I don’t say anything in response to her words, knowing they are just her way of trying to make me feel better. Finn grabs onto my hand again, and we’re out the door without a backward glance.
We get into his SUV and pull out of Brady’s driveway and head towards town, neither one of us saying a word for several miles.
“I’m sorry, Layla. I really didn’t want to be right about him,” Finn says after a few minutes.
I turn my head and look out the window, watching the trees fly by in a blur, not sure if it’s because Finn is driving so fast or because of the tears pooling in my eyes.
“You know, you’re better off without him anyway,” Finn continues, not caring that I don’t want to be part of this discussion. “I have a feeling your mother has finally seen the light and won’t be so hard on you anymore. She mentioned something to me last night about giving you more freedom with your music.”
What should have given me a huge burst of elation suddenly just makes me feel despondent. This is what I’ve always wished for: freedom to sing what I want and be who I want. But what the hell does it even matter if I have no one to share it with?
“Things are going to change. We’re both going to finally get what we want,” Finn says more to himself than to me, and I turn to look at him, wondering what he’s talking about. “People are finally going to know who I am.”
Before I can question him and ask him what the hell he means, the vehicle suddenly jerks to the side with enough force to smack the side of my head against my window. The sound of breaking glass, tires squealing, and metal crunching fills the SUV like a booming explosion, and I squeeze my eyes shut as we spin and spin before finally slamming roughly into something else and coming to a halting stop.
I feel a trickle of something warm running down the side of my face, and it gets into my eyes, blurring my vision. I try to move but the seat belt is locked in place and my hands are shaking too much unbuckle it.
“Finn?” I croak as loudly as I can over the hiss of the busted SUV and look to my left to see him slumped in his seat, the seat belt holding him upright with his head down and his chin resting on his chest.
I struggle against the seat belt and reach my arm out to him, grabbing onto his upper arm and shaking him gently. He groans in pain and a feeling of relief washes through me for a minute, blocking out the pain that screams through my body.
“Finn, wake up,” I tell him, the effort of speaking forcing me to cough and making me wince in agony. It hurts to cough and it hurts to talk, and I’m guessing it’s from how tightly the seat belt is pressed against my chest and how roughly I slammed against it during the collision.
Finn finally raises his head and turns to look at me. His eyes quickly leave mine as he stares in horror behind me out my window.
“Oh God, Layla. Oh God, I did something bad,” he says with a shaky voice.
My door wrenches open and a feeling of relief washes through me when I realize the paramedics must already be here and they made good time since the accident just happened seconds ago. I turn my head slowly to look out the door, and when I see a strange man standing there staring at me with a calculating grin, I open my mouth to scream, recognizing immediately that he isn’t there to help us.
He lifts his fist and slams it into my cheek, cutting off my scream before it could even leave my throat, and the world goes black.
It’s all I can do not to turn and punch a hole in the wall next to me as I watch the door close behind Layla.
I stood here and did nothing, like an idiot. Why the hell didn’t I say anything to her?
“You live two completely different lives.”
“The media would know all about you. They’d know about the mistakes you’ve made, and they’d know about the secrets your sister is hiding.”
Eve’s words come rushing back and guilt overwhelms me.
I should never have even started anything with Layla in the first place. It was a bad idea for so many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that we live two completely polar opposite lives. But just like always, I hadn't given a shit about consequences. I wanted something and I took it, only thinking about myself and not those around me who could be hurt by my actions. I'm a fool for thinking I could have had any kind of relationship with someone as high profile as Layla Carlysle. And what the hell would she want with someone like me in the long run? A washed up Navy SEAL who couldn’t hack it with the Nashville PD and owns a floundering PI agency and might be able to pay the electric bill this month, but who knows what will happen down the road? I have nothing to offer her, absolutely nothing.
With a sigh of regret, I turn away from the door and face Gwen’s glacier look head on. Her foot is tapping against the floor, her hands are on her hips, and her eyes are shooting daggers at me.
“I know what you’re going to say, so don’t bother. I don’t want to hear it,” I tell her as I roughly yank out one of the kitchen chairs and slump down in it, turning the laptop around to face me and opening up my email.
“Oh, you know what I’m going to say, huh? So you know I’m going to tell you that I know for a fact you’re in love with Layla and that she is without a doubt, one hundred percent in love with you?”
I grind my teeth and feel my face getting hot from shame and embarrassment.
“You couldn’t possibly know that,” I tell her, staring at the screen of the computer so I don’t have to see the disappointment on her face.
“Oh yes I could. Number one, because you didn’t deny it just now. And number two, she told me,” Gwen admits.
My head jerks up quickly to face her, my email momentarily forgotten.
“She what? When?”
Gwen shrugs her shoulders and takes a seat next to me. “Well, not in so many words. But she did one better. You see, we women sometimes like to show a man how much we love him. Sometimes actions are much better than words. Anyone can say the words, Brady. They can toss them around like they mean something while their actions make you feel small and insignificant. But when they actually show you that they love you? When they open up their heart and soul and show you a side of themselves they’ve never shared with anyone else—that’s love.”
My heart starts pounding rapidly in my chest as I think about what Gwen is saying.
“Her music?” I ask her in a whisper.
Gwen smiles at me and nods.
“Did you know the second night she was here and helped me put Emma to bed, she told me about that guitar? You were in the shower and I asked her about it. She hasn’t played one single note on that thing for anyone since the day her father died. Not one. She said she would just hold it in her arms all these years and wait for inspiration to strike or for it to magically help her live again,” Gwen explains as she leans back in her chair and crosses her arms in front of her. “I asked her what made her want to suddenly play on stage at June’s, and do you know what she said? She said, ‘I just realized that I’ve found something else to make me feel alive, and he’s a lot warmer than an old guitar. I don’t need to hide behind it when I have him in front of it.’”
I’m struggling to breathe as I listen to Gwen ramble. Each word she says is like a knife to my heart, making me realize what I’ve done and what I’ve lost.
“She also told me about the book of songs she wrote that you found,” Gwen continues, not paying attention to the damage her words produce and my mounting anxiety. “She wasn’t really mad at you. She was embarrassed. She knows she’s talented and she’s ashamed that she’s done nothing with the songs but let them gather dust in an old notebook. Did you know she’s never even shown that book to Finn? He knows she writes, but he’s never read one of her songs or heard her play them. She’s never played them for anyone.”
I hang my head down in front of me when Gwen finishes, not sure if I want to scream to the world that Layla loves me or sit in a corner and cry like a baby because…Layla loves me. She sat on that bed and showed me just how much by doing something she’d never done for another living soul.
“It’s not too late, you know. You can still get her back,” Gwen says softly, resting her hand on top of one of mine on the table.
I jerk my hand out from under hers and stand up so abruptly that the chair topples over.
“No, I can’t get her back. I can’t get her back because I don’t WANT her back. Can you understand that, Gwen? Can you get that through your head? Stop trying to play fucking match maker here!” I shout.
I want to take the words back as soon as I say them. I shouldn’t be yelling at Gwen. I shouldn’t be taking my frustrations out on her, but I don’t know what else to do. I’m so angry at the fucking world right now for putting Layla in my life just to snatch her away again. A little tease to get me thinking about white picket fences and happily-ever-afters, then a harsh smack of reality in the face to bring me back to the real world.
The phone on the kitchen wall rings, and Gwen stomps off angrily to answer it, leaving me alone to stew in my misery.
“What? What the fuck are you talking about?” Gwen screeches into the phone. I step over the toppled chair and quickly walk into the kitchen, more than a little surprised at her outburst. Gwen rarely swears and when she does, it’s never with a doozey like this one.
“That’s impossible, check again. He’s there. He has to be there,” Gwen argues.
I stand there staring at her and when she gasps, puts her hand over her mouth, and looks up at me with wide eyes brimming with tears. I snatch the phone out of her hand.
“Who is this? What the hell is going on?” I ask angrily.
“Brady, hey, it’s Adam. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to upset your sister. I was calling to tell you guys that we finally found that guy who’s been stalking Layla, and Gwen kind of freaked out.”
Gwen has her back to me now so I can’t gauge by her face if she’s okay or what the hell just happened.
“Yeah, we already know, Adam, thanks for calling though. Is the guy cooperating at least?” I ask with a sigh.
“We don’t have him yet. That’s what I was calling to tell you,” Adam says.
My blood runs cold and Gwen finally turns around to face me, and I’m sure the look of horror on her face mirrors my own.
“What the hell do you mean you don’t have him yet? Finn said you guys caught him and put him in custody, and he just picked up Layla to ID the guy.”
Adam hesitates and that little pause through the phone lines speaks volumes.
“Brady, I have no idea what you’re talking about. I’ve been on duty since two in the morning, and I’m telling you he was never brought in. We literally JUST got the DNA results thirty seconds before I called you, man.”
I can barely hold the phone to my ear my hands are shaking so badly. Gwen is full on crying now, and I have to look away from her or I’m going to lose my shit.
“Can you fax me a copy of the DNA results, Adam?” I ask him, trying to keep my composure while I’m on the phone with him. There’s no point letting him know I feel like I’ve lost my fucking mind. “And also, I need you to put out a BOLO for a 2012 black Chevy Tahoe, license plate number seven, five, four, Delta, Charlie, Victor.”
I maniacally pace back and forth in front of the fax machine, willing it to come to life and spit out the information I need.
“You’re making me nervous, Brady,” Gwen complains as she walks up behind me.
“I can’t fucking help it. Why the hell isn’t anyone answering their God dammed phones?” I reply angrily as I hit end on my phone and toss it onto the table. I tried calling Layla, Finn, and Eve about a hundred times each, and no one was answering. I want to get in my car and chase after Layla, but Adam told me to stay put for now and they would call me when they found Finn’s vehicle.
Why the hell would he lie to us about Ray being in custody? To get Layla alone? But that makes no sense. She would have easily gone anywhere with him. He didn’t need to lie to her. She trusts him.
The fax machine suddenly starts whirring and spitting out pages. I pull them out before the ink is even dry and scan them. Before Adam hung up the phone, he said there was something weird on the test results they got. He didn’t give me any more of an explanation, just that I’d know what he meant when I saw them.
“The first sample got a hit in CODIS matching a man by the name of Billy Marsh. A.K.A. Eric Dobbs, A.K.A. John Smith, A.K.A. Ray Bergin,” I read out loud to Gwen. “Billy Marsh has been in and out of prison since he was eighteen years old for domestic violence, assault with a deadly weapon, sexual harassment, rape, robbery, and drug possession.”
Gwen slumps down in a chair closest to her and folds her hands on the table in front of her.
“Oh my God,” she whispers as I keep going, trying to ignore the voice screaming in my head telling me that Layla should never, ever be within a foot of this guy again.
“It looks like they ran Layla and Finn’s DNA just to make sure the samples they had weren’t confused with what they found at the scene,” I explain as I blindly walk over to the table, the words in front of me swirling together.
“Right, I have a copy of the work order on the computer,” Gwen replies, punching a few keys into the system and pulling up the report. “The lab was supposed to bump them up against the sample taken under Layla’s fingernails and the blood found on the brick that came through her window.”
I continue reading the report in silence, not believing what I’m seeing.
There’s no way. No fucking possible way…