The body at Kade Dennon’s feet was utterly still.
Kade sucked in air, his side screaming in pain. Probably a cracked rib. Reaching down, he grabbed the gun that had been knocked from his hand, sliding it back inside the holster on his hip. Turning to the side, he spat a mouthful of blood and swiped an arm across his mouth.
God, he was sick of this shit.
Thirty minutes later he’d checked in to the kind of motel where the clerk hadn’t batted an eye at Kade’s bloody face and bruised knuckles, wordlessly sliding the cash Kade had handed over into a drawer and dropping a key onto the counter.
Kade stood under the scalding water from the shower, letting it ease the aches and pains as it sluiced over his skin, relaxing the abused muscles in his chest and arms. He imagined he could still smell the man’s sweat tinged with fear as they’d fought in the alley. Blood, grime and other noxious odors from things best left unidentified had hung in the air.
Death rarely came in a pleasant package.
The idea of being clean was a foreign feeling to Kade. The water may have washed away the blood from his hands, but his soul would never be rid of it. The only time he felt redeemed was when-
Kade abruptly cut that thought off. No sense thinking about things he couldn’t have.
He didn’t turn off the water until it began to run cold.
His numbing agent of choice, vodka, sat on the bedside table. Kade pulled on a pair of jeans over his skin and sat on the bed. He ripped the paper off a plastic cup and filled it with ice and vodka. The headboard was cold against his back as he relaxed against it, staring at the blank television screen.
Three glasses of vodka later and he could no longer keep her image at bay, so he flipped on the television. Midnight had come and gone, but the channels still showed people dancing in revelry from coast to coast, welcoming the New Year. He thought about where he’d been last New Year’s Eve and couldn’t remember. The places and jobs blended together anymore. New Year’s Eve was just another night.
He wondered if he’d still be alive next New Year’s Eve, then thought it almost curious that he didn’t care overly much one way or the other. Surely he should care, logically speaking.
Blane cared, Kade knew that much, and he was grateful for that. At least one human being on this miserable planet would notice Kade’s absence.
He thought of her.
Okay, if he was lucky, maybe two.
The bottle of vodka was over half empty and Kade could no longer remember why he wasn’t supposed to let himself think about her. Kathleen. Usually he refused to even say her name inside his head. It was just…her. Now he let the name reverberate in his mind. He closed his eyes, indulging in the memory of the last time he’d seen her, spoken to her, touched her.
He’d carried the necklace in his pocket for days, trying to decide if he should give it to her or not. It had been a spontaneous decision to buy it, as was taking the ornament from her tree for a copy of the photo. It had been an insane and completely illogical impulse that he should have quelled at once.
Sentimentality. It did nothing but make you vulnerable. And vulnerability was a weakness Kade couldn’t afford.
If he concentrated, he could remember the scent of her hair as he’d fastened the necklace, the softness of her skin as his fingers had brushed the back of her neck.
Kade was reaching for the phone before he realized what he was doing. He had to hear her voice. Just once. Then he’d hang up.
It rang several times. Kade rubbed his bleary eyes, swallowing his disappointment. He’d just listen to her voice mail message, then hang up. A recording was better than nothing.
He tried not to think of how pathetic that was.
Her voice was sleep roughened. He’d woken her. A quick glance at the clock had him silently cursing. It was the middle of the night there. Of course she’d been asleep.
“Hello? Is anyone there?” she asked again.
Kade closed his eyes, savoring the sound in his ear the way one would savor the taste of a good wine on the tongue, letting the reverberations of her voice seep into his consciousness.
“I know you’re there. I can hear you breathing,” Kathleen continued. Her voice was hushed, as though she was trying to be quiet. “Who is this?”
He should hang up. He really should. God, he was a sick, pathetic bastard, acting like a moonstruck teenager. All he needed to complete the picture was a late night drive by of her apartment.
“I…Kade? Is that you?”
Kade was silent.
“Kade…?” She sounded less sure now and Kade knew she was seconds away from hanging up.
“Yeah.” Kade’s voice was rougher than he’d realized and he swallowed to clear it. “It’s me.”
She was quiet for a moment and Kade regretted admitting his identity. No doubt she was wondering why the hell he was calling her at all, much less at this hour.
The way she said his name made Kade’s eyes squeeze shut, an ache blooming in his chest.
“How are you?”
She sounded as though she actually cared. Kade tried to dig himself out of his drunken stupor, aware that he hadn’t been prepared to carry on a conversation with her.
“Fine. I’m fine,” he answered. He wanted to hear her talk again, so he asked the requisite follow-up question. “Um, how are you?”
She sighed softly, a sound that went straight to his groin. “Tired,” she admitted. “I haven’t been sleeping well.”
“Worry, I guess. I have a hard time turning my brain off.” Her voice was low and quiet. Kade pictured her curled up in bed in the dark, with just his voice in her ear. The fantasy was an intoxicating one.
“What are you worried about?” he asked, trying to stay focused.
“The future, I guess. My job, my life. I worry about Blane…and about you.”
The sound of his brother’s name made guilt rise like nausea, so Kade ignored that part. She worried about him. He concentrated on that.
“Don’t,” he said. “And you shouldn’t worry about the future either. There’s no point to it.”
“Don’t you ever think about the future?”
“No,” he lied. “The future is for people like you.”
“What does that mean? ‘People like me?’”
It seemed obvious to him. “You have a future.”
“And you don’t?”
Kade thought the answer to that was patently apparent, so he didn’t bother replying and took another drink instead.
“You break my heart.”
Her voice was so soft that he nearly didn’t catch what she’d said. When he did, his gut clenched as though someone had shoved a hot knife into him.
“This was a bad idea,” he said roughly. “I’ll catch you later, princess.”
“No! Wait! Please don’t hang up.”
Her request caught Kade off guard, and he was powerless to refuse her.
“Are you still there?” she asked.
“Where are you?”
Kade debated lying, decided he was too tired. “A crappy motel outside of Seattle.”
“That’s a long way from home.”
His laugh was without humor. “Home is ephemeral, princess, just like love, hope and happiness.”
She was quiet. Kade took another drink.
“Have you ever been happy?” she asked.
Kade stared at the muted television, his eyes seeing into the past. “Maybe,” he murmured. “A long time ago.”
Kathleen’s next words were gentle. “When your mom was alive?”
An old heartache burned inside. It had been years since he allowed himself to dwell on the past. Kathleen’s voice, his exhaustion, the pain, it all combined, crumbling his carefully hewn defenses.
“She used to make these cookies for me, every Christmas.” Absently, Kade took another drink, lost in memories. “We never had much money for presents, but she’d scrimp and somehow I’d have a full stocking. Then we’d have Christmas dinner, and always these cookies afterword. They were amazing. Fruit and cranberries with nuts, rolled in cinnamon and sugar. They used to just melt in your mouth.”
He could see her face, if he tried very hard. A fuzzy image, the features indistinct, except for the dark waves of hair falling to her shoulders and the blue eyes, a mirror of his own.
“She’d come home late from work, one or two o’clock in the morning. I’d wait up for her, worried. She worked in a bar, and not that great of one. I’d climb out of bed and she’d half-heartedly scold me for being awake, too tired to really be mad. Then she’d hug me and put me back to bed. I could smell her perfume on my pajamas, know she was home safe, and then I could sleep.”
It suddenly occurred to Kade that Kathleen was quiet. Too quiet. Maybe he’d put her to sleep with his stupid rambling. He’d yet to meet a woman who would be enthralled with tales from his childhood.
“Still there?” he asked.
“Yeah. I am.” Her voice was thick and she sniffed once.
Shit. She was crying. Nice job, asshole.
“You have a New Year’s resolution, princess?” he asked, anxious to change the subject. Where all this maudlin crap had come from, he had no fucking clue. Probably the booze.
“Um, yeah, sure,” she answered. He could practically see her pulling herself back together.
“What is it?”
“Honestly?” she asked with a huff of laughter. “It’s not much. Just to stay out of the hospital this year.”
Kade flinched, remembering with too perfect clarity the sight of her in the hospital bed after Frankie had shot her. She’d seemed so fragile, swathed in white sheets and bandages. Her face had been marked with dirt and blood. Unable to stand the sight, Kade had gotten a warm, wet cloth and cleaned her cheeks and forehead. He’d taken special care with her mouth, dried blood caked at the corner, her lips swollen.
For a moment, Kade had been glad of his profession, glad he regularly served up death to those who preyed on the innocent. To have an outlet for the consuming rage he felt had been a balm that soothed him. His only regret being that he’d killed the man responsible for Kathleen’s injuries much too quickly.
“What about you?” she asked, bringing his thoughts back to the present. “Do you have a New Year’s resolution?”
“A resolution implies there’s something about myself that I would change,” Kade replied.
“So…what…there’s nothing you want to change?”
“I like my vices, thank you very much.”
She laughed, a soft, gentle sound that made his stomach feel warm, like the booze did but without the afterburn. He suddenly realized he liked to make her laugh. It was much better than making her cry, which he excelled at.
“So what are you doing in Seattle?”
“A job.” His answer was curt. She didn’t need the details, didn’t need to know the truth about the man he really was. Someone who could kill without a backward glance or ounce of regret. She thought she knew, but someone like her would never truly be able to comprehend the darkness he lived and breathed every day. She was too good, too innocent to understand. And if she ever did find out, she’d be horrified.
“Were you hurt?”
His ribcage sent a stabbing pain into his chest with every breath, his knuckles were split and swollen, his jaw ached from the beating it had taken, and his stomach churned from too little food and too much alcohol.
“I’m fine,” he answered.
“I’ve been fine, too,” she replied softly. “Fine really sucks sometimes.”
Kade studied the melting ice cubes in his cup. “Yeah.”
“When will you be back?” she asked.
There was a sudden lurch inside his chest. “Miss me already?” he asked, hoping his sarcasm concealed any hope in his voice.
“Of course,” she said, then ruined it by adding, “we both do.”
Guilt again. He shouldn’t be doing this, shouldn’t have called her. She wasn’t his to miss. Yet, he couldn’t make himself get off the phone. He wondered what she’d done tonight, how she and Blane had celebrated the holiday. If she’d had sex with him.
He decided he didn’t want to know.
“Thank you again for the locket,” she said when he was silent. “I love it.”
“Yeah. Good.” Uncomfortable with her thanks, he changed the subject. “Did your pay raise come through?”
“Yes, thank you for that, too.” Her voice was soft, not a whisper, but as though they shared a secret. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were almost a nice guy.”
Her teasing made him smile again. Twice in one day. It wasn’t that he never smiled, it was that he didn’t often find something just funny and that was all. Ironic, yes, there was plenty of fucking irony in his life. But rarely a smile or laugh for the reasons most other people had.
“We wouldn’t want you to make that mistake, now would we,” he deadpanned.
She laughed softly, the sound sweet in his ear.
They sat in companionable silence for a few moments. Kade could hear the slight sound of her breathing. If he concentrated, he could almost imagine her there with him, next to him in the bed.
“I heard that stupid Christmas carol on the radio,” he said out of nowhere, wanting to prolong the conversation.
“What Christmas carol?”
“That hippo one.” Kade had heard her singing it at The Drop the night he’d played at bodyguard. Normally he avoided all radio stations that saturated the airwaves with sappily sweet holiday dreck starting the day after Halloween. It drove him nuts. The hippo song had caught his attention while flipping stations and he’d stopped to listen, remembering how he’d watched Kathleen work while she’d almost unconsciously sang.
“It’s not stupid,” she protested. “I like it. It’s funny.”
“There are better carols out there,” he said.
“Really? Which one’s your favorite?”
“Do I really seem like the kind of guy who’d have a favorite Christmas carol?”
“There’s got to be one you like,” she persisted. “Humor me.”
Kade heaved a sigh just so she would know what a pain in the ass she was and thought for a moment. “Silent Night.”
“Good choice,” Kathleen said, and to his surprise, she began to sing.
Kade loved her voice, and if he didn’t have a shred of pride, he’d beg her to sing to him all night. With a sigh, he rested his head back and closed his eyes, letting her voice wash over him. She knew more than just the first verse and sang them all.
The last note faded into silence.
Pain still echoed through Kade’s body, but his thoughts were quiet. The peace that had eluded him before now lay like a warm blanket, soothing him.
“When will you be back?” Kathleen asked.
Her innocent question threatened to shatter his resolve to stay far away from her. Kade rubbed his eyes, debating the answer he should give versus the answer he wanted to give.
After a moment, he spoke. “Soon.” Self-denial had never been one of his virtues. “You should get some sleep,” he said, changing the subject. “And stop worrying.”
She sighed. “Easier said than done. Be safe.”
Kade’s chest constricted. “Good night, Kathleen.”
Kade waited until she’d hung up before ending the call himself.
“Happy New Year,” Kade muttered, his thoughts far away from the motel he was in, dwelling on a girl asleep in her bed half a continent away.
Kade has insisted to me that this is not what transpired during that phone call. I’m not really sure I believe him, but his version is here. Please note – this outtake is for adults 18 and over only. If sexual situations bother you, please do NOT read the outtake.