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Juniper Hill: Chapter 23


Christmas Eve. It was Drake’s first Christmas and there wasn’t a shred of holiday spirit in the house. The events from two days ago were still too raw. Instead of trimming a tree or wrapping gifts, I’d spent my waking hours waiting for answers and hovering close to my son.

Drake cooed on the bed, picking up his feet with his hands, while I folded the last load of laundry.

Knox and I had both taken time off from the hotel. When his staff had learned what had happened with Drake, they’d all insisted he stick close to home. They’d handled the wedding and were making the Christmas Eve and Christmas Day feasts at Knuckles.

Mateo and Anne had volunteered to cover my shifts, cleaning rooms and bustling around the hotel until I was ready to come back.

I wouldn’t stay away for long. I wouldn’t put that burden on them. But for the moment, I wasn’t comfortable being under a different roof than my son. And Knox seemed to feel the same. While I’d kept my mind occupied by cleaning the house and doing laundry, he’d been on his feet in the kitchen, prepping for the Christmas dinner we’d have at the ranch tomorrow.

Maybe I didn’t have any Christmas cheer, but there wasn’t a place I’d rather spend my holiday than with his family.

I’d lost all faith in my own.

My mother had tried to call once. I’d declined it, opting for a text to let her know that Drake was okay and home. She’d called four times since. If they continued, maybe next week I’d answer. Maybe not.

It was a strange feeling to lose your family. It would have been heartbreaking had Knox’s not already claimed me as their own.

Anne had been over three times since Friday, Harrison and Griffin twice. Eloise had come on Friday night after we’d returned from that motel. Talia had been right behind her, insisting on doing a quick checkup to make sure Drake was fine. And then Lyla and Mateo had shown with dinner.

The only family member we hadn’t seen was Winn.

And she was the one we’d been aching to see.

“Memphis,” Knox called from the living room. “Winn’s here.”

“Finally,” I breathed. The T-shirt I’d been folding plopped into the basket. I swept Drake into my arms and carried him down the hallway.

Knox opened the door for Winn, kissing her cheek as she came inside. “Hi.”

“Hi.” She smiled at us both. “Sorry to do this today. But I figured you guys were probably anxious to know what was happening and it would be better now than tomorrow with everyone around.”

“Please.” My heart was in my throat.

It was early still, just ten in the morning. Only yesterday Winn had told us they were still questioning Averie and Jill. But time had ticked by slowly and every hour spent waiting had felt like a week.

“Can we get you anything?” Knox asked, escorting her to the living room. “Water?”

“No, I’m good.” She pressed a hand to her belly that was just barely beginning to show, then took a seat in the chair so Knox and I could sit side by side on the couch.

He lifted Drake from my arms and laid him on the play mat beside our feet. Then he leaned forward, elbows to knees, and gave Winn the nod to start.

“Averie and Jill both requested lawyers, which has slowed the process down. But Jill has finally started cooperating. And we’ve got some evidence to help fill in the gaps with Averie’s side of the story.”

“Was she an FBI agent, Averie?”

Winn shook her head. “No.”

“But she showed me a badge.” It had been in a black wallet that she’d flipped open when I’d seen her outside my townhouse.

“We did find a badge on her person. It was a fake. A good fake. There was no way you’d know.”

“So she tricked me.” My heart sank. “She was just trying to get information on Oliver. Why?”

“From what we were able to find on her phone, she’s got a lot of video footage of Oliver. When I say a lot, it’s the sort I would expect to see from a stalker.”

“When I talked to Oliver, he sounded like he’d already dismissed her,” I said. “If he was being stalked, wouldn’t he know?”

“Not necessarily. She also had videos of your father. I doubt he knew she was following him either.”

“Why?” I shook my head. “I don’t understand why any of this was happening.”

“You and your family were a target.” Winn gave me a sad smile. “I’m guessing that Averie was offered money from Oliver to stay quiet about their relationship.”

I huffed. “He probably paid her the fifty grand I didn’t take.”

“Afterward, she must have learned about you and your family. Thought that if Oliver would pay her, you would too. And it would be an easy way to make money.”

“You think she knows how much Memphis is worth?” Knox asked.

Winn nodded. “I do.”

“I’m worth nothing,” I said. “Not anymore.”

Knox put his hand on my knee. “I doubt she saw it that way.”

“She could have gone to his wife,” I said.

“Nah.” Knox sighed. “Too dangerous.”

I was the easy route to millions. Except I didn’t have millions. Not anymore. “Why would she want Drake?”

“This is where Jill comes into play,” Winn said. “Again, without a confession, I can’t be sure, but I suspect that after your father denied her money, she decided she needed more ammunition. Specifically, a paternity test. Something to hold over his head, maybe Oliver’s too.”

“Enter Jill,” Knox mumbled.

“She’s a piece of work.” Winn rolled her eyes. “She doesn’t think she did anything wrong. Averie reached out to her weeks ago. Fostered some sort of relationship. Told her that she was Drake’s aunt. That her brother was his father. Averie’s story was that you refused to admit Drake was her brother’s son. And before they could get answers, you fled New York.”

My jaw dropped. “What? And Jill believed her?”

“Apparently. They’d become friends. Jill thought she was helping Drake get reunited with his family.”

“Oh, I hate her.” My teeth ground together.

Knox seethed at my side. “That fucking bitch.”

“Averie convinced Jill that she needed her help but they couldn’t meet in Quincy. That you might recognize her. It was too much of a risk that you’d take Drake and disappear like you had in New York. So Jill agreed to take Drake and meet her at that motel. It turns out, we weren’t all that far behind her. Thirty minutes, maybe. She thought she’d be back in town by five and you’d never be the wiser. Except it took longer at the motel because the money Averie promised Jill wasn’t there.”

“Wait.” Knox held up a finger. “Money?”

“One hundred thousand dollars. Averie said it was a reward her ‘brother’ was paying to anyone who helped reunite him with his son.”

“But Averie didn’t have the money,” I said.

Winn shook her head. “No and Jill refused to leave without it.”

“And Jill believed all of this?” I asked.

“I don’t know.” Winn shrugged. “It’s what she’s claiming.”

“Do you think it’s the truth?” Knox asked.

“Unfortunately, yes. Jill’s panicked. I don’t think she’s got the guts to lie when she’s staring at a kidnapping charge.”

“Of course it’s true. She thinks I’m a horrible mother,” I said. “She was probably enamored with Averie and thinking Drake would be better off without me.”

Knox put his arm around my shoulders. “You’re not a horrible mother. She’s fucking crazy, honey.”

“Then what am I for leaving Drake with her?”

His eyes softened. “I left him there too. So did other parents. Don’t put this on your shoulders. It’s on hers. Hers alone.”

“I should have trusted my instincts.” And the guilt for ignoring them would plague me for years to come.

“Knox is right, Memphis,” Winn said. “This is not your fault.”

“Do you think Averie was really after his DNA? Or was she going to take Drake?”

“My hunch is DNA,” Winn said. “I asked Jill if she was under the impression that Averie intended to take Drake away. She said all she wanted was his saliva and a hair sample. That she hardly spared him a glance.”

“Because he wasn’t the endgame.” Knox huffed. “She was after the money.”

Winn nodded. “It’s a lot of speculation at this point, but most of the time, our speculation turns out to be close to the truth.”

My mind was spinning again. Though it hadn’t really stopped since Friday.

“What’s next?” Knox asked.

“Because this is a case of child abduction, I’ve reached out to the FBI. They’ve got the resources we don’t to examine Averie’s life in New York. I want the investigation to be as thorough as possible in the hopes that she spends a long while in prison.”

“Good.” The air rushed from my lungs. “What about Oliver? Will they speak to him?”

“I expect they will. And, I expect, after everything you’ve told me, he will deny knowing you.”

“Fine by me.”

I had no intention of mentioning his name again, even if the FBI came knocking on my door. If Oliver’s wife found out that he was an unfaithful bastard, that was his problem. It wasn’t coming from my lips.

“They will take over and bring in federal prosecutors,” Winn said. “I’ll keep in touch with the lead agent on the case. Hopefully they’ll keep us apprised as to what’s going on. But mostly, we wait. You do your best to get on with your lives.”

It didn’t feel like enough. There wasn’t enough closure.

But I suspected it would be all the closure we’d get.

“Thank you for coming out here today,” I told Winn.

“I’m sorry I don’t have more for you.” She stood and we followed, walking her to the door. “See you tomorrow?”

“Yep.” Knox nodded. “Merry Christmas Eve.”

“Merry Christmas Eve.” She pulled me into a hug. “You’re a good mother, Memphis. Never doubt that.”

“Thank you.” I hugged her tighter, hoping that one day I’d believe those words. Maybe in time, when Jill and Averie Flannagan were just a dim nightmare from the past.

Winn waved and slipped outside. It had been snowing all day in fluffy, white flakes that dusted her dark hair. When her taillights were a blur down the lane, Knox closed the door.

“This feels . . .”

“Unfinished.” He wrapped his arms around me. “I doubt she’ll confess, tell us everything, but damn it, I want answers.”

That was exactly how I felt too. “How do we get past this? How do we get past the worst days?”

“By making more of the best.” He kissed the top of my hair and let me go, shifting to dig something from his pocket. “I was going to wait until tomorrow. Give it to you when we opened gifts. But after everything that’s happened, waiting feels like wasting time.”

I shifted, trying to spy what he had in his fist. But he’d closed it in his palm.

It was only after he dropped to a knee that he loosened his hand, revealing a perfect diamond ring.


“Yes.” I dropped to my knees, not letting him finish, and smashed my lips to his.

He swept me up, not missing a beat as his tongue swept against mine, and carried me to the couch, trapping me beneath his broad frame. Then he kissed me like I needed him to kiss me. Like there were no unanswered questions. Like there was no evil in this world. Like all we needed was right here, in this house and in this town.

Knox kissed me and made today my fourth-best day.

Drake squawked the moment Knox’s hand slid beneath the hem of my shirt.

He tore his mouth away and shot a scowl toward the play mat. “Son, we will work on your timing.”

Son. “He is, you know? Your son.”

“I know. We’ll get married, then make him officially mine. Whatever it takes.”

“Okay.” It felt strange to smile after everything that had happened. But I did it anyway. I smiled so wide it pinched my cheeks. “I love you.”

“I love you too.” He kissed me again. “Until the end of my days, Memphis. You, me, Drake. We’re good, honey. We’re so fucking good. And we’ll add in a bunch of babies to the mix to keep it interesting.”

I laughed. “Oh, really?”

“I want a big, chaotic family to fill this house. I want to step on toys in the middle of the night. I want to break apart fights and bandage up skinned knees. I want the mess. I want the passion. I want to watch you grow our kids.”

In his piercing blue eyes, I saw that future. It was full of best days. It was full of love for the man who’d stolen my heart. “Promise?”

Knox grinned. “I swear it.”


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