I will be sharing the last chapters of this story tomorrow. This chapter has a bit too much cheese at the end so that may change before this book is final.
She couldn’t get her hands to stop trembling.
Even now, standing at her apartment door, unlocking it, far away from the scene of the shooting. She’d called Ginny and Ginny had agreed with Matt. She was closing the library early anyhow because of all the police activity down the street.
A conversation she’d had with Molly over a year ago resurfaced.
“I’m just friends with Matt. It’s not like that. He’s easy to talk to and I like hanging out with him, but — he’s Matt. I’ll always think of him as a brother more than a boyfriend. Maybe because he’s friends with Jason and I just remember him as that weird military obsessed guy from high school.”
Molly had tipped her head in a pitying way, more pity toward Matt than Liz. “He’s a nice guy, Liz.”
“Yeah, I know, but he’s also a cop. I don’t know if I can date a cop. I mean, what if I develop more feelings for him and then I’ll just worry about him out there on the streets . . .”
Molly had snickered. “On the streets of Spencer? Where what — he might get punched by a drunk guy down at Mooney’s or get kicked by a cow?”
Liz had turned from the list of coffee flavors behind the counter at the coffee shop they were at and tipped her head. “Molly, you really are naïve about what happens in this county, aren’t you?”
And Molly had been, but maybe she’d been a little naïve too. Sure, she knew there were issues with drugs and alcohol in this town, but someone being shot on the street? No, she hadn’t thought that would happen. Matt could have been killed. It was a thought that surfaced, but that she pushed back down again. If she thought about that too long, she’d trigger a panic attack and those had been better lately. She didn’t want them to come back again
She glanced at the sunlight streaming in through the windows in the living room as her phone rang and she shut the door behind her, locking it.
“Are you okay? Martha said there was a shooting on Main Street. Is that true? Do you know?”
She tossed her keys on the kitchen table. “I’m fine, Mom. Yes. Matt was there and he’s okay too. He told me to go back to my apartment so I’m there, with the door locked.” Sliding her shoes off she yawned. Since her mom and dad were watching Bella, maybe she could manage a nap.
“Where is Molly? Is she with you?”
“She’s at the store. We’ve talked and she’ll be home early tonight.”
They chatted a few seconds longer about Bella and the fact she was taking a nap so Marge would bring her to the apartment in the evening. Liz’s shoulders relaxed as she slid her finger over the end call button and dropped her phone into her purse, then hung the purse on the back of the kitchen chair. Her bed was definitely calling to her.
“Are you okay, Liz? Really?”
A scream ripped through her at the sound of the deep voice from behind her. She swung around to face the dark hallway. Gabe’s laughter boomed off the walls, sending a chill shivering through her. When he stepped forward, sunlight brightened one side of his face and the other remained in darkness. What the sun hit was bruised and swollen, dark purple mixing with light purple.
Liz took a step back toward the kitchen. “What are you doing here?”
Gabe gestured outward with his arms, leaning against the wall, more of his face coming into the light. “Just thought I should see what the mother of my child is up to these days.” His leather jacket was open, revealing a white T-shirt, stained with red and brown. “What? Don’t you like visitors?”
Liz’s chest constricted as she bumped into one of the chairs pushed into the table. “Not those who aren’t invited, no.”
Gabe pushed himself off the wall, and walked into the living room, slumping into the chair next to the couch.
Liz could clearly see his black eye and a deep cut across his cheek now. He winced and lifted his foot, stretching out his leg, and propping it on the coffee table. “Don’t worry, drama queen. I’m not here to hurt you. I just got myself in some trouble. Needed a place to lay low for a bit.”
“How did you even get in here?”
He smirked. “You know, for having a boyfriend who’s a cop, your apartment isn’t very secure. I climbed in one of the bedroom windows. Must be Molly’s room with all those cow photos hanging all over.” He grimaced as he lifted the other leg and propped it next to the first. “That’s what McGee is, right? Your boyfriend?”
Liz kept moving backwards until she bumped into the kitchen counter. Two more steps to her left and she’d have her hand on the drawer with the knives.
“You need to leave, Gabe.”
“Oh, Liz. Liz. Calm down and have a seat. Let’s just chat a while. I already said I’m not going to hurt you.” He hugged his arm around his side and made a face. “I’m not in any shape to hurt anyone right now anyhow.”
Her fingertips touched the edge of the knife drawer. He wasn’t looking at her. His eyes were focused somewhere outside the window, his eyelids heavy. She wasn’t sure she cared, but she asked anyhow. “What happened to you?”
He scoffed. “Life happened to me, Lizzie dear.” He tipped his head back, closed his eyes. “It finally caught up to me. All the fun couldn’t last forever, right?”
She ran her finger along the edge of the drawer, ready to open it if he moved. He kept talking as her eyes drifted to her purse, now several feet away.
Gabe sighed. “I’m in trouble.” He coughed out a laugh, his eyes still closed. “When am I not in trouble, right? But, alas, I am in even bigger trouble than ever before.”
Her mind flitted between opening the drawer and lunging for the phone in her purse. “What’s going on?” She should probably keep him talking until she decided. “Who did this to you?
She took a step toward the purse at the same moment his eyes opened, and he tipped his head to look at her.
“Do you really care? Really, Lizzie?” He sneered. “You know you don’t.”
He was right. She just wanted him to leave. She knew she should care, though. She should see him the way God saw him – as a flawed human who deserved a second chance. That wasn’t how she saw him, though.
She saw him as a threat.
He tipped his head back again, but kept his eyes opened, focused on the ceiling. “I never thought I’d be where I am today. All I did was borrow some money to keep the business going. Then a little more for the pills to keep me going. Who knew my uncle would call in the loan by manipulating me into running his drug business?” He laughed again, the sound sending a mix of pity and anxiety skittering through Liz.
She stood frozen between the kitchen table and the counter, unsure which direction to go. Gabe’s lack of predictably always had been a problem.
“Are you on the pills now?”
He stood abruptly and turned toward her, but leaned forward quickly, hands on his knees, grimacing. He lifted his head without straightening. “You think I’d be in this much pain if I was?” He stood, his arm wrapped around his side, and moved toward the other side of the living room, near a display of photographs on the wall above the television. His eyes moved from photo to photo as she took two steps closer to the purse.
He glanced at her. “She looks like you. That’s a good thing.”
Liz drew in a breath slowly, glad Bella was with her grandparents.
He kept his eyes on the photo as he spoke. “I screwed up, Liz. I borrowed money from him, lost it gambling and fueling the pill addiction. When I couldn’t get it back to him, he told me I’d either help him with deliveries and production or he’d end me.” His smile was unnatural considering the topic he was discussing. “Fitting isn’t it? He did to me what I did to you. Manipulated me into getting what he wanted like I manipulated you.” He pushed a trembling hand through disheveled, dark brown hair, laughed sardonically. “What goes around comes around, right? Isn’t that in the Bible?
Liz folded her arms across her chest, keeping her gaze locked on him. “No, I don’t think it is.”
He turned to face her. “An eye for an eye, right? Same thing?”
She tilted her head to one side, her jaw tight. “Not exactly. No.”
He walked toward her slowly. “I’m not going to hurt you, Liz. I already told you that.” He stopped a couple of feet from her, hands at his side. “I came here because I can’t figure you out and I want to figure you out before I go to jail.
The muscles in her body tensed. Her gaze flitted to the purse again. Only a few more steps and she could have it, but could she get the phone out before he reached her? He took another stepped toward her and she had her answer. “What are you talking about?
He tipped his head back slightly looking at her through narrowed eyes. “Why didn’t you press charges against me?” He tipped his head back down and shrugged a shoulder, pulling the chair with her purse on it out and sitting in it. “I pretty much assaulted you that night in my apartment. We both know it.” He laid his hand on the table. “Are you still so afraid of mommy and daddy finding out about you that you never told anyone how that baby was really conceived?”
Liz folded her arms tighter across her chest. What was his game, really? Was he kidding right now? Did he feel guilt or pride over his actions? She couldn’t read him.
“You really need to leave, Gabe.”
“It was wrong, Liz.” He leaned forward on his knees, winced again, and touched a hand to his ribs. “What I did. You deserved better than that. You’re a good person. Better than me and almost anyone else and I stepped all over that.”
She pivoted quickly, ripped open the knife drawer and grabbed the first one she could reach. Swinging around she held it out in front of her. She knew him too well. He never apologized. There was another reason behind his words.
“Get out, Gabe.”
He raised his hands, still sitting, a smirk twitching one corner of his mouth upward. “What are you going to do, stab me?” He laughed, his hands still up. “It would serve me right at this point. You should just go ahead and get it over with.”
She gripped the knife handle tighter, stepping slowly around the table until she was in front of him. “Just leave, okay?”
“So, you can call Matty-boy to come arrest me?”
He laughed again, lowered his hands, and then tipped his head forward, closing his eyes. “Just do it.” He opened his eyes again as he lifted his head and looked at her. “Call McGee. Show’s over for me.” He reached behind him, reached into her purse and slid out the phone, laying it on the table. He pressed a finger on top of it and slid it across the table toward her. “Jail is the safest place for me right now, trust me.”
She kept the knife in front of her, glancing at the phone then back at him. He inclined his head toward the phone. “Take it. Call him.” He slid his finger over the screen, opening it. “Here, I’ll help you.” He looked at the phone and tipped his head, pushing his lower lip out. “Aw, look at that. McGee’s in your favorites. “How cute.” He tapped his finger on Matt’s name. “There, I dialed it for you. Tell him to come rescue you from your scary ex-boyfriend.”
Instinct told her not to reach for the phone. Gabe tapped the speaker button instead.
Matt’s voice came from the phone. “Liz? What’s going on? Are you okay?”
Gabe kept his eyes focused on hers, smiling as he leaned toward the phone. “Liz needs rescuing, McGee. At her apartment. Better drop your Bible and get on over here.” He leaned closer to the phone. “And feel free to bring the calvary.”
He slid his finger over the end button and leaned back in the chair. “Uncle Buck was running the overall operation. I agreed to take over the part in this area to keep him off my back about all the money I owed him. Bernie was just a scape goat. I tricked him into make deliveries. He needed the money for his family. When he caught on to what was going on he tried to break loose, and I tried to blackmail him. It didn’t work and he walked. The police already had him pegged as trouble, so it was easy to set him up.”
Why was he telling her all of this? She stepped back against the corner of the wall, pulling the knife closer to her. “You can tell the police this.”
“I will, but I wanted to tell you too.”
“Someone shot Bernie Denton.”
He quirked an eyebrow. “I didn’t know that. Is he going to be okay?”
Her knuckles whitened as she clutched the knife. “I don’t know. Matt was with him.”
Gabe tipped his head back and laughed. “Of course he was.” He looked at her again, the smile fading. “Ah, then Bernie will live. Having McGee around is like having your own personal Jesus, right?”
Liz ignored the snarky edge to the comment. “Were you using?”
He shook his head. “Never sampled the product. Alcohol and pills are my vice. You know that.” He kicked the chair next to him out and propped a leg on it. “So, you officially with McGee now?”
She had no idea why she was standing here. She could reach the door, but part of her worried what he was really up to, if he’d grab her when she tried to run, take the knife and turn the tables on her.
“If you’re asking if I am in love with Matt, then yes I am.” Sirens sounded in the distance. “I used to think I was in love with you, but I was in love with the idea of you. Sadly, you were never what or who I thought you were.”
He snorted a brief laugh. “I wasn’t who I thought I was either.” He tapped the top of the table with his hand. “Sounds like the calvary is almost here so listen Liz, good luck with your life. With the kid. McGee. All of it.” He glanced at the door, the sirens louder now. “I’ll be in there a long time, so I won’t be messing anything up for you.”
Footsteps pounded on the steps outside and Liz lowered the knife slowly. He wasn’t moving. He wasn’t running. He wasn’t reaching out for her.
He was a man beaten. He knew it and as his shoulders stooped, he even looked the part. She kept her eyes on him as she reached over and unlocked the door. It slammed open and back against the wall behind it seconds before Matt rushed into the room. Behind him were two uniformed Spencer officers, one she recognized as his former partner Tom Stapleton. The other must have been the rookie he’d mentioned to her.
Gabe brought his wrists together in front of him and held them up, his eyes still on Liz. “Cuff me, Officer McGee. I’m ready for my close up.”
Tom cuffed Gabe instead, one wrist first, while the rookie held a hand against Matt’s chest, as if to hold him back, remind him he was still on suspension.
Tom pulled Gabe to his feet, pushed him against the top of the kitchen table and pulled his arms behind him, hooking the other cuff in place.
Gabe pulled his gaze from Liz and looked up at Matt. “Look familiar, McGee? Bet you wish you had your knee in my back again, don’t you?”
Matt took a step back toward Liz as Tom pulled Gabe to a standing position and pushed him toward the front door.
Gabe tilted his head down, focused on the floor as he walked. “Take care of her, McGee. She deserves better than me.”
Liz swallowed hard, surprising herself when she told Gabe she’d pray for him.
He scoffed, head still down. “Pray all you want. I don’t believe in that crap and never will.” He swallowed hard and looked back up as Tom pushed him through the doorway. “But thanks for saying it anyhow.” He pushed back against Tom, pausing and looked at Matt, winking. “See what I mean? She deserves better.”
Matt stood in front of Liz and pulled her against him as the rookie followed Tom out the door, pulling it closed behind him. She buried her face against Matt’s chest and let out a shaky breath.
She nodded, grateful for the numbness that was currently settled over her mind. “This day has been really, really weird.”
The vibrations of his laugh against her cheek made her smile. The warmth of his arms around her made her smile. Him being here when he could have been in a hospital right now fighting for his life like Bernie was made her smile. The fact she somehow wasn’t having a panic attack despite all that had happened also made her smile.
She closed her eyes as he held her and kissed the top of her head. For the first time in a long time, she felt safe and calm. Safe in Matt’s arms, safe in his love, and safe in the love of God.