Life After Dark - Chapter 114
Chapter 114

~ New Year's Eve: The Pieces Fit ~


Even now, months after their deal and as she stood in the safety of her own kitchen, the thought of the man sent chills coursing through Gina's body. Little pebbles of goosebumps formed on her arms and the hairs on the back of her neck stood on end. Of all the guards, he was the one she had hated the most. The others had been assholes and cowards, but him… Juan Valdez had been unlike them in so many ways.

Gina lowered the stove's dial to simmer as her head began to swim with memories of Juan. Physically, he had been one of the most attractive men she had ever seen. His looks were such that he could surely have been a movie star or model had he made the effort. She hated to admit it to herself now, but she had found him a little attractive. The tan skin, the white teeth, which sparkled with a charming smile, had very nearly fooled her the first time she had laid eyes on him. But lucky for her that wasn't the case.

The memory of their first meeting came back to Gina with alarming clarity. Angry and resentful at having been taken against her will, she had stared at him fearlessly. Her hazel eyes had bore into his brown eyes, never losing contact and not wavering an inch…even when his eyes had darkened from their rich chocolate brown to an almost charcoal black. In fact, her eyes didn't stray from his until she saw right into the core of him. She clearly had seen the thinly disguised lunacy that he just barely held in check and just as soon as she had understood it for what it was, she saw black and then a smattering of stars as she landed to the ground in a small heap.

When her eyes had fluttered open again, she saw the warm, gentle eyes of Simone Hardy as she wiped away the blood, tended to her wounds and sung softly to her about a friendly bullfrog. Fearful and uncertain, Gina had tried to move away, but found herself unable to. Then a soft, young masculine voice had told her to relax. The voice said that his mother wouldn't hurt her. That she would take care of her and that she would be okay. That voice had belonged to Tommy and she had listened to it…to him. His words were proven to be true. Simone did take care of her and with constant attention, brought her back to reasonable health. And now, three years after she was abducted, Gina was okay. Well, almost.

The timer that rested on the counter sounded loudly and jolted Gina from the past. She quickly silenced the obnoxious beeping and then directed her attention to the oven. She opened the door and was greeted by the smell of warm, buttery garlic as it melted on the loaf of French bread. She pulled the pan out and inspected her creation. It looked as delicious as it smelled. She knew that Tommy would be pleased with the results. After resting the pan on the counter to cool off a little, she turned off the stove. She removed the pan of tomato sauce from the heat and made sure that everything was turned off before she left the kitchen to head into her bedroom.

Gina glanced at her bedside digital clock and released a deep sigh. She didn't have much time to get ready before Tommy arrived. She quickly undressed and stepped under the hot spray of the shower. She wanted the fragrant aroma of her shower gel to soothe her frazzled and tense nerves as she lathered the soap over her body. The smell of jasmine and honeysuckle filled her nostrils, but did little to soothe her. She quickly finished bathing herself and stepped out of the shower to dry off.

After brushing her teeth and pulling on her underwear she padded back into her bedroom. Her black lacy slip lay next to her new black dress on her bed. She pulled the slip over her head and as she pulled her hair from underneath the material, she saw a glimpse of her reflection in the mirror. With her memories of the past being forefront in her mind, the present image of herself startled her for a moment. She stared at the woman with the shoulder-length flaxen hair and big hazel eyes in surprise. Walking away from the bed, she moved across her bedroom to stand before her mirror. Her eyes drifted over herself as she noticed herself in what felt like the very first time.

For some odd reason, tears sprang to her eyes. She was beautiful, she realized. Tommy had told her so on many occasions, but she hadn't believed him. She hadn't dared. The residual feelings of shame and humiliation of her past three years had made her unable and unwilling to believe him. How could she, Gina Cates, a woman who had endured the most miserable of existences be beautiful? She was strong and fearless and determined, but beautiful? She shook her head. She couldn't be. Not after the life she'd led, but still… She stepped closer to her reflection and stared at herself from head to toe. A single tear made a faint trail down her cheek and she blindly wiped it away. This was what Tommy sees when he looks at me, Gina thought. How can this be?

She stumbled back to her bed and sat down. She reached for a pair of black stockings and rolled them up, preparing to slide her feet inside. With half a mind, she pulled the stockings on and continued to dress herself while the rest of her mind drifted back to her conversation with Simone. As the sound of Simone's warm voice came to her, an image of the woman flashed into her mind. She too had become much more than the gaunt woman that she had been just a few short months ago. Looking at both of them now, no one could imagine the life they had led…Gina for three years and Simone (and Tommy) for an unbelievable six years. It was almost inconceivable that they had lived that life of endless harassment, bone-breaking work, awful diet and various other unspeakable occurrences and had lived to tell about it.

Shaking her head to clear her thoughts, Gina wondered why her thoughts kept drifting back. She didn't want to think about that life anymore. She didn't want to remember the nightmares, which still plagued her mind. The touch of the hands, the sound of the cries and all of the other countless things that had a way of creeping back into her consciousness. But, try as she might, it all came back to her and she knew that it wasn't just because of Simone's telephone call or questions. Nor was it brought on by what had happened on her sofa between her and Tommy when he had silently and lovingly tried to tell her how beautiful he found her and how much she meant to him. No, something else…something deeper, just below the surface brought those memories and feelings back to her. Her small, strong hands clenched into a fist as the need to know what it all meant took a hold of her. She held herself still as she stretched her mind and her memories to the limit, trying desperately to put it all together. The intensity of her concentration soon overwhelmed her and in frustration, she fell back against the bed.

With her eyes tightly shut, images of Juan kept coming to her. Smiling Juan. Charming Juan. Pain-inflicting Juan. Ruthless Juan. Evil Juan. The Juan whose last assault on her best friend had almost left the woman dead. Bitter tears flowed down Gina's cheeks as she remembered being taken away by one of the guards and being terribly afraid of what had lain in store for her…


Gina followed Shorty as he led her down the dank corridor. He hadn’t said anything to her since they left the cave area. She was nervous about where he was taking her, but she knew better than to ask. The guards didn’t like to be questioned. About anything.

When they reached their destination, Shorty stopped. Opening the door, he roughly shoved her into the room. She fell onto her knees and before she could stand, she heard the door slam shut and the lock click into place.

Gina was scared to look up. She hadn’t been summoned in quite a while and she didn’t like the idea of being summoned now. She kept her head lowered for a few minutes more until she heard a small whimper.

The sound was so low and pained that Gina looked up without thinking of her own fear. What she saw made her angrier than she had been in a long time. In that moment she decided that whatever plan Keesha came up with, she would be in on it, too.

She rose from the floor and quickly went to Simone who was huddled in the fetal position in the middle of the room. Simone’s clothing was in shreds and she was covered in bruises. Her eyes were glazed, as she whimpered softly in her delirium.

Gina reached for the medical supplies, which had so conveniently been left beside Simone. She dipped a cloth into the bucket of water, which was also beside Simone and gently dabbed at her bloody face. Her heart broke when Simone winced and shied away from her touch.

She spoke to Simone in soothing tones, reassuring her that she was okay. She told her that no one would hurt her. She said that she was there and that she would protect her. As she comforted Simone's soul with words, Gina's hands attempted to heal Simone's battered body.

After Gina had cleaned and dressed Simone's wounds as best she could, she gathered her into her arms and slowly rocked her back and forth. She softly sung to her the same song Simone had comforted her with so long ago.

'Jeremiah was a bullfrog
He was a good friend of…
"…mine," Simone whispered in unison with Gina.

Gina immediately stopped singing when she heard Simone's voice. She looked down at her dear friend and began to cry tears of join when she saw that Simone was lucid. Simone was alive and her eyes told Gina that her spirit had not been broken. They had won this battle, and in time, they would win the war.

Continuing to hold Simone within the safety of her arms, Gina was quiet. She knew that although Simone's eyes were wide and lucid, the older woman would need a few moments to collect herself. Gina couldn't give her dear friend much, but she could and would give her that. After a few minutes had passed, Simone sat up on her own. More minutes ticked on and soon, Simone's breathing returned to normal and she began to look around the room, holding the tattered clothing against her body.

"It was Juan, wasn't it?" Gina asked quietly, as she handed Simone the clothing, which had just been thrown inside the room.

"Yeah," Simone said, replacing the shredded rags with fresh ones.

"Why can't he leave you alone?" Gina asked angrily. Of all the guards, past and present, Juan had been the worst. His obsession with Simone was sick and sadistic. Gina hated him.

"I'm his favorite," Simone answered quietly. She dressed herself carefully, conscious of the bruises and the pain she felt with every move she made.

"That's not funny," Gina said, moving to help Simone tie up her shoes.

"I'm not laughing," Simone replied. "He's one sick bastard, all right."

"Now, that's an understatement," Gina said.

"Tell me about it," Simone agreed.

{{End of Flashback}}

One sick, obsessive son of a bitch, Gina bitterly thought as she pushed herself to an upright position. Even as sickly as Simone had been, he still couldn't resist the urge to abuse her. The thought of him made Gina sick to her stomach. She rose from her bed and ran into her bathroom. She made it just in time to release the bile, which had leapt to her throat. Once it had all been flushed away and her mouth had been freshened by her mouthwash, she went back into her bedroom. Determined, she raked her brush through her hair. She had surrendered to the past this time, but she wouldn't again. Tommy would be there soon and they would celebrate the coming of the New Year together. And the things of the past would be left there.


"You've been rather quiet," John commented softly as he placed a hand under Simone's elbow. "Is there something wrong?"

Simone glanced down at where his hand touched her. She then slowly raised her eyes to his. Her eyes narrowed as she stared at him, searching for…something. He stared back at her. His soft grey eyes stared back at her with concern. "Simone?" he prodded gently.

The questioning look in Simone's brown eyes faded as John's concern grew. She offered him a faint smile and shook her head. "I'm fine. I was just a little thrown off there for a second, but everything is okay now."

"Are you certain?" John questioned her. His hand left her elbow to rest at the small of her back. Their footsteps carried them a few paces behind Elizabeth as she led them towards the restaurant. "We can go back if you prefer."

"I'm fine," Simone reassured him. "Really I am. Besides, I've been looking forward to this. I don't want to back out now."

"Ah," he whispered softly, a pleased smile on his lips.

"Ah?" Simone repeated. She chuckled softly as his smile grew wider. "What does that mean?"

Narrowing his eyes, John regarded her expression closely. "I'm not sure I should tell you the meaning of my 'ah.' Perhaps, it would be better if you did not know."

"Oh," she said, shrugging. She gave him a smile and then stepped away to go towards Liz.

"Oh?" he repeated, moving briskly to reach her. He resisted the urge to grab her arm and force her to face him. The urge had been a strong one and he was mildly pleased that he hadn't indulged it. The time for his urges to be indulged would happen. Soon, mi querida, he thought with a smile. Very soon.

"Yes, oh," she said, teasing him with her smile and dancing her eyes. She then turned her attention to her niece. "Hey, you! Where's the fire?"

"I was trying to give you some time alone," Lizzie grinned as she playfully nudged Simone's arm. "It's bad enough that I'm barging in your dinner."

"You're not barging in on anything. We both want you with us, so get that thought out of your mind, okay?" Simone said, placing her arm around Lizzie's shoulders.

"Okay…well, as long as you're sure. Both of you and not just you," Lizzie told her, wrapping her around Simone so that arm in arm they entered the restaurant.

"Sure about what?" John asked, placing his hands on both of their shoulders.

"Sure about wanting me here," Lizzie answered. "This is a romantic night for couples. I'll understand if you'd rather spend it with just my aunt. I could order room service and a movie. You don't have to feel-"

"Don't be silly," John said, cutting her off. He gave Lizzie's shoulder a pat before he released her. "Of course, we want you with us. I wouldn't have it any other way."

With her doubts relieved, Lizzie smiled at the couple. A surprised giggled escaped her lips as the host removed her coat from her shoulders. Turning away from her aunt and John, she followed the host as he directed them to their table.

After relinquishing their coats, John made a step to follow Lizzie. Impulsively, Simone slid her hand inside John's and gently tugged. With a slight frown, he looked at her with a puzzled expression on his face. Standing on tiptoe, Simone placed a chaste kiss on his cheek.

Smiling, John raised his fingers to his cheek. "What was that for?"

"For being you," she said. "For being so good with her. And to thank you for this trip. She needed it, and I'm glad you included her."

"You don't have to thank me for that," he said, his eyes and demeanor serious. "It has been my pleasure. Your niece is a lovely young woman. She's almost as lovely as you are."

"You are a true charmer, Giovanni Montega," Simone said, grinning at him.

"Only when I have a reason to be," was his smooth and honest response.

"This place is incredible!" Lizzie whispered as Simone and John joined her at the table. "Did you see that?! He helped me with my coat! I've never had that happen before."

"My, you're very easy to please, Miss Webber," John said, teasing her. "Or perhaps, you should get out more often."

"I think both," Lizzie giggled. Her giggling ceased when the dessert cart rolled by. Her mouth watered as she turned back to their table. Looking at Simone, she said, "Did you see that cake? I think I just gained twenty pounds just by looking at it."

"Elizabeth, you are too much," Simone said, laughing softly. "I don't think you'd have to worry about twenty pounds. At fifteen, your metabolism will burn off a slice in a matter of minutes. Now, if I were to have a slice…"

"You'd have nothing to worry about," John told her. His eyes slid over her slender frame and an appreciative light shone in his eyes. "You are perfection, my dear Simone. Not even a moment's indulgence of chocolate could change that."

"Perfection," Lizzie sighed as she looked from John to Simone. "That was so sweet, John."

"Not you, too," Simone said, blushing. "I'm not anywhere near perfection."

"I beg to differ," John said, leaning towards her to take her hand.

"And, so do I," Lizzie added with conviction. "I have an idea. What if we shared a slice?"

"How about this?" Simone countered. "What if we ate our dinner first and then afterward we'd see how we feel?"

"How about this?" Lizzie asked, grinning. "What if we skipped dinner and went straight to dessert?"

"Ah," John said with a smile as his fingertips lightly caressed the back of Simone's hand, "now, I think I vote for dessert first."

"So, do I," Lizzie quickly added. "What do you say, Aunt Simone?"

John's fingers on hers sent shivers up Simone's spine. Staring back at him, she felt as if he were hypnotizing her with his eyes. She became breathless and glanced away to settle herself. Lizzie's dancing eyes stared back at her and she couldn't help but laugh. Nodding, she agreed. "Okay, two against one. Dessert first, it is."

"Excellent!" Lizzie laughed. She gave John a conspiratorial wink. "Thanks!"

"My pleasure," he said with a smile.


Tommy took a deep breath before he raised his hand to knock on Gina's door. He felt a slight twinge of guilt as he heard her call out that she was coming. He knew that she would be disappointed when she saw him standing on her doorstep in a pair of faded blue jeans, scuffed boots and PC High sweatshirt and matching jacket. He should have called her to cancel, but he had stopped at his home first. He wanted to see if his mother had called and to let his grandmother know that he was going to New York. He wasn't sure how to explain the latter to Audrey, but luckily for him, she wasn't home so he left her a message instead. Upon finding no message from his mother, his worries had increased, and he had quickly called Sonny, telling him to meet him at Kelley's and to hurry. He wasn’t sure how he would tell Gina, but he was confident he'd find a way. She understood his anxiety and if she became upset with him, he knew it wouldn't last long. Well, he hoped it wouldn't.

"Happy New Year!" Gina exclaimed as she swung open the door. Her happiness faded, as she looked him up and down. With her arms folded across her chest, she said, "Jeans?"

"Hey, I thought you liked the way my jeans fit," Tommy said with a shy smile as he gave her a kiss. To his relief, she accepted his kiss and pulled him inside. Tommy inhaled deeply. Gina smelled of flowers and her apartment smelled of his favorite dish—Spaghetti, meatballs and garlic bread. "It smells delicious, sweetheart."

"Thanks," she said. A small frown creased her brow as he looked at her. "Do you plan to tell me what's going on, or what?"

"…well, I'm going to New York. I know I said I'd give John a break, but I can't, Gina. Sonny wasn't able to find anything on him and that worries me."

"Back up," Gina said, looking at him in disbelief. "Sonny didn't find anything on him? Explain, please."

Tommy drew a long breath. He shrugged out of his jacket and placed it on her sofa. Taking his time, he answered her. "Sonny had him investigated, and before you start, I didn't ask him to. He just did it."

"Why?" she asked.

"Because he thinks he's as weird as we think he is. Gina, he's not real-"

"What do you think Simone is gonna do when she hears about this?" Gina asked, torn between respecting her friend's right to privacy and simply protecting her friend. "She won't be happy that you went behind her back. Wait. He's not real? What are you talking about?"

"He's not who he says he is. He's not Giovanni Montega! He made it all up!" Tommy said, his voice rising as he became angry and afraid for his mother and cousin. "And, if she gets mad at me, I can handle it! I'd rather she be mad at me th-than… Gina?" Tommy's voice became softer as Gina grew pale and still. Tommy went to her and led her to the sofa. "Gina, what's wrong?"

Gina grabbed Tommy's hands and clutched them tightly. Her voice trembled as she whispered. "Who is he? Did Sonny find out who he is?"

Tommy slowly shook his head. Gina's fingers dug into his hand, but he didn't pry them away from her. The look in Gina's eyes scared him. He saw terror and disbelief in her hazel eyes and he had to know what it meant. "Do you…know? Gina, tell me! Do you know who he is or who he might be?"

Gina nodded and shrugged. Tears blurred her vision until she blinked them away. "I don't know. I hope not. God, Tommy, I hope not, but it could be. But, it can't be! It just can't be!"

"Gina!" Tommy tore his hands from hers to grasp her shoulders. "Baby, you gotta talk to me! You're scaring me! Who do you think he is? Gina!"

"I could be wrong! I've been thinking about it all day and he keeps coming back into my mind. His voice…those eyes…the things he did… But, he doesn't look like Juan and he doesn't sound like Juan! He can't be Juan! He just can't be!"

"Juan?" Tommy whispered hoarsely. "You think that bastard is Juan? That guard who would never leave Mama alone? The one who watched her all the time? You think he's…John?"

"I'm not sure," she said, rising from the sofa. "Plastic surgery can do a lot of things, but give him a new face? Is that possible? I don't think it's possible-"

"No! Gina, don't!" Tommy rose from the sofa and moved so that they faced each other. "Don't doubt yourself! What if he is Juan? What if he's with her and Lizabeth?-"

"We have to-" Gina stopped speaking as a knock at her door interrupted her.

"I'll get it," Tommy said, his voice distant. He moved past her to open her door. "Hey, Sonny," he said, greeting the other man, "it's worse than we thought. We know who John really is. We have to go now."

"Who is he?" Sonny asked, chilled by the dead quiet of Tommy's voice. He glanced past Tommy to look at Gina. Her face was ashen and her eyes were wide with hatred and fear.

"His real name is Juan Valdez," Gina told him. She picked up Tommy's jacket and handed it to him. As she continued to speak, she went to her closet and pulled out her coat and purse. "He was one of the guards from when we were held. His goal in life was to make Simone's life hell. I'll explain the rest later. Let's go. We may not have much time."

"You're not going," Tommy said, shaking his head. "Sonny and I can handle this."

"No," Gina said, firmly. "I love your mother, and there's no way I can wait here for you two to come back. Besides, neither of you knows him the way I do. You're gonna need me, and I'm going with you."

Go to Chapter 115.