—Ali MacGraw, Love Story
“Ten minutes, Montego. That’s all you have left to get your shit together.”
The guard’s ugly, rasping voice echoed against the dense cell blocks. I turned my head slowly, glaring at the man as he walked by, catching the sneer on his face. I was angry, enraged even though I was finally a free man.
As free as the tight confines of a felony on my record could be. As I jerked the small box from the shelf, I fingered the last letter I’d received from Mercedes, my muscles tensing as I read it for the tenth time.
Port Christy, Maine
I’ve returned home. It’s funny how nothing ever changes here. I know you didn’t want me to return, but I had no choice. Maybe someday I’ll have the opportunity to explain my decisions. Just know I’m okay. I found a little house I’m fixing up. It’s tiny but I have a lovely backyard. Your father has been very nice since I agreed to work with him, the salary enough I can afford to purchase some nice pieces of furniture eventually. I keep thinking about you, longing to hear your voice. I’ll try to visit in the next two weeks. This time, no one can stop me.
Take care, sweet Edmond. One day we’ll meet again.
Your loving friend,
My father, the great Fernando Montego. I found it difficult to believe her mother continued to date the son of a bitch after all these years. Now this.
I resisted the urge to crumple the letter, but the rage inside of me almost pushed me into ripping apart every letter she’d sent me over the years. The date she’d written it had been over a month before. A month. Had she held it, keeping it from me on purpose? Or had the prison system disregarded the single privilege I’d been allowed? Either way, it didn’t change the outcome or the anger around the decision she’d made.
“Hey. You’re getting out of here. You need to concentrate on that and not allow the darkness still eating at your soul to take over. You’re a young man. You have your entire life ahead of you,” Adam said from behind me.
My entire life. I’d turned eighteen the day I’d entered prison, and before that I’d spent four months in a jail cell awaiting a trial that had lasted three whole days. Three days to destroy my life based on lies.
What was my life supposed to consist of at this point? I was a convicted felon. There was nothing that would change that fact, or the way people would treat me for the rest of my life.
Unless I was exonerated.
There were two people who’d managed to keep me sane during my years of incarceration, one being my cellmate. Adam Ferrar was an odd man, spouting poetry when he wasn’t preaching the ministry of God to me. He’d never figured out I hadn’t been—nor would I ever be—a religious person. Maybe he was determined to make me a good guy. God had forsaken me a long time ago. However, Adam had pushed me over the years, forcing me to shove aside my anger in order to receive an education that maybe I could use one day.
I would honor his wishes.
After I exacted my revenge on the man responsible for putting me behind bars.
I glared at the letter again, everything inside of me aching. She’d been the second reason. Her light against my darkness. Her good versus my evil. Now this. I was incensed.
This was… unacceptable. It was as if everything I’d achieved was unraveling, spiraling out of control. Spots of red flashed in front of my eyes. The devil was taunting me again.
“Yeah, I’ll try.” I yanked the single picture Mercedes had sent years before off the wall, rubbing my finger across the worn photographic paper. I’d memorized her smile and the almost giddy expression she wore. She looked all grown up, waiting for her date to arrive.
And the bastard never had.
The worthless man had stood her up, pretending as if the time she’d taken to shower him with her grace had been worth nothing. Hissing, ugly thoughts drifted into my mind. I could teach that stupid young man a lesson he’d never forget.
I’d stared at the picture hundreds of times, living my life through hers. Now I was angry, furious with her. She’d betrayed me just like everyone else had in my life.
“What are you going to do?” Adam asked as he leaned against the wall, staring down at me. He was a large man, so much so no one had dared fuck with him over the years. Little did anyone know that he was nothing but a big teddy bear.
I shoved the picture inside the box then grabbed my diploma, sneering at the words written in script. Yeah, I had a Bachelor’s Degree. But who the hell was going to hire an ex-con, especially one who’d committed murder?
“I’m going back to Port Christy.”
“Whew,” Adam whistled. “I don’t think that’s such a good idea. You can’t end up back here, my friend. You know that. We’ve talked about your need for retaliation dozens of times. I thought you were over that part of your life. I’d hoped that you could walk away from this place a new man. Nothing good is going to come from killing your father. He will get what’s coming to him. The Lord will provide.”
I laughed halfheartedly, the sound just as bitter as I felt. While I realized he meant well, his belief in the greater good helping to ease his pain and time spent behind bars, I had no such belief. But I respected the man and everything he’d taught me.
Spanish. French. I was fluent in both. He’d provided lessons about the world. I’d been lucky enough to experience beautiful tropical locations through his eyes, his words so vivid that I was taken on a virtual trip by his words alone. I also felt like I’d visited Tahiti and Spain, Italy and Portugal, all the locations he’d been to while serving his country, protecting people he didn’t even know.
See where that had gotten him.
An ugly memory swept through me, the same one that had burned a hole in my mind over the years.
“Edmond Montego. You’re under arrest for the murder of Damien Ryker.” As the police officer jerked me toward him, slamming me against the wall, I turned my head, glaring at my father.
“Why? Why? You know I didn’t do this, Father.”
He sneered at me, backing away. “Get him the fuck out of here.”
I pitched against the firm hold, managing to lunge toward the man. “You know I didn’t kill him. You know it!”
As other officers worked to prevent me from wrapping my hands around my father’s throat, finally snapping the handcuffs around my wrists, I spit at him.
He laughed, daring to walk closer. “You’re no longer my son. I never want to see you again.”
And he’d kept that promise after all these years, never once entering the courtroom or visiting me in prison. He managed to poison everyone in town, people I believed to be friends turning their backs on me. I had no one. No one.
Except for Mercedes.
I’d barely looked at her twice before our parents had started dating, the age difference enough I thought of her as a kid and nothing more. Then we’d become friends. I’d become her protector. She’d shifted from my friend to the only person I considered valuable in my life.
But now, she was gone, lured by the same greed that had dragged my father into purgatory. It was my right to seek retribution. My right.
“Maybe so, but I got nowhere else to go.” I didn’t want to look him in the eyes. I knew I’d see disappointment.
After a few seconds of silence, I noticed his huge grin out of the corner of my eye and turned my head toward him.
“That’s not true, my friend. I have a place on Chincoteague Island. It ain’t nothing special, but it’s all yours until you get on your feet. My brother took care of it for me. There’s a key hidden under the front deck. It’s furnished, although not sure what condition the stuff is in.”
“I can’t let you do that.”
“Why the hell not? I’m not using it. I got at least three more years inside. Why not let someone enjoy the beautiful island?” When I said nothing, he squeezed my shoulder. “You need to get your life back. That girl isn’t going to help you get over the pain.”
That girl was the only person who mattered to me. She wasn’t just some fantasy. She was a living, breathing person who’d allowed me to feel almost normal. She’d shown me her vulnerability, exposing her pain of being tossed aside just like I’d been. She’d showered me with adoration, the few good memories we’d shared providing comfort for both of us. Then she’d forgotten her promise.
I closed the box, thinking about his offer. “I don’t have any money. I just need to do something.”
“Don’t worry. I have that covered too. There’s a man, an old friend of mine that will get you what you need. He’s my financial advisor and has taken pretty good care of me. Call it a loan, but no need to pay it back. I have plenty of money. Here. Don’t forget your book.” His eyes remained full of concern.
I learned something new about the man every day. I’d thought he was dirt poor, but he had a financial advisor. The man had many secrets. I’d always wondered why no one had ever come to see him in prison. The single time I’d asked he’d given me a hard glare, which was rare. I never bothered to ask again.
As he handed me the very book Mercedes had sent me years before, my throat seized. I’d read dozens of books over the years, hundreds, all under the tutelage and encouragement of Adam. At least the shitty library in the joint had decent shit to read. I’d studied every aspect of business and marketing, financial control and did what I could to keep up with the new developments in technology. But none of those held a special place in my heart except for the small paperback she’d sent me. As I placed it in the box, I thought about his offer. “Why would you do this?”
“Because you’re a good kid. Because I like you. Because I think you got shafted. You deserve a break.”
There was sincerity in his eyes, the same kindness I was used to. “I’ll pay you back. I promise. I keep my promises.”
“All I need as repayment is your promise that you’re not going to do anything stupid.”
I hated to lie to my only friend and the single person I could trust in the joint, but I could use his help. “Alright. I will better myself. That much I can promise you. I’ll take you up on your offer, but only if you promise after you get out to allow me to repay you with interest.”
He chuckled, his eyes lighting up, the smile on his face brighter than I’d seen for many months. “I’m glad and we’ll talk after my release. Remember, there is goodness inside of you. I can feel it. God will shine down on your life.”
There was a strange sadness in him, a resignation that I hadn’t heard before. As if I’d never see him again. We all had secrets hiding in the dark corners of our minds or our lives. He’d taught me that they usually came back to haunt our nightmares as well as our waking hours. Maybe he was prepared to face his.
Exhaling, I held out my hand, proud to call him my friend.
While I wanted to be the man he believed I could become, that wasn’t going to happen.
I had a list made in my mind of tasks to accomplish. Period. No one would stop me. No one.
I had the proof that could ruin my father. That would be the sweetest revenge of all.
“One last warning I hope you’ll heed,” Adam said, the tone of his voice haunting. “Be careful that your love for Mercedes doesn’t turn into an obsession. If that happens, you’ll lose yourself to desperate need.”
Desperate need. I already felt a burning desire so intense I couldn’t explain it, nor could I deny it. We were nothing but pen pals, but what I wanted from her would likely be condemned.
Mercedes had once asked me if I’d thought there was such a thing as real love. I knew the answer, although I’d never been able to give her a response. Real love was knowing that you were meant to be with that person, no matter the cost or the difficulties that you had to go through in order to be with them. I’d envisioned so many special, close moments over the years, allowing her romantic thoughts to fuel my own. Love also meant hurting others around you.
That was fine by me.
Very soon, my beloved pen pal would learn what crossing a monster would mean. She’d become my everything, a beautiful reminder of something that had been taken from me unfairly. I adored her. There was no way I was allowing my fucking father to dig his claws into an innocent creature. I had the power to stop that from happening, even if it meant crossing another dangerous line.
But I’d made up my mind.
I would save her, protect her, and in doing so, I would free myself. Finally. Totally.
Soon, she would become mine.