchen. The sun was now shining bright in the sky but it wasn’t scorching hot just yet so I decided to check the garden. Grabbing a wide-brimmed sun hat from the counter, I put it on my head and checked my reflection on the mirror.
A girl with gray eyes, long, strawberry blonde hair and sun-kissed skin stared back at me. My hair was in a messy bun behind my ear and I was wearing a cotton white shirt, loose blue jeans and brown sandals. This was a far cry of the girl I once was, the glamorous April Locke from eight years ago. And the thought didn’t bother me a bit because I didn’t miss that life at all.
This reminded me what today was.
My mood soured as my gaze went to check the calendar on the wall.
Today was indeed the eight-year anniversary since I went into hiding. Since I disappeared from my hometown. Since I ran away from my father to secure my freedom from him.
Funny enough, as each year passed by, instead of celebrating, I felt nothing but trepidation. I’d just want this day to end because it reminded me that this freedom had cost me a lot. And that this freedom might cost me a whole lot more.
My freedom wasn’t absolute.
It came with conditions.
And one was that I was to live like a monk without being seen by other people and risk getting caught.
Pushing those dark thoughts away, I removed my gaze from the mirror. Then I went out the screen door and walked along the grassy path outside the house that led to the garden.
My flower garden was wild, free and beautiful and I loved it with all my heart. It took several attempts before I could make flowers bloom prettily across the place but it was well worth the effort. Weeds were growing on my flowerbed, I noticed, and it made my mood soured even more. I knew I had to take care of them before they could completely overrun my garden so I knelt on the soil and began to attack them.
"When will I ever get rid of you?" I mumbled irritably as I pulled grassy w**d after w**d. Sweat began to clung on my face. "And where the hell is Dan?"
"Are you talking to yourself again?"
I grimaced at my gloves. Then I sat up, wiping the sweat from my brow with my arm. Dirt covered my clothing. I was certain I had some on my face too.
"Where have you been?" I said over my shoulder.
Moving next to me, Daniel Grant set a seed tray on the ground, telling me, "And good morning to you."
"You know you don't have to keep doing this," I told him grumpily.
He smiled. "You love fish," he answered, deliberately playing dumb.
"You can't keep coming here. You promised to visit only once a month." I lifted two fingers. "This has been twice."
He picked up a seedling and studied it. "I worry," he muttered.
“I know you worry but—.”
“It's getting hot, April,” he set the seedling down and pushed off the ground. “Let's go inside. I'll make you some hot chocolate."
I sucked in both breath and an angry retort.
Then I muttered, "Well, it's your house," as I picked myself up the ground, brushing the dirt off my clothing. "Lead the way."
Chuckling, he lifted a thumb to wipe the dirt off my cheek. "It's your house not mine."
"Well, technically, it’s neither ours," I reminded him.
He shook his head. Then he wrapped an arm around my shoulders and we went inside. I sat down on a stool by the counter, studying him closely. He looked well but tired.
The house that I lived in, and which was neither ours, was a small hand-built log cabin situated deep in the woods in the Canadian mountains. My bedroom was in the loft and on the ground floor was a small living room which opened up to the kitchen, only separated by a counter, a wood-burning fireplace and also the bathroom. The cabin also had a small porch with views of the surrounding forest and a back deck that overlooked the garden.
The only person who knew about this place was Dan and he had to drive his truck on unpaved roads, unmarked and barely visible among the ferns to get here. It used to be a safe house, an off-grid location that only Dan knew as the previous owners were dead, rather, killed.
The cabin used to have no electricity and no running water or plumbing when I first lived here. But then Dan installed solar panels to help generate electricity for me and found the old well at the back of the house. He didn’t let me get drinking water from there though, every month he delivered gallons of drinking water for me instead. We lived together for some time until I kicked him out, telling him that he had a life to live and that he didn’t have to babysit me forever.
I got used to isolation pretty quick. I had lived most of my life isolated from people by choice. I wasn’t afraid of animals or strangers coming into the property or trespassing into my home. I wasn’t afraid of danger as I had been exposed to it too much since childhood. I’d been desensitized to death or violence for so long as I could remember so living like this, alone, in the middle of nowhere, didn’t shake me at all.
"How are you?" Dan asked me as he parked a glass of cool water in front of me on the counter.
Taking a sip, I placed the glass back down and frowned up at him. "It's only been two weeks since you last came."
"Ten days actually," he corrected as he turned to the counter and started to make me my hot chocolate. "But I worry."
"You don't need to constantly worry for me, Dan," I assured him. "I'm fine. I can fend for myself. I've been doing it for eight years."
His shoulders slumped forward. "But this isn't the life I wanted for you. This isn't living."
I shrugged. "But this is the only way I could live. And it's enough for me."
Dan glanced at me over his shoulder and smiled. I smiled back. He was a worrier. I didn't want him to constantly worry about me especially now that he had other responsibilities to think about. More smiling, less worrying. This was what the both of us had agreed on. And at best, we were trying to keep this rule.
"How's the wife?" I teased.
He barked out a laugh. "Still my wife."
"Didn't you get her pregnant yet? It's been two years since you got married."
He fell silent. Turning around, he placed the cup of hot chocolate next to my glass of water. Then he took a sip of his coffee.
"Dan?" I prompted when he didn't speak.
He laughed self-consciously and met my eyes.
Tears hit my eyes. I leaned forward and whispered, "Seriously?"
His eyes too became wet. "Yeah. She told me last night."
"Then why are you here?" I cried out. "You should stay by her side! She's pregnant, for God's sake!"
"She doesn't like me hovering around her and worrying. That's why it took her almost two months to tell me."
My brows rose. "And you never noticed? I'm pretty certain you do more than sleeping in the same bed together."
His expression turned sheepish. "It's actually been a month since we last fucked."
"She wouldn't let me touch her for some reason." He looked away and scratched his head. "I thought she found out about..."
He didn't continue. And he didn't need to continue. I was Dan's secret. No one knew he had tucked me here, deep in the forest. I was like Snow White but with only one dwarf. And it made me feel bad that Dan's wife could never know about me.
"So the reason was because she was pregnant?" I hesitantly asked.
"Yeah." He took another sip of his coffee and went on, "Like I said, she doesn't want me hovering around her again."
"Like you did when she sprained her ankle?"
"I wanted to make sure she was comfortable," he said defensively.
I smiled fondly at him.
Because Dan was such a sweetheart. And his wife was lucky to have him. But if I'd ask Dan, he'd say that it was him who was lucky that his wife chose to be with him. Because he wasn't good-looking. Nor was he rich. He worked as a construction worker in town a hundred miles away from here and as a bouncer in the local bar at the same time. His wife used to be one of the waitresses in that bar. Now she was working as a hairdresser in a popular salon in town since she got married to him.
Still, Dan was a hardworking and dependable man. And he cared for people. He always put others above himself, a trait that, most of the time, irritated me. So his wife was definitely fortunate to have him in her life. Because I certainly was too.
For a brief moment, an image of a teenage boy with brown hair and eyes crossed my eyes.
Then it was gone when Dan asked, “Do you need anything else?”
“What?” I blinked.
Dan was looking around. “My boss gave me a big bonus yesterday. Tell me what you want and I’ll get it for you.”
“Use that money for your wife, i***t,” I responded with a frown. “I’m fine. And you already bought me groceries.”
He smiled at me but didn’t reply. And I just knew he wouldn’t do as I said.
“You’re really not going to touch your father’s money?” I asked, sipping my cup.
His lips pursed. “I don’t want to touch his blood money.”
“He worked hard for it.”
“He killed for it, April.”
“Under my father’s orders,” I whispered, my gaze falling down on the counter. “And he almost died because of them.”
His hand reached out to hold mine. Lifting my gaze, I saw him smile at me.
“He chose that life,” he told me gently. “I didn’t. We both didn’t. It’s not our fault that we were born into a world of blood. Not mine. Not yours. So don’t you ever feel guilty about their choices.”
I smiled shakily at him. “Why are you so wise?”
“Hey, I might not have been the valedictorian back in high school but I’m still way smarter than you,” he chuckled.
I let out a laugh because I remembered how much Dan struggled with his studies back then.
Then I sobered and whispered, "I'm sorry."
“Sorry for what?”
I kept my eyes on my cup when I said, “You have to constantly lie to Mallory because of me.”
“Ah,” his tone was regretful. “That.”
My gaze went to him. “You can tell her about me, you know.”
He immediately shook his head. “We can’t risk that.”
“But she’s your wife,” I urged, holding his arm. “You trust her right? I don’t want her hearing from other people that you’ve been sneaking into the woods and probably having a rendezvous with some woman.”
“She trusts me.”
“Aren’t you going to make lunch yet?”
I eyed him irritably.
“Just think about it, will you?” I asked him. “I don’t want to be the reason why your marriage didn’t work out, Dan. Promise me you’ll think about it.”
He grinned that lopsided grin that made his face look charming. “Don’t be a worrywart, April. I got this.”
I give up.
I threw my hands in the air and slipped out of the stool to prepare the fish for lunch. And people called me stubborn, I thought irritably.
“I will think about it,” I heard him say in a contrite tone. “I don’t want to live a lie too. But you’re my priority April. I’d die for you. You know that.”
“You’re not going to die for me,” I whirled around, glaring at him. Somehow, his words had caused a ripple of panic inside me, making my pulse quicken.
“I’m just kidding,” he chuckled.
“You know I don’t like this kind of talk, Dan.”
He sobered once he saw how serious I was. He reached for me then and wrapped his arms around my body, pulling me to his body.
“I’m sorry, April,” he mumbled.
I didn’t answer. I was trying to get the onslaught of horrible memories out of my head. Dan held me until my breathing had went back to normal, when my heart had stopped thundering inside my chest. When I finally could relax, I lifted my head and looked up to him.
“I’m sorry. I’m being too sensitive.”
His face warmed. “Don’t be. It’s my stupid mouth’s fault.”
“When are we ever going to eat lunch?” he interrupted with another lopsided grin.
I smiled and pulled away. “Go sit so I can cook then.”
Dan let me go and moved to the counter. I watched him go for a moment then turned to clean the fish on the sink. Out the window, I saw my flowers sway to the breeze, a wonderful view as far as I could see. I wasn't sure if this place was where I could stay for the rest of my life. But it was good for the time being.
Still, I couldn’t shake this awful feeling. For the past few days, I had felt that something was coming, something bad. And when Dan said he’d die for me... a heavy weight landed on my gut. Like a rock.
I glanced at Dan. He smiled at me. All seemed good at the moment.
Except it wasn’t going to be forever. And I wished I didn’t know why.