Authors: Jade C. Jamison
GOD…ETHAN HAD to quit staring. He’d managed to talk her into breakfast, even though she had been reluctant about it. There was something bothering her, but he couldn’t figure out what it was. He was going to have to pry it out of her.
He didn’t understand what it could be. Last night had been pretty close to perfect.
So, as they were waiting for the waitress to bring their breakfast, Jenna sipped on her coffee, and Ethan pondered how he was going to broach the subject. Well, there was no delicate way to just ask, and he needed to know. He waited until Jenna made eye contact with him, and then he said, “So…what’s bothering you?” He lowered his voice and leaned in closer. “Last night was pretty fuckin’ incredible…and I
you felt it too. So what’s going on? Did I say or do something to give you second thoughts? What’s up with that?”
Her eyes drifted downwards to his shirt, then down to the table. She was considering his words, but he got the feeling that she would say something
if he waited. She just had to find a way to word it. She inhaled a deep breath and looked at him again. Her voice was soft and her eyes bright. Christ, she had no idea what she was doing to him. He was just shy of being completely smitten. Her auburn hair was pulled into a ponytail, adding to her look of innocence, but Ethan could tell she was about to lay some heavy shit on him. “Do you remember the first night we met…in group? Remember when I told you everyone there was broken?” He nodded, afraid of breaking her focus. “I meant
He looked in her eyes for a few seconds and then said, “You really seem to have your shit together. I find it hard to believe
She let out a breath of air and looked down at her hands. “Well, thanks. That says something. I guess that means I’m a hell of an actress.”
Ethan reached around her coffee cup and took her hand. “No, that means you’re stronger than you think.”
“Thanks, but…” Her voice trailed off.
She shook her head. “I feel like a big faker.”
“Because I’m just pretending.
I don’t feel strong at all.”
Ethan chuckled and squeezed her hand, then let go.
“Maybe you don’t
strong, but you are. Give yourself some credit.”
She tried to smile and said, “How would you know?”
“I know.” When she looked at him again, he said, “Why don’t you tell me about it?”
“I don’t know…”
“Listen, you’ve heard a lot of my shit.” He raised his eyebrows. “I’m not going to think less of you, no matter what you tell me.”
She looked skeptical
, but she finally nodded her head. “Okay. I can tell you some.” She swallowed, and Ethan wondered if she was going to change her mind. She rubbed her eyebrows and then looked at him again, and he could tell she was trying to smile…it just wasn’t working. “I’ve never picked the right guy. Ever. Not once. And maybe it started that way just because I wanted any excuse to get out of the house. My family’s…not so nice, and so I didn’t care who the guy was, just so long as he’d keep me away for as long as possible. Anyway, two years ago, just after I finished up my Master’s degree, I started dating this guy. He was a bartender. That should have been my first clue, I suppose, but he’d always been funny and charming, and he was cute too. So…the day I had to defend my thesis, right after, I went to the bar and had a few shots. He asked me out that night, and we started dating right after.
“He was nice at first. Really, he was. He’d buy me flowers and take me out to dinner. But…it wasn’t long before he started treating me like shit.
He didn’t lay a hand on me, but it wasn’t what he’d say so much as the way he said it. Well, that’s not exactly true either. He said a lot of not-so-nice things.
“It wasn’t even noticeable at first. It was subtle, you know, and I was in so deep and didn’t even realize what was going on. I was counseling people, right, giving them advice on what they should do with their lives, helping them get a handle on their relationships, and I was living a lie. What he did, though, was so…
insidious, I couldn’t see the forest for the trees. Not until the night that woke me up.” She was looking at the table. Ethan could tell by the way she rapidly blinked her eyes that she was having a hard time saying what was on her mind. Maybe she wasn’t going to say anything, but he wanted to be quiet, to encourage her in case she found a way to get the words out of her mouth.
She inhaled deeply and let it out. She swallowed, still avoiding Ethan’s eyes. Her voice was soft, but she said, “I guess
, in a way, it’s a good thing that it happened, because otherwise I don’t know that I would have gotten myself out of the situation.” She looked at Ethan for just a moment and then looked back down. “He…uh…”
The waitress stopped by their table.
Ethan kept his eyes on Jenna but slid his cup toward the waitress. Jenna looked over at her and said, “Yes, please.”
Ethan just hoped the interruption wouldn’t stop Jenna from talking about something she obviously needed to let go of…because whatever it was was stopping her from living her life fully, and whether or not she wanted Ethan in her life, she needed to move past whatever it was that was eating at her.
* * *
“Your breakfast should be ready any minute.” And off the waitress went, leaving Jenna wondering just how much she really wanted to tell the man across from her. She managed to look at him again, though, and he had that look on his face she’d seen from him so many times before—the one that told her he felt some connection with her.
“You don’t have to tell me if it’s too hard.”
Somehow, his words made her want to tell him. Really, there was no reason not to; there was no reason to hide anything from him. It wasn’t like he was going to betray her confidence and tell the world about her troubles, and even if he did, it wouldn’t make her past any better or worse than it had been. In fact, she suspected her past had changed her much like Ethan’s own past had changed him. It had made them both stronger. She trusted him and knew he would understand.
So she swallowed and poured creamer in her fresh coffee, nodding her head. “It was…a couple of years ago…in the spring. We’d been together close to a year. I’d...uh…gone to a friend’s bachelorette party. We’d been drinking a
lot, and she had some guys come to the party…maybe as a last farewell. I don’t know. But we were laughing and dancing and anyway, he showed up, wanting to pick me up. I guess he thought we’d been partying too long.”
Jenna ran her hand over her forehead, remembering the moment. “I guess I should back up a little. This was after almost an entire year of
him slowly taking over my life…and me just letting him. Him telling me what to do, how to dress, how to act, and his methodical way of eroding my self-esteem and sense of worth. It had gotten to where I’d cower inside any time I thought I’d displeased him or made him upset, and yet he’d never physically done anything to inspire that reaction.
“Well, it turned out I should have been afraid. When he got there, he was just as nice as could be, kissing my friend on the cheek and laughing and joking with the other girls there, but I could sense how angry he was. There was just something subtle in his body language that gave it away…maybe not to anyone else, but I could tell. He was pissed.
“So we got in the car to head home, and it was deathly silent. That was what confirmed it. Not a word. But I could see it on his face; every time we passed a street light and it shined in the car, I could see it. He was going to give me a long lecture when we got home, and I was dreading it.
“Still…we got home and he was quiet. I was starting to feel even more scared.” And, she noticed, her hands were shaking a little as she related the story to Ethan. She took a deep breath, trying to pull herself out of the moment. She
had to remind herself that she wasn’t there anymore. She had escaped. Still, he had scarred her deeply, and she was still coping with the aftermath.
No, that wasn’t true. She’d never fully coped with it, never faced her feelings. She’d instead buried it all. So it felt somewhat fresh, but she noticed as she continued her story, that part of her felt relieved to be able to tell someone, someone who cared. She looked up at Ethan again as her lips parted. His eyes were tender, gentle, and full of understanding.
She could tell he would have been all right had she chosen to not say another word, but he was going to listen if she wanted to finish. “It got to where I couldn’t stand his silence anymore. He was just sitting on the couch, his jaw clenched, staring ahead, smoking a cigarette. I sat next to him on the couch and touched his arm. Yeah, that was more confirmation. He was pissed. So…I did what I’d always done in that situation. I wanted to mollify him, smooth things over.” Just like she’d always done with her dad when he was on an alcoholic rampage…but she wasn’t going to tell Ethan about that. Absolutely not. She was sharing plenty already. “I asked him what was wrong. He said, ‘You know exactly what’s wrong, Jenna.’ I assured him I did not. And then…”
She let out another breath.
Holy fuck. She really hadn’t thought about that moment in two years, and now it was bearing down on her with more force than a hurricane. She felt her stomach clench, and she thought she might throw up, but there was nothing there. The memory came crashing down on her, and she had no choice now. She had to tell it or drown in it. “He grabbed me by the jaw, his whole hand holding my face, and he told me he was disappointed in me, that I had engaged in their little games with the men, that I’d been acting like a slut, just like all of them. I protested, telling him I hadn’t done anything inappropriate, but he wasn’t listening. He just told me I was his, and he was going to make sure I’d never forget.”
Jenna didn’t even notice the tears that were filling her eyes, nearly welling over, but she felt the sting in her nose. She looked down at the cup in front of her and started blinking, causing the first two tears to fall.
But she had to keep telling her story, and at this moment, it didn’t matter if Ethan was listening or not. She had to speak or die. “So…he…” She took in another breath. She tried to cool off, put up the wall she did when she was counseling people, the one that helped her shield her heart. It allowed her to hold it together so she could finish her story, but she could tell it was only temporary. “He…grabbed me by the arms and told me I was his and only his and I should never, ever put myself in a position like that again. But then he stopped talking.” She choked back the emotions, because if she gave in completely, she’d never be able to finish telling Ethan. “I don’t remember it all…just that…he held me down and unfastened my jeans. He…uh…forced himself on me. No foreplay or anything, just…” She nodded. “I guess it would be called
. It…hurt so bad. It felt like I was going to rip apart. And I know I screamed, but then he covered my mouth with his hand.” She shook her head slightly, trying to switch gears. “Anyway, I just laid on that couch all night long, long after he went to bed. The next morning, before it was even light out, I went to a women’s shelter. I filed a restraining order, not that it meant anything, and I packed my shit. I moved here. He talked to me once…and I told him if he ever came near me again, I’d kill him.” She wasn’t going to tell Ethan that he was her first since leaving her ex. She’d never planned to be with a man again, but she couldn’t have asked for a better reintroduction.
All those thoughts hid in the back of her mind, though, as the enormity of what had happened to her just over two years earlier crashed down on her. As though she were outside her body, she knew she was crying hard. The tears were streaming down her face
, and the numb feeling she’d worn as a cloak had fallen off. She felt exposed and in pain. Ethan got up from his side of the table and slid into the booth beside her. She felt herself pulled into his embrace as her body melted and did what it had needed to for far too long.
THERE WAS SOMETHING about this woman. How and why Jenna continually brought out the best in him, he’d never know. And why hadn’t Valerie been able to bring that out of Ethan? He didn’t blame Valerie, and he knew it was his own shortcoming, but he thought it was because he felt the need to protect Jenna, and maybe it was because he knew her background was similar to his. She actually understood him…and the feeling was mutual.
he felt completely lame and useless, holding this sobbing woman in his arms. He was unable to do anything to make her feel better. He could let her cry, but he felt worthless.
And wouldn’t you know? The waitress showed up at their booth with their food—pancakes for Jenna,
sausage, eggs, and toast for Ethan—and all of it would taste like cold shit by the time she was done. Well, there was no getting around it. He’d buy a second batch when she was ready to eat. She was more important than breakfast. He looked over at the waitress, and she had a bemused look on her face. She whispered, “Want me to leave these under the heat lamp?”
He nodded, grateful that she was thinking on her toes. He’d have to give her an extra big tip for that. He felt his t-shirt growing damp with
Jenna’s tears, and he could feel the force of her sobs. He couldn’t even imagine the psychic scars she was suffering from, and he wondered if maybe this girl was in worse shape than he was. She was definitely stronger; there was no doubt about that in his mind.
He held her to his chest with his right arm
and ran his other hand over her hair, hoping to comfort her to some degree. After a few minutes, he felt her sobs die down somewhat as she exhausted herself. He loved the way her hands were resting on his chest on either side of her head, as though she were taking great comfort in his arms. He hoped she was.
She sat back and swiped the back of her hand over first one cheek and then the other. She tried to smile when she looked up at him. “Thanks.” Her eyes were puffy as she looked back down at his wet shirt. “Sorry about that.”
With his hand, he brushed the hair off the side of her face. “Least I could do.” He kissed her forehead and then turned slightly, glancing around for the waitress. She spotted him looking at her and walked over, coffeepot in hand again.
He nodded. He didn’t plan to move back to the other side of the booth. As the waitress walked off, he asked, “Hungry?”
She looked at him, a twinkle in her eyes. “Yeah, I think so.”
Ethan looked in her eyes and touched the side of her face with his hand. If he could have, he would’ve loved to erase all those bad memories from her mind. He would have even taken them into himself so she wouldn’t have to suffer. He was already fucked up beyond belief. A little more pain wouldn’t hurt. In fact, he often wondered if it was the pain that kept him alive. With this girl, though…with her, he had hope. And so it was almost like he couldn’t help himself when he kissed her softly on the lips and then smiled as he heard the plates sliding on the table.
* * *
It was well over an hour and almost an entire pot of coffee later that Ethan was walking Jenna up to her apartment. Her spirits had lifted and they’d enjoyed each other’s company, laughing and talking about the future. Jenna seemed much happier after letting go. They still had something to talk about, though.
Ethan was surprised when she asked him if he wanted to come in. Part of him did, but he had some things he had to get done while he was motivated to do them. But he held her in his arms and said, “You’re tough, you know that?” She shrugged her shoulders as if blowing him off. “You
.” He’d heard stories of some rape victims never wanting to be touched again by a man ever. That she’d given herself to him so completely, so freely was amazing to him. And he understood the tattoo now. He didn’t plan to bring it up again, but he knew now why she’d had herself branded. He took a deep breath. “I hope you know I’m not walking away. You can talk tough, Jenna, but you can’t deny what’s between us. You can pretend like you don’t see it or like you just don’t care, but I know better, and if I have to be a pain in your ass to get your attention, I will.” She just smiled and rested her forehead on his chest. God, he wished she could stay like that forever. He held the back of her head in the palm of his hand. “I’ll stop coming to group if that helps.”
She jerked her head up. “Don’t you dare,
date you if you make that kind of a threat.”
A small smile cu
rled his lips. “So you’re with me then?”
he grinned back at him. “Yeah.” More emphatically, then: “Yeah.” He kissed her again and was reluctant to leave, but he had to. He promised he’d call early the next week…but now he had to be a man and do something he should have done a long time ago. It was thanks to Jenna that he finally felt ready to do it.
* * *
“Listen, Becker, I don’t give a fuck. I changed my mind. Give her the goddamned divorce. I don’t want full custody anymore. I just…want to see my son. Make it happen.”
His lawyer was stammering. It was the first time he’d heard the man just short of speechless. “It’s not that easy, Ethan. We have—”
“Bullshit. What the hell am I paying you for? I can tell you to do something cut-throat, and you’re all over it like flies on shit, but I ask to call the dogs off and it’s not simple? Are you kidding me?”
His lawyer’s voice lowered. “The problem, Ethan, is not that I can’t do it. O
f course, I can. But it weakens your position. If we do this, I hope you don’t mind getting jack shit, because that’s likely
What a prick. Ethan tried to match his tone. Now he was wishing he was seeing Becker in person instead of over the phone. He could just see the asshole at the eighth hole on the golf course, wearing some
douchy striped polo and cheesy but expensive sunglasses. He was probably standing away from his other douchy lawyer and doctor friends, rolling his eyes at his stupid rock star client who just wouldn’t listen to him. Ethan had had enough. He was paying this guy to do his bidding, not to try to talk him into being an even bigger asshole than he’d already been. “Fine. I’ll do it myself. Would you please get me my wife’s phone number?”
His attorney chuckled, and it was so pedantic and disgusting
that if Ethan had been able to reach inside his cell phone, Becker would have found those goddamned sunglasses shoved down his throat. “That’s not helping your case, Ethan. You need to start thinking of her as your
, not your wife.”
lip turn up in a snarl, although he was aware it was for the benefit of no one. “She’s still my wife until we sign the papers, right?”
“Goddamned right. I’ll give her the divorce, but don’t condescend. I’m fully aware of what I’m saying.” He heard his lawyer chuckle again and was pretty sure the asshole was lining up to putt. “Just give me her number.”
“I don’t have it, you stubborn bastard, and I guarantee her lawyer won’t give it to me either.” The silence between the two men was heavy. “Look, I can call Sheridan on Monday and see if she’ll pass along a message to your ex.”
“Thanks.” Ethan hung up, tired of dealing with the bureaucratic way his lawyer wanted to handle everything. Ethan didn’t want to wait. He wanted to act right now. Impetuous, maybe, but it was the right thing to do…and way past the time he should have done it. The time felt right, and he needed to do it. It felt as though his life depended upon immediate action.
* * *
“Hey, man, how the hell are you?” Ethan hadn’t realized how much he’d missed his best friend and soul brother until he heard his voice over the line. He could tell from the long pause that Brad didn’t know quite how to handle this unexpected phone call.
His voice came out slowly. “Ethan. What can I do for you?”
Oh, that hurt. His friend was handling him with kid gloves, as though Ethan were going to go ballistic. A year ago, yeah. Four or five months ago, maybe. He’d done a lot of self-exploration since then, a lot of maturing, and he was past it. He had a fence or two to mend, and why not start with the man he called his brother? “I’m out of options, man.”
“It’s not what you think. I’m clean; I’m sober. Haven’t touched
in months.” He sighed. He knew the suspicion was going to happen for a while, and he might as well just get used to it. “I need to talk to Val, and I don’t have her number. My lawyer’s too big a pussy to even ask hers.”
Brad’s silence was
telling, like he was afraid that saying something to Ethan would give something away. Did he think Ethan was stupid? He wasn’t. He knew Brad had moved in with Val. Exactly
he wasn’t sure, but he wasn’t dumb. “That’s not a good idea, bro.”
Ethan shook his head. This was going to be harder than he thought. “Listen…I know I’ve been a real dick the last year. I know that. I don’t want to
do that anymore, okay? Val can have the divorce. I already told my lawyer I’ll sign. And I don’t want sole custody of Chris either. I was just being an asshole when I did that. But I
want to see my son. I’m dying to see him, man. If you had a kid of your own, you’d know what I mean. I miss the hell out of that kid. It’s been too long. And I just—”
Ethan ran his fingers through his hair. He tried to imagine what Brad was doing that he had to ask Ethan to wait a moment…but he didn’t have to wait long. “Ethan?” That voice. It took his breath away. It belonged to Valerie, his soon-to-be ex-wife. It had winded him because he still cared. No, he’d given up on the notion of love or reconciliation. The two of them just weren’t compatible. They were like oil and water, destined to repel each other at every turn, but he’d never stop loving her. She wasn’t his soulmate, though. She didn’t belong to him, and they weren’t meant to be together. In fact, until the last few days, Ethan had resigned himself to spending his life alone. Hearing her voice on the phone, though, told him that maybe she had forgiven him, and that was huge.
Thanks for talking with me.”
“What do you need?” Well, maybe she was
, but there was no room for pleasantries apparently.
“I…uh…I wanted to apologize for being a real rat bastard. I’m sorry. I…you can have the divorce. I’m not going to fight you anymore. And I’m not going to demand sole custody of Chris either. I—wasn’t in my right mind. I…” He needed to get on with it. “I’m
.” He let out a breath of air, ready to move on when Val spoke.
“I forgive you, Ethan.”
Those words were like a waterfall crashing down on him, filling his soul with something he wondered if he’d ever felt before. He didn’t know what it was, but it was scary. It was as though an abyss was filling rapidly with warm fluid, and he felt water fill his eyes. He hadn’t known how badly he’d wanted her forgiveness even though he’d never expected it. He would have understood had she told him to
forever. Instead, she was letting it go. It left him without words. “How’s your recovery going?”
question jolted him back to the present. He pinched the bridge of his nose in between his thumb and index finger, trying to make himself focus. “Uh, pretty good, actually.” He wasn’t going to mention Jenna…not yet. That she’d been a huge support for him, had helped him see the reality of a lot of his life wasn’t something Valerie needed to know right now. She just wanted to know that Ethan was healthy. “I’ve been clean for months now, and…I’m trying to find ways to deal with my life that don’t involve abuse.”
“That’s great. I’m glad to hear it.”
Yes, her words were sincere, but he felt like a stranger to her now. It made his heart ache that he’d hurt this woman so deeply that she couldn’t remember the good times they’d had together. He knew Valerie well enough to know that she was guarding herself, and he couldn’t blame her. It just hurt. But he guessed he had it coming. “Anyway…I wondered if maybe I could see Chris sometime. I miss him a lot. I…” No way was he going to play the kid-needs-his-dad-in-his-life card, because he knew Brad had become a substitute dad of sorts, whether or not either one of them wanted to admit it to him. He’d seen Brad with his son once or twice. Brad was a natural, and Ethan knew his son was in good hands. It didn’t help the fact that his own heart felt empty, though, and he needed to see his boy. He felt the muscles in his throat clench, and he couldn’t talk anymore.
But that was
all right, because he heard Valerie say, “Okay.”