March Madness Chapter Sixteen

Copyright Amy L. Montz

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

Dominic put me outside on the stairs as several men moved in and out of my apartment for the next two hours. When he finally came outside again, his voice was as flat as Jackson’s. “You’re going to stay with me right now.”

“How many cameras have you found?”

“March,” he began, but I shook my head.

“How many?” I paused a second. “You found more, didn’t you?”

He glanced over my shoulder at my apartment door, just visible at the top of the stairs. “Three so far.” The flat voice was back. “Jackson has some guys working in there, checking for audio surveillance, phone taps, whatever.”

Unbidden, I sank to the stairs, my legs dangling below me, almost in an empty void. “Where? God, where was he watching me?”

“Bedroom, bathroom, living room. That’s all we’ve been able to find so far.” He crouched down next to me and put Artful in my arms. “I packed a bag for you. It’s only temporary, just until we get your house back together.”

From the plaster in his hair, I knew it would take a day, at least two. They were ripping walls apart, busting ceilings, doing whatever it took to find any and all equipment. “Are we sure it’s from… it’s from the guardian killer?”

“It has to be. It’s the only explanation for how he knows everything that’s going on.” Dominic helped me up and started to lead me down the stairs, out of my building and into his Blazer, like I was the walking dead. Maybe this was what it took to make me break. Before I had been only cracked, but now I felt splintered into a thousand different pieces, all of them screaming for help.

God, someone watched me shower, watched me put on my makeup and brush my teeth, stare at my stitches in the mirror and poke at them. Someone saw me make faces at myself in the morning when I was feeling particularly pretty, just to keep me grounded. That same someone watched me sleep, listened to my personal conversations with Ava and my brothers, watched me kiss Dominic, talk with Jackson about books, and even clean my house.

Of course it would be the guardian killer. That’s what stalkers did, didn’t they? Watch their prey, their obsession, watch her do ordinary, everyday things like wash her hair or shave her legs, balance her checkbook or play toss with her puppy. Pick her nose, cut her toenails, even toss and turn late at night, restless with thoughts of tall, dark men, men with Dominic’s eyes and hair and smile, until, thinking she was alone, she took care of her restlessness and fell sated and boneless into dreamless sleep.

What part of my life was sacred anymore? What part of my life, my body, was still mine? Someone had violated my most private moments, turned them into a peepshow without a charge, a very large Sylvia Plathian charge for the eyeing of my scars, my heart. Ladies and gentlemen, these are my limbs, my dreams.

My hands rubbed my arms as if they could out, out damned spot, remove the mark of prying eyes on my naked skin. Prying eyes on my most intimate and alone moments. On the toilet, in my living room dancing to Billie with Artful, in my bathroom standing on my scale and watching the number, in dumb awe, as if I could will it lower. Cleaning my ears, painting my nails, rearranging my shoes and just sitting on my couch, reading a book and smoking too many cigarettes.

“March?”

My body wasn’t my own anymore. Rub a dub dub, a man watching me in my tub. And what a filthy tub it is.

March.

I turned to look at Dominic. When he reached over to swipe a gentle thumb under my eye, only then did I realize I was crying. “Can I take a bath when we get to your house?”

Dominic nodded and pointed his finger at the windshield. “We’re here,” he said in a soft voice.

We got out of the car, me carrying Artful and Dominic carrying the bag he had packed for me. My mind registered flashes of detail about his house. Two-story, brownstone, angled window in the front. He was on the bottom floor. His landlord lived in the top.

We walked inside and I set Artful down on the hardwood floors. Dominic hadn’t been expecting a guest. He started picking up as soon as we entered the living room. A shirt here, an empty plate there, a pair of socks stuck into muddy running shoes. Even when his arms were full, he hovered over the coffee table, staring at the full ashtray and the two empty beer bottles as if he could will them away.

I liked seeing his house like this. It grounded me, somehow, and grounded him as well. He had sat here, on this couch, alone and unwatched, chain-smoking and drinking a beer. But more than anything, I wanted to rid myself of this filmy feeling on my skin. “Where’s your bathroom?” I asked.

Dominic snapped back to himself and looked at me. “I’ll run you a bath. Just give me a second.” Then he disappeared down a dim hallway, to clean said bathroom, no doubt.

I sank down to the floor and rummaged through the bag he gave me. It was a mess, clothes thrown in with a hasty and amateur hand. When I saw the scrap of black lace, one of several pairs of boy-cut panties I owned, I half-expected to blush. Dominic had been through my underwear drawer, had packed panties and bras without a thought to color or coordination. But I didn’t blush. Nothing was sacred anymore. What did it mean that Dominic had touched my underwear when a man had watched me put them on and off, without even knowing he was watching?

God, I couldn’t find anything in this jumbled mess. I dumped the bag on the ground and clothes spilled out. I pawed through them, trying to find Remy’s rugby jersey. I just needed Remy’s rugby jersey. LSU wrestling shirt was not Remy’s rugby jersey. Neither was the Tigers’ training camp shirt or the St. Martha’s Once Upon a Mattress shirt or my red lacy bra that I had bought on a whim and never found the gumption to wear.

I scrambled through the clothes with clawed hands and finally, finally found the jersey, balled up and half stuffed into a pair of black drawstring pants. I grabbed it and a pair of jeans, a clean pair of underwear, and glanced up at the doorway.

Dominic’s face was soft, concerned, before it smoothed out and he walked over to me. “You okay?”

I bit my bottom lip and nodded before I held up the jersey. “Found what I was looking for. Bath ready?”

“March, are you–”

“I’m fine. Bath?”

He stared at me for a second before he nodded and led me to the bathroom.

I tried to lock the door but it was swelled with humidity and wouldn’t close, no matter how hard I pulled. Finally, I left it alone. What did it matter if Dominic walked in? He had already seen my underwear, and a man had watched me bathe. I closed my eyes for a second and willed myself not to think on it anymore. Not to think about the stranger watching me, during my most private moments.

When I opened my eyes, I took in the details of the bathroom. Dominic had run me a bubble bath, and put on a dim light so the bathroom almost glowed. The humidity from the hot water made the room feel like a womb, and I started to calm down again. I eased out of my clothes and submerged myself in the water almost too hot for comfort. Almost.

I played my fingers along the white porcelain of Dominic’s bathtub before I reached down and grabbed the shampoo and conditioner that he had brought from my house. It surprised me that he would think of such an intimate detail. He must have done this before, packed a bag for a woman unable to stay in her own home. He had probably forgotten the toiletries the first time, not known to grab them, and noticed the woman’s confusion, her desire for her own scents and brands and the odd comfort that those tiny, insignificant things bring, and vowed never to forget something like that again. It was such a Dominic thing to do, to remember to bring my shampoo and conditioner.

I leaned over the side of the tub and glanced through the plastic bag. He had also remembered my hairbrush, perfume, body spray, and deodorant, but not my moisturizer or blow dryer or body wash. Men never remembered those kinds of things, not until a dozen reminders. When David had packed my bag for the surprise weekend trip to Natchez for our second anniversary, he had forgotten my entire makeup case. We had to stop a drugstore, David rolling his eyes and tapping his watch as I ignored him, just walked up and down aisles, trying to find my particular brands and shades as he followed behind me, using every naughty husband trick in the book to try to hurry me up, even calling me by his secret little name for me. Natalia, come on. We need to go now.

I sank under the water and lay there, holding my breath, until I couldn’t anymore. I ran my fingers through my wet hair and broke the surface, sucking in a deep breath and pulling humid air into my lungs. My body began to calm down in the water, in the humidity, as it had a thousand times before. I poured shampoo into my hand and the liquid was cool to the touch. After I washed my hair and rinsed, I leaned back to soak in the tub when a gentle knock sounded at the door.

“March, you okay?”

I looked down in case the door swung open. I was covered by water and bubbles. Nothing peeked out but my head and my arms. “I’m fine. Thanks for asking.”

Dominic’s hand sneaked around the doorframe and grasped it, the fingers playing along the wood. “How’s the bath?” His voice was muffled through the door, through the door and the humid air and I wondered if his voice and his words were slower through the humidity, and if that was why people in Louisiana spoke with a drawl.

“Good. Thanks.” I stared at his fingers, watching them play over the wood, and realized he must have played piano as a child. His fingers were arcing arpeggios along the doorframe.

“There’s some coffee in the kitchen if you want some, and my mom sent over some food yesterday, so let me know when you’re hungry.”

“I will.”

He eased his hand off of the frame and I heard him walk away. I sank under the water and rinsed my hair one more time before I pulled the stopper, got out of the tub, and dried myself off with a big fluffy towel. I pulled on Remy’s jersey and an old pair of jeans, put my hair in a bun, and walked towards the living room.

His apartment was set up a lot like a New Orleans’ shotgun. Living room in the front, kitchen in the back, bedroom and bath off to the side. Its charm was in its age, in its original beveled windows, its hardwood floors, its white plastered walls. He must have been here a while, long enough to make the house his own. The decorations on the walls were sparse, random art prints here and there, but there was no rhyme or reason to them, almost as if he had no specific artistic taste; he just bought whatever attracted him. It was unusual to find someone so divorced from movements. I was a huge art nouveau and Pre-Raphaelite fan, while my twin swore by modern artists like Picasso and Dali and Magritte. My ex-husband was more inclined to photographic landscapes, and if I had to read Jackson, I would swear abstract. But Dominic… well, before I saw his house, I would have sworn he was solely an Impressionist fan like my mother, but instead, there was a Monet, and a Dali, and an Adams and a Picasso, and even a few posters for The Godfather, On the Waterfront, and Pulp Fiction.

Mobsters, whistleblowers, suburban gangsters. So strange to find popular references to all three in an organized crime detective’s house.

After I dumped my dirty clothes back into the bag, I wandered over to his bookshelves, with the instinctive desire to determine his reading tastes, to see if they, too, were as random and as ironic as his art tastes were. But I did this in every person’s house I ever went to, the English teacher in me wanting to know what that person was reading. I was right. Like his artistic taste, his reading taste had no discernible pattern. The bookshelves weren’t chaotic like mine, a mish-mash of my own personal tastes and the eclectic product of six years as an English major and graduate student. Rather, there were some novels, a few history books, an autobiography or two, and even some children’s books so cracked and worn that they must have belonged to his mother or father. When my eye caught on the copy of Pride and Prejudice I had given him, I opened it to its bookmarked page. Forty-two. Slow progress, but progress nonetheless.

“It’s pretty good,” Dominic said behind me.

I turned to him, the book dangling from my fingers. “It’s a beautiful book.” I closed it and set it back on the bookshelf. “I hope you like the rest of it.”

“I’m sure I will.” He gestured a cup at me. It, too, seemed eclectic, and didn’t match the other cup in his hand. Mine was clear while his was black ceramic with red letters that claimed, “Family. Redefined.”

“What’s that from?” I asked, gesturing my chin towards his coffee cup.

He stared down at it for a second before he turned the other side towards me. The man had the strangest sense of humor, honest to God. It was a Sopranos coffee mug. “Bobby got it for me for my birthday a few years back,” he said, his voice only slightly embarrassed.

I took a sip of the coffee. Lots of cream, two sugars, just the way I liked it. Strong and sweet. I moved back and sat down on the couch, the cup cradled in my hands. It was warm, and smelled delicious in that way coffee does. I used to think nothing could be wrong in a world where there was good coffee. And this was good, a gourmet blend that tasted chocolaty and rich. Possibly French roast, or an espresso blend. The cream was real cream, too, as was the sugar. Dominic appreciated coffee as much as I did, it seemed. No artificial sweetener or powdered creamer for him.

He had cleaned off the coffee table while I bathed. Gone were the empty beer bottles and the dozens of cigarette butts in the thick glass yellowed ashtray. The company ashtray. My mother had one just like it. He must have inherited it at the same time he inherited the couch and recliner set.

“Do you want a cigarette?” he asked after he joined me on the couch.

I nodded and let him light one for me. When he passed it over, I stared at the filter. They were my cigarettes. Benson and Hedges. He must have taken them from my house. “When will they be done?”

“I don’t know. Maybe tonight or tomorrow.” He lit his own cigarette before he leaned back against the cushions. “March, one of your brothers called me when you were in the bath.”

Not surprising. My brothers sometimes let southern stereotypes get the better of them. They liked to believe themselves advanced, but they relied on good ole boy networking when the chips were down. Dominic may not be a good ole boy, but he was a boy, and therefore in the club. “Jason?” When he nodded, I took another drag. “He told you about David and Maria?” I asked as I exhaled.

“Yes, he did.” He leaned forward to tap his cigarette against the ashtray. The ash fell and scattered at the bottom of the glass. “Why do you think the guardian killer would go after them? Because of the divorce? The miscarriage?”

“Yes, but…” my voice trailed off as I looked down at my shirt, my fingers dancing along the too-long sleeves. “This is my favorite shirt, did you know that?” I was really going to do it, add to the list of the wrongs, speak words I had only spoken to one person in the world. It had been hard enough to swear Ava to silence, hard to get her to understand that my brothers didn’t need to know. If they knew, they would have killed David. No questions, no concerns about legal repercussions. Some things were not forgivable.

“March?” Dominic asked.

Why did I need to tell him this? For the case? Or just to let him understand where I was going, and where I had been? “Remy and I separated for the first time in college,” I said. This wasn’t the best place to start, but it would do. “I went to LSU and he went to Louisiana Tech. That threw the whole family out of joint. Sandersons don’t go to LaTech, or Loyola, or God forbid, Tulane. They only go to LSU.”

I stared down at my hands, clenched around the coffee cup, and willed them to loosen. “I missed him so much. He’s the stable one of the two of us. The goody-goody. Always made perfect grades and had perfect attendance. I was wild, as a kid, as a teenager, always getting into one trouble or another. And Remy… well, Remy would bail me out, every time. You know? He’s my twin. He said it was his God-given right to help his sister.”

The cup started trembling in my hand, so I set it on the table. “He didn’t want me to marry David.”

“What are you trying to tell me?” Dominic’s voice was soft, gentle, the detective’s voice again. Trying to lead me to an overwhelming question indeed.

I took a long drag of smoke before I replied. “He had a… well, a feeling about David. Didn’t like him, didn’t trust him. But he said that David loved me, and I loved him, so that seemed all right. And don’t get me wrong. David and I had a good marriage for the first few years. We were very much in love. We went on trips and celebrated anniversaries, and set aside money for our future kids’ college tuition. It was a good marriage, for a while, but something changed along the way.”

“Because he was ‘hungry’?” Dominic asked.

“Maybe,” I agreed. Why was this so necessary? Did it even matter? “David had grand plans for his life. I just wanted to teach, maybe go back to school one day and get my doctorate, and have kids. But David wanted to get into politics. He and I would argue about it. One night he… he said that my youthful indiscretions might keep him from ever being elected.” I looked up at Dominic. “That’s when things started changing.”

His lips were parted, just slightly, and his eyes were rooted on my face, waiting for me to say it, almost daring me to say what he was thinking. “He hit you, didn’t he?” His voice was steely and soft, all at the same time. “How often?”

“I found out about his affair Thanksgiving week last year. That Tuesday. I was coming home from the doctor and Ava called me.”

“When she saw David and Maria at the library.”

My nod was slight, almost imperceptible. “I didn’t know what to do. I knew things were changing, but I just thought it was a rough patch. Once I started thinking about it, I realized that that rough patch had lasted about a year. He’s never admitted it, but I think he was with Maria that long.”

“Because she was a senator’s daughter. She had the connections.”

“Yes, I think so.” I willed my eyes to meet his again. “You can’t tell my brothers.”

“March,” he began, but I shook my head.

“You can’t tell them, Dominic. Promise me.”

His nod was stiff and uncompromising. But he agreed, all the same.

“I didn’t come home until late that night. I don’t even remember what I did that day, but by the time I got home, David was waiting for me.”

The muscle in Dominic’s jaw twitched.

“He was drunk, God he was so drunk, and that wasn’t like him. He never drank to excess. Didn’t fit with the future politician image.” I tried to get past the lump in my throat. “I looked at him and I knew. I think a part of me knew that he was going to hit me. Maybe women just know these things. And I thought… I thought that I would get my gun. That I would be damned before I let my husband lay a hand on me. But I didn’t. I let him hit me.” There was wetness on my face, another tear rolling down. I would keep crying today, tears pouring out of my eyes until I felt sick and dry and husked, a hollowed out shell of a woman.

Dominic leaned over to the end table and when he handed me a Kleenex, another tear rolled down my face. “How bad was it?” He took the cigarette away from me before I ashed all over my lap.

I wiped off my face and sucked in a deep breath. “Not as bad as it could have been. He grabbed me and… and he punched me a couple of times. Threw me down. I think he… he wanted to do more, but he stood there for a few minutes before he just walked out.”

“What did you do?”

“I left, too.” I started twisting the Kleenex in my hand, forming a little rope. “I went to the convent at St. Martha’s. I knew I couldn’t go home. My mother would tell the boys and then they would…. But Sister Regina took me in, gave me the next day off, and I went to LSU’s campus to look up divorce law in the library when Maria caught me.”

“Why are you telling me this now?”

I closed my eyes. “Because the guardian killer knows things he shouldn’t. Not just because of the… the surveillance cameras and such in my apartment, but Baton Rouge things. Things that haven’t been spoken of in Chicago.” I opened my eyes and saw Dominic’s face swim into focus. “He knows David’s nickname for me. He knows about Maria.”

“He could have found those things out.”

I was already shaking my head. “No. Not the nickname. Not really. And not the real reason why my brothers hired a bodyguard. Not unless this has been going on longer than Chicago. A very long time.”

Understanding dawned in Dominic’s eyes. “You think he had something in your house in Baton Rouge.”

“It makes sense, right? But the question is why did he pick me?”

“Jackson thinks it’s standard. He saw you vulnerable at some point, and decided to protect you ever since.”

Something nagged the back of my mind, something about being very vulnerable indeed, but when Dominic spoke again, the thought scattered into a thousand pieces of confetti in my mind, blowing in every direction until I couldn’t grasp a single one.

“I’ll call your brothers, have them run a sweep of your old place. Will they be able to get in it?”

“It shouldn’t be hard,” I said. “I moved back in with my mother in November.”

I expected Dominic to move towards the phone and call my brothers right away, but he hesitated for a moment. “Why don’t you get some sleep? You’ve had a really shitty day.”

My laugh was genuine. He won the most concise explanation of the year award. “You need my statement about the guardian killer. I haven’t even told you what he said yet.”

“You do your job, I’ll do mine.” He smiled a little to soften his words. “And my job says that my case needs to get some sleep before she passes out right here on my couch.”

Something bumped against my leg. I looked down at Artful who had curled twice about my feet and fallen asleep. Even my puppy was tired. “Not long,” I said. “Just a few minutes. Fifteen, thirty at the most.”

“Sure. You take a thirty minute nap. That’ll give me plenty of time to sort the rest of this out and then start interrogating you.” He stood up and stretched his arms over his head. There was a slight cracking noise as his back popped. A contented groan escaped his mouth and he slumped back down to a normal standing position.

I watched all of this, fascinated. He hadn’t freaked out, hadn’t acted strange or really reacted at all to my confession. I wasn’t sure what I had expected, but it wasn’t this. “Where do you want me to go?”

“Take the bed. I’ll get some work down out here.” He offered me his hand and I took it, let him lead me and Artful to his bedroom.

“Thirty minutes,” I said when I sat down on the bed. It was a very comfortable bed.

“Sure. Thirty minutes.” He gave me a big smile and then closed the door.

The second he did, I broke down, all of the emotion I had held on to throughout my confession came pouring out of me. I shoved a fist against my mouth to muffle any sounds.

I had moved from Baton Rouge to escape insanity, to get away from Maria and David and the media, from the constant reminder that I had been a victim. But Chicago was no different. All the same old situations and problems kept coming to the surface. The guardian killer brought up David and Maria. I had to tell Dominic about that night, that fateful night in Baton Rouge when I realized that despite being a tomboy growing up, despite the self-defense techniques my brothers had taught me, I was still weak, still able to get beaten by my husband. And then, to add injury to much insult, Maria had attacked me.

I still felt weak, still felt pathetic. That hadn’t changed in the thousand miles’ difference between here and Baton Rouge. The beginning of June had been a farce, a staging of the new March, the one who could start over, pretend she never let her husband or his mistress beat her.

There was a sensation of someone standing next to me. I hadn’t even heard the door open, but when I looked up at Dominic, he was trapped inside my tears, concave and watery. He sat down on the bed and pulled me into his arms.

Dominic’s hand cradled my head to him and I clung to his neck. “I didn’t say anything,” he said against my hair. “I thought it would make it worse.” He thought this was his fault because he hadn’t given any sign he was disturbed by the news of a woman who was beaten by her husband. “You’re not a victim, March.” He brushed the hair away from my face. “In fact, I think you’re holding up pretty well, considering.”

If holding up pretty well was defined by clammy skin and crying fits, then I was the poster child for survival. “It’s not even that he hit me. I mean, it’s that, but it’s more like someone else knows. I think the guardian killer knows.”

“Are you scared of David?” Dominic asked in a soft voice.

I thought about the question for a moment. Was I scared of David? I wasn’t sure. More like seeing David would be a constant reminder of what I had lost, what had happened to me, a reminder of the weakest moments of my life. “It was the ultimate betrayal,” I said instead. “Not just of our marriage, but of everything David says he stands for.” Unbidden, a little mocking laugh escaped my lips. “Know what his firm’s charity was two years ago for Christmas? The local battered women’s shelter.”

Dominic looked as if he was going to say something, but thought better of it, at the last second. “I need to go to the station,” he said. “And I can’t leave you here. Do you mind coming with me?”

“That’s fine. Let me just wash my face.” I didn’t even want to ask why. I couldn’t handle another reason, another explanation, yet another thing wrong in my life. Maybe my brothers had been right all along. Maybe it was better to stay in the dark.

Artful rode with us. He sat on my lap and stared out my window with wide-eyed and wide-mouthed puppy enthusiasm over a car trip. He couldn’t sit still. He kept walking across my lap, pressing his paws to the window and staring, before he’d circle back and do the same thing a moment later. My dog and I were both running in circles, it seemed, staring out the window, deciding we didn’t like what we saw, and then returning a moment later, just to see if things had changed.

The station seemed subdued, somehow. There were fewer officers about. Maybe off on jobs, protecting the fair city from crime and general thuggery. Or maybe, just maybe, I was reading too much into a near empty police station. Maybe Chicago had less crime than what appeared to be happening to me on a regular basis. Maybe most women didn’t worry about leaving their house and encountering a hairy fairy godfather squad. Of course, most women also didn’t have large, looming men delivering random pizzas and coffees on a daily basis, so maybe their lives were lacking, just a little.

“Hey, love.”

I looked up at Jackson, who was hovering in the opening of Dominic’s cubicle. His large body blocked any view of the outside. “Hey, Jackson. Is Dominic almost done?”

He shrugged, but didn’t move from the doorway. “Not sure. I thought I’d check up on you, see if you needed anything.”

“No, I’m fine. Thanks.” He was blocking the opening on purpose. I was sure of it. When I leaned to the left to try to see around him, he shifted a bit, an almost imperceptible movement. It looked like he was transferring his weight from one foot to the next, but no, he was preventing me from seeing anything that may be going on.

“We should have your apartment back together tonight.” He rested his arm on the top of the partition so that it, too, blocked anything I may see overhead. “Your books are safe. Don’t worry. We didn’t hurt them.”

He was blocking and he was stalling. There was something going on just on the other side of that warrior body, something none of them wanted me to see. But I could play these games, too. I put Artful on the ground and leaned over to fix his collar. “See anything you wanted to borrow?”

“A few things,” Jackson agreed. His voice had lightened, gained inflection. “But I think I have some books to loan you. There’s a decided lack of Hemingway in your house.”

“That is, of course, on purpose.” I glanced up at him. “Tough guy likes Hemingway. Why am I not surprised?”

He gave me his half-smile. “All those machismo anti-hero stories? Of course I like Hemingway. Not as much as you like Dorothy Sayers, though, apparently.”

“I wrote my thesis on her.” I turned back to Artful’s collar. “Could you undo the clasp for me? I think it’s stuck.”

“You’re good, love, but you’re not that good.”

Goddammit. I closed my eyes for a brief moment before I glanced up at him again. “Who’s out there?” I asked in a soft voice.

“No one you need to worry about.” His face had smoothed out, blanked into an emotionless void. He had put on a face to meet the faces that he would meet. “What about Chandler? You’ve only got a few on your bookshelves.”

“The entire collection’s in the bedroom. Did you catch the guardian killer?” But no, that couldn’t be it. This was worse, much worse. This was personal, wasn’t it?

“Not yet, but we will.”

I knew. I think a part of me knew exactly why the guardian killer mentioned him, today of all days. There was someone else he had to hurt, wasn’t there? And Dominic and Jackson were hiding him from me. Because they knew, Dominic after our conversation and Jackson on some instinctive level, that this would be the meeting that would possibly destroy whatever tenuous grasp on sanity I had left.

But I still stood up. I still tried to see around Jackson’s body, despite the fact that he shifted to block me, despite the fact that he tried to shield me from any more hurt. But I had to know. Some part of me had to know.

“March,” Jackson said in a soft voice. “Don’t.”

“March?” a man said on the other side of Jackson, some mysterious man hidden by Jackson’s bulk, the sheer size of that 6’5 frame, the broad expanse of shoulder and muscle and bone. “Did he just say March?”

I recognized the accent, the almost odd lilt to the voice, the odd rhythm to the question. He never ended his questions up. His voice always went down at the end of a question. I sucked in a breath. This was why my brothers had hired a bodyguard. It wasn’t to check up on me. It was to check up on him, because they suspected he would come here. God, why would he come here?

Jackson said nothing. When he shifted his body, it wasn’t to block me from seeing the other man. It was to block the other man from seeing me.

Unfortunately, it didn’t work. I caught a brief flash of the man as Jackson moved, and the man caught a brief flash of me.

“Nathalie?” he asked, astonished. “What are you doing here?”

For one brief moment, I was face to face with my ex-husband, before Jackson finished shifting and blocked David from my view.

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