ChapterOne

Bradley

Being a savior isn’t a role you request, you’re chosen for it. I, Bradley Richter, was chosen for this. I was gifted my purpose the moment Cheryl told me we couldn’t be together anymore. She gave me back the diamond ring I had spent a small fortune on and told me to leave. I begged and pleaded. I tried to make her understand, but she turned me away. I made it through every stage of grief except acceptance, because I knew Cheryl and I knew we were meant to be together. And I planned on proving it to her.

I wanted to know what Cheryl was doing and who she was with so I followed her on every social media platform. It all started as a way to remain close and work out a way back to her. I created fake accounts and didn’t leave comments. I flew under the radar and went unnoticed, just as I did when I stood across from our—no, her house and watched her come and go. I even started to follow her new boyfriend to see who exactly posed as a fair substitute for me. I’d have been willing to make any changes for Cheryl. It wasn’t until they walked out of a restaurant one night with a group of friends and family, hand in hand and laughing, that I saw the diamond on her finger. A diamond much larger than I gave her. The scene seemed staged. Cheryl’s sister, Lisa, whispered into someone’s ear as they fell behind the group. Everything hit me at once: the people around Cheryl were feeding her lies and tricking her into a life she’d never find happiness in.

They were all forcing her to become just another easy bitch. I couldn’t let that happen to my Cheryl.

I could forgive her every indiscretion if she were to come back to me. I knew I could look past the way she ripped my heart out and took everything from my life. I had spent so much on the wedding just to make her happy. I paid to fill every corner of the home her parents helped us buy. My bank account bottomed out and she kept our house and everything I bought her. I used to hate her for forcing me into a shitty, run-down apartment. Now I hated everyone else.

I leaned heavily on my bathroom sink before staring into the mirror. I laughed at my own reflection. I knew I wasn’t crazy, but the eyes that stared back at me from the mirror told a different story. I’ve never been very fond of my eyes. They’re narrow-set and dull brown, the kind no one connects with because there are better things to focus on. I couldn’t look at myself anymore so I turned on the faucet and watched as my hands filled with water. I splashed it against my face. Droplets clung to my uneven beard. No, I wasn’t crazy. Everything I had planned was calculated, deliberate, and would be done for my Cheryl. What I was about to do was for love.

I dried my face before heading to my small bedroom. I slid the plastic bin and lockbox from underneath my bed. This particular bin was dedicated to Cheryl’s friends. I shuffled through the photos to review the faces because I needed to be familiar with the enemies I was up against. I opened the lockbox next. I picked up my gun and smiled as I turned it over in a slow appraisal. I was damn near giddy looking at the .40 caliber in my hand. I took up shooting as a hobby years ago and went as far as getting my own gun. I loved my gun, but today was not its day to shine. I placed it back in the lockbox and grabbed the more basic, less appealing 9 mm I had acquired through illegal channels two weeks ago. I couldn’t believe how easy it was to purchase a handgun and hollow-point bullets without any paperwork. God bless America.

I loaded the gun and grabbed two extra clips, putting one in each of the front pockets of my jeans. I didn’t know how many bullets I’d need, but I knew I had plenty for the occasion. Moving targets are harder to hit than the bull’s-eye at the far end of a firing range. I tucked the gun into the back of my waistband. It was a little bulky and the metal pressing into my skin was painful, but I liked it. I felt more powerful, more in control. It had been a long time since I felt any sort of control.

A pair of plain white high heels sat in their box on my kitchen table. I dumped them into a bag. I pulled on a hooded sweatshirt. When I gripped the door handle, I felt my nerves start to build. I breathed in deeply and let it out slowly through my nose. It was time for me to be heard. My mission would be completed.

Cheryl would listen to me the moment I broke whatever brainwashing connection she had with her best friend, Pam. According to Cheryl’s sister’s posts, “the gang” was heading to Angelina’s Bridal Boutique for fittings. I’d meet them there and talk some sense into Cheryl. I knew that would mean forcing sense into Pam. I started to smile and my racing heart calmed. Whoever else was there, every person who stood in the way of Cheryl’s awakening, would be eliminated. When it came to my Cheryl’s happiness, I’d leave no room for misinterpretation.

I left my apartment and waved politely to the elderly man who lived across the hall from me, Lester. I told him I was running to grab my mail and offered to get his. He declined. I knew he got his mail over an hour ago. Lester and I, we’re both creatures of habit. He was also quiet, kept to himself, and his memory was slipping, which is exactly what I liked and needed in a neighbor. He never asked where I’d been when I came up the stairs late at night, or what my camera was for. Hell, I could come home with a dead body and he wouldn’t spare me a second glance. Lester was the only part of the shithole apartment building that I didn’t hate.

I walked quickly to my marina blue BMW, the only possession Cheryl couldn’t take from me. I was very proud of my car and not because a luxury sedan is a general status symbol, but because it was a personal symbol of my status. Corporate IT companies didn’t always pay well, but if you were willing to work the extra hours that were always up for grabs, you could make a good living for yourself. Not surprisingly, that was how I wound up on Cheryl’s radar. I dressed well, was kind, and never hesitated to spend a little extra money on her. I would do anything for her and work to give her anything. But that wasn’t enough once Pam started chirp, chirp, chirping in Cheryl’s ear.

I started to get myself worked up, so I took another deep breath to calm down. I needed to keep my body language in check if I wanted to go unnoticed in public.

My leather seats were soft and expensive, made to cradle my body just so as I sat back to catch my breath. I slid on my aviators. The engine came to life and purred like a delighted kitten when I pressed the ignition button. I missed turning a key, but having the latest and the best was more important. After waiting for a short parade of cars to roll by, I pulled away from the curb. It was early enough on a Saturday to beat afternoon traffic, but late enough to not be caught in a flock of early birds. The perfect time to head to the Seaside Mall.

I drove carefully. I didn’t want to bring any attention to myself, the gun that was nestled between myself and the seat, or the way I was shaking. From both nerves and excitement. Soon enough Cheryl would be mine again. We’d start the life we were both meant to live. I rolled down the windows and took a deep breath of warm spring air as it whipped through the car. I pulled into the mall parking lot in just under thirty-two minutes, which was a record for me. I used to come here regularly with or for Cheryl, and this time I was here simply because of Cheryl. I collected my thoughts and pictured the layout of the moderately sized outdoor shopping mall. I drove around at a slow pace, taking in the clusters of cars around the entrance closest to Angelina’s and looking everywhere for Cheryl’s car. She wasn’t there yet. I pulled out of the parking lot in search of a shaded spot to park across the street. I parked far enough away from large intersections where traffic cameras were usually stationed, but close enough for a quick, discreet getaway. I had to be prepared for anything.

I pulled out my phone one last time to double-check my information. Angelina’s Bridal Boutique was still the location Cheryl’s sister mentioned in her nauseating post about wedding dress shopping and how happy she was that her big sister found her soul mate. Pam chimed in with smiley faces and hearts. The fury in my chest swelled so strongly I wanted to throw up. I felt even more confident in my decision. Every single person who stood between me and Cheryl had to be eliminated today.

I had to refrain from sprinting toward the building. I carefully calculated my pace as I walked across the blacktop and entered through the first archway of the outdoor shopping mall. I didn’t know where every surveillance camera was, so I pulled up the hood of my dark green sweatshirt and continued to walk with a cool confidence. I was doing my best to pull off the laid-back, careless look so many young men seemed to think was attractive. I would never understand it, but it helped keep me anonymous. I kept my head down and my eyes on the ground, counting on the rest of my senses to keep me from walking into anyone or anything. Angelina’s was close. My heart started to beat faster and my mind was already jumping ahead to having Cheryl in my arms once more.

 

Chapter Two

Tory

“Could this day get any worse?” I couldn’t find my keys or my other heel and I was supposed to leave ten minutes ago. I knocked over a stack of mail and cringed as it fanned out all over the living room. My twenty-pound cat, Jäger, pounced on the mess and shuffled it around like a blackjack dealer with a new deck of cards. From the crazy look in his eyes, I knew better than to reach down and try to take the envelopes from his paws. Destroying the mail was his thing. I’d check under the couch for any missing bills when I got back. Where were my keys? Where the hell was my other shoe? I limped back up the stairs to my bedroom to check under the bed as a last ditch effort before I abandoned the heels that matched my suit for shoes that at least paired up.

“Jäger, you fluffy asshole. Quit taking Mama’s stuff.” I found my keys under the bed along with a pair of workout shorts, a sock, a stuffed animal my last girlfriend won for me at a pop-up carnival, and a Corona bottle cap. I didn’t even drink Corona. I kicked off the heel I was wearing and opted for lower black ones. They looked okay with my suit, but I wanted to wear my higher heels since I was trying on a bridesmaid’s dress in about twenty minutes. I grabbed my suit jacket and raced to the garage, anxious to get on the road. I was late to almost everything.

My gas light blinked at me. “Son of a bitch.” I should have gassed up the night before, but it was raining and I wasn’t in the mood to be out any longer than absolutely necessary. I could hear my grandfather scolding me, “Tory Michelle, E does not mean enough.” I’ve been this way since birth. I wait until the last minute to do everything.

Thankfully, the gas station was just to the right once I exited my neighborhood. The attendant wasn’t anywhere to be found. Great. I honked and waited a solid ten seconds before I decided to pump the gas myself. Illegal, my ass. I was sure there were better things for the New Jersey police to do than arrest me for doing something the rest of the world did on their own.

I slipped my credit card through the reader. After approval, I grabbed the nozzle handle. I felt a slick substance and pulled my hand back in disgust. My fingers were covered in oil or grease or whatever had been on the attendant’s hand. I groaned in frustration and grabbed paper towels from the dispenser above the windshield cleaner. They were virtually worthless, but at least covered the handle enough to grab the nozzle. Before I even started pumping, the attendant busted out of the store and yelled at me. I threw my hands up at him and stomped inside to wash up. I didn’t even care that I was getting grease on every handle I touched. It took forever to get my hands clean and I wondered if I was on video somewhere as a joke. I glanced at the clock on the wall of the convenience store and sighed. I was past being fashionably late and now was just a jerk.

Surprisingly, the traffic was light for a Saturday morning. I figured every woman in the tristate area would be at the mall trying on dresses for the upcoming wedding season. The parking lot was packed. I parked on the side near Angelina’s Bridal Boutique, raced inside the mall, and found the store.

“You must be Tory.”

My frazzled, I-am-so-late look must’ve been a dead giveaway. I nodded sheepishly. “I should have been here thirty minutes ago.”

The friendly associate continued, “I’m Amanda. Stacy said you were coming this morning. This shouldn’t take long at all. Would you like some water or a cup of coffee before we get you fitted?”

Coffee. That sounded lovely. I smiled and followed her to a sitting area with comfortable chairs and an espresso machine. An indoor fountain completed the calming feng shui of the room. As a Realtor who staged houses, the arrangement impressed me. The stress of trying on dresses couldn’t be easy for anybody involved, so I tipped my hat to Angelina or whoever designed this space.

“Let me go pull the dress for you and we’ll get started.” Amanda disappeared behind a door.

Stacy, my best friend since high school, had guilt-tripped me into being a bridesmaid. I’d missed every single wedding get-together because I didn’t work normal hours. I had to work with the rest of the world’s schedule. Most people needed to see houses after hours and on weekends. I didn’t mind that I’d missed so many of the bridal activities. There was only so much traditional crap I could take. And I didn’t know the bridal party that well. This was the first wedding I’d been asked to participate in and would probably be my last. Marriage wasn’t something I was against. I just thought weddings were a waste of money. Instead of plopping down twenty-five thousand dollars on a single day that very few people would remember or care about, I would rather put that down on a house that I planned to live in for at least five years. Investments were more of a sure thing than a marriage. I’d promised Stacy that I wouldn’t miss her bachelorette party, regardless of my schedule. It was coming up in a few weeks and I had it highlighted and circled in red on my calendar.

Waiting made me antsy, so I casually strolled around the boutique, touching the lace and silk on the racks. I liked the feel of different textures. It was calming. Some of the dresses were really beautiful, yet some reminded me of Little Bo Peep or something from Gone with the Wind. I nodded at a group of ladies trying on dresses and tried not to smile at the hideous sea-foam green picked out by the bride. There was another group of women in the corner serving as an audience for a bride trying on gowns. The older woman close to tears must have been her mother. She was trying to encourage her daughter to try on a more modest dress.

“Honey, in twenty years you might not like this dress or how you look in your wedding photos. Those pictures will be forever. Don’t you want to look like a princess?”

I almost snorted. There was no way the young woman wearing the short, tight, sleeveless wedding dress cared if she looked like a princess or not. My guess was that she picked the dress so she could show off her tattoos and cleavage. The others nodded in agreement with the mother. I didn’t know why I was just standing there, soaking in the scene, but when the mother turned to me, I suddenly realized I should have left ten seconds earlier.

“What do you think about that dress?”

“Really? You want my opinion?” I knew the mother and sidekicks wanted me to agree with them. “Okay.” I dragged out the word a bit. I saw the mother’s eyes widen in expectation as I prepared my thoughts. “I think it’s a dress for the bride to wear on her special day and she should be the one who picks it out.”

“But I’m paying for it and I think she should have something that actually covers her and doesn’t make her look trampy.”

I heard regret in the mother’s voice. I knew she was sorry she even asked me.

“Again, it’s your daughter’s special day. I think it’s great that you are paying for it, but if this dress makes her happy, then this should be the one.” I couldn’t believe the mother actually tried roping me into this conversation.

The bride smiled at me and I gave her a wink. Things were different in today’s world and her mother had to face it. I held my hands up and backed away slowly, indicating I was done with the conversation. I turned and headed back to the bridesmaids’ dressing area. I was the kind of person that when asked for an opinion, gave it.

“Here we are,” Amanda said. She held up a lavender knee-length dress in front of her.

I stared at the layers of taffeta and shook my head. “This can’t be right. Seriously. This must be a mistake.” I pulled out my phone and snapped a picture to send to Stacy while Amanda double-checked her paperwork. I paced until my phone rang a minute later.

“What’s wrong with the dress? You don’t like it?”

I sat on one of the comfy chairs and digested the ominous fact that this explosion of taffeta was the dress I was expected to wear. “I like the color. I’m just surprised at the cut and all of the layers.” I poked at the bottom row of taffeta and it bounced back with vigor. The back of my knees already itched just thinking about sitting in this dress.

“It’s a little eighties, but that’s the look Mark likes,” she said.

I rolled my eyes. Mark was sixteen years older than Stacy. I gave the marriage two years tops.

“Come on. It’s only for one night. It’ll be fun, I promise.”

I closed my eyes and told myself not to be selfish. This wasn’t about me.

“Okay, okay. I’ll wear it, but only because I love you.” I already knew I would bring a change of clothes just in case something dreadful happened like if an entire glass of red wine spilled on it.

“Don’t forget to try on shoes. The shop will dye them to match the dress.”

So my morning struggles were for naught. “Sounds great. Okay, got to go. Amanda wants me to try this cream puff on,” I said.

Stacy laughed. “You look good in everything. You could pull off wearing a potato sack.”

“I would actually wear a potato sack instead of this.” I told her good-bye and dragged myself back to the fitting rooms. I stopped in the sitting area to grab a tiny bottle of water first. They had Angelina’s Bridal Shop labels on them. Cute, but not the best marketing idea. People would throw them away or recycle them and not give the label a second thought. I couldn’t even remember the name brand of the water I had at home, and I had cases of them. I took the tiny bottle with me and continued my casual pace.

I had no idea why it took Amanda so long to get my room ready. How hard was it to unlock a door and hang a dress up? I groaned and tried to settle down. Today already had long day written all over it and it wasn’t even noon.

 

Chapter Three

Peyton

Oh my God. This was what death felt like.

That was my only thought as I heard the click of the door behind me. I took a few seconds to let myself rest on the dressing room’s tiny bench seat. With my head back against the wall, I prayed for the Motrin to kick in. I needed headache relief and coffee. Major coffee. The second I was done with this fitting, coffee was going to be my first stop. I couldn’t believe I was hungover. I never drankthe night before I was scheduled to work because I prided myself on being sharp and bringing my A game every day. In my line of work, you never knew when shit would go down. So I stayed regimented. It was one of the reasons I was good at my job.

It was also probably the main reason I was still single. It was hard meeting the right girl with such self-imposed limits hampering the social calendar. Yesterday, I was feeling rebellious and honestly, a little lonely, so I allowed my friends to talk me into ladies’ night at Lulu’s in Hoboken. First Fridays of the month were reserved specifically for the ladies who like ladies. They were somewhat legendary. Lulu’s was the hottest scene for miles.

It had been so long since I’d been out partying, I’d clearly tried to make up for lost time. Tons of dancing, way too many drinks, but so much fun. I did not find Ms. Right, but I had a lot of laughs with the girls. Not that I really believed I’d find my soul mate at ladies’ night, but you never knew. People were always saying that you found love when you least expected it and who was I to argue with that conventional wisdom? As I thought back on the last twelve hours, I smiled to myself in spite of my current state. It was okay to mix things up. Last night had been a good time, even if I was paying the price now.

I was just about to stand up and put on my dress when my phone rang.

“Hi, Mom,” I said.

“Peyton, I’m going to ask nicely one last time before I come to your apartment and drag you to Angelina’s myself.”

My mom had been needling me for weeks to get fitted for the bridesmaid dress for my sister’s wedding. I smiled at the familiar rant before I responded.

“Syd’s not getting married for over a month. But you can relax, I’m at Angelina’s now. Just about to try it on.”

I heard her breathing settle on the other end of the line. It was obvious she was appreciative this item could be checked off her list and her voice was lighter and more animated when she continued. As she spoke I was overwhelmed with the desire to touch the dress’s smooth fabric, but when I stood up, I felt nauseous. A flash memory of doing shots at the end of the bar rushed through my mind.

I interrupted her. “Can you put Dad on?” My dad always made me feel better. I was hoping one of his pep talks would miraculously cure my hangover.

“Hey, Peyton.” I heard his smile through the phone. “Thanks for taking care of this dress stuff.”

“No problem, Dad.”

“What time are you on today?”

“Twelve.”

“You’re headed there straight from the store, I assume?”

I balanced the phone between my chin and shoulder as I started to undress. “I have to stop home quick and grab my gun first. I didn’t want to bring it with me.”

His silence told me he didn’t 100 percent approve of my plan. I knew he was concerned about the time. He wasn’t wrong. I would be cutting it a touch close to the start of my shift. Normally, I would simply have gone shopping with my firearm holstered to my hip, covered it with a light jacket, and no one would have a clue I was armed. But since I was going to be in a dress, I knew there would be no way to conceal the gun effectively. And I wasn’t nuts about leaving it in the dressing room unattended while I was being measured and pinned everywhere. I’d opted to leave it home even if it meant rushing back and forth before my tour started.

“Don’t worry, I’ll make it on time,” I said optimistically.

“Don’t be late.”

“Yes, sir, Captain Clarke,” I said with faux seriousness, but not sass. I knew he still worried about me. He’d retired from the police force just last year, leaving me the sole member of the family on the job. After thirty years, he’d been ready to hang up his gun and shield, but I think it bothered him not being in the station house, certain of my well-being at all times.

“Just be safe, peanut.”

“Always.”

I hung up and pressed the sides of my temples, hoping to squeeze the pain away. I couldn’t believe I had a ten-hour patrol shift ahead of me.

I stripped down to my bra and panties and stepped into the dress. The sales associate, Jenny, I think was her name, had given me a set of super high heels to pair with it. I knew she was adjusting for my five-foot-two frame, but she overestimated my ability to walk in stilettos. I shrugged and slipped them on anyway. It was only for one day.

I stepped onto the pedestal and looked at myself in the mirror while Jenny kneeled in front of me to mark the necessary adjustments. I swallowed a smile at my reflection. I fucking owed Sydney. I glanced around at the sea of lacy, gaudy gowns, every random hue from the Crayola Sixty-Four box accounted for, and silently applauded my older sister for selecting a sleek black dress for her bridal party. It was gorgeous and sexy and somehow made my blue eyes stand out even more than normal. I was going to hug the hell out of her later.

I turned my head at a series of loud cackles from one of the bridal parties and when I shifted back around, I was overcome with a wave of dizziness like I was about to pass out. I still had nothing in my stomach, and the effects of last night’s shenanigans were catching up to me.

“Are you okay?” Jenny asked.

I nodded yes, but she looked up at me with concern. “Are you sure? You’re listing a little. You aren’t going to keel over on me, are you?”

“No. Sorry. I had a late night. Not much sleep.” I sugarcoated the truth and forced a smile to assure her I was all right. She looked unconvinced. To get my blood flowing, I rolled my shoulders and arched my neck a little and was met with a waft of freshly brewed coffee coming from somewhere close by. Did they actually have coffee here?

I must have said it out loud, because the next thing I knew a smoking hot brunette offered to fix me a cup. Even though I didn’t verbalize a response, my longing expression must’ve answered for me, because immediately the gorgeous stranger asked how I take my coffee. I would never expect someone to wait on me, but with the pins in my dress there was nothing I could do to help myself.

“If you don’t mind—”

Jenny cut me off right away. “Absolutely not. Coffee is complimentary for our patrons before or after their fitting. I can’t have you sipping a hot beverage while I’m doing this. And you are wearing a very expensive dress.” She looked up at me. “Sorry.” Her voice softened, but she didn’t really sound apologetic. My dream of medicinal caffeination was too good to be true. The brunette clearly felt my pain as she rolled her eyes in obvious disapproval.

“How about some water?” She directed the question to Jenny. We all knew who was in charge at the moment. Instead of waiting for a response, my ally pushed. “She can at least have some water, right?” I loved that her voice held a challenge, as though we were in this together, somehow bonded in my plight. Jenny sighed deeply, but acquiesced with a stern warning to be careful. I was rewarded with a small bottle of Angelina’s custom-labeled water, an adorable wink, and an introduction from my heroine. Tory. Pretty name.

In the corner of the shop, there was some commotion with one of the bridal parties. Jenny excused herself to assist. Tory took the opportunity to snag me a refill.

I silently mouthed thank you and I felt myself blush when our hands touched. Tory graciously pretended not to notice. She was absolutely stunning and probably used to having this effect on people. I was embarrassed anyway.

“Rough night?” she asked with a sly grin.

I bit my lower lip and scrunched my nose in response.

“Bachelorette party high jinks?”

“No.” I drew out the one syllable as long as possible because my night couldn’t have been further from what I assumed she was picturing. I probably went slightly overboard because her eyebrows lifted and she was clearly waiting for me to provide some details. “I was at Lulu’s in Hoboken.” I held my breath a touch. I’d just outed myself to this woman. “Do you know it?” I was fishing, but I felt uncharacteristically brave.

She crossed her arms and said nothing for a second until her full lips curved at the corners. “First Friday of the month. I know it well.” Her eyes met mine and locked. Excellent. My morning had just taken a turn toward the fantastic. “I haven’t been there in ages.” She sounded almost wistful. “Work has me fully at the whim of other people’s schedules.”

“What do you do?” I asked.

Tory told me she was a Realtor, and it sounded like she enjoyed her job even though she worked a lot. We talked the entire time I was waiting for Jenny to return to finish my minuscule adjustments. Tory lived in Red Bank and she was here because she was going to be a bridesmaid for an old friend. She made an unimpressed face at her dress, a frilly lavender gown. I told her I was sure it would look great on her, because the truth was she probably looked amazing in everything. She had long wavy hair, beautiful dark eyes, and eyelashes that went on for days. She was tall and her body was incredible. Curves in all the right places. I couldn’t help but notice throughout our conversation she’d made no mention of a significant other. Could this gorgeous woman really be single?

I don’t know where I found my nerve, but I was speaking before I could stop myself. “You should come to Lulu’s next month.” I waved my phone. “Give me your number. This way we can coordinate.” I was a little disappointed in my delivery, because I sort of chickened out of being direct, but I didn’t want to come on too strong and put her off completely.

She grinned and her raised eyebrows told me she saw right through my façade, but she answered with ten digits. I typed them in and entered her name into my contacts. “This is me texting you right now.” I looked over my phone as I typed a quick message. “I’m Peyton, by the way.”

“Peyton,” Tory said, as though committing it to memory. She looked as if she was going to say something else, but a salesperson approached and guided her into a dressing room that had freed up. Just before she went in, she turned back toward me and let her eyes run the full length of my body. I felt a shiver, and goose bumps lined my forearms. That was certainly something. I smiled right back because I wanted her to know I was interested. We’d only shared a brief few moments but there was a definite spark. A bridal shop seemed a weird place to find a date, but for the second time in as many days I recalled the old-fashioned expression about meeting someone when you least expect it.

Tory disappeared into the dressing room and I made my decision on the spot. I wasn’t going to wait a month. When we were through with our fittings, I was going to ask her out. It was a little brazen because we hadn’t had too much time together, but deep down I knew she would say yes. I felt a connection I couldn’t quite describe. It was something that had never happened to me before and I was excited just imagining the possibilities.

Jenny returned to finish up with me and took her sweet time marking the final length modification. I was pretty sure her focus was still on the other bridal party. I tried to be patient and not stare directly at Tory’s dressing room. Forcing myself to look around, I noticed a scruffy-looking dude who’d entered the shop by himself. I wondered if he was meeting his fiancée here. I was antsy because I wanted the timing to work out just right so I could talk to Tory again. I checked my watch and saw that only a minute or two had actually passed. Once I was finished I should probably stall in the dressing room a few minutes so it didn’t seem like I was stalking her. I didn’t want her to think I was crazy, after all. I smiled at myself in the mirror.

I had a good feeling about this.

 

Chapter Four

Bradley

I stood outside Angelina’s, leaning against a pillar like I was one of many other men who’d come here with a woman who loved to shop. My attention was split between watching Angelina’s and the mall entrance for Cheryl. I pictured what was about to happen: the screaming, the fairy-tale dresses turning crimson, and the look in Cheryl’s eyes as all the lies and brainwashing cleared away. She would be so relieved when I saved her. I’d never killed a person, but any nervousness I felt was put at ease by knowing I was doing the right thing. These people, these influencers, were monsters that had to be stopped. Anyone caught in the crossfire was collateral damage.

I had learned the store’s layout from online research. I put the details together and formed a mental map to follow. The brides had their own fitting rooms on one side, and the bridal parties on the other. I had to be quick and act at just the right moment. I watched as a petite redhead chatted with the woman working the register. She wouldn’t shut the fuck up. I checked my watch and noted Cheryl’s tardiness. She was always late, a quirk that once annoyed me, but was definitely starting to piss me off. I needed to act before my lingering alerted anyone. If the bitch at the counter would just open the door, I would have been able to move forward. She triggered a new feeling in me. I wouldn’t have minded if she caught a bullet, too.

That desire shocked me momentarily. This rage was sudden and new, and I fought to understand it. But it wasn’t the moment to analyze myself. Today was the day to put my plan, my mission, into action.

Finally, and ever so slowly, she turned from the counter and I jolted into action. I stepped toward the door just as the talkative woman did. My hands were at my sides, one holding the shoes and the other clenched in a fist. I made sure not to touch anything, keeping my fingerprints to myself, and I used my foot to hold the door open. The woman thanked me. “You’re welcome,” I said with a smile.

“May I help you?” I heard the woman behind the front counter, but never looked right at her.

I kept my face shielded and offered up a hollow laugh. “My fiancée forgot her shoes.” I held up the shopping bag. “I won’t look at anyone, I promise.” I weaved around racks of dresses and dodged a large shelving unit full of shoes. When I came to the bridal area, I checked the names on the fitting rooms and stopped at Cheryl’s. I looked around to see if anyone was watching me. I pulled a pair of latex gloves from my pocket and draped them over the doorknob to quickly duck in. I put the gloves on as I waited and listened to cheery employees attending to needy customers. My heart was pounding and I could feel myself starting to sweat.

I overheard a woman usher someone my way. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up. I knew it was Cheryl. I could always tell when she was near. We had a connection I could never explain. I backed against the wall so I’d be behind the door when she opened it.

Cheryl stepped into the room and paid little attention to her surroundings as she placed her purse on the bench against the wall. She took a garment bag from the employee and hung it up before turning back.

“Thank you,” she said with a smile in her voice. “If I need any help, I’ll let you know.” She finally entered the room fully and shut the door.

My presence startled her. I reached out and grabbed her hands to hold her steady. “Hey, baby.” Somehow I managed to get the words out. My breath hitched at the sight of her so close to me. Her hair was a half inch shorter and she wore brighter lipstick than I prefer, but she was still beautiful. And she was about to be my beautiful girl once more.

“What are you doing here, Brad?” She tried to pull away. I tightened my grip.

I kept my voice low. “We need to talk.”

“I told you we have nothing left to talk about.”

My smile fell and I tightened my grip further. I loved feeling her delicate bones pressing into my palms, like she was sinking into me and we were becoming one.

I could see fear in Cheryl’s eyes. I softened my tone and said, “We need to talk about the mistake you’re about to make.”

“What mistake?” she asked before she glanced toward the door.

I walked her backward to the wall. I pressed her into the hanging garment bag. “Marrying this guy. Cheryl, we’re—”

“How did you even know I was here?”

“That doesn’t matter.”

“Did you follow me?” she asked.

“We’re meant to be together and it’s time you saw that, too.”

“Let me go,” Cheryl said a lot louder than I cared for. I pushed her harder against the wall and covered her mouth with my free hand. I held her hands tightly in the other.

“Everyone around you is lying to you,” I whispered harshly. “I love you and I know you love me.” Cheryl shook her head against my hand. Her reluctance to listen was starting to whittle at my patience. “What has Pam been saying? What ideas has she been putting in your head?”

Cheryl’s eyes widened as she rocked against me in an attempt to get free.

“Or is it that bitch sister of yours? She never liked me. She’d tell you anything to get you to pick anyone but me. Everyone here, every person supporting you is in on it.” Her brow furrowed with an unspoken question. “They want you away from me so badly that they convinced these people to play along. But that’s okay because I’m here to free you from them. I’m here to save you, my love.”

She pushed at me and started to scream into my hand. A small knock sounded at the door. I released her hands and was able to hold her in place with my body. I pressed my index finger to my lips and shushed Cheryl. Her free hands started to swing at me so I pulled the gun from my back. She froze. I knew I was getting through to her.

“Is everything okay in there?” The female voice was muffled by the thin wood of the door.

I pressed the gun against the wall beside Cheryl’s head and leaned more heavily into her. “Tell her you’re fine and will be out in a minute.” I took my hand off her mouth.

“I’m fine.” Cheryl’s voice shook. “I’ll be out in a moment.” She started to make another noise. I slapped my hand over her mouth again and released a long breath. I was getting angry.

“Is Pam here?” I asked. I loosened the grip I had on her face and she nodded. “What about Lisa?” Heavy tears started to drip against my hand. She nodded again. “Who else?” Cheryl began to sob. Her body shook against mine and her eyes clamped shut. “Don’t be scared, baby. I’m here to help you, not hurt you.” I kissed between her eyes and relished the warmth of her forehead. I moved my hand away and kissed her lips, wet with snot and tears. “Let’s get started.”

I stepped forward the moment the door swung open. I kept Cheryl in front of me as I moved to catch a glimpse of the women on the bridal party side. I recognized Pam’s face right away. Cheryl started to speak, but her words died as I raised my gun. Everyone around me disappeared. All I cared about was my aim and the woman I was protecting. I pulled the trigger twice and Pam’s body hit the ground in an instant.

My heart thundered in my chest and I felt my world slip into slow motion. Silence followed. And as quickly as it came, the sluggishness wore off. I came back to myself in enough time to catch the initial reaction to what had just happened. Everyone was frozen in fear for only a second, but long enough for me to fire four rounds at the woman who stood beside Pam in a matching black dress. She dove for cover, which caused three of my bullets to be buried in the wall. Hysteria began to set in and the people around me started screaming. Cheryl fought to free herself from my grip, but my strength couldn’t be met. Her cries were so loud they hurt my ears, but they were soon lost in the sounds around us.

I aimed for the attendant next to Pam’s body and the two workers running for the front door. They were just as guilty as Pam, but the difference was they took money in exchange for their brainwashing. I heard two doors slam, one from across the space and the other next to me. I kept my eye on the front door as I rushed to the fitting room opposite me and dragged Cheryl along. I unloaded five rounds into the flimsy door, then forced it open. Three lifeless bodies.

“Who were they?” I asked Cheryl as I stared into the open, blank stare of a corpse.

Cheryl cried. “I don’t know.”

“Don’t lie to me.” I looked again to the front door and saw crowds running past. I had to hurry if we were going to make it out. A creak behind me caught my attention. “They’re all here for you. They’re here feeding you lies. Don’t you get it?” I pulled Cheryl along as I followed the sound to another fitting room.

Cheryl fell to the ground the moment I stopped. “Please stop.” She continued to sob.

I knelt and held her face in my hand. “With them gone we can be together.” I stood quickly and fired again into the door. The empty clip fell from my gun and hit the floor with a thud. I picked it up, stuffed it in my pocket, and reloaded. “We can both have our fairy-tale ending.” I shot at the door three more times. I peeked inside to check for bodies. Two this time. Two fewer people to influence Cheryl. Footsteps caught my attention and I turned to catch Cheryl’s sister coming toward me. Her phone was in her hand, but I shot her before she could dial.

Cheryl cried out. “Lisa. No.”

I wasn’t satisfied with one bullet, so I gave Lisa three more before I went to collect Cheryl. “Come on, my love, time to go. The cops are probably on the way.” I heard sirens in the distance. I lifted her by her armpits and held her.

“Please.” She went slack in my arms. “I’m not going anywhere with you. Why are you doing this? I don’t even know them.” She looked around and sobbed. “My sister.”

“Cheryl, I’m here for you. I did all of this to save you.”

“I hate you!” she screamed. She looked at me with wet, bloodshot eyes and said, “That’s why I left. If I’d stayed with you, I would have hated myself just as much as I hate you.”

I snapped. I pulled the trigger and watched Cheryl crumple to the ground. Blood pooled around her. I dropped to my knees, careful to avoid the mess, and held her hand. “This wasn’t what I wanted, but at least you’re still free. I’m sorry, my love.”

I heard the sirens grow louder and knew my time was up. I tucked my gun away and ran to the door. I peeled off my gloves and pocketed them before I fled the store. I retraced my steps back through the mall with my hands high. I started to yell along with the hysterical crowd that surrounded me.

“Run!” My voice broke as I screamed more loudly than I ever had. I packed as much emotion as I could into the words as I repeated myself. “Run! The shooter’s in the store!” Everyone around me was already in a panicked daze. They didn’t hear me or care about my direction. I exited the same way I entered. I slid on the mask of a panicked but relieved survivor as I ran past three armed police officers. They rushed me along, pushing at my shoulder to get me out of the way of danger.

Ambulances and unmarked black SUVs were starting to flood the parking lot, but I kept my eyes on my own car across the street, my own getaway. Getting there was no problem. I pulled off my hoodie and tossed it onto the passenger seat. I got behind the wheel, started the car, and drove off. The pistol was still hot against my back and I felt sweat trickle down my neck as I drove through quiet back roads. The sirens began to fade. I started to cry the moment I turned onto the highway. Images of Cheryl’s bloody body filled my mind. I killed the love of my life.

No one told me about the high cost of being someone’s savior.