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A Steadfast Love

A Steadfast Love (cover image)

Heidi Relge

Heidi Relge

One

Rain pelted him while he stared at the people across the street. He blinked rapidly to keep the water out of his eyes, but was too caught up in the moment to care that he was completely soaked. The huddle of people he was staring at were all standing under the overhang of a prominent hotel. The people were all well-dressed, but though they stood close together, they paid no attention to each other. He observed each of the people in the group, absently noting male or female, attire that gave away where they may be heading, but he passed over most of them quickly. His intent stare settled on one woman.

She stood at the center of the group paying no attention to anyone around her, her own gaze glued on the smartphone in her hands. She wore a fitted black jacket over a white shirt, and black slacks. Her hair was no longer the platinum blonde he remembered. Now it was black, so black it almost looked blue under the lights of the overhang. Her hair was also much shorter than he remembered it being, and her make-up was darker too. If he had not memorized her face so long ago, he might not have recognized her at all.

She suddenly looked up and let her gaze take in the rain, the traffic, and across the street toward him. He stepped back against the wall, certain the shadow of the building would disguise him enough that she would not recognize him. He saw her stare in his direction, but nothing in her face gave away that she saw him, and he felt himself relax when she went back to tapping at things on her phone.

He continued to watch her as one by one the people around her left in taxi after taxi. When she finally stepped into a taxi of her own, he remained where he was as he watched the it pass by him and drive further into the main downtown district. As the taxi passed, he observed her sitting in the back seat with her head bowed, likely still absorbed by something on her phone. The taxi quickly blended into the sea of cars, and he breathed a sigh of excitement.

He had found her. Finally.

***

Back in his hotel room, several blocks from where she was staying, he took off his drenched clothes and hung them in the bathroom to dry. After he towel dried, he put on dry clothes and sat down in front of his laptop. He opened his email and discovered an email from his business partner demanding to know where he was. James ran his fingers through his dark hair and leaned back in the chair. He knew his partner would not approve of this trip, which was why he didn't say anything, and now he did not know how to tell him. Still, he knew he had to let Patrick know something, or Pat would likely file a missing person's report, and that was the last thing he needed.

He started typing:

Pat,

I found her. I know this is crazy. I know it is. But I had to see her again. I had to try to tell her the truth. I don't know when I will be back, but I know you got this. I will be in touch soon. Thanks, man, I know I owe you one.

James

He knew Pat would likely respond quickly, and demand to know much more - like where James was, how he found her, and to remind him that, yes, James was certifiable to go after her after so long. James smiled to himself and clicked “send.”

He glanced out the window and saw that the rain had ended. He grabbed his cell and wallet and tucked them into his jacket pocket before he left his room. After stopping at a small shop down the street from his hotel, he tucked a new umbrella under one arm while he opened a tourist map showing the city’s highlights. He didn't know what had brought her to this city; the private detective that had tracked her down did not know either. He had only provided the name of the hotel she was staying at. James stared at the map for a few minutes and then decided to simply visit her hotel to see if there was a way for him to wait for her return.

For James, a man who had traveled for much of his early life, the song of the city was loud and chaotic, leaving him wishing for the softer sounds of the small town he lived outside of. He took in the city as he walked. After the rain, everything was shiny and new looking, giving the impression of a postcard, and he admitted to himself that it was a really beautiful city even it if was not his kind of place.

He enjoyed the walk to her hotel. As he entered, he noted that this hotel was far more ritzy than its exterior implied. It was way more expensive than he would normally dish out. He wondered how she could afford to stay there. Knowing she was likely staying under an assumed name, he approached the check-in desk.

Getting a young woman's attention, he asked, "Good afternoon. I was supposed to meet my friend here today, but we missed each other. Can I leave message here with you, or get her room number so I can leave a message on her phone?"

The young woman moved in front of a computer and clicked to a screen. "Your friend's name?" she asked.

James responded, “Jules Mayson, at least that was her maiden name. Her last name may be different now.”

The clerk looked at James suspiciously. He appeared to be in his early 30’s, was tall with thick, dark hair, a slight tan, and was built well. There was warmth in his dark brown eyes. He certainly didn’t look like a malevolent person. Still, she had to ask, “You don’t know if her last name changed?”

James laughed and winked at the clerk. “We only just talked, and she was in a rush. She just called saying she was in town, but we didn’t have the time to really catch up. It’s been years, you know.”

The clerk relaxed and smiled warmly. “I see. Just a sec.”

She scanned the screen in front of her. “Well, I don’t see anyone with that last name. Can you describe her?”

James nodded. “Uh, yeah… She’s a little taller than you. Thin. Pretty blue eyes. Dark black hair - her statement, if you will.”

The clerk brightened. “I know who you are talking about.”

She scanned the screen and grabbing a pen and paper, she jotted down a name and the extension to the room she was staying in. She handed it to James winking slyly.

“I can’t give you her room number, but here is the number to her room phone. Good luck.”

James glanced at the paper. Jules Wyant. He nearly dropped the paper in shock, but recovered quickly. He smiled at the clerk and nodded toward the bar.

“I’m not staying here, but is it alright if I hang out and see if I can catch her when she comes back?”

The clerk nodded. “Oh sure. Just watch out, our bartender tends to talk people to death.”

Two

James entered the hotel bar, but opted not to sit at the bar to avoid the chatty bartender. He needed to clear his head and focus on what he wanted to do next, especially now. He found a table next to one of the windows overlooking the street. He sat facing the hotel entrance. A young man approached and handed him a menu and a glass of water, and waited politely while James glanced over the menu. James quickly ordered a small meal and a beer.

After the waiter disappeared, James looked at the paper with Jules’ name on it.

Jules Wyant.

Why had she chosen that last name? It was his last name. James Wyant. Jules Wyant.

Was this a sign that she regretted leaving like she did? Using his last name meant she had to be reminded of him, of their time together, every single day. His stomach knotted in excitement, anticipation, hope, but it was also tinged with remorse and dread.

What if… What if it wasn’t what he hoped? So much time had passed. Nearly seven years. For all he knew, she just recently assumed his last name. Maybe there was no feeling attached to it at all.

He ran a hand over his face and pinched the area between his eyes as he felt a tension headache threaten. He took several deep breaths as he rolled his shoulders in an effort to release the building tension. Maybe this was a mistake after all. Even as he considered leaving right then and there, he could not seem to will his body to move.

Finally, he determined to see it through. He was going to see her. He was going to confront her and tell her all that was in his mind and in his heart.

He glanced at the paper. He had nothing to lose.

***

He absently played with a napkin while he waited. He had been waiting for nearly four hours. People had come and gone all around him. His waiter had ended his shift, and now James had a spritely young woman trying to get him to order another beer. James knew he had been taking up a table for long time, but he had enough beer. He glanced at the chattering waitress and realized he hadn’t heard a word she had just said. He raised a hand to stop her.

“I’m sorry. Can I just have a coke with light ice? And an order of chips and salsa?”

The waitress bounced up and down on her feet as she jotted down his order. “Okay, hon. Right away! Lemme know if you want anything else, kay?”

James tried to reflect her enthusiasm, but after hours of being lost in his own thoughts, he was more anxious and edgy than he should be. He simply gave her a thin smile and a nod.

He looked out the window and heard the waitress sigh and walk away. The rain had started again. He watched the water pool in the sidewalk, and he thought back to the day he first met Jules.

Three

It had also been a rainy day. James and Pat had just gotten back to the store after their jog through the city park that stretched along the river that ran through town. They were both drenched and laughing as they walked into the back of their store, just to be met by their cashier, Connie.

“Hey! Bout time, you guys! Oh! Wow! Y’all are soaked! Don’t you dare get the front wet, I just finished cleaning it all up!”

Pat and James raised their eyes at each other. “Connie? Are you feeling alright?”

She stopped. Connie was in her mid-forties at the time. Her hair was cut short, and was mostly white. She was all business, no nonsense, and the last thing she ever did in the shop was clean.

She grimaced at them. “Yeah, well, someone had to. It looked like a herd of wild bulls ran through the store! You two really need to get some good mats for the front doors!”

Pat nodded. “I will get right on that, Con.”

Connie turned a sharp glare at Pat. “Young man, what did I tell..?”

Pat raised his hands in mock defense. “Sorry… Connie… C O N N I E…” He winked at her.

She couldn’t resist. She relaxed and smiled at Pat. “Just don’t let it happen again.”

James, who had been changing out of his wet shirt into a dry one, glanced at Connie. “You came back here for something else?”

Connie snapped her fingers. “Yes! Thank you! Poor gal: I left her waiting. There is a young woman up front filling out an application. I told her we weren’t hiring, but she said she’s been all over town trying to find a job. From the looks of her, she could really use a job. Maybe cleaning the store up?”

James sat down on a chair and towel dried his legs and feet.

“Connie, you know we can’t take anyone else on right now.”

Connie sighed. “Well… Actually, I was going to ask if I could get my own hours cut in half for the summer. I got the grandkids all summer, you know, and I’d love to have a little more time with them. Maybe this gal could fill in the gaps?”

James looked at Pat who just shrugged.

James looked at Connie. “I won’t promise anything. If she is still out there, bring me her application and have her wait. I can interview her once I am completely changed. Now, if you don’t mind, I am pretty sure George would not be happy learning you saw me in my skivvies.”

Connie glanced down and laughed. “Not like I haven’t seen it all before. But if it makes you bashful… “

She laughed as James and Pat both threw their wet socks at her. “Fine, fine, I will have her wait.”

“She must have clicked with this gal. Connie never asked for us to take on anyone, has she?”

James shook his head, “No. In fact, the last time we tried to hire someone, Connie acted like we were pushing her out. This is intriguing.”

Pat, changed into his dry clothes, sat down to tie his shoes. “Well, you want me to interview her?”

James shook his head. “Nah. I’ll do it. You got all those books to pore over, and you know you don’t want me to do them.”

Pat laughed. “Yeah, keep your mitts off. You just mess ‘em up.”

Both men laughed. They had been friends all their lives and had gone into business after they both moved back to their hometown after college. Pat had moved back from college with a wife and new baby, while James had moved back with a broken heart and parents who needed him to help out.

James zipped his pants and slipped on his flip flops. He went to the swinging doors and looked to the front of the store. He saw Connie at the register talking to a woman, but the woman’s back was to him, so he could not tell anything about her except that she was a tall, thin, and blonde.

He turned back to Pat, but Pat had already disappeared into his office and had closed his door.

James turned back to the swinging door and stepped through. He walked up to the front of the store, unable to hear what Connie was saying over the sounds of the televisions, radios, and sound systems that were on at different volume levels. He walked right up to the register and stepped around the young woman.

He turned to meet her, and stopped in mid-sentence. The woman in front of him appeared to be a little younger than he was, maybe nineteen or twenty, though it was hard to tell, for she looked a little scared or worried.

He caught himself and forced a smile wanting to reassure her.

After he introduced himself to her, he reached out his hand.

She took it cautiously, and as they shook hands, she cleared her throat and introduced herself.

“I’m Jules Mayson. Ms. Connie asked me to hang around to meet you for an interview.”

James nodded. “Yes. Connie, can I have her application please?”

He remembered the interview and how unsure of herself Jules had been. He recalled how Jules said she had arrived in their town, on a bus, her money gone, no friends or family in that area. She had found a local church that had put her up in one of their member’s homes until she could find a better place. She had appeared so lost and alone. But there had been a fire and a determination in her as well, and he understood why Connie had taken to her. By the end of the interview, after he quickly talked to Pat, Jules was hired and put on the schedule for the very next day.

Over the next several weeks, Jules had proven to be a quick study. She was not afraid to get her hands dirty and no task was beneath her. She was a quick favorite with Connie and Pat who took her in like family. Connie even offered Jules her spare bedroom and access to her homebound husband’s truck to get around town. James, however, kept his distance. He liked Jules from the beginning, but every time he was around her he felt drawn to her in a way he was not ready for, his heartbreak still raw and fresh to him.

Four

James was jogged from his thoughts as he realized his coke was empty. He set his empty glass to the side and waved the waitress over. As he was paying the waitress, he glanced out the window and noted the rain had stopped. The waitress walked away, and he glanced at his watch. It was well past five pm. He picked a piece of ice from his glass and sucked on it as he continued to stare out the window.

A taxi pulled up to the front of the hotel. James held his breath as he watched Jules step out of the cab. She straightened her clothes and stepped up to the hotel entrance. As though she felt his gaze, she turned to look down the sidewalk, but James knew she would not be able to see him through the reflective glass. She disappeared from sight until she was inside the hotel and walking past the check-in desk. James sighed in relief to see that the clerk he spoke to earlier was no longer on duty. He was not ready to reveal himself yet. He stood up and moved to the edge of the bar and watched Jules move to an elevator.

She stepped inside, and as the doors closed, he rushed for another. He waited to see where hers stopped, then he stepped inside the other one and pushed the button for the seventh floor. Once the elevator opened on the seventh floor, he stepped out cautiously looking both ways. He saw her to the right, walking further down the hall, nearly to the end. He waited, pretending to be looking at his phone, his fedora pressed down on his head, his back hunched, just in case she glanced back his way. He watched her stop at a door, then she disappeared through it. He raced down the hall, wanting to make sure he got the right door. He came to a sudden stop in front of the door she walked through, just in time to hear her set the locks in place.

703

Satisfied, James turned around and headed back to the elevator. Stopping on the main floor, James moved to the front desk.

The clerk moved to stand in front of him.

“Can I help you?”

James pulled out a credit card. “Yes. I’d like to get a room, please.”

“Certainly. Do you have any preferences? Will it just be yourself?”

James shook his head. “I have no preferences, but it will just be myself.”

The clerk typed in the information on the credit card. “How long will you be staying with us?”

James thought a moment. “A week.”

The clerk nodded. “Okay. Mr. Wyant, may I see an ID please?”

James pulled out his license. The clerk scanned it and handed it back to him. He handed James a key and a small booklet.

“We offer a wide variety of services within the hotel, and we would be happy to offer you our special concierge services during your stay. Please, just let us know. Can I call a bell boy to take up your luggage?”

James shook his head. “No, that is okay. I was at another hotel, so I will go retrieve my belongings and come back.”

The clerk nodded. “Thank you, sir, and we hope you enjoy your stay.”

James turned and looked at the number on his key… 803. He laughed to himself. Perfect. The room right above Jules. He was not one to believe in providence, but where Jules was concerned, he was willing to believe in anything.

Five

The following morning, James sat in the bar. He sipped on a hot coffee, ignored the sugary danish in front of him, and kept his eyes glued on the lobby area. He glanced out the front of the hotel. It was a beautiful morning- the sun’s rays bouncing off the surrounding buildings’ glass facades. A line of taxis waited outside the entrance. He returned his gaze to the lobby, eager to see her face as she passed by.

Person after person passed through the lobby. Suddenly, he perked up as Jules stepped into view. Today, she was wearing a deep blue shirt and sleek black pants, her hair slicked back from her face. She had her head down as she texted someone on her smartphone. She never looked up as she moved out of sight and out of the door. James stood up and moved to the entrance of the bar. He watched her step to the edge of the sidewalk to take the next cab. As soon as she closed the door of her taxi, he bolted out of the hotel and cut in line for the next cab. Ignoring the angry remarks from the man he cut off, he slid into the seat and handed the driver a crisp $50.

“Please follow that taxi ahead of you.”

The driver took a quick glance at the bill in his hand, nodded, and took off with a jerk breaking into traffic to stay behind the taxi in front of him. James breathed a sigh of relief as the cab wove in and out of traffic. The driver remained silent, content to listen to the news rolling out of his radio speakers. James kept a sharp eye on the cab in front of them, afraid that traffic would force the two cars apart. The car ahead of them showed no signs of stopping, so James leaned forward.

“Hey, man. Just a quick question.”

The driver leaned to turn down the broadcast. “Yeah? Shoot.”

“Is that cab from the same company as yours?”

The driver squinted and then nodded. “Yup. Sure is. Why?”

James scooted forward on the back seat and asked, “Is there any way you can contact dispatch to see where that cab is going?”

The driver looked at James in the rearview mirror, clear questions in his eyes.

James had no intention of explaining himself. “Is it possible?”

The driver nodded. “Yeah. I suppose. Never had anyone ask before. Just a sec. Lemme contact dispatch.”

He reached for his CB and changed it to a particular channel, then clicked his microphone.

After a bit of back and forth with the dispatcher, the driver got an address, which James keyed into his phone quickly. Jules was heading to First National Bank on Broadway.

The driver glanced at James in the mirror. “You want me to go there?”

James looked at the paper map he'd bought the day before real fast. Then he said to the driver, “Nah. I think I’d like you to drop me off at the 9/11 Memorial.”

The driver nodded.

“You still want me to follow this taxi?”

James nodded. “Yes, please. Follow, and then slow down so I can be sure, then… yeah… Drop me off at the Memorial.”

“Strange, man. Just strange.”

James smiled a little. “I'm sure you've had stranger requests than this.”

His driver mumbled something under his breath before he leaned forward and turned his radio back up. Satisfied the driver would not pry, James turned his attention to the passing city.

***

James compensated his driver well before he stepped out of the cab and onto the sidewalk that led to the Memorial. He noted the various groups of people strolling around the open area. Not wanting to get emotionally drawn into the place, he moved to a bench that overlooked the grounds and took a seat. Content to sit quietly and observe the people around the memorial, he let his mind wander back again.

Six

Jules had been working in their shop for several months before he had the courage to ask her to dinner. During the time she had been part of their staff, James and Pat both had grown fond of her. She was articulate, well-mannered, friendly to even their most difficult clients, and soon became a favorite among their clients. Outside of work, she had grown close to Connie, and joined Connie with her volunteer work in the community.

For James, the more he got to know Jules, the more he felt as though he had known her all his life. Conversation was easy, and they often found themselves lingering for hours after the shop closed just talking about the most random things. The only thing she never talked about was her past and what brought her to their town.

Pat had already hounded James about pursuing a relationship with Jules, but James had put it off despite his growing feelings. He could not help but feel as though the lesson from his heartbreak with his college sweetheart was because they were too young. He still felt like he was too young. Plus, he sensed a deep pain in Jules that he assumed was through heartbreak of her own. Still, as tension began to build between himself and Jules, he wanted to learn more about her, and he wanted to spend more and more time with her.

He had not expected her to say yes to his first request to dinner. He had not expected her to admit to him that she had nearly asked him out, because she was tired of waiting so long. He had not expected that one date would turn into a second, a third, and then they were just more or less joined at the hip in the most natural way. The only part of their growing relationship that concerned him was her reluctance to show physical affection.

She allowed him to kiss her, to hold her hand even. Yet, she stiffened and paled every time he tried to put his arm around her, and she absolutely refused to allow anything more than kissing when they were alone. James tried to ask her about it; he wondered if she was holding on to a religion based ideal, but he feared that something much more sinister was keeping her from moving forward. He convinced himself it was okay with him to move so slowly. He had not been intimate with anyone since his college girlfriend, and he didn't seemed to miss it. Still, the more time he spent with Jules, the more he felt drawn to her, the more he wanted to express his feelings the best way he knew how, and words could never convey the depths of his feelings.

James remembered the day before she disappeared. They had taken Pat's boat out onto the lake. Jules was sunbathing on the front, her eyes closed, a small smile playing at her lips. She was picture perfect. He had moved to the front of the boat and sat beside her. With her eyes still closed, she had reached out and taken his hand in hers. He squeezed her hand, and then lifted it to his lips. He bent over her and kissed her lightly on the lips, excited when she responded enthusiastically, her free hand pulling his head to hers. In that motion, he found their bare skin touching, and hot fire raged within him. Before he realized what he was doing, his arms were tight around her, and he was lost in the kiss. It took just a second to realize she had gone stiff in his arms.

He had pulled away and was shocked and ashamed to see her face pale, tears streaming from her eyes. She was not able to make eye contact with him as she begged him to take her back to the dock. Confused, saddened, even afraid, he did as she asked. By the time they got to the dock, she was dressed, and appeared ready to run. As he tied up the boat, she jumped up onto the dock and looked back at him with tears in her eyes.

“I’m sorry,” she said, then she turned away and disappeared into the crowd of boaters on the dock.

Seven

James still regretted that he stood there in frustration rather than chase after her. Maybe she would have stayed. Maybe he could have convinced her that he would only move at her pace. Maybe he could have convinced her that her past, no matter what it was, would not shape her future with him. Maybe. Maybe.

James grimaced to himself as he thought, ”Maybe.”

Back in the present, he looked at his watch. He had been lost in thought for nearly an hour. It was time to present himself. He hoped running into her at the bank, where he assumed she worked, would be less of a shock for her. The last thing he wanted was to cause her to run away again. He glanced at the map on his phone and started toward the bank.

Fifteen minutes later, he stood in the grandiose lobby of the bank. He moved to the side of the entrance where a large counter stood with stacks of forms and pens. Pretending to fill out a deposit slip, he observed the tellers and loan officers scattered around the bank. He did not see Jules, so he moved to a nearby desk and caught the attention of a loan officer.

“Excuse me. I wonder if you can help me.”

The young woman stood up and moved to stand in front of James. “Certainly. What can I help you with?”

James glanced around the lobby and said, ”Well, I had an appointment with one of your employees. An appointment with Ms. Jules Wyant, but I don’t see her, and I could have sworn she said she would meet me in the lobby.”

The young woman pursed her lips and shook her head. “I am sorry, but there must be some mistake. Ms. Wyant does not work here. Were you both going to conduct a financial transaction here?”

James nodded, thinking fast to cover his false assumption that Jules worked at the bank, “Oh, yes. I was purchasing something from her, and we thought it best to do the funds transfer in person.”

“I see. Well, Mr….”

James waved the woman’s question away, so she continued, “I am afraid you missed her. She was here about an hour ago. You must have gotten the wrong time.”

James glanced at his watch and frowned. “Oh, my. You are right! I am an hour late!”

He smiled and thanked the woman for her help.

As he stepped back outside, he muttered to himself. “Now what?”

After a moment of thought, he decided to return to his hotel.

Back at his room above Jules, he ordered lunch to be brought to his room, and he moved his chair to the windows of his room that overlooked the street below. While he waited for his lunch to be delivered, he pulled a thick file from his suitcase and flipped it open.

The top sheet was a series of images from old records. A girl of five years old, then thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, then a senior picture. Juliette Maree Ingram was her birth name. She was born to a pair of doctors and was one of two siblings. Tragically, her parents were killed while volunteering for Doctors Without Borders, leaving Jules and her sister to her aging grandmother to be cared for. Her grandmother had since passed as well, and her sister was married with children of her own.

James glanced at the brunette girl in the images. She had been vibrant, happy, content; her senior picture the image of a girl full of excitement and hope. He flipped the sheet over and felt the anger settle in his stomach as he looked at the next two images.

Both were online images from a site on the blackweb. The first showed a terrified young brunette with a gag in her mouth, her hands bound over her head. Her hair had been brushed out and pulled forward to show its length, but otherwise the young woman was naked. The next image showed the same young woman with a man in a mask standing over her, a whip in his hand, with his hand pulling her head back by her hair. Again, she was gagged, with her hands bound, but instead of terror, her eyes were devoid of life, her entire body sagged in submission, a life with no hope.

James quickly flipped the images over, and he settled on the following pages that his private investigator had retrieved from police reports and court records. The first page was a missing person's report filed by her sister. The next a police report stating Jules had been found passed out in the middle of a school playground. She had been taken to a local hospital where she was treated for wounds on her wrists, neck, lower back, feet, and genitals. Her tox screens showed lingering drugs in high concentrations. The next several pages were medical records citing her wounds, treatments, and recommendations. Another page was a police report responding to a second missing person's report filed by the hospital - Jules disappeared from the hospital in Florida.

The next few pages were dedicated to her time working with James and Pat under her alias as Jules Mayson. He flipped through the images the investigator had pulled from social media accounts, mainly James’ and Pat’s various social media accounts that Jules showed up in.

These were followed by two pages of the investigator’s notes. When Jules had run away from the James, she went completely off the grid. The only reason the investigator found her at all was because of a news clipping a friend in New York had sent him where Jules was standing in the background for an art gallery opening.

The last page was a picture of Jules almost exactly as he had seen her that first day. She was standing in front of the hotel, set apart from everyone around her. Cold. Aloof. Hard. James stared at the image. The woman in the picture was clearly Jules, and yet there was nothing of the warmth he recalled. He laid the picture back in the folder and leaned back in his chair.

What had happened to her after she left? He could not imagine that anything worse could have happened to her after her escape from her abductor. Then again, she had not told the police officers that found her anything about her captivity except that the man who held her had rented her out to other men. She never gave them details about her abductor or the men who raped, sodomized, and assaulted her for nearly three years.

The private investigator had jotted some notes of people he thought may have been associated with what happened to her, but it was only his speculation. Still so much about Jules was a mystery, and James worried that the ghosts of her past had turned her hard and cold. He fought the urge to just go knock on her door and see for himself if the woman in the latest image was really who Jules was, or if there was still the woman he loved?

Eight

After James ate his lunch, he took a quick shower and headed to the bar to wait for Jules’ return to the hotel. He had barely taken his seat at the same table he ate at the day before when he saw Jules, not entering the hotel, but walking across the lobby toward the doors to leave. He rose to follow her and stopped dead still when he saw her light jacket flip open revealing a small gun tucked into the waist of her high waisted slacks. He caught his breath and followed her. She did not wait for a cab, instead she turned south on the sidewalk. James kept his distance, careful to walk behind groups of people or to pick up conversations as he walked with his eyes rarely leaving Jules’ silhouette as she nearly marched on her way.

Over a dozen blocks from where their hotel was, Jules stopped and looked up at an office building. She glanced at a note in her hand, then pulling her jacket forward, presumably to hide the gun at her waist, she stepped inside. James moved to the edge of the building carefully looking through the windows to see if he could watch her movements. Reflective glass stopped him from seeing inside, so he waited a few minutes and walked into the building as well. Inside, he found himself in a small lobby next to a bank of elevators and a wall of corporate listings on the wall. Without stopping to check the wall, he moved to the elevators. Only one was moving upward, so he waited to see what floor it stopped on. Taking note, he moved back to the listings.

“Floor 14, Floor 14,” he mumbled to himself as he moved through the alphabetical listing. Finally, he found a name for the 14th floor, and it appeared to be the only listing for that floor.

“PillowTalk Movie Productions,” James read aloud to himself, and he felt his stomach tighten.

Could it be?

James and Pat had discussed at great length what the police and medical reports stated about Jules before they met her. They both pondered that it was likely she had been a sex slave for the porn industry.

He took a deep breath and moved back to the elevators, hitting the button for the 14th floor, and bracing himself for his encounter with Jules. As the elevator rose, he wondered: was she back in the porn industry? Was that how she was making her money?

He shook his head. No. He knew deep down, she would never go back to that life. So why was she there? Why did she have a gun?

With that in his mind, the elevator stopped and the doors slid open. James stepped into a plush waiting area. Couches and tables were scattered about the room with movie posters on the walls of films the production company had made. He glanced at the vulgar images that left nothing to the imagination and degraded the women in horribly telling ways. His stomach churned in revulsion as he looked away and noted a woman sitting at a desk filing her nails. He approached the woman, and forced a smile as she looked up at him.

The woman was young, barely out of high school it appeared. She had dark makeup on and long, lacquered nails. She wore a deep cut shirt that hung loosely and revealingly. She smiled alluringly at James.

“Hello, handsome! How can I help you?” She asked and she looked James up and down several times as she ran her tongue over her lips.

James looked around the room and saw only one door leading out of the waiting area. For a moment, he was at a loss how to proceed, but then he remembered Jules and the gun.

He took a deep breath and careful to look the young woman in the eyes and not anywhere else, he said, “I am looking for Jules. It is an emergency! Can you get her? Or may I go in and get her?”

The woman frowned. “You talking about the tall bitch that acted like she was better than me?”

“She was wearing a blue shirt, has black hair?”

“Yeah, that’s her. I ain’t going to fetch her. She wanted to see our director, Marve. You go right ahead and go get her yourself. Uppity skank.”

James nodded at the door. “Through there?”

The girl nodded and returned to playing with her nails.

James started to walk away from the desk, but then it struck him.

“Marve? As in Marve Patterson?”

The woman nodded her head in response, not even looking up at James.

James groaned inwardly. Marve Patterson was one of the names that the Private Investigator had jotted down. With growing dread, James moved through the door and found himself at the end of two perpendicular halls. The signs pointed to offices in one direction, and recording rooms in the other. As James considered which direction he was most likely to find Jules, sounds of rough sex came from one of the recording rooms. He heard sounds that were rough, angry, and the corresponding gasps pleading for it to stop. Unable to resist stepping in, he moved toward the room where he heard the worst sounds.

As he moved along the hall, he realized the rooms were walled in glass facing the hall, so he could see thru blinds what was happening in each room. Disgust and pity grew within him as he saw that most of the acts being recorded were of the more violent nature - chains, whips, straps, restraints, men wearing masks standing over the women who were incapacitated.

Finally, he got to the room where he heard the gasping coming from and found the door ajar. Through the glass, he saw a large man, fully clothed standing over a young woman who was strapped spread eagle on the bed. In the man’s hands, James saw objects of several different sizes that he was using to penetrate the woman. The woman saw James and made eye contact, the plea in her eyes unmistakable.

“Hey!” James said loudly as he stepped into the room and caught the man off guard. As the man turned toward James, James chose not to let the surprise fade. He pulled back and punched the man as hard as he could, sending the man sprawling on the ground, knocked out cold, blood seeping from his nose. James stared at the man for a minute, and then saw a robe on a chair. He covered the young woman with the robe, and then undid her bindings.

The woman was clearly drugged, but was still in pain, and she could not stand on her own. James helped her put the robe on. He tied it securely, and then he called 911. No one in the other rooms appeared to know that anything strange was going on, so James half carried the young woman down the hall toward the lobby. He helped her sit down on the floor by the door.

“I’ll be right back. The police are coming, okay? I have to find someone, but I’ll be right back. Okay?”

The young woman nodded her head slowly, and she curled up in a tight ball, wrapping her arms around herself, as tears streaked through the costume makeup.

James hated leaving the hurt woman there, but now he was convinced why Jules was there with a gun. She was there to kill someone, but as justified as it might be, James had to stop her.

He moved down the other hall with the offices. He noted that the offices also had glass walls facing the hall, so he could easily see into each room as long as the blinds were open. He moved quickly looking into each office. Most of the offices sat empty, devoid of even office furniture. Toward the end, however, he noted people in the different rooms. Finally, he got to the end of the hall. It opened into another large space similar to the lobby. Huge floor to ceiling windows overlooked the city, and a single office sat to the left. He immediately saw Jules in the office, her hands on the plush leather chair in front of her. She was leaning into the chair, and was shaking her head in frustration as she spoke to a man who sat behind a desk. James noted the man he assumed was Marve looked like any business man. He was clean shaven, dressed in a business suit. The man appeared amused that Jules was in front of him, a smirk at the corner of his lips.

James moved closer to the door to the office. The man was so intent on Jules, he had not noticed James. James stepped to the open door and stood there a moment, trying to gauge what was going on.

“...feel like you are going to get away with what you did to me?” Jules asked. Her voice sent tingles up and down James’ back, it was so familiar and yet so cold. Her voice carried no anger or hate or pain. It was steady, determined, calm. “You ruined my life. I can never get back what you took from me. I can’t believe you didn’t get arrested!”

Marve leaned forward on his elbows and stared at Jules, showing no notice of James at his door.

“Honey, I made you. When I found you in that podunk town, you said you wanted to be a star. And that is what I made you. You are still one of my clients’ favorites! My girls model themselves after you. Do you know how much money you made me?”

Jules’ hands tightened on the back of the chair, the only part of her that gave away the rage inside her. She started to say something, but thought better and instead stood up and away from the back of the chair. She reached into her jacket. James knew she was reaching for her gun.

He stepped into the office, both Marve and Jules still staring at each other.

Nine

“Jules…”

Jules’ hand fell to her side, no gun in sight, and color flooded into her cheeks as she turned to face him, her eyes wide.

James stepped forward putting him within arms’ reach of Jules, but he went no further as he saw her body tighten like a cat ready to spring.

“Jules,” he repeated.

“Who the hell are you?” Marve bellowed.

James broke his stare from Jules and looked at the man.

“An uninvited guest. I called the cops. I imagine they will be most interested in the young woman who I helped free from bondage, and how she got there.”

Marve flew to his feet and rounded his desk ready to attack James, but stopped dead in his tracks at the sound of a loud click. Both he and James looked at Jules who stood calmly with a gun pointed at the man’s chest.

Cold as ice, she commented, “I dare you to take one more step, Marve. I came here to kill you. To get justice... for me and for the other girls you had with me. Do it. Move. Please let me put this bullet in you.”

James stared at Jules and knew with certainty that she was only holding herself back because of his presence. He stepped away from the man, and moved to Jules’ side. Meanwhile, Marve slowly raised his hands and backed up to the back of his desk. Jules waved the gun and indicated for him to sit back down.

James glanced at Jules noting how she ignored his presence.

“Jules. Jules, you can put it away. The police will be…”

At that moment, a team of armed police officers flooded the large waiting area behind them, and several moved into the office yelling for all three to get on the floor. Jules handed one of the officers her gun, and without a word laid on the floor beside James. Marve resisted arrest, arguing, cursing, and yelling at the policemen until they finally wrestled him to the ground and cuffed him.

The officers helped the three to their feet and escorted them to the main lobby where a detective was taking names and statements. James stared at the men who took part in the videos, noting how normal they looked. They could have been neighbors back home. Then he looked at the women, noting how young they all were, clearly late high school or college age, some clearly from other countries as they cried and muttered in foreign languages, all of them clinging to one another in fear.

Finally, the detective got to James and took his name.

“Oh! You are the one who called us?”

James nodded.

“And what were you doing here in the first place?”

James glanced at Jules. “It is a long story, but I was here for her.”

The detective nodded as he wrote something in his pad. “So you are not part of all this?”

James shook his head. “Hell no! This is sick. Did your men find the girl I was calling about for the ambulance?”

The detective nodded. “They did. She is already on her way to the ER. Can you tell me which man it was you saw assaulting her?”

James nodded and pointed. “Um… Yeah… The one with the bloody nose there.”

The detective nodded again. “I will have to retain you as well for assaulting him, but I am sure you will not be charged. We have been after key players in an international sex trafficking ring. Marve Patterson over there is a big haul for our case.”

Jules cleared her throat to get the detective’s attention.

“Sir, what will happen to all these women?”

The detective turned to look at them. There were fifteen all wrapped in robes, clinging to each other. He frowned.

“I imagine some of them will be send back to their country of origin. The ones from here will be treated for physical and mental wounds, and then I hope rather quickly they can return to their homes.”

Jules frowned, still avoiding even looking at James, as though he were not there at all.

The detective turned to speak to some of his men, then he turned his attention back to Jules.

“You had a gun?”

Jules nodded. “In my purse is my conceal and carry permit.”

“You had the gun drawn when we arrived?”

Jules nodded again. “Yes. Marve was moving to attack James. I stopped him and directed him to sit back down.”

“Why did you bring a gun?”

Jules closed her eyes and bowed her head. “I came here to kill the bastard.”

The detective nodded. “And why is that?”

Jules lifted her head, her eyes like ice, and she stared at the detective. “Because someone had to.”

The detective returned Jules’ stare. “Okay. I need to ask the both of you more questions. We will take you to the station with us. Once we are finished, we will see if you are free to go.”

James and Jules were both led away by officers, and thirty minutes later found themselves in an interrogation room waiting for someone to question them further.

James could not take his eyes off Jules, while Jules appeared to be content to ignore him.

“Jules, will you please talk to me?”

Jules sighed. Without looking at him, “Why are you here, James? How on earth did you find me?”

James responded, ”I have been looking for you ever since that day. Pat thinks I am crazy.”

Jules allowed a small smile to touch her lips. “How is Pat?”

James smiled, “He is great. Got two more rugrats running around.”

Jules smiled, then her smile vanished in an instant. “Really. Why are you here?”

James stared at the table in front of him. “Listen. I know you have a new life now. I know the time we had together is over. But you left before I could tell you what I needed to say. I should have chased you down. I should have explained to you then. All these years… The more I learned about your past…”

“Wait… What do you mean? What did you learn?”

James looked at Jules, deep into her eyes. “I hired a private investigator to find you. In the process…” He stopped and took a breath. “Jules, I know everything. I have seen the police reports and medical records…”

Jules jumped to her feet and turned away from James. “How dare you! My life is not any of your business!”

James remained sitting. He understood why she was angry. He would have been too. Everything she had been through - it was horrifying. He spread his cuffed hands in front of him.

“I suspected. Jules… I hoped for one thing, but deep down, i think I knew that you had been hurt deeply. Broken. Anyway, none of that matters…”

Jules spun around, her eyes flashing. “None of that matters??? How can you say that? How can you even look at me knowing how I was used. I am like a dirty rag. I can’t get the stains out. I can’t…”

James nodded. “That brings me to what I wanted to tell you that day. I fell in love you. I knew the moment you went stiff in my arms, that I wanted to protect you - even from myself. I want you to feel what love is, but I want you feel it in a way you can handle. That day, I only wanted to get you back and tell you that you are safe with me. You will always be safe with me.”

Jules stared at James. Her face was stiff, her eyes blank. Nothing gave away what she was feeling. Finally, she moved back to her chair and sat down.

“Thank you.” She whispered.

James leaned toward her. “I want you to come back. Come home.”

Jules looked at James, sudden tears brimming in her eyes.

“I can’t, James. I… I just can’t. I… I want to, but I just can’t go back. After running off like I did. After leaving without a word. I have a life here, you know. I have a future here.”

James nodded. His heart breaking again, all his hopes washed away, but he kept his feelings in check.

“Part of being safe with me, means that I had no intention of pressuring you to come home. Jules, I just wanted you to know that I love you. Even after all this time. Even knowing what you have been through. Even knowing you may never be able to love me in return. I just had to tell you.” He sighed deeply and continued. “That was why I came.”

Jules put her head in hands and took several deep breaths to keep from sobbing. At that moment, the door opened and the detective stepped in to continue his questioning.

Ten

After they had both been released from questioning, James and Jules shared a taxi back to the hotel. They both made an effort to move on from James’ declaration, so they spent the time talking about Pat, Connie, the store, and little things that had happened in the time they had been apart. James found that Jules was careful with the things she shared about herself, and what she had been doing since she left. Finally, they reached the hotel. James walked Jules to her hotel room. At her door, he could not resist asking her one more question.

“Jules, there is one more thing I have to understand.”

Jules looked at James, her hand on her door handle like she was eager to be free of his company.

“Why are you using my last name?”

The color fled from Jules’ face. She forced herself to meet James’ gaze.

“I loved you too, James. I took your last name because it felt right. I can’t explain it.”

James nodded, determined to think what it meant later, but pushed it away so he would not force her to explain herself.

“I leave in the morning,” he said. “Will you be okay?”

Jules nodded. “I am sorry, James.”

Without waiting for him to respond, and without saying goodbye, she disappeared into her room. James stepped to her door. He put his hand on the door and whispered, ”It’s okay, my love.”

The following morning, he left a note under her door before he left for the airport. As he headed to the airport, he wondered if he had let her slip away too easily once again. He closed his eyes and went over every little minute they had been together the day before. He recalled her eyes, her tiny smile, her careful words, her tension at his proximity. Finally, as he neared the airport, he decided he had done all he could. He had said what he had wanted to say. He had seen her, talked to her, stopped her from making a huge mistake. The rest had been up to her, and she had chosen.

His heart stuttered again, the tight feeling grew, and he felt his eyes burn in response to his heartache. He shook his head and rubbed his eyes.

Soon he would be home. He would be home, and he may have sadness, but he would have no regrets.

Eleven

Back home, James slipped back into the routine of his life. Mornings running or biking with Pat before work, opening the shop for Connie, afternoons with his parents at the retirement community, and evenings alone with his thoughts. The first few weeks were the hardest. It felt the same as when Jules had left. Those weeks turned into a month, then a year. He thought about Jules every day. He had a picture of her on his desk at the shop and in his bedroom at home. Pat, Connie, even his parents encouraged him to date, hoping he would find new love with someone else, but he rarely had a second date, and those few second dates left him longing for Jules.

He wondered how Jules was doing. He did not retain the private investigator after returning from the city. Jules had made her decision, and James knew keeping tabs on her would only add to his pain. Deep down, he felt an abiding hope that he and Jules would cross paths again. It made no sense, but he couldn’t shake the feeling and the illogical hope.

At the year mark from when he last saw Jules, James planned a trip to get away. He glanced at the packet of information from the Cruise Line. He was flying to Seattle and taking a cruise to Alaska. Fourteen days of whale watching, inland tours, salmon fishing, hiking, and relaxing on the cruise deck. The packet included pictures of the mountains, the inlets, the ocean. He smiled to himself.

He was excited to go on the cruise. He’d always wanted to go to Alaska. He glanced at his watch. He had an hour before Pat was going to pick him up to take him to the airport. He zipped up his bags and moved them to the front door, then he sat in his recliner and flipped on the tv.

He was flipping through the channels when there was a knock at his door. Puzzled, because it was too early for Pat to be there already, James rose and moved to the door. Opening the door as he moved his luggage out of the way, he said, ”Pat, you’re early! I told you to come at 4:00”

“Oh! You’re going somewhere.”

James stood straight up from his luggage and looked at the person standing in his doorway.

There she was. Brunette. Thin. Blue eyes hesitant, shy, warm, staring at him. Her lips were pressed in consternation.

Jules.

“Jules…”

Jules smiled shyly. “I should have called. Oh my god. You’re going on a trip?”

James nodded. “Alaska.” He replied simply, totally dumbfounded that Jules was in front of him. “You are brunette now,” he observed lamely.

Jules shook her hair out and smiled. “It’s part of my therapy. I am trying to overcome my desire to hide. So… my real hair color. Do you like it?”

James took her in, the brown hair against her creamy skin, and her blue eyes. All he could do was nod that he did.

He glanced at his watch. “I have some time before Pat picks me up. Would you like to come in?”

Jules nodded, but before she moved past him, she put out her hand. James took it in his, and she shook it gently.

“I want to start over. So - Hi! My name is Juliette Maree Ingram.”

James smiled as he realized she had gone back to using her birth name.

“Hi! I am James. May I call you ‘Jules’ for short?”

“Yes. That’s what my parents called me.”

“Well, Jules, please come inside.”

James stepped aside, and Jules stepped into his house and moved into the living room.

“Not a thing has changed,” she observed.

James stood by his recliner. “No. Not much.”

Jules moved around the room, running her hands over the furniture, gazing at pictures on the wall.

“Jules?”

She turned to face James.

“Yes?”

“Why are you here?”

Jules moved to the couch and sat down. James noted that her hands were trembling, and he started to worry.

“After you left, and left me that note, just repeating your promise to keep me safe, I realized that I knew where I belong. But I also realized how broken I am and how much help I need.”

James sat in his recliner and leaned forward toward Jules.

“Where do you belong?”

Jules waved her hands around in the air around her. “Here.” Her eyes bore into his. “With you.” She paused as she looked at the luggage by the door. “That is if you still feel the same way.”

James’ heart felt like it was going to pound outside his chest. He discreetly pinched himself to make sure he was not dreaming. There in the same room as him, staring at him, the woman he loved more than he could have imagined was asking him if he still felt the same. Overcome by emotion, James got up and moved to the seat beside Jules. Gingerly, he took one of her hands in his. He ran his finger over her fingers, her knuckles, and he met her worried gaze.

“This is your home. Jules, I am your home.”

Tears streamed down Jules face, and she moved closer to James. She wrapped her arms around him and kissed him on the cheek.

“I love you,” she whispered.

James gently wrapped his arms around Jules to return the hug. He smiled into her hair as he felt her relax into him rather than stiffen. He pulled away and kissed her on the nose.

“So, the question is - would you like to visit Alaska with me?”

Jules smiled broadly,”Yes!”

© 2021 Heidi Relge

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