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Authors: Sierra Kincade

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BOOK: The Confession
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Twelve

O
n weak legs, I stood, and pulled down the front of my T-shirt to hide myself as I snagged my pants off the floor. He looked away quickly, either giving me privacy or because he was ashamed, and I made my escape to the easiest place I could: his bedroom.

I locked the door behind me and went straight to the master bathroom, unable to even look at myself in the mirror.

What was that? What had come over me? I hadn't come here for a pity fuck, but that's what he'd given me. He'd told me it was wrong, and then he'd said he was sorry.

That was
not
how I'd wanted him to remember me, nor was it how I wanted to remember him. I felt out of control, more so than when I'd yelled at Janelle, more than when I'd searched for Alec at that hotel, or ridden a bus all the way to Tampa. I was losing it, and it scared the hell out of me.

I splashed water over my face, refusing to let myself remember that this counter once held my makeup, and hair products, and blow-dryer. Quickly, I cleaned up, making myself as presentable as possible, and went back to his bedroom.

Facing him was not going to be my favorite thing in the world. It was time for a quick retreat; I could gather the broken pieces of my pride later. But because apparently I was the biggest masochist in the known world, I walked to the bed, and touched the comforter.

As my fingers walked over the soft fabric, I remembered the first night I'd slept here. I'd had a nightmare and Alec had held me, and I'd known our time together would inevitably end because I loved him, and he would break my heart.

I moved to the dresser. The top drawer was where I used to keep my things, and I opened it now not to find a collection of tank tops and naughty lingerie, but a large manila envelope.

I don't know why I reached for it. Maybe I thought it was mine, something he'd missed when he'd cleared out this drawer, though I couldn't be certain.

I should have put it back.

I should have walked out of the bedroom, said my final farewell, and gotten the hell out.

The first picture I pulled out caught me by surprise. It was an eight-by-ten of an older man with styled silver hair, embracing a woman in a long black dress on a balcony. The woman's back was to the camera, and you could see a hint of her shoulders beneath the tendrils of wavy black hair. Her head was resting on his shoulder.

The man was Maxim Stein.

The dress was mine.

“Anna?” Alec knocked on the door. There was an urgency in his voice as he rattled the handle. I barely registered it.

A cold dread snaked in my belly as I pulled out the next picture. They were lying on a chaise lounge. Max leaned over the woman. His hand had hiked up the hem of the dress and was gripping her thigh.

“Anna!”
Bang, bang, bang.
“Let me in, okay? Please? We need to talk.”

By the third picture I was shaking.

The woman wasn't wearing a dress anymore. She was wearing only a black strapless bra, and she was splayed across Max's naked chest. His mouth was slightly open, his eyes closed. Her long black hair spread over his shoulder, and her leg was hooked over his thigh.

Her profile was clear.

My profile.

My face. My dress. My body.

“Open the door. Please, Anna.”

I couldn't let go of the pictures. They warped as I squeezed them in my grasp. This was a terrible trick. I'd never been with Maxim. I'd never touched him and I never would. He was a cold-hearted, manipulative bastard. This was obviously Photoshopped. They'd found a girl with a body like mine, found my same dress, and then transposed my face over hers.

She's been missing for three days.

I was going to throw up.

The roofies. The black spots in my memory.

I could deny it all I wanted, but a grim voice whispered in my ear that this nightmare was real. That I'd been taken from that bar for just this reason. My breath was coming faster now, too fast. My vision was starting to waver, but I couldn't look away from the prints.

The door caved inward with a crash, the feeble lock broken. Alec stood in the threshold, chest rising and falling. He took a quick step toward me, then stopped as I jerked the pictures behind my back. I didn't want him to see them. They needed to be burned immediately. Burned and forgotten.

But this was his apartment. These pictures were here. He'd already seen them.

He held up his hands, palms open.

“Anna,” he whispered. “I'm so sorry.”

He was sorry. Just like when he'd fucked me.

I blinked. He started to sway. Or maybe I was swaying.

“It isn't me,” I said. Was I crying? My face was wet and my throat was thick.

Alec stepped forward, and I crumbled the pictures in my fists.

“Anna. You need to sit down. Please sit down.”

I wished he would stop saying my name. Every single time he said it, it was like a hammer to my heart.

“I didn't do this.” I needed him to understand this. “The doctor did a test at the hospital. She said nothing had happened to me.”

She'd said I'd gotten lucky.

Yeah. This felt
real
lucky.

“I know,” he said. But I couldn't tell if he was referring to the test, or my innocence.

“They're fake,” I said, even though we both knew it wasn't true. “They're fixed. This is part of some stupid scheme Maxim is playing. He's trying to . . . scare us . . . or screw up the trial . . .” I took a harsh breath. The hot air scraped my throat.

“Slow down.” He tried to step closer, but I jolted back, hitting my hip against the dresser. The drawers rattled.

“How long have you known?”

“Anna . . .”

“How long?”

His head tilted forward. “The photos were in my car the morning I left the hospital.”

That didn't make sense. I'd seen him on the news.

“But you and Janelle . . .” I shook my head. “I saw you on TV leaving a bed-and-breakfast.”

His face was pale.

He'd seen these pictures, and still gone to her bed. He must have gone for her help, that's why he'd done it. That had to be it. But believing this meant the pictures really were real.

Every possibility of truth hurt.

“Does she know?”

His eyes turned to steel. “Nobody knows.”

I should have been relieved, but for some reason this scared me more. Why wouldn't he trust Janelle, his FBI agent girlfriend?

Maybe he already knew she was a scumbag.

“Have I been drugged again?” I almost hoped I had been, and this was all some fucked-up trip that would end as soon as the buzz wore off.

“We need to leave,” he said. His voice wasn't gentle.

“We?”
I asked. “You live here.”

“I'm staying with a friend. Mike called me when you showed up.”

A friend. Right. Janelle. They were probably shacking up together.

“I shouldn't have come.”

“You need to come with me,” he said, more gently this time. “It's not safe here.”

I laughed, a cold, wretched sound that I cut off with a hand over my mouth.
Not safe
, he'd said. Was it safe five minutes ago when we were clinging to each other on the couch? These photos pretty much confirmed that safety in any form was about as plausible as Bigfoot.

“Why didn't you tell me?” I pulled the pictures out in front of me now, but couldn't unfurl my fist. They were crumbled and starting to tear from the pressure. “You say this happened two days ago. These were here, the whole time, while we . . . you and me were . . .”

“Anna, please.” Alec took a step closer. His jaw was working back and forth, his eyes desperate. There were beads of sweat on his hairline. His cell phone started buzzing.

I guess that meant it was on now.

He reached for my arm.

“Don't touch me.” I gasped for breath, gripping the table. I knew I was hyperventilating. I could feel the oxygen shutting off to my brain. Bright white spots began to flicker in front of my vision.

“Shit,” Alec muttered.

A second later I was in his arms, pressed against his chest. My legs were too weak to stand and I gave in to his strength. He hoisted me higher, and his lips pressed against my jaw.

“Breathe,” he whispered. “We're going to figure this out later. Right now, I need you to trust me.”

I focused on his heartbeat, strong and steady, and I swallowed a rasping breath. My fingers grasped his shirt, and I turned my head to press it against his chest.

Just like Janelle had when they'd left the bed-and-breakfast.

Just like I had with Maxim in the photo.

“No,” I tried to push back, but ended up gripping his shirt to stay upright.

With a sharp curse, Alec lifted me in his arms. He carried me to the bed, where I'd first known for certain that I loved him. Where I now curled up in a tight ball on the comforter. I could hear him moving behind me. Not more than thirty seconds later he was back, my duffle bag slung across his chest. I could see the corner of the pictures sticking out of the open zipper.

He lifted me in his strong arms and carried me quickly out the door, down the hall, and to the elevator. My head was spinning as we reached the bottom floor, only when we got out, I didn't recognize the lobby. We were on a different level, one with offices, and a heavy metal door that Alec backed out of into a stairwell. He jogged down the steps, barely jostling me.

“Mike?” Alec called. Out of the corner of my vision I saw a man running toward us. I jerked in Alec's arms, but his grip was solid.

“Alec Flynn! Who is that with you? Is that Anna Rossi? Is she sick?”

“Close your eyes,” said Alec through gritted teeth.

“Hey!” I recognized Mike's voice. “Back off! I've already called the police.”

I closed my eyes as tightly as I could, feeling the last of my pride strip away, and buried my face in Alec's suit jacket.

“Over here!” shouted a woman. “Mr. Flynn, was your absence from the trial really due to illness?”

Alec kept moving. I could see the bright camera flashes even through my closed eyelids.

“Mr. Flynn! Is it true that you've been paying for Ms. Rossi's drug rehab?”

Drug rehab?

“This is private property,” growled Mike.

I'm not sure what he did, but a few moments later a man yelled, “Hey! That was worth more than your life, asshole!”

“Go,
go
!” shouted Mike.

“Thanks,” muttered Alec.

Within seconds, I was shoved into the passenger side of a car. I kept my head down when Alec slammed the door. Soon, he was inside. The engine growled to life. His hand on my shoulders pulled me down across his lap, and I rested my cheek on his thigh, gripping his knee as he tore out of the parking garage.

Thirteen

“W
e're here,” Alec said. I wasn't sure how much time had passed. An hour. Maybe a little more. In this unfamiliar SUV, he'd taken turn after turn after we'd left the parking garage, so many my stomach had started to churn with a new sickness. Then he'd gotten on a freeway and I'd heard nothing but the acceleration of the engine.

I never sat up. The camera flashes were still bright in my mind. The words of the reporters—I assumed that was who had cornered us in the garage—kept echoing through my head.
Was your absence from the trial really due to illness? Are you paying for Ms. Rossi's drug rehab?

Did they know about the pictures?

Did they know I'd been in the hospital?

If they did, soon everyone would know. My father would see the pictures. Jacob and the people I'd met through the CASA program would know I'd been missing. My clients at the salon would surely ask questions, and any grace I had left with Derrick would finally run its course.

The humiliation would never end.

As Alec pulled onto a gravel driveway I finally pushed myself back into my own seat. Echoes of the panic I'd felt in Alec's apartment returned as we drew apart. My throat burned from thirst, my fists ached from squeezing Alec's pant leg. Despite the whirlwind of thoughts in my mind, I'd felt protected with my cheek on his warm thigh and his hand on my shoulder. Now I couldn't even look at him. He'd known about the pictures and hadn't told me.

Alec's phone was buzzing again, and he reached into his pocket.

“It's your dad,” he said.

I turned my face the opposite direction. It was dark now, and a few neon lights shone through the foliage, blocking a turn in the road. My head had finally cleared enough to wonder where we were. It looked like we were heading toward a bar of some kind.

I really hoped he knew better than to bring me to a bar right now.

“Ben, hey,” said Alec, voice weighed down by fatigue. With everything else that had happened, it didn't even seem odd that my dad was calling Alec, or that Alec had answered like it was a regular thing. Why would it? Nothing else made sense.

“She's with me. Yeah. Yeah, she's . . .” He cleared his throat. “I'm going to keep her with me awhile, all right? She'll be safe.”

In the pause, I thought about finding the nearest hole and spending the next twenty or so years there. I should have left town weeks ago. Why had I waited so long? I kept telling myself it was for Jacob, and to make sure Amy and Paisley were all right. Well, Jacob had been with a steady foster family for months now, and was about to be adopted. And Amy and Paisley were doing fine.

I was the one who couldn't move on.

Alec's shoulders rose.

“Fucking vultures,” said Alec. “Ignore them. They'll take off once they realize there's no story there.”

The reporters must have figured out where I lived. I tried to picture my dad dealing with them, but if they were talking about his little girl, I doubted he could reach a resolution that didn't involve a shotgun.

“She's not feeling great.” I felt Alec glance over at me. “I'll have her call you as soon as she can.”

He hung up.

“So,” I said, as he pulled to a stop against the side of a two-story barnlike building. “You and my dad are pals now, huh?”

Alec shut off the car. In the absence of the engine's rumbling, I could hear piped music coming through speakers nearby. The neon lights were brighter now, but still hidden behind the brush, and to my right was the flat black surface of the Bay.

For a while we sat in the car, listening to the honky-tonk guitar wail, staring straight ahead at nothing. The pictures were in my duffle bag in the backseat, but though I could feel their presence taunting me, I didn't need to look at them again. The images had been seared into my mind.

“Where are we?” I finally asked.

“Mac's restaurant,” he said. I remembered the place—a dive where Alec had taken me for burgers on our first date. We must have come at it from a different angle, because I couldn't see the parking lot or the front of the building from here.

“I'm not really hungry,” I said.

His thumb tapped against the steering wheel, then relaxed. “He's been letting me stay in the apartment above the kitchen. It's not much, but you'll be safe here.”

I'm staying with a friend,
he'd said.

Not Janelle. Mac. It shocked me that this simple truth actually made me feel a little better. It seemed impossible that something so trivial could break through the wall of chaos that had surrounded me.

But at the same time my head screamed that this was a really bad idea. Just sharing the car with him was enough to make my heart hurt. Being this close to him, even for a short while, would be torture.

“You don't have to do all this, you know,” I said.

His eyes flashed my way, a shock of blue in the reflection of the glowing lights in the dashboard.

“Yes I do,” he said.

I sat straighter. There were things I wanted to be to him, but none of them included being a burden.

“I'm not your . . .” I struggled for the word. Problem? Responsibility? I looked away. “Girlfriend.”

He tilted his head. Slowly, his hand rose, but his fingertips never reached my cheek. They lingered an inch away, close enough that I could feel the warmth of his hand and start to lean toward his touch.

Yes, staying here was a
very
bad idea.

“That was your decision, not mine,” he said, not unkindly. Just as a fact.

I pulled back, and his hand dropped back into his lap. My decision? Maybe breaking up had been, but I hadn't had a choice. Dating him had too much collateral damage. Besides, staying away from me, never even trying to make things work,
dating Janelle
, those things were all on him.

“How did Maxim take those photos?” I asked, focusing on the real problem. “I thought he was on house arrest.”

“I don't know.”

“Did he give them to anyone else?”

Alec's voice lowered, and took on a dark edge.

“I doubt it.” He hesitated. “We don't have to talk about this now.”

“You didn't take them to the cops? The FBI?”

I didn't want to have this conversation, but I still needed to know the answers to the questions.

“No.”

“Why?”

“He's trying to blackmail me,” explained Alec. “He's looking for leverage. If I drop my testimony, he won't leak the photos. He knows I'll do whatever I have to in order to protect you.”

The dedication in his voice was solid, as if we were still a couple. Maxim certainly thought we were, if he was trying to use me to hurt Alec. I turned toward him, feeling my brows pull together.

“You're sure that's what's happening?”

“I'm sure.”

“Why me?” I asked. “Why not—”

He interrupted me before I could say Janelle's name.

“You know why.”

There could have been a dozen reasons, I realized. Because maybe Maxim thought I'd convinced Alec to go to the FBI, or because Maxim wanted to punish Alec and didn't know we'd separated. But the way Alec said it made me wonder if Maxim's information hadn't been wrong at all. That he had hit Alec exactly where it would hurt him the most.

“But . . .” I teetered toward the edge of panic again. “But you went to court today.”

Maxim must have realized the threat didn't work. He was going to leak the pictures.

I buried my face in my hands.

He touched my shoulder, gently, then pulled away.

“I just met with the judge,” he said. “My lawyer's restructuring things so that I can finish my testimony later. The judge and the prosecutor wanted to . . . make sure I was still on board.”

I looked up at him, trying to imagine what that meeting must have been like. They clearly thought he was backing out—either getting cold feet, or lying about what he'd seen.

“And are you still on board?” I asked.

His answer was a one-shouldered shrug.

“You're doing this for me. To protect my privacy.”

He breathed in slowly. “Max and I shouldn't be in the same room right now.”

The threat was obvious. I pictured Alec's hands around his old boss's throat. The darkest part of me felt a sick sense of satisfaction imagining Alec beating the shit out of him.

“What do we do?” I asked.

He rubbed his hands on his thighs. “Let me worry about that part.”

I wasn't sure what that was supposed to mean.

“Someone had to have helped Maxim.” He couldn't have done this alone. My mind flashed to a car seat cushion, the image from my dream. Again I tried to focus on the night I'd been taken, but I couldn't remember anything after leaving my apartment.

“I wish I knew what his plan was,” I said. “That way we could be ready.”

“He's going to . . .” Alec paused, jaw flexing. “My guess is he's going to try to say those pictures were taken before I went to the FBI.”

“What? Why?” It didn't make sense for him to admit that we'd been together while I'd been on record as a missing person, and then in the hospital with roofies in my system, but I didn't understand why he'd want to claim we were involved beforehand.

“I'm not sure exactly,” said Alec. “It could go a lot of ways. He could be threatening to implicate you as part of the case, or saying that I only turned him in because I'd found out you two were together.”

A rage, just under the surface, broke free.

“That's bullshit.” My voice cracked. “This is all fucking crazy. You went to the FBI out of spite? Because you were
jealous
? He stole three days of my life and . . .” I couldn't even find the words that described the violation I'd endured. “He did all this to make you look like a vindictive boyfriend?”

The internal lights of the car shut off, hiding Alec's expression.

“Wait,” I said, shocked that he wasn't as furious as I was. “You don't believe that, right? You know the pictures are new. I
never
would have slept with him. You know that.”

My words faded off at the end. Talking about this felt too intimate. I could feel my skin grow thin as glass, like even in this darkness he could see all my roiling emotions just beneath the surface.

“You don't have to explain,” said Alec.

I faced him fully, turning in my seat. I grabbed the arm of his suit jacket. This was deeper than Alec simply thinking I'd been a bad girlfriend. If he thought I would have touched Maxim Stein, he didn't know me at all.

“You have to say it,” I said. “You have to say you know I didn't do this willingly.”

His teeth clenched, a flash of white in the darkness.

“Alec, please.” In that moment, I needed this acknowledgment. I needed him to believe me. This one thing, I needed to be solid.

“I know it,” he snapped, and though his tone had me releasing his arm, I was glad for it. I wanted him to be pissed. “I fucking know, Anna. Don't ask me to say it out loud. It's taking everything I've got to stop myself from driving to his house and ripping his fucking head off.”

His fury was so sudden and consuming it filled the entire car. With a muttered curse, he shoved out the door and slammed it behind him.

I sat there for another moment, staring out the driver's side window to where he stood outside, silently trying to regain his composure. As ugly as this was, the first breath of relief rolled through me. Everyone's pity isolated me. But Alec's anger made me feel less alone.

After a moment, he rounded the hood of the SUV and opened my door. When I stepped out, a car, nestled against the back of the windy drive, flashed its lights. The reporters' ambush at the apartment still fresh in my mind, I turned, and found myself back against Alec's chest.

“It's all right,” he said gruffly. “It's just Matt. The FBI has him tailing me.”

I recalled the freckle-faced man I'd met during my short stay in the safe house, months ago. I turned toward the now dark car, straining my eyes to try to make out his shape. I couldn't, but when Alec offered a short wave, I followed suit. I'd really warmed up to the whole protective detail thing.

I followed him up the dark wooden staircase on the exterior of the building, to a weathered door with a new security box. Alec typed in a code, and I followed him inside, wondering what the hell I was getting myself into.

He leaned down to turn on a small lamp on a wooden end table, and the narrow room was bathed in soft yellow light. On one side was a sliding door that led to a narrow deck overlooking the bar's outdoor seating area. On the other was a small kitchen, with a refrigerator, a microwave, and a stove. The countertop was cluttered with papers and plates. Against one wall were a threadbare couch and a garage-sale metal coffee table with a duct-taped leg, and both were cluttered with papers and half-empty mugs.

“Interesting décor,” I said, motioning to the punching bag that hung from one of the exposed wooden support beams near the glass door.

Alec rubbed the back of his neck, grimacing. “It's kind of a mess.”

“Kind of,” I said.

He gave a short, dry chuckle. “Come on.”

He led me to the kitchen, grabbing a handful of plates and dumping them into the sink on his way. On one side was a door that led to a bathroom. The shower seemed newer than the rest of the place, with a glass door and beige tile.

“This place used to be storage for the restaurant. Then it was Mac's booze bunker. He turned it into an apartment a while back after he got sober,” said Alec. “All the rooms have been added-on.”

That accounted for the strange layout.

Across the kitchen was a small bedroom with a queen bed. The denim comforter, the lack of pillows, and the huge poster of an openmouthed bass hanging over the headboard made me think Mac probably hadn't built this place with a woman in mind.

BOOK: The Confession
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