I curse under my breath, giving the punching bag another furious volley of hits. It’s been several days now, and I haven’t heard a peep from Mercy.
I could tell she was pretty weirded out when I told her about some of my gifts. God forbid you ever tell her the full extent of them, hotshot.
I grimace, giving the bag a ringing roundhouse kick, feeling the shudder all the way through my hip. I’ve been trying to give her time to digest everything, not be pushy or overbearing, but she hasn’t called me yet and I’m starting to get a little worried. Or maybe she’s old fashioned, and she’s waiting for you to call her, ya dope.
Despite the less than stellar ending, I thought our 2nd date went pretty well, all things considered. She’d even invited me into her apartment alone, which I know from catching some of her wayward thoughts she viewsas a sort of sanctuary. Her safe place. Allowing me into it was a big step in the right direction for us. I snort. Yeah, and ya blew it buddy, by opening your big mouth.
What else could I do? I didn’t want to lie to her. That never ends well, I already know this from experience. But I also know most people have a heck of a hard time accepting me and my “uniqueness”.
That’s exactly why I try to minimize it as much as I can, and only reveal it whenabsolutely necessary. I pound the bag again, then lift my leg and drive my knee into the side of it. Sweat drips into my eyes stinging them, and I blink it away. All things considered, I really didn’t have much of a choice but to tell her about me. She point blank asked.
I stop for a few minutes, catching my breath, using the towel slung around my neck to mop up some of the sweat. My body is tired and aching, I’ve been in here training since 6am. I look at my watch. It’s now almost 9am. I grab the bottle of water I brought with me and drain half of it in one gulp. Chugging down the other half, I crumple the plastic bottle in my hand and then toss it in the recycling bin against the wall nearby.
Wally, the other trainer will be here soon. The first group class for the day is at 10am. Wiping my face with the towel again, I head for the showers to get cleaned up. Today is my day off, so I’d prefer to get out of here before any of the other students showup. Especially since today is when Crazy Cathy usually attends. She’s a rich old cougar who likes to take self-defense classes because of the “eye candy”. I roll my eyes. If I don’t make it out of here before she arrives, it’s a sure bet I’ll wind up roped into staying and showing her some moves “personally”.
I stride into the locker room, grabbing a clean towel on my way in, and my clothes from the counter top I’d left them on earlier. Stripping down, I step into a stalland reach out to turn the handle and crank the water up high and hot. It just sputters on when a premonition hits me out of nowhere.
I stumble, grabbing for the wall, my vision blacked out by distorted images flashing by in quick succession, so fast they blur together. I give my head a hard shake, trying to dislodge them or jog them enough to make some sense, but it doesn’t help. Weak kneed, I reach out blindly, feeling along the wall for the shower bench I know is there, and lower myself onto it, panting, waiting for the episode to pass.
It does soon enough, and my vision clears, the now steamy locker room coming back into focus, the shower stream beating down on the floor in front of me, splashing my feet. I stare blankly down at the water swirling down the drain, feeling confused and disturbed. The vision was spotty, blurred, and didn’t make any sense. The only thing I’m sure about is that it has something to do with Mercy, just like the lastone.
My lips tighten, and I scrub a hand through my hair, frustrated. Though I know it’s useless I spend a few minutes sitting there, just trying to recall the images and put them into some kind of sensible order. When I can’t, I let out a grunt of irritation, and stand up to finish my shower, tipping my face up to the hot water and letting it pelt my face.
I wash away the sweat of the morning, trying to let the hot water relax me, without much success. I’d already beenworried about Mercy and why I haven’t heard from her after my big reveal the other night and this just spikes my worry over the top.
Coming to a decision, I finish cleaning up. I’m going to go check on her, whether she’s ready to see me or not. I run the risk of alienating her even more, but I can’t just sit around hoping to hear from her. I need to check on her and make sure she’s okay. I throw my clothes on, mentally running through possible reasons to give her for showing up at her door without notice.
Since I know honesty is always the best policy, I decide I’ll just be frank and tell her I was worried when I didn’t hear from her, and that I’m hoping she’ll still come train with me this week. Both excuses are truthful, if not the whole truth. I am worried about her and I am hoping she will still train with me, but she doesn’t need to know about my premonition today. That would send her running for the hills forsure.
Still lost in thought, I go through the motions of getting ready, lacing my shoes, putting on deodorant, finger combing my hair.
Coffee, you should bring her coffee, too. I don’t know any woman that can turn down coffee in the morning.
I smile, already feeling better at the thought of seeing her again. I snag my keys and helmet, and lope out the door to my bike, nervous excitement tying my stomach in knots. I can see her gorgeous smile in my mind’seye, and I shake my head wryly. Man, you’ve got it bad.
I roar into the parking lot of Mercy’s apartment building, and cut the engine, letting the bike roll to a stop in a space near her stairwell. Taking a deep breath, I climb the steps to her apartment, coming to a halt before her door. Raising my fist to knock, I hesitate. Get a grip Camden. You won’t know until you know. Just knock already and find out what’s up.
Taking a deep inhale, I thump my fist against her door, then hold my breath, waiting. After a few minutes, I hear shuffling just on the other side, and I can see the wiggle of her eye through the peep hole. “Mercy, it’s Camden,” I call out, hoping to reassure her.
A few more seconds pass before she opens the door a crack, peering out at me. My eyes widen in concern, noting her wan and disheveled appearance and the anxious look on her face. Her eyes have dark circles under them, her hair is a tangled mess,and she looks like she’s still half-asleep.
“Mercy, are you alright?” I put my hand against the door, holding it open. “What happened? Can I come in?” She backs up a step, shaking her head no, and as she does, I catch one of her thoughts that slip through the cracks. Something about Jeff and a note. I stiffen, anger rising, as the pieces fall into place. My premonition earlier, Mercy’s thoughts, why I haven’t heard from her in days… it all comes together and begins tomake sense, and I feel rage and a fierce protectiveness being stoked to life.
I curse inwardly, struggling to get a handle on my emotions as I study her face, trying to figure out the best way to reach her. I can tell she’s spooked and I don’t want to make it worse. Lowering my voice, I speak softly, “Hey Mercy, it’s me… Camden. What happened? Can you tell me what happened? Can I please come in? I can tell you’re upset.”
She stares at me for a few minutes, her eyes dark, her fingers gripping the edge of the door so tightly I can see her knuckles turning white. She seems to hesitate, her gaze refocusing somewhat as she continues to stare at me, before she flushes, clearing her throat. Shaking her head as though she’s coming out of a fog, her voice emerges as a hoarse croak, “Camden. I’m sorry, I… I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
I offer her a coaxing smile of encouragement and hold up the coffee and treats I brought along withme. “I come bearing gifts. Coffee, just creamer, and fresh donuts right out of the oven. Still warm.” I sniff appreciatively, giving her a playful look even as I battle to hide my rage and worry. I notice her nose twitch as she involuntarily sniffs too, and I grin. Her eyes soften, the shadows clearing a bit more, and finally she relents, stepping back to open the door a little wider and invite me inside. It’s clear by her slow movements she’s still reluctant, but I’ll take it.
I brush past her gently, carrying the coffee and treats into her small living room, doing my best not to make any sudden moves that might make her feel threatened. “C’mon sweetheart. I’m starving and this coffee won’t drink itself. You can tell me what’s going on once you’re fueled up.”
I set everything down on her small coffee table and take a seat on her couch. I pat the space next to me in invitation, and watch her as she swallows, uncertain. Finally she nods and shuffles forward to sit down next to me, leaving ample space between us. She hugs a small throw pillow to her chest, and accepts the coffee I hand her with a grateful tilt of her lips.
My gaze meets hers. “Now… tell me what’s going on.”
I swallow hard, pinned by Camden’s beautiful green eyes that feel as though they’re digging and uncovering every secret I possess. My lipspart, and I struggle to push words out, but none will come.
I’m so wound up with anxiety and so exhausted from lack of sleep, it makes for an interesting mix. A part of me is happy to see Camden again, even after he’s told me about his abilities, but another part of me, the broken part, is unable to relax, unable to get past the fear and mistrust of all men that Jeff has reawakened within me by his stalking and harassment. There’s a tiny voice in my head shouting, Mercy,what if you’re wrong about this guy?
Deep down, I think a part of me knows I can trust Camden, but with everything that’s been happening just piling up on me, it’s hard to let that part of me take the lead.
I take a gulp of coffee to stall and give myself more time to gather my thoughts, tearing my gaze away from Camden’s and staring instead out the window next to my couch. I can feel the weight of his gaze still heavy on my face, and my cheeks start to warm. I shift, and turn my attention to the bag he’s left on the table.
Uncomfortable with revealing anything heavy right now, even though I know he’s just worried, I change the subject, “You mentioned donuts?”
His lips quirk, and he nods. “I did indeed. Fresh, just out of the oven donuts in fact.” He lifts the bag and gives it a shake. “Still warm too. You want?”
I nod, giving him a small smile. “Yes, please. They smell amazing.”
He chuckles. “They do. I’ve been sniffing the bag the whole way here, practically salivating. I was just waiting to eat one with you.”
I glance up at him, startled by his easy admission, and blush again at the warmth I see in his eyes. I chew the inside of my lip, unsure how to respond. He seems to sense my discomfiture, and looks back down at the bag in his hands, opening it up to reach in to hand me one of the warm circles of sugary dough.
Accepting it with asmile of thanks, I take a bite, and give a tiny sigh of pleasure. I watch as Camden pulls one out of the bag for himself, and takes a bite of his own. His eyes close on a groan of delight, and I let out a small laugh. It’s amusing to watch such a virile man react to a donut that way. He opens his eyes at the sound, and lifts a brow. “Are you laughing at me?”
I rearrange my face into a more solemn expression, and state, “Of course not. I would never laugh at you.”
His lips twitch, and he eyes me suspiciously. “Hmmm. Somehow I’m not buying it, but it’s okay. You can laugh at me all day long if it keeps a smile on your face and the shadows from your eyes.”
I pause mid-bite, and feel unexpected tears well up. Blinking them back, I take another bite of the warm treat, then a gulp of hot coffee to wash it down, and hope he chalks the dampness up to the hot drink making my eyes water.
The food and coffee must be helping,because I’m starting to feel a little more human again. The last couple of days have been pretty hellacious. Glancing down at my clothes, I realize I’m wearing the same t-shirt and pajama pants I’d been wearing for days. I grimace inwardly. I can only imagine how frightful I must look, but Camden doesn’t seem to be aware of it, or care if he is.
Studying him from beneath my lashes as we eat and drink for a few minutes in silence, my breath hitches a little at how gorgeous he is.He’s just so… male. I marvel again at how strong and muscled he looks, yet how gentle and kind his demeanor is. Well, when he’s not ticked off at any rate. My mind flashes back to the night at the lake when he’d gotten so angry after running into Jeff, but I shove those thoughts aside.
Camden settles back into the couch with a satisfied sigh, licking the sugar from his fingers before he grins at me. “Definitely hit the spot.”
I grin back. “Definitely, thank you.”
He shrugs. “You’re welcome. Now c’mon. No more stalling. Tell me what’s going on, what’s happened that’s got you all spooked again. Other than me telling you I’m a psychic, that is.” He lifts a brow, and I avert my gaze. I’d honestly not even thought much about any of that, I’ve been so focused on Jeff and the memories and the fear.
“No, it’s not that. I’m actually pretty okay with that. I think.” I pinch off another bite ofdonut, keeping my hands busy. Haltingly, I start to tell him about what happened the night he’d left, trying to fill him in without giving him all the gory details of history between me and Jeff.
His fists clench and unclench in his lap, but that’s the only sign he gives that his emotions are raw. I can feel his stiffness, and I know he’s angry. It should scare me, but it doesn’t. Somehow, I know the anger isn’t directed at me and instead it helps me to feel just a little bitsafer. Like I have someone in this world that wants to protect me. With that thought comes a stab of longing for my dad, but I ignore it and continue to talk.
Camden lets me tell him the whole story without interrupting me, and when I’m done, he just looks at me. His gaze is troubled, and I can see the rage lurking in its depths, but I also see kindness and understanding, and something else I can’t quite put my finger on. Whatever it is, something deep inside me responds to it, and my pulse speeds up.
I curl up into myself on the couch cushion, hugging the pillow tighter. “So… there you have it. That’s what happened the other night, and why you haven’t heard from me. That’s why I probably look like a hot mess right now.” I shove my hair behind my ears, self-conscious.
“I’m sorry you’re going through all of this, Mercy,” he states quietly. “It enrages me that this guy thinks he can keep hurting you and get away with it.” He takesa deep breath, the sound ragged in the silence of the room, revealing just how much he’s struggling to keep his feelings in check.
“I promise that as long as I’m around, I’ll do everything I can to keep you safe. You can trust me. I’d never hurt you, I promise.”
I wring my fingers together, unsure of how to respond, even though I know what he’s telling me is true. He reaches out and gently tips my chin up with a finger so I’ll look at him. His gaze isintense, and I squirm. “You do know that, right? That you’re safe with me? I’m nothing like that guy, Mercy, I swear.”
I nod. “I know. It’s just hard, letting my guard down, trusting someone. You know? But I’m working on it.” I offer him a small smile, and he smiles back.
“Good. How about you work on it with some more self-defense classes? I think they’ll really help you, both to blow off steam and to make you feel a little more confidant in your ability to protect yourself if you need to.” He grins, giving me a playful look. “Besides, I let you almost beat the crap out of me the other day, I have to have an opportunity to redeem myself.”
I let out an unladylike snort. “You let me? Give me a break. You didn’t let me do anything.”
He chuckles. “Tomato, tomahto. I still need the chance to redeem myself, and only you can provide it.”
I give him a reluctant smile, noddingslowly. “Alright. I’ll come to another lesson. But don’t say I haven’t told you so.”
This time it’s his turn to snort. “I’ll try to keep that in mind,” he comments dryly.
With that, he helps me gather up the remains of our coffee and donuts, and I walk him to the door. He reaches out and grips my fingers lightly between his, and then brings the tips to his mouth. I gape a little as he places a gentle kiss on them, before letting me go and opening the door tostep out. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Mercy.” Then in a darker tone, he growls, “Lock up.” With that, he’s pounding down the stairwell out of sight.
I make it through two of my classes the next day without mishap, but no matter what I do, I can’t shake the sensation of being watched. Walking from class to class, every time I’m out in the open I feel the hairs on the back of my neck rise to attention. After my 2nd class the feeling hasn’t abated any, and I decide to escape into a restroom for a few minutes and hide out, catch my breath.
I lock myself into one of the stalls just as two girls enter the restroom, chattering back and forth to each in excitement. Taking slow, deep breaths, I invoke some of Gemma’s relaxation techniques, repeating my mantra. Easy, Mercy. Chill out. Calm down, you’re okay. After a few minutes, I start to feel a little silly over my paranoia.
The two girls leave the restroom, and I’m left in relativesilence. Sitting for a few more minutes, I pull out my phone and text Camden, asking him what time I should meet him at the gym today. I’d promised him yesterday I would show up for lessons, once I was done with all my classes.
He texts me back right away, telling me to meet him in an hour, and I have to smile. I’m so immersed in texting him I almost don’t hear the tiny click of the restroom door. My lips part, and my heart leaps to my throat as dread settles in the pit of mystomach. I sit frozen on the toilet seat, my ears straining to hear anything further. When I don’t, I start to think maybe I was mistaken and my mind is just playing tricks on me. My paranoia ramping up again.
My shoulders sag as I force myself to relax. Another text from Camden comes through, and for some reason, the small act of normalcy eases my mind. Glancing down, I read his words ‘Can’t wait to see you’ and my lips tug into another smile. ‘Can’t wait to see you too’.
With some surprise, I realize it’s true. Somehow in the midst of all of the crazy going on, and my mixed emotions, I’ve come to harbor feelings for Camden that I didn’t think I’d ever let another guy get close enough to have. Somehow, Camden has breached those barriers and wormed his way into my thoughts and my heart, and even though it still scares the crap out of me, it also excites me and makes me hopeful for the future.
Slipping my phoneinto my bag, I get up to leave the stall, and when I approach the bathroom sink, I notice something sitting on the surface. My brow furrows as I get closer, and then I feel all the color drain from my face when I realize what it is.
There, sitting on the bathroom counter is a neatly folded silken scarf. I can smell the faint scent of my favorite perfume wafting from it. Next to it is another typewritten note, more suggestive than the last one.
“The scent of yourperfume is intoxicating. Please be sure to wear it when we meet again. Do you like being blindfolded?”
I feel bile rise in my throat, and cold sweat breaks out across my forehead. Backing up a few steps, I feel myself starting to shake. I fumble inside my bag, looking for my phone, clinging to the only sense of safety I have right now. Finding it, I somehow manage to text Camden again, telling him plans have changed and I’m coming now.
I grab the note, ignoring the scarf, and then spinning on my heel, I rush from the bathroom, slamming the door open and breaking into a slow jog as I enter the open hallway beyond. My breath is coming in short, panting gasps, and panic is bubbling just beneath the surface. All I can think is that I need to reach Camden, he will know what to do, he can help me right now.
I look over my shoulder as I run, still unable to shake the sensation of being watched, and now I know I am. Jeff is stalking me. He’sraped me, and now he’s fixated on me, is toying with me. I feel hot tears rising and struggle to keep them from spilling over.
God, what did I do to deserve this? I rail silently. I don’t understand.
I start running faster, something in the act of running relieving my fear momentarily. Perhaps it’s the adrenaline, but the icy sensation along my neck begins to dissipate the farther away from that bathroom I get, and I keep running, all the way to thegym, to Camden.
I use my hand to wipe away the tears that have spilled over despite my best efforts, sniffing and swallowing against the sob caught in my throat. I feel as if I’m hanging on by a thread, and any second now I’m going to break.
Camden, I need you.
I frown, doing paperwork in my office, feeling perturbed at the last text Mercy sent me a bit ago. That she was coming now instead of later. Not that I mind, I can’t wait to see her, but I don’t understand the change and something is making me uneasy.
I stand up and begin pacing my office, tossing one of those stress balls back and forth between my hands, when another premonition hits me. My vision blurs, and I grapple around, feeling for my desk and managing to sit myself back down in my chair.
This one is more detailed, showing me another typewritten note, and instinctively I knowthat this must be the reason Mercy is coming here now. I take slow, deep breaths as my vision begins to clear, and close my eyes, opening my senses up to try and feel for her. When I focus, I can usually sense when someone is close by, but it takes me a few minutes.
I grip the arms of my chair, keeping my thoughts focused on Mercy, and within minutes I realize she’s almost here, and that she’s running. Cursing, I leap to my feet, dashing out the door of my office and slammingthrough the doors of the gym to the street outside, looking around for her frantically.
I shove through a couple of people passing by on the sidewalk and finally I see her. I let out a sigh of relief. Her face crumples when she catches sight of me, and it’s like I’ve been punched in the gut. When she reaches me, she tumbles into my arms, wrapping her own tightly around my neck as sobs begin breaking free. My arms close around her small frame almost automatically, and I struggle to control my own emotions.
Her chest heaves, and she’s damp with a fine sheen of sweat. I realize she must have run the entire way here, and I reach up to stroke the back of her hair, while making soothing noises. “Shhhh. It’s okay, Mercy. It’s alright. You’re here with me now, you’re safe. Shhhhh.”
She buries her face into the side of my neck, her tears spilling against my skin, and I take a shuddering breath of my own, my abilities opening me up to heremotions more than is really wise. It’s hard for me not to feel what she’s feeling, I’ve become so connected with her. I use the soothing noises I’m making to calm not just her but myself too, so I can be strong for her.
I brush my hand along her back, feeling the dainty bones of her spine beneath her thin t shirt. Running my hand up under her hair, I grip the back of her neck and hug her to me tightly, closing my eyes. The thought of anyone hurting her in any way enrages mebeyond belief, curdling my stomach.
After a few minutes, she begins to calm down. People are passing by us in the street, giving us odd looks, some of them trying not to stare, and I realize I’d better get her inside. Turning my face, I whisper in her ear, “Mercy, sweetheart, let me get you inside, okay? You’re alright, you’re safe now, but people are giving us funny looks.”
She sniffles, stirring against me, and looks up. Her eyes are red and swollen from crying, and her face is pale, but she’s still so achingly beautiful it stuns me. She looks a little dazed, and glances around the street like she’s confused.
Then her eyes regain some clarity, and her face begins to flush when she realizes people passing by are starting to stare. She steps back, putting distance between us, and I can feel her trying to put walls back up. She crosses her arms, hugging herself, and nods.
I don’t want her feeling as if she needs todistance herself from me, so I reach out and take one of her hands in mine, giving her an encouraging look. She hesitates, but doesn’t resist. Gripping her fingers, I tug her in the direction of the gym, leading the way inside.
As we walk, I feel a sensation of being watched, and stiffen, trying not to let my reaction alert Mercy. I’d been so focused on her I hadn’t noticed anything else around us for several minutes. But now that we’d disentangled from each other, and have somespace between us, I’m feeling eyes on me.
I glance around the street, opening myself up and feeling around trying to get a handle on where the sensation originates. But there are so many people walking around, it’s the busiest part of the day here, I can’t zero in on anything. Reaching the door of the gym, I usher Mercy inside, pausing behind her to cast around one last time in an effort to pinpoint where the warning bells clanging in my head are stemming from. I curse under my breath, still failing to pick up anything.
Giving up, I follow Mercy into the gym, and direct her to my office. My lips tighten grimly behind her. I may not be able to pinpoint where the sensation is coming from, but I know exactly who it’s coming from. And I’ll be damned if I let him hurt Mercy again.