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Authors: Max Ellendale

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"Did your dad hunt?" she asked as we carried the gun
back to the house.

"Yes but not for sport. We ate what he killed growing up. He
made sure to use every part of the animal that he could, and what he couldn't,
he would leave under vulture nests or something, like the organ meat," I
told her.

"That's sensitive of him," she said, taking my hand
after we locked up the house for the night. "I have somewhere to take you
tomorrow."

"Where?"

"Not far. In the woods a little," she said, walking
backward while she held my hand. Her smile, impish and playful, only made me
chuckle.

"That's creepy of you, Jilly. Are you going to sacrifice me
to the spirits of South Dakota?" I followed her up the stairs when she
walked backward. It wasn't dark out yet but when Jilly led, I often followed.
Even if I didn't intend to.

"Mhmm. That's my intention."

On the landing of the loft, boxes of all shapes and sizes filled
the previously empty space. It looked like someone tried to turn cardboard into
building blocks. "Where'd this come from?"

"Had it all delivered while you slept this morning."

"Again with the missing out because I'm unconscious? Are you
drugging me?"

"Nope. I'm taking advantage of your recuperative sleep,"
she said, laughing. "Everything up here is for you. When you're ready, I
want you to open it all. Okay?"

"Okay, creeper. If this is for me, what's for you?" I
asked, lifting a brow at her.

"I'll show you," she said, taking my hand again and
leading me around the corner. The bedroom door stood ajar and she pushed it
open to reveal the perfect fluffy bed. A California King on a thick,
solid-looking wood frame that she set with new pillows and linens except for
our old blanket. The whole room smelled of fabric softener and newness.
Matching nightstands, a padded rocking chair, and pulled back curtains all
coordinated with the decor.

"This looks like heaven," I said.

"It's
our
new bed. No more sleeping on the sofa."

"Jilly, you're amazing to do all of this, you know
that?" I said when she tugged me over to the bed. She hopped onto it and
flopped back in an ungraceful sprawl. I joined her, though I couldn't take my
eyes away from the room. The dark wood paneling gave it a cozy, protected feel
that had me aching for the comfort of sleep. The bedroom, set so far away from
the rest of the house, didn't echo like the other big rooms did, and it was so
quiet.

"I'm enjoying doing it. I'm enjoying being here."

"I can tell." With her hair strewn across the bed, she
was beautiful. She was always beautiful. "So am I. Because of you."

"Well, I certainly wouldn't enjoy it by myself." She
laughed at me and swatted my knee.

"Hey." I laughed as well and she yanked me forward by my
shirt to lean over her. I kissed her without hesitation and her fingers tangled
in my hair. She rolled us over so that she was on top and kept me in the kiss
the whole time.

Her giant sweater fell away and she stripped off her shirt. Her
bra followed and she dove back down to kiss me. I kept my hands still on her
hips until she moved over to straddle my pelvis. She ended the kiss to gaze
down at me and laced her fingers with mine.

"Are you sure?" I asked her, barely above a whisper and
she nodded.

"It's been so long," she said, her eyes growing a bit
glassy when she bit her lip.

"Okay." I brought her hands to mine and kissed them.
"Okay, but let's do this right and together." She watched me as I sat
up, guiding her into my lap. Her hands already began to shake a bit with just
the idea of it. "Come." I gestured to the pillows and she climbed off
so we could unmake the bed. I pulled the sheets back, dimmed the lights, and we
kissed in between every shift of movement.

We stood beside the bed and helped undress each other the rest of
the way. We kissed and she touched me, tentatively in some places, more firmly
in others. I kept my hands focused on her hair and face until I slid my fingers
down her elbow to take her hand, urging her into the bed. We lay facing each
other, embracing and tangling our legs through the next kiss. Her body was soft
and silky against mine, and her core burned fire against my thigh. I wanted
nothing more than to touch her, to claim her, to erase all the damage her
abuser caused.

When our kiss ended and I rested my forehead against hers, she
closed her eyes and the faint tremors in her body became more apparent. I
kissed her nose and stroked her hair, loving on her the same way I used to.

"I love you, Jilly," I whispered and she nodded, her
lips pursing with the upsurge of emotion. "I love you and I'll never hurt
you. You're my everything." The more I spoke, the more tearful she got
though her trembling subsided. She seemed to hang on to every word that came
out of my mouth as if they dripped sweetly and soothed her somehow. I ran my
fingers through her hair and she shivered when my fingertips grazed the back of
her neck. I leaned forward and kissed the shivery spots. She laughed softly and
I smiled. "I have an idea," I said and she peeked up at me.

"What?" Her question sounded husky with her arousal.

"No hands at all." I wagged my brows and hers furrowed.
"Trust me?"

"Always."

I nudged her shoulder with my forehead and she rolled onto her
back. I moved over her, kissing her softly while she tucked my hair behind my
ears. With my hands pressed into the mattress beside her, I broke the kiss to
begin moving down her body. My lips met every line and curve of her jaw down to
her neck. Her body arched toward me by the time I made it to her breasts. Her
hands never left me, mostly staying tangled in my hair or touching my face.
Pert pink nipples brushed my lips and her belly twitched against my chest. I
laughed softly and she smiled, licking her lips as pleasure calmed her
features. Only my lips and tongue touched her flesh. I left no part of her
unattended and by the time I followed the trail to her bare core, she glistened
eagerly for me.

I licked and nipped her thighs, letting my hair tickle her stomach
then her knees. Her toes dug into my calves and after barely any coaxing, she
parted her legs welcomingly. My kisses led back to her center and by now her
breaths left her in anticipatory puffs. Sweat beaded her brow and I knew she
wanted this. Every part of her told me that I'd done this right. Heat burned
between my thighs in a way that urged me onward and, when my lips met hers, she
cried out softly and grabbed a fistful of my hair.

"Jess," she called when I swirled my tongue around her
folds, paying extra attention to her firm nub. Her hips rolled toward my lips
and her body moved in ripples like water trickling over stones. She moaned when
I dipped my tongue inside her then sent quick lashes across every inch of her.
Again, cries left her and she bucked a little bit against my mouth. I took her
and sucked softly on her clit, flicking my tongue over her faster without
pause.

Nails grazed my scalp, her body arched, and she exploded beneath
me. Her orgasm erupted in an almost violent torrent, sending a rush of dampness
from her to my lips. I took my time enjoying her, lapping at her in long
luscious strokes. Her hands dropped to the bed and she pulled at the sheets as
a second climax broke her. I let her down gently, kissing and nuzzling her
folds until her body quelled and her breathing slowed. She put her hands in her
hair and gasped heavily, but when she cooled, her gasps turned to sobs.

I crawled up her body and wrapped her up in my arms as she cried.
I expected this, her tears after sex. There was a quality of purging to them.
Like her heart and mind released everything she held on to after her deepest
pleasure. I cooed soft, loving words against her ear and she nodded her
acknowledgement when I kissed her neck and shoulder.

"I love you, baby. You're safe now. We're safe." She
seemed to like hearing this the best because her tears calmed and her sobs
quieted. We held on to each other until she reached between us and cupped my
core in an almost possessive grab.

"I love you," she whispered, though her crying kicked up
again.

"I know you do, Jilly. I know." I shifted positions and
lifted her onto my lap. She wrapped herself around me and I pulled the blanket
over her shoulders. Finally, as if I'd been somehow waiting for it, she clung
to me, fully accepting me as something safe for her. And, in time, she began to
relax.

Sleep caught her after but I stayed awake. Occasionally I'd catch
her waking up to check and see if I was still alert. I stood guard, like she
did when I slept. It took me awhile to notice but I knew. I rubbed her back and
ran my fingers through her hair. I fought the images that flooded my mind's eye
when I thought for too long. I'd come to terms with what had happened to
Jillian before we were together but after, I couldn't tolerate it. Just knowing
what he did, seeing him do it. It haunted me more than the images of Graydon's
death.

If I hadn't already killed Nate, I'd hunt him and kill him with my
father's Winchester.

 

Graydon

 

Jilly slept well into the next day and she was still in bed with
me when I came to. She stroked my hair and smiled at me when I peeked up at
her. I grabbed her hand and kissed her palm half a dozen times. She snuggled
into me and her body, warm against mine, was less reserved than it had been
previously.

"How do you feel?" I asked her.

"Better. A little scared," she said rather honestly.

"What happened to you, baby?" I asked when she rested
her chin on my chest. The question alone brought tears to her eyes. Silent ones
that spilled on their own accord and salted her lips.

"I didn't think it would happen again. After I left him and
found you. I wasn't ready. I wasn't prepared. It took him five minutes to
control me again. To find my weakness and use it against me. This time it just
happened to be you," she said, deliberately and calm. She hadn't spoken a
word about any of it in all this time since it happened. "I'm glad you
killed him." Her tone shifted from sad to angry. "I'm so glad. I
never thought I'd be happy to say I watched someone die. I'm glad. Sometimes I
feel bad that I'm glad but then I remind myself."

"Me too. I've never killed anyone. A decade as a cop, no kill
shots. I'm glad he was my first."

"I thought of you every day, all day and night. When he hurt
me, I closed my eyes and thought about your painting of the girl looking at the
sky. It was like I was there and you could see me because we were there
together," she continued and I let her. I just let her while I held her
and stroked her hair. "This time, he hit me more than anything else. Made
me dance more. I could handle that. He wasn't as strong. Pam was helpful. She
was mean to him like he deserved and it made him hide away a lot."

"Pam was a bitch, but I'm glad of it."

"Me too. Dancing didn't bother me. I wasn't ever naked. The
men like the stupid costumes more now than they used to," she said. I had
to admit I was surprised at the amount of story she told. In all the time I
knew her, she revealed information slowly over time. It seemed to burn for
release today.

"I noticed that, too. How long were you with him the last
time? Before you spilled my coffee."

Jilly laughed softly and nipped at my collarbone.  "Not
long. We dated for about two months before it got bad. Six months before I ran.
But back then, I had nothing to lose. This time, he'd come for you." Her
fingers tightened on my hip. "I'd kill him if he ever touched you."

"I killed him
because
he touched you." I pressed
my lips to her forehead while I fought to stay emotionally sound for her.
"You don't have to be afraid anymore, baby."

"You keep me safe," she said, settling down again and
squeezing me gently.

"Always."

***

"Don't be freaked out." Jilly laughed at me as we walked
through the woods. "We won't get lost. It's only one trail."

"I'm already freaked out. We should turn back."

"It's right here. I promise."

As we emerged into the clearing, a huge white fence covered acres
and acres in front of us. Horses roamed and grazed all over the place and, in
the spot closest to us, people rode quarter horses and other breeds at a
gallop. Jillian smiled and she took my hand.

"That map the realtor gave you is pretty handy, isn't
it?" I teased.

"It's my best friend."

"Did you come out here alone?" I glanced at her but she
shook her head.

"No but I looked at pictures. Our land used to belong to the
previous owners of this place until they split it. It's a horse farm now."

"You like horses."

"I do."

"How come?"

"They're emotional. You can feel them and they can feel
you."

"They might hate us then."

"They will not." She laughed at me and led me the rest
of the way up to the office.

The owner greeted us expectantly and then took us on a brief tour
before introducing a few of his horses. I watched Jilly as we leaned over the
fence. She stretched her hand out and a tall, white speckled horse approached
her. He sniffed her hand, then her face, letting out a snort when she blew a
soft breath at him. Her smile, gentle and focused, only widened when the horse
let her pet his nose. She waved me over and I pat him gently.

"He's a good ol' boy. I reckon you should ride him,"
said the owner, clapping Jilly on the shoulder. She started briefly.
"C'mon then," he beckoned and we followed.

She mounted the horse first and I watched as she sat comfortably
in the saddle. To my surprise, she knew exactly what she was doing and the man
stepped away, allowing Jilly to control the ride. The horse responded to her,
mostly, as she brought him in a circle around the fenced-in area.

Jilly's body moved with rhythmic ease against the gallop and trot
of the horse as if she spent her entire life riding. She pressed her heels
down, had her feet away from the body, and seemed to already know how to
instruct him. The horse turned when she moved a certain way and backed up when
she did whatever she did, but after a few minutes, I stopped watching the
horse.

Her expression, calm and smooth almost the same as it was after
our warmest lovemaking, drew me in. Gingery hair fluttered behind her when the
horse moved quickly and bounced in waves when he galloped. When she caught me
looking, she smiled and cantered over to me.

"Your turn," she said.

"No way. He'll throw me on my ass." I shook my head and
she laughed softly.

"Come on," she said, holding her hand down to me. How
could I refuse that? I ducked under the fence, and took her hand. She removed
her foot from the stirrup and slid back. "Face the rear, foot in and I'll
help pull you up in front."

"Jilly," I said, squeezing her hand tightly when she
turned the stirrup toward me. "If I break another rib—"

"I'll take you to the doctor. Now c'mon, you fierce ex-cop,
you," she teased and I laughed a bit.

"Don't make me laugh." With her support, I managed to,
very ungracefully, mount the horse in front of her. It was a bit uncomfortable
until she helped me adjust my position. With her foot, she untangled the
stirrup from mine and readied herself again. I held on to her arms so tightly I
thought I might cut off her circulation.

"I got you," she said against my ear.

"This horse is well-behaved to tolerate this," I said.

"He's well-trained. We're going to walk a bit. You'll move
with him. Use your thighs to grip, legs slightly bent." She tugged on the
reins around me and did something with her feet that made the horse walk slowly
forward.

"You're like a pro," I said, trying not to
hyperventilate too much. Allowing myself to be controlled by an animal wasn't something
I was used to.

"I rode all the time when I was little."

"Were you an equestrian?" I asked when she kissed my
neck.

"Nope. Grew up in Texas. Remember?"

"Oh right. You pretty cowgirl, you."

"
Ye-haw.
" She laughed against my neck and I felt
her belly jump with it. "Don't you forget it."

"And you were afraid to shoot a rifle. What kind of Texan are
you?" I chuckled along with her, though not too much because I didn't want
the horse to get annoyed.

"A bad one," she said, and I felt her grin against my shoulder.

Jilly led the horse toward the gate and the ranch owner opened it
for her. He pointed toward the tree line and said, "Follow them markers
out there. Pink ribbons. He'll follow the trail like he's used ta."

"Thanks," Jilly said and I held on to her tighter.

"We're leaving?"

"Just on the kiddie trail around the property," she
said. "You're so nervous."

"I am."

"I like being the not nervous one."

"You're good at it. You've been less nervous here
though," I said.

"I like it here."

"Me too."

The weather in South Dakota wasn't too different from what I was
used to. In all my time, though, I never noticed the richness of the blue sky.
Or how the clouds cast shadows over the mountainsides and treetops. Everything
here seemed brighter, more vibrant in color and perspective. Maine was
beautiful but this…this was something else entirely.

"Is that a buffalo?" I asked, pointing to our left. When
we emerged from the woods, a bunch of dark-breasted arched-back animals grazed
in the open pasture.

"Yep."

"I've never seen one in real life before."

"They're beautiful."

"See that back there? That shack place? That's an old school
house from the 1800s. We can check it out some time," she said.

"You did a lot of homework, Jillybean." I stroked the
arm that she had around my waist.

"I've always wanted to live in a place like this. With
someone I love more than anything," she said, her tone more serious than I
expected.

"Me too." I reached back and caressed her cheek. She
kissed my wrist and we continued our gentle trail ride.

Her vestment in our new life brought warmth and excitement back to
me. I wanted to be here with her and experience new things. We didn't worry
about leaving the house the same way we used to.

"There's a restaurant in town that I read about in the paper
this morning. It's a barbeque place. Want to go for dinner?" I bit my lip
after asking.

"Are you asking me out on a date?"

"I am."

"I'd love to."

***

My cell phone chirped from somewhere in the kitchen and Jilly got
up from the sofa to fetch it. She hopped up the steps from the basement theatre
that the builders set up and I watched her disappear. I paused the movie and
sprawled out to wait for her. She scampered back down, her face pale as she
held the phone to me.

"Your brother sent this," she said and shoved the phone
into my hands. A picture of a Maine newspaper glared back at me. In big bold
letters, an article titled,
Heroine Ex-Cop Turned Renowned Artist Puts Down
Serial Rapist, Murder Suspect, In Midst Of Crime,
assaulted my senses and
set my gut to churning. Beneath it, my brother wrote, "So this is
why?"

"Shit," I said. Jillian sat down beside me, her hands
held between her knees in a gesture of restraint.

"How'd they identify you like that?" she asked.

"People were there when I said my name. Pam, EMS, the
barkeep." I scanned the article, terrified they'd released Jilly's name
but they didn't. "They kept your name out."

"Really?" She grabbed the phone and turned it toward
her. "Pam's in it. That big-mouthed jerk. She's probably the one that
called
the press," Jilly said, pausing after. "I didn't know he had
other victims."

"I'm not sure they knew prior. They ran his DNA post-mortem,
it says at the bottom, and it matched seven known rape kits. At least they
mention the messed up murder charge." I dropped my head back against the
cushions and held my arm out to her.

"It's a good thing we left there," she said, curling up
against me. I wrapped my arm around her and kissed her forehead after brushing
her bangs aside.

"And no one knows we live here."

"Nope. But you need to call your brother." She leaned
into my affection then draped her leg over mine.

"Text him back." I nodded toward the phone.

"What should I say?"

"Tell him yes." I watched as she replied then set the
phone down. I caressed her bare skin from knee to hip. She didn't recoil or
pull away anymore. Not when it came to me at least. Just knowing that soothed
me and she smiled softly when she kissed my chin.

"What are you thinking about?"

"I'm sorry that so many men have hurt you in your life, Jilly.
I'm sorry that you didn't get to know Graydon because he would've been a man
you could've trusted. I tried to protect you but didn't do a good job of
it." I poured my guts out to her without intending to. "Graydon
would've done better."

"Sometimes…" she began, stroking the place where my
collarbone met my neck, with a single finger. "It's not about the
protection and more about the recovery. You can't protect me from everything
the same as I couldn't protect you from everything. What we know of each other
is that, afterward, we can come back together like this. Like we are right
now."

Her words brought me pause and drew a lump of emotion to my
throat. I closed my eyes, letting myself grieve for our shared failures and
losses. She sniffled softly though when I looked back at her, she was smiling.
"We can be together and heal and
love
, because you've given me
that, Jess, like no one else has ever done. No one else has ever loved me like
you have," she whispered, her lips an inch from mine. "And I'll
always have that."

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