At the time of his temporary transfer from Scotland Yard to the tiny village of Hope Springs, he’d been excited at the prospect of a change of scenery, new people, and a new mystery to solve. Hell, he’d volunteered to go – eager to get away from a freshly ended relationship that lasted far longer than it should have. He’d packed his bags with enthusiasm, boarded the train and discovered very quickly upon arriving in this godforsaken little town that boredom would become a way of life.
The scenery is beautiful, of course, rolling hills and green everywhere he looks, but that’s all. After a while, a bloke needs a bit more than sheep to keep his life from getting dull. The people are nice – well, most of them. He isn’t sure why but there’s something about Euan Harries that makes his skin crawl. Gil Cameron is nice enough, now that he isn’t worried John is trying to take his job or make him look like a fool. Once he’d accepted that John was genuinely here to help, he became one of the few people who could keep him grounded when the little village made him restless and longing for something to do other than sit in a bloody hotel pub and watch rats scuttle by.
He tells himself that he isn’t here to be entertained, that he’s here to help the out of his depth Gil Cameron find the person who murdered a poor sixteen year old girl. Most days, remembering Katie helps John to focus, to remember that being here isn’t about him. It’s about helping a family find closure and bringing a cold-blooded killer to justice. Today, however, John finds himself at the local hotel pub and staring glumly into his drink, missing London with its bustling streets and his friends always nearby. This case is taking longer than he ever expected and sometimes, he wonders if he’ll ever get out of this village. Perhaps when he dies here of old age they’ll send his remains back to London.
Snorting at himself, he sighs and leans back in his seat, running his fingers through floppy brown hair. He looks up just in time to see a group of four women walk through the door together, bundled up in thick coats and heavy boots, all of them looking weary. They walk up to the bar where Sadie is wiping down the counter and helping herself to her own stock, and John turns his attention back to his drink. He only has another fifteen minutes for lunch and he’d like to take his time walking back to the station, maybe clear his head before he has to look at all that paperwork on his desk again.
John glances up at the rattle of bottles, watching Sadie hold a hand over her heart like the woman with bouncing blonde curls leaning over the counter had scared the life out of her. He means to get up and leave, honestly he does, but well, those blonde curls are rather captivating and instead of leaving, he ends up rooted to his seat, staring shamelessly. The woman asks for a bottle and four rooms, and he smirks into his drink as she quickly backtracks upon discovering the rats he’d long ago grown used to.
“It’s a good three hours to the next hotel.”
John rolls his eyes at the fib but says nothing, knowing Sadie could use the money. And he’d quite like to get a closer look at the woman now sitting at the table next to his, throwing her heavy coat over the back of her chair and revealing a purple jumper that clings to curves even more distracting than her wild hair. He struggles to keep his eyes on his drink rather than gaping at her like an idiot, tuning out the whispered conversation the girls seem to be having between themselves as he wonders how best to approach the only reason he’s had to smile all morning.
As Sadie drops the bottle and four glasses on the table, wandering away again, he still hasn’t come up with anything so he decides to just do what he does best – he improvises. He leans toward them, clearing his throat. “Excuse me?” Four sets of eyes turn to him but he’s only paying attention to the sparkling green ones fixed on him with curiosity and a small bit of interest – or maybe that’s just his own wishful thinking. “Are you staying in town or just passing through?”
Not his best attempt, but at least she knows he exists now.
The other three women glance at the curly-haired woman as if for guidance and when she smiles at him, it’s guarded and wary. “Just passing through, I’m afraid.”
“That’s a shame,” he says with what he hopes is a friendly smile to put her at ease. “There’s so much to see and do here – what with the hills and the sheep and all.”
The curly-haired woman blinks at him, guarded smile frozen on her lovely face, as if startled to find that he’s joking with her. “Yes,” she says slowly, still looking shaken and confusing the hell out of him in the process. “And the one takeaway curry joint. Terribly sorry to leave it all behind.”
He grins. “Where are you headed next then?”
“Nowhere in particular,” she says, just a little too quickly. “We’re ramblers so we’re just…”
“Rambling,” the brunette next to her pipes up, then flushes, biting her lip.
John eyes them skeptically. “You don’t much strike me as ramblers, if you don’t mind me saying.”
“Oh? And what do we strike you as?”
Intrigued by the curly-haired vixen’s raised eyebrow, John smiles down at his drink and shrugs. “Well,” he says, making sure to look only at her. “You’re far too good-looking to be a rambler. Didn’t you read the job description, love? Middle-aged, graying hair, retired and with nothing else to do?”
Her mouth starts to curl into a genuine, unguarded smile before she catches herself and stifles it but John counts it as a victory anyway. “We started young,” she says dryly. “Wanted to see the sheep before they could outrun us, yeah?”
Laughing, he holds out a hand and says, “John Smith. I’m on temporary transfer here from London so I’m even more eager to leave than you are.”
The curly-haired woman laughs and slips her hand into his – warm and small, but her grip surprisingly strong. “You have my sympathies, mate.” He inclines his head but doesn’t release her hand just yet, a little reluctant to excuse himself and go back to work. “Where’d you transfer from then?”
“Scotland Yard.” She yanks her hand from his so quickly he’s left blinking at his empty hand, curled around fingers that aren’t there anymore. “You alright?”
“Fine,” she says, voice trembling a little and eyes wide. “We just need to get going. Come on girls, drink up.”
He frowns, watching them all reach for their drinks hurriedly, but before he can even try to understand what just happened or what he said to ruin a perfectly flirtatious exchange, Gil Cameron wanders in, no doubt searching for him since he’s about ten minutes late by now. John holds up a hand in acknowledgement and says, “Coming, sorry. Got a bit distracted.”
Gil eyes the women at the table and says, “I wonder why.” He reaches into his jacket pocket. “Which of you is the owner of the maroon Escort parked outside with the out of date tags?” He pulls out his badge and flips it open, leaving John to shake his head and stand wearily, but not before he notices the entire table next to him tense.
The curly-haired woman glances over her shoulder and smiles at Gil with none of the warmth John had seen in her grin only moments ago. “It’s lucky it’s not our car then.”
“We borrowed it,” says the brunette next to her. “Off a friend in Fort William.”
“Well tell your friend to get it legal and pronto.” Gil tucks his badge back into his jacket. “Untaxed cars are a menace.”
“Yeah,” the curly-haired woman mutters as he walks away. “They mug old ladies.”
John snorts and she glances at him in surprise, green eyes wide.
Turning on his heel and offering John a brief glare, Gil levels the women around the table with an expectant look. “Now, I presume that none of you are planning to drive anywhere after drinking Sadie’s measures.”
The women freeze and John hides a grin in a well-timed cough, covering his mouth with his hand. Gil can be a right bore with a stick up his arse most of the time but if he can get these women to hang about the place long enough for him to learn the name of the wild-haired mystery in the purple jumper, he’s more than alright with it.
Gil glances at him. “You planning on working this afternoon, Smith?”
“On my way,” he mutters, grabbing his coat. As the women at the table next to him grumble to themselves about being stuck here now, he catches the eye of the curly-haired woman who already intrigues him more than just about anything else in this town. “Nice to meet you…”
“Ellie,” she supplies, looking at him strangely. “Ellie Williams.”
“Looks like you’ll get to spend more time with those sheep after all, Ellie.” Her mouth seems to twitch in amusement against her will and John winks at her before walking out reluctantly, hoping he’ll at least catch another glimpse of her before she and her friends scarper.
After spending two days drowning in paperwork and barely coming out of his office for takeaway curry down the road, John finally remerges into the world of the living to find that Ellie Williams really hadn’t been a rambler after all but rather scoping out the hotel to buy. He’s a bit embarrassingly overjoyed that she hadn’t escaped town while he’d been up to his ears in police reports and damn near ecstatic to find that she won’t be going anywhere any time soon. Finally something interesting is happening to him around here.
The moment he’s free, he makes his way to the hotel’s pub and finds it positively hopping with people under the new management. His eyes are drawn to Ellie instantly, standing behind the bar in a very fetching sundress that shows off a lot of tantalizing, golden skin and suddenly realizes why the place is so busy. The view has improved drastically. Ellie leans over the bar and smiles rather flirtatiously at Euan Harries, and John refuses to acknowledge the way he bristles at the sight. He just doesn’t like Euan, that’s all.
He hangs back a bit until Ellie’s tall blonde friend drops a whole tray of drinks, and the sound of glass shattering startles him out of his definitely-not-jealous reverie. Edging around the people cleaning up the glass, he makes his way slowly to the bar and reaches it just as Euan and Ronan are walking away, Euan’s jaw clenched angrily.
Ellie brightens at the sight of him, or at least he likes to think she does. “Hello stranger.”
“Hello yourself.” He jerks a thumb behind him in the direction of the departing Harries’ men. “Everything alright?”
“Oh,” she waves him away. “Fine. The locals are dead friendly.”
He laughs. “You get used to them. Well…” He leans a bit closer to whisper conspiratorially, “Except for Euan. I still want to punch that bugger in the face.”
Ellie grins and this close, he can see the flecks of blue in her green eyes, the ever-present glow in the apples of her cheeks and the adorable bump in the middle of her nose. She’s a sodding vision and he swallows hard, leaning back in an effort to breathe properly once more.
“So,” he says, clearing his throat. “I knew you weren’t ramblers.”
“Lucky guess,” she shrugs.
“Oi, I’m a detective,” he scowls playfully at her. “I don’t guess, I hypothesize. And that Gortex jacket didn’t suit you at all. The only conclusion I could come to was that you were a fraud, Ellie Williams.”
She snorts and he grins back at her, pleased. “You here for a drink then?”
He hops onto a bar stool with a nod. “Please.” He watches her grab a glass and pour his lager, sliding his eyes over the curve of her back, that hair brushing her shoulder blades every time she moves her head. When she turns and finds him looking, he glances away quickly, flushing.
“Here you are,” she says, and he can hear the smirk in her voice.
“Cheers,” he says, and reaches for his wallet.
“Oh no.” She shakes her head. “It’s on the house. Got to stay in good with the law.”
When she winks at him, he picks up his drink and sighs gratefully, “Oh, you’re beautiful, Ellie Williams.”
Her eyes widen before she looks away like a startled and frightened animal, and he knows that she obviously doesn’t hear that often enough. He sips his drink, deciding he’d quite like to be the man to fix that.
The one thing that keeps him alert enough to do his job in this sleepy town is getting up before sunrise and having a morning run. He always ran in London too but it’s different here, a whole new experience. The air is crisp and cool, clean and damp. In the early morning light, the green, rolling hills surrounded by fog aren’t the boring sight they are by afternoon. In the morning, when the town is bathed in the soft light of a new day, John knows that when the time does come to leave this place, a small part of him is going to miss it – the peace, the stillness, the knowledge that he’s making a difference.
When he’s finished with his run and jogging slowly back to his place for a shower and a change of clothes before heading to the station, he passes by the hotel on his route. The closer he gets, the more he can hear people shouting and calling for help. He stops in his tracks, glancing up at the old building and feeling his heart begin to pound at the sight of smoking rising into the air.
Breaking into a run once more, John makes it to the top of the hill and finds Josie and Shoo hurrying to the entrance and wearing relieved expressions at the sight of him. Without stopping, he asks, “Anybody in there?” When Josie replies with Hannah, he doesn’t wait for her to say anything else. “Stay where you are!” He runs into the burning building without a second thought, bursting through the front door and nearly careens right into Hannah, who’s helping a coughing Sadie limp outside.
She latches onto his shirt, her grip desperate as she asks, “Is Ellie alright?”
His heart leaps into his throat. “She’s not outside.”
“Oh god, she must still be upstairs.”
Swearing profusely, John pries Hannah’s white-knuckled grip from his t-shirt and says, “Take Sadie outside. I’ll get her. Go!”
The smoke fills his lungs and stings his eyes as he runs through the hotel shouting frantically for Ellie but he doesn’t stop, searching every room and praying to anything that will listen that he finds her before they both die of smoke inhalation. When he reaches the last room on the second floor and the door is locked, he knows he’s found the right one. He stands back, kicks with all his might, and the door cracks open. He stumbles inside and squints through the smoke in the dark room.
He cowers away from a burst of flames nearby but the light from it allows him to spot Ellie almost instantly, his eyes catching the pink of her nightgown where she’s lying face down on the floor beside her bed. All at once relieved that he’d found her and terrified that he’s too late to make a difference, he rushes to her side and scoops her up into his arms. “I’ve got you,” he whispers, smoothing a hand tenderly over her hair as he stands and starts for the door. “Just hold on, Ellie.”
On his way out of the hotel, he passes Gil hauling out Euan Harries, who refuses to relinquish his fire extinguisher, as if it will be of any help at this point. The cool morning air filling his lungs as he steps outside is a welcome relief and John draws in deep breaths, ignoring the chaos around him. His attention is solely on Ellie as her hysterical friends gather around her, laying her down on the blanket they’ve spread out on the ground.
“Get back,” he says firmly, shooing them away as he hovers over Ellie, pushing her hair out of her face and taking her head in his hands. “Give me room.” He presses his ear to Ellie’s mouth, desperately hoping to feel her breath, however faint.
Tears in her eyes as she cling to Josie, Shoo looks at him pleadingly. “Is she breathing?”
“Shh, let me hear.”
Swearing, he pinches her nose, tips her head back and presses his mouth to hers. He fills her lungs with air from his while her friends hover in a circle around him, already whimpering and crying like they’ve given up but John refuses to. He doesn’t know much about this woman other than the strange pull he feels to her but somehow; he knows that she’s a fighter. A bit of smoke isn’t going to do her in, she’d rage against such an end. She isn’t going to give up on the world so easily – he won’t let her.
“Come on,” he growls, pulling back to drawn in more air. “Breathe, you infernal woman. Just breathe.”
Above him, Gil lays a comforting hand on his shoulder, as if to tell him it’s too late, that he did the best he could and there’s nothing left to do. But persistence is practically John’s middle name. He’ll be damned if she dies on him before he’s collected dozens more of those flirtatious grins, before he’s gotten her to consent to dinner, before he’s stolen freely given kisses from that smirking mouth, before he understands the secrets and the fear always lurking in that ever-calculating gaze. Ellie Williams isn’t allowed to die for a very long time, not until she’s a mouthy old lady in her bed, and certainly not here, in a hotel car park in this tiny little town when he’s looking down at her and begging her to open those damnable eyes of hers.
“Come on,” he breathes into her mouth, hands curling into her hair and tugging as he tries one last time. Breathe for me, Ellie.
When he feels a hand on his arm, he thinks it’s someone trying to pull him away and he almost jerks out of the grasp before he feels Ellie gasping beneath his mouth. He pulls away hurriedly and sees her hand curled around his arm. Her eyes are still shut but she’s smiling a little, and when he pats her cheek, she starts to cough. As he leans back to let her relieved friends take care of her, he tells himself the grateful tears in his eyes are just a natural reaction – he’d have felt this way no matter who was lying there on the ground.
Ellie refuses a trip to the hospital and sits on the steps outside the hotel, a blanket wrapped around her to ward off the chill in her thin nightgown, soot staining her cheeks. John hovers near her like a mother hen until Gil orders him to go assess the damage for the report they’ll have to file later.
She’s still sitting on the steps when he gets back and he drops down to sit next to her, bumping her shoulder. “How’re you feeling?”
“Like taking up smoking,” she mumbles, and he snorts. After a few comfortable moments of silence spent watching Shoo try to surreptitiously follow the fire fighters around, she says softly, “Thanks. For saving me, I mean. I owe you a drink.”
“Is that all your life is worth to you?” He teases gently, turning his head to grin at her. “One measly drink? That’s pathetic, Williams.”
“Alright,” she says, lovely mouth twitching in that way he’s already starting to become familiar with – it means she finds him funny and really doesn’t want to. “What do you suggest?”
He bites his lip and pushes the thought aside. Now isn’t the time.
“I’ll think about it,” he says with a smile. “And get back to you.”
“I’ll look forward to hearing what the going rate of a landlady’s life is these days.” She tugs her blanket tighter around her shoulders and he wishes he could wrap his arm around her and tug her into his side, shield her from the morning chill with the heat of his body against hers. “So how bad is it in there?”
“Not as bad as I thought,” he admits, and then hesitates. “Except for your room. It’s trashed, love.” He watches her eyes gradually widen and starts in surprise when she jumps to her feet with a worrying noise of distress, tossing her blanket aside and stumbling on unsteady feet into the hotel. “Ellie?” He calls after her, climbing to his feet to follow her. “Ellie, what’s -”
A hand on his chest stops him in the doorway and he looks down to find Hannah smiling serenely at him. “I’m sure she’s fine,” she says. “Just in shock, poor love. Give her some room, okay?”
With a sigh, John nods tersely. “Fine. Could you just – tell her I’ll be by later to check on her?”
“Oh, you don’t need to do that. We can look after her -”
“I want to,” he says firmly, and when she hesitates, he unclenches his jaw. “Please.”
When Hannah nods hesitantly, he turns and walks away. He has a report to file and he already knows it’s going to be a long and tedious day, but Ellie Williams is going to be just fine. That thought alone is more than enough to get him through today and every day this week.
The following day, he leaves the station on his lunch break hoping to catch Ellie at the hotel and make sure she really is all right. He wishes she’d just let him take her to the hospital – if not for her than for his own peace of mind. When he wanders into the hotel, he finds Hannah, Shoo, and Josie gathered around the bar, but Ellie is nowhere to be seen. They all look up when he comes in and he can’t help but notice the change in the air – it’s like they tense up whenever he’s around. Wondering what he could have possibly done to offend them, he says hesitantly, “Sorry to interrupt but is Ellie around, by any chance?”
Hannah bites her lip and looks at him knowingly, Shoo scowls and grumbles into her drink, and Josie shakes her head. “Sorry, mate. She’s in town making nice with the police chief.”
“Gil?” He frowns. “What for?”
“Because Shoo is an idiot,” Hannah says with a glare directed at the blonde.
Josie elbows her.
Eyeing them carefully, John begins to back out of the room. “Right. Okay. Just tell her I stopped by, yeah?”
They all nod, smiling frozen smiles at him, and with one last curious glance at them, John turns and walks back the way he came, shaking his head. A little disappointed, he shoves his hands into his coat pockets and walks slowly back in the direction of the station. It would have been nice to catch a glimpse of Ellie today but at least he knows she’s feeling well enough to be out and about by herself. He decides that the next time he sees her; he’s going to ask her about that dinner.
He ducks into the only takeaway place in town for a cup of coffee before heading back to his desk and the moment he steps inside, he spots Ellie and Gil sitting at a table and talking quietly. He lingers in the doorway like an idiot as he stares at her, watching those small hands curl around her cup of coffee and that lovely mouth curve into a coy smile. He bristles a bit, tells himself to stop being such an idiot over a woman he barely knows and steps up to the counter to order his drink. It’s none of his business what Ellie does with her time, even if she is flirting with the town’s engaged police chief. He doesn’t care.
When he pays for his drink and turns to leave, he can’t help stealing one last glimpse of her in that rather clingy short-sleeved jumper and while he’s looking, Ellie happens to glance up and catch his eye. Startled, he raises his coffee cup in half-hearted acknowledgement and when she smiles, Gil glances over his shoulder and spots him. “Finish that report?”
“I’m on break,” he calls back, inching for the door.
“Might as well join us then.” The older cop waves him over and with a sigh; John walks slowly toward their table.
Ellie surprises him by scooting over to give him room on her side of the table and he slides in next to her, beaming when she smiles at him. “Hello hero. Save any lives today?”
“Not quite.” He shrugs, flushing. “But it’s still early yet.”
“I could step in front of a moving vehicle so you can snatch me back from the jaws of death if it’ll help.”
“Let’s wait and see how the day goes.” He winks and his stomach turns over at the sound of her low laughter. “I’d hate for you to owe me another dinner.”
She raises an eyebrow and he can feel Gil’s amused eyes on them. “I didn’t realize I owed you a dinner at all.”
“Ah, well, that’s what I decided on as payment for saving your life.” He sips at his coffee but keeps his gaze on her, appreciating the way that green jumper brings out her eyes and… other assets. “I think it’s quite fair. Surely you value your life more highly than curry takeaway.”
“I’m just surprised is all,” she shrugs, glancing away. “I wasn’t expecting something so agreeable.”
“Why? What did you think I was going to ask for?” She narrows her eyes at him and he gapes at her. “Jesus woman, what kind of bloke do you think I am?”
She shrugs, turning her gaze to her coffee cup as she says, “Well you never know do you?” She glances at him playfully but he can see something else lurking in her gaze, something solemn and painful. “You may look like a young, floppy-haired and polite detective but looks can be deceiving.”
He stares at her in outrage while Gil hides a snort of laughter in a sip of coffee. “Young and floppy-haired?!”
She tilts her head at him, eyebrow raised. “Well you can’t be more than twenty-five.”
“I’m thirty, actually,” he grumbles. “You’re what, five years older than me at the most?”
Ellie actually laughs and while the derisive sound is directed at him, he can’t help but enjoy it anyway. “You don’t have to flatter me, detective. I already agreed to dinner.”
The reminder makes him grin but he looks helplessly at Gil. “Why is she laughing at me? She’s thirty-five, right?”
Gil shrugs, holding up his hands like he wants absolutely nothing to do with their conversation. “Never ask a woman her age, Smith. Didn’t your mother ever teach you anything?” He stands, offering Ellie a kind look. “I’ve got to run but remember what I said about Sadie, alright?”
She nods, smiling up at him. “Will do. Thanks, Gil.”
Gil aims a warning finger at him. “Don’t be late again.”
He salutes mockingly but Ellie lays a hand on his arm. “I’ll make sure he gets back on time.”
“I’d appreciate it,” Gil says pointedly. “He’s got a job to do.”
As he leaves, John turns back to Ellie and decides to let the issue of age drop – he really doesn’t care how old she is. All he knows is that she’s been brightening up his days since the moment she came into town and that he spends more time thinking about her than just about anything else but the murder inquiry he’s here to solve – in between all the tedious paperwork. Nothing else really matters, least of all something as silly as age. “Are you really going to let me take you to dinner?”
Ellie hesitates. “As a thank you, right? I mean, it’s not a -”
“What if it was?”
“Then I’d have to say no.”
She sighs, reaching up to run a hand through her curls, and he glances away to keep from staring only to find himself caught anyway, gaping at the sight of her in figure-hugging jeans. Bloody hell, wherever he looks the woman is endlessly distracting. “Because I’m not looking for a relationship right now. My life is a mess, John. You wouldn’t want to be caught up in it.”
“I like messes,” he says, and she laughs, shaking her head.
“Not my kind of mess, I promise.”
The look in her eyes tells him he isn’t going to change her mind, at least not today. So John finds himself nodding and looking down into his coffee cup. “Okay. I’ve changed my mind.”
She frowns. “About what?”
“Dinner.” He peeks at her through his fringe. “I want to be your friend instead.”
“Friend?” She says the word like it’s a foreign language on her tongue, brow furrowed. “You want to be my friend? Just like that?”
He nods. “Just like that. Would that be alright with you?”
She blinks at him at him like he’s lost the plot. “Alright, fine. Friends.”
He wants so much more than that, but for now, this is enough. A woman like Ellie is going to take time to persuade but he can be patient. Persistence, after all, is practically his middle name.
Once he gets Ellie Williams to agree to be his friend, John takes it as an invitation to turn up at the hotel whenever he can get away. He eats Hannah’s cooking most days when he’s working and on his days off, he makes the hotel his home away from home – helping out Dean with the bartending when he needs it (though more often than not he just ends up glaring at any of the men who flirt with Ellie or stare at her chest), he goes running with Josie in the mornings and joins the girls for breakfast to gain back all the calories he just burned, and most importantly, he invades Ellie’s office. He tends to just barge in when he can’t find her anywhere else, drop into a chair sitting in the corner, prop his feet up on her desk and pester her into paying attention to him. She is always exasperated with him but she never kicks him out, and he manages to make her laugh, no matter how stressed she looks when he comes in. He can’t help but feel privately victorious about that.
He walks into the hotel on his lunch break Monday afternoon and when he doesn’t see Ellie at the bar, he decides to check the kitchen before he heads to her office. Maybe Hannah will have some scones or something he can nick before he finds Ellie – she’ll scold him for getting crumbs all over her office but maybe if he brings her one too, she won’t complain too loudly.
As he nears the kitchen doors, he’s surprised to hear Ellie’s voice raised in anger. He pauses just outside; wondering if he should just come back later, and hears, “Now is not the time to be getting involved with a fella.”
Wincing and deciding that yes, coming back later would be the best option, John turns to go, nearly runs right into a customer passing by and staggers back against the swinging kitchen doors in order to avoid colliding with the burly man eyeing him disdainfully. He stumbles backwards into the kitchen, and swearing under his breath, turns to face Ellie and Shoo, who are staring at him. “Sorry,” he says. “I sort of tripped.”
Ellie rolls her eyes at him. “Scones are in the basket on the counter.”
With a small grin, he nods his thanks at her and starts for the basket, muttering, “Carry on, then.”
Gesturing to him angrily, Shoo says, “And what about him? If you’re not sodding involved with the bleeding Scotland Yard then I’m a flaming virgin, all right?” She jabs a finger in Ellie’s direction. “Which of us is bein’ more irresponsible, Els?”
“Shoo,” Ellie hisses, and she isn’t facing John so he can’t see her expression but by that tone of voice, he can only guess how scary she looks right now. “Shut. Up.”
Shoo glares at her. “Oh, so it’s fine for you but not me? Why does everything good always get taken from me?” She turns on her ridiculous heels and storms out the back door, slamming it behind her with impressive force.
The tension drains from Ellie’s frame the moment she’s gone and as if replete of all energy, she sags into a chair at the kitchen table bonelessly. Inching toward her cautiously, John swallows his mouthful of blueberry scone and asks, “Everything alright?”
She nods, cradling her head in her hands.
John shuffles just a bit closer. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to -”
“It’s fine.” She lifts her head and smiles thinly. “Not your fault.”
Taking it as permission to sit, John sinks into the chair across from her and offers her the napkin-wrapped scone in his other hand. She takes it gratefully and he decides not to bring up what he’d heard but can’t help wondering what it had all been about. Why wasn’t it a good idea to be involved with someone? And why do the girls always take everything Ellie says, even gentle suggestions, as an order? As much as he adores Ellie, he knows she tends to be a bit, well, bossy when it comes to the girls. The question is, why do they listen?
“So,” he says, watching her pick at her blueberry scone listlessly. “Who’s the chap outside? Never seen him before.”
Looking relieved at the change of subject, Ellie nods and laughs softly. “He’s only been here an hour and Hannah’s ready to wring his fat neck. He doesn’t like the hotel, he hated his lunch and since we didn’t have cappuccino, he’s determined to hate the coffee as well.”
“There are always gonna be people like that, love.” He watches her take a bite of her scone and feels vaguely accomplished. Sometimes, he worries about her. Every time he sees her, she seems to be stressed or anxious about something, though she doesn’t always tell him what. He does what he can to make sure she’s taking care of herself but the most he can do is try to take her mind off things and get her to eat occasionally. “Especially in your line of work. Best you can do is smile and get through it. And maybe spit in his next cuppa, yeah?”
She laughs brightly and he reaches for her hand, squeezing affectionately. Watching him lace their fingers together, she purses her lips but doesn’t stop him, asking, “Still trying to be my friend, John?”
He smiles, ducking his head and admiring that small hand clasped in his own. “I’m already your friend, Ellie Williams. You like me.”
She snorts. “Says who?”
“You do. Every time you don’t toss me out on my arse when I come into your office uninvited, or when I just barge into the kitchen like I work here and you offer me scones.” He raises their joined hands to eye level while she stares at him, bewildered. “So I’m hereby upgrading myself from normal friend to intimate, hand-holding friend.”
“Oi, you can’t do that!” She gapes at him. “Don’t I get a vote?”
“Alright,” he relents, smiling warmly at her and brushing his thumb softly across her knuckles. “Do you want me to let go of your hand then?”
Her mouth opens and closes as she looks at him, but no sound comes out. He can see the conflict warring in her eyes and whatever she chooses; he still considers this a small step in the right direction – a tiny victory to keep him going. “I -”
“Ellie!” They both turn as the kitchen doors burst open and Shoo and Josie come limping in, dragging a bleeding Dean McKenzie between them. Instantly, they both let go of each other and jump to their feet, rushing to help the girls.
“What the hell happened?” Ellie helps them push Dean into a chair as Hannah hurries behind her, picking up all the food anywhere near Dean and putting it away, muttering about blood in her kitchen.
“It was Ronan!” Shoo sniffles, kneeling in front of Dean and holding a paper towel to the cut at his temple. “He went mental! Josie ‘ad to hit him with a shovel to get ‘im off Dean!”
Ellie paces away from them, running an agitated hand through her hair and looking so anxious John follows her with his eyes, worried Dean might not be the only one needing to be helped to a chair. “What did I tell you, Josie?”
“What was I supposed to do? Let Ronan kick him to death?!” Josie looks at her incredulously and Ellie growls, pacing away again.
“Alright, love?” John calls after her, and she waves him away.
“Don’t mind her,” Hannah says quickly. “Blood makes her… squeamish.”
Turning on her heel, Ellie levels a glare at Shoo. “Shoo, upstairs. That room needs done as soon as – we’ve got guests booked in.”
“But I want to stay with Dean!”
“Go,” she snaps. “I’ll look after Dean.”
With a huff, Shoo throws the bloodied wad of paper towels at Ellie and stomps off, Josie hurrying behind her. John glances at Hannah skeptically. “Squeamish, hmm?”
Hannah smiles anxiously. “And tetchy.”
With a sigh, John turns his attention to Dean, sprawled weakly in the chair in front of him. “You alright, mate?”
He nods slowly.
“Do you want to let Ronan off or press charges?”
As Hannah presses an ice pack to his head, Dean glances at her gratefully. “Forget it. I kind of wound him up.”
Standing with a sigh, John looks at Ellie fidgeting in the corner. “And Josie assaulted him. Ronan could press charges if he wanted to.”
Hannah puts a hand on her hip and frowns. “She was only trying to help Dean.”
“I know.” John runs a hand through his hair and feels Ellie’s eyes on him. “I’ll do what I can to keep her out of trouble but if he really presses it -”
“Thank you,” she whispers, wrapping her arms around herself.
It’s a self-comforting gesture he’s seen her use before and he wishes not for the first time that she’d just let him hold her and shoulder some of the mysterious burden she always seems to be carrying. Before he can take a step toward her, Dean’s phone rings and he groans a bit in pain as he reaches into his pocket to dig it out. When he glances at the screen, his face whitens and he gasps, “Billy.”
By the end of the day, John and Gil know nothing more about Katie’s murder or Billy’s whereabouts but they’re well on their way to new evidence thanks to Billy’s mobile showing up mysteriously at the station. They let Dean go home, considering they have nothing to hold him for, and John picks up his coat and follows only a few minutes after, leaving Gil to fret at his desk.
Weary and very much in need of a drink and Ellie’s smile, he heads back to the hotel in hopes of finding both. She isn’t behind the bar like she usually is at this time of day – in fact, none of the girls are behind the bar. It’s only Sadie fetching everyone their drinks and John sighs heavily, knowing that if they’re all absent, they’re no doubt off somewhere together.
Slumping into a bar stool, he orders a lager and nurses it in silence for a while. He gets about halfway through it before he hears a commotion at the entrance and looks up to see Ellie and Josie carrying in the same young man he’d just left Billy’s mobile with for delivery at the station. “Hannah!”
Abandoning his drink as Hannah and Shoo rush from out of nowhere to join them at a table, John jumps from his seat and bounds toward them, Sadie following right behind him. “What happened?”
“Poor bloke’s had an accident.” Ellie and Josie ease the boy into a chair and stand back. “We found him up at the hill road, on the way to the Cash and Carry.”
“The hill road?” John frowns. “That’s out of the way of the Cash and Carry, love.”
“Yeah,” she mutters. “We got lost. Shut it, Smith.”
He smirks and turns his attention to the kid. “What happened, Johnson?”
The boy shifts nervously, clutching the brandy Sadie pushes into his hands. “There were rocks all across the road. I didn’t see them until it was too late – crashed my bike. I’m so sorry, sir. Someone must have seen me out for the count and nicked the phone.”
Swearing under his breath, John turns from them all and scrubs a hand over his face, his heart sinking. His only piece of evidence, his only hope of solving this damn case and the only breakthrough he and Gil have had in months is gone, just like that. “Sodding unbelievable,” he mutters. “I just – I cannot believe this is happening.”
“It’s not your fault, John,” Ellie says softly.
He turns to her. “It’s not about whose fault it is, Ellie. We’ve got a murderer to find and I’ve just lost the only lead we’ve had in months!” John runs a hand through his hair and shakes his head. “May as well turn in my resignation with the Yard because I’ll be sacked when they hear about this, jesus christ.” He takes a deep breath, forcing back the panic. “Right, Johnson. Come show me where it happened, then.”
“I’ll show you.” Ellie jumps up and he raises his head to look at her hopefully.
“Please,” he whispers, holding out a hand to her. He could use Ellie’s presence now more than ever – she always seems to make things better, no matter what kind of a shit day he’s had.
“Don’t you think the courier would be better placed for that?” Hannah asked, throwing Ellie a probing look.
Ellie shakes her head. “No, you heard him. He can’t remember a thing. Besides, he hurt himself.” Walking around the table, she takes John’s outstretched hand and squeezes gently. “Just let me grab my jacket and I’ll be with you, yeah? Wait for me outside.”
He nods gratefully and lets her go, thinking as she walks away and her friends hurry after her that at least something good came out of this – he has his answer from this morning. She’s definitely all right with holding his hand.
Ellie drives Sadie’s jeep to the hill road in silence, leaving John to his frantic thoughts of what could happen if he doesn’t find that phone. He taps his fingers restlessly against his knee, fidgeting all the more the closer they get. “Stop squirming, would you,” Ellie finally snaps, without glancing at him. “You’re no good to anyone in such a state, honestly.”
“I’m going to be fired if I lose this evidence, Ellie. I’ll never be able to show my face in London again – I’ll have to live here forever and rely on Hannah’s infinite kindness for food. Katie’s murder will never be solved and her family will never have peace of mind.”
“Oh, is that all?”
“I know it isn’t.” She takes one hand off the steering wheel and reaches out to squeeze his arm. He covers her hand with his, trying to clear his mind as he grasps her small fingers the rest of the drive.
The minute she pulls the jeep off to the side of the road, he jumps out, not even waiting for her to turn the car off. Kneeling in the middle of the road, he swipes his fingers over the slickness covering the pavement and inspects his fingers, sniffing. “Oil,” he declares as Ellie hops out of the jeep and joins him. “It’s bloody everywhere. Must’ve been a massive spill.”
“Lucky the poor fella wasn’t hurt,” Ellie remarks, heels clicking against the pavement as she walks up behind him.
John stands swiftly and hangs his head. “That phone is long gone by now. Probably in a sodding market for five quid by the weekend, and whoever ends up with it will have absolutely no idea what it could have done for us.”
Ellie presses a comforting hand to his back. “I’m so sorry, John.” She pauses. “Hang on. John, something just caught the light.”
He turns. “Where?”
She points and he follows with his eyes, seeing the brief glimmer in the sun. He stumbles toward it with a pounding heart, kneels, and picks up the small but oh so important bit of evidence lying in the road. “The SIM card,” he breathes, grinning wildly as he stands and turns to her. “Oh you gorgeous, gorgeous woman.” Before she can protest, he gathers her into his arms and spins her around, relishing her startled gasp and breathless laughter. He pulls back, pressing a smacking kiss to her cheek. “You’re brilliant, you are.”
“Well,” she says a touch breathlessly, stumbling back with a bewildered expression when he finally releases her. “Best not get too excited. It might not even belong to Billy’s phone.”
“We’ll find out,” he says, still beaming at her. “Just don’t mention this to anyone until we know. Blimey, I still have to go back and break the news to Gil.”
She nods quickly. “Right, of course. I won’t breathe a word.”
“That’s my girl,” he grabs her hand and drags her with him back toward the jeep. “Ever consider a career in the police force, Ellie?”
Her irreverent snort is all the answer he needs.
Gil is waiting for him when he gets back to the station, slumped at his desk and staring at a stack of papers. “I heard what happened.”
Perching on the edge of his desk, John nods. “I figured you would have by now. I went back to the sight of the crash, had a look around.”
“The phone’s long gone, mate.”
“But…” He grins, holding out the SIM card in its carefully sealed clear plastic bag. “Ellie Williams found this lying in the road.”
Not looking quite as enthusiastic as John expected, Gil offers him a thin smile. “That’s good. Great, actually. As long as it’s Billy’s.”
“We’ll see.” He shrugs. “Thank God for Ellie. The woman is a lifesaver – I mean literally. I think I would have strangled Johnson if not for her.”
Gil flinches, looking down at the papers on his desk once more. “She’s a fraud, John.”
He frowns. “What?”
“A fraud – Ellie, Hannah, all of them. They’ve been lying to us.”
“About what?” He stands from the desk as Gil picks up the papers he’s been studying and hands them over.
“About who they are, for one thing. There’s no record of an Ellie Williams – or any of the others for that matter.”
Staring down at the papers in his hand, John feels inexplicably angry – not over being lied to, but strangely enough, on Ellie’s behalf. “And what made you go snooping through their records?”
“I didn’t.” Gil rubs tiredly at his temples. “Anne Marie said something didn’t feel right. She looked the girls up.”
“You know she hates Ellie because Sadie likes her better -”
“No,” he snaps. “I know those women – Ellie in particular. She’s not some kind of common criminal so whatever reason she has for giving us a fake name, it must be a damn good one.”
Gil throws up his hands. “Like what? What sort of legal reason could they possibly have for coming here and using false names?”
“I don’t know.” He tosses the papers back on Gil’s desk. “But whatever it is, you’re going to have to find out yourself. Leave me out of it.”
Everything makes sense now – Ellie’s wariness around him when they first met, her slowness to trust him, her hesitant smiles and how tense she and her friends get around he and Gil at times. It’s what all the whispering has been about and the reason for the secrets lurking in Ellie’s eyes. She’s been hurt, badly, by a man she trusted probably more than most – so hurt and so afraid for her life that she’d been forced to run, to change her name and get totally lost in hopes that the man who hurt her could never find her again.
John walks quickly, nearly jogging to the hotel all the way from the station. The thought of someone hurting Ellie makes him sick to his stomach but the nausea is mild compared to the seething rage he wishes he had an outlet for. He wants Ellie’s despicable ex-husband in front of him so he can show the bastard what it feels like being pushed around by somebody else’s fists.
Striding into the hotel’s restaurant and right up to the bar where Josie is passing out drinks, John asks, “Where is she?”
“What?” Josie smirks. “No hello?”
“Hello,” he says impatiently. “Lovely to see you, as always, Jos. Now where is she?”
“In her office,” she sighs. “God, you’re like a bloody broken record.”
Without replying, he pushes off the bar and marches down the hall, right into Ellie’s office. “Jesus Christ, how am I supposed to plan a wedding party like this?” She grouses as the door shuts behind him. “Doesn’t anybody knock in this bleedin’ –“ She blinks at the sight of him standing over her desk. “John, what are you doing here?” She glances at the clock on the wall. “You’re not due for lunch for another half hour.”
“I had to see you.” He moves around behind the desk and as she looks up at him in confusion, he bends and wraps his arms around her, gathering her tightly to his chest. Aside from that brief moment on the hill road when he’d spun her around in his excitement, he’s never been so close to her before. He buries his face in her curls and breathes her in for the first time, inhaling cheap hotel shampoo, a hint of something floral and lovely – possibly jasmine, and the faintest trace of alcohol. It’s so very Ellie he can’t help but tighten his hold on her.
Her face pressed into his neck, Ellie pats his back awkwardly. “John…?”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Tell you what, dear?”
Running his hand down her back soothingly, he says, “What you were running from.”
Ellie stiffens instantly and it’s only then that he notices how relaxed she’d been in his arms only moments ago. “Gil told you,” she says flatly.
He nods, still reluctant to release her.
Disentangling herself from his grasp, Ellie pushes him away and glares down at her desk. “I asked him not to say anything to anyone.”
“Yeah, but I’m not anyone.” He tries a smile but Ellie isn’t having it, so he sighs. “He told me your name didn’t come up in the database when Anne Marie searched for you so he had to tell me why once he found out.”
Her eyes widen in outrage. “Hang on, Anne Marie was the one snooping for our files?!”
He nods, rubbing the back of his neck awkwardly. “Yeah, she sort of hates your guts, love.”
“I noticed,” she snaps, and if the force of her glare could set things alight, that stapler on her desk would be in flames right about now.
John lays a hand on her back, between her shoulder blades. “If it’s any consolation, I told Gil I knew you had a good reason for lying to us. I’ve got your back.”
Ellie smiles shakily up at him.
He hesitates. “And I’m sorry, love. I’m so sorry for what you and the others have been through.” Touching a hand to her hair and watching her lean into the touch like a tired little girl, his jaw clenches. “When I think about him laying a hand on you -”
She shakes her head. “It’s alright, I’m fine -”
“He won’t hurt you while you’re here. I promise.”
“That’s sweet, John,” she smiles sadly. “But you can’t guarantee that.”
“Yes, I can,” he says gruffly, kneeling down in front of her chair. “I may not be able to guard you 24/7 but I’m damn well going to try. I won’t let him get near you again.”
Staring down at his hands on her knees, Ellie blinks tearfully. “Oh John,” she sighs, shaking her head. “I told you not to get mixed up with me.”
He smiles ruefully up at her. “I’m terrible at following orders.”
She sniffles and tries to smile. “Does that mean I can’t ask you for help planning this blasted wedding party for Gil and Anne Marie then?”
“Oh no,” he says solemnly. “I’ll bugger it up entirely – get them the wrong kind of heart-shaped ice or something equally disastrous.”
“But I would ask,” he begins slowly. “That you save a dance for me.”
“A dance? You want to dance with me?” She looks a little too amused with the idea and he bristles.
“What? I can dance!”
“Oh, I’m sure you can.”
“I’ll show you, Ellie Williams. Tomorrow, I will sweep you off your feet.”
She laughs softly. “I look forward to it, dear.”
That evening, when he’s walking back from the Cash and Carry loaded down with a few grocery bags to fill the bare cupboards in his flat – Hannah’s cooking has made him rather lazy about making his own meals lately – he passes by the hotel on his way home and hears Ellie calling his name. He pauses and watches her run out to him, looking gorgeous and as distracting as ever in a purple top and those enticing jeans.
“Hey, what’s the trouble?”
Hands in her back pockets, Ellie’s smile is off somehow, though he can’t quite understand why. “Oh, nothing. I just wanted to…” She trails off, looking at him oddly. He can’t help but feel like she’s trying to memorize his face, as odd as the thought is. “I wanted to thank you. For today.”
He frowns, shifting his hold on his grocery bags. “What did I do?”
A light breeze sends her curls tumbling into her eyes and she swipes them away, smiling at him a little more genuinely now. “You were you. That’s always something to be thankful for, John.”
She steps closer and before he has time to say anything at all, she’s hugging him. He stands stock still for a moment, too stunned by the unusual show of affection to move. And of course, she would hug him when he’s got his hands full of grocery bags. “Blimey, first letting me hug you and now you’re hugging me? You’re smothering me with all this affection, love,” he jokes, trying to lighten the somber mood he still hasn’t guessed the reason for. “Give a bloke some breathing room, yeah?”
She gives a choked laugh and steps back, pressing a lingering kiss to his cheek, her lips soft and warm against his skin. The simple touch warms him down to his very bones and suddenly, he can’t help himself, not when she’s so close and being so strangely affectionate. He’s only human. So John drops his grocery bags at his feet, wraps his arms around her small frame, turns his head, and kisses her properly. Ellie makes a startled noise against his lips but after a moment, she melts into him, her hands curling into his jacket as she hauls him closer and presses all those delicious curves against him. She tastes amazing, bitter like vodka and sweet like strawberries. He could spend a lifetime plundering her mouth with his own and never be satisfied.
All too soon, Ellie stumbles back with a gasp, her cheeks flushed and lips parted in astonishment. “I-I’m sorry. We shouldn’t have -” She stops, holding a trembling hand to her heaving chest, stares at him, her eyes suspiciously wet. “Goodbye, John.”
As she turns her back on him and starts walking quickly back to the hotel, John calls after her, “Ellie, love, wait -” She keeps walking, opening the door to step inside. “Ellie, please -” The door slams shut and John is left standing outside with her taste in his mouth and his groceries spilled out on the pavement around him.
He passes the night tossing and turning, all at once reliving that spectacular kiss over and over again, and fretting over the way Ellie had run away before he could do it again. He worries about losing their tenuous friendship, that he’s somehow betrayed her trust by taking things too far. His only consolation is that she’d kissed him back – for that brief, dizzying moment, she’d been an enthusiastic participant. Surely she wouldn’t have done that if she hadn’t wanted to be kissed, right?
In the morning, he’s tired, cranky, and in no mood to accompany Gil and Anne Marie to the town hall. But he’d promised to be Gil’s witness so he puts on his suit and tie, runs a hand through his hair in place of a comb, and meets Gil at the front steps of the hall. He’s pacing back and forth, his hands behind his back and a frown on his face. “You alright, mate?”
Gil jumps, turns to face him, and stuffs his hands into his trouser pockets. “Fine. Just… cold feet, I suppose.”
John claps him on the shoulder and guides him into sitting on the steps with him. “You know, it’s not too late to back out.”
“She’s having my baby, Smith,” Gil sighs, scrubbing a hand over his face. “It’s way past too late.”
“It’s never too late.” John nudges him. “You think your baby will be happy if you’re not?”
“I’ll be fine. Anne Marie’s still upset about her mum being in Australia on the big day, we had a bit of a row this morning. It’s just put me off, is all.” Gil rests his elbows on his knees and glances at him when John doesn’t reply. “What about you?”
John frowns. “What about me?”
“Are there wedding bells in your future? Oh come on, don’t give me that look. I’ve seen you with Ellie Williams.” Gil grins at him, some of that nervousness disappearing as he distracts himself with someone else’s love life.
Ducking his head, John stares at the stone steps beneath his knees. “Yeah, show me one bloke in this town that doesn’t look at Ellie Williams like that.”
“You know what I mean. You like her.”
He shrugs. “She wants to be my friend, which is fine, you know. I can deal with that. Except she kissed me last night, but then she ran away and I’m pretty sure she’s not supposed to do that. Is she?”
Gil gapes him.
Flushing, John clears his throat and looks away. “Oh, look. Your bride’s here.” He stands hurriedly as a car pulls up to the curb. “Let’s have a wedding, shall we?”
After the vows have been said and the papers have been signed, Gil and Anne Marie slide into a vintage oldsmobile and drive to the hotel. John lingers behind at the town hall for a little longer, tugging nervously at his suit and wondering what to say when he sees Ellie, if he should say anything at all or let her come to him, if he should apologize for kissing her when he’s really not sorry – all the while wondering why the thought of seeing her now is enough to make his stomach a proverbial butterfly cage when he’s spent his time pestering her into paying attention to him since she got into town.
The party is in full swing by the time he finally gathers up the courage to show his face at the hotel. He spots Ellie almost immediately but he hangs back to watch her, partly because his palms are sweating and the words are stuck in his throat, and partly because she looks absolutely ravishing and not staring at her is impossible. Half of her blonde curls have been pinned back neatly, only a few framing her face. Her red dress hugs those sinful curves that always make his mouth dry and her equally red and sinful lips are doing things to him.
Her eyes meet his from across the room. She freezes in place and they stare at each other for a long moment, neither moving toward the other. He wonders if she can see that he doesn’t regret yesterday, that if given the opportunity, he’d kiss her again in a heartbeat. He wonders if she can see that he isn’t like her ex and the last thing he wants to do is hurt her. He tries to tell her without words and from across a crowded room, but he isn’t sure she understands. And then the moment is broken by Anne Marie approaching her and gesturing to the wedding cake on the table next to them.
John watches Ellie smile her brightest, most fake smile at the woman, watches her congratulate Gil with a smile a little more genuine. He watches her bustle about making sure everything is in order, watches her talk to bloody Euan Harries and have a hushed conversation with her friends. It seems she’s willing to talk to just about anybody but him. He knows by now that she’s avoiding him and the very thought makes his heart sink in his chest.
Downing his flute of champagne, he watches Ellie disappear through the crowd while sliding into a thin black jumper and he knows instantly that she’s headed outside. Hoping to catch her alone, he puts aside his glass, straightens his tie, and follows her at a much slower pace. After all, she did promise him a dance – he’d hate to miss that just because of a little awkwardness over yesterday. He’s waylaid only once by Ina Harries, who also insists on a dance, and after promising her the one after Ellie, he squeezes her arm and slips away.
Opening the back door and stepping outside, he doesn’t see Ellie right away but as he walks around the corner, he sees her standing with a tall black man. He starts to call out for her but the words die in his throat as she stands on her tiptoes and pulls the man into a kiss, her hands tight on his shoulders. His heart stutters and stops at the sight and he feels bile rise in his throat like acid.
Ellie pulls away and spots him, looking a bit flushed. “John! Sorry.” She steps away from the man next to her and gestures to him. “This is Marius… my ex.” Instantly furious, John balls his hands into fists at his sides, striding toward them. Ellie reaches out and strokes Marius’ chest, glancing at him with a smile. “Babes, this is John. Scotland Yard detective.”
Marius smirks at him. “And I’m the ex, but I’m uh, working on it.” He looks at Ellie with a grin that makes John’s blood boil but Ellie doesn’t look at him, too busy staring at John with wide eyes. “It’s why I came up here.”
Ignoring him entirely in favor of Ellie, John snaps, “This is him, then? The bastard who hit you?”
Marius laughs faintly, putting a hand over his mouth and glancing at Ellie.
Shifting awkwardly, Ellie nods once, pale and fidgeting. “Uh, yeah. But it was a long time ago, John.”
Marius nods, still smirking, and John wants nothing more than to punch the look right off his face. “Yeah, I’ve done anger management.”
Jaw clenched, he asks through his teeth, “Did it work?”
Marius drops the smirks, scowling at him. “No offense, mate. But I don’t think that’s none of your business.”
“It is very much my business,” he snaps, his voice a low growl. John takes a step closer, right into Marius’ personal space and feels a thrill when the man doesn’t back down – oh, he’d give anything to hit him. Just one punch. “How the hell did you find her? Ellie, you don’t have to go with him, love. He can’t force you to do anything anymore. Just take my hand and -”
Watching him with something resembling panic, Ellie shakes her head quickly. “John, no. I asked him to come here. I called him.” When he stares at her in disbelief, she swallows. “I heard he was getting help and I needed to see him, talk to him. I’m fine, honest. You don’t need to worry about me.”
He sputters. “Don’t worry about you? Ellie, he’s -”
Marius turns from him to look pointedly at Ellie. “Can we get some privacy, babes?”
“Sure,” she nods, taking his hand, and John clenches his teeth. “John, this is none of your business. I’m fine. Now back off. Please.”
“How can you want to be with him? After everything?” He looks at her pleading, voice soft. “Ellie, last night you -”
“It was a mistake,” she snaps. “Nothing more. Do you honestly think I’d fall for a clumsy boy detective the Yard didn’t even want around?”
Ellie looks at him like she’s never seen anything more pathetic than he is, tears in her eyes as she glares, and John feels something in his chest constrict and shatter at her words. “Right,” he rasps. “My mistake.”
She takes a deep, shaky breath. “Now please, stop following me about like a lost puppy. You’re not wanted.”
Those words are like a fatal final blow and he staggers a bit under the weight of them, unable to even meet her eyes as he nods and begins to back away. “I’m sorry to have been such a bother, then. Have a nice life, Ellie.” He turns on his heel and walks away without another backwards glance, feeling his heart break a little more with every step away from her.
He can’t go back to the party, not when he feels like he’s going to fall apart any second. So he walks quickly through town, keeping his head down and his trembling hands in his pockets. The streets are mostly empty, over half of the population gathered at the hotel for Gil’s wedding bash. He walks mindlessly in the direction of the station, unwilling to go home just yet. He tries not to think about the lump in his throat or the pain in his chest, tries not to think about Ellie’s kiss or the tears in her eyes when she told him to get lost.
It had been stupid to believe a woman like that would want anything to do with him but to go back to her ex, who doesn’t even seem to feel any remorse for the things he did to her? His heart hurts not only for himself but for Ellie. Does she really think so little of herself? She can do so much better than that brute. John only spoke to him for a moment but in that brief span of time, that much he’d been able to ascertain. Ellie’s ex-husband is nothing but a bully and he hasn’t changed one bit. Surely Ellie, as intelligent and quick-witted as she is, could see that…
John kicks angrily at a rock in the middle of the road and frowns. Come to think of it, despite that initial kiss he’d walked in on, Ellie hadn’t seemed entirely at ease in Marius’ company. As the police station comes into sight up ahead, John picks up his pace, thinking back to what had transpired minutes ago. He recalls the quiet desperation in Ellie’s voice when she’d been trying to get rid of him – and that’s exactly what she’d been doing, trying to get him out of the way as quickly as possible. She and Marius had been in a terrible hurry.
Probably eager to be reunited, he thinks bitterly, and then pushes the thought aside. No matter how much Ellie might have wanted him to believe that was the reason, now that he’s finally calming down and shoving his own heartache aside to really think about it, something is… off. It was her eyes, he realizes. There hadn’t been any malice for him in her eyes when she told him to leave, no excitement over seeing her ex-husband again. John has seen those green eyes sparkling with laughter, seen them glittering with a bit too much wine, and seen them lined with stress and fatigue. He knows those eyes better than he knows the back of his own hand. And when she’d looked at him back there, her eyes had been filled with fear – for him, for herself, he isn’t sure but she had been afraid. He knows that now.
Stopping outside the station, John clenches a hand in his hair and hisses, “Fuck.”
Ellie hadn’t been trying to get rid of him to be reunited with her bastard ex – he’d probably been threatening her the whole time, making her get John out of the way so he could do god knows what to her. And John, the emotional idiot that he is, had been so hurt by her words that he hadn’t seen her silently asking for help. Blinded by his own emotions, he’d just left her there to fend for herself. With his heart in his throat, John starts for his office at a full run. He can’t go back for Ellie unarmed.
He takes one of the cars back with him, racing through the tiny streets at a dangerous speed and not caring a whit – the only thing on his mind is Ellie and what that bastard could have already done to her in his absence. By the time he makes it back to the hotel, slipping inside unnoticed, the entire place is empty. He’d expected the party to still be going on but there isn’t a soul in sight – not even the girls.
Gun in hand; he walks slowly through the first floor. He checks the bar and restaurant first, which is empty, but when he ducks his head into Ellie’s office and finds it in unusual disarray, his heart leaps into his throat. He doesn’t have time to contemplate what it could mean before he hears a commotion from the kitchen, the sound of a scuffle followed by Ellie’s voice – a pained gasp that sends a stab of fear into his chest.
Breaking into a run, gun held out in front of him, John races down the hall, following the sound of Marius’ angry shouting and Ellie’s broken pleading. He bursts into the kitchen and barely has time to take in the sight of Ellie backed into a corner with Marius holding a gun in her face before he squeezes the trigger and fires.
The bullet goes right through the back of his head. The thug didn’t even have time to turn around and see John’s face before he killed him. As Marius crumples to the ground, John looks up from the gruesome sight of his blood spilling all over the floor – Hannah would be livid with him – and sees Ellie staring at him in shock. He takes one careful step toward her, arm outstretched, but gets no further before Sadie comes charging into the room wielding a sword he’s pretty sure had been on the wall in the den, and shrieking at the top of her lungs.
She pauses at the sight of John and Ellie staring at her, Marius’ bloodied form between them. The wind knocked out of her sails, she drops her arms at her sides and grouses, “Well it’s about time you showed up.”
He blinks at her. “Aren’t you supposed to be in Australia?”
“Yes, about that…” Her eyes widen. “Oh, catch her, dear.”
Puzzled, John turns just in time to catch Ellie as her knees give out from under her, likely from the shock. Gathering her into his arms and lifting her up, he cradles her to his chest and looks at Sadie. “Where are the girls?”
“Still in the basement, I imagine,” Sadie says, still watching him closely. “I’ll go get them.”
She still hesitates, as if reluctant to leave John alone with Ellie, so he clutches her small form to him protectively, glancing fondly down at her face resting against his shoulder, and says, “I’ve got her, Sadie. Go.”
With a nod and a small smile, the old woman turns to fetch the girls. Shifting Ellie in his arms, John steps over Marius and walks slowly to the den. He deposits Ellie on the sofa carefully, adjusting the skirt of her dress over her knees and smoothing her hair back from her forehead before settling on the floor next to her. Chin resting on the sofa cushion, he waits patiently for her to wake up.
He doesn’t have to wait long. The moment he hears the girls stomping up the stairs from the basement, Ellie’s eyes open and focus groggily on him. “John?”
Grasping her hand tightly and using the other to cup her cheek tenderly, he smiles at her. “I’m here, love. You’re alright, everything’s fine, I promise.” He bends his head and kisses her knuckles. “You’re safe.” As the girls stumble into the room behind him, Ellie’s face crumples and John gathers her into his arms as she begins to cry.
Hannah, Josie and Shoo explain everything to him – and Sadie, who seems almost as much in the dark as he is – while John holds Ellie on his lap in the den. Still in shock, she doesn’t say much, spending most of the (rather informative) conversation with her untouched drink in hand and her head on his shoulder as she stares off blankly into the distance. Knowing that Marius had only been Ellie’s ex-husband’s hit man is all at once comforting and terrifying. Comforting because Ellie hadn’t really been trying to get back with him and also Roy still doesn’t know where they are, but terrifying because bloody hell what kind of a man has his own hit man?
By the time their story has been told, Ellie looks a little less pale and she’s had a few gulps of brandy to calm her nerves. She shifts off of John’s lap but still grips his hand tightly, looking at the girls with clearer eyes as they wait for her instructions. It’s rather impressive, the way she can command a group of criminals like that. “We need to get rid of the body. Hannah, go get the -”
“Hang on,” he says, tightening his grip on her hand. “Love, it was self-defense. You don’t need to ditch his corpse in the lake. Just let me call Gil and we’ll get this sorted out.”
Her eyes widen. “What? No, John. He’ll ask all sorts of questions -”
“He won’t. He knows your ex was abusive – once I tell him I found him holding a gun to your head, I’m pretty sure he’ll be ready to toss the trash into a ditch somewhere and have done with it.” He leans over, pressing a kiss to her temple and melting a bit when she leans willingly into the touch.
“No offense, John,” Hannah says, “But I don’t think Gil will be in the mood to deal with all this tonight. He sort of overheard Anne Marie talking to Euan at the party… Apparently the baby might be his and not Gil’s. They’ve called the whole thing off.”
“Bloody hell,” he scrubs a hand over his face, thinking of Gil’s uncertainty that afternoon with remorse. The poor bloke. “Alright, I’ll take care of it then. Let me call the station.”
Ellie bites her lip, looking anxious. “Are you sure about this, John?”
“It’s going to be fine,” he promises. “Go upstairs, love. Get some sleep. I know what happened, I can file the report. And I’ll get some guys over here to get rid of the body. Just rest and I’ll check on you when it’s all done, alright?” She nods slowly but doesn’t let go of his hand, her grip on him tighter than ever. John brushes his thumb over her knuckles, ignoring the girls’ eyes on them as he asks softly, “You want me to take you up?”
“Please,” she whispers, and when he helps her to her feet, she clings to him like he might disappear. He guides her out of the room and away from the prying eyes of her friends, helping her up the stairs with a hand at the small of her back and his lips against her temple.
When they reach her bedroom at the end of the hall, John flips on the light while Ellie slips out of her heels and walks slowly to sit on the edge of her bed. She looks so small sitting there, as fragile as a child. It isn’t easy seeing her this way – his always feisty and saucy Ellie Williams. It makes something uncomfortable and tight settle in John’s chest as he looks at her.
“Are you going to turn us in?” She asks softly, blinking up at him tiredly.
He frowns, moving to join her on the edge of her bed. “Why would I do that?”
She snorts humorlessly. “Because we’re criminals on the run and you work for Scotland Yard.”
“Yeah, and you’re the woman I’m mad for.” He watches her pale cheeks flush with a fond smile. “You’re priority, Ellie. Not the law.”
“I don’t understand you,” she whispers, shaking her head. “You’re so… so good.” She sighs, sniffling. “I suppose I’m not used to that.”
“I’m sorry,” he says softly.
“Not your fault I always pick the bad ones.” Her eyes flicker to his briefly before skittering away again. “Well, until now.”
Hope rises in his chest like a winged thing but John squashes the goofy smile before she sees it, knowing now isn’t the time for that conversation. Instead, he stands and pulls back the covers on her bed. While he’s busy fluffing her pillows, Ellie unzips her dress and steps out of it and her tights, leaving her in only a pair of lacy black knickers and a matching bra. He swallows at the sight of her, so breathtakingly gorgeous, and averts his eyes. “Into bed with you then,” he says, sounding a little choked.
“So soon?” Ellie mutters, a half-hearted attempt at innuendo, and he flushes but says nothing, helping her to crawl beneath her blankets.
Tucking the covers up around her chin, he trails a hand tenderly over her cheek and says, “Rest now. I’ve got to go but I’ll be here when you wake.”
“Thank you, John,” she whispers, and before he can pull away, she’s reaching for him, taking his face in her small hands and yanking him down to her. Her warm, soft mouth covers his in an eager kiss. He flails in surprise for only a moment before he’s grasping her bare shoulders and kissing her back fervently, tasting brandy and relief on her tongue in a dizzying combination. She licks at the inside of his mouth with a fervor that makes him groan, sucking on her tongue until he hears her moan faintly beneath him.
When her hands start to wander, he pulls away, gasping for air and his trousers considerably tighter than they’d been only a few moments ago. Breathing raggedly, he rakes a trembling hand through his hair and rasps, “You’re welcome.”
Ellie laughs softly, looking up at him with adorably flushed cheeks, but she sobers quickly, her eyes apologetic. “I was trying to get you away from him – he was going to kill you.” She swallows. “But I didn’t mean it, John. I didn’t mean anything I said to you.”
Warmth filling him up to the tips of his fingers and toes, John smiles down at her, “Well, I don’t know. I did sort of follow you about like a puppy.”
Ellie flinches, looking ashamed of herself, and he’s instantly sorry for teasing her. “I liked you following me about,” she confesses quietly.
“That’s good,” he whispers, trailing a finger down her nose playfully. “Because I don’t intend to stop.”
“Especially now.” He grins. “You’re a right menace to society, Williams. Someone’s got to keep you in line.”
She snuggles into her pillow and closes her eyes, mumbling sleepily, “Then I’m glad it’s you.”
Two days after the whole Marius business has been wiped from their hands, John sits in the hotel kitchen next to Ellie, waiting impatiently for Hannah’s bacon and eggs before he heads to the station for the day. Quietly going over the books in front of her with her feet in his lap, Ellie hums appreciatively when he rubs them for her, digging his thumbs into her heels until she lets out a slightly obscene moan.
Sitting across from them and flipping through the channels on the telly as she waits for Dean to come in, Shoo throws them a disgusted look and says, “Oi, we eat in here, you know. I don’t wanna hear that!”
Flexing her toes in his lap, Ellie doesn’t look up from her book as she mutters, “Then cover your ears.”
Shoo huffs, turning back to the telly.
Lifting her foot from his lap and pressing a kiss to her ankle, John watches Ellie finally lift her gaze from the hotel finances to smirk at him. With another kiss to her ankle, he drops her foot and she slides them from his lap and back into her high heels under the table just as Hannah turns to them with plates in hand.
John just has time to shovel a forkful of eggs into his mouth before Shoo makes a strangled gasping noise and everyone turns to see what she’s gaping at. On the telly, above the caption ‘Wanted Killer Murdered In Small Town Domestic’ is a picture of Marius. John chokes on his breakfast, prompting Shoo to turn up the volume and Ellie to reach over and pat his back, her face pale as she stares at the television. “How the hell did that get out?”
John gulps at the glass of water Hannah pushes toward him. “I filed the report. It’s impossible to keep reporters from going through the records once they’re made public, combing for stories and the like. Marius’ name must have put up a red flag in a few databases.”
“Well that’s just flamin’ brilliant.” Shoo tosses the remote at the telly. “Now Ellie’s mental ex knows exactly where to find us! I told you – we should have chucked his body in the lake!”
“Shut up, Shoo,” Hannah snaps.
Ellie tears her eyes away from the television and takes a shaky breath. “Okay. We can’t stay here any longer.” She looks at John, regret in her eyes. “We have to go.”
He shakes his head. “Don’t look at me like that, love.”
“Like this is goodbye.” He reaches for her hand and squeezes. “You’re not getting rid of me that easily. I’ll be following you around like a puppy, wherever you go.”
She offers him a watery smile and he kisses her knuckles as his mobile rings in his pocket. Fishing it out and seeing Gil’s number flashing on the screen, he answers. “Hello? Right, be there in a mo’.” Hanging up, he looks at Ellie. “The phone records from Billy’s mobile are in. I’ve got to get to the station but I’ll call you, okay?”
She nods. “I’ll talk to Sadie, see if she can hurry along her contact about our passports.”
Grabbing a few pieces of bacon from his plate, he stands. “Don’t fret, yeah? Everything’ll be fine.” Ellie looks up at him with a small smile and he can’t resist leaning down to kiss her goodbye, ignoring Shoo gagging dramatically in the background. “See you later.”
“Good luck,” she whispers, her smile genuine now as she pulls him back in once more.
He leaves her soft mouth and her warm embrace reluctantly, munching Hannah’s breakfast the whole drive back to the station. The afternoon passes slowly, he and Gil trying to decipher the texts on Billy’s phone – specifically the ones between him and Katie, and the ones from Ronan Harries. The text ‘meeting ue later’ from Katie the night of her murder drives them both absolutely mad driving to decipher it and it isn’t until nearly evening, after questioning Ronan, that they finally crack it. Uncle Euan.
When Gil leaves to find Euan and get some answers, John settles in at his desk and hopes to finally call Ellie like he’d promised he would. He knows she’s probably stressing herself to the point of madness by now trying to get those passports and he hopes he can talk her down from her ledge and arrive at the hotel in time for a much calmer dinner than breakfast had been. But as he picks up the phone to dial, an officer walks in with Ronan at his side.
Putting the phone back down, John stands instantly. “What’s this?”
“He wanted to see you or Gil, sir,” the officer says. “Insisted it was urgent.”
John nods his thanks and looks at Ronan, noting how terrified the boy looks. “Go on, Ronan. You can tell me.”
Ronan swallows, glancing away as if to gather his courage, before looking up again and right into his eyes. “I done a murder.”
John stares, heart pounding in his ears. “You killed Katie?”
“No,” Ronan shakes his head. “Billy killed Katie. So I killed him.”
Sinking back down into his chair on shaky legs, John gestures to the seat in front of his desk and says, “Start from the beginning.”
By the time John leaves the station, it’s well past dinnertime but he still doesn’t go home. More and more these days, the hotel is starting to feel like home anyway – it’s where Ellie is. He walks through the door wearily, wanting nothing but her arms around him and perhaps a nice snog. And one of Hannah’s scones. That simple dream is shot to hell when he enters the restaurant and finds Ellie carrying a heavy suitcase in her arms.
Taking it from her quickly, he expects a kiss of thanks or at least a smile but Ellie looks tired and upset, her expression pinched. “Hey,” he says softly, putting aside the suitcase and pulling her into his arms instead. “What’s the matter?”
She buries her face in his chest, her hands clenched in his jacket. “I lost the hotel.”
He frowns. “You what?”
“In a poker game.” She pulls back, hands still fisted in his jacket as she avoids his gaze. “Sadie’s contact wanted more money for the rush order and we just didn’t have the cash, so I suggested a poker game to help him earn his winnings – invited a few people with money he could swipe easily. And when it got down to just me and Euan, I was so stupid, John. I thought I couldn’t lose so I put the hotel keys in the pot. But Euan was cheating the whole time and he won. I can’t prove it but I know, John-”
“Sshh,” he pulls her into his embrace again and she shudders in his arms, letting him press fervent kisses to the top of her head. “It’s alright, love. You’ll be leaving anyway, remember?”
She shakes her head, whimpering. “That’s the worst part. Even once he got his money, Brutus wouldn’t give us our passports. We have no money, no place to stay and now we don’t have our passports. We’re done, John. It’s over.”
“It is not over,” he says fiercely. “Sod the hotel. You’ll stay with me and I’ll work on getting you passports myself. I should have done it from the beginning.”
“No, they could pin that on you later.” She pulls away, already shaking her head vehemently. “I won’t get you in trouble with the law, John. Just stay out of it. The girls and I will figure something out.”
“You think I care what happens to me?” He cups her cheek and sighs in exasperation. “How many times I am going to have to tell you that you’re more important than my bloody job before you start believing me?”
Ellie bites her lip, looking shaken as she turns her face into his palm, pressing a kiss there. “I’m not used to being anybody’s priority.”
His heart aches at the knowledge and he leans in, kissing her softly. “Stay with me. The girls can come too.”
In the end, the girls opt for sleeping in the camper instead. No offense, Shoo had said, holding up her hands. Just don’t want to hear you two shagging all night. Hannah, a bit more diplomatic, bless her, had merely insisted they needed some alone time. And that’s how John finds himself carrying Ellie’s suitcase into his flat around midnight, leading her through the darkened hall to his bedroom.
“This is it,” he says, turning on his bedside table light and setting her suitcase down. He wishes he’d thought to tidy up a bit before he left this morning but he hadn’t exactly anticipated the company. “You can have the bed. I’ll just kip on the sofa.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” Ellie sheds her coat and tosses it onto a chair in the corner. “Why can’t you just sleep in here with me? You’re not a virgin, are you?”
He scowls at her smirk, drawing her into him by those lovely hips. “I didn’t want to push you.”
“I keep forgetting how considerate you are,” she says, kissing and nipping at his chin and along his jaw, making it nearly impossible to pay attention to any of her actual words. “But then you go and do something stupidly noble and sweet, and I remember.”
“I just want to take care of you,” he confesses softly into her hair. “I think I knew, from the moment I laid eyes on you, that no one had ever done that before.”
Ellie tilts her head to look up at him, tears in her eyes. “Well I’ve got you now,” she whispers.
He nods, bending his head and letting his lips brush hers. “You’ll always have me.”
With a beaming smile, Ellie threads her fingers through his hair and kisses him properly. As her hot mouth opens under his, John wraps his arms around her with a groan and begins to guide her backwards toward his bed. They stumble together, shedding clothes as they go, their movements fumbling and hurried but full of tenderness. Ellie’s skin is soft and tanned beneath his wandering hands and her small fingers sneaking beneath the waistband of his pants is enough to make him forget anything in the world exists but her.
He lowers her to his mattress and hovers over her, sliding the straps of her bra down her shoulders. With her wrists pinned to the bed by his hands, Ellie is helpless to do anything but moan as he licks and sucks at her breasts, worshipping her with a reverence she has never known before. He tortures the pebbled peaks of her nipples until she’s writhing beneath him, begging prettily for more. Leaving a trail of kisses down her abdomen and nuzzling his face into her belly button to hear that rare but musical giggle, he tugs her knickers down her legs and the lacy fabric joins the rest of their clothing on the floor.
Hooking her legs over his shoulders, John buries his face between her thighs and relishes the way Ellie throws her head back against his pillows with a shocked, pleasurable gasp. She fists his sheets in her hands and rocks her hips toward his mouth as he tastes her, his tongue sliding between her slick folds and garnering more of those lovely noises. Oh, oh god John, don’t stop. It’s almost as if she’s never had anyone do this for her before, and he’d be more shocked if he didn’t know what a worthless arse her ex-husband had been. Ellie has probably never had anyone make love to her the way she deserves. He imagines her sex life up until this point has been more about the other person than about her, and it just makes him all the more determined to make this time special, as different from every other time she can remember. He’s going to show her that she deserves love, and that she is loved.
Sliding two long fingers inside the tight heat of her sex, he sucks her swollen clit into his mouth and listens to her shriek, rutting against him like she’ll never have him deep enough to satisfy her. His cock is a heavy ache between his legs but he ignores it, focusing on Ellie instead. Tonight has to be about her needs, not his. Flicking his tongue over her clit again and again, John curls his fingers inside her just right and Ellie shatters beneath his touch, his name a hoarse cry on her lips. She’s shaking when she pulls him up to her, kissing him with a greedy voraciousness that steals the breath from his lungs.
“Please,” she whispers, reaching between them for his throbbing length. “Please, John. I need you -”
He pushes her onto her back and she wraps her legs around his waist as he settles between her thighs, looking up at him with sparkling green eyes full of love and trust. “Are you sure?”
She nods, brushing her thumb over his cheekbone. “No use resisting you now, is there?”
“I didn’t realize you were trying to resist me at all, Williams,” he says, brushing his nose against hers and grinning.
“Of course I have. Falling for a copper? Stupidest thing I’ve ever done.” She laughs softly. “Been trying to resist you since the day we met and you started talking nonsense about sheep.”
Chuckling quietly, John steals a kiss. “I was trying to be charming.”
“You were adorable,” she agrees. “Unfortunately for me.”
“You were a goner right from the beginning,” he sighs. “Just like me.”
“Such a sap,” she whispers, and when she lifts her hips against him, he buries his face in her shoulder and presses inside her inch by inch. He groans, his vision swimming as the tight wetness of her body envelopes him. Ellie gasps softly in his ear, her nails digging into his back as she rocks against him, letting him fill her up. “God, John -”
“I love you,” he breathes, his mouth sliding against her cheek. “So much.”
As he begins to move above her, Ellie pulls his mouth down to hers and kisses him. For a few precious hours, they forget about everything else – that Ellie’s ex-husband is no doubt on his way already, that soon they’ll have to be separated for who knows how long. Instead, they lose themselves in each other over and over again until the sun is beginning to rise over the hills blanketed in fog. Wrapped tightly around each other in his bed, John and Ellie finally fall into an exhausted sleep.
That night is the only night John and Ellie have alone. By the end of the next day, Euan and Anne Marie have decided to move into the hotel together (a match made in hell, according to Ellie) and won’t even let the girls sleep in the camper outside. With no other place to go, the girls invade John’s living room. Hannah takes the sofa and Josie and Shoo spread out blankets on the floor, leaving John and Ellie curled up together in his bedroom and trying to be very quiet about fooling around. Actually keeping their hands off each other is unthinkable, but keeping quiet proves just as difficult. Ellie starts to get creative, straddling John and stuffing one of her scarves into his mouth, kissing her way down his chest and giggling quietly at his muffled groans.
Without the hotel to keep them occupied, the girls spend their days lying low in his flat, all of them terrified Roy will drive into town and find them. Shoo is the only one to venture out, sneaking off to see Dean. Ellie is still unhappy about their relationship but with everyone staying at her lover’s flat, she really doesn’t have any room to scold Shoo about relationships anymore. John spends his days trying to acquire passports for the girls and overseeing the dragging of the lake with Gil as they search for Billy McKenzie’s body.
When he comes home at the end of every day, Hannah has baked biscuits and cakes and casseroles out of sheer boredom, Josie has sorted through his music collection and found several things to laugh at him about, and Ellie is always waiting for him with that sinful smirk and a kiss. It’s the closest thing to a family John has had in a long while and if it weren’t for the threat of a murdering psychopath finding them all and doing them in, he might wish it could go on forever.
However, the threat of Roy has him constantly on edge. He phones the girls several times a day while he’s out just to check and make sure they’re safe, his heart pounding thunderously in his ears if it takes them longer than three rings to pick up. He leaves a gun with Ellie for protection and carries his own constantly even when he’s home, going so far as to leave it on the towel rack while he showers.
Thankfully, his job keeps his mind occupied during the day or he’s afraid the paranoia might drive him mad. Every day that passes and they don’t find Billy’s body in the lake, John’s suspicion grows – when Ronan had told him that’s where he dumped the body, he’d had a hunch that he was lying. It was the only part of Ronan’s story that just didn’t feel right. The uncanny feeling that Ronan is hiding something coupled with his constant wariness of his father Euan leaves John with a bone-chilling theory but with nothing other than his gut to go on, he says nothing and watches by the side of the lake as every day, they find nothing.
By the fourth day, he knows they aren’t ever going to find a damn thing in that lake. Billy’s body isn’t there. And John has a pretty good idea of where it actually is. Euan Harries’ obsession over acquiring the hotel and his subsequent closing of the building the moment he had it in his slimy grasp does nothing but confirm John’s suspicions but it isn’t concrete evidence. He can’t come to Gil with unsubstantiated claims and expect to be taken seriously, so he bides his time, waiting for the moment when he can prove that Euan has a lot more to do with the murder of Billy McKenzie than either he or his son is letting on.
He doesn’t have to wait long. On the fifth day of searching the lake, John gets his chance. He’s lying with Ellie on the sofa, Josie sprawled on the floor in front of them as they watch crap telly on mute, all of them listening to Hannah scrubbing John’s kitchen and mumbling grumpily to herself, stifling their laughter in pillows.
“It’s your fault,” Josie says, raising her head to look at him. “You’re the one who didn’t scrape your plate last night and let the cheese dry on it. You know what that does to her. You’ve set her off!”
“That is not my fault,” he points a finger at her. “I was going to, I swear! I got distracted!” He looks pointedly at Ellie, who gapes at him.
“Oi, don’t blame this on me! I told you I’d wait for you to wash up!”
“Yeah, but you said it with your hand down my trousers.”
“Oh, gross!” Josie buries her face back in her pillow with a groan of disgust.
John laughs at her as the phone rings, and Ellie climbs over his lap to answer it. He doesn’t listen to her conversation, too busy running his hand over her back and up into her curls, enjoying the way she arches into the touch readily. When she hangs up, she doesn’t pull away, but rather settles into his lap and nestles her head into the crook between his neck and shoulder. “Who was that?”
“Sadie,” she sighs. “Apparently Anne Marie’s gone into labor.”
“Oh yeah?” Josie lifts her head tentatively from her pillow, as if afraid she might see something scarring. “Euan and Gil both going to go and wait for the DNA test?”
Ellie snorts. “Like bloody Days of Our Lives.”
“Gil’s busy today anyway,” John says. “Ina’s having her divorce party this afternoon.”
“I’m sure he wouldn’t want to be at the hospital with Euan.” Ellie rolls her eyes. “Euan is insisting on being there for the birth of his spawn.”
While Josie laughs, John pauses, his face buried in Ellie’s curls. Anne Marie could be in labor for hours, all day, even. And that means the hotel will be totally empty… It might be the only opportunity he has to see exactly what Euan Harries has been hiding. Kissing Ellie’s cheek, he tightens his hold on her and murmurs in her ear, “Want to come investigating with me?”
She leans back into his chest, turning her head to look at him with a raised eyebrow. “Sounds so clandestine.”
“Oh, it is,” he promises lowly.
“Count me in, detective.”
By the time they make it to the hotel, everyone else in town is either at the hospital waiting for Anne Marie’s unfortunate hellion to come into the world, or drinking themselves tipsy on champagne at Ina’s divorce celebration. The hotel is locked up tightly but having a former bad girl for a girlfriend means John has a helpful advantage. He acts as her lookout as she kneels in front of the door and picks the lock. “Are we allowed to do this?”
“You’re picking a lock, sweetheart,” he says. “What do you think?”
“This is just so unlike you,” she says, sounding puzzled, and interestingly, a bit turned on. “Searching the premises without any real proof or a warrant.”
“You bring out my dangerous side,” he says with a grin. “And are you seriously giving me a speech about breaking the law right now?”
“Well someone has to be the voice of reason,” she says, and exclaims happily when the lock clicks and the door creaks open. “Right now it certainly isn’t you.”
Reaching out a hand to pull her to her feet, John presses a kiss to her nose. “I just want to have a look around his office, maybe search the basement. It’ll take half an hour, tops. We’ll be fine.”
“Of course we will,” she says dryly, dragging him inside and shutting the door behind them. “Because everything always goes so well for us.”
He laughs softly, stopping outside Euan’s office and putting his hands on her shoulders. “It will this time. Have a little faith, yeah?” When she eyes him skeptically, he sighs. “Tell you what, go have a drink from the bar. By the time you’ve finished it, I’ll probably be done and ready to scarper.”
“I’ll make yours to go then,” she promises with a grin, leaning in to press a lingering kiss to his mouth. “Hurry up.”
He watches her turn and walk away, waiting until she’s out of sight with a silly grin on his face before he turns and heads into Euan’s office. He doesn’t even get to rifle through the papers on his desk before Ellie shouts for him from the other room and he trips all over himself in his haste to get to her. Skidding to a halt in the doorway of the den where Ellie stands staring at the floor, he looks at her questioningly and follows where she points, eyes widening.
There, on the floor, are track marks, like something heavy had been dragged across the room and out into the hall. Reaching for her hand, John pulls Ellie with him as he follows the trail down the hall. It leads into the kitchen and they glance at each other anxiously when the trail reaches the door, leading outside. John squeezes Ellie’s hand in silent support, pulling open the back door and keeping his gaze down. The track marks are deep in the dirt out here and Ellie trails behind him as he follows it out to the shed, still clinging to his hand.
The door to the shed is slightly ajar and John pushes it the rest of the way open, peering inside. The sunlight spilling in from the doorway isn’t enough to allow them to see and Ellie fumbles for the light switch on the wall, flipping it on and illuminating the small room. “John,” she breathes, and his heart nearly stops as his eyes land on the human-sized lump on the other side of the room, wrapped in a black tarp and an old blanket, feet sticking out at the bottom.
With one last reassuring squeeze to her hand, John lets go and steps forward, the blood rushing in his ears as he approaches the body with trepidation. He reaches out a slightly unsteady hand and pulls back the blanket, revealing a rotted, thoroughly unrecognizable face, the teeth the only identifiable feature. Holding his breath at the stench, John takes a step back and glances behind him at Ellie, hovering in the doorway.
“Is it -” She swallows. “Is it Billy?”
“I don’t know,” he says. “Most likely. But until we get a DNA sample, we won’t know for sure.”
“But Ronan said he dumped Billy’s body in the lake.”
“I have a feeling Ronan’s been covering for his dad, somehow. I just – I don’t know.” He scrubs a hand over his face and breathes out steadily through his nose. “Okay, love. I need you to go inside and phone Gil. Tell him to get over here now.”
Ellie is gone before he’s even finished speaking, nearly running up the path back to the house. John crouches in the opposite corner of the shed, unable to take his eyes away from the gruesome sight as he waits for her to return. He’s seen dead bodies before in his line of work, of course, but this is different. This is Dean’s brother – the boy he’s spent a lot of time with since getting involved with Ellie and her friends, the boy he helped serve drinks with at the hotel when demand was higher than Dean could handle on his own. He’s a good kid and all this time he’s been holding out hope that he would see his brother again, get to speak with him. John feels closer to this case than he ever has to any other in his career and he drops his gaze to his knees, offering up a silent apology to Dean.
After a few minutes of avoiding looking at the corpse across the room, John’s limbs start to go numb, so he stands from his crouch and stretches, wondering what in the hell could be taking Ellie so long. He’d thought she’d come right back and wait with him after phoning Gil. A little worried that the sight of Billy’s body might have affected her more than she let on, John steps out of the shed and closes the door behind him, starting back toward the hotel. Maybe she just needed a brandy to calm her nerves.
“Ellie?” He calls out, walking through the back door, into the kitchen, and down the hall. “You alright, love?” She doesn’t answer, but when he walks into the restaurant finds her in the arms of an unfamiliar man dressed in black, his heart stops. “Ellie,” he says slowly, and she turns to him, eyes wide. “What’s going on?”
“John,” she says, her smile bright and utterly fake. “This is Roy.”
He tenses instantly, hand itching to reach for the gun in his back pocket. Something in Ellie’s eyes stops him, a silent warning that now is not the right time. He stays his hand, deciding to play along for now. “Your ex? The one you didn’t ever want to see again?”
She glances at Roy, and if he didn’t know her expressions so well by now, he’d mistake that loving look she bestows him with as entirely genuine. Roy wraps his arm around her waist, yanking her roughly into his side, and John clenches his teeth. “Only because he broke my heart, the sod. But we’ve decided to forgive each other.” She smiles, beaming up at her ex-husband. “Everything’s going to be okay now. We kind of need each other.”
Roy nuzzles his face into her hair and John is getting really sick of watching other men touch his girl. “In oh so many ways.”
“What are you talking about, Ellie?” He asks, staring at them helplessly.
Ellie places her hands over Roy’s on her stomach and leans back into him with a peaceful smile. “Me and Roy. We’re going to try it again.”
“But -” He swallows, hoping Roy buys his desperation and heartbreak. It’s easy enough to fake. “What about us? You said you loved me.”
Roy snorts. “Really, Els? The kid?”
“I was lonely without you,” she explains, affecting a blush. “I had to have someone to keep me company.”
The glare John directs at Roy is in no way fake and he clenches his hands into fists. “So that’s it? We’re through just like that?”
“I’m sorry, John.” Ellie looks at him pityingly. “You were fun for a while, but I never really got over Roy. And now he’s back.” She throws her ex one last winning smile and slips from his arms, walking to John. Taking his arm, she begins to lead him away. “Now you go on, go to Ina’s party, yeah? Tell the girls I said goodbye – I won’t have time to do it myself. Roy and I want to leave as soon as.”
“But Ellie, love -”
Out of Roy’s sight now, she opens the door and pushes him out, and when he turns to her, she stares at him with wide, panicked eyes. “I’m sorry, John,” she says loudly enough for Roy to hear in the other room. “This is goodbye.” Silently, she mouths, I love you. As if she’ll never see him again.
Before he can respond in any way, Ellie shuts the door in his face and he hears the lock click. Swearing under his breath, John turns and runs for his car parked round the corner. Diving for his mobile lying in a cup holder, he dials Ina’s place with shaking hands, his mind only on Ellie, locked inside the hotel with her lunatic ex-husband.
When Ina answers the phone, he asks for Hannah without even saying hello – Ellie in danger throws all pleasantries out the window. He explains hurriedly to Hannah that Ellie’s ex has shown up, asks her not to say a word to Gil but to get the girls and get to the hotel as fast as possible. He has a feeling they’re going to need to run tonight. Hanging up, he tosses his phone carelessly back into the car and slams the door shut. Starting back toward the hotel, he keeps his steps light but hurried, inching around to the back of the building as he pulls his gun out of his back pocket and clicks off the safety.
He eases the back door open quietly but before he can slip through, the echoing sound of a gunshot from inside the hotel makes his blood run cold. “Ellie!” He shouts, giving up all pretense of sneaking in. Heart pounding wildly in his chest, John bursts through the door and into the kitchen, shouting for Ellie again desperately – oh god, if something happened to her he’ll never forgive himself. “Ell -”
Ellie barrels right into him and he cries out in relief, wrapping an arm around her but keeping his gun arm free and raised in front of him. “Are you alright?” He whispers, and feels her nod into his chest.
“He missed,” she replies quietly, and he tightens his grip on her.
The kitchen door swings open and Roy walks in, the light from the restaurant behind him letting John see his gun raised in front of him, no doubt looking for Ellie to finish the job. John pushes Ellie behind him and squeezes the trigger on his own weapon, not about to give Roy the chance to fire first. The heavy thud of his body hitting the floor is lost in the sound of shouting outside and Ellie slumps against John’s back in relief, listening to the girls come noisily to the rescue.
“Your friends are crap at espionage, love,” John whispers, and Ellie chokes out a strangled laugh. When he turns to look at her, tucking his gun back into his back pocket, Ellie has tears in her eyes and he shushes her softly, pulling her into his arms. “It’s over now, sweetheart. He’s gone.”
Hannah stumbles into the kitchen first and stops in her tracks at the sight of Roy lying dead on the floor, causing Josie and Shoo to stumble into her back at her abrupt halt. “Oi, watch it,” Shoo complains loudly, and then stops and stares along with Hannah. “Bloody hell. It’s always the kitchen, innit, Hans?”
Hannah rolls her eyes, looking pale. “Could we call this self-defense too?”
“Technically yes,” John scratches the back of his neck and pulls Ellie a little closer. “But we already told Gil that Marius was Ellie’s ex. Can’t very well say she’s got two abusive ex-husbands after her, eh?”
Josie blows out a quiet breath and crosses her arms over her chest, leaning against the counter. “So what do we do?”
As if she already knows the answer, Ellie tightens her grip on his t-shirt and begins to shake her head. Brushing his lips against her forehead soothingly, John says, “You’ve got to run.”
Ellie raises her head and glares up at him, teary-eyed. “I’m not leaving you here to clean up our mess.”
“You have to, sweetheart. You’ve got no other option except back to prison and I’m not about to let that happen again, do you understand me?” He grips her shoulders tightly, making her look at him. When she does, he presses his forehead to hers and says softly, “I need you to do this for me, Ellie. I need you to run away.” She shakes her head again and he growls quietly. “I’ll come after you, okay? When everything is settled here, I will find you.”
“But John -”
“Hey,” he cups her face in his hands, smiling gently. “I said always, didn’t I?”
She nods slowly, biting her lip.
“I meant it. But you’ve got to get out of here – we’ve got no future together if you’re behind bars.” He presses a quick kiss to her mouth. “Now I want you to get in Roy’s car outside and drive as far and as fast as you can.”
“We don’t even have passports,” Hannah says behind them. “We can’t go far.”
Ellie doesn’t take her eyes from John’s face, as if she’s trying to memorize it and take it with her when she leaves. John returns the favor, drinking in the sight of her blinking up at him and hoping it’ll be enough to sustain him until they’re together again. He doesn’t know how it happened, how this ridiculous, amazing woman has wandered into his boring life in this boring town and completely turned it on its head but he wouldn’t have it any other way. He’s head over heels now and he’d follow her and the trouble she attracts anywhere.
“Erm,” Shoo says hesitantly. “Promise not to be angry?”
Reluctantly, Ellie and John release each other, turning to watch Shoo dig into her handbag and pull out four passports. Ellie, Hannah and Josie gasp as a single unit but Ellie is the one to start menacingly toward Shoo, lunging in the direction of the younger girl with a shout of, “You stupid cow, we could have left ages ago!” John holds her back, using all his strength to keep her from charging across the room and strangling Shoo.
Cowering in the corner, Shoo looks properly chastised.
Ellie stops struggling in his grasp but John doesn’t release her, still wary of what she might do. “All this time you’ve kept them from us,” she says, voice wavering in her rage. “Just so you could play house with your sodding boyfriend!”
“It weren’t just that,” Shoo protests, tears in her eyes. “It was you, Els!”
“Me?” Brow furrowed, Ellie shakes her head. “What are you talking about?”
“Well I wasn’t just bein’ selfish, was I?” Shoo frowns, glancing around at everyone skittishly. “You’re happy with John and I didn’t want you to leave ‘im. You deserve someone like that, Els. Takin’ care of us all the time – bout time someone started takin’ care of you, innit?”
Sagging weakly into John’s arms, Ellie holds onto him tightly and sniffles, looking across the room at Shoo. “Stupid girl,” she whispers fondly.
Shoo beams. “Love you, Els.”
Josie rolls her eyes and pushes away from the counter, snatching the passports from Shoo’s hand. “Come on then, let’s get the hell out of here.”
Ellie nods slowly, still gripping John’s shirt tightly. “Go on and get in the car. I’ll be right behind you.”
With nods of understanding, the girls file out the door, stopping briefly to hug John’s free arm in a silent goodbye. When they’re alone, Ellie turns to look at him, throwing her arms around his neck and burying her face in his chest. John holds her tightly to him, pressing his face into her hair and breathing her in, trying to catalogue the scent of inexpensive perfume and brandy that always clings to her. Feeling Ellie’s back shudder and heave under his hands, he realizes she’s crying and lifts her off her feet, clinging to her like a rag doll. “Don’t cry, sweetheart,” he breathes into her hair. “This is not goodbye, do you understand? I will come for you.”
She sniffles into his shoulder.
“You trust me don’t you?”
“Of course I do,” she says, and he smiles at the scowl in her voice.
“Then you need to believe me.” He presses a firm kiss to her temple and sets her back on her feet, stepping away to look down at her properly. “I love you, and when it’s safe, I’m going to go wherever you are and stay there.”
“Barbados,” she says softly. “We’ll be in Barbados.”
He grins, bending his head and nuzzling his nose against her soft cheek. “A beach with you,” he whispers. “Sounds like heaven.”
“It’ll certainly be hell until you get there,” she confesses, and then flushes, glancing away. “You’ve made me soft, John Smith.”
He laughs quietly, taking her face in his hands. “I like you soft.”
“Wish I could say the same for you,” she says, with a shadow of her usual wicked smirk, and the effort makes him grin widely. “I love you, you know.”
“I know you do.” Not wanting to waste another second, John tilts her chin up and captures her mouth with his in a hard, greedy kiss. Ellie moans softly, clinging to him like she’ll never let go as they drink in each other in. She tastes like gin and her favorite cherry lipstick, and god, he’s going to miss it like he misses home. When they break away, breathing hard, Ellie rakes trembling fingers through his hair and looks up at him with blue-green eyes shining.
“Find me,” she says, her voice shaking.
John hugs her tightly, one last time, and closes his eyes to breathe her in. “You can count on it.”
“You’re staring again.”
“Can you blame me?”
Ellie grins at him over the rim of her sunglasses. “It’s been two weeks, you idiot. Aren’t you sick of gaping at me all the time?”
He shakes his head, yanking her down with him and stretching out on the towel spread out on the sand, humming in satisfaction when she rests against his chest. “I’ve been away from you for months, love. Months of Ellie starvation, followed by a tediously long plane ride with no one to look at but Dean’s equally impatient mug, and you think I’m tired of looking at you?”
She laughs and when he runs a hand down her back, her sun-kissed skin is warm to the touch. “I’ve missed you too, darling.”
Oh, he likes that. He could get used to that name.
He nuzzles his face into her hair, smelling the beach in her curls. “Missed doesn’t even begin to cover it,” he confesses. “Longed for. Yearned. Nearly went mad for lack of you.”
She presses a lingering kiss to his chest. “Ditto.”
“You had the girls to keep you company,” he sniffs. “Not the same.”
“Well you had Dean!” She prods him in the side with a finger and he squirms away, grumbling.
“Yeah, and Dean was just as pathetic and pining as I was!”
“Poor John,” she murmurs, and begins to pepper his chest with kisses, moving down his stomach and letting her curls brush his skin. “I’ll make it up to you.”
He threads his fingers through her hair and leans back, letting the sun warm his skin as she kisses her way back up his chest, trying to remember that they are on a public beach and rolling Ellie underneath him to rut against her like a randy teenage boy would be in very bad form. “How?”
“I’m sure I can think of something,” she says, peeking at him over the top of her sunglasses with a wicked smirk. “Maybe I’ll let you spank me later.”
John chokes on his own spit and Ellie buries her face in his shoulder, giggling madly. With a growl, he rolls them over and pins her to the beach towel, glaring down at her as she grins unrepentantly. The sight of that smile undoes him instantly and he drops his face to her chest with a groan, inhaling the scent of sand on her soft skin and running his hands over her sides, thanking god for the invention of the bikini. “Ellie Williams,” he sighs, letting her comb her fingers through his floppy hair. “What have you done to me?”
She rubs her thumb tenderly over his forehead, her expression a touch regretful. “Turned your whole life upside down.”
“I like it this way,” he says softly, looking into her eyes.
“No one likes their life up-ended, John,” she shakes her head.
John turns his face into her palm, kissing it noisily. “I like my life upside down, rightside up, sideways and any which way you want to twist it, Ellie Williams. So long as you’re with me, it’s infinitely preferable.”
“Sap,” she whispers, grinning up at him.
“Your sap,” he counters, beaming.
When Ellie leans down to capture his mouth with hers, her kiss tastes like the sea air, sunshine, and trouble. John wraps his arms around her and grins against her lips, savoring the taste of his future on her tongue.