TRUSTING THE BODYGUARD BONUS: GRADUATION DAY
(A SPECIAL GIFT FOR TROY INSIDERS)
Copyright © 2021 by Maura Troy
All rights reserved.
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“You can’t be serious.” Judith Cochran was certain she’d misheard her father. “You don’t really expect me to marry a man I’ve never even met.”
Mitchell Cochran raised an eyebrow. “Have you ever known me not to be serious?”
Judith glanced at her stepmother, but Kim kept her eyes down as she puttered about, packing clothes into the suitcase on Judith’s dorm room bed. Rob, her sixteen-year-old stepbrother, sat at her desk, playing a game on her laptop and apparently oblivious to the conversation going on around him. Her family was here to celebrate her graduation with honors from Notre Dame, yet instead of being an occasion of joy, it was turning into a nightmare. Not that this really should have surprised her.
When her mother had died a little over four years ago, Judith had lost the only real family she’d had. All her life, her father had barely acknowledged her except when he was laying down rules for her. She’d never experienced any kind of paternal love. After he’d remarried, Judith and Kim had gotten reasonably close to each other, but no one would ever fill the void left behind by Judith’s mother.
“You’ll do as you’re told,” her father went on. “Tony Wallace is finally willing to merge his company. I will not let this opportunity go to waste. He saw your picture when he was at our home for dinner, and his eyes lit up. His wife died two years ago, and he says he’s ready to settle down again.”
“But…but I don’t even know him. How can you expect me to marry him?”
“Kim, get me that magazine and those papers from my briefcase.” Kim hastily complied, and he thrust the magazine into Judith’s hands. “That’s him on the cover. Read the article and you’ll learn everything you need to know about him. He’s one of the wealthiest men in the world, and merging his company with mine will be one of the most advantageous deals I will ever make.”
Judith looked at the picture and shuddered. “He’s got to be eighty years old.”
“He’s fifty-seven, but I have it on very good authority he’s got a bad heart and several other health issues. That’s what makes him look so old and also makes it quite likely you will be a very wealthy widow before your thirtieth birthday. I made sure you will get the bulk of his estate when he dies. It’s all part of the prenuptial agreement.” Waving the papers in front of her face, he pulled a pen from his pocket and thrust it at her. “Sign these.”
Judith looked at the pen and papers. Her vision blurred as tears filled her eyes, and she missed her mother more than ever. Her father was a hard, cruel man, but this was beyond anything she’d ever imagined. She’d always known he’d never really loved her, but that didn’t make it hurt any less.
“Spare me the waterworks, Judith,” Mitchell snapped. “Sign the damn papers. The wedding will take place in the fall. Kim will help you plan it. I’ve already taken care of the guest list, so you don’t have to worry about that. You can invite your friends if you want, as long as they know how to behave themselves and not treat it like some drunken frat party. There will be people there I do business with, and I will not be embarrassed. Do you understand?”
Judith wiped the tears from her face as she listened to her father lay out her future, sentencing her to a marriage with a sick old man as if she were nothing more than chattel. All her life, she’d done as he asked, toed the line and stayed out of his way. She looked again at the magazine cover.
Tony Wallace smiled up at her, but that smile didn’t reach his eyes. They reminded her of her father’s eyes, cold and distant, and she didn’t harbor any illusions that this marriage would offer an escape from the dismal life she lived at the Cochran estate. She would merely be trading one prison-like existence for another. No. She couldn’t do it. “I’m twenty-two years old. I will not marry a stranger more than twice my age.”
“Yes, you will. I’ve already made the arrangements.”
“I don’t care. I won’t do it.” Her whole body shook as she said the words. She never said no her father. No one did. But this was too much. Her self-respect overrode her fear.
Mitchell’s eyes narrowed. “What did you say?”
“I said I won’t do it.”
“You ungrateful little bitch,” he hissed. “How dare you? Let me be clear, very clear. You will marry Tony Wallace or you will regret it.”
“I’ll regret it if I do marry him.”
“If you defy me, you’re on your own. As of this moment, you will not be welcome back at the estate. And you will get nothing from me.”
Judith heard the words and knew they were meant to frighten her, but they had the opposite effect, proving without a doubt her father didn’t know her at all. “Fine. I don’t want anything from you.”
The vein in her father’s temple throbbed, a clear indication of his fury. “You spoiled little brat, you have no idea how to last on your own.” He grabbed her by the arm and all but threw her out the open door of her dorm room. “You don’t want anything from me? Good, because you won’t get anything.” He waved an arm back, indicating the room. “I paid for all of this. None of it belongs to you. When you come to your senses after a few days in the real world, you know where to find me. But you better scare up enough money to pay for the call. I won’t accept the charges.” He slammed the door, leaving her in the hall with nothing but the clothes she wore beneath her black graduation gown.
A few of her fellow graduates were in the hallway with their families, laughing and taking selfies. Wrapped up in their own celebrations, none of them even noticed Judith standing there, staring at the closed door as she processed what had just happened. He’d really done it. He’d thrown her out.
Stiffening her spine, Judith marched out of McGlinn Hall, her home for the past four years, and headed for the exit from the university’s campus. As she took a right onto East Angela Boulevard, her gown fluttered behind her like butterfly wings, and a weight she hadn’t realized she was carrying lightened with every step she took.
Her father had sought to frighten her into submission with his threat to disown her. But in fact, he had just handed her the best graduation present she could have asked for.
She was free. Finally free.
With a buoyancy that had her practically bouncing along the boulevard like Pooh’s pal Tigger, Judith stopped and spun around with her arms flung wide, laughing as car horns honked at her display. It was her own personal celebration, and she savored every second of it.
She couldn’t wait to tell Candy, her best friend in the world. Judith automatically groped for her pocket before she remembered she’d left her phone back in the dorm room. She wished she’d thought to grab it, but realized just as quickly her father wouldn’t have let her take it anyway. No biggie. Candy’s parents had rented a suite at a local hotel for the weekend. They had taken Candy out to dinner to celebrate her graduation, so Judith would just catch up with them at the hotel when they got back.
As she trekked along, she couldn’t stop a flicker of envy over the relationship Candy shared with her parents. Mr. and Mrs. Bartlett adored their daughter, and Candy reciprocated that feeling one hundred percent. It wasn’t the first time Judith had felt that way, and it probably wouldn’t be the last, although she felt it far less often these days than when she’d met Candy and her parents way back in freshman year. She’d grown to love Candy too much to be seriously jealous of her, and Mr. and Mrs. B were always so kind to Judith that she sort of looked at them as adoptive parents now. In fact, Judith had originally been included in the Bartletts’ dinner celebration, but she’d had to turn them down when her father had informed her of his intention to attend the commencement ceremonies.
Thoughts of the fabulous dinner Candy and her parents were most certainly enjoying sent a ripple of hunger pangs through Judith’s stomach. A search through her pockets turned up a five-dollar bill and a few crumpled singles. She bit her lip. Her total net worth? Eight dollars. That wasn’t going to last past the next few hours, especially if she wanted to eat. Refusing to panic, Judith reminded herself that she’d lived in this town for four years on the minuscule allowance her father had given her. She knew how and where to eat cheap.
She passed a drugstore, and a thought occurred. She needed to plan what she was going to do with herself now that her life was completely hers to control. Retracing her last few steps, she entered the drugstore and headed for the stationery aisle. Selecting the cheapest notebook she could find, she went to the checkout counter. She hated to part with one of her precious dollars but considered the notebook an essential investment in her future. Meticulous list-making had gotten her through college with summa cum laude honors. It would get her through whatever she had to do to make it on her own.
A few blocks more brought her to her favorite local coffee shop, the Super Spoon. She ordered a latte and one of their cheap but filling sandwiches. It left her with just enough to buy another latte if she needed it before she connected with Candy. The shop was empty. Not surprising since most of the students had left for the summer. Judith selected her favorite table near the window and enjoyed her solitary meal as she watched the traffic outside. Then she opened her new notebook and, with a pen she’d borrowed from the barista, got down to business.
A job and a place to live were her first two priorities. She’d have to enlist aid from Candy for a little while, go with her to New York. But there was something else she’d have to do first: change her name. She would make it on her own and wanted nothing to do with her father’s name or money. Shedding his name would irritate him, too, giving the idea an added bonus. Letting her imagination run free, she soon had a pageful of names to choose from.
Judith was so engrossed in her lists, she’d only been peripherally aware of the couple that had arrived, ordered some drinks, and sat at one of the tables in the center of the shop. But as the man’s voice rose, her attention was drawn. Judith didn’t know him — a large man who clearly spent a lot of time in a gym — but recognized his companion as a fellow classmate and graduate: Deirdre Edwards, a woman Judith had shared a few classes with but didn’t know very well.
“I told you to stay away from him,” the man spat.
“I did. I can’t help it if he came and talked to me. He just wanted to congratulate me for winning the award. That’s all it was.”
“Yeah, right. I saw how he looked at you.”
“You’re imagining things. He and I have been friends since freshman year. There was never anything romantic between us.” Deirdre’s voice held the weary tone of having had this same discussion many times before.
The man pounded the table with a meaty fist. “What, do you think I was born yesterday? He wouldn’t still be sniffing around you if there wasn’t more to it than that.”
Judith glanced over at the barista. Laurette’s eyes were wide as she looked at the couple, her arm frozen in mid-swipe of the counter she’d been wiping down.
“Brendan, please. Don’t make a scene. Joe is just a friend. He has no interest in me. He’s got a girlfriend. I’ve told you that a hundred times. I’m sure he’s going to marry her.”
“That doesn’t mean he wouldn’t fuck you if you gave him the chance. And you didn’t tell him to get lost. I bet you want him to fuck you. You’re a greedy little thing in the sack.”
“Is that what you think of me?” Tears pooled in Deirdre’s eyes as she stood. “Today was supposed to be a happy day, and you’ve ruined it with your ridiculous jealousy. I’m going home. Alone.”
Brendan jumped up and seized her arm. “Like hell you are! You think I don’t know what’s going on? You’re going to meet him, aren’t you? That’s why you picked this fight. Just so you could dump me and go to him.”
“Let go of me.” She pulled her arm, but he wouldn’t let go. He picked up his half-finished drink and threw it in her face.
“Hey!” Judith yelled. “Leave her alone!” She shot to her feet as the man whirled to face her.
“Mind your own business, bitch!”
“Let her go!” Judith clutched the pen tightly in her fist. She had no idea if it would stop this barbarian, but she fully intended to stab him with it if he came at her.
But the man stayed where he was, turning his back on Judith, clearly dismissing her as an insignificant interruption. He grabbed a napkin off the table and vigorously wiped Deirdre’s face. “Clean yourself up. I’m not walking down the street with you looking like that.”
“Ow! Brendan, stop it!” Deirdre struggled to turn her head away, but he yanked her closer and kept scrubbing at her face. “Please,” she wept. “Stop. You’re hurting me.”
Heart pounding, Judith moved toward the couple. “Leave her alone!” She put an arm around the sobbing woman and pulled her head to her shoulder, thwarting the jerk’s attempts to keep scrubbing. He dropped Deirdre’s arm and flung the napkin to the floor.
“You don’t know when to back off, do you? You snotty bitch!”
Judith stepped backward, pulling Deirdre with her. “Stay away from us.”
“Yeah? And what if I don’t?” He took a step forward.
Judith pushed the woman behind her, fury replacing her fear as they stepped back from him. They passed another empty table, and Judith grabbed a fork from the place setting. She waved it at him. “Well, come on then, asshole. Give it your best shot.”
His lip curled back into a snarling sneer. “All right, bitch. You asked for it.”
Laurette raced out from behind the counter, brandishing a broom. Her eyes were wide with terror, and her whole body shook, but she spoke clearly. “I wouldn’t, mister. Lay one hand on either of them and I’ll ram this down your throat so hard it will come out the other end. I’ve called the cops, and I’ll bet they’d get a huge laugh seeing this sticking out of your hairy ass.” She took a stand next to Judith.
Angry red patches appeared on Brendan’s face. “Oh, all three of you bitches are going to get it.”
He took another step forward, but neither Judith or Laurette stepped back. They each squared their shoulders and took firmer grips on their haphazard weapons. He hesitated, his fury turning his complexion an even deeper shade of vermilion. Terror pounded through Judith’s chest like a Tasmanian devil, but she braced herself for his attack, determined to do as much damage as she could to this Neanderthal.
He lunged forward, and she aimed for his eye with the fork. He batted her hand away, but Laurette smacked his arm with the broom handle before he could land a blow. Almost as if they’d rehearsed it, Laurette and Judith stepped to either side, and his momentum carried him forward several steps until he crashed into the wall. He whirled around to come at them again, but a shiny metal napkin holder flew through the air and hit him squarely in the face. Blood gushed from his nose.
Judith spun around to see Deirdre snatching up another napkin holder and taking aim. “Leave them alone, Brendan. Leave me alone. Get out of here.”
Brendan’s eyes spoke of brutal vengeance as he wiped his bloody nose on his sleeve. He started in Deirdre’s direction but stopped as a whine of sirens sounded in the distance, growing louder with each passing second. He glared at her, his breath coming in heavy rasps. “This isn’t over, Deirdre.”
He ran toward the door. Judith shoved a chair in his path and he made to leap over it, but his foot caught in one of the rungs. He crashed to the floor just as the police screeched to a halt outside. Two officers ran in. The Neanderthal pushed to his feet and tried to run around them, but they tackled him and quickly had him handcuffed despite his struggles to fight them off. The air turned blue with his curses and threats of vengeance.
Judith and Laurette clutched each other’s hands as Deirdre sank shakily into a chair. The police read Brendan his rights as they dragged him outside and stuffed him in the back of their vehicle.
Letting go of Laurette’s hand, Judith approached Deirdre, grabbing a few napkins and pushing them into the weeping woman’s fingers. “Hey, it’s going to be all right. He can’t hurt you now.”
Deirdre wiped her eyes. “Thank you. Both of you.”
“I hope you’re going to press charges, honey,” Laurette said.
Deirdre sniffled. “I don’t know. He was so nice when we first started dating. I don’t know what happened. He can be so kind sometimes.”
Judith stooped down and looked Deirdre in the eye. “Is that what you want? Someone who’s only nice sometimes? Are those sometimes worth it when he treats you like he just did?”
Fresh tears fell as Deirdre slowly shook her head. “No, of course not. You’re right. But I’m scared. He knows where I live.”
One of the police officers came back inside as she said the last sentence. “Is there someone you can stay with? If not, we can put you in touch with a shelter.”
“Can’t you keep him locked up?”
“We’re going to take statements from all of you, and the judge may not grant bail. But there’s no guarantee about that. It’s better to be safe.”
“I can go to my cousin’s apartment. They’ve never met, and Brendan doesn’t know where it is.”
The next hour was a blur of officers and statements. When it was over, Judith borrowed Laurette’s phone to call Candy. The Bartletts came and picked her up and were even kind enough to offer to drive Deirdre to her cousin’s apartment.
“What about you, Laurette?” Judith asked. “He could come back here.”
“I’ll be fine. I called my brothers to come and pick me up. They’re huge as linebackers.”
“I’m so sorry,” Deirdre said. “I’m sorry you’re in danger now because of me.”
“It is absolutely not because of you,” Laurette said. “He’s the problem. Don’t continue his abuse by letting him inside your head, you hear me? Don’t kick him out of your life only to start abusing yourself. You treat yourself well and then others will, too. Are you listening?”
Deirdre nodded, a timid smile on her face.
As Judith snuggled down to bed in the hotel room the Bartletts had rented for her, she found herself too edgy to actually sleep. She hated taking charity from them, no matter how sweet and caring their intentions were. As soon as she could, she would pay them back every penny. Candy insisted Judith come with her to New York and share her apartment there while Judith looked for a job and got herself on her feet. She also insisted on taking Judith shopping for clothes and essentials tomorrow and wouldn’t hear of Judith’s promises to pay her back. “You’ll do no such thing. You’re the best friend any girl could ask for, so this will be my graduation gift to you.”
But Judith would pay her back, one way or another, even though she wasn’t quite sure how. She’d been on her own for less than twelve hours, and already she was in debt up to her eyeballs. An unexpected tear slid down her cheek as the stress of the day, as well as the weight of all that lay ahead of her, pressed in. After all, she’d never known life outside of her father’s rule, and even though he’d never been generous, Judith had never gone without food, clothes, or a place to live. Now she had nothing. Maybe her father was right and she wouldn’t last on her own.
“Don’t continue his abuse by letting him inside your head, you hear me? Don’t kick him out of your life only to start abusing yourself. You treat yourself well and then others will, too.”
Laurette’s words to Deirdre whispered inside Judith’s head, the truth of them bringing a fresh sense of determination. Her father’s actions today were cruel, but Judith would only be hurting herself if she continued to dwell on them. Hell, yes, she had a long, hard road ahead of her, but she’d already made a list full of plans to get her through. And when that oaf Brendan had started with his bullshit, she’d been terrified. But she’d stood up to him anyway.
“You’re stronger than you think,” she told herself in the darkness. And she knew she could do it. She knew she could take care of herself and determined she would never allow anyone to be in control of her life ever again. Contentment stole over her, and she drifted off to sleep, secure in the knowledge that she would work her ass off and face whatever obstacles she had to, no matter how frightening.
“Do you see me, Mom?” she whispered before sleep fully claimed her. “Don’t worry about me. I’m going to be just fine.”
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