That motherfucker hurt her. I wonder if Gwen knows how much Emma worries about her. A kid shouldn’t have to worry about someone harming her mother, especially when that someone is her own father. Just the idea of some douchebag making Gwen feel like shit makes me want to find him and beat his sorry ass into the ground. I know she doesn’t want to talk about her past, especially to me, but if Brady was concerned enough to have me come here and keep an eye on her, this asshole could still be a threat. I may not be the type of guy to settle down with a wife and kid, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to let anything happen to Gwen or her daughter.
I glance nervously at my watch as I sit in the booth of the restaurant. Not because Ellie is a few minutes late, but because I’m wondering if Austin is surviving being alone with my daughter. I lied when I told him that Karen was out of town for the weekend. After that damn letter that came in the mail the other day, the coffee mug incident and what happened in the park, I wasn’t about to leave Emma home alone without being absolutely certain she would be safe. Karen is sweet and she adores Emma, but she’s no Navy SEAL. As much as Austin clouds my judgment and messes with my mind, I know that there isn’t a better person out there to keep my daughter safe.
That damn letter – a crayon drawn picture of a mother, a father and a little girl. It was a crude drawing and, at first glance, I assumed a child had done it – until I saw the words scribbled at the bottom of the page: Families belong together.
It was stupid of me to believe that William would just sit back and do nothing after I left, but to stoop to such childish behavior is pathetic. Michelle called me back on the way to the restaurant tonight and she informed me that William has been in New York for the past couple of weeks and his only travel plan coming up is a medical conference in Chicago. That news didn’t sit well with me at all. The coffee mug thing could be chalked up to my over-active imagination, and the person at the park could have just been a stranger, but that letter sure as hell was real. I’m not about to let him do this to me or to Emma. As much as I don’t want to, I’m have to tell Austin what’s going on. He dropped everything to look after us as a favor to my brother, not knowing what kind of a mess he was stepping into. It’s only fair to him that I explain the situation. There’s no way he can truly protect us if he doesn’t know what he’s protecting us from. I hate relying on someone else, but I won’t be careless about my daughter’s safety. William’s money and influence are far-reaching and he’s not a man I want to go up against all on my own. It would be a different story if it were only my well being I had to worry about. I would have no problem being my usual stubborn self and handling things on my own, but I have Emma to consider. I’m not about to let my pride get in the way of protecting her.
The front door to the small restaurant opens and thoughts of William fly from my mind as I see Ellie walk through the door and scan the room. I slowly slide out of the booth and stare at her wide-eyed. She looks so different. The woman walking towards me with a huge smile on her face looks nothing like the woman I left behind in New York. The last time I saw Ellie she had long, brown hair and a few extra pounds around her middle that she’d been complaining about losing for years. She was never one to wear clothing that accentuated any part of her body, choosing instead to be comfortable in t-shirts and jeans. I hardly recognize the woman I’m looking at. She’s easily lost at least twenty pounds and her thin figure and gorgeous curves are accentuated with a form-fitting little black dress. Her normally mousy, brown hair has been dyed honey blonde and hangs down past her shoulders in a shiny, sleek long-layered cut. She looks wonderful.
She looks exactly like me three months ago.
“Gwen! Oh my gosh it’s so good to see you!” Ellie exclaims, throwing herself at me and wrapping her arms around me in a tight hug.
After a few moments, she steps back and I shake my head at her in awe. “Ellie Larson, are you sure it’s really you in there? Holy shit, I barely recognized you.”
She blushes, glancing down at herself. “I know, it’s a big change, huh? And speaking of changes, is your hair blue and purple?”
I run my fingers through my long wavy hair and laugh. “I figured if I was going to leave my parent’s world behind, I might as well go all out.”
Ellie laughs and pulls me back in for another hug. “I’ve missed you so much, Gwenny.”
Her softly whispered words and the nickname she gave me when we were children have me blinking back tears and I squeeze her tightly for a few more seconds before letting her go. We take our seats across from one another and I reach across the table and grab both of her hands.
“You have no idea how happy I was to hear from you, Ellie. I should have gotten in touch with you sooner, but things have been hectic,” I explain.
“It’s fine, there’s no need to apologize. I’m just glad you’re okay now. You look so good, Gwen. So much better than the last time I saw you. You look happy. Are you happy?” she asks me softly.
Ellie’s adoptive parents were my parent’s best friends. When Ellie came to live with them when she was four-years-old, we immediately became best friends. She was the only person who knew how much I hated being the daughter of Beth and Karl Marshall. She was the only one who knew that I wanted more out of my life than being a spoiled rich girl who had everything handed to her on a silver platter. She was also the only one who knew the kind of monster William turned into after we were married. She held me when I cried the first time he broke one of my bones and she slept in a chair next to my bed the first time he put me in the hospital. She was my confidant and the closest thing to a sister I’d ever had. Aside from her new look, sitting here with her right now feels just like old times – like we haven’t been apart from each other for three months. No matter where we are or what we do, it’s good to know we can always pick up right where we left off like no time has passed.
“I’m getting there. Hopefully the divorce will be final soon and I can put all of this behind me. I just don’t know what to do about visitation with Emma. It’s so hard to know what the right thing to do is when you have a child caught in the middle,” I admit.
Ellie lets go of my hands and leans back in her seat, pulling her napkin closer to her and tearing off little pieces. She’s quiet and before I can ask her what’s wrong, the waitress interrupts us and takes our order. After she walks away, Ellie is still nervously shredding her napkin. I reach over and place my hand on top of hers to get her to stop.
“Alright, talk. What’s going on with you?”
She sighs and looks up at me with a sad expression on her face. “I didn’t just call you because I missed you. I mean, I do miss you, every single day. But, there’s something else. Something I need to tell you and I’m not sure how you’re going to take it.”
“If you’re referring to the fact that he’s seeing someone now, don’t worry. My mother already beat you to the punch,” I tell her with a laugh.
When she doesn’t laugh with me and instead, I see tears forming in her eyes, my smile vanishes and I lean forward. “Ellie, you’re starting to scare me. What’s going on?”
She picks up what’s left of her napkin and dabs at her eyes. “You have to promise me that you won’t get upset. Just… hear me out first before you say anything, okay?”
I nod in confusion, not saying anything. Ellie has always been a sensitive person, always worrying about hurting other people’s feelings. She has a heart of gold and it pains me to see her so upset about something.
“It’s me,” she whispers softly, refusing to look at me.
She swallows thickly, crumpling up the napkin and tossing it on the table in front of her.
“I’m the one that William is dating.”
She finally looks up at me and when the tears start falling steadily from her eyes, I know that the look on my face must not be one of understanding.
Even if I could find the words to say to her right now, I wouldn’t know where to begin. Regardless of the fact that she’s my best friend and he’s still technically my husband, she knows what kind of man he is. She knows what he’s capable of – she saw the bruises and the scars and the emotional turmoil I spent most of my adult life being swallowed up by.
“Please, don’t be mad at me, Gwen. It would kill me if I knew you were mad. I didn’t mean for it to happen, I swear,” she cries.
I shake my head at her, leaning back in my seat as I try to process the words coming out of her mouth.
“I’m not mad, I could never be mad at you. I’m just… I don’t understand. Jesus Christ, Ellie! You know what he’s like. You need to stay away from him,” I demand.
Being angry at the things William did to me is nothing compared to the rage I feel knowing that he could be doing the exact same things to my best friend. She’s sweet and kind and he knows this. He knows this and he would do everything in his power to take advantage of her good nature. I can’t let that happen, I won’t. He’s already dressed her up like a Barbie doll that resembles the old me, what more is he forcing her to do? Did he put her up to calling me? Did he come with her to Nashville? Does she know about the letter he sent to Emma? I don’t want to believe that Ellie would ever be a part of something that could possibly harm Emma and me, but I also never thought she would get in bed with that bastard after everything she watched him put me through. William obviously knows how much I care about Ellie and he’s decided to get closer to me by using her. It’s sick and disgusting and I can’t believe Ellie doesn’t see it.
“You don’t understand, Gwen. He’s different now since you left. He’s changed,” she pleads.
I scoff and roll my eyes. “Sure he has. Just like he swore he’d changed every single time he pushed me down the stairs or broke one of my bones. God dammit, Ellie, you’re smarter than this!”
She shrinks back into her seat and for a moment I feel awful about the way I’m talking to her, but I can’t stop myself. She needs to see how bad this is. He’s practically turned her into a walking replica of what I used to look like. Why can’t she see this?
“He’s not the same person anymore, Gwen. He got help for his anger issues, he’s calm and he’s a better man now. He wants to be a good father for Emma. He wants you to trust him so he can have her back in his life. If you would just talk to him, you’d see how different he is,” she explains.
So different that he’s sending creepy, hostile pictures in the mail addressed to his six-year-old daughter and making my best friend come here to plead his case.
Right now, I can’t even stand to look at Ellie. I’m scared for her and I feel betrayed. It’s more than obvious that William put her up to this and it makes me sick.
“You know what, I think I’ve lost my appetite,” I mutter, throwing my own napkin on the table, grabbing my purse and getting up from the table.
I walk out of the restaurant and away from my best friend, wondering if I’m ever going to be able to trust anyone ever again.
The sound of the door opening and closing wakes me up. I glance behind the couch to see Gwen angrily toss her purse onto the kitchen counter and stalk into the kitchen. She flings open the fridge door so hard it bangs against the counter behind it.
Looks like someone didn’t have a good dinner. Hopefully she’s in a chatty mood because I’ve got some questions for her. I fell asleep on the couch next to Emma thinking about all of the possible things Gwen had went through before she moved here and none of them left me with a good feeling.
I gently move Emma off of me, get up from the couch and reposition the blanket around her as she sighs and rolls over. A weird feeling tugs at my heart as I watch her tuck her hands under her cheek. She’s so small, so vulnerable and trusting. She’s obviously seen some not-so-good things in her short, six years and yet she’s happy and full of life. She believes without question that the people who love her will take care of her and keep her safe. She deserves to have a childhood without worry and without scars, so unlike my own. I have an unnatural urge to wrap my arms around her and never let her go, make sure nothing ever harms her and protect her at all costs.
Jesus, what the hell is wrong with me? I am NOT father material. I’m not even uncle material.
Not liking the direction of my thoughts, I back away from the couch and the sleeping little girl and head towards the kitchen.
I make it in there just as Gwen closes the fridge door, pops the top off of a bottle of beer and chugs half of it.
Leaning casually against the doorframe, I lift my eyebrow at her when she turns to face me. “Did they run out of dessert at the restaurant or something?”
She studies me silently for a few seconds before slamming the bottle down on the counter and charging towards me, determination shining in her eyes.
I put my hands up in surrender. “I was just kidding about dess-”
Her hands clutch onto the front of my shirt and she hauls me to her, bringing my lips to hers. When I hold completely still in shock, she takes it further by opening her mouth against mine just enough to glide the tip of her tongue across my bottom lip.
Every thought in my brain heads south, right to my dick. I forget about the questions I’m determined to make her answer and all of the reasons why this is the worst fucking idea in the entire world. I wrap my arms around her waist and pull her roughly against me, sliding my tongue into her warm, wet mouth and groan as soon as I taste her. Our tongues immediately tangle together, pushing and swirling, vying for dominance as we both drive harder and deeper into one another. She lets go of my shirt, moving her hands up to clutch large chunks of my hair and my palms slide up under the back of her shirt until I feel smooth, warm skin.
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