Love at Last - Chapter 1
The moment she closed the door behind her, Willow realised something was wrong. Silence permeated the house, and the unexpectedness of it unsettled her. Since her friend, Meri, had moved in with her two months ago, the house was never quiet anymore. Meri loved music and always had it playing in some part of the house. Tonight though — nothing. Maybe she was just overreacting and Meri had simply gone out. She really hoped that was the case.
“Meri? Are you home?”
More silence. Willow moved farther into the house looking to see if she could find a note explaining the quiet, the lack of response. It was unlike Meri to go out without leaving a note or not to have told her in advance.
“Meri?” she called again as she moved into the living room. “Are you here, babes?”
“Meri, are you home?” she called once more, unease crawling its way along her spine.
Shrugging out of her jacket, she went back to hang it up. A low, pain-filled moan caught her attention. The unease ramped up. Moving through the hallway, she called once more, “Meri, are you in here? Are you okay, babes?”
Willow stopped to listen, trying to pinpoint exactly where the sound was coming from, hoping to hear it again so it would point her in the right direction. Then she heard the moan anew. Realising it was coming from the living room, she moved toward it. As she rounded the long sofa, she stopped in her tracks, unable to comprehend the sight before her. Meri lay on the ground, curled up on her side in a fetal position, clearly trying to protect the twins she was heavily pregnant with. She was badly beaten, lying in an ever-growing pool of blood beneath her hip. Icy panic flashed through Willow. That amount of blood couldn’t mean anything good for Meri’s pregnancy.
“Oh God, Meri.” Willow dropped to her knees beside her friend. “Babes, can you hear me? Meri? Meri!”
Getting no response, Willow jumped to her feet. She raced back to the hallway to get her cell phone. Her hands shook so badly she misdialled three times before she finally managed to get through to the cell phone emergency line — 112.
“One-one-two, what is your emergency, please?”
Giving her name, Willow told the operator what the problem was as quickly and concisely as she could.
As the tears coursed down her face and her breath hitched, Willow could barely manage above a whisper. “Please. She’s pregnant, and . . . Oh God, there’s just so much blood.”
“Stay with me here, Ms Martin. I’ve dispatched an ambulance and the police. They’re on their way to you as we speak,” the operator soothed.
While staying on the line, Willow kept talking to Meri, trying to get her to respond. It seemed to Willow as if the blood was rapidly expanding. She was so far out of her depth that panic, icy and insidious, held her in a tight grip. By the time emergency services and police arrived, Willow’s panic was full-fledged. She had never felt so alone in her life.
Standing to one side so she was out of the way, she watched everything they did as they worked on her friend.
Just when Adam thought the day couldn’t get any crappier, it finally ended. He couldn’t get away from the station quickly enough. He’d felt called to be a policeman since he was a little boy. It was all he remembered ever wanting to be. But days like today made him question the wisdom of his choice. Crime in general offended his moral code, but when it involved children, as today’s case had done, it was always difficult to deal with. It cut especially close to the bone now that he had a child of his own.
Giving thanks that he’d at least get to hold his infant daughter again, he headed to collect her from her day mother. He looked forward to some down time to decompress, maybe relaxing on the couch with a cold one after he’d gotten Gracie settled for the night. A couple of blocks from home, his cell phone rang, interrupting the sounds of rock music flowing through the stereo as his daughter slept on in her car seat.
His partner ringing at this time of evening generally wasn’t a good sign. It would seem likely that his crappy workday wasn’t quite over yet. Biting back a sigh, he answered.
“Hey, Gav. What’s up, bud?”
“Hey, man. Just got a call in from dispatch. One-one-two caught an assault, possible attempted murder. I caught the case, but since I’m headed off on sick leave for my shoulder op in a couple days, Cap’s decided he wants you to take over as lead on this one from me. I’m almost there now. I’ll message you the address as soon as I get there. You can meet me on scene.”
Mentally cursing, using every imaginative expletive he knew, he turned the car around, heading towards his parents’ house instead of his own.
“Let me just drop Gracie off at my mom’s. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
He disconnected, called his mom, and ten minutes later dropped his sleeping baby off with his parents.
“Thanks Mom. I appreciate it.” Bending, Adam placed a gentle kiss on the older woman’s cheek.
“You’re welcome, my boy. Don’t worry about Gracie. We’ll keep her here tonight. Dad and I can drop her off at day care in the morning. You just head straight home when you’re done. A good night’s rest will do you good. You’re looking tired, my boy. You work too hard.”
He thanked his mother again. After giving his daughter one last kiss on the head and hugging his mother goodbye, he headed to the address his partner had messaged him.
Pulling up to the house on a quiet street in a normally tranquil neighbourhood, Adam absently noted the flashing lights. A few people stood around watching the commotion, huddling together and talking quietly amongst themselves. It certainly was a sight out of the ordinary for them. Approaching the front door, he found it standing wide open, vehicles and people all over the driveway.
He stepped into the foyer and looked around for his partner. When he didn’t spot him, he called a uniformed officer over to enquire as to where to find him. She informed him the man was in the living room, pointing him in the right direction.
As he moved that way, he caught the sound of quiet weeping. Clearly distraught, they obviously needed someone with a gentle touch dealing with them tonight, but after the miserable day he’d had, it couldn’t be him. He was all out. As he turned back to find the uniform he’d just spoken with, he caught a glimpse of a beautiful woman talking to a paramedic. He took a step closer to get a better look and felt somewhat dazed – a bit like he’d walked into a brick wall.
She was a tiny bundle of perfect. The policeman in him was ingrained. Even admiring a good-looking woman, his well-trained eye assessed. He estimated she couldn’t be more than five foot two or three. Although not overweight, she certainly had the voluptuous curves that a man craved to get his hands on. A mass of blonde waves tumbled down her back to just below her waist.
Pulling his gaze away from her, he started turning away. In his current mood, it was probably best to leave her to Gavin. He was good with people. He’d know what to say to make her feel at ease.
She chose that moment to unexpectedly turn her head, looking directly at him.
His heart clenched at the sight of tear-drenched eyes the colour of the deepest blue sapphires, still so beautiful despite the tears. Suddenly, he had an intense desire to haul her into his arms and give her comfort, which made no sense at all. Adam never had such a visceral reaction to anyone before. Changing his mind, Adam moved towards her. Those intense blue eyes followed his progress as he crossed the floor.
A sense of being watched penetrated the fog in Willow’s brain. She turned her head to seek out the source and spotted a man standing in the doorway of her living room. Although she immediately noticed he was handsome, despite her grief, it was more than that. He had a presence about him that commanded attention. Their eyes met, and her brain seemed to stall. For a long moment, she seemed incapable of speech. She simply stared. And in that long moment, the horror of her surroundings retreated from her thoughts.
“My apologies for intruding at a difficult time, ma’am. I’m detective Adam Dawson – the investigating officer in this case. I just need to ask you a few questions.”
“I’m not sure how much I can help you. I didn’t see anything. I found her like this.”
“No problem, ma’am.” Adam smiled reassuringly. “Let’s see what we can piece together, okay?”
Nodding hesitantly, Willow agreed.
“What is the victim’s name?”
“And what is your relationship to Ms Davids, ma’am?”
“She’s my friend. She’s recently gotten out of a relationship and has been staying with me while she gets back on her feet.”
Looking back over at Meri, she closed her eyes against a sharp pain in the region of her heart. Willow tried to breathe through the pain and panic. She couldn’t envisage a life without Meri in it.
They’d been friends since kindergarten. Their friendship had endured school, boyfriends, university, the craziness of youth – queuing for hours in the pouring rain for concert tickets, an urge to drink shots at three in the morning while belting show tunes at the top of their lungs. She couldn’t remember a time they hadn’t been there for each other. It had even survived Meri’s relationship with a man whose solution to everything was violence. Thankfully, it seemed JJ had finally managed to destroy their relationship beyond repair with his wild jealousy and violent temper.
“Was there a particular reason she left the relationship, Ms Martin? Or was it a case of it having run its course?” the detective asked.
“Her partner was abusive. He was always good at using his fists. If he had a point to make, a beating was his way of getting it across.”
Willow had always feared one day that violent temper of JJ’s would result in one of those beatings being the death of Meri. But eventually Meri had come to her senses, leaving him when the last beating had resulted in yet another hospital visit. Now that she was pregnant with JJ’s twins, she’d voiced fears that if she didn’t leave, it could very well end in tragedy. So, she’d packed her bags and moved in with Willow.
Willow was worried about Meri though. She loved having Meri living with her, but it hurt to watch her friend slip deeper and deeper into depression as time passed. Clearly Meri missed him, but JJ was toxic for her.
“Do you have any idea when the last time was Ms Davids had any contact with her ex-partner?”
“I’m not sure exactly, but I do know that since she moved in, he’s been coming around to the house and phoning her constantly, begging her to come home.”
And it had Willow worried. She could see that it was eroding Meri’s hard-won resolve not to go back to him.
“When was the last time you saw Ms Davids?”
“We had breakfast together this morning before I left for work at around eight thirty. She wanted to know what she should make for dinner, like usual. Meri decided when she moved in that she would take care of the household duties while she stayed as her way of making a contribution.” Willow’s voice hitched. “That was the last time I saw or spoke to her.”
Tears tracked down her face as the realisation dawned that it might very well be the very last thing she and Meri got to talk about ever again. She was very grateful to the big detective for giving her a moment when he handed her a handkerchief from his jacket pocket and said nothing more.
A sound behind her had that hypnotic gaze swinging away from him, effectively releasing him. His gaze shifting beyond her. He noticed the paramedics moving toward him.
As they wheeled the gurney past him, he a saw a young woman lying there. Nasty bruising was already visible, but underneath the vivid colouring, her skin was deathly pale. What snagged his attention was the enormous baby bump starkly highlighted by the white sheet covering her. It seemed today was his day for all the lousy cases. Stepping aside, he let the paramedics through on their way out to the ambulance.
Forensics passed the gurney at the front door. The same police officer who’d assisted him pointed them towards the living room, and they moved towards him. The room behind him was in complete disarray, bearing testament to the fact that the victim on the gurney had clearly put up one hell of a fight. Sadly, it didn’t seem as if it had done her any good. He knew the best way he could help this poor woman was to find out who had done this and bring them to justice.
The metallic sound of the gurney being locked into place snagged her attention. She saw the paramedics wheeling Meri towards the door. Turning back to the detective, Willow spoke again.
“Forgive me, detective, I have to go with Meri now. I’m all she has left. I’ll arrange with my neighbour, Ms Ellis, to come over. She’ll lock up behind you.”
“I understand, ma’am. It’s no problem. I’ll be in touch to follow up a little later then.”
Thanking him, she headed for the foyer. As she collected the jacket she’d hung there, what seemed like forever ago now, she placed a quick call to her elderly neighbour to ask her to come over. Someone needed to be there while the police processed the crime scene – her home. She needed to be with Meri.
Ms Ellis, always so willing to help, promised to be right over. Spotting the elderly lady coming up the drive as she reversed her car out, she stopped but left it idling as she got out to speak to her neighbour. With a hug and a heartfelt thank you, she climbed back into her car to follow the ambulance to the hospital. Beside herself with fear for her friend, Willow cried the entire drive to the hospital.