Austin has been pacing back and forth in the living room, making quiet phone calls on his cell since I showed him the file. I’ve never shown anyone the contents of that thing, including Brady. I just wanted Austin to understand. I wanted him to see why I’m such a mess and why I pushed him away. That file doesn’t even contain half of the damage done to me over the years, just the worst of it. The night I left, I snuck into William’s office to take some money out of the safe that he kept there for emergency purposes. I never expected to see that file nestled in between money, savings bonds, life insurance policies and our wills. I grabbed the file and shoved it into my bag before I woke Emma up, took her from her bed and fled from the home I’d lived in for ten years. I’ve never looked at the file again after that night. I got to Brady’s and buried it at the bottom of my dresser drawer and pretended like it didn’t exist. I didn’t need to look at it to remember every single photograph and every single doctor’s note. The contents are burned into my brain and I see the scars each time I look in the mirror.
When I had to go to the hospital, William would sneak me in through a back door and take me to an unused room in an older part of the hospital. He would stitch me up himself, bandage my cuts or reset my broken bones and put on a cast. The entire time he was doing these things, he would tell me how much he loved me. While he gently poked a needle into my skin to numb the pain or dabbed wounds with gauze, he would tell me stories about the first time he saw me across the crowded room of the charity dinner or the first time he kissed me. He would speak with such love and devotion while he patched up the damage he had done to me. I don’t even remember him ever taking photos while we were in the hospital. The fact that he did, and that he kept them, makes me sick.
“I just talked to the florist. They have no idea who ordered the flowers. It was a busy day and the order was paid for in cash. They don’t even remember if it was a man or woman who ordered them,” Austin tells me as he shoves his phone in his pocket and sits down next to me on the couch.
Austin asked if the flowers outside the front door were the reason for my not coming in to work this morning and for the state he found me in when he got here. When I told him how William used to always give me orchids after he hurt me, Austin stormed out into the hall, picked up all three vases at once and chucked them into the garbage disposal shoot at the end of the hall, making sure to keep the card with the name of the florist on it.
“Those were the ugliest fucking flowers I’ve ever seen anyway,” he told me when he came back into the apartment.
“It’s him. I know it’s him. He’s still supposed to still be in New York,” I mutter to myself on the couch, thinking about the message on the card that read, “I hope these flowers bring back every memory of our time together.”
Austin puts his arm around my shoulders and I let myself lean into his comfort for just a few minutes.
“Maybe he’s not here. He could just have someone doing his dirty work for him. At this point, it’s just a flower delivery and nothing else has happened,” Austin reassures me.
I close my eyes and bow my head. “It’s not just the flowers. Other things have happened too,” I admit to him.
Feeling his arm tighten around me, I look up to see his nostrils flaring and a cold, hard look in his eyes.
“What else?” he asks through clenched teeth in a low voice.
I take a deep breath and tell him about the coffee mugs, the park and the drawing. When I’m finished, he pushes up from the couch quickly and starts pacing the room, rubbing the back of his neck with one hand.
He suddenly stops and looks at me. “Why the hell didn’t you tell me any of this before now? I’m supposed to be protecting you. How the fuck am I supposed to do that if you’re not honest with me?”
Without replying, I get up and walk past him into the kitchen, not wanting to wake Emma up. It’s about to get loud in here and she doesn’t need to hear any of it.
I hate that he’s angry with me for not telling him what was going on and I hate that it bothers me. This is my life, these were my secrets and now he knows everything. It was hard enough accepting his help at the office, let alone admitting to all of my mistakes. Does he think it’s a piece of cake to admit to someone else what a fool you were and to depend on another person again when everyone else has let you down?
I walk over to the sink, and rest my hands on the edge, staring down at the drain.
“You should have told me,” Austin says from behind me, his voice much more calm than a few minutes ago.
“I didn’t want you to know,” I tell him, turning around to face him.
He looks at me in confusion. “Why the hell wouldn’t you want me to know about this? I can help you; I can keep you safe.”
“I don’t need a hero to come to my fucking rescue!” I tell him indignantly.
“I saw what that bastard did to you for all those years and I’m not about to let it happen again,” he argues. “I’m not trying to be a hero, Gwen. This is my job, what I’m trained to do.”
I ignore the hurt I feel at his words. I don’t want to be just a job to him.
“God dammit, don’t you see? I HATE that you had to see that file. I hate that you’re looking at me the way you are right now – like I’m some weak, pathetic person who waited ten years before finally getting out of that hell. But most of all, I hate that it’s true! I hate myself every fucking day for not leaving sooner,” I admit, tears threatening to fall.
I dig the heels of my hands into my eyes to keep them at bay before dropping my arms to my sides and continuing. “I hate the person I used to be and I tried so hard to leave her behind. I changed the way I dressed, I changed my hair… I changed everything about myself, but I can’t change the past. I can’t make the memories go away and it scares the hell out of me. I don’t want-”
Austin’s hands frame my face and his lips are on mine, cutting me off mid-sentence just like I did to him the other night. Unlike that kiss though, this one is soft and slow. He takes his time coaxing my lips open before sliding his tongue gently through my mouth, his thumbs rubbing soothingly back and forth against my cheeks as he holds my face in his hands. I forget everything but the feel of his mouth on me and the way his tongue slowly circles around my own. He makes me forget why I’m scared and he makes me forget why I have to be strong on my own. My hands move up to cover his on either side of my face and I let him take me away with his kiss. I float away to a place where there are no scars and no fear, where I don’t have to look over my shoulder every second of the day and I can be whomever I want. I allow myself to let go and just drink in this man, memorizing the softness of his lips and the taste of his tongue as he works it through my mouth achingly slow.
Austin stops the kiss all too soon, placing one last soft peck on my lips before pulling his head away, his hands still holding onto my face.
“Let’s get one thing straight here – I have never thought you were weak or pathetic and I sure as fuck don’t think so right now. I can’t even imagine half of the shit you went through. I’ve seen SEALS break under a lot less. You did what you had to do for yourself and Emma, and that’s all that matters.”
Closing my eyes, I lean my head forward and he rests his chin on top.
“Now, you’re going to stop being so damn stubborn and let me help you. We’re going to track down this bastard and throw his fucking ass in jail.”
The sound of footsteps on the kitchen tile has me pulling away from Austin to see Emma standing there with a huge smile on her face.
“Ooooh, you said the BIG one. That will be ten dollars, please,” she tells Austin with her hand out.
I smile for the first time since I opened the apartment door this morning and saw the flowers. Austin sighs, reaching into his back pocket and pulling out his wallet.
“You know, pipsqueak, I’m going to be broke before long,” he tells her, smacking a ten dollar bill into her waiting hand.
Emma shrugs, sticking the money into the front pocket of her pants. “Well then, you should stop saying bad words.”
Austin laughs and shakes his head at her, bending over and scooping her up into his arms. Emma squeals and begs for mercy as he tickles her.
The phone on the wall in the kitchen rings and I’m still smiling as I walk over to answer it. “Hello?”
There’s silence on the other end of the line so I try again. “Hello? Is anyone there?”
I turn away from Austin and Emma carrying on over by the door and strain to hear through the line. I think I hear something, so I plug one ear and listen harder.
“I’m sorry, I can’t hear you. What was that?”
The sounds of Austin and Emma laughing disappear as I hear the quiet, whispered words on the other end of the line. “You can’t hide forever.”
Quickly pulling the receiver away like it’s a snake about ready to strike, I slam it back into its cradle so hard that the base cracks.
I stare at the phone as I hear Austin speak to Emma. “Hey, pipsqueak, how about you go back into your room and pick out a movie for us to watch together, okay?”
“Can we watch The Pretty Pink Princesses?” Emma asks.
Austin groans. “Why can’t they be blue or yellow? Fine, Pretty Pink Princesses it is.”
Emma races out of the room and Austin walks over to me. “Who the hell was that?”
I wrap my arms around myself and rub away the goose bumps that formed as soon as I heard the whispered words. “I think it was him. I don’t know, I couldn’t tell. He spoke in a whisper and I could barely hear him. He said I couldn’t hide forever.”
Just repeating the words out loud fills me with fear.
“Son of a bitch. I’m calling a cop friend of mine that lives in New York. He can find out when this dick left the city and then get me in touch with local law enforcement here in Nashville,” Austin says.
Just then, the shrill ringing of the phone fills the kitchen once more. I immediately back away from the phone, not wanting anything to do with it now. Austin steps around me, yanks the receiver off the hook and shouts angrily into the phone.
“I swear to Christ if you call here again you cowardly piece of shit, I will rip out… oh, my bad. Sorry about that, hold on just a second.”
Austin turns and hands the phone out to me. “Sorry, it’s that friend of yours, Ellie.”
To say I’m in shock is an understatement. I really didn’t expect to hear from Ellie again any time soon after our disastrous meeting at the restaurant the other night. I’m not sure if I’m still pissed at her or not. Right now though, I’m scared for her. If William is trying to get to me, she’s going to be caught in the middle and no matter how mad or disappointed I am in her, I don’t want her to get hurt.
I reach out slowly and take the phone from Austin’s hand and bring it to my ear.
“Ellie, I didn’t think I’d-”
The sounds of her sobs through the line stop me. “Gwen, oh God, I’m so sorry. I don’t know what to do. I never meant for this to happen and now he’s mad. He’s so mad.”
She starts crying harder and I look up at Austin, not knowing what to do.
“Ellie, calm down. What happened? Where are you?”
Ellie takes hiccupping breaths and it breaks my heart. “I’m still in Nashville. He followed me here, Gwen. I’m so scared.”
No matter what happened between us, Ellie is still my oldest and dearest friend. I’m not about to let the same thing happen to her that happened to me.
“Tell me where you are. I’m coming to get you.”
I’m getting attached. Son of a bitch, I’m getting attached to these two girls and it’s making me do stupid shit like kiss Gwen again and move her and Emma in with me.
The kiss can be easily explained away – I hated the way she was putting herself down. She’s the strongest fucking woman I’ve ever met after the shit she went through and I wasn’t about to stand there and let her think otherwise. It was the only thing I could think to do to get her to stop feeling bad about herself.
The moving in thing? Well, obviously I had to do it. She and Emma couldn’t stay at Brady’s apartment when that asshole she’s married to knows where she lives and could come after her at any time. It’s not like it means anything or it’s a permanent thing. I live in a rental house; I’m not staying here forever and the girls will go back to their own place when all of this is done and I’ll move on to the next thing. I’m a SEAL; it’s my job to protect people no matter who they are.
I absolutely do not want a ready-made family and I’m sure I’ll regret having them in my personal space in no time. I like being alone, I’m used to being by myself and not having to answer to anyone and if anything, the two of them with all their girly pink shit all over the place will just make it easier to walk away when this is over.
Right, keep telling yourself that, buddy.
“Did you really need to bring all of the Barbies and every single outfit they own?” I ask Emma as she stands each of her dolls up against my couch cushions.
“I couldn’t leave them there, they’d be sad all alone,” Emma explains as she pulls the last doll out of her bag and places her on the coffee table, away from the others.
“Is there a reason why that Barbie is duct-taped to a Barbie chair?” Gwen asks, coming into the living room after making another call to Ellie.
Ellie was adamant that Gwen not come and get her. She was afraid for Gwen’s safety and didn’t want her anywhere near the hotel she was staying in just in case William came back. That was fine with me. It’s not like I was going to let Gwen go alone and get her anyway.
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