Page 16


I drift off to sleep thinking about the choices I’ve made, knowing they were the best I could have done at the time.


I raced around the room, stuffing as many things as I could into the navy blue duffle bag I found in the back of our closet. Having one arm in a cast and two broken ribs made hurrying next to impossible, but I had to do it. This was my only chance. When I left the hospital earlier, the doctor gave me strict orders that I was to stay in bed for the next week and heal the damage caused by my ‘car accident’.


After William left me crumpled up on the floor three days ago to play poker with his friends, I knew he wouldn’t be taking me to the hospital to fix me up himself. With a call to Ellie to have her come over and watch Emma, I drove myself to a hospital in the next county – one in a bad neighborhood with a reputation for never asking questions, and one I hoped William would never find me in.


Unfortunately, when William came home from playing Poker and found Ellie at the house, he threatened to make her life a living hell if Ellie didn’t tell him where I was. She had no choice but to give him the name of the hospital; at that point, she feared him as much as I did. When I came to the next morning to find him leaning over my bed with a sick smile on his face, I knew my time was running out. If I didn’t get away from him immediately, he would make sure I was taken away from Emma permanently.


When the doctor told me I was lucky they were able to repair the damage to my arm and that it was touch-and-go if I’d ever be able to use it properly again, I knew I was done. I knew I would never be able to continue living like that. The day I came home from the hospital, I found a note from William that he had been called into an emergency surgery that would take most of the night. I didn’t have time to think or hesitate – it was now or never.


After I finished packing my bag, I crept into Emma’s room and added some of her clothes, a few Barbies and one stuffed animal. I tried not to let myself break down at the thought of taking my little girl away from everything she knew and loved.


“Baby, wake up,” I told her gently, running my hand down her head.


She grumbled in her sleep and slowly blinked her eyes open. “Hi, mommy.”


I smiled, pulling the covers off of her and helped her sit up. “I’m sorry baby, we need to go somewhere. I promise you can go back to sleep in just a little bit.”


She yawned and got out of bed, rubbing the sleep from her eyes. “Are we going on a trip?”


I tried not to wince in pain as I got down on my knees to help her out of her pajamas and into a pair of leggings and a shirt. “Yep, we’re going on a trip and we have to hurry so we can make it there in time.”


It broke my heart to lie to her, but there was no way I could tell her that we needed to hurry and get the hell out of here before her father got home from his emergency surgery.


“It’s okay, mommy. I can dress myself since you’ve got a boo-boo from the car,” she told me, taking the outfit from my hand and getting undressed.


I swallowed past the lump in my throat thinking about all the half-truths I’d told her over the years. For the most part, they went along with every single doctor’s note William filled out: I fell, I tripped, I cut myself chopping vegetables, I was in a car accident… She always believed me without question and would hover close by, helping me with whatever I needed until I healed.


I will make it up to her if it’s the last thing I do. I will never lie to her ever again.


When she finished dressing, I handed her her coat, put the bag over the shoulder of my good arm and took her hand.


“Is daddy coming with us?” she asked, as we made our way down the stairs and towards the door.


I stopped in the foyer and bent back down so I was eye-level with her, wrapping my arm around her small body. “No, baby. Daddy isn’t coming with us; he’s got a lot of work to do. It’s just going to be you and me.”


She thought about this for a moment and then smiled at me, placing her hand against my cheek. “That’s okay. I like it when it’s just you and me.”


My eyes watered and I wondered how I ever got so lucky to have this amazing little person in my life. “I love you, baby girl.”


She wrapped her arms around my neck and gave me a tight hug. “I love you too, mommy. Let’s go on our trip. Can we go to the ocean and see dolphins? Or to a princess castle?”


I stood back up and grabbed her hand, taking one last look around before I opened the door. “Well, we’re going to visit your Uncle Brady in a place called Nashville. I don’t think they have dolphins, but they have horses and cowgirls.”


As we walked out into the night, Emma chatted away about wanting to have a white horse just like a real princess. I only hoped that some day I would be able to make this up to her and give her everything her heart desired.


Chapter 21


Austin


It’s been two days since Gwen and I fought in the kitchen – two long days of her giving me the cold shoulder and only speaking to me when Emma is around. I shouldn’t have been such an asshole, but she needed to know where I stood on things. She needed to understand that whatever was going on between us couldn’t be permanent. The way she glares at me whenever we’re in the same room leads me to believe she got the message loud and clear. I wish I could be that person for her. More than anything I wish things were different, but they’re not. I don’t have happy childhood memories to pass on to a kid and there can never be family vacations or promises of togetherness over the holidays because I never know when I’m going to be out of the country.


I just have to keep reminding myself what I told Gwen yesterday – I am not that person.


Walking out into the living room, I see Gwen pull her keys out of her purse and head towards the door.


“Where the hell are you going?” I demand.


She stops and turns around. “Work. I have the meeting with Mrs. Anderson to show her the pictures of her husband at the motel.”


When she turns around and opens the door, I race up behind her, smacking my hand against the wood and slamming it closed.


“You’re not going anywhere.”


She whirls around with anger in her eyes, but pauses when she sees how close we are. My hand is still up on the door and I’m caging her in. I can feel her breath on my face and I want to haul her body up against me and kiss away every shitty thing that’s happened between us.


She shakes her head as if clearing her thoughts and stares me down. “You can’t keep me here. I have a business to run and I’ve already put off some of these clients long enough. In case you’re forgetting, I have a gun and I know how to use it.”


I know she’s right, but that doesn’t mean it makes it any easier to just let her walk out the door, not knowing if she’ll be walking right into danger.


“I don’t want anything to happen to you,” I admit to her softly.


I watch as the anger leaves her face and she closes her eyes for a few seconds before opening them and looking at me again. She searches my face and I realize she’s trying to see if I’m telling the truth. I hate that she doesn’t trust me, but it’s my own damn fault.


“I’ll be fine. I have my gun and I’ll go straight to the office and straight back after I meet with Mrs. Anderson,” she promises.


“I’ll go with you.”


She shakes her head at me and sighs. “You need to stay here with Ellie and Emma. Under normal circumstances, Ellie would love to stay here alone with her, but she’s scared out of her mind. She’ll tell you it’s fine, but I know her. She’s not going to want to be alone. I promise I’ll call if I don’t feel comfortable.”


She’s right and there’s nothing I can do but let her go. She’s smart, she’s strong and she’s a survivor. I have to trust her to take care of herself; I won’t be here forever to keep an eye on her.


As I take a step back and pull the door open for her, I watch her leave and pray to God nothing happens or I’ll never be able to forgive myself.


* * *


“God dammit! Why the fuck isn’t she answering her phone?” I shout as I weave in and out of traffic at breakneck speeds.


Ellie is in the backseat with my cell phone in her hand, repeatedly trying to call Gwen and Emma is on her lap, crying hysterically.


I glance in the rearview mirror and my heart plummets to my stomach when I get another look at the blood running down the side of Emma’s face.


I was in my room talking on the phone to Cole when I heard a thud from the living room, followed immediately by the sound of Emma crying. I’ve never moved so fast in my fucking life. When I got to the living room, I saw Emma on the floor next to the coffee table holding her hand on her head, blood seeping between her fingers.


Ellie was bent down next to her trying to pry Emma’s hand away from her head to get a look at the wound. “She tripped and smacked her head on the corner of the table. I tried to reach for her, but I wasn’t fast enough.”


With a sick feeling in my stomach, I stalked to the middle of the room, scooped a sobbing Emma up in my arms and packed her and Ellie into the backseat.


As I race to towards the hospital, Emma continues to cry and ask for her Momma. I’m trying not to freak the fuck out that Gwen isn’t answering her phone; I’ve got enough to worry about right now – like making sure Emma doesn’t bleed out in the back of my car before we get to the hospital.


I make it to the hospital in record time and pull up to the emergency room entrance. Putting the car in park, I quickly get out and open the back door, leaning in and pulling a sobbing Emma into my arms.


“It’s okay, pipsqueak, the doctor is going to make it all better, okay?” I tell her as I race through the sliding doors.


I get to the registration desk and it suddenly occurs to me that I don’t even know if Gwen has medical insurance for Emma and I know for a fact they won’t treat her without a parent present.


“Oh no, it looks like you got a boo-boo,” the nurse at the desk says to Emma in a soothing voice as she stands up and leans over the counter to get a closer look.


“She hit her head on the coffee table,” I explain to her. “She won’t let us look at it so I’m not sure how bad it is, but it won’t stop bleeding.”


The nurse smiles at Emma as she pulls a clipboard off of a pile and sets it on the counter. “Head wounds always bleed a lot, even if they aren’t that bad. We’ll get her into an exam room right away and have a doctor look at it. Are you her parents?”


I notice the nurse looking next to me and turn to see Ellie standing there.


Jesus, I forgot she was even in the car. Awesome fucking protector I’m turning out to be.


Ellie wraps her arm around my waist and smiles at the nurse. “Yes, I’m her mother and this is her father.”


I glance nervously down at Emma to see if she’s going to contradict Ellie, but she’s still softly crying with her face pressed into my chest and doesn’t seem to notice.


“Yes, I’m her father,” I tell the nurse quietly as I continue staring down at Emma.


I swallow past the lump in my throat when I say those words and look up as Ellie grabs the clipboard from the counter. “We just moved here for my husband’s job transfer and his insurance hasn’t kicked in yet. Is it okay if we just pay cash for whatever services my daughter needs?”


She speaks so naturally, like she’s been practicing this speech for a week. At least one of us has their head on straight right now.


The nurse tells her that’s perfectly fine and then ushers us to one of the exam rooms. When I start to set Emma down on the exam table, her hands latch onto my shirt, clutching it tightly in her tiny hands and shaking her head back and forth.


“I don’t want to sit there. Can I just stay with you, Austin?” Emma pleads.


I kiss the top of her head and move away from the table, going to one of the chairs against the wall. I sit down with Emma in my lap and keep my arms securely wrapped around her while Ellie fills out the paperwork in the chair next to us and we wait for the doctor to come in.


Forty-five minutes, three stitches, six-hundred dollars and two suckers later, Emma is all patched up and sitting in the back seat of my car next to Ellie, happily looking out the window and chatting about her exciting day.


I pull up to Brady’s apartment and when I don’t see Gwen’s car, I realize we never tried to call her again once we got to the hospital. As Ellie and Emma get out of the backseat, I casually check my phone, not wanting to alert either of them to my panic.


I immediately see a text from Gwen apologizing for taking so long and explaining that Mr. and Mrs. Anderson both showed up to the meeting and all hell broke loose when Gwen showed Mrs. Anderson the photos of her cheating husband. She said she’ll be home in ten minutes and I figure there’s no point in calling her now and freaking her out. I might as well just wait until she gets home to tell her what happened.


Ellie takes Emma into the back bedroom to get her changed into her pajamas and I go into my bedroom and close the door behind me. I walk over to the dresser and stare at myself in the mirror, my eyes traveling down to my chest and the splotch of blood Emma left behind. The stain is right over my heart. I reach up and run my fingers over it, wondering why in the hell I feel like shit. Emma got hurt, but it wasn’t that bad. I got her to the hospital and she’s fine now.


With my hand still over my heart, I remember the way she clung to me in the exam room and the smile she gave me when the doctor told her she could have two suckers for being so brave. I turn away from the mirror and shake my head angrily.


What the fuck is wrong with me?

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