“Emily,” Gavin called, following her.
She reached the bathroom, slammed the door, and locked it. Hunched over the toilet, she dry heaved repeatedly. Her stomach had been void of any food over the last several hours, so nothing came up.
Gavin banged on the door, worry evident in his tone. “Emily, let me in.”
Another vicious lurch plowed through her stomach. She shook her head and stared into the toilet. “I… I need a second, Gavin.”
“No, Emily,” he retorted, jiggling the handle. “Open the door. Now.”
Though she heard the concern in his voice, she also heard authority, and she didn’t put it past him to break in if she didn’t do what he asked. Straightening, Emily drew in a gulp of air and inched over to the door. With so many emotions pummeling through her, she couldn’t decipher if she was coming or going. Eyes glassed over, she swung open the door. Her words belted from her mouth before Gavin had a chance to speak. “Did you know one in three women wind up in a mentally or physically abusive relationship?”
Though his muscles tensed immediately, and blood raced within his veins, Gavin stared back wordlessly.
Sniffling, Emily nodded. “But the funny part is, it doesn’t start off that way. It starts off wonderful, as close to everything you imagined something solid should be. Then little by little, the relationship changes, and you wonder if you’re going crazy. You literally start to question your own sanity. One minute, the person you’re in love with is kind and caring, and the next, they’re flipping out. The first few times you write it off, assuming they’re having a bad day, but then it becomes a regular pattern of behavior. The person on the receiving end isn’t oblivious to it but starts blaming themselves.”
With his entire body on alert, Gavin clenched his jaw and tried to school his tone. In a low whisper, he brushed his fingers across her cheek and stared into her eyes. “Did Dillon lay his hands on you?”
Shaking, Emily swallowed. “Did you know mental abuse can make a victim feel depression, anxiety, helplessness, nonexistent self-worth, and despair? But that doesn’t matter because your feelings don’t count, and you don’t realize they never will. Sometimes the abuser makes you think they count. Then you’re back to thinking that you’re the one who belongs in an institution, not them. But on the norm, your needs or feelings, if you actually have the fucking courage to express them—and most women don’t—are ignored, ridiculed, minimized, and dismissed. You’re told you’re too demanding, or there’s something wrong with you. Basically, you’re denied the right to feel… anything.”
Crying hysterically, Emily started for the living room. Sitting on the couch, she stared up at Gavin as he walked into the room, his eyes pinned on hers. “Sometimes you distance yourself from friends or loved ones. Sometimes you’re not even allowed to have friends. Though you’ve given this person your heart and soul, their behavior becomes so erratic, it’s as if you feel like you’re walking on landmines. But you continue to love them because they weren’t like this when you met, so it only seems obvious it’s your fault. Then—here’s the hysterical part and just how twisted this whole thing becomes—you start making excuses for their inexcusable behaviors in an effort to convince yourself it’s normal. In an actual, damn effort to convince yourself you’re the one who’s made them become the monster they’ve turned into.”
Heart pounding, Gavin knelt in front of her. Anger-filled electricity zipped through his nerves as he reached for her hands, lacing his fingers in hers. “For Christ’s sake, Emily, tell me what he did to you.”
With tears streaming down her face, Emily started laughing. “Wait, Gavin, here’s the kicker. A couple of ladies from an organization fighting against domestic abuse told me I allowed this to happen because ‘I’m a product of my environment.’ I mean really, how clichéd is that? Did I ever tell you about my parents? Did I ever tell you how after my father left us, my mother continued pursuing assholes?”
Wanting to rip the answer out of her, Gavin simply shook his head. Emily had never opened up like this to him, and he knew he needed to let her speak. He squeezed her hands as his chest constricted with every unsteady breath she took.
“Well, she did. She went through them like the world was going to end the next day. I get that being a single parent was hard for her. I do. But she definitely had a thing for picking up the local drunk at the nearest bar in order to help pay the next month’s rent. They’d help for a while before they bounced out like my father did, but that never came without a price. She let them smack her around a bit if dinner wasn’t cooked by the time they walked in the door, or if the house wasn’t cleaned by the time they kicked off their filthy boots. They all looked different, but they came from a mold. Each and every single one of them was cut from the same piece of abusive wax.”
Shaking her head, Emily squeezed Gavin’s hands this time. “So, those women told me witnessing my mother’s weakness drove my own, and her watching my grandfather beat my grandmother was what drove hers. They told me I was raised thinking it was okay for a man to do that to a woman. I was raised thinking self-worth was gained by catering to a man’s needs at whatever cost. Even if it meant degrading myself time and time again.
“But the apple can fall far from the tree. Fifty percent of children who grow up seeing that will never walk in their parents’ footsteps, whether it’s a boy watching his father beat his mother or a young girl watching her mother get hit. But this apple landed on the tree’s stump, Gavin. This apple took the same path as her mother.” Pausing, Emily looked at her hands tangled around Gavin’s. When she brought her equally pained gaze back to his, it was all she could do to get out the words. “They also told me because I physically fought back against Dillon the day of our wedding, I’d finally broken the cycle.”
And there it was. The question answered right before him. The question Gavin already knew the answer to. His stomach bottomed out. Feeling his face go pale, he slowly rose as blades of wrath sliced through his chest. Blood. He wanted Dillon’s blood, and he wanted it now.
Emily surged to her feet, her legs shaky. “Don’t. Please don’t,” she whispered, staring into his venom-filled eyes. Bringing her hands up to his cheeks, her body trembled with his. “I’m here with you, Gavin, and I’m fine.” Silence fell, its presence suffocating as she watched Gavin try to control his features. It wasn’t working though. She could see he was about to explode. “I didn’t tell you because I don’t want you getting hurt. I don’t want you getting in trouble or going through any more than you have already. Please, don’t hate me for lying to you. Please don’t.”
Gavin had known she lied to him that night. Something deep within his gut told him she did. However, another part tricked him into believing her. Gavin gave her a look of confusion, a scowl marring his face. “I could never hate you, Emily. Do you believe me when I say that?”
Emily nodded, tears trickling down her cheeks.
“And you’re worried about me?”
“Yes,” she admitted faintly. “I have to protect you from all of this. I caused everything.”