Ethan stiffens beneath me—I know he thinks he knows how this is going to end, but he’s wrong. The truth is so much more twisted and diabolical than he could ever imagine. I lived it and sometimes even I can’t believe it was true, can’t believe it really happened the way I remember it. But that has as much to do with my parents as it does the actual attack, and that’s a door I’m just not ready to open. Not for Ethan. Not for anyone.
“I probably should have dumped him, but I was caught up in being his girlfriend. I liked the popularity that came with it—for the first time in my life, I wasn’t the weird new girl—and I liked the fact that I belonged to someone. That he loved me. That he wanted to be with me. So when he wanted me to go with him to a party one night, I never even thought of saying no.
“Once we got there, I knew right away that something was up. It just didn’t feel right. There weren’t that many people there, for one, and most of the school parties were super crowded. Plus I didn’t recognize a lot of the people there.”
I close my eyes as I let myself think about that party—that night—for the first time in what feels like forever. It’s getting harder to get the words out, harder to control the trembling that’s seized control of the very core of my being. I’m trying to keep it under wraps, but I know it won’t be long before Ethan notices.
I don’t want him to figure it out. Maybe it’s selfish of me, but I’ve already played the part of the basket case tonight, already done the whole freak-out thing. If I’m going to tell this story, I want to do it on my terms. I don’t ask for much. Just for the chance to keep a little bit of dignity, a little bit of my pride intact.
“We’re not there very long before Chad ditches me. He’s drinking, playing poker with some of the guys. Generally making a total ass of himself—something he did pretty regularly, if I’m being honest. Anyway, to make a long story short, he ends up losing all his money, something like five or six hundred dollars. It was a ton of money to me back then, but barely pocket change to him. Which is why what happens next is so bizarre, the whole thing is so absurd. The money meant nothing to him. Nothing. So why he did what he did—”
I can feel the tears in my throat, hear them in my voice. So I stop talking for long seconds as I try to get control of myself. Ethan’s arms tighten around me, and then he’s stroking a soothing hand down my spine. Murmuring more of those wordless sounds of comfort.
It works. Somehow I find the strength to push this latest round of tears back. Taking a deep breath, I focus on getting the rest of the story out. I want to get to the end, want to get it over with.
“So he’s drunk and pissed that he lost. It’s more about his pride than the money at that point. So he asks the guys if he can put a different wager on the table. Something worth a lot more than a couple Benjamins.” I shake my head. “He actually talked like that, actually believed what he was saying. Some poor little rich boy playing gangsta in his rich little world.
“He wanted to make me his stake. Said if he lost, whoever won the pot could take me in the back room and—” My voice breaks again.
“The son of a bitch.” The rage in Ethan’s voice is palpable. I wait for him to ask if I agreed, if I let him use me like I was his property, but the questions never come. I don’t understand. My parents asked. The cops asked. Even my so-called friends wanted to know if I’d agreed to do what Chad wanted. If I had let him use me like a goddamned bankroll.
But not Ethan. There’s no judgment in the way he holds me, no recriminations. Just pure, unadulterated comfort. I sink into it, let it wash over me as I get to the last part of my story. The worst part. I can’t help wondering if this is going to do it. If this is what will change his compassion to disgust, his understanding to blame.
“I tell Chad to go to hell. And I walk out of the party without a backward glance. I might have been slow on the uptake when it came to him, but I wasn’t a moron. No way was I going to let him treat me like that.
“The only problem? I’m a long way from home and my cheap shoes are already hurting my toes. So when one of the boys from the party pulls up in his fancy car and offers me a ride, I take it. I know him from school and he seems nice enough. Harmless. He’s a casual friend of Chad’s and he apologizes for Chad’s behavior. Tells me he’s being a real jerk. Which he is, obviously.
“So I give him directions to my house. And I’m worried because I don’t want anyone to know where I live. Chad knows, but he’s never said anything, never acted like it was a big deal. At least until he tried to sell me for two hundred dollars. But I don’t know this guy very well and the last thing I want spread around school is how poor I am. It definitely won’t go well for me on Monday if he tells anyone. That’s just the kind of school it is—and the kind of crowd I’m trying to fit into.
“But at the same time, it’s already after midnight and I’m not stupid enough to have him drop me somewhere else and walk home. It’s a bad neighborhood. Anything can happen.” I laugh then, a dark, tortured kind of thing. “I was such an idiot.”
“No. You trusted somebody you shouldn’t. That doesn’t make you an idiot.” Ethan’s voice is firm, unwavering. As his hands continue to stroke me, gentle me.
“It doesn’t make me a very good judge of character, either. Chad. This guy.” My parents.
“You were young.”
“I was a fool. I trusted him because he wore nice clothes and had a nice smile and drove a nice car. I never thought—I never thought a popular, smart guy like him would stop the car in an empty parking lot at the edge of my neighborhood. I never thought he’d shove me down. Rip my dress. Rip my underwear. Rape me. I never thought—”
My voice breaks, and Ethan’s arms tighten around me. I’m trembling so badly that I can barely sit on his lap. Or at least I think it’s me until he puts one unsteady hand on my cheek and I realize that he’s the one who’s trembling.
I look up, surprised, and nearly recoil at the rage on his face. In his eyes. I’ve seen Ethan with a lot of different looks on his face in the last week—amusement, joy, concentration, disgust, annoyance, anger, happiness, peace—but I’ve never seen him anywhere close to displaying this kind of fury. His whole face is alight with it, his gaze burning with it. His whole body literally shaking with it.
He doesn’t say anything, but I get the impression that that’s because he can’t. That his anger is so great that the words just won’t form.
Guilt swamps me, joins all the rest of the emotions swimming around inside me. I’ve done this. I’ve brought this strong, beautiful man to the point where he’s all but incoherent with rage. It’s not a good sign, given that he’s considered by many to be one of the most articulate CEO’s in the world.
“I’m sorry,” I tell him. “I’m so sorry.”
He finds his voice then. “I already told you not to say that. You have nothing to be sorry for.”
“I got in the car with him. I trusted him.”
“There’s nothing wrong with trusting someone.”
“But I trusted the wrong people all along. From the very beginning, every decision I made brought me closer to that moment. I could have stayed put at my local public high school—at least there I knew what I was getting. I could have chosen a better boyfriend, been less impressed with who Chad was and more focused on who he wasn’t. I could have gone out with my brother instead of to that stupid party—Miles had wanted to see a movie that night. And I could have been smarter and never gotten into that car.
“Everything that happened to me that night happened because I made bad choices. That’s on me, not on anybody else. I set the whole chain of events in motion. If I’d been smarter, none of it would have happened.”
It’s my secret shame, my culpability in everything that happened that night and in what came after. I made the choices, no one else. I believed nice, rich boys who were born into luxury would never hurt me. Never force me. Never rape me.
I really had been a total moron.
“No.” It’s not until Ethan answers in a voice made rusty with too many emotions that I realize I’ve spoken the last out loud. “The only person to blame for what happened to you is the guy who raped you. And that Chad asshole, who set everything in motion. None of it was your fault.”
I’ve heard those words before, from the policewoman who took my statement and from the counselor I talked to at college, years later. I’d never believed them.
I want to believe Ethan, want to bury myself in the strength of his conviction. In his unwavering belief in me. But I’ve only told him half the story. The rest…the rest is something I’ve never spoken about to anyone. If he knew, he would hate me as much as I hate myself.
“What happened to the guy?” Ethan asks. “Did you report him?”
“Yes.” When he was finished, when he’d climbed off me and tried to drive me home as if nothing had happened, I freaked out. I jumped out of the car at the nearest red light, and though he hurled insults and abuse at me through the open car window, I refused to get back into his vehicle. Refused to go anywhere with him. When he pulled over and threatened to come after me, I ran. Up one alley and down the other, incoherent and lost and desperate to get away.
I still don’t know what would have happened if a cop car hadn’t been driving along the street at that particular moment and spotted me. They pulled over, got me into the back of their car. They were nice to me, I remember that much. I was shell-shocked, out of it, and they’d been kind. I told them what happened and they took me to the hospital for a bunch of tests I prefer not to remember, even to this day.
That’s when everything went bad. The hospital called my parents. My dad showed up and he was furious. Not that I’d been raped but that I’d gone to the police before I’d told him. He had a plan, he told me. To make the rich little bastard pay.
I hadn’t understood what he was talking about that night, but I soon learned. He sold me out, traded my silence for three million dollars in start-up money for his company. He threatened me, made me sign papers recanting my statement to the police and other papers that said I couldn’t talk about that night with anyone. He’d told me it was for the best, that it would protect my reputation, protect me.
Even then, I’d known he was full of shit. But I’d done it anyway. I’d signed those papers, even knowing it was wrong. Even knowing that it would destroy what little bit of my soul I had left. But I was too shattered—by what had happened with Brandon and by what I considered my parents’ betrayal—to do anything else. I had no fight left in me, no strength to do anything but end the arguments and the screaming matches and the threats that came at me from both sides.
I don’t tell Ethan any of this, though. How can I? How can I look this beautiful man in the eye and tell him my parents sold me out for three million dollars? Or, worse, that I let them?
No, he doesn’t need to know that. Nobody does. God knows a day doesn’t go by that I wish I didn’t know. Wish I didn’t remember.
“Did he go to jail?” Ethan asks, interrupting the silence that stretches between us.
“No. His parents…his parents made sure that didn’t happen.” And so did mine.
“So you had to keep going to school with him?”
“Yeah. It was…unpleasant.”
Because Brandon wasn’t one to slink away in shame. He told the whole school how he bagged me, how I begged for it. He turned Chad and all of their friends against me, and since they were the most popular guys in the school, it didn’t take long for everyone to turn away from me. For them to trip me and torment me and threaten me.
I can’t say how many times one of Brandon’s friends caught me alone in the stairwell and tried to touch me, just because they thought they could. Because I was easy pickings and completely unprotected.
I’d walked around terrified the rest of sophomore year, had begged my parents to let me transfer back to the high school I’d come from. But my dad was putting his three million dollars to work and he wanted the connections that came with having a daughter at that school. And so I stayed, terrified every day that Brandon or Chad or one of the other guys they ran around with would rape me again, just because they could.
Ethan doesn’t say anything for the longest time. But I can see the rage in his eyes, feel it emanating from his every pore. His jaw is working furiously, his hands clenched into white knuckled fists. But when he finally speaks, his voice is almost normal. If you don’t count the rage-filled resolve that runs through it. “Who is he?”
“What?” I don’t understand.
“The guy who did this to you. What’s his name?”