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The Darkest Corner of the Heart: Chapter 36


Two seconds ago, I was kissing the love of my life, giving her my soul, and now her brother is about to put me six feet under.

Fun times.

I’m not a guy who can be easily intimidated. I have a hard body I haven’t stopped building since my football days, and I can rock the hell out of a mean scowl. People don’t mess with me because they know better.

The rules don’t apply to this guy, though, and I get it.

If I had a little sister I’d been looking after for twenty-one years as if she were my own daughter and I caught an older man shoving his tongue down her throat, I would kill the motherfucker on sight.

I’m lucky I’m still breathing.

Her brother doesn’t stop until he’s right inside our bubble, now burst and gone. I’m only slightly taller than him, but we are equally as broad, and it’s not like that matters much now. Not when he looks like he’s going to rip me a new one in about two point five milliseconds.

“What the fuck is this?” he demands, but he doesn’t look at his sister. Those dark eyes stay on me. “Who the fuck are you?”

“Sammy,” Maddie starts, grabbing his arm, but he doesn’t back down. It’s like he can’t even hear her, lost in the pool of rage blazing in his eyes.

I swallow back my nerves as I look at her brother—her goddamn father in all the ways that count—and manage to find my voice again.

“Sir, I’m—”

I see the exact instant recognition dawns on him, his furious gaze widening just enough to tell me I’m as good as dead.

“You’re her fucking physical therapist,” he spits out, getting in my face. I don’t take a step back. I just let him go at me, because maybe I deserve it after all. “You took advantage of her vulnerability, you fucker? You thought it would be fun to mess around with one of your patients, huh? A twenty-one-year-old girl, for fuck’s sake. How old are you?”

“Sammy, stop!” Tears fall down Maddie’s soft face, so happy and full of light only a moment ago, and I shut my eyes. If I see her fall apart now, I don’t think I will be able to grasp the weak reins I have on my self-control. “It’s not what you think. Nothing happened while he was my doctor. I started it, Sammy. I did.”

“I don’t give a fuck who started it. He knew exactly what he was doing, and he didn’t stop it,” he growls in my face. “I asked you a question, Doctor.”

All my doubts and insecurities come crashing down at once with every word that comes out of his mouth.

Because he’s right.

What was I thinking, going after a younger woman who was entrusted to my professional care?

I feel sick to my stomach for all of two seconds before I will my eyes open, but instead of coming face-to-face with the raging beast in front of me, they find Maddie’s gaze—and I remember.

I’m not sick. I’m not a monster. I’ve never been.

I’m nothing more than a man who fell in love despite fighting against it. A man who looked beyond his own insecurities and took a leap of faith, all in the name of loving the incredible woman in front of him exactly how she deserves.

And I’m not going to stand here and let her brother, or anyone else, belittle my feelings for Maddie or try to turn them into something dirty.

She’s my light, my world, my everything, and I’m tired of feeling bad about it.

We don’t have control over who we fall in love with. The thought is terrifying, but I’m so damn glad it was her.

“Sir,” I start again, my voice sounding far steadier than I feel inside. “I would like to speak to you.”

“Then talk,” he barks.

My gaze slides to Maddie, understanding passing between us. She tugs at her brother’s sleeve. “Are Grace and Lila outside?” she asks, and he nods. “I’ll go find them.”

“The service is about to start.”

“I don’t care.”

She looks at me one last time over her shoulder, and the tiny smile she sends my way is enough to give me all the strength I need to face what is surely going to be one of the hardest but most important conversations of my life.

A country song I don’t recognize starts playing from one of the rooms just as Maddie closes the door at the end of the hallway, leaving her brother and me completely alone.

And all right, I may be a tiny bit scared of the venomous words that could come out of his mouth now that we don’t have an audience.

Instead of lashing out at me, though, he runs a hand down his tired face and sighs like this whole thing is nothing more than a big inconvenience for him.

“My name is James Simmons,” I start, ignoring the way my heart starts hammering inside my rib cage. “I’m thirty-one, and I’m a physical therapist at the clinic Maddie went to for her recovery. I was her doctor, but like she said, nothing happened between us while she was my patient. After that, I transferred her checkups to one of my colleagues so as not to compromise her health. I wouldn’t be here today if my feelings for her weren’t real, sir. I only have her best interests at heart.”

The fire is back in his eyes, ready to burn me alive, but I refuse to let him do it.

“You’re thirty-one. What business do you have trying to get with a twenty-one-year-old? Is this some kind of sick joke?”

“My feelings for your sister aren’t a joke.” My voice comes out firmer, a lot harsher than expected, and his eyebrows rise in response. I don’t give him a chance to give me shit for it. “We’re both very aware of our age difference, and we aren’t planning to ignore it. We’ve discussed it, have come to an agreement, and we’ll go slowly. At her pace—whatever she needs, I will respect it and support her.

“With all due respect, Maddie is capable enough to make her own decisions and stand by them. I will never hurt her or put her in harm’s way. Over my dead fucking body will anyone ever hurt her again. I tried to fight it. I thought it was wrong to feel all these things for her at first, but…”

My mind is spiraling, my palms are sweaty, and I can’t decipher the look in his eyes right now.

He could be a second away from either sucker-punching me or giving me a hug.

I’m too scared to find out.

Fuck it.

“I know what you mean to her. I know she loves and trusts you above anyone else, and I don’t want to hide any part of us from you. This… This relationship started months ago, and neither of us dared to put a label on it. We were aware of our age difference, and we wanted to make sure this was what we wanted. But weeks have gone by, and…”

If that look he’s giving me is any indication, I’m a dead man walking.

“She’s it for me. We’ve found something special in each other, a home we never thought we would find in another person, and I’m sorry, sir, but I won’t give her up unless she wants me to. She’s too important to me. She’s my everything.”

Now I can die happily, having confessed every truth in my heart to the most important person in Maddie’s life.

A heavy weight leaves my shoulders, and my heart rate goes back to normal. Sort of.

But the forty-something-year-old man in front of me, with the mean scowl and impressive tattoos all over his neck and hands, doesn’t kill me on the spot. Instead, he asks me one simple question.

“Do you love my sister?”

My voice doesn’t waver. I don’t hesitate. “Yes. With everything that I am. More than life itself.”

Something in his gaze softens before he sobers up again. I mean—he doesn’t even know me. I can understand the urge to keep her away from harm and heartbreak, because I feel the same.

“Do you promise to take care of her, be faithful to her, and love her in the way she deserves?” he asks, taking me by surprise. I genuinely thought he was still going to deck me.

“Yes. Forever.”

His eyes, the exact shade as Maddie’s, scan me up from head to toe.

“I don’t know you.”

I gulp, standing very still, as he speaks.

“I don’t know what kind of man you are. But I know this, James—if you ever hurt my sister in any way, shape, or form… I don’t care who or where you are, because I’ll find you, I’ll fucking end you, and I’ll make it look like an accident. Am I making myself clear?”

I can only nod and hope he doesn’t change his mind and decide to go through with his threat today.

He lets out another deep breath, some of the pent-up tension leaving his body. “If my sister chooses you, then I have nothing to say about it.”

Holy shit. He could’ve started with that.

After scanning me up and down once more, he adds, “I trust her judgment—we raised her well, after all. And I guess she could’ve done a lot worse than a physical therapist who flew all the way here to make sure she’s okay on one of the most difficult days of her life.”

I don’t think I’ve ever been so relieved to end a conversation.

You’re living one more day, buddy.

“I know she hasn’t had it easy,” I add for some reason, as if I still wasn’t at risk of getting beaten up. But I need him to hear this. “I don’t know how much she’s told you, and I don’t want to intrude, but I think you should know I was with her when her father approached her.”

He raises a questioning eyebrow. “You’re that guy?” he asks. “The one who took a photo of his car and license plate?”

“Yes. I was picking her up from work and—”

“You picked her up from Monica’s Pub? Why?”

I frown. “Because she gets out when it’s late and dark, and I want to make sure she gets home safely.”

He nods, and something strange happens. For the first time since he walked in, he doesn’t look ready to pounce. He almost looks…approachable.

“That was a good call. The license plate thing.” His gaze slides to one of the closed doors behind me. “Doesn’t matter much now that the fucker is dead.”

His words are harsh, but I can’t find it in me to feel sympathy for Maddie’s dad. Not when he didn’t grace my girl with a single ounce of it.

“I guess it doesn’t,” I mutter.

Silence falls over us. It’s not uncomfortable, but it’s not exactly welcoming either. He breaks it with the last words I expected after so much tension.

“I’m sorry I yelled at you earlier.” I can see the honesty behind his eyes. Even a hint of regret. “Maddie never said anything about you, so it caught me off guard. I’m protective of her. More than I should be, probably.”

“I get it.” I give him a curt nod. “We’re good.” I think. I hope.

“This doesn’t mean I like you,” he warns, but the easiness in his eyes tells a different story. Much like his sister, he can’t hide anything in them. He holds out his hand, and I give it a firm shake. “I’m still keeping you under surveillance.”

“I understand.”

“And please, cut that sir crap. It makes me feel old as shit,” he says next, throwing me for a loop even more when the corners of his mouth tilt up. Just barely, but it’s there. “Maddie calls me Sammy, but she’s the only one. I go by Cal.”

“Cal. Okay. Got it.” And why the fuck am I nervous now? “Should we go outside?”

He only nods, and together we swallow the distance between the hallway and the door. With his hand on the handle, he looks at me over his shoulder and asks, “How many times have you picked her up from work?”

I try to remember. “Every time she has a night shift pretty much since I’ve known her. I try to pick her up from her teaching job, too, but sometimes she gets out before I do.”

I don’t know what kind of answer I expected, but it wasn’t a genuine smile. An approving smile.

Without a word, he pushes the door open, and I spot her immediately. Standing in the sunlight with a blond woman and a little girl who looks like a carbon-copy of her, Maddie looks absolutely breathtaking in her black dress and long coat, one I itch to wrap tighter around her because it’s freezing out here.

The second Cal and I step out in the open, her head turns, and the expression on her face almost makes me laugh. She looks a second away from throwing up.

“You’re alive” is the first thing she says as we get closer.

At that, I can’t help but smirk. “Seems like it.”

She slides her cautious eyes to her brother. “And you don’t look like you are on the verge of a nervous breakdown anymore,” she observes. Her gaze pinballs between us. “Have you finally decided to behave like adults?”

Her brother wraps an arm around her shoulders, pulling her against him and kissing the top of her head. “As long as you’re happy, princess, I’ll be as well. That’s all I’ve wanted for you.”

She hums. “I’m not sure I buy it.”

“How about all five of us go grab some lunch? Would you be more inclined to buy it, then?” Cal suggests.

Her eyes widen in excitement and relief just as my heart somersaults. “Really?” She turns to me. “Really?”

I nod, an easy smile forming on my lips. “I’d love to.”

“Who are you? You’re very tall.” The little blond girl who I assume is Maddie’s niece stares up at me with a frown that looks so much like her father’s, it’s both terrifying and amusing. “Are you Maddsy’s boyfriend?”

“Lila!” the blond woman says. “Don’t be rude.” She looks at me, a pleading look in her eyes. “I’m so sorry. I’m Grace—Maddie’s sister-in-law.”

“Nice to meet you.” I give her a warm smile. There’s a hint of hidden amusement dancing in her eyes, and I wonder if Maddie’s told her about us. I go back to the girl in front of me, so small she barely reaches my belly button. “You are Lila, right?”

“Yes. I asked you a question.”

Another little firecracker, huh? I like her already.

Maddie, still wrapped in her brother’s embrace, only gives me one of her beautiful smiles that lights me up from the inside. And even though we haven’t explicitly talked about our relationship status, one look between us is enough to know that what we have is forever.

And it starts here.

“Yes, Lila. I’m Maddie’s boyfriend—James,” I declare so proudly I swear my heart combusts. “It’s really nice to meet you.”

And then it combusts a little more when her niece gives me the brightest of smiles. “Do you have games on your phone?” she asks, and I nod. She turns to her aunt. “You can keep him.”

That dissipates the remains of the tension between us as we all laugh.

And when I catch Maddie’s next words, a low whisper, all the darkness in my heart goes away at once.

“I was already going to.”


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