Phone Call

Extra content for Penelope’s Paths

Feeling like I don’t have much time, every minute bringing my phone’s battery closer and closer to 0%, I decide to take this option. But how will I get the alone time to get to my phone?
Out of nowhere, an idea strikes.
“You know, Craig,” I say loud enough for him to hear me over the music of his earbuds. “This sounds odd, but I’m really craving mango.”
His eyes fly open and he yanks the white plugs from his ears.
“I’d do just about anything for mango right now.”
He grabs his bag and rummages through it until he pulls out a battered copy of What to Expect When You’re Expecting.
“What in the hell does this book know?” he huffs, tossing it aside. He rushes to me and puts a hand on my belly, and I mentally congratulate myself for not flinching at his touch. “Do you really think it’s possible?” he asks like a kid on Christmas morning asking if Santa really came down his chimney with a bag of toys and left them for him.
“You are the epitome of health,” I say as positively as I can, as if that means his sperm is so amazing I’d be super pregnant right away.
“But I didn’t buy any mango. I’ll have to go shopping. Here, have some water. And I’ll be back.”
He rushes to the fridge, pulls out a SmartWater and is back at my side, pushing it into my hand. I skeptically take a sip, really uncertain about drinking anything he hands me. Ever.
“I’ll be back in twenty-five, thirty minutes tops.”
He kisses my mouth and I cringe but fight off recoiling, not wanting to upset his manic mood. Better to have him happy.
He bends down and grabs the shackle.
“No!” I protest, pleadingly. but he looks at me with eyes that brook no argument.
“This is for your safety,” he tells me.
“I’ll be back with the mango before you know it,” he then says brightly. “Anything else?”
I try and think of something, but can’t come up with anything as I’m wildly trying to figure out how I’m going to get to my phone.
After Craig leaves the cabin and the dust settles from the wheels his Jeep kicked up, I count to 100—just incase he comes back for some reason.
“Hey Siri?” I call out.
No reply from the phone. It’s probably dead, I think, dread flooding my belly. 
But, desperate, I try again. This time a bit louder. Still nothing.
I need to get to my phone. It must be buried so deep that Siri can’t hear me.
But how can I reach my bag? The chain isn’t nearly long enough. Panic coursing through my body I’m hit with inspiration. Standing on the floor, I bend over and give the bed a lift. It’s not too heavy! I drag it toward the corner where my bag sits and when I’m close enough, I race to the pile.
I grab my bag and fish out my phone. One glance at the screen has me simultaneously elated and terrified.
The battery in the upper right hand corner is red and the display shows 3%.
With NO time to spare I open the phone and punch in 9-1-1.
A moment later I hear a ring tone, then a male voice saying, “Nine-one-one. What’s your emergency?”
My heart thunders! This is it!
“Help! I’m being held captive,” I tell him. “In a cabin in the woods somewhere. Craig isn’t here right now. He’s shackled me to the bed. He just left and I don’t know how long he will be gone. He’s already raped me twice! Please help!” I blurt, fear bubbling up from within.
“What’s your name ma’am?”
“Penelope Pierce.”
“Ms. Pierce. We’re glad to hear from you. Your friends have filed a missing person’s report. We’re getting a lock on your phone’s GPS and we will dispatch someone as soon as possible. Can you stay on the line with me?”
“Yes, but I only have three percent battery left on my phone!” I tell him, panic freezing me from the inside out. I look at the screen again and see with horror that the battery is now at 2%. “Two percent now,” I tell him, my voice cracking with fear.
“I understand. We are working as quickly as we can, Ms. Pierce.”
The next moments are agony. Every second feels like a minute. Every minute feels like an hour.
The operator engages in some idle chit chat but no one arrives and I watch my phone drop to 1%.
“One percent,” I tell the operator.
“Please bear with me.” he says, “still trying to get a lock on your location.”
Finally, the operator says, “We have a—”
Then the phone goes black.
My phone is dead.
“We have a what?!” I scream at the phone in frustration.
With dread I wonder if I’m going to end up the same way.
Was the operator telling me they have a lock on my location? They have an officer on the way? Or they have problem with their system and aren’t getting good enough reception to find me?
To fend off my crushing anxiety of the situation, I try to soothe myself by imagining my rescue. The cops burst in and use whatever to free me from the handcuffs, and when Craig walks in, they arrest him and lock him up for life.
Or maybe Craig fights back and they end up shooting him. I’m surprised that I actually don’t care if he dies, although a small part of me wants him to suffer in jail.
But what if the cops get here before Craig does and Craig sees them here and runs the other way and they never catch him? And he does this to another woman somewhere?
I’ve always been proud of my creativity, however right now, it almost feels like an enemy.
Suddenly, there’s a face at the back window of the cabin and I’m frightened so badly, I scream. The person holds up his hands and I see a badge in one hand. Relief floods my body and then…my world goes black.

I wake to a sensation of floating…
I don’t understand it.
I’m disoriented.
I startle and my eyes fly open.
I’m on something that is rolling.
I can’t move my head but my eyes drift groggily to the left, and then right. I see a man and a woman.
“Doctor,” the woman says.
Doctor? Did Craig bring a doctor in to get me pregnant? Or to check if I’m pregnant, my mango ruse gone awry?
My eyes fly all around.
Where’s that crazy S.O.B.?
“Ms. Pierce. You’re going to be okay. I’m Dr. McCaffy and this is Lea,” he says with a look over me to the woman on my right. “She’s our best nurse. You’re safe. We’re going to take good care of you. Do you understand?”
“Where is he?”
“Shh, honey. Like the doctor said, you’re safe,” the woman the doctor called Lea says calmly. “He’s in the custody of the police. We’ve got you. You’re at County General,” Her smile is lovely and I want desperately to believe every word.
“Th-The hospital,” I confirm, trying to convince myself, hoping this isn’t a dream.
I inhale and smell scents that are like a hospital. A hospital is a safe place. But I don’t feel safe. I’m suddenly convinced this is a part of Craig’s plans. I’m finally able to move my arms and try to push myself up to get away.
“Shhh.” The nurse hushes me again as the doctor pushes me back down on the gurney. I feel a pin prick in my arm and I gently drift back to sleep.

When I wake again, I’m in a bed that isn’t moving. I look to my left and see a door that is wide open and can hear a rush of activity outside, but that doesn’t bother me. It’s better than the deafening quiet of that cabin. A cabin that I’m not in.
A glance to my left and I see machines that have wires and tubes leading to my arm and my chest. There’s also a pair of bags hanging sending God knows what into my arm. But it must be okay, because I’m clearly in a hospital.
Wait! I remember that this could be a part of Craig’s crazy process. Maybe he has me here as a part of his plan? Maybe he’s going to have me inseminated!
Panic is setting in when I hear footsteps at the door. I whip my head around to see… a police officer?
Craig somehow has police working for him?
“Hey,” the man says softly, smiling at me, his eyes bright and excited. “You’re up. How are you feeling?” By now he’s at my bedside and I’m trying to figure everything out. But things aren’t adding up. Do I run? Or am I okay?
“Wh-what is going on?” I croak. My throat is dry and I’m so thirsty.
“Ms. Pierce. You’re okay,” he says. “You’re safe and your captor is behind bars.”
Behind bars…It echoes in my head. Behind bars…Behind bars…
Foggily, I recall that someone said something about Craig being in police custody.
“Jail?” I squeak, needing confirmation.
The officer nods and says, “Just hang on. I’ll tell you everything. But the doctors are going to want to check you out.”
He presses a button on my bedside then says, “I’m Officer Maxwell. Tom Maxwell.”
I nod my understanding and then two nurses sail into the room and Officer Maxwell steps back while the beaming nurses take readings and fire a couple questions at me. They allow me a small glass of water and they turn off one of the drips that is draining into my arm.
“You’re very lucky,” the somewhat familiar nurse says. She also tells me that the sedative will fully wear off in the next half hour or so, and then the doctor will be in to further evaluate my condition.
My mind whirls. Home. I want to go home.
The nurse’s eyes flit to the officer then back to me. “Let’s take one step at at time, okay, dear?”
“Thank you, Lea,” Officer Maxwell says. She smiles at him and leaves with other nurse.
Officer Maxwell, pulls a chair up to my bedside and says carefully, “Ms. Pierce, when you’re ready, we will need a detailed account of everything you can remember about what happened to you over the past few days. It doesn’t have to be right now, it can be whenever you’re ready. And if you’d rather speak with a female officer, I can have that arranged.” His tone is soft and compassionate and caring. I nod, but am not able to talk about anything at the moment, my head is still hazy, and I’m trying to figure anything out.
Laura comes tearing into the room. “Oh my God!” she whisper shrieks and rushes to my bedside, hugging me as best as she can. She turns to look at the cop and says, “Thanks, Officer,” then turns to me to explain. “He’d just texted me to tell me that you’re okay. I was out in the lobby talking to your mother on the phone. I didn’t want to wake you. Her plane just landed and Shannon is picking her up from the airport. I’m sorry I wasn’t here when you woke up. Your mother is going to be so relieved! I need to text them, but I need to hug you again first.”
I can’t help but chuckle at my overly exuberant friend. Something about her erratic chatter is comforting.
As she delicately hugs me, she whispers in my ear. “Officer Hot Stuff over there has been here nearly the entire time these past two days. And I don’t think it’s all about the case.”
Two days? And Officer Hot Stuff? Is she serious? When she pulls back, she waggles her eyebrows and I almost burst out laughing.
Officer Maxwell clears his throat and when I look over, he looks a bit…pink? Embarrassed?
“I’m going to go and call Shannon. Tell her you’re awake so your mother can relax a bit.” Laura kisses my cheek and leaves.
Coming to my sense a little, it registers that my mother is on her way.
I start to cry. I haven’t talked to my mother in a few weeks. And now she’s coming here because…
Oh my God! I had been kidnapped. It all comes crashing down on me again. Craig. Healthy and handsome. He drugged me. Took me to a cabin. Forced me to have sex with him. And for whatever reason, I can’t figure out why I would let him, or why I don’t really remember all of it. But I know it happened.
I’m having a hard time catching my breath.
“Hey,” Officer Maxwell says in a hushed voice from his chair. I look over to him and see pain and concern in his warm brown eyes. “It’s PTSD, Ms. Pierce. It’s okay. Breathe. You’re safe.”
“But—He—And I—Why didn’t—”
“All good thoughts, okay? You’re safe,” he assures me. “Take your time.”
He’s careful to not touch me, but he locks eyes with me. “Breathe,” he commands softly.
He takes a breath in.
“In.” I inhale with him. “Out.” Exhale. “Good. Again,” he urges. “In.” Inhale. “Out.” Exhale. 
I take a few more breaths with the confident man, then study him. I look into his soft, brown eyes noting startling gold and amber flecks in the irises. His olive-toned skin is half covered by a closely-trimmed short beard and mustache. His shoulders are huge and his biceps are like the size of my thighs. He has tattoos all over his arms from what I can see beneath the short sleeves of the black uniform shirt that barely contains his massive chest. On the right side is a police crest and on the left a golden bar with the name MAXWELL engraved on it. There are a couple of colorful bars under his name and on the collar are a single star on each point. His black tie is loosened and the top button opened, but he’s still in uniform.
“I don’t mean to push, or intrude, but if it will help you to talk about what happened, I’m here. Or, like I said, I can call in a female officer. There are also doctors we can call to talk with you. But for my part, the sooner we have confirmation of what we assume happened, the faster we can lock down your captor’s arraignment and keep him behind bars.”
“Behind bars sounds good,” I repeat, nodding. “Um, okay. I met him the other day,” I start, wanting it all out of my head.
“Whoa, hang on a sec. Would you mind if I record your statement? You can say no, but it’s the best tool we have.”
“Uh, sure.”
He pulls out his phone and taps what I assume is the audio recording feature, and he pulls out a notebook. He says into his phone, “This is Officer Thomas Maxwell, responding officer to the Winter’s cabin outside of Dart Island and the abduction of Penelope Pierce—”
‘Abduction of Penelope Pierce’ bounces around my brain and I feel as though I might puke.
“Ms. Pierce,” the officer says, and I pull myself back to my safe hospital bed. “Can you please tell me how you met the assailant, Craig Winters.”
“Y-yeah. I met him at the Great Groceries on Saturday morning.”
“Was that the first time you met him?”
I nod. He points to the phone and my clear my throat. “Yes. But I’d actually seen him before then. A couple of times actually. Once at a restaurant when I was having drinks with my friends,” I tell him, the panic that I’d very much been Craig’s target. “And other time I saw him when I was out dancing with my friend.”
My voice is shaking. I just can’t help it. Officer Maxwell patiently listens and doesn’t rush me. His kind eyes sit with me and he waits.
“And then Saturday, I noticed him at the store in the granola bar aisle.” I continue to recount the conversation and his invitation to hike. I also tell him that I hadn’t connected that the guy at the grocery store was the same I’d seen the couple times earlier and only put it together when he’d told me he first saw me at the country club I used to belong to more than a year ago.
The questioning continues as I talk about showing up for the hike, and the picnic, and then the electrolytes. The damned electrolytes. And waking up in the cabin.
I want to continue to tell Officer Maxwell about what happened next—the sex. No, the rape— but I can’t. Instead, I burst into tears. “I—I can’t. I’m sorry. Can I…Can I talk to a…a woman. Please. I’m sorry.”
“No need to apologize. And of course,” he assures me, seemingly not put off in the least. “And let me see if I can have the nurses give you something to calm you down a bit, as well.”
“N—no. It’s okay,” I tell him, panicking rising in my throat. “I don’t want anymore drugs putting me to sleep.”
“I understand. Let me put in a quick call for a friend of mine, Officer Doyle. Will you be okay? We’re not supposed to make cell phone calls in here,” he explains, gesturing to the machines.
I nod and he steps outside and I hear his footsteps fade down the hall.
I’m alone only a few seconds, or few minutes—time not having much meaning at the moment—when Laura comes back into the room.
“Hey! Where’s your admirer?” she asks then she notices my (probably) red eyes. “Oh my God! Why have you been crying?”
She rushes to my side, but I can’t talk. I can’t tell her. Not yet, anyway. I just shake my head and push the tears off my cheeks.
“Listen. I want to stay, but Connie just called from the shop and something about the mixer. And I have two wedding cake appointments this afternoon. I’ll reschedule if you need me to stay, though.”
“It’s okay,” I say. “I’m good. Officer Maxwell is here. Shannon will be here soon. And, my mom.” My voice cracks at mentioning my mother.
“Shhhh,” Laura soothes, pulling me carefully into her arms again. “Yes. Shannon said they’ll be here in about thirty-five minutes.”
“That’s fine. It’s good. You go take care of the mixer and appointments. I’d feel terrible if anything bad happened.”
“Look at you, always thinking of others.” She kisses my cheek, and adds, “I’ll be back after the shop closes, okay? Want me to bring anything?”
I shake my head. And we say goodbye, just as Officer Maxwell returns. He’s carrying a magazine rolled up in his hand and he salutes Laura as she exits the room. From behind the officer, Laura fans herself and makes a heart with her fingers then blows me a kiss.
“Emily, erm…Officer Doyle, will be here in about fifteen minutes,” he explains. Then he holds up the rolled up magazine. “I, uh, grabbed these from the lobby? Thought you might want to look through them while we wait?”
He unrolls the bundle and shows me an Architect Today and a Modern Design magazine. “Ms. Baker said you’re an interior designer,” he explains.
Leave it to Laura to fill in the officer about me.
They’re old issues, but his thoughtful gesture makes me smile and I accept the magazines.
I thumb through them, but don’t see anything. My mind is back in the cabin and the events that went down. Things are out of order, some memories fuzzy, others crisp.
In no time at all, Officer Doyle arrives and Officer Maxwell tells me he’ll be in the lobby.
Officer Doyle has me start with my story over again. When I get to the part of the sexual assault, she confirms that a rape kit has been collected for the case.
“Why didn’t I fight him off? Why did I just freeze up? Why did it feel like it wasn’t even happening?” I plead, tears freely streaming now.
“Many people assume that your prefrontal cortex, the part of your brain that makes decisions, will be fully functioning. However, when one is faced with extreme survival, like your position at the cabin, something called ‘fear circuitry’ kicks in and a ‘tonic immobility’ can takeover. Like with an opossum. They play dead when faced with an attack. Same thing can happen in humans when you’re confronted with horrifying situations. It’ll virtually freeze you. Sometimes, one ‘disassociates’ during the attack and it may have felt like an ‘out of body’ experience.”
Maybe it’s that she’s both sympathetic and completely unfazed by my confession, or her clinical sounding jargon, but I feel sort of ‘vindicated’ for my pathetic response to Craig’s brutal attacks.
“You’ll want to speak to a psychologist at the hospital before you leave about PTSD and RTS.”
“RTS?” I ask.
“Rape Trauma Syndrome.”
God. Hearing someone else say that I’ve been raped makes it feel more real and I start to shake again.
“It’s okay,” she assures me. “Maybe it doesn’t feel like that right now, but in time. With help. Don’t be afraid of help. It’s so incredibly important,” she says, her eyes filled to the brim with compassion and kindness. Thankfully, not pity.
We talk a little more and just as Officer Doyle is finishing, Officer Maxwell returns. Somehow, with him walking into the room, I feel a bit calmer again. He’d rescued me. He’s my hero.
My mother and Shannon arrive shortly after, and again, I’m feeling overwhelmed and shameful that I let anything happen, even just the stupidity of allowing myself to get kidnapped. Shannon and my mother insist I have nothing to be ashamed about. Just like Officer Doyle.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to eavesdrop,” Officer Maxwell says stepping back into the room, “but they’re right. You are not at fault here, Penelope.”
His warm gaze is convincing. He would know, right? He’s the police.

A few days later, I’m released from the hospital. Shannon and Laura both have work, so Officer Maxwell, Tom as he’s asked me to call him arrives to drive me and my mother to my home.
I breathe a sigh of relief that he’s with us. Once we arrive at my house, he helps me inside and astutely notices that I’m fearful of being home.
“I—I was thinking about a gun,” I tell him.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” he says. “It’s not like you would have brought one on the hike, right?” I consider his rationale and nod. “What about a home security system?” he suggests
“That’s a good idea,” I agree, and he tells me he can help with recommendations on good companies.
“Have you given any consideration to Officer Doyle’s suggestion of the self defense classes?”
“Yes. I definitely want to take those,” I tell him. He smiles and I can’t help but return the gesture.
Over the next week, I have a security system put in and lie low, enjoying quiet time with my mother. She’s so patient and I’m grateful she’s here with me. She’s a rock. While I wish my dad were still alive, he would have been crushed to learn of my kidnapping, and what happened while I was in that cabin.
Tom remains a steadfast presence. It started out with him sitting by my side at the hospital. Then he accompanied me to all of my interviews with law enforcement and my legal team. How he managed his scheduling with the force, I don’t know, nor do I ask. I’m just grateful to have him near.
To both my profound sadness and some solace, I learn that I was not Craig’s first victim. DNA evidence has linked him to two other sexual assaults, although neither of those cases involved an abduction. Tom and my lawyers assure me this is an open and shut case.
My biggest relief was the arrival of my menstrual cycle. The very fear that I could have been pregnant… Although I was given a “morning after” pill at the hospital, and they told me that since I was still in the 72 hour window, maximum efficacy was assured, I still harbored fears that somehow I’d still conceived a child with that monster, especially given that I happened to be at the point in my cycle where I was most fertile.

Over the next few months, I take self-defense classes at the police station where Tom works. Classes are twice a week for three weeks and Tom insists on driving me to and from each class. He also adjusts some shifts so he can drive me to my trauma therapy sessions with Dr. Nial. At first I felt guilty about taking up so much of Tom’s personal time, but he’s the one who offered, and he definitely makes me feel safe.
Alas, I spend more and more time with Tom—outside of reasons relating to my capture. At first it was a coffee after class, which soon became dinners. I accepted his offer to go with me to the grocery store so Shannon and Laura weren’t having to keep doing that for me. And I let him bring bring out to the movies—a matinee of a very popular film with many other movie-goers, bowling, and walks on the beach. Only public places with lots of people, even though I trusted Tom explicitly.
Without a doubt, I consider him my best friend. But nothing more. Or at least that’s what I keep telling myself.
I still experience strong memories and fears associated with the abduction, and my psychologist says I may always experience triggers, but with the help of Laura, Shannon, Tom and his friends, I work through my fear and they’re always there for me.
But I’m shocked and frightened about some of the feelings I’m having for Tom. More than ‘best friend’ feelings. Aren’t I supposed to hate men now? Peter breaking my heart the way he did. And Craig—look what he did to me?
Dr. Nial is great though. She’s been helpful in getting me to realize that not all men are like Craig, in fact (thankfully) very few are like him. She also helps me deal with Peter’s betrayal. She tells me to concentrate on the differences instead of the comparisons.

Eight months after my ‘trauma,’ (I still have a hard time saying the R word) Tom arrives to pick me up for a Saturday night date, even though it’s only three in the afternoon. I have no idea what he has planned. At first the idea terrified me, not knowing where I was going, or what we’d be doing, but I trust Tom implicitly after the months of being friends.
Although I do admit I’ve developed some wickedly strong feelings for him, and not all platonic, the notion still scares me, but I don’t seem to be able to fight the connection either. I think about him all the time. He even sneaks into my dreams. I think he reciprocates, but he has yet to make a move on me. Regardless, I appreciate his friendship more than he can know, even if things never get to ‘the next level.’
When I open the door, I am breathless.
His large, barrel chest is barely contained in the black, button-down shirt. The sleeves rolled up show some of the tattoos I once disliked but have grown to appreciate and even admire. With his shirt tucked into his jeans, his narrow waist is accentuated. The jeans are snug on his sturdy thighs.
Tom, meanwhile, had apparently been taking me in from my low slouchy boots, up my skinny jean clad legs, soft blue cashmere sweater and my hair which I actually curled today.
He lets out a slow whistle.
“Oh, Sweet P.” When he first called me that a few months ago, I worried that he meant the plant and I wondered if it was because he felt I was climbing and clinging to him. He just laughed softly and said, “No. It’s because you’re so sweet, and your name starts with a P.” Since then, I’ve grown to like the nickname. I roll my eyes at him like always, but secretly love his flattery.
“So what are we doing?” I ask impatiently for the twentieth time since he asked me to reserve this date. With a secretive smile, he tucks me into his car and saunters around to his seat behind the wheel.
“I’ve told you. I will tell you if you really need to know and are anxious. If you trust me, just sit back and enjoy.”
Trust. Yes. I admit that of all the people in my life, I trust Tom the most.
So, I just smile and settle back as he turns on the radio. At first the station is on his favorite; a sports broadcasting network. If he’s not listening to sports, he’s listening to New Country, a genre of music I never thought I’d like, but have grown fond of. But then he clicks over to my favorite radio station with Top 40s songs. I start singing along with the mega-hits, and smirk at Tom who is chuckling at me. I know I can’t carry a tune in a basket, but I also don’t care.
When Tom pulls off the expressway toward the Mohegan Sun Casino, I ask, “Are we going to the casino?”
“Is that okay?” he asks.
“Sure,” I reply hesitantly, not wanting to tell Tom how nervous I’m feeling.
The Mohegan Sun Arena is huge. With thousands if not tens of thousands of people. But maybe I’m not going to a concert. He’d have told me that, right? He knows I’m not very comfortable with massive crowds. While I don’t like going to places where there’s virtually no one, I’m almost equally nervous about going to places so crowded that I could easily be separated from a group—or, well, Tom.
“I don’t actually know how to gamble. I’ll probably just stick to slot machines,” I answer, focusing on, and getting a little excited about the idea of hitting some jackpot with lights and sirens going off and coins falling all around my feet.
He parks his car in the garage and we head into the resort where he leads us to Bar Americain, Bobby Flay’s restaurant. “You don’t think he’ll be here tonight, do you?” I ask excitedly. Watching Beat Bobby Flay had become a recent passion of mine.
He answers, “Not sure. He does have a few other locations, plus all his burger places.”
“True,” I concede, but still hold out a little hope.
Dinner is incredible and Tom discusses gambling strategies with me in case I want to give a go at the tables. I think I might want to give either Blackjack or Roulette a try, but my little fantasy is still the slots.
I never did see Bobby Flay.
We hit the gambling floors and I’m a little disappointed that the slots aren’t done with actual money or tokens. The system is like a credit card of sorts, and that if I win, I only receive a printout of how much I won, but the lights and sirens still sound, only it doesn’t happen for me and Tom. However Tom does win a few hands of Blackjack and he attributes all his luck to me.
Suddenly, Tom looks at his watch and says, “Oh! We gotta go!”
“Go where?”
“Never you mind,” he replies with a wink, and tap to my nose.
He takes my hand and leads us off the gaming floors and toward the theaters. I search my brain to recall commercials and billboards as to who may be performing and kind of freak out a little when I remember that Taylor Swift is supposed to be performing here.
However, we don’t turn toward the massive arena, and I let out a sigh of relief. I love Taylor Swift just as much as the next person, but the thought of sitting in the 10,000 seat arena is enough to give me hives.
To my surprise Tom does lead us to the entrance of the small theatre at the resort, The Wolf Den. When I spot the marquee and posters touting the fact that Cole Manchester is performing, I’m super excited. Cole Manchester is an incredible singer and I am certain he’ll be bigger than Harry Styles in no time.
“Are we going to see Cole Manchester?”
He doesn’t say a word. He simply places a lanyard over my head. I read the badge and see he’s gotten us VIP passes which include backstage access with a pre-show session!
I jump up and down and hug Tom tightly, his scent invading my senses and my belly clenches with the desire to kiss this man, my savior who has made me (almost) forget everything bad that’s ever happened to me.
Meeting Cole Manchester is an unforgettable experience, and he’s way more gorgeous in real life than in his videos. It’s fun to watch him with the band and some of their pre-show rituals. There are only a dozen or so of us with the before show VIP tickets for 300-or-so seat auditorium. Cole and his band sing a couple of their bigger hits for a sound and light check, Cole asking me if the band sounds good from where I’m sitting. I’m so star-struck I almost can’t answer,. Just like I’d hoped, Cole is the sweetest guy.
Along with the VIP status, I’m now sitting front row center. It’s the most awesome concert I’ve ever seen, and the most memorable moment is when mid-way through the song To Have and To Hold, I turn to see Tom grinning at me.
Suddenly, all of it—the emotion of the song, the incredible day, and the most thoughtful man I’ve ever met—it all hits me square in the chest. I lean in slightly and as though reading me like the Sunday newspaper headlines, Tom leans in and softly brushes his lips over mine. His hand cups my jaw and he sweeps his thumb over my cheek. The rest of the theatre falls away, except for the music, and I melt into the most meaningful kiss I think I could ever experience. It’s sweet, and tender, and passionate. I’d been wondering what it was like to kiss a man with facial hair, and Tom’s goatee doesn’t disappoint. I find I’m definitely a fan.
After the concert, Tom and I get to head backstage. We congratulate Cole and the guys on a spectacular show. At this point though, there are way more VIP guests, and the crowd is making me a bit nervous, so we say our goodnights to the band and head out of the theatre.
As we exit, I’m wound for sound. And I also feel closer to Tom than ever before. That burning kiss won’t leave my lips, and I’m hungry for more.
“Thank you for the most amazing date a girl could ask for,” I tell him as we stroll through the resort with no destination in mind. At least, none that I’m aware of. I’m quickly realizing that Tom is full of many surprises.
“Thank you for trusting me. It’s fun to surprise you in good ways.”
“More than good ways,” I tell him, my eyes unable to look at anything other than his smoldering brown eyes flecked with gold and perfect lips in that scintillating goatee.
Gently he takes my chin in his fingers and his gaze seeps into my soul.
When he doesn’t kiss me, I grow impatient. “Kiss me,” I whisper.
And just like that, he closes the gap and claims my mouth anew. It’s gentle and reserved at first, but soon grows into a full on tangle of tongues and clutching of bodies.
“Get a room,” someone shouts from behind us loud enough to snap us out of our overt display of affection.
The passersby’s comment of ‘Get a room,’ echos through my head and reverberates through my body.
“Can you believe some people?” Tom scoffs. He leans in the direction of the commenter, but I hold him still. It was just a couple of kids and they thought they were just being funny. After all, we were only kissing.
But a room?
Could I? Am I ready? On the one hand, I trust Tom with every fiber of my being. On the other, things have only been established as romantic over the past couple of hours. Not to mention the tremendous fear of triggering flashbacks to what happened to me back in the cabin—stuff I know I’ve not fully come to terms with.
I feel my cheeks redden. While the thought of ‘getting a room’ with Tom does excite me on some level, it’s too soon. Heck. I’ve only first kissed this man just now. But is this what Tom is expecting?
I force a smile up at my big strong protector and don’t know how to tell him I’m not ready.
But apparently, I didn’t need to worry. Of course Tom would’t be so bold.
He glances at his watch. “Wow. I can’t believe it’s already midnight. Let’s get you home.”
The ride home is filled with unspoken sexual tension despite Tom’s attempts to keep the conversation light. I wonder if Tom really wanted to stay and get a room as the passerby had suggested. I can’t deny that a part of me wanted it.
I fall asleep on the drive and Tom insists on carrying my tired body inside my house. I marvel at how tiny and safe I feel cradled in his arms as he easily carries me upstairs to my room.
He kisses me on the forehead and says, “Goodnight, Sweet P.”
I grab his hand and say, “Wait,” in a sleepy-breathy voice.
He looks at me and swallows.
“Stay?” I ask.
His brow knits together and I can see he has so many questions behind those dark brown eyes. “Just to sleep, but I want you near.”
“Are you… feeling anxious? Was Mohegan Sun too much?” he asks, dropping to his knees at my bedside. But his question isn’t what he is asking. He wants to know the motive behind my request. If it’s friends… or more.
“I want you with me. I… I just can’t do the rest yet. But I’d like to start. I think spending the night together will help.”
He leans in and kisses my lips softly. “I’d like that.”
Tom runs downstairs and locks up while I quickly slip into my PJs. In the soft moonlight in the room, he shucks his button-down shirt and jeans, and slips into my bed wearing just a T-shirt and boxer-briefs that I noticed fit him like a second-skin.
He settles in on his ‘side’ of the bed, leaving a fairly wide gap between us, and looks over at me where I’ve watching the whole process. He reaches down and takes hold of my hand, kisses the back of it, then leans over and kisses my lips again.
“Goodnight,” he says, his familiar smile on his face.
I skooch over to his side, wiggling myself into the crook of his arm and settling my head into the side of his chest. With a satisfied sigh, I let the sound of Tom’s strong heartbeat soothe me.
“Goodnight,” I reply and drift into the most peaceful sleep I can remember.

I wake the next morning and am surprised to see that Tom’s not in bed.
In a split second, I convince myself that I dreamed the whole thing. How absurd that I would have invited him to just sleep in my bed, right? And that he would stay.
No, not that he would stay. He would stay. If I asked him to. But I didn’t. Did I?
I lean over and inhale deeply.
Tom’s distinctive scent is absolutely there. But then another scent captures my attention.
The aroma of coffee.
I slip out of bed, but on a robe, and venture downstairs.
Tom is sitting at my breakfast table, drinking coffee from a coffee cup that looks absurdly small and feminine in his hand.
I’m certain I’d not made a single sound, but he looks up and gazes at me. The corners of his mouth turned up ever so slightly and it’s as though he’s fighting a grin. “Good morning, beautiful.”
“Good morning yourself,” I reply. I walk over to him and kiss his forehead, and he wraps his arms around me and pulls me into his lap.
I let out a squeal and he quickly captures my eyes, seeking the answer that he’d not overstepped, that he’d not frightened me with his sudden, impulsive move. Seeing that all is good, he finally grins.
I wanted a coffee, but his embrace and smile are so much better.
“Sleep well?” he asks.
“The best I’ve ever slept.”
I think about what could have happened the night before… Checking into a room, and then god knows what… “I’m sorry about last ni—” I start, but Tom interrupts me.
“Don’t. Last night was perfect,” he assures me. “Penn, you need to know something. One thing.”
One thing? Why do I suddenly feel a sense of dread? Is he going to tell me that he’s just there as a friend? That last night he enjoyed protecting me? Being my security blanket. But that was it?
“I love you.”
Well that isn’t what I were expecting. I don’t know how to respond to that. I don’t know what to say. So I say nothing. I sit there, mute. Staring into his brown and gold eyes.
“You don’t have to say anything,” he adds hastily. “I just wanted you to know. I love you.” His dark gaze pins me to the spot. “Everything about you. You’re strong. Caring. Funny. So smart.”
“Hey,” he says, cutting me off again with a gentle finger to my mouth. “Don’t feel pressured. Like I said, I just wanted me to know.”
He is positioned to continue but I pull his finger from my lips, stopping him. Suddenly I know exactly what to say. “My turn.”
He stops short and bites his lower lip.
“I’ve never known anyone like you. You’re overwhelming.” He starts to say something, but I place my finger over his lips to stop him. “And I need you. My soul needs you. In a way I’ve never known anyone before. You…complete me. It’s comforting and natural. I feel like you’re my…best friend…but not. You’re more than my best friend…You’re my soul mate.” I drop my hand and cover his heart. “I love you, too.”
His response is to simply gather the hand I have resting over his heart and kiss my knuckles. Gazing into my eyes, his other hand slips behind my neck and pulls me to him.
He kisses me back and I feel it in a way I’ve never felt a kiss.
When he pulls back, he locks eyes with me and takes a breath.
“I wanted to tell you earlier. But I was afraid to…to scare you.” He sounds breathless and overwhelmed. Who knew?! “Penelope Pierce. I, Thomas Wilson Maxwell, love you!!” he shouts. So loudly that the neighbors might have even heard.
His proclamation is more than I could have expected. But yet, I think I knew it all along.
He pulls me in, claiming my lips and heart. “That feels so good to say,” he whispers, then pulls back and his lips consume mine again. Lightly at first, but then the kiss dissolves into a passion that awakens me so intensely, it surpasses any amount a cup of caffeine could deliver.Every molecule in my body is alive.
I break the kiss, but don’t let Tom pull away. He’s breathing heavily. There’s only one thing on my mind…
“Take me upstairs.”
“Sweet P. If you’re not ready, I’m absolutely okay to wait. For as long as you need. For as long as it takes.”
“Please,” I plead, not sure of what else to say. “With you, I’m ready for anything. I want you. I’m giving myself to you,” I tell him, feeling everything all at once. I realize I’d not been letting myself feel things. Really truly feel things. The emotions threaten to overwhelm me.
Tom lets out a shaky breath and it’s nothing short of exhilarating. As though he’s realizing how much he’s been holding back… That once I was able to let go, so was he.
A man with purpose, a man on a mission, Tom strides confidently up the stairs, me easily held tight to his chest, cradled in his strong arms, and straight to my room. He lays me down with the utmost tenderness. But it’s not like he’s afraid I’ll break. It’s like he just wants the best for me.

The End 

Now, if you’ve not read the “fight back” scene and want to, okay…but remember… DARK.

And PLEASE let me give an extra special shout out to my darling author friend Arell Rivers and sharing one of HER book Boyfriends Cole Manchester. You can meet Cole and his band in Arell’s HOLD SERIES – the first book NO ONE TO HOLD is only 99¢!