Hope held Michelle in the crook of her arm, walking and rocking the baby, lulling her into slumber. She peered at the innocent face, the trusting way one tiny hand clutched at her shirt as if the little one needed to be sure someone was there.
Her fingers lightly brushed the feathery golden hair on the perfect head, and the baby reached out searching, disturbed by the touch.
Carefully Hope placed Michelle on the bed, looking up when Brennan burst through the door. A quivering sigh of relief escaped her lips and she turned her eyes down, covering the baby with a blanket.
“Sorry, I didn't mean to scare you,” he murmured as he dropped two bags of food and some Cokes on the table.
“You didn't,” she lied and grabbed some clothes from one of her bags. “You go ahead and eat. I'm going to take a shower.”
Hope twisted her long hair up on top of her head then stripped off her clothes. The little room filled with steam as she stepped into the hot shower. A moaning sigh escaped her as the water enveloped her body and she reached up, diverting the hot stream to flood over her face.
Slowly all of the day's tension drained from her, just like the water that drizzled down her body. Each day she felt closer and closer to breaking, her mind overwhelmed by all that she had to worry about. She wondered how long it would be before she could relax completely. Probably never, she admitted to herself, accepting that fact with a curt nod.
When she emerged from the bathroom, she found Brennan curled up in a chair, a blanket around him, and his feet propped up. He watched her closely as she placed her clothes in a bag.
She grabbed her drink and took a large swallow without looking at him. “You should sleep in the bed. You're driving tomorrow and will need more sleep.”
He ignored her, slipping his hands from under his blanket and folding them behind his head as he watching her. “Your hair. When did you do that to it?”
Absently she tugged at a red clump of the locks. “The night I left.”
“Hmmm. Did you do it at your apartment?”
Hope didn’t want to look at him and felt waves of heat course through her veins. “Why are you asking?”
When she looked at him, she saw him shrug. “Just seems like they’d be able to find a trace of it. Where did you get the Camry? Is it yours?”
She chewed her food a few moments before answering. “No, I bought it about a month ago.”
“Cash, I presume?”
“Of course.” She took another swig of cola, scolding herself for the caffeine that would keep her up all night. “No papers. It runs fine and should get me wherever I’m going.” She had even done a search online of the “least distinctive” cars on the market. The Camry was common, and she figured it would be most easily blend in.
“What if you get pulled over? Do you have fake id?”
She didn’t. It was the one thing she wasn’t able to get her hands on.
Discomfort churned in her stomach as he scrutinized her actions. She’d thought she had covered all her based. She’d left her car in Louisiana the day before she left town with Michelle. In the yacht, she’d left maps indicating her plans to hug the coast until she reached Louisiana.
Faking her death hadn’t been her first plan. She knew enough about marine navigation that she was confident she could make her way to the next state, throw off authorities and give her a head start. Then one morning, she had overheard another boater talking about the insurance claim on his boat a few years back. The moorings came loose during a storm and carried the little vessel out to sea.
That was when Hope began to research and ponder a new plan. It might have taken months for a good tropical storm to hit the Texas gulf coast, but as luck would have it, just a few weeks later, a weather system came near. By then, she didn’t have time to make arrangements for identification.
Forcing her thoughts aside, she shook her head and glared back at her new companion. “The bed, Bren. You just made my point for me. I should drive as little as possible, so you need to sleep so you can take the wheel in the morning.”
He shook his head. “I can't sleep there.” He peered at the sleeping girl, surrounded on all sides by pillows. “I might roll over and suffocate her.”
Hope smiled then snorted in amusement. “I promise she'll let you know if you roll onto her. Besides, that bed's big enough for you to have your space and Michelle to have hers.”
“Please don't argue with me now, Bren. Just take the bed.” She turned away and took her hamburger to th
e table. “I just want to eat and sleep so we can get on the road tomorrow morning.”
Brennan stood from his seat and moved to the bed, sitting himself so far from the baby that he nearly tumbled over the edge. He looked up to see if Hope had seen his near fall. She kept her eyes averted, hiding a smile, and after a moment he grabbed the television remote. He began flipping through channels, stopping abruptly when he saw a baby’s picture flash onto the screen. He looked down at the infant sleeping beside him then back at the screen.
“Hope—” he murmured, and she turned quickly.
A memorial for infant Michelle Taggert began at 4:45 this afternoon, the exact time the child was born in May. Family, friends and strangers all gathered, candles in hand, to grant prayers and remembrance to the infant abducted from her home.
A teary-eyed bear of man appeared, and Hope recognized Justine's father.
“I can never forget or forgive this tragedy. My innocent young granddaughter was—”
He stopped suddenly, choking on his anguish, and shaking his head.
“She took that poor baby girl and tried to excuse her crime with vicious accusations. I loved my granddaughter and my daughter with all my heart and—”
He shook his gray head again and placed his hand up to stop the cameras.
Her expression rigid, Hope watched as her own mother's face, pale, tear-streaked and sunken with grief, appeared on the screen. The woman fought against the reporters to get into her home, and that was when Hope quickly got up to flip off the television.
Bren rose and approached her.
“Maybe you should get your shower, Bren,” she interrupted. “I'm gonna eat then get some sleep.”
He took several moments to stare at her, then turned and moved to the bathroom, not saying a word. Hope dropped her hamburger and groaned, feeling her stomach cramp, the muscles seizing over mixed feelings of helplessness and rage.
Brennan woke up with a start, jumping up and sucking in a loud breath. He flipped on the light and peered down at the baby beside him, thankful she was still asleep. Glancing at his watch, he saw that it was three o'clock in the morning, and he groaned, wondering what on earth could have made him wake up so early.
He heard a sound to his right and turned to find that Hope was no longer curled up asleep on the chair near the bed. He scanned the room for her then realized the sound he had heard was coming from the balcony.
When he slid the door open, he found her standing against the railing, looking out intently into the darkness. She did not turn to him, but her back stiffened when she heard him. His hand gently touched her shoulder, and a shiver passed through her body.
“Are you okay?” Bren murmured near her ear.
Hope swallowed a sob and nodded her head in a jerky motion. Her chest rose as she inhaled deeply, and he could see she was struggling to pull herself together.
Finally she found the ability to speak. “Did the baby wake you up? Is she crying?”
“No, I almost forgot she was there. I don't know why I got up. I just felt like something was wrong.”
Brennan shook his head. “Why do you refuse to let me help you? Why won't you let me be here for you?”
She chuckled. “I don't remember you ever being so eager to help.”
He was quiet a moment. “I know. I was pretty much a stubborn dick.”
“Are you saying I'm being stubborn?”
“No, Hope, but you—”
Without warning she burst into tears. Brennan wasn't sure what to do then, so he just pulled her back against his chest and held her as if both their lives depended on it. She shook and sobbed for a few moments then dropped her head back against his shoulder and sighed as if in relief. Her hands clasped his tightly, like she was afraid to let go, and Bren suspected she probably was.
“They all think I'm a monster,” she whispered in a husky voice. “All of them are pitying that man, and they all believe that I'm the monster. Am I, Bren? Should I have done this differently? Should I have just left her there until we could get an appeal?”
“I don't know, Hope. I don't know anything about laws and courts, but I do know that you did what you thought was best. I think you're probably the most courageous person I know. You gave up all you had just to take care of that tiny little person in there. I don't know anyone who would have sacrificed that much for another person.”
Hope looked up at the stars and smiled. “Flattery. You were always good at that.”
She turned and took a step back from him. He knew she was looking for that “space” they always kept between them. Something pulled his blue eyes deep into her brown ones, and Brennan felt a warmth curl up inside his chest.
He didn’t know why he hadn’t told her he would be leaving her just as soon as she was settled. It wasn’t fair to keep her guessing, wondering what he would do. Still, he comforted himself, Hope knew him like no one else. She must know that he couldn’t give his whole life up for her forever.
Swallowing hard, consumed with an emotion that he had never felt and couldn’t identify, Brennan gave himself over to something he was familiar with, lust. Before she could protest, he erased the distance between them, and his lips covered hers. It wasn’t a hungry, smothering kiss, but it was filled with enough passion to set his pulse raging.
When they came apart, both were too stricken by what had happened to speak. Hope touched two fingers to her mouth and tried to move past him, but Bren grabbed her and forced her to look at him. His finger reached up to trail the line of a tear on her face. She shook her head and pulled away. Hurrying back inside, she curled herself into her chair, not saying a word. Bren did the same, hiding himself in his bed and refusing to think about the things going on inside him.
Sleep was just about to take him when he heard movement in Hope’s direction. He opened his eyes and flinched when she turned a light on in the entryway of the little hotel room. She crouched down beside the bed and looked at him with a resolute expression.
“That’s not going to happen again, Bren. We know where we stand. We’ve known for a long time how things have to be between us, and I’m not going to let that sexy smile of yours suck me in again. You know what I mean, don’t you?”
He sat up on one elbow and scratched at his shoulder a minute. “Yeah. I know.”
“Brennan Rawley, I mean it. I can’t—” Her voice cracked and she swallowed before continuing. “This is too hard without playing games with my heart. I know you’re not in this for the long-haul. You care, I get that. But you’re not the ‘playing for keeps kind.’”
She knows me like no one else. He chided himself even as he felt a twinge somewhere in the right side of his chest. No truer words could have been spoken about him. He wasn’t the “playing for keeps kind”, and Hope deserved someone who would keep her— forever.
He chewed his tongue a moment then nodded. “You’re right. No games. We’re in this as friends. We’re in this to take care of her.” He glanced over his shoulder at the sleeping baby. “Okay?”
Hope smiled, but it was the sort of smile that made her look small, frail and alone. She nodded, placed her hand atop his and squeezed it, then stood and turned away from him to switch off the light. He heard her nestle into the chair again but as exhausted as he felt he couldn’t get his mind to stop churning. It was a bitter irony that Hope was the only person who knew and understood him for who he was. She loved him without question, and yet he still never managed to measure up to the man he believed he should be for her.