Chapter 73

I woke to a heart-warming familiar scene. Brad’s bed, sunlight streaming through breaks in the curtains, the clatter of pans, and smells of bacon. I rolled over, stretching, wincing as my feet brushed against the sheets, my head welcoming me to the day with a dull roar of pressure. I was naked, the robe tangled around me, my arms freed from it at some point in the night, and I moved it aside, pushing back the covers and walking to the closet, grabbing a long nightshirt and pulling it over my head.

Brad met me on the stairs, his critical eyes on my bare feet, a frown settling over his features, and I spoke before he could.

“I’m done being babied. I ran for miles on these feet ... I can walk myself downstairs.”

“You should be in bed. I’ll have Martha bring up food.”

“Move. I need normality right now. Don’t think I can’t kick your ass.” He grinned at my tone, jogging up a few steps and planting a kiss on my lips.

“Fine. I’m glad to see your spark back. Breakfast is ready if you are hungry.”

I shoved him gently over and moved down the stairs, a smile spreading over my face. I am alive. I am home. I am with Brad. I left the stairwell, moving into the kitchen, surprised to see a strange face seated at the table.

“Good morning,” I said uncertainly, giving Martha a hug and accepting the plate she directed me to.

Brad spoke. “Julia, this is Doctor Barnes. You met him last night. He’s just here for a follow-up examination. He’s also signed confidentiality papers, so please continue to speak freely in front of him.”

“May I eat first?” I eyed my plate—bacon, sausage, hash browns, and eggs dancing yummy in front of me.

“Of course,” the doctor spoke, pulling a chair out for me. “Observation is part of the exam, so if you don’t mind, I’ll watch you closely.”

I blushed. “That’s fine.”

Brad sat across from me, his face serious. “The police want to question you this morning. Before they do, I’d like to walk through with you what happened. An attorney will be with you during the questioning, but it’ll help if you go through it with me a few times first.”

I shrugged, shoveling food into my mouth with a fork, too hungry to care about the matter of appearances. “Okay. But I won’t be much help.”

“Start from the beginning.”

I did, starting from the moment I heard my vehicle’s alarm, explaining the cloth over my mouth, waking in the chair, my subsequent blackout. The doctor interrupted a few times, asking about my body’s response—how I had felt upon waking each time. I tried to answer as truthfully as possible, much of my memories vague, my head aching as I pushed it. He re-examined the back of my head, the wound, his touch eliciting a cry from me that had Brad shooting to his feet.

“This wound indicates a strong impact; she must have fallen back onto concrete. She’s lucky ... her concussion could have killed her. We’ll need to keep her under close observation for a few days, and I’d like to get a CT and MRI this afternoon, if the police are done with her by then.”

Brad nodded, his eyes on me. “Then what happened? When you woke up the second time?”

I hesitated, his eyes catching on and sharpening in response. I saw his hands clench and I frowned. “I can’t tell you this if you are going to freak out about it.”

“Tell me,” he gritted out.

“I woke up, untied, on a bed of some sorts—a thin one. A man was in between my legs, and my sweats and panties were off.” Brad swore, pain on his face, and I reached out to him. “Like I said last night - nothing happened, Brad. Let me talk.” He nodded, his eyes on mine. “I waited and tried not to move, tried to pretend to be asleep, or unconscious, or whatever it was that I had been. When I saw an opening, I took it.”

“Took what? What do you mean?”

“I put him in a triangle chokehold. Like Ben taught me.” I looked down, moving my food on my plate.

“You’re shitting me.” His voice held a mixture of pride and dismay, and I looked up to find him running a hand over his mouth, his eyes dark.

“No. I held it—” My voice broke, my eyes staying on Brad, watching the flicker in his as I spoke. “For a long time, but not too long, after he passed out. I counted. Three minutes.”

“Three minutes,” he said quietly. “That’s it?”

“Yes. Then I ran. I ran, and I hid, and I ran again. I stopped once, behind a building, and slept between a dumpster and a fence for a bit ... until dark. Then I ran again, and I got to the house that you picked me up from.”

“Three minutes,” Brad repeated, frowning slightly, a question in his eyes, his knowledge not as great in the area of jujitsu as my own.

“Four minutes is terminal. Just three minutes... he’d have regained consciousness.”

Brad’s eyes darkened across the table.

Chapter 74

The day passed in a blur of questions, medical tests, family, and friends. My wedding dress hung in the corner of the room, a constant indicator of the wedding that never occurred. The money wasted stuck like a forgotten burr, poking and scraping with every reminder—the mountain of wrapped gifts piled in a corner of the guest room, the useless Post-It note stuck to a corner of the fridge, with reception times and a reminder to pull passports from the safe. Our honeymoon also picked at my conscience, despite my unwilling part in my disappearance, all this—the police, the doctor, the haunted look in Brad’s eyes—was a burden brought on by my actions. If only I had stayed inside the house, ignored my car alarm and the words painted on the windows and doors. But the guilt was soon washed away in the overwhelming current of love and celebration that filled the home. Mother shone, Dad’s eyes twinkled, and Olivia was the beaming best friend of a year prior. We ate every casserole Martha had baked, demolished the groom’s cake, and I had some vintage bubbly, obeying the doctor’s stern orders to limit it to one glass. Brad’s hand never left my skin, his arm around me, his mouth making frequent trips to my forehead, my cheek, my lips. I saw fear in his eyes when he looked at me, a protective, raw emotion that both comforted and chilled me, the dark look so vulnerable in its whatmighthavebeen caress. Then he stood, heralding them all out, glaring at anyone who dared to object—‘doctor’s orders’ his reprimand of choice.

And we had two hours—two hours of peace, our bodies molded together on the bed, his hand trailing lightly through my hair until I slept. Then, Martha’s knock reawakened us, and I dressed for the police.