I take my thumb from out of my mouth so that my speech comes out clearer, instead of muffled. "So, what are you trying to say? That this is all down to me having daddy issues?" I scoff, rolling my eyes.
"Brittany, honey." My psychologist, doctor Howard, crouches down so that she can talk to me at eye level. "We don't like to call it 'Daddy Issues' here," she corrects my sarcastic comment. "What you're suffering from is called abandonment disorder."
I know what you're thinking, but no, I'm not a child. I'm not excessively short, either. I'm a twenty-three-year-old adult—most of the time.
The reason that she feels the need to crouch is because I'm sitting on a black leather chaise and she's wearing skyscraper heels. She could just remove them and lose six inches in height...but no. Not, miss perfect here. Even though her ankles must be screaming, judging from the wince on her face as she fights hard to maintain her balance. Still, she continues to suffer all in the name of fashion.
I glance down at my comfortable Sketchers and smirk. Dr. Howard wobbles slightly as she struggles to maintain a crouched position, probably putting a whole load of strain on her calf muscles.
I bet if I was to push her with my index finger, she would drop like a falling tree. It would be my word against hers, there aren't any witnesses.
Better not. That would be classed as common assault. Who would believe me over a fully-fledged adult with a real job and a mortgage?
"Brittany?" Her grey eyes wince, questioningly. "How do you feel about that?"
Shit! What was the question again?
"Your hair is so shiny," I compliment as I reach out and grasp some of her sleek black hair, letting it slide through my fingertips. "And it's super soft, too," I tell her, instead of answering the question that I missed.
She presses her glossy red lips together and exhales through her nose as she stands. "You're avoiding my questions again," she mentions, folding her arms across her chest. "Every time I talk about your father, you zone out on me."
I scowl stubbornly, unwilling to cooperate. She turns away from me, then sinks into her leather chair, opposite. When she crosses her tanned legs, her beige dress suit rides a couple of inches higher, which gives me a glimpse of the mandala tattoo on her left thigh.
So, she has a wild side, huh? Nobody gets a thigh tattoo unless they want people to see it. I wonder if her panties have days of the week on them, or whether they're red lacy and crotchless. If she uncrosses her legs and switches sides like Sharon Stone, I guess I'll find out.
"What are you thinking about?" She asks, choosing to lean forward and rests her elbows on her thighs.
I blush with embarrassment. "I can't tell you that," I mumble in response, giving her fleeting eye contact. It physically hurts to look her in the eyes.
"You're not telling me much today. Why is that?" Her expression turns sympathetic again.
We have been going around in circles for weeks now. I thought therapy was supposed to help me deal with my problems, not make things ten times worse by making me relive every painstaking memory.
"I know what you're going to say, but I won't talk about him. I won't!" I cast my eyes down as I speak, unable to look her in the eyes.
The eyes are a window to the soul and she has a way of seeing things, just by searching into mine. She has told me so many things about myself. Things that I'm too ashamed to admit out loud and that scares the hell out of me.
"Okay, let's try a different approach." Her voice is smooth and calming. It sends tiny shivers down my spine as if someone was running a finger down it, gently. "So, why don't you tell me something good about yourself, instead of focusing on the negative all the time."
Her words slice through me like a jagged shard of glass. Something good about me? I pull the sleeves of my hoodie over my hands as if cocooning myself in my own safety bubble.
"I already told you; I helped my friends escape from two jerks that were going to kill them." I tuck my legs up against me, balancing my heels on the edge of my seat and wrap my arms around my shins. "They used to be my friends before...you know? Then I was mean to them for a while, and then we made up. End of story." I hate my shitty excuse of a life. Especially admitting it out loud. So I give her the basic glossary of events in the hope that she stops asking.
She nods, bunching her brows with what I considered as her signature expression. That superficial mask of empathy and those perfectly sculpted, fucking eyebrows.
My mom used to say that when you make a face and the wind changes, you would stick like that. Imagine being stuck with a perfectly cocked eyebrow arched over your resting bitch face. Would you have to wait until the wind changed direction for it to unfreeze?
She taps her index finger against her chin as she thinks. "And how did that make you feel when you saved your friends?" She asks, in the same neutral tone.
"Good...I guess," I answer, scowling at having to answer such a basic-ass question. "How do you think it felt?"
Sure, she's being paid to listen, but is the concern on her face genuine? Or is this all just an act to get me to talk about him?
"That was a very brave thing you did, Brittany. An act of courage like that tells me that you're stronger than you give yourself credit for," she remarks, seemingly impressed by my courageous act.
I respond with a sarcastic eye roll. She has no idea just how vulnerable I'm feeling right now. How fast my heart is beating inside my chest. That my peanut butter and jelly sandwich is churning around in my stomach, threatening to reappear.
"I have an idea, hold on a second," she mutters, standing to her feet and walking across the room to the mahogany bookshelves.
She grasps hold of a plush teddy bear and brings it over to me, holding it out for me to take. "His name is Einstein, and he's the smartest bear in the world." Her lips curve into a fruity smile. She gives a slight shrug, probably because of my doubtful expression. "He's a darn good listener, and he's great at keeping secrets." She wiggles him in front of me like she's dangling a carrot in front of a donkey.
I reach out, letting my shaky fingers emerge through the cuff of my hoodie, only to hesitate an inch away. "What if he has a recording device stashed inside his belly? You said he is smart. How can I trust him?" I reply with an air of distrust.
Her lips twist as she thinks. "Squeeze him all over and see for yourself. He's just stuffed full of love, nothing more, nothing less."
My fingertips graze the soft fur, applying pressure as I grasp hold and check him over for myself.
Alright, so he seems genuine. But he is still a he, and so far, all the men in my life have let me down, dismally.
"I know you have trust issues with men," she comments, making me gasp with shock as she reads my thoughts like some psychic witch. "But maybe Einstein can restore some of your faith in them. Then, over time, you can open up a little more about..."
Just as she was about to finish that sentence, something snaps inside of me. It was like the old me had come out from wherever she had been hiding all these months, coming to my defense like a protective big sister.
"Why Daddy left us? Why he walked through the door and forgot that I even existed? That's what you want to hear, isn't it?"
The venom in my voice startles her. I see how she gulps hard before choosing her next words.
"He didn't leave you, Brittany. We've been over this." She crouches down to my level again and I cuddle Einstein tightly to my chest. Her eyes wince as she continues, treading carefully with the details. "He was driving home from a football game. He'd been drinking and chose to get behind the wheel of his car. Your mom called to ask him how much longer he was going to be. He answered that call."
Blood rushes straight to my ears, pounding with pressure. My stomach tightens with anxiety, which makes my limbs stiffen like rusted iron. My jaw trembles then locks tight. I know what's coming next. Everything was so much easier before that night. What I wouldn't give to erase the past and start over. To be eight years old all over again and be Daddy's little princess. I would have begged him not to go. Or maybe I would have begged him to take me with him. One way or another, we would still be together.
"It was raining hard," I take over the story, needing to take back control because I didn't like where this was heading. "I remember because the road outside our front yard looked like a river. Mom called Daddy, then she hung up mad. She told our housekeeper, Mrs. Hale, to put me to bed. I heard Mom yelling down the phone to my grandma, saying how much Daddy loved managing the football team more than us. I cried myself to sleep that night. But when I woke up, my world fell apart. Dad never came home that night. He left us—he left me."
Silent tears seep through my eyes and trickle either side of my nose. My skin itches where the moisture licks a wet trail, my throat thickens and my nose becomes runny.
"That's not what happened, Brittany." Doctor Howard speaks gently, calling out my dishonesty. "It was raining hard, that was correct. But your dad was intoxicated and he was speeding. He answered his phone whilst driving and he took his eyes off the road."
"Stop lying!" I yell. "You weren't there so you don't know anything!" I defend him, passionately.
Doctor Howard maintains the same level of tolerance throughout. "It's all in the police files, along with the coroner's report," she explains, going over the same damn thing every time.
"My dad left me, he's not dead." My voice comes out strangled and defeated.
"Your father is dead, Brittany. He was on his way home to you and your mom. His death was caused by drink driving, you know this," she finishes, speaking in her calm concise voice.
I shake my head in anguish. "I can't!" I grimace through tears. "I don't want to think about it anymore."
"It wasn't your fault," she applies pressure to those same words that she uses, time, and time again.
"How can I live with myself? How can I ever look her in the eyes and tell her that it was my dad who did it?" I sob my words out loud. "I made her life a misery for years, all because of the guilt I felt. I thought if I could just hate her, then maybe the pain would go away. But I can't hate her. That's why I stopped Chris before he hurt her. I needed to save her because maybe that would make up for the fact that my dad killed her dad!"
There, I finally say it. But saying it out loud only makes matters worse. Now I have to accept it. The butt ugly truth. That's why it is so much easier to regress back to being eight years old and hide there for however long it takes. I have nowhere better to go. Nothing of importance to do.
Maybe if I stay this way forever, I would be better off. Grown-ups are all assholes anyway.
"I think we're done for this week," she concludes, getting to her feet again and walks over to her desk. She picks up a red leather diary, licks her index finger, then begins skimming through the pages.
She glances over and flicks her eyes to the bear. "I have a job for you, Einstein," she speaks to him directly. "I need you to accompany Brittany on vacation this summer."
Her words confuse me.
"Vacation?" I narrow my eyes. "My foster mom never mentioned anything to me about a vacation."
My anxiety hits its peak, to the point where black spots dance in my vision. A vacation means venturing out in public again. I'm not ready for this.
"I suggested it to her and she thinks it's a wonderful idea. You're going to spend the holidays at Forest Lake with your friends," she reveals, sending a jolt of shock through my heart.
"But..." I recoil, horror-stricken.
I can feel all the air being sucked from the room as I struggle to breathe.
"Your friend Helen runs a guest house, doesn't she? And from what I've heard, she could use a hand with the twins. Your mutual friend Emma is due to give birth around mid-July. So this will be the perfect opportunity for you to lay some ghosts to rest."
"OK, Einstein, have you got any ideas on how you're going to get us the fuck out of this one?" I blurt out in hysteria.
Dr. Howard sighs. "Oh come on, Brittany, don't be like that. This could be the breakthrough that you've been looking for. A good friend of mine is going to be looking after you during your stay. I've already passed on his details to your foster father."
The electronic timer that was sitting on top of her desk begins to beep. An indication that my time was now up. This has been one long-ass hour, and I'm as keen as ever to scamper away, clutching hold of my docile companion, and snatching a lollipop from the glass bowl by the door. Dr. Howard bids me goodbye, to which I respond with a half-assed grunt.
"A fat lot of good you were, Einstein," I grumble with resentment.
I make my way along the rabbit warren of beige corridors, following the arrows labeled 'exit'. My foster mom usually waits in the reception hall to greet me with a juice box and a bag full of jelly beans. I've been looking forward to the tasty treat all morning.
After fighting to remove the wrapper from the lollipop, I ram it into my mouth, tasting a blast of strawberry on my tongue. I discard the wrapper, flinging it over my shoulder and then collide with something solid as I round the corner.
"Oof!" I rub my forehead, momentarily winded.
The brawny obstruction stands firmly on the same spot. My eyes rake up and along his intimidating frame: from his Italian leather shoes, up and along his dark grey suit-trousers, then to his matching suit-jacket that hugs his body like it's molded around his muscles. It accentuates his large chest and huge biceps. Beneath it, he's wearing a crisp white button-down shirt and matching dark-grey waistcoat, which I imagine covers a torso packed with deliciously ripped abs. His silver silk tie adds to the sophisticated style. By the time I get to check out his GQ model face that looks as if Adonis himself had fallen from the heavens and landed at my feet, I see that he's scowling down at me, furiously.
He's a redhead, and they are renowned for having a fiery temper.
"Pick that up!" He commands in a harsh, authoritative voice.
I blink twice, gawking right back at him. "Huh?"
His jaw pulses with tension. "I said..." He lowers his tone so that's deep and commanding. It raises the hairs along my skin, filling me with alarm. I don't usually do as I'm told, and I'm known to be rather difficult at times, but the way he's glaring down at me as if hinting a silent warning, I feel it's safer to obey.
I turn around, crouching down to retrieve the discarded wrapper.
"Good girl, now go put it in the trash can," he orders, sounding just as assertive.
"Jeez, okay," I respond, flaring my eyes wide.
The distinguished stranger clears his throat, piercing me with a thunderous scowl. "I beg your pardon, young lady?" He hisses through gritted teeth.
Fuck! What was his problem?
"Who're you, the garbage police? Take a chill pill," I mutter with sass. "Stick it up your butt and it'll work faster."
Just as I come back from putting the wrapper in the trash can, I feel a firm grip tighten around my wrist.
He clutches onto the stick of the lollipop that's protruding from my mouth and yanks it free.
"Bad girls don't deserve treats," he waves it in front of my face before tossing it into the trash.
My mouth hangs open in outrage. "My lollipop!" I yell in protest.
His eyes dart from mine down to Einstein and back again, so I hug him tightly to my chest.
"Don't even think about it, mister. Touch Einstein and I'll scream. My foster mom is waiting for me in the reception hall. She'll call my foster dad, and he's a lawyer, then you'll be in big trouble!" I deliver a threat, to which, I notice a glint of amusement flickering in his eyes.
"Your foster mom is in the reception hall, huh?" He narrows his eyes on me.
I gasp as he jerks me forward, pulling me down the hall and out towards the main entrance. Dread floods through me for some reason. This guy was insane! And he's... what's he doing? ...wait! He's dragging me over to my foster mom. Shit!
"Hey, what do you think you're doing?" I panic as my heels scrape across the carpet. I try some toddler tactics like pulling backward, when that doesn't work I try dropping to the floor, but nothing works, he's way too strong. "Are you really going to tell my mom? Please don't! I want my jelly beans!" I beg, hoping that would work.
Just as I'm pulled into the seating area, he stops and turns. "You don't want me to tell on you, huh?" He eyes me carefully.
I shake my head vigorously.
He observes my panic-stricken face, deciding what to do. "What's your name?" He asks, eyeing me with appraisal.
I recoil, wincing my eyes. "I'm not supposed to tell you that because you're a stranger."
For some unknown reason, that seems to please him. "That's right, you shouldn't," he agrees, seemingly impressed.
My foster mom hurries over to us with a worried look on her face. "Is everything alright?" She asks, noticing the handsome stranger release my wrist.
I nod, gingerly, afraid that he's going to rat me out for my bratty behavior.
"Everything's fine," he replies, casting me a fleeting smile that makes my girl parts all tingly inside. "I believe this pretty little princess belongs to you," he compliments in a more benevolent tone.
So he could be nice.
"I hope that you haven't been misbehaving again, Brittany?" She chastises, eyeing me with a gentle but analyzing expression.
Mr. Adonis drags in a satisfied breath. "Brittany." My name seems to roll off his tongue as smooth as velvet. "Well, I better be going. I'm here to pick up a case file and I'm already running late. He makes an advancement to leave. "It's a long drive back to Forest Lake," he mentions the state where my friends have moved to.
"Forest Lake?" I reiterate, making him pause and cast a backward glance across his shoulder.
"Yes, why? Have you heard of it?" He asks as if he doubts that very much.
It was my foster mom who answers on my behalf. "Actually, my daughter lives in Bear Creek, and a friend of ours runs a guest house in Hawcroft."
His brows raise with surprise upon hearing that news. I see his Adam's apple bob in his throat as his eyes flash down to me. There's something about the way he looks at me with fire simmering in his eyes that makes me feel naked in his presence.
"Do they really?" He mutters, with curiosity.
"We're heading there tomorrow afternoon. Brittany has been through a lot and a vacation will do her good," Mom tells him, and for some reason, he doesn't seem surprised.
"You won't be disappointed," he replies, directing that comment at me.
Something that resembles a challenge begins to swirl like a storm in his eyes. Dark and ravenous. I would be lying if I try to deny there isn't chemistry between us. There is definitely something there. The rush that I felt when I made him mad had a strange effect on my downtown. It thrilled me more than it scared me.
"You never know, maybe we will run into you there?" Mom suggests politely.
His eyes home in on me as he replies, "Oh, I don't doubt that."
The smallest smile flickers across his lips but then it's gone in a flash. My heart squeezes as I watch him storm down the corridor and out of plain sight. His absence leaves me feeling empty and bereft, which doesn't make any sense to me at all.
A gentle bush of fingertips brings me out of my reverie. "Brittany, honey. Let's go home and I'll tell you all about our trip."
"OK, Mom," I reply sweetly. "Did you remember my jelly beans?"