Page 28

I sigh. “She used to braid my hair. I love it when people braid my hair. But I dated a man who thought long hair wasn’t sophisticated. So I cut it, about this length. I didn’t cry that time, but I wanted to. I no longer saw my mom’s reflection when I looked in the mirror.” Grunting a painful laugh, I shake my head. “The asshole guy told me, after it was too late, that I didn’t have the face for short hair. He said it accentuated my big ears and my big eyes. Then he left me two days later for someone younger with smaller eyes and ears.”

Jake presses his lips to the top of my head again, it brings more emotions to my eyes. It makes my heart hurt for so many reasons. It’s tender, not sexual. It’s such a foreign feeling to me.

“Is that why you got fake hair?”

I laugh. “Extensions.”

“Same thing.”

“No.” I giggle some more. “The extensions were real hair. Just not my hair.”

“And that’s not a little creepy to you? Wearing someone else’s hair?”

“I have leather and fur clothing. I’m sure that offends you, but I clearly don’t have issues with any of it.”

“The length of your hair doesn’t define you.”

“Neither does the size of your muscles or the ink on your skin … yet you have both. Did you know there have been comprehensive studies on narcissism, and the results show men are far more narcissistic than women? The stereotypical link between vanity and femininity is just that … a stereotype. Look, he’s strong, powerful, and in shape. He’s stylish and sexy. She, on the other hand, is self-absorbed, vain, materialistic, and fake.”

“Hmm …”

I wait for him to give me more than a contemplative hum. Nope. That’s it.

“Long day. I’m tired.” He eases me out of his lap.

I straighten my hoodie and reach for my hair to smooth it, stopping just shy of actually touching the short ends. Old habits. Jake doesn’t miss it. He mirrors my weak smile.

“Do your thing.” He nods toward the tent. “I’ll put out the fire and lock up the truck.”

“Okay,” I say with crippled confidence—fully clothed yet completely naked.

* * *

The next morning I wake up first after a restless night of sleep. I can’t help it that I like beds, air-conditioning, and guys who are transparent. Seriously, I’m traveling with a walking unsolved mystery. Does he hate me? Love me? Lust me? Want to kill me? Want to fuck me? I have absolutely no clue. He had me in tears yesterday for so many reasons.

I’m emotionally ripped into a million pieces at this point. If I had a mirror, I’m certain I wouldn’t recognize the reflection in it.

Needing to burn off some energy, I slip into some exercise clothes that are in desperate need of laundering and take off on a morning hike, sans Swarley because he refuses to move from his spot.

“Lovely.” I frown as I head up the small hill, attempting to pull my hair back into a ponytail. It’s maybe a half-inch ponytail.

My eyes and ears must look huge. I inwardly laugh at the thought. Yes, I care about my appearance. I like girly things. Nice things. Things in general. But I like people too. My family means the world to me. Do I have to be grounded and selfless to the point of never looking in a mirror or wearing a paper sack around, so—god forbid—no one thinks I care about myself more than is considered acceptable?

Screw the ponytail. I slip the band around my wrist since the pounding of my feet against the trail causes my short hair to fall out of it. I don’t even remember where we are. The past two days have been emotionally challenging. Time of day and day of the week don’t register with me, let alone our location in the sticks.

Oklahoma?

Texas?

Hell if I know.

I jog the trail until my incessant thoughts evaporate, until my only focus is the way my body feels, not how it looks. I jog until I’m physically exhausted … too exhausted for anything, short of a shower, to matter.

“Mommy!”

I slow to a stop and look around for the high-pitched voice. Tiny sobs and hiccups whisper just beyond the trail.

“Mommy!”

“Hello?” I follow the young cries.

“M-mommy …”

A little girl, maybe five or six, with ratty, light brown hair, and tear stained cheeks, peeks around a tree. A stuffed, gray rabbit hangs from her hand as her lower lip trembles.

“Hi. Are you lost?”

She nods, hazel eyes wide and unblinking. A ways back, I turned around to head back to the campsite, so I’m guessing we’re a quarter mile from it. Scanning the area, I don’t see or hear anyone else around.

“Did you camp last night?”

She nods, hugging her ragged stuffed bunny to her chest.

“My name is Avery. I’m going back to the camping area. I bet your mom is there. Do you want me to help you find her?” This is a tough thing to navigate. If her mom is like my sister, Sydney, then she’s drilled stranger danger into her little head. But this girl is clearly lost, and there doesn’t seem to be anyone looking for her around here.

The little girl nods, wipes her runny nose with her hand, and holds out the same hand for me to take. I stare at it for a few seconds. She could be my niece. She could also be the next Amber Alert if I don’t help her find her family. I take her hand, snot and all, and walk with her back to the campsite.

“Where the fuck have you been?” A large, bearded man in jeans, a white tee, and a leather vest tosses his cigarette aside and grabs the girl by her arm, yanking her away from me without giving me so much as a second of eye contact.

“Mommy …” she cries.

“It’s not your mommy’s fucking weekend to have you. So stop your whining and get your ass in the truck. It’s time to go.” He opens the door to the black pickup truck and practically throws her into the passenger seat as she whimpers, “Ouch, Daddy!” After slamming the door shut, he walks behind the travel trailer as if I don’t exist.

“Excuse me, I found your daughter crying in the woods nearly a quarter mile away. I think you need to blame yourself instead of her. She’s not a dog on a leash. She’s your responsibility.”

He lights up another cigarette. “Who the fuck are you?”

Planting my hands on my hips, I narrow my eyes. “I’m the person you should be thanking for finding your daughter before someone kidnapped her.”

His disgusting gaze makes a skin-crawling inspection of me as he blows smoke in my face.

I cough.

“I could stick my dick in your ass for a few minutes. Then we’ll call it even. How does that sound, Ms. Good Samaritan?”

Hot rage creeps up my neck. This man is a father. Good people try and fail to have children, and this asshole is a father. “Sorry, but your whole body won’t fit in my ass. That’s what you’re implying, right? Because clearly you are nothing but a big, grimy, yellow-toothed, putrid-breathed, pocked-faced DICK!”

He grins before pinching his lips around his disgusting little habit. On another exhale in my face, he flicks the cigarette aside. “That answers that.” He tugs at his belt, unfastening it. “My cock’s going down your throat, just to shut you up, you stupid cunt.”

I take a step back, heart slamming into my ribs.

“Wait in line, buddy. You can have a go at her when I’m done.”

I squint at his ugly face. What is he talking about? Retreating another step, I jump with a tiny gasp.

A familiar hand slides around my waist, pressing flat to my exposed abs below my sports bra. He pulls my back flush to his chest. “Call 9-1-1, Ave,” Jake says in an eerily calm tone while handing me his phone. “Tell them this man just tried to rape you.”

An iciness slithers along my spine.

“Fuck you, asshole.” The disgusting guy narrows his eyes at Jake.

“Ave,” Jake whispers in my ear, his lips brushing against it. “Take the phone. Go to the front of the truck. Call 9-1-1. And stay there until I come get you. Understood?”

My head inches up and down as I take the phone, swallowing hard. Jake’s hold on me vanishes, and I give the awful father one last look. He refastens his belt then tries to stand straight while pumping his fists at his sides.

One step.

Two steps.

I keep my focus on the door to the truck where the little girl waits to be reunited with her mommy.

Thwack!

Oomph!

The distinct sounds of flesh and bones colliding beckons me to look back, but I don’t. Instead, I call 9-1-1 and report the attempted rape, then I get in the truck with the little girl and wait. Still … I don’t look back.

Ten minutes later, a police car arrives.

“Is Daddy going to jail again?” she whispers from my lap.

Again.

That breaks my heart.

My head whips right when the door squeaks open.

“They’ll need a quick statement from you,” Jake stares at me with a blank look, like he doesn’t have blood on his hands, when he literally has blood on his knuckles but not a scratch on the rest of his body.

“Wait right here,” I say to Carly. That’s her name. She’s five and just learned to ride her bike without training wheels. Her mom cries every time her dad has her for the weekend. And Carly is allergic to walnuts.

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