My Last Hope
A romantic suspense/ contemporary romance
When vows to love and to cherish, shatter.
Abby’s no stranger to the pain secrets, and lies can inflict on the person trying to hold it all together. She hides behind a forced smile and the hope that one day she’ll be able to find happiness again. After suffering from domestic abuse at the hands of her husband, Abby makes a split decision that alters the trajectory of her life forever.
That decision leads her to cross paths with Dawson, a devastatingly handsome but troubled physical therapist who’ll do everything he can to save her. He’ll stop at nothing to ensure Abby’s life doesn’t end in the same fate his sister’s did.
Desperate to leave her husband before his violence turns fatal but too stubborn to accept the help of another man, will Abby be able to get out in time to save her own life?
With hearts tangled and lives at stake, can Dawson keep the beautiful art teacher from ripping off the cage he’s surrounded his heart with? Or will they allow their unmistakable chemistry to ignite, giving in to the forbidden relationship?
This book may not be suitable for all readers. Mature themes within have a recommended audience of 18 years old and above. Read at your own discretion.
Scenes in this book may include but are not limited to:
~ physical and emotional abuse
~ violence, death, and grief
~ hostage/ kidnapping
~mention of suicide (not an actual one)
~ substance abuse
~ sexual scenes
Looking for the bonus epilogue? https://dl.bookfunnel.com/e9s6k1l3f1
~~~~~~~~Here's the first chapter~~~~~~~
"Honey, I'm home!" Frank belts out from the doorway, making me smile as I put the final layer of cheese on top of the lasagna. Opening the oven, I get a burst of hot air in the face. Squinting from the heat, I shove the casserole dish on the center rack.
The construction company Frank works for landed a big contract for the local hospital today. His crew will build a new inpatient wing on the west side. It's nice to see Dillon, our hometown in Montana, finally get some needed upgrades. Living in such a small town, Frank found the funding sources are limited, unlike East Point, which is about an hour away. They're a level-one trauma center, meaning they get all the fancy stuff. I wanted to help him celebrate by making his favorite dish with my grandmother's recipe.
He comes into the kitchen, tosses his keys in the wooden bowl in the center of the table, and wraps his arms around me from behind. I love how he nestles his chin in the crook of my neck, dragging his nose up and down the side, making me shiver. He knows that my neck has always been one of my most sensitive parts. His mouth twists into a smile as he presses his lips to my skin, where my vein pulses. My lips part as I lean into him while he continues to kiss me there. His rough, calloused hands trail down to my waist and grip me tightly, pressing me against him.
"I missed you today," he says gruffly.
I clear my throat. "I missed you too. Congratulations on landing that contract."
"Thanks. What are you cooking? It smells good in here." He inhales deeply.
"Lasagna," I answer, twisting in his grip and putting my arms around his broad shoulders. I don't mind the drywall mud and paint splatters that cover him. They compliment his dark olive-green eyes. I wipe a chunk of white mud off his eyebrow and grin.
"Mmm. My favorite." Tilting his head, he grins down at me and taps the tip of my nose with his index finger. "Just like you, my favorite person."
I wish it were always like this, the loving couple. I don't answer him back. I can't lie to him and tell him he's my favorite person. He was once, but he's changed too much over time. Instead, I hug him and sigh contently. Times like these make me think there's still hope for us. That we can still go back to the way we were before our current struggles.
He dips his head down and covers my lips with his. I open for him, and his tongue darts inside and caresses my own. As he deepens the kiss, I slide my hands through his short, light brown hair. He abruptly pulls away, leaving my face tingling from his stubble.
"I'm going to go get cleaned up."
"Okay," I say breathlessly, watching him stroll away.
I don't mind him staying in his dirty khaki carpenter pants and the blue sweatshirt with his company's logo on the back. I find it sexy when he's covered in grease and grime from being a blue-collar worker. There's nothing like a hard-working man.
He disappears around the corner and into the hall that leads to the bathroom. Turning back to the stove, I realize I forgot to set the timer. "Shit," I mumble under my breath. I estimate how long I was distracted and set my timer for a few minutes less, just in case. Grandma would curse me from heaven if I burnt one of her recipes. She was a fantastic cook and wrote painstakingly detailed instructions. Even a beginner shouldn't be able to screw up the recipe from inside the pages of what I call my bible.
It doesn't look like anything special. The leather-covered book is cracked from years of use, the binding is fraying at the edges, and there are some spots here and there that I suspect are from food. My mom passed it down to me when I married Frank. Perks of being an only child, I guess.
While waiting for dinner to finish, I start a load of laundry and begin filling the dishwasher before I hear Frank's footsteps. Freshly showered and in clean blue jeans with a white long-sleeve shirt, he takes out a beer from the refrigerator, twists the cover off and tosses it into the open trashcan beside me. I cast my glance back into the dishwasher to hide my disappointment. He's been drinking more and more these days. He hardly goes a night without at least one or two beers.
I still have about twenty-five minutes until I have to check on the lasagna. I grab the paperback out of my purse on the counter and retire to the sofa in the living room to pass the time while Frank watches a football game on the television. I roll my eyes as he shouts commands at the players on the screen. Why is it that most men feel the need to do this? Can't they watch the game in peace? I have a hard time concentrating on the words with all the shouts of, "No! Why did you do that?" and, "Catch the damn ball!"
The timer rings. I sigh loudly, close my book with an audible snap, and set it on the stand. In the kitchen, I find the cheese isn't quite brown enough. I leave it in for a few more minutes. In the meantime, I grab our plates, the same set we got for our wedding shower, white porcelain with a light green ivy pattern circling the rim. I've always loved these plates. After pouring myself a cup of cola and bringing it to the table, I check on dinner again.
"Dinner's ready," I call out to Frank. The sports commentator gets cut off mid-sentence, and Frank comes up next to me in the kitchen. "How hungry are you?" I ask.
"Starving." Right on cue, his stomach growls in protest.
I laugh. "It seems that way."
I scoop out enough to fill his plate to almost overflowing before grabbing about a quarter of the amount for myself. Frank's not a little guy and has the appetite to show for it. At five foot ten, he stands nearly half a foot taller than me. He has a lean muscular build that plows through all the calories I try to feed him.
He takes a few bites of his food before going to the fridge for his second beer. Slipping a forkful into my mouth, I notice it has an odd taste. Weird, I used the same recipe I always do. Maybe it's just me. It's that time of year when viruses love to circulate. As an art teacher, I'm surrounded by elementary students all-day, and we all know how they love to wash their hands whenever they sneeze or blow their little noses. We should earn hazard pay during flu season.
Frank sits back down and takes another bite before scowling. "What's wrong with the lasagna?"
I shrug. "I don't know. I made it the same as always. I thought it was just me."
He tries another forkful before he pushes his plate away. "I can't eat this."
The only thing I can think of that would make it taste off is if the cheese was bad. From the trash, I pull out the food containers. The mozzarella is good for three more months, but the ricotta expired last month.
"God damn it! I'm sorry, Frank, the ricotta I just bought today expired."
"Are you fucking kidding me?" His chair scuffs against the linoleum. "Why can't you get anything right?"
He backhands me hard, sending me flying into the table. Pain cuts into my face, from chin to ear, as if on fire. I fumble for the kitchen table to steady myself, but it's just one of those cheap department store variations and tips over, sending our plates crashing and shattering to the floor. I slam against the wood's edge, knocking the wind from my lungs before landing on my hands and knees. I look up at Frank in shock as my body starts to tremble.
Fury flashes from his green eyes, but the emotion soon morphs into fear. His mouth drops open, and he quickly covers it with a hand. Frank rushes over as I pull my legs against my chest. My breath rasps from my lungs, and I try to shield my face behind my arms.
"I'm so sorry, Abby. Come here. I didn't mean to do that." Frank drops to his knees beside me and kisses the side of my head. My pulse is erratic, and I flinch at his touch. "I promise it won't happen again. I just lost my temper, is all. I love you. I'm sorry, baby."
He pulls me against his chest. My whole body continues to shake. Wetness coats my eyes. He hasn't hit me in a long while, and after every time he's done it, he always feels sorrow and fear that I'll leave him. I know he doesn't mean to. He has anger issues. I could've avoided this if I had just checked the date on the damn ricotta. Why didn't I check the date?
When he starts rubbing circles on my back, I hate how my body still seeks comfort from him. How is it that the one who causes your heart to break is also the one that can put you back together when you fall apart? I hate this yo-yoing of my emotions when it comes to him.
I think I'll leave every time this happens, but I never do. When things are good between us, it's perfect. The few bad instances we've had shouldn't cast a shadow over all the years we've been together, right? The hitting has only been going on for the past year and a half, maybe two. I try to block it all out. We've both been under a lot of stress lately, trying to start a family. He can still change. There's still time for us to fix our marriage.
When I can finally trust my voice, I tell him without turning toward him, "I know you are Frank."
We clean the kitchen without saying another word, but his gaze keeps finding mine. He knows he screwed up again. My side that landed on the table hurts like hell, and my face still burns a little. I haven't dared to look in a mirror. I'm sure his handprint was left behind as a reminder. He fixes us some leftovers from last night, but I can't bring myself to eat now. My stomach is in knots, and I'm afraid that if I eat, it'll come back up. I have to get away from him. We need to put some distance between us.
"I'm going to shower and head to bed," I tell him quietly, barely meeting his gaze. I'm tired of pushing the food around on my plate. I get up from the table before he has a chance to reply.
He nods and hugs his body as I turn away from him. Once in the bathroom, I continue to avoid the mirror. Undressing and stepping under the hot spray, I close my eyes and lean into the shower wall. My throat begins to tighten as unshed tears fight to be free. I don't have the willpower to keep them at bay. Sobs wrack my body as I slide down the wall to sit on the shower’s cold floor. Water is raining all around me, washing my tears down the drain. Why do I still love this man? I know I shouldn't. I know it's wrong of me to stay, but I can't bring myself to leave him. He's been my best friend for the better part of ten years. I know we can be happy again if he would stop doing this to me.
I can't stop the barrage of tears. It's as if they're coming from an endless well. One would've thought the aquifer would be dry with how many nights I've washed my salty tears away. Pulling my knees tight to my chest and burying my face behind my forearms makes me feel a little safer. Almost like if I don't leave this shower, no harm can come to me. I still can't believe he struck me like that. It's the hardest he's ever hit me. How can you claim to love somebody so deeply but yet physically hurt them the next day?
Bang, bang. Shots ring out behind me, and a chunk of the wall next to me explodes. Pieces of it land on my combat boots before I duck around the corner of the mud brick building. With my back pressed against the rough wall, I crane my neck around to get a look. Where the hell are they? I search the rooftops within my sight, trying to spot who shot at us. The flash of light reflecting off the sniper's scope from the street lamp gives away their position.
"Two tangos, rooftop behind me," I speak into the radio, holding a hand up for my men behind me to wait for the signal.
"On it," Nolan's voice reaches me through the static.
Fucking Murphy really did it this time. My commanding officer was out on recon late last night and never checked in with the base. I told him not to go alone. Me telling him not to do something doesn't hold any water with him. He received some intel that the Taliban were holding two American journalists captive in a building on the north side of town. He was just supposed to check it out, but still, he should have brought other men with him. We're his team for a fucking reason. We're supposed to have each other's backs. He was reckless to go all lone wolf.
Another bullet burst into the wall beside me. "Nolan?"
I originally joined the armed forces as a medic several years ago but switched over to infantry. There's nothing like literally having your life on the line every day. As a medic, I saw many things I wish I hadn't. But out here in the field, this is where I belong. This is where I'm needed. I climbed ranks fast and volunteered for the tour I'm currently on. I'd rather be here risking my life than have somebody with a family take my place. I don't have a wife or girlfriend back home waiting for me. All I have is my sister, Isabelle, and my parents, if you could call them that. They haven't filled the parental role the way they should've. Other than dark hair and blue eyes, my parents and I have nothing in common.
"I got one. I'm just waiting on the other tango to lift his head up again," Nolan replies.
When Lexie, my long-time girlfriend, left me the day I told her I enlisted. They sided with her. My mom told me I'd never be good for any woman if I would rather go to war than have a regular job back in the states. She didn't get it. This is something I felt deep in my bones I needed to do. I'm not heartbroken over Lexie anymore. We were barely eighteen and still figuring out life. I haven't had a serious relationship since her, though. I won't give my heart away again. I can't. My relationship with my parents has always been rocky, but that was when I realized I just don't give a fuck anymore. I'm not chasing their approval, and I don't need it. Bella's all the family I need.
Because all eight guys behind me have family in the states, I have to ensure the team makes it back home. My team's tracking Murphy's location and his ping is coming from the same building the journalists were said to be held in. We're only two blocks out, but this place is crawling with eyes. I feel them like a brand against my skin. My scalp tingles, waiting for the inevitable. I'm sure the captor is already aware of our presence. The sun barely crests the horizon in the east and coats the ground with the first morning rays. The dark of night can no longer be used as our cover. That also means the enemies can't hide from us.
"Both targets neutralized," Nolan's voice comes through the line.
Thank fuck. "Let's go, ladies," I order.
I usher my team in the direction of the building until we're only a block away. Here's where six of my guys branch off. We surround the building on every side while they wait for my command. It's eerily silent. Not even a whisper of wind. It's too quiet. I nod to Emerson before swinging my leg and forcefully breaking the door down. Shards of splintered wood fly into the room as the door teeters on the hinges for a beat before finally crashing to the floor.
"Breached," I give the call letting them know we're in. Now they wait for the squirters to run either out the other exits or straight toward Emerson and I. We'll be ready for them.
The other six wait a couple of minutes before entering the large building from their sides. A few tangos find themselves in front of my gun, pointing their weapons at us. Taking them out quickly, we continue to rush the halls and rooms and raid the building in search of Murphy and the other hostages. Shots ring out from other sections of the building as they dispatch their combatants. Clearing room by room, my team meets in the middle of the building.
One lone room is left, and it's locked. This must be it. There's only one entrance, and we're standing beside that door. By now, they know we're here. We could be walking into a trap.
I kick the door in and step aside, letting the others with their weapons drawn inside first. Picking up the familiar weight of my rifle, a strange sensation comes over me. Something's not quite right. My blood runs cold as soon as the dust settles from the door. There are three Taliban's, each of them standing behind a hostage with a knife at their throat. One is Murphy, and the other two, I presume, are the journalists by their clothing. The one behind Murphy starts to speak in Dari, one of the main languages used in Afghanistan. I only know bits and pieces, but I don't need to know what he's speaking about to know his intentions.
I let my rifle fall to my side on the sling and put my hands up for everyone to stand down and wait. He presses the blade harder against Murphy's neck, creating a small incision that makes blood trickle down his dirt-covered skin. Murphy stays calm, but his deep chestnut-brown eyes betray him by relaying his terror. He knows this could be the end, and he may never see his wife and kids again.
Not if I have anything to do with it. The other two, one male and one female, have dirt-streaked tears across their faces. But so far, their captors hold their blades an inch away from the delicate skin of their necks. I'm glad to see they know who the main threat is. Murphy is a beast of a man with an ego to match. My eyes again meet the older tango behind him; his soulless cocoa-colored eyes narrow into slits. His gray beard reaches chest level, and he continues to spew words I can't translate. But I do know one thing, no matter what we do here, they'll kill them. They'll slice that blade right across their throats. That's what makes them so ruthless; they kill without a conscience. They really don't care who lives or dies.
I make a slight gesture with my hand, not seen by the tangos but immediately fulfilled by my team as shots echo off the mud-caked walls. Before they can act, all three Taliban members drop to the floor with bullet wounds in the center of their foreheads. The knives thud to the floor beside them as dark red blood seeps out and pools around what remains of their skulls. The journalists cry out in panic as my team rushes to pull them away to safety. Taking my Ka-Bar out of the leather sheath at my waist, I begin sawing through the ropes around Murphy's hands and ankles. As soon as he's free, he throws himself at me and hugs me.
"Bloody hell, I thought I would be another layer of dust on the floor. Took you long enough, Connelly," his deep voice booms as he slaps me on the back.
Relief floods through my veins. This could've ended horribly wrong. "We could've avoided this whole mess if you would've listened in the first place and taken us with you." I glare at him as I swing my fist back and punch him in the arm.
He feigns hurt, but then his expression grows serious. "I owe you, man. I owe you my life. Let me know if you need anything when we get out of this dust bowl."
"Noted." I give him a tight-lipped nod. "Now, let's get the fuck out of here. Move out!"
I follow behind my men until we reach the outside, then I retake the lead. Still wary of the possibility of other tangos in the area. It's complete daylight now, but that doesn't mean we won't get ambushed. We slowly make it to our rigs that are parked several blocks away. The ten-mile journey back to base camp went off without incident. I hop out of the Humvee, my boots barely touching the sand before the captain approaches.
"Sergeant Connelly, come with me, please," he says deadpan. His face is one of those resting asshole faces. I can never get a good read on him.
Captain Anderson's another beast of a man, but he worked hard to earn those two silver bars on his collar. I respect the shit out of him. The stories I've heard from his time in the field make him a fucking legend. He's known as the wolf for a reason. After his whole team was captured, he held out the longest. Anderson was the only survivor of the P.O.W. camp the terrorists took him to. The rest of his men were tortured to death. From what I gather, he was knocking on death's door when the rescue team arrived.
"Yes, sir." What the fuck is this about now? I followed protocol. I did everything right. If anything, Murphy should be getting his ass hauled away.
He walks into the barracks and has me follow him to his office before shutting us in. My eyes drift to the wall with maps of the area and the most wanted pictures pinned to it. A few of them have bright-red X's struck through the center of their face. We're knocking them off slowly. One by one, we'll rid this world of the worst of mankind.
"Take a seat," he says, folding himself into the metal chair behind his desk.
Yup, not good. I sit in the chair across from him, trying to think of why I'm sitting in the hot seat. Zilch, nada, not a fucking clue.
"Some news came in shortly after you left the wire." He scrubs a hand over his chin. "I'm sorry, Connelly, they found your sister dead at her home late last night."
No. This can't be real. Bella can't be gone. My palms are sweaty as I try to rub them on my pants which are still covered in sand dust. No. I don't want to believe it. Loud ringing in my ears drowns out the day-to-day sounds of the barracks behind that door. I swallow the pain crawling up my throat.
"How did she die?" I already know without him answering. Jackson, her piece of shit fiance who beats her, is why she's dead.
He opens his mouth to speak but then closes it. Anderson sighs before answering, "I think you should wait until you're stateside and talk to your family. We're putting you on a bird back home. Wheels up in two hours."
"I need to know, Captain." my voice is as weak as I've ever heard it. But I don't care, that's my sister. She's the person I care the most about in this world, the only person I have left. The muscle in my jaw twitches, awaiting a response. I hold eye contact, and I'm not giving him an out. I need to hear the words. I pray I'm not right and that it was an accident.
Anderson draws in a breath, averting his eyes. He doesn't want to tell me. Meeting my watery gaze again, he informs me, "She was found beaten and strangled to death. They have her fiance in custody."
"No!" I shout, slamming my palms down on his desk, rattling the picture frame so hard it falls over. I fucking knew it! A guttural scream escapes my throat in agony as I drop to my knees on the ground, praying this is all some sick, twisted joke.
I land face-first on the hardwood floor of my bedroom, struggling to breathe and covered in sweat. The yell still burns my throat. "Fuck, not again."
I rub at my temple as the spot begins throbbing. I fling myself back on the bed. I don't know if it's because I've been working at Bella's Safe Haven this week or if it's because Bella's birthday is coming up that my mind likes to replay the worst day of my life while I'm sleeping. Maybe I should start taking those sleeping pills again that the doctor prescribed me a while back. They helped me to have a dreamless sleep, but the side effects made me feel groggy and zombie-like throughout the day. I sit up and lean against the wooden headboard of my bed, still fighting to calm my labored breathing. My fists clench and unclench. The sweat that's covering my body is now cold.
"Why couldn't you just listen to me?" I ask quietly, staring at her picture on my bureau.
It was taken the last time we were together in New Orleans celebrating Mardi Gras two years ago. We're both smiling and wearing more beaded necklaces than I care to admit. She was so happy then. God, I miss her. I was the baby brother who always got into trouble, and she was the angel who always stood up for me against my parents' harsh rules. My life hasn't been the same since she passed, and it never will be.
"I should have done more to protect you." That's a guilt I will forever carry.