Epilogue

Epilogue

One year later

Lincoln, Montana’s church bell rang on a bright and beautiful Sunday morning. It had been at least a year since the rest of the Whitworth family had been sentenced to many years in prison for the crimes they had committed. Byron, having had a much more share of murders from his own two hands, had been sentenced to life in prison. Cole did not visit them, nor did he ever wish to.

In the span of time since Cole had protected Madison that awful morning, they had grown much closer as a couple. Cole and Mick were much closer now, as well, often having Mick’s favorite golf tournaments together, although Cole preferred any other sport better than that one. Cole had also been finally introduced to Madison’s parents and brother, who had eventually come to accept the circumstances that Cole had come with. They had been appalled to learn of the intense danger Madison had been put through, but once they had listened to Madison’s side of the story, they had come to accept Cole as a great person through and through.

Madison and Cole had both also done better with their college homework, and would both soon be graduating. Madison intended to work at the school in Lincoln as an art teacher, and Cole had taken on a business degree as a self-employed social worker. He intended to help families who ever had had their share of turmoil as he had, even more so before he’d ever met Madison. He knew without a doubt that her constantly sunny outlook on life had changed him, and had brought him to be a better Christian and person.

As for the estate, Cole had sold the entire estate, because of too many bad memories, not long after the FBI had finished investigating the entire premises. With selling the estate, he’d earned a lot of money, along with every dollar of money each of his family members had kept in the bank through their savings accounts. His mother, especially, had left plenty of money to him through her will. Cole knew that some people would think of him as a rich man, but he was not going to dote upon his wealth selfishly. He was mainly just prepared to give Madison every piece of happy life that she needed, making sure all her needs were met before his own.

So after church, Cole called, “Come on!”

With Madison giggling, she followed Cole hand in hand to the park across the street.

“What’s going on?” she exclaimed excitedly, the same person she’d always been. Nothing, not an ounce of the scare she’d had at least a year ago with Cole’s family had ever changed her.

Cole led the way to a water fountain where they had been spending most of their time in the past year. There, he surprised Madison by bending down on one knee.

“What are you doing?” Madison squealed, and then glanced behind them to see if anyone was watching. She glanced back, and her adorable face was pink with happiness.

“Maddie.” Cole grinned up at her, a changed man both outwardly and inwardly. He looked a lot more healthier, too, thanks to the three-course meals and many more hours of sleep he got every day and night. He wasn’t even an angry or bitter man anymore, but a man who had come to accept God’s will being done. Madison in his life, of course, helped immensely. “You are the sunshine in my life. I was in the dark before you came along.” He kissed her knuckles. “I never thought I could love anyone more than I love you.”

Madison giggled, gave a little bounce, and then continued studying him. “I love you, too,” she whispered.

“I know you do,” Cole added wryly. “And I’m so glad for that. All I want is to live the rest of my life making you happy, because God has led you into my life for this reason. To be with me forever.”

Madison nodded. “Yes, I think He has.” Tears welled up in her eyes.

“So, Madison?” Cole paused by taking a two-caret, miniature diamond-cut ring from the front breast pocket of his gray suit. He heard Madison’s gasp, and he held it up for her to see. “Will you do me the honor of being my wife?”

Madison was already squealing, and she nodded fiercely. “Yes,” she whispered, and then nodded again. “Yes, yes, yes!”

Laughing, Cole slid the ring onto her finger, and then stood to pick her up in his arms, off the ground, and kiss her gently and tenderly. He swung her around and around in his arms, shining with happiness all the way through. Her laughter echoed throughout the park.

Through time and tide, neither of them could think of a happier moment in their lives.

***

Chapter Ten

Chapter Ten

After parking on the gravel road curb right outside the tall stone walls protecting the entire Whitworth estate, Cole studied his watch. He had twenty minutes of time left to free Madison.

He stared through the rain lightly pelting the windshield, and wondered if God was really, truly going to be right there with them. Nevertheless, Cole knew that God had brought Madison into his life for a very special reason. He was stark determined to not give up on saving Madison, no matter what he was risking in between. He loved her with all his heart. He was not going to let Addison have his way, either. Not this time.

After cutting the ignition, Cole sat there in the driver’s seat deeply in prayer about the entire situation. Then, after surrending the entire problem in God’s capable hands, he climbed out of the car, closed the door quietly, and then faced the tall stone wall. As a kid, he and his siblings had enjoyed trying to climb the walls. Addison had been the most successful in getting to the top.

Of course, those had been the days of fun and laughter before all five of the siblings would soon learn about the terrible things that came with the family company. They learned that their father had wanted them only to be heirs to the company. Over time, Cole had decided to protect his mother the best he could, and he thought for a long time that that’s what his other siblings had wanted, too. That they would go against whatever their father asked them to, and go along with the morals their mother had taught them with.

But one fall morning, during breakfast when their father was bragging a bit about the company, Cole had been shocked to learn that every one of his four siblings, especially Addison, were planning to experience life on their father’s side. Over time they went against every word that barely came out of their mother’s mouth, and learned that life would just be richer and better and safer if they never had respect for their mother again.

He needed to do this for everybody who’d lost their lives to their business. He was not going to count on anyone else except God and himself this time, and maybe Mick if he happened to change his mind.

Cole took his time climbing the wall to the other side. Then, he crawled directly over to the house wall, and then snuck low as he walked to the backyard, which was wholly consisted of a huge garden. Cole had once admired the place, and at one time or another, had actually helped his mother and sisters build everything from the big bushes and tall trees to the water fountains, statues, stone paths, and various kinds of flowers surrounding the entire backyard complex. It was a beautiful place to be, but it was also a place where many people had still died. On some of the stones of the stone paths, there was faded blood stains that were now facing the ground to, again, keep the family’s real identity hidden.

Cole knew that the basement was also a great place to keep hostages, and that was where the family had kept hostages over time. He knew that Madison would be there. Sweat pierced his skin as he continued trying to breathe as little as possible. He kept his gaze on full alert at each of his surroundings to make sure no thug caught him for trying to rescue her.

He chose the appropriate basement window. Then, Cole leaned forward, dug out the jackknife one of his late uncles had given to him when he was fifteen as a birthday present. He was relieved to see the basement window was open, since that’s the way they kept every basement window this time of year annually.

Resting on his haunches, Cole could plainly see, through the window’s screen, Madison sitting in a hardback, wooden chair, tied to it. She was by the basement’s short, curvy, cement stairwell, and he could only hope that the basement door was closed.

“Maddie,” he whispered, and then used his jackknife to cut the screen open.

Madison must have heard something, because she looked up. Relief hit her beautiful blue eyes, and her shoulders slightly drooped as if a huge burden had been lifted off her shoulders.

Cole carefully climbed through the window, easily jumping inside to the basement floor mostly cluttered with unused storage and all other sorts of stuff they hadn’t wanted over the years.

Adrenaline piped through him like a water fountain. Reaching Madison, he fisted his jackknife back into the back pocket of his dark jeans, and cradled her soft face in both of his hands.

“Are you all right?” he asked gently.

“Yes,” Madison said sweetly, but then suddenly, her eyes widened. “No—”

Cole had barely turned when Karl slammed a fist against his mouth, knocking him to the floor.

“Leave him alone!” Madison screeched as Cole got back on his feet and tried to push against Karl.

But the four thugs only laughed as if they thought he was the idiot of the family instead.

“Better luck next time,” Linus snickered, and they all helped in fisting Cole into the chair ironically opposite of Madison, and tying him up there.

“You just wait,” Karl said as they backed away from their work. A couple breathed heavily, because Cole had tried to struggle free while they’d tied him up. “Boss will be down here in no time!”

They all continued laughing as they made their way back up the stairway, closing the door behind them.

Cole could hear the sound of a deadbolt turning from the other side of the door. He sighed with stark relief, his hair messy and plain white T-shirt wrinkled from the workout. He sniffed, and then closed his eyes briefly, thanking the Lord for keeping them as safe as possible so far.

But when he heard Madison sob, his eyelids flipped open.

Madison’s face looked perfectly adorable as always, except for the fearful tears in her eyes as she gazed tenderly at him. Her honey blond curls were slightly messy from maybe trying to struggle free on the way to the basement. But as they looked at each other, she smiled gently.

“I love you,” she whispered brokenly.

Cole sat rigid, half in shock, for several moments. Then at last, he felt a grin come across his face. He cocked his head at her, and then honestly told her back, “Love ya, too.”

Madison nodded, sniffled, and then looked away. A single tear rolled down her cheek.

Cole’s grin vanished. He was determined to do whatever means necessary to keep Madison safe. So, he looked away, chewing on his bottom lip, and thought about this for a long moment.

“I went to see Mick.” He glanced up at her. “Hopefully he may come and save us before it’s too late.”

She quirked an eyebrow. “You think he might?”

Cole raised his eyebrows. “I’m counting on it. He just might be our only hope.” Through the ropes, he reached into his back pocket, with much concentration, and pulled out his jackknife.

Her brows crinkled together. “What’s the matter?”

“Trying to get free.” He gritted his teeth together. “I have a jackknife. One of my late uncles gave it to me when I was fifteen.”

“Well, that will come in handy.” Her eyes briefly shone with amusement as she watched him.

Cole smirked, despite the situation. “I’m so glad you still have some sense of humor, because I think mine left me two weeks ago.” He finally cut himself free, and then threw the rope to the side. He stood, and hurried over to get her free, too.

“What’s your plan?” Madison asked, assuming he had one.

“We go through the backyard garden, climb over the stone wall,” he explained in a low voice as he quickly cut her free and then helped her up, “and then hurry through the corn fields the neighbors have out back until we get to my car.”

“Think it will work?” she asked, her eyes so wide and expectant.

Cole couldn’t help curling a strand of hair back behind her ear. “Well, even if it doesn’t,” he said grimly, “at least I have you.” He winked at her without humor.

“And I’ll have you.” Madison wrapped her left hand within his right, and gazed at him very trustingly.

Cole studied her for a long moment. That is, until he heard shouting come about from the other side of the basement door.

“Come on,” he whispered, and led the way out of the basement window. As he helped her out, too, he noticed that the rain had turned to pouring, but he was certain it wouldn’t keep them from carrying on with their plan.

Through the garden, Cole led the way in a running pace to the far stone wall on the other side of the mansion.

“Come on!” he pushed, feeling Madison’s fingers claw into his skin at the apprehension of what might come ahead.

They were almost to the wall when Madison shrieked.

Cole froze, and followed her gaze to the short left where each of the company’s hired thugs, all four of them, were standing side by side near the wall, halfway hidden under the tall tree nearby, as if daring them to cross the wall and get away with it.

Madison clung to Cole’s side, both hands holding his left hand now, and Cole knew exactly what was coming.

“Hey!”

Cole turned sharply, and at the sight of each of the sibling Whitworths coming toward him, he immediately braced himself in front of Madison. He felt her arms curl around his waist, mostly hiding behind him. He would keep her safe until his dying minute.

“Where do you think you’re going?” Addison stopped from no more than eight or ten feet away, and then fisted a gun from out of his inner suit coat pocket.

Cole heard Madison gasp as Addison steadily held the gun to his own brother.

“Let’s just stop all this ruckus now.” Addison gave a chuckle, and the rain only seemed to pound over them harder, almost as hard as hail. “I think you and your girlfriend have come far enough, Cole.”

“Come on, Cole,” Lorraine called as she stood farther away with Jack and Emily. “Why did you have to spoil everything?”

Cole gritted his teeth angrily. “It’s not like any of you had any real help in this company as it is,” he said simply, but bitterly. “By the way, where does Dad happen to be? Hiding in his bedroom?”

“You got that right.” Addison looked only too content holding his gun at him with both hands. “Except he’s not exactly hiding. Mainly just listening for that single gunshot to end everything here and now. Then we’ll finally be able to live better lives without people who will just give stuff away. Like you.”

“The thing is, Addison,” Cole snarled. “I don’t exactly think you have the guts to kill me with your own two hands. Let’s not tell someone else to do it this time, all right? Why don’t you just do it yourself? Prove that you actually have that kind of courage.”

“Oh, I do.” Addison chuckled over the piercing thunder hitting them. “I just didn’t really want to do anything about it until now.”

“Yeah, right,” Cole huffed, and shook his head. “You don’t care about anything except yourself, Addison. All you’ve ever wanted is this entire estate to yourself, even if Dad, Lorraine, Emily, and Jack disappear without it! It’s so stupid, because after all it’s only a building. Not a home that Mom tried to make it out to be.”

“You think I even care what you say, Cole?” Addison gave out a big laugh. “About anything? You and your precious girlfriend are worthless to all of us!”

“I already know that.” Cole stiffened. He stood strong and unafraid, patient and tall in the storm, and was every bit prepared to give his soul to God if that’s what it took to prove his gumption until the end. It was something he had never tried to do with his mother, or anyone else, for that matter, who had lost their lives fighting for what they had believed in. Countless friends, extended family, neighbors, and the like. All of them had disappeared, and Cole had been unable to stop any of it. “But you’ve wanted to kill me all your life, Addison. So here’s your chance!” He extended his arms out briefly. “Get it over with.”

Addison nodded, and then cocked his gun. “Fine! I’ll kill you, then your precious girlfriend!”

“No!” Cole added sharply. “If you think about doing anything, you kill us together! That’s how it’s meant to be. You wouldn’t know what that’s like, would you, Addison? To actually know what it feels like to be loved, truly loved?”

Addison laughed. “There are more important things in life.”

“Things you don’t even know about, I bet,” Cole concluded. “All I did was respect you until everything went haywire!”

Addison stepped forward. “Cole, don’t you get that it’s all for me? For all of us, Cole, and you get none of it! None of it!”

Cole stiffened, and he leaned toward Madison’s head, his gaze still locked with Addison’s.

“Hold tight, sweetheart,” he whispered. “Hold tight, don’t ever let go, and close your eyes and pray.”

He heard Madison sob, and he hated himself for putting her through this. Putting her in danger like this, but there had been no other way.

Standing there in the rain facing his enemies, Cole silently prayed like a mad man. He stared his brother and his gun down, and the seconds only seemed to tick by.

Addison sneered. “Say goodbye,” he warned, and then raised the gun.

Cole held his breath.

But when a sudden gunshot rang out and Addison jerked violently, his eyes widening, Cole’s breath caught.

Very slowly, his breath and shoulders both shaking, Addison weakly turned around to gaze at the intruder.

Mick Whitworth stood there a few feet behind him, the rain just dripping off his skin, continuing to point the gun he’d just fired at Addison. As if knowing that his cousin was dying, he cautiously lowered his gun.

Addison glanced back at Cole with wide, horrified eyes.

“Brother,” he rasped, and then he fell to the ground.

Cole didn’t look at his brother’s body, but instead looked up to watch his siblings’ reactions as they turned around to see FBI agents behind them. Almost all in unison, Jack, Lorraine, and Emily looked back at Cole in dark question before being led out of the estate gates to the squad cars beginning to park in front of the backyard’s garden. Following them were the four thugs, Linus, Karl, Slade, and Russ, also being led in handcuffs by more FBI.

Finally, the back door of the house opened, and Byron, being led by another policeman, gazed out at Cole with haughty eyes before being nudged forward.

Cole shielded Madison with one arm. “It’s over,” he whispered, but then gazed up when Mick walked over to him.

“You all right?” Mick asked, and then a smile stretched across his weary-looking features.

“Just great.” Cole felt relief from the bottoms of his soul, and then extended his hand. “Thank you.” The sincere gratitude he felt almost made tears well up in his eyes.

Mick shook his head. “Take care of yourself.” He smirked, patted his shoulder, and then followed his team to the cars.

Cole turned back to Madison, where he gently wrapped an arm around her shivering shoulders.

“Come on,” he whispered.

He led her to the back porch, where they were protected from the continuing rain. There, he whispered, “Come here,” and pulled her into his arms.

Madison’s relieved sobs seemed to drown out the rest of the tension Cole felt. He held her tightly in his arms on that back porch, stroking her hair and whispering soothing words as he let her cry all the relief away. Their clothes were both soaked anyway.

Cole kept her face averted as he watched the police take his brother’s body away. He hadn’t exactly wanted Addison to die in the end, but for them all to just realize the mistakes they had made. But look at how it had ended, without Madison hurt. For that he knew he would be eternally thankful.

So as Madison finished crying, clinging to him in his arms like where she was meant to be, Cole felt his own tears stream down his cheeks. Finally, he praised God over and over and over.

It was over.

Chapter Nine

Chapter Nine

Not even buying her favorite coffee shop drink or ice cream helped Madison deal with her grief. For two whole weeks after Cole had left her, she felt just plain sad and miserable. The saddest she had ever felt. The worst part was, she could not even explain to her bookstore friends or any college buddies of why she looked so terrible.

Madison lost sleep every night, and yearning was constantly in her heart. She was constantly yearning for Cole to love her again, and she desperately prayed that he would be safe always. She never thought she could love anyone so dearly. Cole had opened up places within her she didn’t even know were there, even the negative places. Most of all, though, she knew without a doubt that she would help Cole if she could. If he would just let her.

But she could still understand, though, about how much he wanted to keep her safe.

After crying about the situation a bit more among even more desperate praying, Madison decided that she needed to trust in God, and just keep the faith that He would help her through her misery. One day, possibly several years from now, she would tell her family and closest friends everything. But until then, she needed to keep it bottled up inside. For Cole. For the love for him that she didn’t doubt would always remain. In just a matter of weeks, Cole had gone from being one of her most special friends to the love of her life.

All she could do was just hope and pray very much that God would keep him safe. If he didn’t stay safe, well, at least she would cherish the time spent with her one true love. Yet she also knew that no other man could ever take Cole’s place. He meant so much to her, and too much for that. Besides, she didn’t really want to think about that now, or ever. She would just have to keep her faith in God, and wait it out as patiently as she could.

The following Monday morning, Madison, dressed in a long-sleeved, dark green striped, collared shirt pulled up to the elbows, jeans and her usual yellow sneakers, strode out to her car. She was off to work for the entire day, and she wasn’t looking forward to it. But she knew it was the next step in moving on from Cole’s love.

Madison unlocked her yellow VW car with a single push of a button on her key ring remote. She opened the driver’s door, slid inside, slammed her door, and then turned on the ignition.

Suddenly, a black, leather gloved arm wrapped around her neck, one hand pressed tightly against her mouth. She immediately began squealing, kicking her legs and trying to get free.

“Hello, miss,” a dark voice said from behind her, and she immediately felt herself tremble.

But in the back of her mind, she told herself to remain calm. Because she could just bet her bottom dollar on who these thugs belonged to.

**************************

Addison Whitworth finished typing a file into his flat-screen, black Dell computer. He cleared his throat, took a sip of the tall glass of iced water nearby, and then continued typing. He paused once, and a smug smile spread across his ugly face.

There was a knock on the office door.

“Come in,” Addison demanded gruffly.

The big, white wooden door of the room swung open, and Linus stood in the doorway with a sly grin on his face.

“We found her, Boss.”

Addison glanced up from his work, and then absently shut the computer monitor off with a single push. “Found who?”

“Cole’s girlfriend.” Linus snickered. “She’s here, and her hands are tied behind her. What do you want us to do with her?”

Addison smiled with glee, and then stood patiently from his big leather desk chair. “I’ll tell you exactly what you four are going to do with her. You’re going to bring her in here, and tie her up right there.” He pointed to the hardback wooden chair waiting in the far corner of the room by a different, smaller antique desk. “Leave the room, standing guard right outside, of course, and let me talk to her. Alone.”

“Right, Boss.” With a nod, Linus turned and disappeared down the hallway.

More footsteps sounded, and as Addison picked up his empty, black coffee mug from his desk, he watched two of his hired thugs walk a petite, beautiful, honey blond woman into the room.

Her face was grim as they sat her in the chair and tied her to it before leaving.

Once Addison watched the door close behind them all, he slowly turned back to gaze at Madison.

Her arms were bound behind her, a thin rope tied around her stomach to the chair, and the woman’s shoulders stiffened.

“So. Let me guess.” Addison cocked an eyebrow. “You must be Madison Naomi Brooks. Cole’s girlfriend.”

Madison tensed at seeing such an ugly, unbelievably tall man look at her with contempt. She was determined to be unafraid, though. Cole would not want her to be scared, and besides that, she was perfectly safe in God’s hands. Though she was still afraid, she trusted Him. And she trusted Cole with her life.

“How did you get that information?” she snarled unhappily.

Addison stepped over to the far corner by the desk where a coffee maker sat on a little wooden stand. He took the half-filled cup of coffee, and poured some into his cup casually. He then looked up at her, and motioned to it.

“Coffee?” he asked.

She shook her head.

Addison walked over to the side of the long desk, and held up two different bowls in one hand, at the same time. His long fingers slid around both tiny bowls perfectly. “Nuts? Mints?”

Again, she shook her head. She didn’t want any food of theirs that could be poison.

He set the bowls down, and then took a sip of his coffee, studying her from over the rim. His left hand was braced nonchalantly in the front left pocket of his black slacks. He wore a brown suit and matching tie. His black hair was short, cut sharply, and slid back in an almost greasy look. His hazel-green eyes matched Cole’s, but didn’t look as cold or serious. He wore a gold, probably very expensive wristwatch on his left wrist, too.

“I have my ways, Miss Brooks.” He took an even longer swallow of his coffee, and then placed it down. “Like you had your ways in finding out about this company.”

“Cole didn’t tell me voluntarily,” she snapped. “Because of the such emotional and mental abuse you and the rest of your so-called family had taken to him, it was a wonder I could get any information out at all. But I’ve kept it secret all this time. You know I have anyway…Addison.”

He quirked an eyebrow, but didn’t look an ounce surprised. “So. You know me.”

Madison glared at him through narrow slits of eyes. “Yes. I know you.” She leaned as forward as the ropes around her could allow, sneering angrily. “You’re the most filthy, scandalous pig I have ever met in my entire life. All you care about is killing people for money and fame, desiring nothing more than to make people you are supposed to love and their lives miserable! You’ve hurt Cole beyond all sane reason, taking away his beloved mother, not to mention the sanity of his own cousin. You go against God in every shape, way, and form, and you don’t care a single ounce about Him or anything else that has to do with Him. Addison, I’ve purposely kept all information about this so-called company from my own family and friends for Cole’s own protection, and you think you cannot do anything about your stupid, unwillful self, but you can. More than anything, murdering your own family members is just fun for you, isn’t it?” She shook her head. “You’re a disgustingly notorious, impreprecessing, undermined, scornful, foreboding idiotic jerk!”

Addison raised his eyebrows. “You may call me whatever name you wish to, my dear. But it’s not going to get you anywhere.” He crossed his arms, and stepped toward her. “Do you have any idea how important Cole is to this family’s company?”

Madison sneered. “What company? All I see is a stupid, murderous extravaganza.”

He gave a shrug. “Sure, you could say that. But you haven’t been in the know of all this long enough to know what we truly care about.”

“You murdered your own mother!” Madison exclaimed, unafraid. “I think that says far enough in my book. Not only that, but you’ve horribly scrutinized and destroyed Cole’s precious life beyond any bout of sensibility! He’s only someone who wants to make right in his life. He always has.”

“You’re probably right, Miss Madison.” Addison chuckled. “But I can still see you shaking in fear. Your time isn’t over with yet, and neither is Cole’s.” With that said, he stepped over to the black cordless phone on the edge of his desk, picked it up, and dialed a number. “We’ll just see if he still his own stupid morals after this.” He glanced at her sideways as he waited for Cole to pick up the phone.

Madison bowed her head with despair.

*************************

Cole tunneled a hand through his hair as he staggered into his apartment sleepily. He wished that he had gotten more than the share amount’s of sleep in the past couple weeks. But every second of every day, every night, all he could think about was dear, sweet Madison and how terribly pained she’d looked through his rearview window as he’d left. It had taken every ounce of his willpower in the past couple weeks to keep from visiting her again.

Something was bound to happen to get him in trouble, though. After years of experience, he could feel it in his blood. Had felt it quite frequently in the past couple days that something was bound to happen soon enough. Maybe it was God trying to tell him something. Maybe it was God trying to tell him that he should never have left Madison alone in the first place.

As he stepped into the living room, though, his cordless, white phone was ringing.

Cole let the apartment keys slip from his fingers to the wooden floor as he walked up to it, and read the caller ID. Addison. But why would he be calling? He never called him anymore, because he knew that Cole would always attend every bi-monthly meeting, whether he liked what they talked about in these meetings or not. And he never called the cordless phone unless there was something “really important” on his mind.

But one thought of Madison sent Cole’s entire being on alert. His eyes widened, and he snatched the phone from the receiver, letting it turn on by itself, and raised it to his ear.

There was a moment of silence, and then Addison’s chuckle. “Good morning, little brother. How is your day going so far?”

Cole clenched his hand around the phone very tightly, wanting to throw something. “Where is she?” he growled, staring out the opposite living room window unseeingly.

They had Madison. He could feel it.

Addison chuckled again knowingly, and at that, Cole was already grabbing his keys off the floor.

“Oh, she’s just sitting here in my office, tied to a chair. We wouldn’t hurt her yet, you know that.” Addison smirked. “She’s sure a pretty thing, you know.”

Madison scowled to herself, and then winced as, through Addison’s speakerphone, Cole’s panic-filled voice came over the line.

“Don’t you touch her!” Cole stormed, so loud his voice echoed in the room. “Don’t you touch a single hair on her head, you—”

“Now, now,” Addison cut him off calmly. “Is that a way to treat your eldest brother, Cole? Mother wouldn’t have been very impressed.” He grinned impishly. “So let me make you a deal, Cole. Restrain yourself. Get yourself here in no more than forty minutes to rescue her. You know exactly where she’ll be. If you don’t, well, it’ll just be another thing you’ll have to lose.”

Madison stiffened, and she could feel herself tremble all over by the ugly-toned honesty in Addison’s voice. She knew exactly what he was planning to do, and all she could do was continue to pray to the Lord desperately.

Please, please, please, please, please!

“Later, bro.” Addison slammed his left index finger against the button to hang up on Cole, and then gazed lazily back at her.

Madison gritted her teeth, glaring at the horrible man with all her might. “Should I be surprised?” she said bitterly, voice trembling.

“Probably not.” Addison chuckled, and then walked over to her. He bent down and tightly held Madison’s jaw in his hand. He grinned at her. “Sorry to say, you’re going to regret ever knowing about this, Madison.”

Once he let go of her and stepped away, Madison clenched her fists from behind her. “As long as you do not hurt him.”

“Aww, now I can’t promise that. Can I?” Addison rolled his eyes, and then looked at the door. “Linus!” he yelled.

The door swung open, and the four thugs all stood there readily.

Addison stepped back to his desk. “Take Miss Madison to a basement chair, and tie her up there. But don’t hurt her.” He sat in his leather chair, and unmannerly crossed his ankles on his desk. “Cole will come soon. I am sure of it.”

The thugs untied Madison from the chair, and made her walk out of the room with Linus holding one of her arms tightly.

Addison chuckled to himself as the door closed behind them.

***************************

Cole was certain that his final option before rescuing Madison had to be to go straight to the police, to the last person who would probably help him, but also the first person. Maybe. He desperately needed to find out, though.

So Cole zoomed right through the police station, ignoring the looks guards cast him. They knew who he was anyway. He walked directly past a small, gray metal secretary desk by a large, glass-windowed office.

“Hey!” the woman secretary nearby exclaimed. “You can’t go in there!”

Ignoring her, Cole slammed through the glass door, letting it jam against the wall.

Ten years older than him, Mick Whitworth looked up from reading the newspaper spread out on his large, wooden, cluttered desk. His eyes widened, and he leaned back in his leather chair just as Cole slammed both hands on the table and met him straight in the eye.

“I need you to help me now!” he yelled angrily. “And I do not care what your excuse is this time!”

“Mr. Whitworth,” the secretary said from the doorway, looking almost fearful. “He…h-he just barged in, I didn’t—”

His gaze locked with Cole’s, Mick held up a hand, and then merely glanced up. “It’s fine, Sandra. Leave us alone, please.”

Sandra sighed heavily, and then left closing the door behind her.

Mick gave Cole a don’t-kid-around look, and then stood from his chair. He went to each of the windows of his office and closed every blind to give them more privacy. Finally, at the last window, he turned to study Cole standing in front of him expectantly.

“So let me get this straight.” He crossed his arms, and then leaned against the gray file cabinet in the far-left corner of his office behind his desk. “You finally trust me and think that I could be able to help you this time, instead of the family.”

“Exactly.” Cole clenched and unclenched his fists from both sides of him. “I don’t care what your excuses are, Mick. We’re cousins. And like it or not, you have to pick a side in this family, and this time it has to be me! You have to tell the FBI, your co-workers, anyone at all about this entire situation of our family’s company. They’ll believe you, you know. They trust you.”

“But they’ve also trusted your dad in the past,” Mick added sternly. “And look what an incredible influence that has been.” He scoffed.

Cole gritted his teeth, and then shoved an arm over Mick’s desk, knocking stuff off of it and letting some stuff break to the floor. “That’s not good enough!” he exclaimed. “You have to want to do this, Mick, and I know you! You do want to!” He shook his head. “I need you now more than ever, and you’re quite possibly the only one left to help me deal with this. Help me stop all these murders for good and keep us all safe. Don’t think about the money that keeps coming in for you, Mick, just because you keep your mouth shut! Don’t think about any of that, even possibly losing your job!” He stepped forward with stark determination. “Think about how close we used to be. How close you even used to be to God, and one day it all disappeared just because you wanted to obey your stupid uncle’s wishes, even after he even killed your parents.”

“He had them killed. There’s a difference.” Mick held up a hand. “They knew they had to go.”

“But you didn’t, and you still don’t. Yet you never said anything, because you were too scared.” Cole’s eyes were begging Mick to not say otherwise. He sighed shakily. “You’re the one who has to save us now, and you have to do it now!”

Mick studied Cole for a long moment, and then leaned away from the file cabinet. He stepped forward in a cautious manner. “Why does it matter so much this time, Cole?”

Cole swallowed hard. “They have Maddie.” His eyes were pain-filled. He would do anything in this entire world to save Madison from all this horror. “My girlfriend.” He walked forward until he stood only a foot away from him. “She means everything to me, and if they kill her…” He swallowed hard again. “They know that I told someone outside this family about our business. I’ve broken one of the most important rules, Mick. You know that. They know I can’t stay alive if I’m not as trustworthy anymore. If you don’t do something soon, Mick, this will be the last time you’ll ever see me.”

Mick’s eyes widened slightly, and Cole could see dead fear in them. But when Mick looked away, his stomach plummeted to the floor.

“I can’t,” Mick whispered raggedly. He swallowed hard, and then closed his eyes briefly. “I just…can’t…”

Cole knew that, which was why he was prepared for his final try of persuasion.

“I know about Elizabeth,” he murmured.

When Mick’s whole body flinched as if he’d been shot and his eyes widened hugely but continued gazing at the floor, Cole knew he’d struck the nerve he’d wanted to.

He huffed, nearing desperate impatience. “You think I could live this long, Mick, and not notice something in the paper about your girlfriend being mysteriously found dead along a road ditch? I don’t care if that was five years ago or six, Mick. My family killed her, no matter how much Mom and I both tried to stop it. We both knew how much you loved her, and I know that same picture frame of her is still going to remain seated on your desk.” He stepped forward once more. “My Maddie means the exact same thing to me, although I am not—will not—be as afraid to risk my own life to save her.”

Finally, Mick looked up at Cole without hesitation.

“Think about that.” Cole began to step away. “Think about how much you are still cared for by me. Do this for Maddie, for Elizabeth. For every person who has ever discovered the truth about this company.” He pointed a finger at him. “And I’m begging you, Mick. Please. Please just do something before it’s too late.”

Cole gave Mick one last, long look, and then stormed out of the room.

Leaving Mick standing there in stiff silence, unmoving.

Chapter Eight

Chapter Eight

The following evening, Madison relished the feeling of Cole’s arm around her on her condo’s front porch swing as they breathed in the night air. She leaned her head against his shoulder, holding his right hand between hers and just simply admiring it while they sat there in silence, and talked off and on.

The moment Cole came to her house two hours earlier, she’d been so delighted to see him that she had forgotten all about his family problems. They didn’t mean as much to her anymore, because she trusted Cole to be there for her no matter what. He was such an awesome guy, and she knew somehow that God must have brought him into her life for a very good reason. It had to be an incredibly cool reason, because why else would she feel so happy? All the time, too, except sometimes in the middle of the night when she would wake up worrying over his troubles. She wouldn’t worry about what his family would think of her exactly. It was more of how Cole was taking all these burdens about his family, and how they were affecting him. She didn’t care an ounce about herself when it came to feelings, especially since Cole now meant more to her than anything in this whole world.

She never wanted Cole to be taken away from her. She never wanted anything to happen for them to be separated. All she wanted was for her and Cole to continue feeling the same way about each other until whenever the good Lord willed. She had to wonder, though, if Cole even loved and wanted to obey God as much as she daily strived to.

That morning, her mother had called after them not talking for two or three whole weeks, which very rarely happened, and wanted to know all the new stuff going on in Madison’s life. Madison had said she now had a boyfriend, but that was all the details she would be giving her family, possibly ever. She didn’t want them worrying about her or thinking that Cole was not good for her because of his family’s business. She was a hundred percent certain they would think that. Though she was prepared for it, even though there was still no way she would be separated from Cole, she couldn’t help feeling a bit anxious about the idea of them eventually finding out. At times they were overprotective, especially her parents. She knew Patrick would probably try to ease their parents’ worries with anything she told them, because he was like her best friend. She trusted that her own brother would probably respect her wishes more so than their own parents, because of their overprotectiveness, and the fact that especially in this case, they would not understand.

There was no way that they even could understand. Even if her situation with Cole turned ugly, she was still never going to tell them upon Cole’s word. She trusted Cole and especially trusted God. If He was leading her this far, why should she even be worried? So she wasn’t, and was content with spending the rest of her days with Cole for exactly that reason.

Madison knew that she and Cole had only known each other some few weeks, but it felt like a decade. They had spent so much time together, and were so close. She had never felt this way about anyone. She’d only had a few boyfriends in her life, but none of them had ever gone to the point of falling in love. This was real love, and it could only come straight from heaven. She knew without a doubt that God had sent Cole to her that rainy night when he’d accidentally hit the back of her car and fell in a ditch. She knew that by her constant sunny attitude and always striving to be a better good Samaritan, of course she was going to see Cole that day and see that he was okay in the hospital. Of course. So ever since she had, she’d felt that she needed to make sure he was okay by the dark attitude he always had. Now look at him. He couldn’t have looked any happier, but a small worry in the back of Madison’s mind still wondered about Cole’s family. How could they be so cruel? And also, would they still be that cruel when it came to Cole’s happiness?

Or as Cole had mentioned wanting to do before, would he get them out of this entire situation before it was too late?

No matter what Cole decided, though, Madison was certain that he would do the right thing. She trusted God anyway. He was leading them in the right direction. She was absolutely sure of that.

“It’s such a beautiful night,” she whispered, and leaned into him. “Don’t you think so, dearie?”

Cole’s chuckle rumbled over her like thunder. “So I’m a dearie now, huh?”

She chuckled, and couldn’t help blushing a little. “You can be anything you want to be, Cole. What am I to you, if you don’t mind my asking?”

He paused, and then smirked. “Just Maddie, really. Awesome, wonderfully sweet Maddie.”

“Aww, you’re so sweet.” He was always sweet. Madison pecked a kiss on his cheek before settling back into her former position. “I think Pete and Rob are beginning to feel jealous now that I’m spending more time with you than them lately.”

“That can be their loss.” Cole chuckled, and gently brought her closer to him.

“Yeah, you’re right. But it probably wouldn’t hurt a good walk for them or a tummy rub now and then.” She giggled as she thought about her beloved animals. “Maybe I’ll walk Pete tomorrow, and you can come with if you like. He always tends to get into mischief anyway when it comes to walking him.”

When Cole didn’t say anything, Madison looked up at him. She immediately straightened by the faraway look in his handsome green eyes.

“Cole? Is something wrong, sweetie?”

He sighed heavily, gently nudged her aside, and then stalked to the balcony railing. He clenched his hands over the metal railings until his knuckles were white, startling Madison. What was going through that head of his right about now?

“I never had any pets growing up.” His voice sounded gruff and sad as he kept his back turned toward her. “And it wasn’t because we couldn’t afford any or want any.”

Madison ached to hold him. Why was he even bringing this up now, though? Why couldn’t he just try to trust God about all this? She shook her head. Suddenly it didn’t feel like they were talking about animals anymore.

“Cole,” she said gently. “Please don’t—”

He sharply turned to look at her, his eyes wide, fearful, and angry, but not at her. “Maddie, you know as well as I do why we couldn’t. They’d be in the way of the business. One of them would bark or meow or something, get into another yard and alert the neighbors that something was terrible wrong at our estate.”

She raised her eyebrows. “Your family lives on an estate, Cole?”

He winced. “Yes. Well. I’m, uh, I guess you could say, rich.”

She huffed, surprised. “Why didn’t you tell me before?”

“Because it doesn’t matter, Maddie,” he snapped, and then winced again because he had just snapped at her without meaning to. “Money doesn’t matter that highly to me when it comes to killing just to get wealthy. It’s pathetic. And they were already wealthy enough to start with, my parents. They had us, and then boom, Mom finds about what my father really does for a living.”

Madison didn’t dare stand. She gaped at him. “Your mother didn’t find out until all of you were born?”

“Yes, exactly!” He huffed. “My father was being so nice to her until then, so sweet. She wakes up one morning to hear him tell her it was all a lie. He just did it all to gain heirs to the ‘throne.’ To have children help him get even wealthier from the business his father had actually started!”

She had to hope that her neighbors didn’t hear any of this. “Cole…calm down or someone will hear you.”

That brought stark silence for Cole, but he still slammed a hand against the metal railing, and turned away.

Madison stood shakily, and then walked over to him. She gently touched his elbow, causing him to almost flinch.

“Cole…” She swallowed hard. “None of that matters now. I know what we’ll do.” She swallowed hard. “We’ll try to get away from here. We’ll forget about our college lives and go anywhere in the country, anywhere in the world. You’ve said yourself you want to keep me safe.”

“And what about your family? Huh?” He shook his head. “It’s too risky. I don’t want to be the one to put you through all that misery.”

Madison thought about all that. If she visited her family at all, it would be once a year no matter how far away from them she was. They all lived only a hundred miles away, yet sometimes her parents made surprise visits to her condo for dinner or the like. She didn’t want to see the hurt and worry and possibly panic on their faces when she told them that she needed to get away with her beloved for God knows how long. That was, if she even told them. And if she might never see them again, if Cole might be suggesting that, then maybe God was leading her in a different path.

“I don’t think we’re meant to be together, Maddie.” His voice sounded thick with sudden emotion. He shook his head. “I can’t watch you go through all that pain. I will not be that one to run away.”

“Then what have you been doing all this time? All these years?” She shook her head. “How do you think I feel, Cole? I will let you be a part of your family’s business for however long, but…”

“It’s dangerous, Maddie.” When he finally looked at her, his eyes were way too sad. “Really dangerous. I will not do that to you. Ever.” His face crumpled as he looked away. “You don’t know how horrible they are. They’re not just cruel in their attitudes. They’re cruel, period. With everything else. They carry guns and gunhands so easy it’s like a game to them. They threaten their own family members just to gain fame and money in life. It’s far too risky.”

“Then go to the FBI, Cole.” She looked deep into his eyes. “It’ll have to be your last option.”

“It will be. But you can’t string along, Maddie.” He shook his head. “If the FBI knows about it, you’ll be in the know about it. Then your own family will somehow know about it. Then my family will know about it, because my cousin Mick has contacts through the FBI system. One way or another, Maddie, someone is going to get hurt. And I’d much rather it be me than you or any member of your family.”

Madison couldn’t believe what she was hearing. “S-Sometimes when you’re in a true love extravaganza like this…you have to do the best thing possible. You have to stay with your loves no matter what the circumstance.”

“Then it can’t be for us then. You can’t stay my…” He gulped. “Love. You can’t stay with me, Maddie, it’s impossible.” He shook his head. “I will not let you go through all that pain. No! No way!” He blinked hard. “Do not tell me, Maddie, that you don’t care whether or not you see one of your family members—your dad, mom, brother, aunt, uncle or grandma—die right before your eyes just because of my family’s business and the fact that you were connected with me!” He stepped backward. “Don’t tell me that, Maddie. Please don’t.”

“I’m not.” Madison felt sick to her stomach. “But you need to understand that I want to be with you in this thing. For better or for worse, no matter what goes on.”

“We’ve only know each other for four or five weeks, Maddie.” Cole shook his head wildly, and then tunneled a hand through his thin hair.

“None of that matters anymore, Cole. You know that, I know that, so why don’t we just know it together?” She tried for a smile and lost. “I don’t care if I die with you. As long as I’m with you.”

“Madison, please.” He was begging her again. “I can’t let you decide this.”

“Well, I can’t let you decide this!” she suddenly exclaimed. “Don’t you get it? God is leading us. I trust Him, Cole, and you hafta, too! Even if He leads us into all kinds of rotten stuff, I am ready for it. I’ve been ready for it all my life. I have waited so long for love—real love—to actually happen to me, and look, it has! It may be happening really fast, but so what? My grandparents got engaged in two weeks time, for goodness sakes! Do you really think that one word from you is going to silence me forever? I am not going to just leave you alone in this, Cole. Besides, this is no direction for giving up. I see every way out of this proposition, even if we do get hurt, but as long as I’m with you, honey, boy, am I willing to risk it!”

Cole studied her for a long moment. He swallowed hard. “All right.” He sighed heavily, and then gently grazed her chin with his thumb. “All right. We’ll talk about this later, okay?” He stepped forward and kissed her cheek. “Just try not to worry.”

“I’m not, and I won’t.” She shook her head. “Do you believe me, Cole?” She clenched her fists at his shirt, and held on tight. “Do you really believe me that I can handle any of this? Please?”

He studied her, and at last Madison thought that she saw a light go on in his eyes. When he nodded and then pulled her into his arms, she thought she heard the “Hallelujah” song chorus chant in the back of her brain.

“I better go, I’m pretty tired.” He kissed her hair, and then gently brought her back. “How about I see you in the morning?”

“Never better, sweetie.” She beamed at him. “Make sure you get yourself some rest, too, okey-dokie?”

“Okey-dokie.” He smirked, and then gently brushed her bangs aside. “See you tomorrow.”

After kissing him and then watching him leave, a huge bolt of relief hit Madison square in the heart. Maybe, just maybe, if they followed God wherever He led them, things would definitely turn out better no matter what.

***************************

The next morning, Cole could barely feel himself get up. He knew the decision he had to make, and he had to do it whether Madison liked it or not. He had to do it to keep Madison safe, no matter how right it did not feel to him.

In the past several weeks, Madison had meant more to him than the entire universe besides God. He had prayed and prayed over this entire decision heartily, and he’d even skipped breakfast this morning, because he was feeling far too numb about the idea than he ought to. He would do what he had to—alert the FBI, anything—but once that he decided that he needed to do it—although unsure of when he would—he needed to make this decision.

Cole felt absolutely nothing as he carefully drove to Madison’s an hour after getting out of bed. He’d brushed his hair and put on clean clothes and shoes. But that was all. He didn’t need to look nice for her anyway, his Maddie.

A strange coil of panic and fear wrapped around his esophagus.

It had to be done.

He didn’t feel anything, though. Not the wind of his hair through the slightly open window of his car, not the clothes he wore, not the crunch the gravel pebbles made beneath his feet as he walked toward the condo’s stairs. He didn’t hear the thump-thump of his shoes hitting the wooden stairs on his way to her door, or the birds singing happily from Madison’s porch birdfeeders and birdhouse. He didn’t feel or hear anything except the ringing of her doorbell, and the singsong “coming” voice of his beloved. He was willing to give his very life for her.

Madison swung open the door, surprising him by being dressed in a yellow T-shirt and cutely matching, yellow teddy bears on her pajama pants. She wore a matching yellow robe over her pajamas, and looked as adorable as sunrise.

She greeted him with a smile. “Hey, sweetie. Didn’t think you were going to be here this early. I’m barely out of bed. I’ve had only one cup of coffee so far.” She giggled. “Want to come in? You look ravenous. I can make you some pancakes.” Her eyes searched his, and he stiffened readily.

“No, that’s okay,” he croaked out, and then gently pulled her out on the porch. “I need to talk to you about something.”

“Something wrong?” Madison asked, and her little dog licked her ankle, and then sniffed his shoes.

But Cole ignored it all. He didn’t feel anything, not the rustle of Rob, Madison’s cat’s soft fur rub against his pants, didn’t hear his purring. All he knew was Madison’s soft, warm hand between both of his own, and felt her concern like it was his own emotions. They matched his like the sun matches the moon, only one was darker than the other.

He swallowed hard, and decided to choose his words carefully. Very carefully. He hoped and prayed with all his being that she’d understand whatever had to be said.

“Maddie.” He swallowed the lump in his throat. “I need you to promise me something. Promise me that you’ll never text or call anyone while driving, or do anything distracting while driving. That you will pay attention to your driving like the expert driver you probably are. Promise me that you’ll lock all your windows and doors every time you leave your condo, that you will never leave at dark or when it’s beginning to get dark.”

“Cole—” Worry slid into her beautiful blue eyes.

“Promise me,” he said sternly. “Please.”

She hesitated. “I promise,” she whispered. “Now what’s the matter?”

Cole let go of Madison’s hand, and it was like letting go of everything inside him, organs and all. “I’ve decided to leave you alone, Maddie. I can’t…” He swallowed hard again. “Like I’ve said time and time before, I can’t risk my family finding out about us. I just can’t. I will not live to stand for you dying.”

“Cole, for goodness sakes.” She chuckled stiffly. “Nothing’s going to happen unless God’s in control, honey. I promise you.”

“Then if that’s true, I’m sure He wouldn’t want me putting you in danger either.” He shook his head. “No. I refuse to keep you with me.” He sighed shakily. “I have to let you go. Then…y-you have to let me go, and then we’ll be safe. All of us. You and your family especially.” He looked away, and squeezed his eyes shut briefly against the bitter, unbelievable rocket amount of pain hitting him like an asteroid. “I have to do this for your sake, Madison, and you have to understand that.”

“Cole, don’t do this.” She shook her head at him. “Why—”

“Do you have any idea,” he cut her off sharply. “Any idea of what they could do to you if they found out about us?” He stepped away from her. “They kill people any way from throwing them out the window, using guns in any way, hanging them, burying them alive, anything they set their minds to.” He shook his head. “I will not watch them do that to you or let you watch them do that to me! Please.”

Her eyes wide with fear, probably at losing him and nothing else, Madison clenched his coat and held on until her knuckles were white. “I told you I am with you for good, Cole. I am not going to let you push me away just because of your own fears, when all you have to do is—”

“You know what?” Cole swallowed his emotion several times, determined to set this straight and get away from her, even if he hurt her feelings. “You don’t get to say what I can or cannot do anymore, Madison. Please understand me, I cannot keep you!” He bit his lip, and blinked hard to keep the tears away. But one slipped from his right eye anyway, and he swiped at it angrily. He hated himself for doing this, but it had to be done. He gently unclenched her hands from his coat, and then backed up far more. “Stay there!” he commanded sharply, and forced himself to keep looking into her tormented eyes. “Don’t follow me, Mad…please.” He sniffled hard.

“Cole.” Madison’s arms fell to her sides weakly, and tears were already streaming down her cheeks. “C-Cole…”

He refused to keep her in this. If his family killed her, he’d never forgive himself.

He swallowed hard, but he had to say one more thing before he left.

He sniffled again. “I love you,” he croaked out.

Madison’s eyes widened as she gasped.

Cole barely croaked out a goodbye before he flew down the stairs and straight into his waiting car, engine still rumbling.

“Cole!” Madison exclaimed brokenly, running after him in her bare feet with Pete at her heels.

He could already hear her sobs, but he zoomed out of there, nearly hitting her mailbox on the way. By the time he was back on the road, he’d left Madison standing at the mailbox, her gaze lost and forlorn, and her tears dampening her T-shirt.

Tears poured from Cole’s own eyes as he almost blindly drove back to the school. He was determined to keep her away as much as possible, even if it killed him.

He’d never loved anyone more in his whole life.

Chapter Seven

Chapter Seven

That evening, Cole drove to Madison’s condo. He needed to see her. He could hardly explain, even to himself, about how much she was beginning to mean to him. But he desperately needed to make sure she was okay after everything he’d bombarded on her that morning.

How she had known he was going to be at the cemetery, particularly that one, he didn’t know, but he’d felt too careless to want to ask earlier.

His headlights beamed on the wall of her garage, and he could see her, even in the darkness, and it was like his soul had been called home.

***********************

Madison took one look at Cole’s car as he pulled it up in front of her house, and she instantly straightened her back at her seat on the porch swing. She bookmarked her place, and then set her book aside. Her heart went doubly fast as he killed the ignition, and tugged the driver’s door open.

She still couldn’t believe that his family were killers. But it explained so much about him, the pain he had and kept trying to hide her from. She knew he wanted her to be safe, no matter each of their feelings, but she was determined to make sure he didn’t fight his family alone. She’d even prayed about it very hard this past afternoon. She was going to do whatever it took to keep that smile both real and constant on Cole’s handsome face.

The very moment Cole walked up the stairs to her balcony, she tensed. Just by how he was standing, not to mention looking at her, she knew he was dreading being there, only because he dreaded answering any more of her questions she had. He dreaded watching her see him in pain, and she knew how badly he wanted to keep it all hidden. But she wasn’t going to be affected by it as much as he probably thought. She refused to be.

“Cole.” She tossed him a gentle, but bright smile. “How are you?” She stood.

“No, no.” He held up a hand. “You can remain seated.”

“It’s okay.” Madison waved a hand, even though she felt it tremble. He looked so appealing from under the dim light of the balcony, and she felt her pulse heighten. His shirt was a bit wrinkled, and his gaze was momentarily downcast, bangs draped over his forehead. His hazel green eyes looked real dark in the dim light, too, which sent her pulse into overdrive. “You feeling better than…?” She couldn’t bear to repeat what had happened between them this morning. She was almost even a bit embarrassed that they’d almost kissed again, or that she’d dried all his fallen tears.

Cole nodded, obviously knowing what she meant. “Yeah. Are you…all right?” He stepped forward. “I mean…” He swallowed hard. “Not that I…” He rolled his eyes, and then looked away.

Madison hugged herself, not because she was cold, but because she was unsure of what to do. It was a grave subject. “What do you mean, am I fine? You mean after everything you told me?”

He looked at her with surprise. “How is it that you can almost read my thoughts?”

She chuckled, and then walked over to lean against the balcony railing. “It’s not like I try.”

He chuckled, too, giving a real smile that tugged at her heart longingly. She could hardly explain the feeling, even to herself. “You’re amazing.” He shook his head.

She gave a shrug. “I’m dealing with it well, I think.” She was proud at herself for having that knowledge. “It doesn’t matter how or what you told me, Cole. I have God to give me strength to help me through it, anyway.”

He nodded curtly, and his gaze filtered across her mouth briefly before caressing the railing, away from her. “I’m glad. Or…relieved.”

“I’m so sorry that I didn’t trust you before, though.” Madison couldn’t help reaching up and gently touching his upper arm. “That was very wrong of me.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. It’s completely understandable. I expected it.” He gazed back at her, and the intense look in his eyes took her breath away.

“I was being really rude, Cole.” Madison stepped forward, determined to show how sorry she was. It meant a lot to her that he knew, because she desperately needed him to keep his trust in her, so she could in him. “That was the very last thing you needed.”

He gazed down at her, and joy, to her great surprise, warmed in his eyes. “I trust you fully, Madison. Don’t even worry about it.” He smiled wistfully. “How did you know I was in the cemetery anyway?”

Madison raised her eyebrows. “I remembered you mentioning your mother, and after how cruel I treated you, I decided that maybe you went somewhere that you could be alone and no one could hear you.” She shrugged. “I guess I just pieced it all together.”

He quirked an eyebrow. “You must be smart like that.”

She grinned. “I guess I am, huh?”

Cole nodded stiffly, and then bent toward her, very hesitant. His hazel green eyes darkened, and he stepped even closer to her. Madison’s breath caught, her heart pounding fiercely from inside her as he reached up, hand trembling slightly. He lightly caressed her hair away from her face, and then with one finger, slid it down the jawline of her heart-shaped face.

Madison’s gaze followed his hand for a long moment, and then glanced up to meet his eyes. The pain riveted there was stark and much different than the fear of losing her he’d had before, the fear of mentioning a bit of his past, or the fear of anything else.

The back of Cole’s hand caressed her cheek, and then he leaned his mouth closer, just as his right hand gently cupped her chin.

Ready, Madison leaned into him. Cole’s mouth came down over hers, and then hovered for a long moment, so close she could almost feel how powerful his kiss was going to be. But when he pulled away and pressed her forehead against hers instead, disappointment hit her like a tidal wave. Because she knew exactly why he was resisting, not because she wanted the kiss so badly.

“I have to go,” he whispered, and then let go of her. He met her gaze for a long moment, and then turned away toward the stairs.

Madison’s heart pounded heavily from inside her. She frowned. “Cole.”

Cole froze, his left hand on the railing and one foot braced forward, almost in the air as if suddenly needing to get away.

“You just don’t want me close,” she said softly. “Because you’re terrified that you’re going to lose me, possibly to your own family. But guess what? I don’t care, Cole. I don’t.”

He sighed heavily, refusing to even look at her. “Madison—”

“No.” She shook her head, one hand bracing the white-painted railing lightly. “I don’t care what you say. I’m not going anywhere, Cole. I care too much about you to even think about doing that.”

Cole glanced over at her, and his eyes pleaded with her. Begged her to just let him be, to let him go to keep her safe.

“I’m safe with you.” She stepped over to him. “I am. I’m as safe as I can ever be, and I will keep all my doors and windows locked at night. Tightly. I will.”

Cole turned toward her, almost subconsciously, and his eyes looked suddenly torn between leaving and wrapping her in his arms like she so wanted him to do.

She reached forward, and held out her hand. “Just trust me, Cole. Everything is going to be fine, because God is watching over us.” She smiled gently.

But it was all the invitation Cole needed. Stepping forward, Cole cupped her cheeks without hesitation, breathless, and kissed her very gently. He gently pushed her against the balcony post as one of her hands clutched his shirt, the other sliding up into the back of his hair. He kissed her more deeply, his pulse thundering in his ears, and Madison let him.

When the kiss was over, he gently pulled back, and grinned at her happily. Happily!

Madison giggled, and she let him wrap her in his arms and kiss her again. This time, it definitely felt like paradise. It was like she had finally come home, that she had everything she could ever want with feeling herself in his beloved, strong and very capable arms.

At last, Cole pulled back far enough to gaze tenderly into her eyes. “I’ll be back tomorrow,” he promised amongst a whisper. “Maddie.” He grinned from ear to ear.

Madison couldn’t help grinning back, and she watched him go with so much relief she almost felt lightheaded. He was finally opening up to her, and that was a definite blessing. And an answer to her prayers.

Her soul continued to feel complete even when Cole was driving far away from her.

************************

The next night, Cole slept better than he had in a long time. As soon as he woke the next morning, he read a few chapters from his old dusty Bible, one his mother had given him the day he’d discovered their family’s secret, ironically. After thanking God for Madison, whom he was now desiring to call Maddie because he was so sweet on her, Cole cooked himself a big breakfast, ate it all, and felt even better.

He remembered that Madison had classes instead of work all day, though, so he decided to actually attend his own classes this time around. He did so, and by the time he got home, it was four-thirty p.m.

Knowing he was welcome to, especially because Madison had been done with classes an hour earlier than him, he called her, and promised he would arrive at her house by five-thirty, if she wanted to go out with him again. She said that she did, and made Cole feel even more happier, which was a definite first for him.

When Cole knocked on her door, however, he was not prepared for the awkwardness of the situation he felt as he gazed into Madison’s beautiful blue eyes.

He smiled down at her, and when her sunny smile returned upon her face, he forgot all about everything that had to do with his family. What usually kept him awake at night. In fact, he felt so well rested that at the moment he could barely remember he even had a family.

“Hey, Maddie,” he greeted her tenderly, his gaze sweeping over her hair pulled back in a low ponytail for today, her honey blond, curly bangs swept to the side. She was dressed in a short-sleeved, purple blouse, jeans, and looked absolutely lovely.

She giggled, and then locked her condo before turning to him. “Hey, handsome.” She smirked. “What are we doing today?”

He raised his eyebrows. “How about we start with a movie?”

“Okay,” she whispered. “Did you have a good sleep?”

“Yes, I did.” He grinned at her, pretty much unable to help himself. She was as bright and wonderful as sunrise, only better.

During the movie at the Billings, Montana theater twenty miles away, they laughed together at the good-natured comedy. One time, Cole laughed so hard that half the popcorn in its oversized container flew onto the floor, and Madison only laughed harder at him.

“I can’t believe we were going to see the movie first, then dinner,” Madison admitted after the movie around eight in the evening as they sat at one of the mall’s restaurants—the theater had been located in the city mall—and finished their fast food dinner.

Cole shook his head at her constant teasing him as he took a long swig of his soda. He did not want to feel any distance between them, especially after everything he had told her.

The one thing that he still had left to tell her was the fact that for years he had wanted to kill his own siblings and father for everything they had ever done. But he was afraid that she might hate him for that one day. He was afraid of many things when it came to Madison, but he had a good reason to. She was special, for one thing. She had brought light into his life when he hadn’t seen such for so long. Long before his mother had even died, in fact.

Now that she was in his life, Cole was destined to protect Madison with his own life, no matter what that meant. Once, he’d been terrified at losing his own life if he ever let down the family’s company. But now he really did not care. Madison meant more to him than anything in this whole world and it had all happened so fast. Yet, it was so worth it. He’d even begun praying a lot more again in the past several days since he’d met her, which was something he once thought he would never do again.

“You look thoughtful.” Madison pointed her plastic fork at him, and gazed at him with an endearing twinkle in her eyes. “What’s on your mind, sweetie?”

Cole smiled at her calling him that. No one had ever called him that before. “I was just thinking about how wonderful you are.”

“Really.” Madison chuckled wryly. “Why would you even think so, Cole, dear?” she teased lightly. “Some people think I can be annoying by my constant sunny attitude.”

“Well, you’re not to me.” He wanted her to know that, yet he still wanted to go slow when it came to their relationship. Even though every day it was feeling much faster-going with her around. “I’m not sure why anyone would think that. Although…” He winced. “When I first met you, I thought you were a little bit. But it has shown a lot more in so many other different ways.”

Madison looked speechless for a moment, her fork halfway to her mouth. Then, she shrugged it off. “Oh, stop. You’re not half as bad either, you know. You’re so kind and sweet.”

“I’m glad you think so.” Most days he didn’t.

“Your mother raised you well,” she added, and then hesitated at finishing off her hot dog, but it was probably to choose her words carefully, not just because she was hungry. “So did mine. And by the way, I have yet to tell you about my family.”

“Yeah, where are they anyway?” he decided to tease. He pretended to search their surroundings. “I don’t see them anywhere, anyone who does look like you.”

“Probably because they actually don’t look like me. Sometimes they tease me that maybe I’m adopted because of that. But over time, relatives have said that I look more like my grandmother, my mother’s mother, than anyone else in the entire family. The same goes with my brother. He looks like my grandfather on my dad’s side. It’s weird.” She took a sip of her own soda. “My brother is finishing off his years in medical school. He has to be the funniest person on the face of mankind, though.”

“Aww, I thought you were.” Cole winked at her, and grinned.

She giggled. “Nope, my brother is. He’s a good Christian, and humor means a lot to him in life. He wants to be the sort of pediatrician that entertains kids in hospitals and makes them happy and more excited about life. You know, sort of like Patch Adams, that one doctor that Robin Williams played in that movie. I like that movie. I have it on DVD at home. In fact…” She held up a hand, and tried to ignore Cole’s look of amusement at her carrying on. “I watch it every now and then to remind me of my brother. I don’t get to see Pat very often. He’s either constantly studying and going to his college Bible studies, or spending time with friends or with his fiancee, Tina.” She gave a shrug. “I guess we all have our own values in life.” She gazed up at him sweetly.

Cole looked serious as he studied her while chewing on a few fries. Once he swallowed, his face brightened, wanting to hear more about her life. “What about your parents?”

“They’re both mechanics.” She smirked.

He chuckled. “Both of them, huh?”

“Yeah. They work together. But they love spending time with each other, so they don’t care how much money they make, as long as they’re together. It’s so awesome.” She studied his left hand lying on the table for a long moment, as if she wanted to hold it. “Sort of like us.” She gazed into his eyes, and then gently smiled.

It felt like a plow had suddenly zoomed through Cole’s gut. How could someone as sweet and wonderful, not to mention a positive-thinker, like Madison end up with a guy like him? It didn’t feel right, or sound right. She should be with a guy with similar values and interests, whose own family didn’t have such a secretive, violent past, not to mention the same kind of present. Maybe even the same kind of future, if he didn’t get both he and Madison out of it as soon as possible.

He swallowed hard, but not even a long swig of his soda could keep his throat from feeling parched. It was like Madison had been meant to be to make him feel this way, to make him feel—and know with every fiber of his being—that no one could ever feel the same amount of tenderness, not mean anything more to him than she did. It was weird how it had ended up that way, but maybe, just maybe, God had planned this for him. Yet why would He let Madison be in danger this way, unless He didn’t want Cole to die alone?

Cole mentally shook his head, and pushed aside the fear trying to trap him. He wouldn’t let his family near Madison. He would make sure of it even if his own life depended on it. He decided right then and there that it was time to enjoy this evening better, and try not to think about what could come after this first date.

The drive back to Madison’s condo was filled with lighthearted and hilarious stories about the funny stuff her cat and dog had ever done to drive her up the wall, or anything else. Cole just listened, chuckling now and then, because he was too focused on keeping all the negative thoughts at bay, and any thoughts about his family. Madison didn’t need to know anything of what he’d already told her anyway.

Cole helped her out of his car, and then walked with her up the stairs to her condo door. She was grinning as she fished her keys out from out of her little brown leather purse, and then turned to him. Her eyes were sparkling with laughter, happiness, and excitement, and just the sight of her standing before him made Cole want to kiss her senseless. But it also made him feel jolly and warm inside, shoveling any such negative feelings fully out of his body. It was amazing what real love could do to a person when it came to that.

“So.” Adorable, Madison curled her hands behind her, and leaned against her doorjamb. “I had an awesome time with you tonight.”

Cole stepped back to give them both a bit more breathing room as he grinned at her. How could one sweet girl make him feel so wonderful? “I’m glad you enjoyed yourself,” he said honestly, “because I did, too.”

“You’d better,” she teased. “Because I think there should definitely be a second date after this. What are your thoughts?” She quirked an eyebrow.

“You’re absolutely right.” He nodded. “That would be incredible. When would the best time work for you, Maddie?”

She thought a moment. “How about tomorrow?”

He almost laughed. “It’s another school night, though.”

She shrugged. “I hardly will make time for homework at night anymore, Cole.”

She had a point there, Cole thought. He nodded. “You know what? Me, too.”

Madison nodded. “Good.”

“Yeah.” He smiled gently. “So…” He didn’t want to make the situation any more awkward than it already was. Besides, the kiss they’d shared the night before had definitely been something. He wanted to move very slowly and did not want to scare her.

So he hoped he wouldn’t surprise her too much when he gently took her left hand from within his right, and lightly kissed her forehead.

He leaned back, and grinned at her tenderly. “Good night, Maddie. Sleep well. Pleasant dreams.” He stepped back, and turned away.

But he was almost to the stairs when Madison reached out and wrapped a hand around his left forearm.

“Oh, no, you don’t.” Giggling, Madison stood in front of him, and then looked up tenderly into his hazel green eyes. “You’re not getting away very easily, Cole. Just because you told me stuff gives you no reason to want to be weird about it.”

Cole sighed heavily, and then finally shook his head at her. “Maddie, you don’t even have to ask me twice.”

Without hesitation, she lifted her head and welcomed his lips gently coming down onto hers. She let his left hand graze her jaw lightly as she returned the kiss, and then let go gently.

Madison smiled at him. “That’s better. Good night, silly.” Chuckling, she turned and went back over to her door, where she unlocked it, and slipped inside. Right before waving at him.

Cole shook his head with mirth as he walked back down to his car. He had a big feeling that it was going to be a lot different and better between them from now on.

Chapter Six

Chapter Six

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.

“Hello.”

“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…”

Apologized.

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.

Chapter Five

Chapter Five

“I’m warning you, Cole. I am not to be trifled with. You know that.”

Cole rolled her eyes and raked a hand through his hair the same time as he paced his apartment. Addison didn’t care that it was late at night and he needed his sleep—well, in relative terms, he probably did. But he didn’t get more then five or six hours a sleep a night anymore. If he ever had any more, they were mostly filled with nightmares from his past.

“I know that, Addison. I just…well, you know how I was injured in that motorcycle accident. How can I even begin to get well?” he lied, “if you keep bothering me?”

“You said you would be a great help to this company, and—”

“I didn’t say that. I said that I would attend every meeting,” he corrected both sharply and bitterly. “That was my sworn oath, you know that, and I want nothing more to do with any part of this.”

“What about filing? You could do some filing work, organize the bills we get, make sure there’s always good money coming in and going out. You know.” Addison’s chuckle filled the line. “Sally does plenty, but you could do a lot more.”

Cole could just feel his blood on fire with never-ending anger. “I am not going to do something that ridiculous when you know as well as I do that I hate every piece of work you all do!”

“Oh, come on, you aren’t still on that, are you?”

Cole scoffed. “I can barely stand straight knowing where I am,” he grumbled.

“Oh, don’t be so melodramatic, Cole. It’s not like I did anything with my own two hands.” He chuckled.

Cole scoffed, but when he heard someone knock on the door, his blood froze like icicles in Antarctica. He swallowed hard.

“I have to call you back,” he said. “Something’s come up, Addison.”

Addison sighed. “All right. Fine. But you better be there at next week’s meeting. This discussion is not over, Cole.”

It never had been, Cole thought, but half his brain was on whoever was at the door. “Whatever, good night.”

“Good night, bro. Sleep tight.” Addison laughed again, harder, and the line went dead.

Cole barely remembered shutting his cell phone off and flipping it to Silent mode as he walked to the door. He let the phone slip from his fingers to the little shelf by the door, and he was very cautious as he looked into the peephole.

The sight of Madison waiting sweetly on the other side made his breath catch in his throat. He should’ve never let her drive him home the other day, because, of course, she now knew where he lived.

She knocked again, three times before glancing down at something in her hands.

Almost without thinking, Cole undid the dead bolt, and flew open the door.

Madison gazed at him, and then looked at him from head to toe. “Were you asleep?”

He shook his head. “What…what are you doing here?”

“Figured you would be up.” She gently breezed past him, and set the two steaming, covered Styrofoam cups of something, along with a mini bag of something that smelled like chocolate, on the small kitchen table. “I remember those lines under your eyes, Cole.” She shook her head, and then slipped off her coat. “I may not always be smart, but I’m certainly not blind. So here, comfort food.” She motioned to the stuff she’d brought. “Hot chocolate and double chocolate chip cookies.” She grinned widely. “Sound awesome?”

Cole rose his eyebrows. He could not believe that she had come to his house specifically for this occasion only. He’d never heard of anyone doing such a thing before. No one, not even his mother, had actually done anything like that before. He wasn’t sure what he would even call the kind of friend Madison was to him.

He studied her for a long moment, and then heard himself ask, “Did you just happen to dollop my hot chocolate with whipped cream?”

She studied him back, and then a big grin slid across her lovely face. It made her look even more beautiful than she actually was, and it beamed a bright, sunny, sparkling light into him from head to toe. He had to admit that it was an awesome feeling.

“I made the hostess put a triple dollop of whipped cream on there just in case it all melted too fast. I put triple dollops on both cups of hot chocolate. Does that work all right for you?”

Cole felt himself grinning. Grinning! Something he knew for certain he hadn’t done in ages.

“Works just fine.” He chuckled. “The only problem is…it’s one o’clock in the morning.”

“That’s exactly why I won’t stay long.” Madison chuckled. “This is just a little snack to make you sleepy and hopefully make you sleep a lot better. Take my word for it. This cookie and this hot cocoa both will soothe you right to sleep.” She grinned, and then took one of the two little bags she’d brought, along with both hot chocolates. “Lead the way to the bedroom and I’ll prove it right.”

Cole swallowed hard. “Oh, so you mean right before bed.”

“Yeah.” She grinned, and then handed him the items. “Here. Good night.”

He looked at the items for a long moment, and then sighed heavily. “Could you…maybe…stay with me for ten or fifteen minutes?”

The grin completely wiped from Madison’s mouth, and she frowned.

“I-I get nightmares.” The confession had to be made. “A-Almost every night.”

She didn’t say anything for a long moment. And then finally, she swallowed hard and nodded. “This is comfort food. It’ll make you better.” She smiled wistfully. “I’ll sit next to you as you sleep. That’s how long it’ll take, you’re guessing, before one comes along?”

“Y-Yeah.” He nodded sharply. “I-I…I hope you don’t mind.”

“Of course I don’t.” She waved a hand. “Cole, you are a dear friend to me. If I minded, I wouldn’t be there.”

“I’m pretty much ready now then.” He was wearing his pajamas, white flannel pajama pants and a matching Nike T-shirt. He took the cookie out of its wrapper, from her slender hand holding it, and had it eaten before he’d even finished leading the way to the bedroom doorway.

“My goodness, I hope you don’t daily starve,” he heard Madison say, and he winced. He led the way into the mostly dark room to the single bedside lamp lit by an unmade, full-sized bed. He climbed under the black and white-striped, warm bedsheets and let Madison sit beside him. She handed him the six ounce cup of hot cocoa, and he took several large sips. Comfortable silence lurked between them as he drank, and then he found himself asleep before he knew it. The last thing he felt was Madison’s cool, gentle hand slipping the cup from his fingers, and shutting off the bedside light.

Several minutes later, he woke up sweating, jolting up in bed only by her sweet voice.

Madison’s adorable face was filled with stark concern. She still had her coat and shoes on, and was still holding her own Styrofoam cup of hot chocolate. Her eyes were wide as, with trembling fingers, she reached up and gently touched his face hot with sweat and tears. She lightly stroked the tears from his chin, and then leaned back far enough to gaze at him worriedly.

He swallowed hard, and then leaned as far back as he could get to the bed headboard. Her vanilla perfume and strawberry shampoo mix—she was that close—was doing strange things to him. Really strange things. And he just couldn’t be this close to her in his bedroom without losing control. It wasn’t what he was raised with, or what God taught. He at least respected those parts of religion.

And for another thing, Cole did not want Madison to know for a single moment of his feelings to her.

He swallowed hard.

Madison continued gazing at him thoughtfully, and then reached out and took his hand gently. “What was it about?” she asked softly, speaking of the dream.

He swallowed hard again, and decided that it had to be said. “I was…running through a forest. A group of…people were following me with guns and knives.” He gulped yet again, and struggled to breathe. “That’s…that’s about it.”

Madison studied him for a bit longer, and then nodded. “All right. I’ll leave you for now,” she whispered, as if there was another person in the room listening in. “You have my number in case you need anything.”

He almost smiled, because the offer was so genuine. “I doubt it,” he murmured.

She raised her eyebrows, and then nodded as if she understood. Standing, she gently moved the sweat and hair from his forehead, leaning over him and bringing with her the fantastic scent of fresh strawberries and sweet vanilla.

Cole couldn’t decide which scent belonged to perfume and what scent belonged to her shampoo. But what he did know was that he could literally feel himself trembling as her lips caressed his forehead, and then she drew back.

She gasped at him tenderly, but he knew it had to be purely friendship. Who in their right mind would care anything more than friendship about him?

“Hope to see you soon,” she whispered. With that said, she turned swiftly, and left the room.

Cole listened for his apartment door to close before lying back down. He didn’t shut off his bedside lamp or tried to sleep until several minutes later. No one besides Madison had ever affected him this way before.

He wasn’t even sure if he liked it or not.

**********************

Madison gazed into the white chocolate raspberry mocha that she had ordered from Starbucks. She peeked through the single hole in her Styrofoam cup, and gave a long sigh. A sad sigh, one that she rarely had used before she’d even met Cole Whitworth. She didn’t understand why Cole was always acting the way he was. Why he was always acting the way he was, like every hour of his life, like his whole world was crumbling at his feet.

She shook her head in disgust, and in fatigue. Since the day she’d met him, she’d gotten even less and less sleep, because she couldn’t keep from praying about him, hoping to the high heavens of the earth that Cole would find the sunny side in life, the kind of life she knew and was now disappearing from her life. She wasn’t sure what was going on, but in the past few weeks, Cole had begun to mean more to her than a friend. She wasn’t sure if that was a good thing. For all she knew, Cole could be greatly annoyed by her constantly needing to make sure he was okay. He never looked happy, just always sad, and it was just depressing. Not depressing because he looked sad, but depressing because she couldn’t figure out why it just didn’t feel quite like sadness, but of something completely different.

If he wasn’t being sad, he was being constantly let down about something, and that was another thing that kept her wondering, keeping her eyes wide open at night, at what on earth it actually was.

In return, she was feeling not only out of place in her life but totally not herself altogether. She wasn’t feeling sunny anymore, and she had to read twice as much devotions every day plus her Bible just so she could be able to get through the next day with the help of God. She wasn’t sure if she was falling in love with him or—

Madison paused from dusting the bookshelf at the bookstore to stare into space. She couldn’t believe it. Was she really falling in love with Cole? In just a matter of weeks? It didn’t feel possible or plausible. One person didn’t take that short of time for the feelings to come, although it did explain why she couldn’t stay away from him for more than a few days.

Although it had been one whole week since she’d seen Cole last.

It explained so much else. But…maybe she shouldn’t jump to conclusions until she was absolutely positive.

“Madison? Are you with us?”

Madison glanced up to see her boss frowning at her from under his curly mustache. He was a humorous guy, so his eyes were still twinkling besides his frown, but she had to wonder if he was talking to her.

“There’s going to be a fifteen-minute meeting in our conference room in a few minutes,” he said, staring at her as long as Michelle was. “Be prepared.”

He turned away, and Madison breathed a sigh of relief.

Shelly stepped over to her, her face full of concern. “Are you all right, Maddie? You don’t look yourself, and you haven’t been acting that way, either.”

“I’m fine,” Madison lied, when inside she was wondering what was going on with Cole and why he hadn’t called her in a week when she’d so wanted him to. She’d prayed he would, because she’d thought that maybe, just maybe, the more time he spent with her usual sunny self, his complete attitude for life could be changed. “Let’s just go to the meeting, Shell.” She set her dust rag aside.

Madison could feel her friend’s gaze on her as she led the way to the conference room. But she didn’t want to explain herself. She didn’t want Michelle, Nicole, or anyone else to confirm the truth.

Maybe she was in love with him after all. And maybe it was one-sided, so maybe that’s why Cole was staying away from her.

Because of how she always acted, so charming and happy as her friends and family all said she was, maybe it was good that Cole was staying away. She certainly wouldn’t blame him.

After the conference meeting, Madison spent a couple more hours at work before heading home. She told herself on the drive home that she needed to act normal and not so different or unusual. Her friends and family were definitely worried, since she wasn’t acting at all like her happy and pippy self. She knew that, so maybe beginning tonight she needed to work on forgetting about her worries over Cole. Maybe she should just forget about him altogether, and let God handle the rest for good this time.

Madison parked in front of her condo in her usual parking spot, and then prayed briefly for the courage and strength to let it go. She got out of her car, collected her keys and purse, and pressed the Lock button on her key ring remote.

But the moment she finished climbing the stairs to her condo door, she froze.

Cole stood from the porch swing right outside Madison’s condo, and swallowed hard. He looked terrible, like he didn’t even know what sleep was anymore. Dark circles were under his eyes like black eyeliner, puffy and plain as day. She just wanted to make him lie down and sleep for months and catch up on it all. His hair was combed neatly, as if he was prepared for this meeting, and his shirt looked wrinkled from lack of ironing.

As if not sure what to do with his hands, he shoved them in the front pockets of his faded blue jeans.

“I…” He began, and moistened his lips. “I…don’t know what I’m doing here.”

Madison swallowed hard, and then reached up to curl a strand of honey blond hair behind her ear. She looked him up and down, and then gazed into his lost-looking, hazel-green eyes. One glimpse at that handsome gaze, and she knew. She knew. Nothing could prepare her for the violent blow suffocating to her chest. She was really in trouble now if she felt this strongly for him—she most certainly was in love with him, no matter how unsure she was of how it had exactly happened, or why it had happened so fast.

“W-Well.” She itched to hug all the dark emotions probably swirling inside him right out.

But she had to act right about this, Christian-like. First of all, it was probably unhealthy for a girl like herself to be around someone who might not even believe in God the way he acted, and she hoped God forgave her for thinking such a thing. She wasn’t sure if lack of sleep was causing her to think such stuff, but it was still true. Maturely true. She could not stay around Cole when he was this way, and wouldn’t give her neither the time of day nor any information she inquired about.

Today had to be the last time she ever saw of him if he still refused to tell her everything she was almost dying to know about.

“Well,” she began again in a hoarse, ragged voice. “You’re here, s-so…” She shrugged stiffly. “I hope to think you probably had a good reason for coming here.”

Cole swept his gaze over her, and it irked Madison to see pain come into his eyes. But it both looked and felt different than the usual pain she seemed to see on him. She could hardly explain it even to herself, but something was definitely wrong anyway.

“You…I haven’t seen you in a whole week, Madison.” He tried for a smile, and lost. “H…How are you?”

“I’m fine,” she lied, and hugged herself. “How are you?” She forced the words out, “Nightmares still there?”

He tensed, and she already knew the answer. “C-Cole…I don’t know why you’re here either…”

Cole looked up at her in an almost pleading expression.

She fought away the tears biting her. It had to be impossible to feel such longing; such want and need to even hurt whoever was making him look so terrible. What were the nightmares even about?

“But, Cole, I’m afraid nothing can become of this if you won’t…” She forced the last words out, “If you won’t tell me anything. I won’t see you anymore if you keep hiding such obvious pain from me, Cole, so just…” She clenched her teeth. “S-Spare me, okay, and just…” She closed her eyes briefly.

Cole gulped, but then his gaze shot to her move to hoist her purse strap higher on her left shoulder. “You’re trembling,” he murmured, and lurched forward.

Gasping, Madison stepped back. “Don’t, Cole. If you can’t tell me anything, then this will have to be the last time you ever meet me.”

On rubber legs, she walked slowly to the door and fisted the keys from her trembling hands. She was only a single unlock away to freedom away from him.

Cole’s cold hand wrapped around her left wrist gently, and she stiffened.

“Madison.”

She looked up at him, and swallowed hard in preparation.

He gave her a small, sad smile. “Please. Let’s…how about I take you out for ice cream. Huh? Then…then I promise I’ll try to explain everything.”

Shock shot through her like a bullet, and Madison almost lost her footing. “Really?” she asked softly.

He nodded, and tenderness came over his face, but Madison refused to think of that look as more than friendship.

“But first I need you to trust me, Madison. Please.” He smiled wistfully. “Whatever I tell you will be worth telling, then. I promise.”

Madison thought about this for a long moment, and then felt relief from the bottom of her heart. She could trust him. It was going to be easy.

“All right.” She grinned, and suddenly felt like her own self again. She was so pleased to hear he was finally going to tell her, or at least try to. “Let’s go.”

Cole chuckled, and for the first time in her life, to Madison it felt like her world was finally back in place again.

Chapter Four

Chapter Four

Madison shook her head at how on earth Cole must be feeding himself. Hadn’t anybody ever taught him how to make a homecooked meal? Preferably not. But she was not going to be apologetic. Cole deserved every slice in the thirteen-by-nine inch pan of lasagna she’d made. Even if that meant she wouldn’t get one. He might need the food a lot more than her. She’d eaten a big breakfast, after all.

She led the way onto the front white porch of her balcony from the stairs, where her second floor condo was located.

“Here we are.” She unlocked the door, already smelling the Parmesan and tomato sauce from inside. “My neighbor Brandi was so kind to watch the lasagna for me while I was gone. It must be done now.” She led the way into the apartment. “Just make yourself at home.” She threw her purse, shoes, and keys off to one side, and then bent to check the lasagna at the stove. Before Cole had come in Starbucks, Brandi had sent her a text message saying the lasagna was done.

“We’ll be ready to eat in a little bit.” She glanced at Cole gazing around her condo.

“Nice place,” he remarked quietly.

“Oh, thanks.” With the potholders, she gently took the lasagna out of the oven. “I know there’s such bright colors on the walls. The previous tenant must have painted those there, although I would never dream of painting over them. Such nice colors, like a rainbow, don’t you think?”

“Do you need any help there?” Cole asked as he walked into the kitchen, eyeing the lasagna hungrily.

“Nope, nope.” She set the pan on a potholder on her island counter. “Just sit yourself down and be comfortable. We’ll be ready to eat in a bit.”

“Great.” Another ghost of a smile traced his face as he sat on one of the padded stools, and Madison immediately wished he’d smile more.

Yet, she reminded herself as she carefully closed the hot oven door and shut the oven off, that whenever he did smile, it was lopsided and goofy, and one of the most appealing smiles she’d ever seen. He was a looker, she’d definitely give him that, but she wasn’t in the market for that sort of thing. It’d happened once, and despite her sometimes wondering if there was a husband God had planned for her, she doubted it would ever happen again.

Still, it was good to be happy in life, and better that than sad and lost like he’d so looked in the hospital. Poor guy. She couldn’t help wondering why he looked that way.

“Go ahead and dish up.” She got out some paper plates, plastic cups, and silverware.

“Nope. Ladies first.” He shrugged at her.

Wowzer. Madison shook off his kind notion. She didn’t deserve a fraction of generosity that he probably did. “No, really, Cole. I know you’re hungry.”

“That wouldn’t be polite.” He averted his gaze, as if a bit shy of making sure she was taken care of first. “Besides, we have to pray before we eat, don’t we?”

That made her wonder if he was a Christian or just said that because he thought or knew she was.

“All righty.” She sat down across from him, and then bowed her head.

“Go ahead and start,” he said, and bowed his own head.

She nodded and squeezed her eyes shut. “Dear Lord, thank you for this beautiful meal, thank you for supplying the ingredients in which to so make it, and thanks also for an awesome  new friend, and healing Cole’s injury. Thanks also for all your blessings, and may there be a goodly share on every table everywhere. Amen.”

“Amen,” Cole murmured.

After dishing a big slice of lasagna onto her plate, Madison gently nudged it toward him. “Smells delicious.”

“Yeah, it does.” Cole bit into it. “And it tastes delicious, too.”

“Oh, thank you, hon.” She grinned.

“Do you always make your meals homecooked?”

“Of course. Well, most of the time. Sometimes…you know. You just feel like eating a sandwich or sub or something instead, or else sometimes I go out to eat with a friend. We could do that sometime, too.” She beamed.

But Cole was gaping at her. “You make homecooked meals three times a day?”

“Most of the time I feel pretty up to it.” She swallowed her second bite of food. “I like cooking anyway. Ooh, and baking! It’s so much fun.” She grinned. “I have a doughnut maker, although the bakery makes better ones.”

“I think I might have to test that theory.” A lopsided grin implored Cole’s mouth, and Madison’s heart suddenly went haywire. What was wrong with her? She swallowed hard, determined to finish her meal without losing her appetite just by how handsome he looked. How pathetic. She hadn’t felt this way about anyone since Brian, and she’d only known Cole a few days. What was up with that?

And why was she even thinking about Brian Langford in the first place? She hadn’t thought of him in ten whole months. That had to be a record somewhere in a random record-making book.

“Why not be a chef or baker instead of an art teacher?” Cole asked, taking her momentarily off guard.

She seriously needed to get a grip on herself. It was just a smile, after all. She was trying to be a good Samaritan, the way Jesus had been in the Bible.

“Well,” she said, “I thought about that at first. But I love working with kids, and I want them to experience art and coloring. I want to watch their faces light up.”

“Sounds like a good plan, then.” He nodded, and then took another bite of her lasagna. He chewed thoughtfully, and for the first time in a long time, his face didn’t look so pale, lost or sad. He actually looked like he was enjoying himself. She had to wonder when that actually happened. “So what else do you do in your spare time?”

“I don’t know.” She had to wonder how boring he’d think of her if she told him.

But it didn’t matter anyway, because she did not have a thing for him! He was just one of those regular cute guys, although maybe a bit skinnier and paler than others.

“Well,” she decided to tell him, “I like to spend some time with my great-grandmother. She is a sweetheart. I also volunteer at the zoo, foster animals if they need my help—”

“Whoa, whoa.” Cole held up a hand. “You volunteer at the zoo?”

“Yeah.” She shrugged. “I love hanging out with the animals, and even the lions can be in good moods. Oh, and there’s the quilt I’m making for the town bazaar—”

“You make a quilt?” he asked, astonished obviously.

“Sure. I make one every year for our annual summer town bazaar. I always get a good profit.”

Cole’s eyebrows shot up as he hungrily finished the lasagna. “Wow, is there anything you can’t do?”

She chuckled. “Oh, stop. I bet you have plenty of fun stuff to do in your life, don’t you?”

Cole shrugged, and Madison took that as a no. She all the sudden wanted to teach him how to sew or play guitar the way she did. Or bake or cook. Something to keep that sad, lost look off his face.

A long moment passed, and then a sudden jingle broke the silence.

She watched Cole freeze, and then pull out his cell phone from the front pocket of his jeans. He stared at the it for a long moment, and Madison felt the taste of the lasagna turn into dust in her mouth.

If it was possible, Cole’s face grew even paler, and his eyes slightly widened as he continued staring at the screen and letting it ring. Then, his whole body started trembling, and Madison dropped her fork.

“Goodness, Cole, are you all right?” she asked gently.

But the moment his shoulders started quaking and his breath became a bit wheezy, Madison sprang into action. She recognized the clear signs of a panic attack. She set the phone aside, and then took a brown paper bag from the pantry.

“Here,” she commanded him sharply, holding it over his mouth. “Breathe in here. Deeply. Come on.”

Cole took several deep breaths, and she had to wonder what had triggered the attack. His eyes stayed connected to the phone on the counter, though, and Madison turned to swiftly knock the phone to the floor.

“Don’t look at that,” she said sharply, and then put both of her index fingers and thumbs on either side of both his eyes, making him look at her. “Look at me, okay, Cole? Don’t look at that. Look at me. Just think of nice, calm things.”

He nodded, and the color eventually seeped back into his face. He swallowed hard, and when his breathing became more normal, Madison gently removed the  bag from his mouth.

“You okay?” she asked him gently.

He nodded. ”Yeah. I’m just…” He shrugged. “I’m fine.”

Madison didn’t look convinced, however. “Cole, you’re really worrying me. What’s wrong?”

“Nothing’s wrong.” He got up, determined to ignore that his panic attack ever happened. “Sometimes I get panic attacks.”

“Well, what triggers it?” Madison gently touched his shoulder.

“Nothing.” He looked away, and then swallowed hard. “Nothing at all.” He reached for his fork with trembling fingers, and then took a big bite of the lasagna so he wouldn’t have to answer any more of her probably prodding questions.

Madison studied Cole for a long moment, but then went back to her own stool with reluctance. She finished eating her large slice of lasagna, but she didn’t look her usual sunny self. She took a big swallow of milk, but her slender fingers were trembling slightly as if she didn’t know what to do with herself, or the situation.

That tortured look sent an invisible sword straight through Cole’s gut. He couldn’t explain what he was feeling, but what he did know was that he didn’t want to like the feeling. The phone call proclaimed his every fear. If Madison knew even a smidgen of what was going with his family, she would be lost. No doubt about it.

“You’re not going to tell me about the phone call, are you?” Madison quirked an eyebrow at him, and she set down her fork. Maybe she had lost her appetite. “Whoever was calling seemed to have scared you.”

“I told you it’s nothing, all right.” Cole meant to sound gentle, but it ended up coming out gruff. The last thing he wanted was to cause another bit of hurt to cross her lovely face.

Oh, boy, maybe he was going overboard here.

“Well, it’s not all right, Cole!” Madison shook her head so hard, her curls swayed from side to side. She was purely adorable. “It bothers me to see such a good friend being tortured like that, like his entire set of guts was being ripped out. If you get my meaning.”

Had he looked that bad? Cole barely noticed anymore. He’d felt more numb by the day, ever since the day after his twelfth birthday when his mother had sat him down and told him the doggoned awful truth: the truth of what their family did for a living. He’d finally felt pain again when his mother had died, but now he could barely feel his heart beating most days. He was not sure if he was depressed. Mostly it was just never-ending stress. His sleep had turned lost as well, and it certainly didn’t help that he had to have his entire family’s phone numbers on his silver, Blackberry cell phone.

“I’m not your friend,” he grumbled, and knew with every word it was true. “I never have been.”

“Oh, of course you are, honey!” Madison surprised him by wrapping his cold in both of her own. She held his hand so dearly as if he honestly meant the world to her, and he could not believe of the numbness wearing off him like novocaine. “You matter very dear to me, to the good Lord, too. And I trust very much that He will help you with whatever you’re dealing with, and certainly won’t mind if you tell me your troubles.”

“I can’t, Madison.” He tried jerking his hand away, but she held on tight.

She couldn’t know what her touch was doing to him. Like Band-Aids being ripped off quickly from skin, it was ripping off every bit of numbness inside him. More than that, it was causing good thoughts to melt into his brain like warm honey, and he couldn’t keep them at bay. The only thing that could was Addison’s phone call.

If he called again, he was doomed.

“I don’t believe that,” he croaked, and then swallowed the lump in his throat. Boy, he certainly wasn’t hungry anymore. “N-No one has ever been this good to me.”

“Oh, come now, that can’t be true.” She cocked her head at him so sweetly that his eyes blurred. How could this be possible? He was suddenly becoming attracted to her, and the mere thought of what could happen if his family discovered her terrified him. It made him want to kidnap her and take her away to Europe, anywhere safe from the other Whitworths. “What about your family?”

Cole winced as if twelve bullets had hit him, and he bit his lip to keep from screaming. How could this attraction be possible? How could he keep letting her do this? He had to put a stop to all this kindness. He had to keep her safe.

A too-familiar jingle suddenly pierced the silence.

He and Madison both glanced down at his cell phone lying on the floor. This time, the speed dial said Jack’s name that was calling. What if they traced his footsteps? They’d done that before, with the one girlfriend he’d had in high school…and watched her end up dead.

“I’ll get that.” The stool squeaked on the tile floor as Madison quickly rose to her feet. “Whoever’s upsetting you is obviously not in their right mind, Cole.”

Jingle, jingle.

“So I am going to definitely give them a piece of my mind.” She nodded with stark determination.

Jingle, jingle. Cole’s blood began to rise a temperature beyond boiling.

“Right here, right now.” She began to bend down.

Panic seizing him, Cole grasped her by the shoulders and gently shoved her against the fridge behind her. She stared up at him with wide, confused eyes. She was so close he could smell vanilla on her, a beautiful smell that definitely made him believe that she must be sent straight from heaven, from all those heavenly scents and places.

“Do not touch that phone,” he growled, and then swallowed hard. “I…I cannot let you.”

Madison narrowed her eyes.

In one fluent movement, Cole snatched the phone from the ground just as it went straight to voicemail, he knew, by a single beep. He shoved it in the front pocket of his jeans to deal with later, and then nodded to the door.

“I better go.” He nodded at her. “Thanks for the lasagna, but I’m not hungry anymore. Sorry. Have a good night.” He began to turn toward the door.

“Cole, wait.” Madison snagged his arm, turning him fully toward her. “Come on, hon, you have to tell me what’s going on. Something has to be going on here. Please. Tell me.”

“I can’t.” He dared to glance at her. “Please understand, Madison. Or at least try to. I have to…keep you here.” He couldn’t resist. He reached up, and curled a strand of hair behind her ear. “You’re too perfect to leave behind.” Had he really said that? “But…another time.” He nodded curtly, and then turned the doorknob.

“Call me.” Madison pressed a piece of paper into his hand. “Here’s my number, in case you forgot. Please. Call me.”

Cole studied the door across the hall from Madison, and then prayed for a first time in a long time that He would definitely keep her safe.

“I’ll think about it.” He swallowed hard. “Goodbye.”

It tore him apart to leave, but he had to keep her safe. She was so full of goodness, and if anything happened to her, he’d never forgive himself. And he’d certainly never forgive his family, just like he’d never forgiven them for the past one hundred and twenty deaths.

***********************

Hours later, three hours after Madison usually went to sleep, she was still awake thinking about Cole’s panic attack. What had caused such a thing in the first place? Why was he acting as if she was the world’s worst enemy? It didn’t make any sense, and it was especially not very pleasing to a Christian girl like herself.

Madison decided that she needed to think about this over some hot chocolate. And maybe, just maybe, she should call Cole and ask if he was okay.

One look at the dark lines under his eyes of what she had seen today told her he was probably still up.

Cheeriness is Contagious; Chapter Three

8 November 2019

Hello everyone,

 

Are you a morning person? Or are you the kind of person that needs a ton of coffee in order to feel revived, alert, and energetic? Or are you always feeling crabby in the morning, even on your best days? Madison starts to rub off her constant cheeriness on Cole in these beginning chapters as you’ve already read. Sometimes extra cheery people annoy me. Other times, I’m grateful to have them around as opposed to negative, grumpy people or people who complain a lot. For me, hearing other people complain about stuff they shouldn’t be complaining about is one of my pet peeves. Although, for myself, I do complain more than I should. But alas, we are all a work in progress – including Cole. Watch below as Madison begins to change his demeanor.

 

Chapter Three

“No way am I getting strolled around in that thing.” The next morning, Cole eyed the wheelchair Nurse Bettie had indicated.

The nurse quirked a challenging eyebrow. “Hospital regulations.”

“Fine.” Madison crossed her arms and met the woman’s glare. “If he does get to ride on it, we’ll make it look like a recliner instead of a wheelchair. And, I’m going to be the one pushing him to the door.”

“But—”

“Nope.” Madison shook her head. “I’m sorry, but I’m not taking what you say.” She reached forward without waiting for a reply from neither Nurse Bettie or Cole. She slipped the pillow at the back of the wheelchair, and then threw a small blanket she’d brought along over the back so it looked more comfortable. “There! Is that a dealio or what?”

“Fine,” the nurse said, and then reached for Cole’s left arm while Madison grabbed his other arm. Together, they helped him into the wheelchair.

Cole felt ridiculous as the nurse pulled out the foot rests, and he wondered what Madison must think of him. But one glance at her, and she sent him a bright smile before giving a quick frown in the nurse’s direction. She went behind him.

“I’ll push him.”

The nurse sighed. “But hospital—”

“Hospital regulations, my foot! Let me push him, and you can just walk alongside, and then wait instead of touching the wheelchair or any part of him, unless of course, he feels sick, while I go and get my car. Are we clear…please?”

Cole had never been so defended in his entire life. Madison sounded so serious, however, that he had to hide his smile behind his hand. For the first time in too long, he actually wanted to smile.

“Fine. Go ahead.”

“Thank you.” With that, Cole was being pushed out the hospital room door, and down a long white corridor. They stopped before double doors, and he braced himself.

“I’ll be right back, sunshine.” Madison sent him a wink, and then hurried out into the sunlight.

Minutes later, to Cole’s great surprise, a bright yellow—literally—VW Bug drove up to the curb and parked. Madison got out, and then took the wheelchair again. She had the nurse open the car door as they gently helped him into the passenger seat. After he was settled, the nurse shut the door, and Cole watched in amusement as Madison practically shoved the wheelchair at the nurse, and said something that actually made the nurse’s eyes widen. Madison briefly watched as the nurse stormed away, and Madison went to the driver’s seat.

“All right.” She clipped herself in, after him, and then brought the car into Drive. “Are ya ready?”

Cole raised his eyebrows. “What exactly did you say to her? She looked mad,” he said as they began to make their way out of the hospital parking lot.

“Oh, not much. Just told her if I saw him treat another patient so rudely, I might have her fired.” She chuckled. “I was only half teasing, but Nurse Balonga probably didn’t know that.”

He almost smiled. “I think it’s Nurse Bettie, Madison.”

“Whatever.” She grinned at him, and then gently stepped on the accelerator once they reached the road. “Say, are you feeling better today? I don’t think I asked.”

She’d already asked three times, but surprisingly enough, Cole didn’t mind. “I’m fine. Thanks.”

“You didn’t have a rough sleep, did you?” She winced. “How hard can it be to sleep with an IV attached to your arm?”

“I’m a pretty still sleeper anyway.” He shrugged. “I slept okay.”

“Awesome.” Madison beamed at him once they reached the main highway. “I’m so proud of you for getting through this. You’re so brave to constantly chew the nurse and doctor both out.”

“Not like what you did.” It had to be said. “You should win an award.”

She chuckled. “Oh, stop.”

But Cole kept looking at her. She was dressed in a yellow T-shirt, jeans, and flip flops. Honey blond curls hugged her shoulders, and her violet eyes were alive with great enthusiasm. He had to wonder why she was so proud of him. He’d just had a gash to the forehead. Nothing major. He hadn’t had a concussion that bad. He hadn’t even felt sick once.

“You didn’t worry about me, did you?” he asked. “‘Cuz you know I’m fine.”

Madison waved a hand. “Worrying is natural. Besides, I know you are now. But I hated how those people treated you.” She shook her head with disgust. “As doctors, I hope they treat people a whole  better than that. Gee Louise.” She giggled. “I wonder if they even enjoy their jobs.”

Cole really, really didn’t know what to think of her. She was a constant ray of sunshine. “Where do you get all your energy?”

“Probably coffee.” She giggled again. “I drink like six cups of it every morning. It’s amazing I’m not hyper.”

“Yeah. Amazing.” So amazing that all Cole could do was stare at her. He hadn’t even met a woman like her. She was a too far contrast from both of his sisters put together.

Madison noticed, and then giggled again! “Oh, go ahead and say I’m weird. Or random. I probably deserve it. You must think how crazy I must be for a total stranger to give you a ride home.”

“Not really.” And she didn’t feel like a stranger either. The moment she’d been with him from his accident, she’d never felt strange. And she was so positive.

“Well, thanks. I really appreciate that.” She grinned at him. “Now where do ya live, silly?”

“I’ll show you.” Cole rambled off the directions to his apartment.

Madison kept the car alive with happiness and tease up until she parked in front of his apartment.

“The nice girl that I am, I’m going to make sure you get to the door okay.” She beamed at him, obviously no stranger to happiness. “You just got out of the hospital after all, and the doc had said that you had a mild concussion.”

Cole smiled wryly. He couldn’t help it. She was just so full of joy that he didn’t know what to do with himself. Besides, if he refused, he might hurt her feelings. That had to be a rare thing for her, being the way she was constantly joyful. It was almost ridiculous the way she was acting.

“I supposed I’ll lose the argument if I try to talk you out of it,” he said, and then grinned.

Madison killed the engine, and then motioned to his face. “That’s what I’m talking about, sunshine! Just a little bit of grinning. That’s all it takes to make everything better, don’t you agree?” She tossed him a wink, and then got out of the car, keys, purse, and all.

Cole led the way to his apartment door, and then unlocked it. “I think I’ll be fine here now, Madison. Thanks.”

“Don’t lie to me,” she warned teasingly. “It’s rough getting out of hospitals. I know, because my brother’s had two minor surgeries before.”

“I could never lie to you,” he said. “But anyway…thanks again.”

“Oh, no problem.” She waved a hand. “I should totally give you my number, though. Not because, you know, that I want to ask you out, but because in case you need anyway, dear.”

She called him dear? Cole raised his eyebrows. “I’m fine. Really. I probably won’t need it.” But just as the words were out of his mouth, a wave of sudden dizziness hit him. He needed to get inside ASAP.

But when everything suddenly started to swim from around him, Cole felt like he’d lost his brains. The apartment keys somehow had dropped to the floor, and Madison’s “yeah, right, silly” reply sounded way too far away. Like an echo, almost.

Addison’s threatening words, “I’m going to kill you if you don’t get this right” from yesterday echoed from around him, and before Cole knew it, his head had hit the floor.

******************

“That’s right. Just breathe. You’re all right.” Cole heard Madison say in another echo. He wasn’t sure how long it was later, but what he did know was that the moment he opened his eyes, the room was spinning again.

Madison’s blurry face was grinning over him. “You’re on the couch, sweetie. You just fainted, and I had to carry you inside. Are you still dizzy?”

Cole had absolutely no idea how Madison had gotten him into the apartment, much less on his couch, but she had. “Uh…” He suddenly felt a little sick.

Madison chuckled and then held something over him. “How many fingers am I holding up?”

He looked at the four fingers. “Four.”

She chuckled again. “Close enough. It was actually two, but I think we’re making progress. What do you think?”

“Ow.” He slapped a hand to his head. “It hurts.”

“Yeah, I bet it does.” Again, her voice was echoing. “I called your doctor, by the way. He said to just let you rest, so don’t even try getting up, mister. It’ll totally not be worth it.” She laughed. “My goodness, I wonder how you must feel right about now. But anyways, don’t fret. Just close your eyes and count to a hundred for me. Can you do that?”

Cole nodded and closed his eyes, though it felt like he was on a roller coaster, going round and round and round.

***************

The sound of a lawn mower was what woke Cole up the next morning. He found himself on the couch, covered up with two blankets. He gazed around his empty apartment, and then immediately felt grateful that his dizziness had ceased. He was feeling a lot better, except for some pain, but that he could definitely deal with. He carefully sat up, holding a hand to his forehead in case another wave of dizziness came about. He carefully got up, and then figured that Madison must have gone home. The clock in the living room said that it was eight-something in the morning. He would miss his first class, but that was fine. He didn’t much care for those classes nowadays anyway.

The moment Cole stood, however, and then took a real look around his apartment, he knew there was a definite change. The dishes in the sink were all washed and set aside. The coffee pot was on, with a full pot of coffee all ready for him. He was shocked. Madison had done all this?

Stepping forward, Cole froze. And then gaped.

At the island counter, there were four different kinds of fruit, all freshly bought. Oranges, apples, and bananas piled there. Stepping around the counter, he counted two or three bars of chocolate, a medium-sized case of French vanilla cappuccino, a new bottle of ibuprofen, and a new box of brown-sugar-flavored instant oatmeal. Madison had bought all this. He could not believe it.

At the far corner of the counter, though, was a note from under a last, but not least, new loaf of white bread. He studied the note, where Madison’s cursive, beautifully sprawled handwriting had her phone digits at the top. The note read: “If you need anything, just give me a holler. Figured you could use some extra food. Make sure and eat it or I will track you down. Hope you’re feeling better,  Madison Brooks.”

Again, Cole shook his head. He just couldn’t get over how a strange woman like Madison herself, no matter how welcomed she’d brought herself out to be, could buy all this stuff for him just because she was concerned. Or that she cared. But no woman in his life except his mother had ever done anything like this. Especially no one non-related to him had ever done anything like this before, and he was just in awe. But deep inside him, Cole felt a big swirl of emotions that he’d never felt before. It didn’t make any bit of sense to admit that he might possibly be a smidgen attracted to Madison Brooks, but it was also highly possible. Yet a pretty, sunny girl like herself probably had a boyfriend anyway. Isn’t that how it always went?

And why was he even wondering if she had one anyway? It wasn’t only none of his business, it was totally wrong altogether.

Cole decided to eat the stuff, and he did, but the whole next week of classes and constantly hoping Addison would never call bit into him. It kept him busy all the way through, but in the days when it wasn’t so busy, when he was driving back home at night, or when he was lying awake right before going to sleep, Cole thought about Madison. He’d wanted to call her and thank her, since he still had her number. It was lying beside his phone mocking him constantly, but what else would he say? Would he want to hear her joyful voice and then feel terrible that they couldn’t see each other anymore? What on earth did Madison even mean to him?

He didn’t know, but the following Saturday afternoon, a week later, Cole found himself in a Starbucks, staring into his hot chocolate, and wondering where he was going.

A couple left in the booth ahead of him, and to his great surprise, Madison was sitting two booths away facing him. She was eating something. When she looked up, her entire face brightened, as did part of Cole’s soul. She waved at him, and before he knew what was happening, Cole was standing and walking over to her booth.

“Hey, Cole.” Madison grinned at him.

“H-Hi.” He indicated the seat across from her. “Are you alone? Can I sit?”

“Sure.” She beamed. “Of course I’m alone. I very rarely come here with somebody.” She chuckled, and them motioned to his drink. “Hot chocolate, huh?”

“Yeah.” He nodded to her to-go, Styrofoam cup of something. “What do you have?”

“Oh, just a big coffee.” She finished chewing her large cookie, a quarter eaten off of it. She motioned to it. “You can have a bite if you want. It’s massive.”

“No, I’m fine.” He smiled at her gently. “I, um…was going to call….you.” He swallowed hard at her curious look. What was going on with him? “I wanted to…thank you for everything you did. And you didn’t even need to buy that stuff for me. I mean…that’s really nice, thanks.”

“You’re very welcome.” She cupped her hands around her cup. “I was afraid of leaving you, so I asked my friend Kristi to buy the stuff for me, and then I’d pay her back. I did so without even leaving you, even when you were sick.”

“Oh.” Cole grinned. He barely remembered that moment. “I’m…I’m so sorry.”

“Hey, it didn’t bother me too much.” She grinned. “So did you eat the stuff? You didn’t go hungry, right?”

“No. I still have some left, but I’ve been eating it.” Cole shook his head. Why was she even wondering? Why did she care so much?

“Well, since I’m a good Samaritan, you know. I wanted to make sure you had some stuff you needed. I did your dishes, too, because I thought you might not feel well enough to do them.” She shrugged. “Sorry if I interrupted any privacy.”

He chuckled. “What privacy?” he asked, and then he wished he hadn’t said that. His life was pretty private as it was.

“At least you’re better now.” Madison reached over, patted his hand, and then let go to take a sip of her coffee.

But Cole had to wonder why her touch felt like an electric zap straight to his heart. For about twenty seconds he couldn’t breathe normally. Which was extremely odd in his situation. He just wasn’t thinking straight.

“Go ahead and have it.” She motioned the cookie to him. “I’m pretty full. I’ve had a big breakfast.” Suddenly, another lightbulb seemed to have flipped on inside her head, because her face brightened even more if that was possible. “Say, you know, you should have a homecooked meal. You know, a whole three-course extravaganza kind of dealio. Let me ask you something, Cole. When’s the last time you had a homecooked meal?”

Her gaze briefly filtered over him, as if trying to guess why he was skinny as he was. Cole felt like he should hurry and buy a sweatshirt, even in the hot summer air, because maybe he wouldn’t look as skinny then.

“Um…” He had to think about the last time he had a homecooked meal. It’d been quite a while.

“All right, that settles it.” She slapped the table. “Sometime, I will definitely invite you over to my condo, someday, maybe, and you’ll have what you’re looking for.”

“In my defense, I do eat every day.” Cole knew that he looked skinny, but sometimes, the stuff that happened in his family and the company just made his appetite vanish, to the point where he sometimes even felt sick. Of all the bodies he’d seen in his lifetime, few of the killings he’d seen occur…it was a wonder he wasn’t thinner.

“Yeah, you probably do.” But Madison shook her head. “But in case you go hungry or run out of food, at least you have my number, right?” She chuckled, and then glanced at her leatherband watch on her slender left wrist. “Oh, my. I better run. I have to head to the bank before home. There’s lunch cooking and waiting for me there.” She grinned, and then stood. “It was really nice seeing you again, Cole.”

She was leaving? Cole wanted to seriously object, another new thing for him.

“You don’t have to go yet.” Had he actually said that?

“But I do.” Thankfully, she didn’t look taken aback at all. She grabbed her cup of coffee, and then patted him on the shoulder. “Take it easy, all right? Hope to see you sometime in the future.” She flashed him one last grin, and then waved. “Bye, Cole.”

“B-Bye.” Cole couldn’t help watching her leave, though, and again, the booth felt empty. Just like the hospital room and the apartment had both felt empty when she’d left. It was like he was never going to see her again, and suddenly, Cole needed to see her again. He didn’t understand why, exactly, but he just couldn’t let her get away so easily.

Before he could even make himself have second thoughts, Cole stood and hurried out of the building.

Madison had just opened her driver’s door to her bright yellow car when he hurried onto the sidewalk, clutching the crumbs of the cookie in one hand, and his cup of hot chocolate in the other.

“Wait!” he exclaimed.

She looked up, surprised, and then grinned. “Did you forget something?”

“Y-Yeah.” Cole swallowed hard. “I…on s-second thought, I think I might take you up on that…homecooked meal offer.”

“Really?” Pleasure seeped over her lovely heart-shaped face. “Well, I’ll be. Did you want to do it now? Do you like lasagna?”

Cole nodded, and then felt himself grinning like a fool. What on earth was wrong with him? He’d never acted this way before. “Y-Yeah.” He swallowed hard. “I love the stuff.”

“Well, awesome!” Madison gave a little squeal, and then clenched her left fist as if fighting to contain her excitement. “How about you follow me up there? That way you’ll know where I live in case you ever want to visit me.” She grinned. “Then I can head to the bank this afternoon. Sound like a plan?”

“It sure does,” he concluded. “S-See you there.”

“Yeah, see ya!” She clutched her cup. “Oh my goodness, this is going to be so much fun.” She got into her car.

Cole watched her for a bit before realizing what he was doing. Staring like an idiot. He sharply turned away to his car two cars down from hers, and got into his Mustang. He wasn’t sure how he could’ve parked in this lot without seeing her bright yellow car.

As he turned on the ignition, he seriously wondered what he would have done if he had seen it, went to a different coffee place or gone inside anyway.

The Art of Optimism; Chapter Two

11 October 2019

Hello everyone,

 

I wish I could be as optimistic in life as Madison is. Her spirit for giving and helping others is what first appeals to Cole – but I won’t give anything away. Personality tests try to tell us who we are, but they’re not always accurate. Only God knows us better than we know ourselves – and that’s the true art of optimism. He sends us into situations that we’re not expecting, but even we don’t like the situation at first, it always ends up in our favor and for our own happiness.

 

Keep reading to see how God switches everything around for Cole and Madison!

 

 

Chapter Two 

“He sounds spectacular.”

“I know.” Madison giggled as she stored books away in the bookstore, glancing at her co-worker and friend, Michelle Larson. “He’s a very handsome guy, but I don’t know. He just seems really troubled, for some odd reason.”

“I would be cautious, if I were you.” Michelle grinned. “You never know what kind of guy he is until the end sometimes, and it’s not always good.”

“Oh, please, come on. Just be optimistic. I am.”

“You always are.”

She chuckled. “I have a good right to be, Shelly.” She shrugged. “God’s love is amazing. He can make the smallest, most horrible things turn into the biggest and brightest, wonderful things!” She shook her head.

To this day she was still amazed at the unique power of God’s amazing love. He’d been the One who had made her into the sunny, happy-sunshine self she was every day from the day she’d been born to present day. All her life, every friend and, perhaps, some of the few foes, had constantly been impressed with her sunny self. She very seldom got mad, and she was constantly determined to see not only every day to the fullest and live it that way, but to look for many amazing things in each day, whether they were in nature or elsewhere. She knew that God was always watching out for her and those she loved, so it was so easy to trust in Him daily, for her, at least. Her wonderful parents had led her to look for the sunny side in the every day, and her brother’s own sunny self had brought him to be engaged to a wonderful person, also a Christian like she and her family so were.

“I guess that’s true.” Shelly shrugged. “But I guess that’s for me to learn and find out, huh?”

“Yeppers.” Madison nodded curtly, although she sent a silent prayer heavenward for His constant watch to be over Shelly and her family, more so than for her. She had everything she needed, but after Michelle had broken up with her boyfriend, her faith had spun into a pessimistic downturn. Madison hoped and prayed that Shelly would once again have the same kind of faith that she tried to daily. “But don’t worry, Shell. God, I’m sure, is leading you in the right direction, too.”

“You deserve it more than me, though, Maddie.” Shell quirked an eyebrow. “I mean, come on. How many bad things have happened to you and you’ve always seen through it so optimistically, and so faithfully? Unlike me.”

“Every person is different. Each Christian has their own unique styles and abilities, like how they pray, for example.” Madison patted her friend’s shoulder, and continued dusting the bookshelves. “I hope, though, that Cole finds his  heart soon. He seems to be so lost. I’m going to see him right after work, though.”

“I’d like to have known what was going through his mind the moment he met your sunny self.” Michelle smiled wryly.

“Hopefully he’s thinking that he’s hungry, ‘cuz I’m thinking of buying a package of those yummy doughnuts at the bakery before I head over there.” Madison giggled in excitement.

“Oh, Maddie, don’t you know that bringing in food for patients is against the hospital rule?” Michelle gave her a warning look.

But Madison waved it aside. “Not if I have anything to do with it.” She nodded with stern determination, and then continued working.

******

“I don’t think so,” Cole’s nurse told Madison later.

They were standing in the doorway of Cole’s hospital room. Cole was gaping at them with shock as Madison shook her head at Nurse Bettie. She was quite the beetle, Madison noted. She wasn’t sure how the woman could be so fierce and determined.

“Fine. I’ll eat them myself then,” Madison said. “I won’t share any with Cole, and I’ll save the rest for that.” She tossed the woman a big smile. “That way I won’t get into any trouble. Dealio?”

Bettie quirked an eyebrow.

Madison rolled her eyes, and then forced a smile. “It means, ‘deal?'”

“Deal.” Bettie neglected Madison’s extended hand, and left the room.

Madison waited until the door had closed behind the woman before she started giggling. Then, she hurried over to Cole’s table, and opened the package for him. “Hurry.” She smirked. “Before Nurse Baloney comes back.”

A faint ghost of a smile leered across Cole’s face.

Okay, it was almost progress, Madison thought. So far, all she’d gotten from him was either that or frowns. Cole was very difficult for her to read. She could usually sense people’s emotions so well, but Cole here was as talented hiding his emotions as a volcano sprouting lava.

Okay, bad comparison, maybe.

“Are you sure it’s safe?” Cole asked, no ounce of amusement on his face as he took a bite of a mini chocolate doughnut. “You could get kicked out.”

“They’d have to call security to kick me out,” Madison determined, eating a frosted mini doughnut with him. The package had a mixed variety of kinds of doughnuts, twelve altogether. “But I bet not even then they’ll be successful. They’ll have to throw me over their backs screaming.” She chuckled at the thought. “But they should probably know I’ll be back the next day.” She glanced up at them, and her eyebrows shot up.

Cole was studying her as if she’d literally lost her mind, one doughnut halfway to his mouth. It was his second. Finally, he chomped into it. “Where’d you get these anyway?”

“At the bakery across from the bookstore. That’s where I work, remember.” Madison daintily wiped the edges of her mouth with one of the napkins she’d also brought along. “I figured that staying in the hospital for a few days really has to be the dickens dirt, so I decided to cheer you up. It adds to the coffee, don’t you agree?”

“I’m getting discharged tomorrow,” Cole said, and then gently shoved the mini doughnuts aside, as if full. But by how lean he still looked, Madison doubted it very much. Her brother could eat a whole package of doughnuts in one day and later regret it. “By then, you’ll wish you’d never met me.”

“How so?” Madison grinned at him. “You seem pretty awesome to me.”

He shook his head, and then looked away, all stone serious. “That’s because you barely know me.”

“What are you talking about?” Madison pushed the doughnut package back toward him. “I feel like I’ve known you forever. I shared both coffee and doughnuts with you. I call that knowing you.”

“Maybe in your world, not mine.” He looked away.

She laughed. “Do you think that I would believe that?”

He shrugged. “I hate telling lies.”

She didn’t get him. He was even tempting her sunny attitude to dampen, and that rarely happened. Very rarely, in fact.

“Keep eating.” She handed him another chocolate doughnut. “Here, I know you like these. By the way, my brother, Patrick? He can eat like three of these in one whole week. He tried to eat two in one day once, but he almost ended up sick.” She chuckled. “We all thought it was hilarious, even my mom, and she’s like the one who actually knows how to worry.”

Cole looked at her then. “You mean you’re always like this?”

“Always like what?” she asked, and then frowned lightly. “‘Course I am. My friends sometimes call me Maddie, Cole, although my family calls me Madison. You can call me anything you want, really. My grandpa calls me Mads, and my aunt calls me Mads-Pads, but I don’t know if I’d go that far with you.”

Another ghost of a smile hinted across Cole’s face. “Wow. What do they call your brother?”

“Well, his fiancée calls him Patty, which is weird. I call him Pat, Mom and Dad call him Pat, but he prefers Patrick.” She chuckled. “He’s twenty-four, only two years older than me.”

“I’m twenty-three,” he said gruffly, and the moment he did, pain laced his face.

Madison stood there momentarily staring at him, shell-shocked.

“Eat up, mister.” She again extended the doughnut. “I know you still have room inside you.” She grinned. “Tempting, isn’t it?”

Cole reluctantly took the doughnut, but just how he ate it made Madison wonder how much food he ate per day.

“By the way…” She finished chewing her own doughnut before swallowing, so she could talk better. She didn’t want to spit food at him. “I’m taking you home tomorrow, Cole. No suggestions or excuses. It’s hospital rule anyway. Right? Or did one of your family members change their mind?”

Cole looked down, and fingered his blankets like he had earlier. “No, they haven’t.” Sigh. “You can take me if you want.”

“Well, you don’t have to be so downhearted about it.” She waved a hand. “You live in Manhattan, right? It shouldn’t take too long.”

He looked up at her sharply. “Why are you helping me anyway? I don’t need any help.”

“I think I owe it to you.” She both playfully and gently punched his shoulder. “Besides, I adore helping people. Even animals. Did you know that I like to foster some animals for a living? It’s a side job. It’s not always fun, of course, but you know me. I like to think of the sunny side of things.”

Cole frowned hard. “Why?” he asked, looking at her as if it was the most ridiculous piece of information he’d ever heard of.

“Why not?” She shrugged a shoulder. “Life is to enjoy, and it’s the only life God ever gives you, except for eternally, of course. Right?”

“I…guess.”

“Glad you agree.” She slipped her third doughnut into her mouth, and then lifted the cover over the package. “You done?” she asked around the doughnut.

Cole nodded, but he looked even more sad.

Madison’s giggle sent him looking up, though.

She shook her head fiercely. “Just think what sort of ruckus I would have started if I’d argued with Bettie a bit more.” She giggled again. “Goodness gracious.”

Cole quirked an eyebrow. Ever since the woman had jumped into his life like one of those jumping beans, he’d been surprised at almost every sentence coming out of her bow-shaped mouth. She was cute and pretty, he had to give her that. She was also fun-sized, and couldn’t be more than five feet, four inches tall. His brother Addison was a six story building compared to her height, and he knew, at least, that he was way taller than her, five feet, eleven inches, to be exact. But the way she kept going really was beginning to irk him only a little.

Finally, Cole decided that he needed to know how she kept going the way she did. What kept her going, exactly? How come she was so constantly sunny?

But first, he needed to know one other thing.

“Can I ask you a question?” he asked, expecting a big and bright answer from her.

“Sure as shootin’.” She grinned at him, every one of her teeth meaning the brightness of her smile. It was exactly like a hundred-watt lightbulb.

“How come you’re so nice to me?” He had to ask. “You’re bringing me doughnuts and coffee. What’s with that?”

Not a single bit of light went out in her violet-blue eyes. She shrugged. “I don’t know. Does a girl need a reason to cheer up a Mr. Grumpy?”

He quirked an eyebrow. “I am not grumpy.”

Madison let out a trill of bell-like laughter, and crossed her arms. “Prove it, oh grumpy one.”

The statement sounded so serious and so humorous at the same time, despite her twinkling eyes, that Cole almost smiled. Every time he wanted to, though, he was starkly reminded of the pain so ready to meet him at home, or at “home.” The harsh reminder of what his family had planned for him if he didn’t stick to his quietness in every meeting. In fact, two days from now, he had to go to another meeting. Addison had decided to hit bimonthly meetings now instead of just monthly meetings. He had to be at every one if he wanted to sleep well at night, or not wake up in heaven instead.

“Maybe I’m not grumpy,” he decided firmly. “Maybe I just would rather see the seriousness of life.”

“What seriousness?” Madison obviously did not know the meaning to the word serious. “There is no such thing.”

“What about death?” Cole felt his whole body flinch at the very word, remembering his mother. “Isn’t that serious?”

“It is if they’re not a Christian.” Madison shook her head, her smile disappearing briefly. “That has to be the saddest thing I’ve ever heard of.”

She had a point there. As a trying Christian, Cole knew that for people who didn’t believe in God, death had to be the most horrifying thing ever. That’s why, despite their deadly sins, he hoped his family never had to deal with that.

“I better go.” Madison grinned at him. “I have a full evening with my dog planned ahead of me, but count your blessings, mister. I’ll be here right away in the morning to bring you home, and perhaps even chew Nurse Balogna out then. All righty?”

Cole nodded. “Sure. I guess I can’t stop you.”

“Of course not.” She tossed him a wink. “I’ll leave the doughnuts with you.” She waved, and then left.

But it wasn’t until she did that Cole realized how empty the room felt.