As they continued driving, she knew Luke could sense her growing discomfort. He had continued to hold her hand and rubbed the back of it from time to time. It definitely had a soothing effect on her nerves, lulling her into short-lived relaxation.
She looked at their intertwined hands and wondered why she felt so calm with him. Not that her life had ever been normal, but now so many things had happened in such a short time that it seemed to be spinning out of control. When she was running, she had the illusion of some control, but not anymore. In spite of it all, Luke made it all seem possible. When he was near, she felt like she could do anything—just like when those men and that woman came after them. She had been scared but seeing him, fighting to keep her safe… It gave her a feeling deep inside that she could be something more than she ever had been.
“It won’t be much longer,” Luke interrupted her introspections. “Maybe about another hour.”
It occurred to her that Luke might leave her once they arrived. She tightened her grip on his hand as panic started to take over her thoughts. She didn’t know if she could make it through the ordeal without him beside her, giving her access to the unknown strength that rested within. In a single day she had grown to depend on him. He inadvertently offered her a reason to be strong. She fought against the panic rising up within her.
“Luke,” she stammered. “You won’t leave me, will you?” She continued to look down at their hands so that he couldn’t see the desperation in her eyes, although she was sure he could hear it in her voice.
“No,” he whispered. “I won’t leave you until you feel comfortable, but even then I’ll be around.”
“Do you live with him? Will you be able to stay?” she inquired, thinking even a few hours away from him might seem like an eternity.
“Yes, I’ll be close,” he replied. “I live in a small cottage on the back of his property. I wanted a place of my own—someplace I could be responsible for—so he had it refurbished and I’ve lived there off and on for the last two years.” She knew he meant that he lived there when he wasn’t watching her.
She felt reassured that he’d be close, but she was still scared that he might leave her. She whispered, “What will you do now that you don’t have to follow me around?”
He looked at her, hearing something he didn’t like in her voice. “Kenra, look at me.” She shook her head no, even as a tear escaped. She didn’t want him to see her weakness; she didn’t want to feel so dependant on him.
Luke jerked his hand from hers; the instant disconnection startled her. He pulled off to the side of the road and turned the engine off. Turning to face her and taking both her hands in his, he shifted her body toward him and commanded, “Kenra, look at me.”
He waited for her watery eyes to meet his before he continued. “Kenra, I’m not leaving you, okay?” She nodded and lowered her eyes to hide the tears welling up in them. “Kenra, I promise you. I’m not going to leave you alone. I will be very close, even if you don’t always see me.” He paused wanting to convince her of his words. “It’s my job… I’m a Protector. It’s what I’m supposed to do.” His sense of duty didn’t reassure her. She still didn’t know what he meant by ‘Protector,’ except it seemed to be a title of some sort.
Seeing that she still didn’t believe him, he continued, “Kenra, even if it wasn’t my job to protect you, I don’t think I could leave you.” She looked up at him again and saw something she couldn’t explain in his eyes. He reached over, cradling her face and wiped a tear from her cheek with his thumb. It was a simple touch, but somehow so intimate.
“Kenra, I promise. You can trust me,” Luke said. She nodded again, knowing it was right to trust him. But she also knew he couldn’t make that promise, not if what he said was true. She tried to appear convinced for his sake. She sensed he believed he would be there for her, but she also knew there were things beyond either of their control.
He searched her face for anything that might show she believed him. When he was satisfied, he turned the ignition back on and continued their journey. He gripped her hand in an effort to give her strength. He knew the next few days would be hard for her—harder than the last couple of days had been.
Soon they were turning off of the highway. It seemed they took several unneeded turns, but finally they pulled up to a massive, iron-gate with an embellished ‘L’ engraved into its center. Luke entered a code into the security box and the gates opened echoing out as the metal hinges squealed in protest and the huge iron rods grated against the rocky drive.
They drove down the long driveway surrounded by a thick forest of huge trees, lining both sides of the narrow path and blocking out the last rays of sunlight. The darkened road seemed to dead-end, but then veered to the right. An ominous brick wall emerged from the foliage and Kenra thought it strange to have such a huge wall on the inside of the gate.
On the other side of the wall, a beautiful, white mansion emerged from the tree line. It was the grandest house she had ever seen—if you could even call it a house. It was as if it had stepped out of an old photograph of a southern plantation. The lawns were immaculate, filled with flowers of every sort and stately trees that provided shade for the areas around the house. Green box hedges formed a barrier around the massive home. The building itself had majestic, white columns lining the front veranda like sentinels standing guard. Windows stood in rows on both stories of the massive façade, but the curtains were drawn on them all. She could see very little light coming from the house. In her mind, a place so enormous should have people milling about, but it was suspiciously empty.
“Nice house, huh?” Luke smiled, not noticing her awe-inspired stupor.
Kenra realized her mouth was agape and closed it. They pulled around the fountains in the center of the circular driveway to the front of the house and Luke turned off the ignition. Kenra was shaking as she stared at the front door.
When Luke opened her door, she jumped in panic. The anticipation of meeting her father for the first time was so overwhelming that she hadn’t even noticed Luke exit the car. Kenra rose out of the car at a slowed pace but kept her gaze on her feet in order that Luke would not see the fear that was holding her prisoner. She didn’t understand it, but something inside her was rebelling against the idea of entering this house.
“Kenra,” Luke said as he took her hands, pulling her close to him. An intoxicating aroma of fresh earth and sweat invaded her senses. Her thoughts turned to the man who held her.
When she didn’t look up, he put a hand under her chin and forced her to meet his eyes. “It’s going to be fine. He’s a good guy. Really. You are going to be okay.” He tugged her along behind him towards the front door.
“Luke, wait,” Kenra said as she resisted moving forward. He turned to face her and she found herself in his embrace. She breathed in his masculine, earthy scent as her heart hammered in response and wondered if he could hear it too. Being this close to him, she had to force the memory of his bare chest the previous night from her mind.
Kenra pulled back slightly and looked up at him. He gazed back at her and she saw his eyes flicker to her lips before resting on her green eyes. It seemed the world stood still. In that moment she realized she didn’t know what was to come, but that this might be her last real moment alone with him.
She was filled with remorse that she might lose the only true friend she had ever had. She needed him more than she had ever imagined and it was more than the intense attraction that drifted between them. The strength he gave her with just a touch was intoxicating. She had a feeling that the moment they walked through the doors of that mansion, he would be lost to her. He would go back to the life he had before her—to his schooling, to his little cottage. As much as she wanted him to be there for her, she wanted him to be happy too. She wanted him to be able to go back to his chosen path and she felt sure it couldn’t include her. As much as she longed to be with him, something told her that their paths were only joined temporarily.
He searched her eyes and waited for her to speak. She said the only thing she could. “Thank you, Luke.” She reached up on her tiptoes and brushed his cheek lightly with her lips, wishing for more.
When she touched his skin, she felt a strange power that started in the center of her being, but shot outward like a bolt of lightning and she could almost see a flash of blue light streak outward from the place her lips had met his skin. A wide range of emotions washed through her: terror, excitement, agony, bliss. Goosebumps covered her flesh and a swift breeze enveloped them in a whirlwind. Just as quickly as it all started, it ended and she wondered if she had imagined it. Luke had felt it too, of course, but as she closed her eyes, reveling in the bliss of a perfect, electrifying kiss, he recovered from the shock of what he knew must have happened.