After an hour spent walking around downtown Nashville avoiding Austin for a little bit, I finally decide to suck it up and head back to the office to face him. One minute he’s being a smartass and the next he’s complimenting my hair and making me feel special. And then he goes right back to being a jerk by making that ‘mommy and daddy’ comment and the dig about my relationship with William. I was stupid to think he wouldn’t look into my background and I could just send him packing. At least he doesn’t know everything. Maybe I should just tell him – that would certainly shut him up. Tell him how up until the night I left, my husband would only hit me in places where no one could see the bruises; inform him that my parents don’t care what that ‘poor guy’ put me through, as long as I come back home so they don’t look bad in front of their friends.
As much as I want to wipe that smug look off of Austin’s face, I don’t want to see it replaced with pity. Every single day I look at myself in the mirror I worry about what people see, what my daughter sees. I want her to be proud of me for the choices I made and I want to be strong for her. I can’t do that if I’m surrounded by people who feel sorry for me. It’s why I’ve never told Brady everything that happened. Showing up at his place in the middle of the night with a busted jaw, broken ribs and a shattered arm was more than enough truth for him.
When I’m a block away from the building, my phone vibrates in my hand. Checking the display, I see that it’s Karen.
Brady introduced me to Karen, who lives across the hall in his apartment building, right after Emma and I moved in. She’s a retired widow in her sixties who raised six children that are now grown and scattered across the country. Emma took to her immediately and Karen jumped at the chance to watch her during the day while Brady and I were working. Most days she refuses to take any money from me and tells me that Emma keeps her young and eases her loneliness and that’s payment enough. Karen was a lifesaver when I was working as a waitress after I first got here and barely had two nickels to rub together.
“Hey Karen, what’s going on? Is Emma okay?” I ask as I wait by the crosswalk for the light to change.
“Hello dear, Emma’s fine. We just got home from an exhausting few hours at the park. Poor thing fell asleep as soon as she sat down on my couch,” Karen tells me with a laugh.
The light changes and I look both ways before crossing the street, smiling when I picture Emma talking Karen’s ear off and then crashing mid-sentence.
“I hate to worry you or anything, but I promised you I would let you know if anything strange happened while Emma was with me,” Karen tells me, all the humor gone from her voice.
I stop in the middle of the sidewalk, my hand gripping the phone tightly. Karen saw me several times in the hall of our apartment building right after I showed up on Brady’s doorstep in the middle of the night. She saw the bruises and the cast, but never asked any questions. When she agreed to watch Emma a month later, she took my hands in hers and told me that it wouldn’t always be this hard. She told me that she would never pry into my personal life, but if I ever needed someone to talk to she would always be available. As much as I wanted to trust her with my secrets, I just couldn’t. It was hard enough to trust someone else with my daughter. I did, however, tell her to let me know if anything strange ever happened when she was with Emma. It didn’t matter how big or how small, if it seemed off, she was to tell me right away. Karen agreed without question. Each day I get to know her more, it makes me wish my mother could show even half the compassion that Karen does.
“What happened?” I ask in a shaky voice.
Karen sighs. “At first I didn’t think anything of it. Emma was on the swings and I was a few feet away on a bench watching her. After a little while she came running up to me and she told me that there was a man looking at her. When she pointed to where he was, there was no one there. I just chalked it up to her little imagination going wild and sent her back to play. When we were walking home, I noticed a car going real slow down the street past us. I didn’t think anything of it until the car rolled past us again and I realized I had seen the same car parked near the playground when we got there.”
I can’t stop my hands from shaking. “Did you see who was driving?”
“I couldn’t tell if it was a man or a woman, they were wearing a hat and glasses. I’m not sure it’s the same person Emma saw watching her at the park, but I thought it would be best to tell you,” Karen replies.
It’s a miracle I can speak without crying, but I manage to thank her and tell her I’ll be home early from work. Right now all I can think about is getting home to my baby and holding her. I hate to do this to Emma, but for the time being, trips to the park are going to have to be put on hold. This could just be a coincidence, but I can’t take that chance.
I take a few moments to calm my racing heart and, with a deep breath and a lift of my chin, I fling open the door to the office and walk inside, tamping down my nerves over Karen’s phone call and preparing to face whatever Austin throws at me. I stop in my tracks when I see the empty office. The unoccupied room isn’t what makes my heart speed up and my hands shake, though. On the edge of my desk are five coffee mugs from the kitchenette, each one turned so that their handles are facing in the exact same direction. Those mugs weren’t on my desk when I left an hour ago, and even if they were, I would NEVER place them like that next to each other. I feel like a fool for standing here freaking out over a couple of cups, but it’s impossible not to when I think back to one particular day so many years ago…
As I finished emptying the dishwasher, I walked over to the fridge and pulled out the makings for a sandwich. I figured while William was working from home today I would make him lunch and take it upstairs to him in his office. I flipped on the radio attached to the underside of one of the kitchen cabinets and began to hum along to the music as I made his favorite – bologna and Swiss with mustard.
I hadn’t realized that William walked into the kitchen until I heard the crash of a glass breaking against the kitchen counter. I jumped and turned around, dropping the knife covered in mustard to the floor.
“What the hell is this mess?” William asked, holding the cabinet door next to the microwave open.
I quickly bent to pick up the knife and tossed it into the sink as I made my way over to him to see what he was so upset about. I stared at the shelves in the cupboard, filled with coffee cups.
“I-I just emptied the dishwasher, they’re all clean,” I told him softly, confused that maybe a dirty one had gotten in there by mistake.
In a flash, his hand was around the back of my neck in a painfully tight grip as he shoved my face closer to the shelves.
“The handles aren’t facing out. How many fucking times do I have to tell you that all of the handles should be facing the same way?” he shouts.
He joked about it once. ONCE when we first got married he asked if it was too much work to turn the coffee mugs around so he could grab the handles. We laughed about it. Right here in this very spot we laughed about his coffee mug OCD and then we made love on the kitchen floor.
Before I could reply, he shoved me away from him and began turning all of the mugs so that the handles faced the same direction.
“I’m sorry. I thought you were joking,” I whispered.
I’m so confused by his actions that I barely had time to react when his hand wrapped around one of the mugs and he turned and hurtled it in my direction. I quickly shielded my face with my hands and the ceramic cup smacked into the top of my hand, hitting me with enough force that I cried out in pain as the cup crashed to the floor in a pile of broken pieces. I bit my lip to stop the tears from falling as I stood in the kitchen in shock and cradled my sore hand to my chest. I stared at William as he turned around all of the coffee mugs in the cabinet so they were in one, uniform row.
“Next time, don’t be so stupid. The handles should all face the same way.”
Before I even know what’s happening, I’m stalking across the office and swiping my hand across the top of my desk. The mugs are sent flying to the floor, each one smashing against the tile as I stand there shaking with fury, staring at the mess I just made.
“Just because you’re pissed at me doesn’t mean you need to take it out on the coffee cups.”
I whip around and the smile on Austin’s face dies when he sees me.
“Did you put those on my desk? Why did you put them there like that?” I ask frantically as I turn away from him and begin picking up the shattered pieces.
I hear him walk up behind me, but I ignore him.
“The handles can’t face out, they can’t face out,” I whisper to myself.
My throat gets tight and I blink back the tears as I pick up every single piece, piling them in my hands and not paying attention to the tiny cuts I’m making on my skin as I clutch tightly to the broken shards.
I jump when I feel Austin’s hands on my shoulders. “Hey, come on, it’s just a couple of cups.”
His voice is soft and comforting and it should make me feel better, but it doesn’t. I know in my mind I’m not behaving rationally, but I can’t make myself stop. I shrug out of his grasp and quickly stand, dumping the handfuls of glass into the trashcan next to my desk. I stare down at the pile at the bottom of the can in a trance and swipe angrily at a tear that falls down my cheek. When I pull my hand away from my face, the dots of blood on my palm catch my eye. I hold both of my hands up and stare unblinking at the cuts.
“Don’t do that again, the cups don’t belong like that,” I mutter, watching as a tiny river of blood makes its way down to the edge of my hand.
Austin is suddenly in front of me with his hands holding gently to my cheeks, lifting my head up to meet his eyes. His face is filled with confusion as he searches my face for answers. “Gwen, what the fuck? I didn’t do anything with the cups, I was out getting coffee.”
I glance over at my desk and see a paper cup from Starbucks sitting on the edge. His hands slide down off my face and he wraps them around both of my wrists, gently pulling me towards him.
I’m too busy thinking about the past and the memories I wish I could forever erase from my mind forever to worry about him touching me.
“Jesus Christ, you’re bleeding,” he mumbles as he drops one of my hands and wraps his arm around my waist.
My legs move robotically as he leads me over to the sink against the back wall of the office. He doesn’t say a word as he runs cold water, holding my hands under the steady stream until all the blood has washed down the drain. He silently pulls a towel from the top drawer next to the sink and gently pats both of my hands dry. I watch what he’s doing and have to bite back more tears.
What the hell is happening to me?
I can’t do this. I can’t fall apart like this, especially around Austin. I can’t be this weak, pathetic person around him or he’ll just jump right in and take advantage of the situation. I’m not that woman anymore. I don’t fall apart at the drop of a hat and I don’t let people walk all over me. Maybe he put those cups on my desk as a joke, not realizing what it would do to me, or maybe he didn’t. Either way, I can’t let him take care of me like I’m some wounded animal. I’ve fought hard these past couple of months to stop being such an insecure, cowardly person. I can take care of myself.
Pulling my hands out of his grip, I turn away from him and walk back to my desk.
“Gwen, what the hell just-”
Cutting him off, I pick up my purse and head towards the door. “If you’re coming with me, let’s go. I have to be outside the Sunset Motel in twenty minutes if I want to get a good shot of Connor Anderson with his mistress.”
I’m sure he expects an explanation for what just happened, but he isn’t going to get one. I still don’t even understand what the hell happened. Did I freak out over the coffee mugs because that phone call from Karen has got me tied up in knots, wondering if William really isn’t planning to let go of us that easily? What if that was him following Emma and Karen? What if he somehow found out where I work and came in here while Brady was gone to mess with me? It seems absurd that he would go to such lengths, but I wouldn’t put anything past him.
As I walk out into the afternoon sunshine and head towards my car, I kind of hope Austin will decide to stay at the office instead of going through with this stupid promise of his to Brady to keep an eye on me. I need some time alone to call my lawyer and to clear my head without Austin staring at me like I’m a bug under a microscope.
We’ve been sitting outside the Sunset Motel in Gwen’s car for twenty minutes and neither one of us has said a word. She’s pretending like nothing happened, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to keep letting her shut me out. Obviously, my usual charm and finesse isn’t going to work on her; I’m going to have to use another tactic. The only problem? I know next to nothing about communicating with a woman unless we’re naked and I’m telling her to fuck me harder. Coercing someone to talk to me on the job usually involves them being tied to a chair with a gun to their head. Something tells me Gwen wouldn’t respond well to either one of those options.
What’s that old saying – you catch more flies with honey or some shit? Maybe if I give a little something of myself she’ll give me something of her. Doesn’t that touchy-feely childhood shit usually work on chicks?
“This motel reminds me of one I used to live in when I was thirteen. I bet they even have the same green shag carpet and piss stains on the bathroom floor.”
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