Later that afternoon, Madison’s giggle could be heard from hundreds of feet away as she and Cole walked to the park in Lincoln. They had just finished their ice cream from the ice cream shop, where they had eaten until they were full, and Cole had voluntarily begun to tell her a few stories about his late mother.
“You didn’t,” she teased him. “You really ate a whole half of a cake when you were only eight years old?”
“My mother was furious.” Cole smiled wryly. “I was grounded for two weeks.”
“Wow.” She chuckled, and then they reached a tree, and she leaned against its bark. “That’s impressive. I wish I could have seen that.”
“Well.” He gave a shrug. “Maybe one day I’ll show you some pictures.”
“Yeah, you should.” She grinned. “Does that mean that I can meet your family?”
As soon as she asked that question, Cole’s smile completely vanished, and fear as stark as any blared his hazel-green, handsome eyes. He swallowed hard, and then shook his head, looking away, unable to look at her.
“How come?” she asked gently.
“Because…” He swallowed hard. “They’re…t-they’re h-horrible..people.” He swallowed hard. He closed his eyes briefly.
“Ha, I can imagine.”
She thought that he was kidding! Cole reluctantly gazed up at her. “I’m…I’m serious, Madison.”
Madison’s sunny, bright smile faded from her face, and a piercing pain hit him, right in the center of his gut. Immediately Cole yearned for her to smile again.
“Come on,” she said softly. “They can’t be that bad.”
Pain cast over him, and abruptly, Cole closed his eyes to remember the pleading in her mother’s eyes before she’d died. Pleading him to do something, anything, to be stronger than Addison was, for once, just to save her life. To save both of their lives.
His only scream, along with Addison’s laughter, rang in his ears, in his brain.
He opened his eyes, and when he did, there was dead fear on Madison’s face for the first time in the time he’d known her. Now he’d done it. Great going, Cole.
“Cole.” Madison leaned away from the tree, and then stepped over to lightly touch his left cheek.
Her gentle touch did strange things to him, and he had to force himself to freeze so he wouldn’t lean into her hand.
“Why do you look like that?” The expression on her face begged him to tell her as soon as possible. “You look so hurt, so angry, so…” She shook her head, unable to voice more. She swallowed hard. “Why…why are your family members…horrible people?”
Cole stared at her, yearning so strong beating fast in the center of his chest. He swallowed hard again, and then stepped back. He couldn’t tell her. He’d rather die from his family’s own sting than to see her die following him telling her why. He knew he’d promised her earlier that he was going to tell her, or try to. But look what he’d done so quickly to keep her from smiling. If he told her, he was risking both of their lives, especially hers. He would never live again if something happened to her.
“I can’t tell you,” he whispered.
Madison frowned, and then stepped closer, grabbing his forearm. “Cole, you have to tell me. Now.” She shook her head. “You’re really worrying me, you know that? I care about you, as your good friend, and I will not bear to see you look like that. I hate being kept in the dark, and I know that you know the same feeling. Please.” She shook her head again. “Tell me.”
Cole studied her for a long moment, pain continuously fighting to knock him down, leaving him breathless. He knew that any bout of physical pain would never feel as badly as letting her down. That pain caused him to feel so pain-filled, he had to force his refusal out.
“No,” he clipped out softly, hating himself for refusing. “I can’t. It’s…too huge.”
Madison studied him for a long moment, and then to his relief, understanding dawned on her face. “All right.” She let go of his arm. “Maybe it is too big to explain. All right.” She clasped her hands together. “Let’s start with something small. Okay?”
Cole bit his lip, furious at himself for wanting to come on this walk with her in the first place. She was not going to give up wanting to know, and so he had to tell her. Eventually. But he desperately needed to know that she wasn’t going to tell anyone.
“How about, what kind of business does your family run?” She quirked an eyebrow. “That’s not too bad of a question, is it?”
Cole decided that he needed to choose his words carefully. Very carefully. If he didn’t, he’d regret it when gunmen his family hired would later come to his apartment. Or her condo.
“First…” he began very hesitantly, “before I answer your question…I need your solemn vow that you will not tell anybody about what I am about to tell you.”
She looked at him blankly for a moment, and then frowned. “Why not?” she asked gently.
“Just…promise me.” Cole reached out to touch her honey blond curls, but he’d barely touched them when he jerked back, suddenly afraid to know how soft her skin was. “I…I cannot bear to see you…hurt.”
She flew him a quizzical look, telling him that he’d flown the coop now. He’d definitely made the mistake of telling her too much.
“Now you’re scaring me, Cole,” she said gently, her sweet voice wavering a little. “If it comes even close to that, I definitely think I should tell anyone I want to keep myself safe.” She shook her head.
“I just need you to trust me,” he whispered stiffly.
“Well, I need you to trust me!” Her tone was suddenly sharp. “This is ridiculous. I need to know to make sure you’ll be all right. That I’ll be all right. That both of us will be all right. So for once and for all—”
“Madison…please.” He was begging her, knowing that since he’d said too much, her life could begin to become in real, grave danger. “I…I care…” He swallowed hard. One look at her frosty, violet blue, beautiful eyes, and he knew that he needed to prove to why he cared so much. Why it was so important to him that she remained safe. “I…my feelings for you…they mean far more than…friendship ever could…I think.” At his sides, he clenched his fists tightly. “If you become hurt…”
Anger suddenly riveted over Madison’s face, and she stepped forward, but it was too late. Her eyes said it all. Said it all that he was so afraid of.
“So what?” she snapped, tears welling up in her eyes, confirming her feelings for him, too. “So what that you’re in love with me, even if I may feel the…same way?” She jutted her chin out. “None of that matters now, Cole Whitworth, so for the last time, I am begging you.” Her voice was strained. “What does your family do for a living?”
Emotion clogged in Cole’s throat, and he swallowed even harder. His heart took a triple turn of speeding up, and his palms started sweating like pouring rain. His shoulders trembled, panic seizing him by full force.
“They kill people for a living,” he finally broke out, and then immediately regretted it.
Madison shook her head, and she backed away from him. “All right, you know what? If you’re not going to tell me, that’s just great.” She backed farther away. “I’ll just leave then. Okay?” She turned sharply, and stomped toward her car nearby.
“Madison,” he said flatly, too terrified by only his own feelings, not by any fear he had of losing his life, but he doubted she’d heard him.
He watched, stiff and unmoving, as Madison quickly climbed into her car, and drove away. He shut his eyes briefly, painfully, and was unable to think of what would happen once his family found out.
His family killed for a living. What kind of stupid excuse was that from telling her the truth?
Sitting on her bed that evening, Madison stared into space. She was tired from crying for ten minutes hours earlier as she’d driven back to her condo. She didn’t know how tears could make a person so tired. She stared at her closet ahead of her, her pets surrounding her, and her hair a bit messy from running her hands through it a few times. Her eyes were pink from constantly feeling like crying since she’d gotten home from the park hours ago. She’d barely made it through dinner, even.
Why didn’t Cole trust her? she demanded thoughtfully. Why was he keeping it from her?
“They kill for a living,” he’d lied, she knew, the last thing she’d heard him say to her before she’d left. Stark pain had been on his face as he’d stood there stiffly, as if unable to feel her touch on his hand, the desperation that she needed to know of why he thought she could get hurt if he told her the truth. It just didn’t make any sense.
She wouldn’t—didn’t—believe that his family could kill for a living. That only happened in horror movies, for goodness sakes. Why on earth would he make something like that up? How could he think she’d believe something that stupid sounding?
Just then, Madison’s cell phone rang, jolting her awake. She sighed heavily, shakily, and reached over on her nightstand to answer it.
“Hey, girl,” Nicole’s happy voice grazed over the line. “How ya doing?”
“Just fine,” Madison fibbed, unable to explain to her best friend about her life’s latest events. The moment Cole had come into his life, it seemed, her life had been a nutcase. “How about you?”
“Oh, my goodness, I just have to tell you about my date with Jake!” Nicole squealed. “He kissed me tonight! Can you believe that?”
“Wow,” Madison praised, forcing herself to sound happy for her.
She couldn’t get Cole’s earlier words out of her mind, however.
My feelings for you…they mean more than friendship ever could…
Why was it that she felt exactly the same way?
“…And then,” Nicole continued, her loud voice interrupting Madison’s thoughts. “He leaned over in the seat and kissed me! I was like, wow! I mean, hello? Can’t you believe that? He kissed me! I wasn’t too impressed at first, since it was in the movie theater, which he apologized for later, of course, because…”
Gaping into space, Madison suddenly remembered three different thoughts. Her stomach lurched, and her pulse went into overdrive.
He was telling the truth.
“I hate telling lies,” he’d told her that day in the hospital.
“I could never lie to you,” he’d promised not a week ago.
“My family kills people for a living,” he’d told her earlier today.
He was telling the truth!
But why would they kill people for a living? Why did it upset him so?
Because he’d never wanted them to do so? Because he never wanted to be a part of it? He never wanted her hurt, because they killed people for a living?
There was still some explaining to be given from him, but he’d wanted her to trust her. He’d begged her to trust her right in the park, and instead of listening, she’d turned her back on him. How foolish of her to do so when he’d needed her so desperately, by a single look in his hazel-green eyes.
“Madison?” Nicole’s voice woke her. “Madison, are you there? Maddie!”
Madison looked down at her lap where her cell phone had fallen the moment she’d begun remembering everything Cole had said to her, which plainly showed how he never had betrayed her. He probably never would. He was such a great guy.
With trembling fingers, she raised her cell phone back to her right ear. “Y-Yeah, yeah. I’m here.” She swallowed hard, coming to the full realization of what had to be done. She needed to see Cole again. Tomorrow, if it was God’s will. “Uh…I’d better go, Nicole.”
Pause. “Are you all right?”
Obviously, Nicole had picked up on her hesitation and the uncertainty in her voice.
But it was true. It had to be, or he wouldn’t have told her that his family killed for a living.
“Yeah, I’m fine. Don’t worry. I’ll call you later.”
“Okay,” Nicole said. “If you’re sure. Bye.”
“Bye,” she said, and clamped her cell phone shut, ending the call.
Determination rose up from within her like fire, and she suddenly needed to see Cole as soon as possible.
That night, Cole had a nightmare about what would happen to Madison if his family found out about her. Thunder and lightning could be heard not only outside, but in his dream. Both hands clutching his sweaty pillow, his covers up to his waist as he lay on his back, Cole tossed and turned violently in his sleep, his face ridden with pain, and his teeth clenched.
“No!” he screamed as the thugs all carried him away from the storage room, where Addison was grinning happily to himself, Byron standing across the small room from him.
Madison was seen being tied to a metal post by heavy chains, her body stiff against it. Tears were streaming down her cheeks.
“I’m sorry, Cole,” she said brokenly. “I’m sorry.”
“Madison!” he yelled as he was being pulled away.
A huge metal door slammed in his face, and the thugs literally disappeared, vanishing in thin air.
“Madison!” Cole screamed as he pounded on the big metal door. “Madison, please! Open up! Father! Addison! Someone, please!”
A piercing gunshot hit the air.
Cole gasped, and then screamed, collapsing to his knees. “No!” he yelled at the ceiling.
Cole screamed, sitting upright in bed. His whole body was sweaty, his clothes damp. He was breathing heavily, but once the chill from his bedroom’s open window blared onto his skin, it was then that he realized it was just a dream. Just a nightmare.
But he could hardly bear the thought of not seeing Madison again, and he knew to the dark depths of his soul that there was no way she could be safe now. He’d told her his secret. If she told someone, rumors would eventually spread, and get to his family. Right? Or was he just underestimating her, underestimating himself?
Cole wasn’t sure, but he madly needed to know.
So after a restless sleep the rest of the night, the next morning, Cole headed to the cemetery. He desperately needed to see his mother’s grave, even though he knew it would be for the first time since she’d died. The memory of her death stayed frozen in his mind, and he just didn’t know what to do with himself. He needed answers…now!
After barely making it to the country cemetery, Cole got out of his car rather stiffly. Not caring about the fact that he hadn’t combed his hair this morning, or was wearing his pajama shirt and the jeans he’d worn the day before, he struggled to the cemetery, his whole body trembling.
The whole time, he subconsciously walked through the short metal gate, forgetting to close it behind him, and walked blearily to her gravestone. Tears gathered in his eyes, and all he could think of was what his mother had said to him two days before her death.
“Never forget that I love you and your siblings very much,” Amelia had said as she cupped her son’s chin. “It doesn’t matter what that this family has or doesn’t have. What truly matters is that you are my son, and my family means the world to me. You are the pride of my heart, however, sweetie, because you’re the only one who has ever seemed to act on any sense around here.” She’d smiled wistfully, sadly. “I love you, Cole, just the way you are.”
Tears blinded Cole as he staggered to the grave, and then gasped at the large headstone sitting tall in front of him, proud, and strong, just like she had been. Her name was boldly engraved, following by the dates of her death, but it was all just enough to break him. Cole collapsed in front of it, sobs overtaking him. His face completely crumpled as he leaned over it, his shoulders shaking. He sobbed again, hoarse, and then shook his head wildly. His mother was dead. His own family had killed his mother, and he could’ve done something, anything! Instead, he’d been the stupid, idiotic son who’d literally abandoned her in her time of need, because of his own fears for his life.
She had not deserved to die.
Clenching the corners of the thick headstone with both hands, Cole squeezed his eyes shut and let the several tears roll down his cheeks. His whole body shook, and he coughed hard.
“Mom!” he sobbed brokenly, and sniffled hard. “I’m sorry, Mom, I’m so, so sorry!” He cried even harder, not caring if anyone heard or saw him, and even not caring if he felt less like the man he was for acting this way.
Cole bowed his head over the grave, and then hiccupped a sob. He shook some more, furious at his family for killing their own mother. He sobbed again, and more tears streamed down his cheeks.
“I’m sorry,” he sobbed again, and then tunneled a hand through his already messy hair. He sniffled hard, but he didn’t calm down yet. His whole body still trembled with fear and never-ending pain. It burst through his entire system like it’d been waiting there, all bottled up.
Suddenly, softly padded footsteps sounded nearby. Hoping it was only a bypasser, Cole kept his head bowed over the grave. But then rustled movement came, and then the sound of someone zipping something.
“Cole,” Madison’s voice sounded, and he looked up blearily to see her knelt in front of him, holding out a brown paper bag. “Here.” She gently unclenched his hands. “Breathe into this, okay? Breathe.”
With shaking hands, Cole could barely hold it as he wrapped the opening over his mouth.
“Big deep breaths,” Madison commanded sharply, and then sighed shakily, as if emotional by his own tears. “Breathe!”
Pausing from crying, Cole did as she asked, taking big deep breaths into the bag. In and out, in and out. But as he did so, Madison wiped the tears from his cheeks with her thumbs, brushing them away ever so gently. Her own blue eyes were filled with understanding tears, and she swallowed hard, but she kept trying to fix him up. She combed his hair with gentle caresses of her fingers, and then once the tears were wiped away and the bangs out of his eyes, she cupped the back of his neck with both hands, soothing him, and then simply looked at him.
“Keep breathing,” she whispered softly. “Keep your eyes on me. Don’t look at the grave.” She shook her head, and then pointed to her eyes. “Just focus…on me.”
Cole did so, even though more tears gathered in his eyes. He forced them away, yet when a couple fell, she brushed them away quickly. She shook her head, but he knew that she was sympathizing, not pitying him.
Finally, the quaking of his whole body began to cease, his heart slowed more normally, and he was beginning to feel more relaxed. He kept his eyes peeled on her, though, and the longing that he saw there made him want to look away, but he couldn’t. He wouldn’t.
“There.” She sighed heavily, as if in relief at seeing him relax. She gently took the bag from out of his hands, and then dried his damp chin to make sure all the tears were gone. The corners of her mouth quirked up, and brought sunshine back into Cole’s soul. “Feel better?”
Cole nodded jerkily, unable to look away from her.
“Come on.” She gently pushed him back. “Sit down there.”
He sat on the ground, his legs up against him, and he buried his face in his hands. He felt a little embarrassed that she’d seen him so emotional, a complete wreck, but because she was so understanding, and she was here, made wave after wave of sincere gratitude flood through him.
“There.” She patted his shoulder, and then gently brought his hands down. “I knew something was up, Cole.” She shook her head once. “I remembered you saying something to me about how you could never lie, and so I knew that you had said what you’d said for a good reason.”
Cole knew that pain had shown on his face, because she’d winced, but he looked away.
“Cole, please.” Madison reached out, and took his hand. “How did…” She swallowed hard, and then started again. “How did she die?” She glanced at the grave, as if knowing it was his mother’s, and then back. “Your mother?” Her grasp on his hand tightened a bit. “I promise. You can trust me. I just want you to be happy.” She shook her head. “That’s all I want.”
That’s all he wanted, too, for her to be happy, but he was too much of a chicken to voice that opinion aloud.
He swallowed hard, and one look at her powerful-looking, stern eyes made him realize that it was time.
“They killed her,” he whispered bitterly, keeping eye contact with her. “My family.”
Understanding dawned on her face, yet she still looked confused, as if wanting more answers. “Why?” she whispered.
Cole swallowed hard. “Because…my father said…she was a conspiracy to the family.”
“What does that mean?” she asked gently.
He stiffened, yet he wasn’t hesitant to tell her so much now. “She threatened my father that if any more…murders…happened, she was going to the FBI. But…he knew that she had to go eventually. No one could know what they did.”
She shook her head. “Why don’t you go to the police about this, Cole? This is really huge.”
“I know.” He ran a hand through his hair. “But…my father has a distant cousin on the family’s side working for the police, and the police sergeant is too oblivious about it.” He shook his head. “It would never work, and even if I did ask Mick for help, he would tell my father all about it. Then I would get into trouble. They’re always saying that I’m a disgrace to the family anyway, and that if I get into more trouble by doing stupid things…I could be their next victim.”
Madison gasped, yet she still looked strong. Anger came over her features, and Cole could just bet that it wasn’t anger at him.
“That’s absolutely horrible!” She shook her head, her hands clenching into fists. “Who does your family consist of anyway?”
“My father, Byron, brother, Jack, and sisters, Lorraine and Emily.” He shook his head again. “And Addison.”
“I take it he’s the oldest?” she guessed, and he nodded.
“He’s the one who gives most of the orders.” He sighed with disgust. “My father has Parkinson’s Disease, so he can’t work very well, effortlessly, anymore. He even hired four thugs to help with the murders to keep everyone innocent. They only kill people who have disgraced either the family, the entire legacy, or the company in itself. Addison and my father are both lawyers, not to mention Jack. Emily and Lorraine are both accountants, although Emily had never gone to college. My father wanted all of us to be as innocent as possible.”
“Is it a pretty large company?” she asked.
Cole nodded, and then hid half of his face behind his hand. “Man…I wish I never had to tell you. You could become in danger, Madison. Great danger.”
“I’m not scared of anything,” Madison said stiffly, her chin held high. “I refuse to be.” She nodded. “Besides.” She smiled a little. “We’ll go to the FBI in secret, if need be.”
“I’ve been too afraid to, Madison.” His looked turned fierce. “You should be, too.”
“Or what?” She stood, and then looked down at him. “You’ll tell on me?” She was half joking, but Cole’s face turned even fiercer, and he stood with her.
“I need you to be safe, Madison,” he whispered, standing mere inches away from her. “Please promise me that you’ll stay that way. Lock every one of your doors and windows, even if it is stuffy inside. Even lock your animals up, if need be.”
She frowned at him steadily, and then nodded. “I promise I’ll be safe. Do you trust me?”
Cole nodded, and then winced. “Promise me again,” he whispered, his eyes gazing painfully into hers.
Madison cocked her head to the side as if to warn him that he could trust her whenever or wherever, but then looked as if she’d decided against it.
“I promise,” she whispered more strongly. “Very much.”
“Thank you,” he whispered back, and then couldn’t resist. He reached up with his right hand and gently curled a loose strand of hair out of her eyes, and brought it behind her ear.
Madison smiled at him, and then gazed intently at him. “You better now?”
Cole nodded. “Thank you for everything.”
“Oh, no problem.” She shook her head, and then let out a little giggle. “Anytime.”
He studied her for a long moment, his eyes darkened. Madison thought that he was going to kiss her. He even inched closer, his mouth not hovering over hers, but still so close enough that she could feel his warm breath on her cheek.
She stepped back, however. She didn’t want anything to happen between them just because he was feeling vulnerable.
“Take care of yourself this afternoon, Cole,” she said sternly, and sent him a bright smile. “Come by if you need anything. All right?”
He nodded, and then winked at her. One corner of his mouth lifted.
“Thanks again,” he whispered, and then passed her.
Madison stood there, her back turned toward him, and listened for him until she heard his car driving out of sight.