Page 7


The first time William hit me, it felt like a dream. The kind where you’re floating above your body and you can see everything that’s happening to you. You try to yell down to yourself and change what’s happening right before your eyes, but your voice isn’t heard. We had been married for six months. Six amazing months where each day was better than the one before it. William honored my parent’s wishes and we didn’t live together until we were husband and wife, much to my annoyance. I didn’t care about anything but spending every waking moment with the man I loved. I couldn’t wait to fall asleep in his arms every night and wake up to his smile. Looking back now, I wonder if I would have seen William’s true nature if we defied my parents and I moved into his home before I walked down the aisle.


On our six-month wedding anniversary, we got into our first fight. It started off small, something silly where I jokingly teased him about coming home late from work and how dinner had gotten cold. I made an off-hand remark about finding another husband who knew how to tell time. It was meant to be funny, meant to make him roll his eyes and kiss me on the tip of my nose as he liked to do and laughingly tell me he would never be late again. I remember smiling at him, waiting for him to join me and being completely unprepared for the sting of his palm against my cheek.


Tears of shock rolled down my face and he immediately started crying right along with me, pulling me into his arms, kissing the tears away and telling me he would rather die than hurt me ever again. I was more in shock at seeing this confident, strong man fall apart in front of me than having him hit me and I immediately forgave him.


I was such a fool.


As I open the door to the apartment we share with Brady, Emma drops her book bag in the middle of the floor and races off to her room. When I hear the door close and I’m sure she can’t hear me, I drop the mail on the kitchen counter and pull out my cell phone. After a few rings, my lawyer, Michelle, answers.


“Gwen, I was just about to call you,” she tells me.


“Really? I’ve been meaning to call you for a few days, but I’ve been busy,” I tell her as I sort through the pile of mail. “Do you know if William is still in New York?”


I feel stupid asking her this, but I trust Michelle. I spoke to five lawyers before I decided to use her. Each one told me I should immediately go back to New York and handle things the proper way. They told me I was making a mistake by running and that it would only cause problems in the long run. I knew they were right, but I didn’t care. The only thing I cared about was keeping Emma safe. The first time I talked to Michelle, she told me to stay put and she would take care of everything. She confided in me that she was in an abusive relationship when she was younger and she knew exactly what I was going through.


“As far as I know he is, but I can check for you. Why, did something happen? Do you need me to fly out there? Now that your location has been disclosed, we can file a restraining order. Do you want me to call the police?”


I can’t help but laugh at her exuberance. “Calm down there, bulldog. I’m sure it’s nothing, probably just my overactive imagination. I’d feel better knowing he was where he’s supposed to be though.”


“Done. I’ll call his lawyer as soon as we hang up. Oh, the reason why I was going to call you – a friend of yours contacted me. She wanted to get in touch with you, but I didn’t want to give her your new cell phone number until I made sure it was okay. Her name is Ellie Larson.”


I smile as soon as I hear the name. Leaving William also meant leaving my best friend behind. Someone who knew some of what I was going through and finally convinced me to leave him. I knew I wouldn’t be able to have any contact with her until I could figure out what to do, but it didn’t make it any easier. Ellie has always been my rock and I’ve missed her.


I tell Michelle to go ahead and give her my number and hang up the phone feeling a little less crazy about what’s been happening lately. I sort through the mail and stare curiously at a letter addressed to Emma. Brady promised her he’d send her a post card from each city he visited and so far she’s received seven. He must have decided to send something else this time. Tearing open the sealed envelope, I pull out the pink, folded piece of construction paper and open it up.


I let out a gasp when I see what’s on it. The paper slips from my hand and flutters to the floor. I immediately race down the hallway to Emma’s room, shouting her name in fear as I go. I’m now certain that none of this is my imagination.


Chapter 9


Austin


“I wouldn’t ask you this if I had any other option, but I’m stuck. Emma’s babysitter is out of town visiting family for the weekend. It will only be for a few hours.”


I’m probably going to regret this, but having Gwen actually ask me for a favor is too good to turn down. Even if it means I have to be alone with a kid all night.


Gwen bites the nail of her thumb nervously and I reach out, pulling her finger from her mouth. “It’s fine, I can do it, no big deal.”


She smiles at me and it feels like someone punched me in the gut. Fucking hell! Why does she have to be so God damn good looking and vulnerable when she smiles? I’m such a pussy.


“So, what’s the deal? Do you have a hot date or something?” I ask, pretending like just uttering those words doesn’t make me want to punch a wall. What do I care if she has a date? I don’t even like her.


Fuck.


“Hardly. Remember that friend of mine I told you about, Ellie Larson? She’s in town and we’re going to dinner. I’d normally take Emma with me but I don’t want her out that late,” Gwen explains.


“Do I need to like, feed the kid or take her on a walk or some shit?” I ask in a panic.


Gwen laughs and shakes her head at me. “I’ll make sure she’s fed and walked before you come over. You do realize she’s a human and not a puppy, right?”


I’m starting to think this might not be a good idea. What the hell do I know about kids? What if she starts crying or something?


Gwen reaches out and rests her hand on my arm. “All you have to do is sit there and make sure she doesn’t start any fires or run with scissors. I’m pretty sure you can handle it.”


My gaze shifts from her face to the spot where her hand is touching me. It’s soft and warm and I suddenly wonder what it would feel like wrapped around my dick. I think about that hand sliding down the front of my pants and her tongue darting out to wet her lips. Without even thinking about what I’m doing, I step closer to her until I can feel the heat of her body against mine. Her hand digs into my bicep as if she’s trying to hold me in place and her mouth drops open, her breath coming out a little faster. Her lips are full and beautiful and I bet they taste even better. I can feel her breasts pressed against my chest and I want to slip my hand under her shirt and feel their fullness in my palm.


Reaching my hand up, I brush her hair off of one shoulder with the tips of my fingers just so I can touch her. Glancing down at the bare skin of her collarbone, I see a scar marking her skin. It’s an old scar, faded and barely visible, but it’s there. It’s a thin line about three inches long that goes from her collarbone over to her shoulder, disappearing under the edge of the shirt. I’ve seen scars like that before; I have scars like this – all of them the result of being on the receiving end of a knife blade. I stare in fascination at the mark and wonder what the fuck she’s doing with something like this on her body.


Not being able to help myself, I run my finger back and forth over the scar and ask. “Did you get into a knife fight or something?”


I can’t hide the humor in my voice because the idea of Gwen being in any kind of a fight is funny. Not because she couldn’t handle it, but because whoever decided to fight her probably wouldn’t be breathing topside anymore. She’d kick their ass and make them sorry they ever crossed her path. I’m even a little leery of castration standing this close to her, but I’m too mesmerized by the smoothness of her skin under my fingertips to shield the boys from her imminent wrath.


Gwen’s eyes blink in confusion and she looks away from me to crane her neck and stare down at the spot on her skin I’m still touching. I watch the softness in her face disappear as she quickly takes a step back from me. Whatever little moment we had going on just a few seconds ago is long gone. She grabs her hair and pulls it back to the front of her shoulder before turning away from me, grabbing her purse and heading for the door.


“So, I’ll just see you tonight then at Brady’s apartment? Seven o’clock should be fine.”


With that, she’s out the door and I’m standing here, my fingers still burning from the feel of her skin, wondering what the fuck just happened.


Again.


* * *


“Can I put pink lipstick on you?”


“No.”


“What about pink nail polish?”


“No.”


“I think a pink bow would look really pretty in your hair.”


“No.”


Emma huffs and crosses her arms in front of her, so much like her mother it makes me want to laugh. “Don’t you want to do anything fun?”


Stuffing my hands in the front pockets of my jeans, I glance around her room at the fucking sea of pink. Pink toys, pink blankets, pink stuffed animals – it looks like a bottle of Pepto exploded and it’s starting to give me hives.


“Isn’t it time for you to go to bed?” I question.


“It’s only seven-thirty.”


I shrug. “And?”


“And, I don’t go to bed until nine.”


Jesus Christ. What the hell was I thinking offering to babysit Gwen’s kid? I don’t know how to play with kids. Shit, I didn’t even know how to play when I was a kid. My first foster mother owned a diner put me to work when I was six years old. I had to learn how to wash and dry dishes in kindergarten.


“Um, how about we play Navy SEAL?”


She looks at me like I’m crazy. I probably am.


Getting down on my knees so I’m closer to her level, I look around the room cautiously and speak in a low voice. “That Barbie over there in the pink dress hiding behind the stuffed dog is a high level insurgent. Do we capture or kill, soldier?”


Emma looks at me with wide eyes for a moment and I wonder if this is the dumbest idea ever. Then, she glances over at the Barbie in question, bends her knees and whispers in my ear. “I think we need to capture her. Make her talk.”


Stifling a laugh, I quickly shuffle on my knees over to the edge of her bed, motioning for her to follow with my hand. She runs up behind me and we both peek around the corner of her frilly pink comforter.


“What do we do now?” she whispers from behind me, resting her small hands on my shoulders.


“We don’t want to spook her. We take this nice and slow and you don’t make a move until I say so,” I tell her, looking over my shoulder at her.


She nods, a fierce look of concentration on her face.


“We’re going to need weapons. She looks like a fighter. Did you bring weapons, soldier?”


Emma quickly grabs a stuffed alligator from off of her bed. Naturally it’s pink. “I’ve got this alligator. Her name’s Ally and she bites.”


I nod my head and motion for her to go in front of me. “You go in first with the gator. Tell her we don’t negotiate with terrorists who wear pink.”


* * *


My eyelids are so fucking heavy it feels like bricks are attached to them. Who knew an hour and a half of playing Navy SEAL with a six-year-old could be so exhausting?


“Hey, Mr. Austin?”


I struggle to open my eyes when I hear Emma’s sleepy voice and I lift my head from the back of the couch to look down at her, curled up next to me with her head resting against my side.


“What’s up pipsqueak?”


She looks up at me and yawns. “Do you know my daddy?”


I’m suddenly wide awake and I sit up a little straighter, careful not to jostle her too much. “Um, no. I don’t know your daddy. Is he nice?”


She yawns again, looking away from me to burrow closer into my side. “He always bought me presents. And he called me princess. But he wasn’t nice to mommy.”


Uneasiness ripples through my body at her softly spoken words. “What do you mean he wasn’t nice to mommy?”


I’m probably the biggest dick in the world for questioning a child, but right now I don’t care. I need info on Gwen and Emma’s sleepy ramblings seem to be just the place to get it. For some reason, I naturally assumed Gwen left New York because of her parents, just like Brady did. Obviously, I was wrong.


Emma is quiet for a few minutes and I assume she’s fallen asleep, but she mumbles into my side. “He yelled a lot. He called her bad names. If we would have had a swear jar then, he would have had to put a whole lot of money in it.”


I swallow thickly, resting my palm on top of her head.


“I miss my daddy, but he made mommy cry. I don’t want my mommy to cry anymore,” she admits softly right before she falls asleep.


Reaching for the blanket draped over the back of the couch, I gently pull it down and cover Emma with it. My head drops to the back of the couch and I stare up at the ceiling, things slowly clicking into place in my addled brain. Gwen not having any contact with Brady for years, her showing up at his place in the middle of the night a few months ago, the ‘personal stuff’ she’s got going on in her life, the way she zones out every once in a while and I can tell she’s thinking about something that bothers her, the comment she made in the car the other day about people hurting you… it’s all starting to make sense.

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