Chapter 4

I had to admit the first night with Evan on my couch was hard. I yearned for him to stay wrapped in my blankets with me, but I let my brain tell me it was far too soon for that.

“I should probably go to the pull-out?” Evan had whispered into my ear as I fell asleep.

“Mhmm,” I replied, fighting my tongue asking to him to stay.

He leaned over my body, his hands gentle as he swept a piece of hair away from my chin and let his fingers caress my neck before letting his lips settle on my cheek.

“Goodnight, Emma,” his voice tickled my neck, and I felt my chest rise with a content sigh.

I could feel the smile on his lips as he kissed me once more before his weight shifted off of the bed.

“You suck,” I mumbled as I rolled over to look at him standing leaning against the doorframe, shirtless with his gorgeous tattoos scattered up his arm, across his chest and over his collarbone. His lips curled at their edges as he winked at me and turned into the living room.

I huffed before rolling onto my stomach and shoving my face in the pillows. My brain wouldn’t stop thinking of him in the next room alone, and I found myself tossing and turning at the thought. It didn’t matter how long I stared at the ceiling, if I had my head shoved in the pillow, or if I was turned away from the door. I still knew he was there and longed for him to be with me. I only managed to fall asleep when I heard his soft snores echoing into my room; somehow, knowing he had fallen asleep calmed my mind. I woke to Evan’s now much louder snores at the dimness of dawn, and I couldn’t help but giggle to myself as I crept into the living room.  He was still asleep, hanging half-off the pull-out bed, limbs everywhere and his mouth open in a rather unattractive way. I stifled my laughter with my hand as I snuck into the kitchen to brew a pot of much needed coffee. Soon the sound of snores softened to nothing, and I felt Evan’s arms wrapping around my waist before his lips grazed my shoulder blade.

“Good morning,” he said into my ear as he kissed it.

“You have no idea,” I replied as I leaned my bare back against his soft chest.

“I think I do.”

I pulled away in reluctance to prepare our cups of coffee, and Evan watched with a sleepy smile on his face.

“I think you could use this,” I commented as I handed him his.

“Mhmm.” He smiled and smelled it before holding his free hand out to me. I let him lead me back into the bedroom where he opened the curtains to the French doors before pulling me into the bed with him. The coffee cup never left his hand, but he managed not to spill it as he wrapped his free arm around me and rested the cup on the side of him.

“When was the last time you took a vacation?” I asked as he pulled us back against the pillows.

“Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever taken one,” he replied. “I’ve never really had a reason to stop working—driven to the point of being insane. I never realized how tired I was of everything until now.”

“Everything?”

I felt his chest rise against my shoulders as he sighed. “The media, the cameras, the fans—don’t get me wrong, I do love them…it’s just—”

“Overwhelming to worry about every move you make…to worry you’re going to run into someone every time you leave your house.”

“Yeah.” I felt his lips tender against the curve of my neck. “I love how you understand things no one else could.”

“I’m sure plenty of other people understand,” I reassured him.

“No, not like you do,” he answered as his fingers traced my arm, leaving a trail of tingling skin. “I can’t explain it…it’s in your voice…the way your presence fills a silent room,” he chuckled to himself; “the way you smile at me when you’re watching me play. You just get it.”

“I don’t want you to ever leave,” I whispered back, turning my head to kiss the stubble of his chin.

He smiled down at me. “I won’t ever leave for too long. I don’t think I could stay away.”

I cuddled further into the bed and rested my head against his chest as we watched the sunrise. It wasn’t long before his breaths deepened, and I knew he was asleep again. The next few days were spent in a similar way. We simply relaxed, enjoyed each other’s conversation and memorized the feeling of one another’s skin.

On the third morning Evan and I ventured out onto the beach framing the lake with our cups of coffee to watch the sunrise, but we remained there far after the sun made its way up into the sky. I knew we only had so much time together, but it felt good to just sit in his arms, my head against his chest, elbows resting on either of his legs, watching as the ducks dunked their heads in and out of the water. I enjoyed the fact we didn’t have to talk to enjoy each other’s presence. It wasn’t that we had nothing to talk about; we just didn’t need to talk.

I played with the once white laces of his frayed shoes and looked up at him. “Have you ever heard of flip flops?” I teased, breaking the silence.

He responded by slipping the shoes off and wiggling his toes into the sand. “Better?” I nodded and he slipped his chin into my shoulder, murmuring, “Would you answer something if I asked it?”

I laughed. “If you promise to go to the mall with me and get something other than those things.”

“If you answer the question I’ll dance around in a pink tutu for you.”

I turned to face him and watched as he rested his elbows on his knees, head in hands.

“This must be a serious question,” I guessed as I watched him looking at anything but me.

“Something’s been bugging me…” he began and his eyes met mine.

“Yes?”

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words—they’ll destroy my soul?” he repeated my quote, and I felt the heat rushing to my face.

“A pink tutu?” I teased and buried my own feet in the sand.  I wished I could bury my head as well.

“You don’t have to answer…it’s just really been bugging me. I don’t want to push it,” he said as he reached forward and took my face in his hands. “But I keep hearing it repeated in my mind…I think I know what it means.” His eyes closed for a moment before he opened them and continued, “But I really don’t want to be right.”

I sighed as I searched for the words to explain. I didn’t really know how to tell him what happened to me.  Maybe I just didn’t want to say it out loud. I looked past him to the home that my parents created to keep me safe from harm. I never even truly said it out loud to them, but they had seen the marks on my body. They had seen the change in who I was; they had realized they couldn’t save me from the damage once it had been done. I took a deep breath and let my eyes wander back to his face. His brows were drawn over his eyes and his forehead wrinkled with lines of worry. If I was going to let him in; I might as well let him all the way in.

“Bruises fade, but the words…they continue to sting long after their mark has left. Sometimes the words creep in and they are so much worse than the memories of the fists. I could battle through that physical pain—I could even fight back, but the words…those are what decimated me. It’s been years,” I explained, tipping my head back, “and sometimes, I still feel the doubt the words created so long ago…”

“I wish I could fix it,” Evan sighed.

I looked at him and smiled. “I think you already are.”

“How?”

I let my shoulders rise and fall. “You just are.”

“I want to make you forget it.”

“You do,” I replied as I let my head rest on my knees. “You really do.”

Evan bit his lip and looked up at the sky before letting his eyes meet mine again.  I wondered if he was measuring how far he should go with his questions.

“Something else?” I gave him a small smile of encouragement, and his hands formed a steeple in front of his face.

“Yeah,” he replied, and I nodded for him to continue. “What happened?”

“I was a junior in high school when I met Eric…”I began. “He seemed popular…he was supposed to be a smart kid—and the star basketball player. I thought he wasn’t the typical jock because he was smart…The thing was, he wasn’t. He was manipulative. He had everyone eating out of his hands—I don’t know why I fell for it. I didn’t even really like him when we started ‘going out’, but I did it because I thought it was the cool thing to do.” I shrugged. “I just fell deeper and deeper into the trap, and when he knew he had me deep enough, he started with the abuse…first it was words, and then somewhere in between he decided he wanted to teach me self-defense. I didn’t understand why I needed to protect myself…I didn’t see it was an excuse to beat the crap out of me. Then it got worse—the words and the ‘lessons’ started to combine…I don’t know how I didn’t see it happening. By the time he started hitting me I was already so damaged emotionally I think I thought I deserved it—that I’d done something to deserve it.”

“Like what?” Evan asked, and I noticed he was now leaning away from me with his hands buried deep in the sand. I could see the vein spiking up his wrist and his forearm, so I knew beneath the sand he was clenching his fists. His face had gone white, and his eyes suddenly looked a muddy brown instead of the green tinted gray they usually were.

I shrugged. “I couldn’t tell you. I just felt like it was my fault.”

He nodded, but his clenched jaw made me feel he didn’t understand.

My entire being—my heart, my mind and soul—felt empty as I talked about what happened for the first time ever. I’d never really told anyone. It was always easier that way and most people were too afraid to ask, even my own parents.

“What made you realize it was all wrong? What made you leave him?”

I could feel the heat building in my face, and the tears pricked at my eyes as I admitted, “I didn’t.”

I’d never forgiven myself. I should have left first, but in my weakness, I hadn’t.

“What do you mean?” Evan hunched forward now, a frown on his thin lips as his eyes darted over my face in an attempt to understand.

He dumped me.”

Evan’s breathing seemed to stop for a moment as he stared at me, and I closed my eyes to compose myself. I feared his judgment, but as I felt his hands folding over my own and his lips settling on my forehead, I knew there would be none. He let the breath out, and I looked up at him.

“You would have.”

My composure cracked.

I shook my head. “I…I don’t know I would’ve.”

Evan’s voice was firm as he said, “You’re a strong person.”

“I’m glad you think so.”

“So you were a junior in high school when it started?” he asked, his voice gentle.

“Yeah, and he broke up with me on graduation day.”

“Nice,” Evan muttered to himself. We were quiet for a moment. “That was a while ago, huh?”

“You don’t know my age,” I inferred, and he nodded. “Twenty-three.”

One of his eyebrows shot up. “Really?”

I nodded and smirked at him. “You’re an old man.”

“Yeah…I guess so,” he answered, but despite the light-hearted way the conversation had suddenly turned, his eyes were still dark.

“There’s still something I don’t understand,” he managed to say after staring at his hands for seconds that felt like minutes.

I took a deep breath before saying, “How scars can still ooze five years later?”

His brows furrowed over his eyes as if he didn’t want to admit it but he nodded.

“Because we let them.”

I watched as he scratched the back of his head like he was uncomfortable with what I said, or with whatever he was about to say.

“You haven’t forgiven yourself for it,” he finally stated.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean you haven’t forgiven yourself for what you feel you made happen.”

“I can’t forgive myself for what I put my family through,” I explained, but Evan still shook his head.

“There’s more to it than that.”

His words were strong, and I knew they weren’t meant to hurt, but they did because they were the truth.

“I…” I began, but I found I had to look away from him. “I lost myself between then and here. I’m having a hard time finding my way back.”

Evan’s lips were in a firm line as I looked back to him. “Maybe you need to stop trying to find your way back and just start moving forward to who you are now.”

“Easier said than done,” I retorted.

Evan stood and held his hand out for me. When I put mine in his he pulled me up into his arms, pressing our bodies against one another.

“I know who you are,” he said, his breath washing over my neck. “I’ve fallen hard for that person, and I sure as hell am not going to let you fade into your past!”

I nodded. “Good.”

“Now, about those flip flops?” Evan said with a grimace that annunciated his strong chin. “The band might have some strong words about them.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Really? And they wouldn’t have an issue with a pink tutu?”

He ran a hand through his hair. “Eh, I’m sure they’ve seen me in worse.”

“Do I want to know?” I asked as I pulled away and gave his shoulder a soft tap.

“I’ve known them since I was sixteen, and being the old thirty-something I am, they’ve seen me drunk more than once. I’m sure I’ve done things more embarrassing than a pink tutu.”

“But flip flops are just unbearable?” I teased as I leaned down to collect our coffee mugs.

He smacked my butt before jogging ahead of me and turning as he reached the door to the apartment.

“I’ll try them on—then we can argue about it,” he conceded.

“Damn right!” I commented as he held the door open for me.

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