“What the fuck were you doing in my room?” Jake growls.
My eyes go to that axe again. If Chase doesn’t have the gun and Jake has that axe, it’s clear who has the upper hand. Actually, Jake would have the upper hand without the axe… even with one hand tied behind his back. Hopefully, he has the self-restraint not to go swinging.
“Now, now, now.” Chase’s smile widens. “Don’t lose your temper, Mr. Decker.”
Jake stops short, his good eye widening.
Chase holds up a brown folder, keeping it just out of Jake’s reach. Jake doesn’t even try to take it back. He just keeps staring at Chase, his jaw twitching under his beard.
“That’s your name, isn’t it?” Chase says. “Jacob Decker? That’s what they called you when you killed those people.”
All the color drains from Jake’s face. He takes a step back and the axe clatters from his hand, which makes me breathe a sigh of relief. He grabs onto a chair for support. “I… I didn’t…”
“I found this at the bottom of your underwear drawer.” Chase clucks his tongue as he waves the folder in the air. “Not exactly where I wanted to be looking, but I wanted to find that rifle. I didn’t find it, but I think this was even better. I learned a lot about you in here, Detective.”
Chase notices the confused look on my face, which only seems to make him smile wider. “This man was a cop for the NYPD—a detective. Very impressive.” He opens the file, glancing briefly inside. “Until he was indicted for murdering two witnesses in a crime. And then he just… disappeared. I suppose he didn’t mention any of that when the two of you were getting all cozy in the kitchen.”
“You have no idea what you’re talking about,” Jake chokes out.
“Take a look yourself, Natalie.” Chase hands me the thin folder, which I take from him with shaking hands. “The New York Times doesn’t lie.”
I open the folder to find a bunch of newspaper clippings inside. The first one is dated about four years ago and shows a black and white photo of a man in a suit leaving a police station. The photo is grainy, but when I hold it close to my face, I can see it’s undeniably Jake. He looks very different though—he’s clean-shaven and has both eyes in the photo. The headline reads: “Killer Cop Appears Before Grand Jury.”
“Killer Cop,” Chase says. “That’s catchy, Jake. I could see how that sort of nickname might stick. I bet they looked far and wide to try to find you.”
I quickly skim the first article. Jacob Decker, a detective for the NYPD, was accused of murdering two witnesses for a case. Allegedly, he lured them to a secluded location under the pretense of discussing the trial, where he proceeded to kill them both by shooting them point blank. There was money involved. Allegedly.
Jake sinks into a seat at the kitchen table. He bows his head down and pulls at strands of his shorn hair. “What do you want, Hollister?” he manages.
“It’s very simple,” Chase says. “I want you to take me and Natalie to our cabin like I asked you to nicely yesterday. Free of charge. Then we’ll forget you exist.”
Jake lifts his good eye to look up at Chase. For a moment, I’m certain he’s going to tell Chase to go to hell. But then his shoulders sag. “Okay. I’ll take you.”
Chase smiles. “Now how hard was that?”
If looks could kill, Chase would be lying dead on the ground, his guts splayed out all around him.
“So when do we leave, Detective?” Chase asks.
“Let me finish digging out the truck and shovel the driveway,” Jake mumbles. “Shouldn’t take more than an hour.”
Chase claps his hands together. “Excellent. And it goes without saying that if you try anything at all, we’ll let the authorities know of your whereabouts.”
He squeezes his good eye shut. “Right. Got it.”
Jake sits at the kitchen table, a dazed look on his face. I study him—the guy who drove around in a blizzard to rescue two strangers he’d never met—and I try to wrap my head around what he did. That guy did not seem like a murderer. But the guy who pointed the rifle at Chase last night was very capable of pulling a trigger.
He’s a murderer. Jake is a murderer. Everything I ever thought about him was wrong.
The desire I felt for him was very wrong.
Of course, if he’s capable of murdering two men in cold blood, what’s to keep him from killing the two of us? Chase never located his rifle, so it’s presumably still in his possession. And even without that rifle, he could do it with the axe. Or even his bare hands, if he wanted.
And in actuality, the smart thing for him to do would be to kill us. That would be the only way to ensure we’ll keep his secret. After all, Chase is exactly the sort of man who would go right to the authorities, in spite of his promises. Especially since he despises Jake.
Jake’s good eye meets mine and a shiver goes through me. I have a bad feeling this isn’t over.
Jake is outside, shoveling snow, while Chase and I stay in the cabin. Chase is keeping an eye on him out the window while he continues to search the cabin for the rifle. He asked Jake where it was, but that was one thing he wouldn’t give in on. Chase didn’t push the issue, but he’s determined to find that gun.
I don’t blame him. I would feel a lot better if Chase had the gun too. Jake still could decide to eliminate his problem by doing away with us both. The only way to ensure that doesn’t happen is for us to have the gun.
As Chase goes through the couch cushions, his lips purse in frustration. “It’s got to be here somewhere, right?”
“I assume it’s well-hidden.” I duck down to look under the couch, even though I’m certain nothing will be there except dust balls. “If he doesn’t want us to find it, we’re not going to.”
Chase nods, considering this. “He might tell you.”
I take a step back. “Me?”
“Oh, come on.” He rolls his eyes. “You must realize how he looks at you. He hates me, but I have a feeling you could get whatever you want out of him. You just have to ask the right way.”
My cheeks burn. “I’m not going to prostitute myself! What’s wrong with you?”
“I’m not asking you to do anything with him.” He makes a gagging noise. “Ugh. I would never do that. I just think… if you’re nice to him, he’ll tell you whatever you want.”
I shake my head. “Stop, Chase. Please.”
“Fine. Then will you at least ask him how much longer it’s going to be?”
I bundle up and go outside, if only to get away from Chase and his insinuations. Jake is shoveling snow in front of the house, his forehead damp, the veins standing out in his neck. When he sees me approach, he briefly lifts his good eye, then lowers it again.
“Chase wants to know how much longer?” I ask.
“Half an hour,” he grunts.
I look along the path he’s been digging, which seems ample to get the truck on the road. It looks like he could have stopped digging twenty minutes ago. But I don’t comment on that. “Okay.”
I start to turn to leave, but Jake’s voice stops me: “I didn’t do it.”
I pause, not sure what to do or say.
“I’m sure you don’t believe me,” he mumbles. “I wouldn’t. I mean, if I were you, I wouldn’t believe me. But I swear to you. I didn’t murder anyone. I wasn’t a crooked cop.”
“I’m sorry.” I look down at the white snow on the ground. “We don’t know each other very well, so…”
“Right.” He nods. “That’s what I’d be thinking if I were you. I don’t blame you. Even my girlfriend at the time—she and I were together for two years—she thought I did it. She dumped me right after I got arrested. So if she didn’t believe me, I wouldn’t expect that you’d…” He heaves a deep breath. “But… I had to say it. Because there’s nothing worse than being thrown in jail for a crime you didn’t commit.”
“So… you were framed?”
Jake glances at the window to the cabin, maybe keeping an eye out for Chase. “Yes. I was.”
His lips turn into a straight line. “It’s a long story.”
He stops shoveling for a moment to study my face. He hesitates, then goes back to shoveling. “You ever hear of a guy named Freddy Mancini?”
“Isn’t he, like, some kind of mobster?”
Jake nods. “Right. He’s a mobster. And I was the detective in charge of investigating several of his operations. I had this great sting going—I was going to take that bastard down hard. Throw him in jail for the rest of his life. It was going to make my entire career.” He stares down at the snow. “And it went good. Great, even. Except when we were busting one of his clubs, his son got shot and killed.”
I cover my mouth. “Oh…”
“Mancini held me personally responsible for it,” he says. “It would have been fine if we had managed to nail Mancini, but those two witnesses—the ones I supposedly ‘murdered’—were what I was counting on to make the case. When they were dead, he got out of prison and I got arrested.” He closes his good eye. “It all fucking fell apart.”
“But…” I frown at him. “You got out. You’re here.”
“Bobby Mancini was Freddy’s only son,” Jake says. “Sending me to prison and destroying my career wasn’t enough for him. He wanted something worse for me. So he paid my bail, marched me out to the middle of nowhere in the dead of winter, and shot me in the chest.”
My mouth falls open. “He shot you? In the chest?”
He touches a spot just to the right of his breastbone. “This is where the bullet got me. I dropped into the snow and he told me he was going to watch me bleed to death. So I shut my eyes and prayed he believed I was dead. I knew my only chance was if he left me, but…” He shuts his eyes, shivering at the memory. “It was dark by the time he left. The bullet missed any vital organs—lucky me—but I lost a lot of blood and it was hard to even walk. Instead of bleeding to death, I thought for sure I was going to freeze to death. And then I fell down a snowbank into a bunch of trees and they scratched up my face and my…” He touches the eyepatch covering his right eye. “My right leg got busted in the fall too, but somehow I managed to make it to some guys ice fishing right before I collapsed, and they brought me to a hospital that didn’t ask too many questions. Including my real name.”
He adjusts his grip on the shovel. “The eye couldn’t be saved. But they managed to save my hands, which wasn’t a guarantee when I first got to the hospital. That’s the only thing I remember clearly when I got there—the emergency room doctor saying I’d probably lose both my hands. So after that, I couldn’t be bitter when the surgeon carved off pieces of my fingers. And the set the two broken bones in my right leg, but I’d been walking on it so long, it didn’t heal right. Still hurts every time I take a step.”
He stops shoveling, staring out into the distance. “I picked this cabin to hide out because I wanted to bring down Mancini and I wanted to get my life back.”
“I thought you liked it out here,” I murmur.
“I loved being a detective,” he says softly. “I miss my old life. I miss my parents. My mother and father—they never believed I was guilty. And now… they probably think I’m dead.”
I flinch. “Dead?”
“I’m sure that’s the conclusion everyone drew when I disappeared three years ago. When they found my blood in the snow.” He looks down at the fresh white powder on the ground. “Makes sense—I would have been dead if that bullet had hit me an inch to the left. I want to call my mother so badly and let her know, but… I can’t. It would give away my location. I need to stay hidden. Here.”
I look around the wilderness—the blanket of snow covering absolutely everything. “But why here? What can you do out here?”
Jake is silent for a moment, as if struggling with whether he should tell me something. When he finally speaks, his voice is very low. “Natalie,” he says. “You know that cabin your ex-boyfriend is bringing you to for the weekend?”
My heart speeds up in my chest. I have a bad feeling I know what he’s going to say. “Yes…”
Jake’s eye meets mine. “That cabin belongs to Freddy Mancini.”
I have to admit, I am struggling. I am struggling to figure out why Chase would bring me to a cabin owned by a notorious mobster.
There are some rumors about Hollister and Co. That they do some unsavory business. It’s not out of the question that Chase’s father might be friends with a mobster. I could picture it.
But the whole thing definitely gives me pause. If it’s true, that is.
“So you understand now,” Jake says, glancing at the window, “why I was reluctant to take you there.” He gives me a meaningful look. “Nothing good goes on in that cabin. Trust me. I’ve kept watch.”
Those binoculars in his room—guess they weren’t for birdwatching.
I feel like a hand is squeezing my chest. “I… I don’t know what to say…”
Jake continues shoveling, and I realize he’s taking us out of the path of any of the windows, so Chase won’t be able to see us. When he stops, the windows are completely concealed by the bulk of his truck.
“I don’t think you should go with him,” he says in a low voice. “You’re not even with him anymore. Why would you go?”
“What are you talking about?” I hiss at him. “That cabin is the only way for me to make it home. That cabin has a phone.”
“I promise you,” he says, “if you stay here, I will get you home safely. I promise. I’ll find a way. I swear it on my life.”
He puts a gloved hand over his heart as he says it. Despite the fact that I’ve only known Jake for two days and I’ve seen an article proclaiming him to be a murderer, somehow I believe him. I believe he’d get me home.
But it’s not that simple.
“I can’t just wait indefinitely,” I say. “I’ve got a business to run back home. And… well, you know I don’t fit in out here. I’m not the kind of person who should be living off the grid.”
He gives me a hard look. “But at least you’re alive.”
“I… I don’t know,” I murmur. “Chase was a crappy boyfriend, but he wouldn’t lead me somewhere unsafe.”
“I just told you who owns that cabin. It’s not safe—I promise you that.”
His blue eye stays trained on me. “Please, Natalie. I’m begging you. Stay with me.”
I chew on my lip. “What would I tell Chase?”
“We’ll figure something out. Let me worry about that.”
I wonder if the something we’ll figure out would involve the rifle Chase can’t seem to find. Or maybe I don’t want to know.
I look up at his rugged features, the scar snaking out from underneath the eyepatch. He still does crazy things to me. I’ve never felt this drawn to a man in my entire life. That must be a sign of… something. Right?
“Do you want me to stay because you’re worried?” I ask in a low voice. “Or is there another reason?”
He’s quiet a moment, considering my question. “I’m worried about you.” He pauses. “But I’d be lying if I said that’s the only reason I want you to stay.”
And now we’re both staring at each other. I glance over to confirm we’re not in sight of the window and then take a step toward him. I barely even feel the cold air because of the heat radiating off his body. He’s much taller than me, but when he lowers his head, our lips are only inches apart. And when I stand on my toes, we’re that much closer.
He ducks his head down to bridge the gap between us. His lips press against mine, his breath hot in the frigid air. His beard scrapes my chin as he draws me closer to him. I press my hands against his chest, feeling the muscles under his light jacket. He pulls off his glove and runs his right hand along the back of my neck, his hand rough and calloused and warm against my delicate skin. And with his touch, I shiver.
He kisses so good.
We stand there for I don’t know how long, making out like I’ve never made out before. I’ve never felt this kind of heat with Chase. I’ve never felt this with anyone. I’ve never met anyone like Jake before. Guys like him don’t tend to get drawn to rich girls with catering companies.
When he pulls away, I nearly scream with frustration. I can see the regret on his own face as well. “Chase will catch us,” he says. “I want him out of here—I can’t piss him off.”
I know he’s right. I’m being selfish—if Chase gives him away, he’ll be dead. We have to be careful.
Jake adjusts his eyepatch, which was knocked slightly askew when we were kissing. I watch him gingerly putting it back in place. He’s so protective of that eye, like he can’t stand the idea of me seeing it. Does he really think so little of me? “Can I see?” I ask.
He frowns at me. “See what?”
“Your…” I gesture at the patch.
His good eye widens. “Uh… I mean, it’s not something you…” He rubs the back of his neck. “It doesn’t look good. It’s… scarred. It will upset you.”
“I think that’s an unfair and insulting assumption.”
“You really want to see?” He raises his eyebrows. “Fine. Here you go.”
He yanks the eyepatch off entirely, the elastic snapping as it pulls free. I stare at him, at his good eye on the left, clear and blue, and then the left: thickly scarred on the lower lid, the upper lid nearly sealed closed except for the tiniest bit of cloudy white showing. He blinks with his left eye but the right doesn’t budge.
He heaves a breath. “I’m sorry. I told you it wasn’t pretty.”
I shake my head at him, then grab him by the collar. I pull him down toward me and kiss him again, this time even deeper than the first. He’s stiff at first, but gradually relaxes against me. His body melts against mine.
“So you’re staying,” he says. “Right?”
And this is the hard part. As sexy as I think Jake is, as much as I want him to ravish me, as much as I do trust him, I still don’t know if staying here with him is the right decision. Maybe that cabin does belong to a mobster, but that doesn’t mean anything bad will be going on there. The Hollisters do business with all sorts of people—maybe Chase’s dad knows the Mancinis and they offered up the cabin.
All I’m saying is I don’t think I can get out of this without it being a huge scene. In which somebody potentially gets physically hurt. But I’m not sure how to say that to Jake. At least, not yet.
“Right,” I say. I’ll break it to him later, when we get to the other cabin.
His good eye searches my face. He frowns and pushes away from me. “No,” he says as he puts the eyepatch back on hastily, “you’re not staying, are you? You’re just saying that.” He snorts at the surprise on my face. “How did I know? You’ve got a tell. Remember?”
My hand immediately goes to my right earring stud. “I didn’t touch my earring.”
“That’s not your tell.”
Damn. I knew it. I knew he wasn’t being honest before.
“Fine,” I say. “I want to stay with you, but you have to realize what a big scene it will cause if I don’t go with Chase.”
“I’ll come back,” I promise him. “Let me go to the cabin with Chase, then I’ll come back to see you later.”
Jake glares at me with his good eye. “Do you get what I’m telling you, Natalie?” he says. “It’s not safe at that cabin. It’s. Not. Safe.”
“But Chase will be with me.”
“Chase?” he snorts. “Chase can’t protect you. Not from those guys.”
“And you can?”
“Yes,” he says, “I absolutely can.”
I lower my eyes, digging a little hole in the snow with the tip of my boot. “I’m sorry.”
“Shit,” he breathes. He throws the shovel to the ground angrily. “You know what? Do what you want. I did my part—I warned you. If you don’t listen, that’s your problem.”
“Well, gee, thanks.”
All of the heat between us from a minute ago has vanished. Well, maybe not vanished, but turned into something different. It’s like all our sexual tension has been converted into hostile tension. I think I learned about this happening in physics class.
“It will be fine,” I say.
“For your sake,” he says under his breath, “I hope you’re right.”
To be continued....