I wasn’t myself the next day. I struggled to keep my mind on my job, and every time I saw Tori, her eyes appeared sorrowful and filled with despair. She’d tried so hard to help me … I think even she accepted the hopelessness of my situation.
My stomach churned as the clock inched closer to the end of the shift, knowing that Brad waited for me outside. He’d traveled to the island with me that morning, dropped me off, and said he planned to hang around Beau Reve until I got off.
He would keep a close eye on me for a while. Barely gave me a minute to breathe the night before and he’d threatened to put a padlock on the apartment door, threatening keep me imprisoned until I learned to behave myself.
Leaving him had only made things worse.
“Hillary!” Tori hurried to catch up to me as I headed toward the exit. “Don’t go … hang back for a few minutes.”
“You don’t have to rush out …”
“It would only make him madder.” I’d completely given up.
“Just a few minutes. Let’s get a soda.”
She followed me outside and watched from the sidewalk with arms crossed while I climbed into the car Brad parked close enough to watch me exit. I didn’t linger to talk to Tori, knowing he wouldn’t like it.
“Crazy whore,” Brad mumbled and started the engine. “You’re done with this place.”
I had a feeling that I wasn’t going to see my friend again. I gazed at her and held my hand in an apologetic, good-bye wave as we backed out, but Tori didn’t see. The black hummer from her wrestling show pulled up to the curve in front of her and she stepped up to speak to whoever was inside.
I lowered my head.
“Damn, do all these stupid bitches have to leave at the same time?” Brad complained about the vehicles that slowed our departure, causing us to crawl toward the main road and wait for our turn to exit.
I gasped, almost screamed, startled by the sudden opening of the car door. I gazed at the man who had snatched it.
“Is this enough proof?” Ethan Hart beamed that famous smile. His eyes twinkling as if he found my astonished expression alluring. “Hi, Rose.”
Brad slammed the car in park and got out. “Hillary! Who the hell is he?” He rounded the car and stood demanded answers.
I expected him to throw a punch, shove Ethan or something. But he just stood there brooding with wild eyes.
“Hillary?” Ethan let my true name roll off his tongue. “Your name is still as pretty as a rose.”
I couldn’t believe that Ethan Hart was standing there in front of me.
“How did you find me?”
“I’m famous, Doll.” His eyes shifted toward Tori. “I can find out anything I want.” He offered a hand to help me from the car and I took it.
“So, you are a stalker after all.” I had never been so happy to be wrong in all my life. I stared at him. Still not convinced if I was awake or dreaming.
I was in awe of him and his size. He really was bigger in real life. I didn’t know if I should hug him or shake his hand. How should I greet someone I had met online?
He pulled me into an embrace before I could decide. It was a just friendly embrace. Perhaps slightly more. Either way, it was enough to turn Brad’s complexion red. My boyfriend stood there staring. Seething. I could almost see the steam coming from his ears.
“Well, you wouldn’t answer me on Chatter.” Ethan smiled impishly. “Now, will you please talk to me again?”
I gazed at my feet. I blushed. I wasn’t sure what to say to him. I still couldn’t believe the man was standing there and then all these ideas, all these things he could have done to easily prove his identity popped into my head.
I gazed up at him, narrowed my eyes, and smacked my hands hard against his chest, shoving him backward. “Why didn’t you send me a picture of your face? You could have held up a sign! You could have don’t that T.V. or something! We could have avoided this whole damn mess!”
He chuckled hard. His gazed at his feet and ran a tongue over his lip. “I never thought of that.” He lifted his eyes and smiled nervously. “Can I buy you a cup of coffee? Dinner … something? I’m dying here.”
His cute expression caused me to instantly soften and softly smile.
“Hey, buddy! She’s with someone!” Brad spoke up. But he didn’t take a step forward nor did he try to start a fight with Ethan. What a coward!
Oh my God! The man who had terrorized me for so long just stood there, glaring at me. Threatening me and letting me know with his eyes that I was in for it as soon as Ethan was gone. I guess it made him feel powerful when he hit me … but when it came to someone his own size … I couldn’t see him as a man anymore, but he was still the father of my child. I couldn’t dismiss that. The law wouldn’t let me dismiss that.
“Um …” Oh, how wanted to take a chance with Ethan. I wanted to run off with him so badly. But this wasn’t one of my fantasies. It was real life and in all actuality, we’d only just met. Ethan couldn’t be the brave knight that would whisk me away to far off lands. He couldn’t be my Prince Charming and he couldn’t be my Edward Lewis.
“Hillary, let’s go!” Brad found the nerve to take my arm and pull me his way.
I moved along like a zombie.
“Get your hands off her!” There was that deep growl I’d heard on television. Ethan had no problem standing up for me and oh, how it turned me on. No one had ever done that for me before.
“No, you need to back off!” I heard a slight waver in Brad’s voice. “Get in the car Hillary!”
I stared straight ahead, my eyes fixed on nothing. My mind couldn’t make sense of a single thought. What I desired stood in front of me. All I had to do was reach out, but how could I take that leap with a man who was not the father of the child I carried? And how would Ethan react when I told him? Would he still want to take me out? Would he still be there begging for my attention?
Brad snatched my hand again.
Ethan took my other hand. His touch tingled. I gazed up at him. He opened his mouth to speak but nothing came out.
Instead, his lips closed upon mine. Right there in front of my current boyfriend. Our tongues giving and taking in tandem. Perfectly. As if we had years of practice with each other.
My hand fell from Brad’s and I fell against Ethan. He pulled me closer, his hands gently threaded through my hair, and pressing my hands tighter against his chest.
My heart quickened and my heat rose to my cheeks while my legs weakened. No other experience had ever excited me more and all he had done was kiss me.
“This is bullshit!” Brad screamed. Yet he still didn’t take a swing.
Out of breath. My gaze fell away. I couldn’t look at Ethan. I couldn’t look at Brad. My stomach a ball of nerves.
“Breathe.” Ethan cupped my face.
“I know. It’s so …”
“No.” I gazed up at him. “I can’t be with you.”
Ethan appeared dazed. He backed away and I expected him to leave. He should have left but instead, he just stared at me.
“Give me one good reason why I should walk away from you?”
“I …” But the words escaped me.
“What do you want, Hillary?” Ethan asked.
I fidgeted. Sobbed. Battling a war only I could see. I looked from him to Brad. I held a hand to my stomach, my emotions bordering hysterical.
“No. Not what he wants. What do you want?”
How could Ethan know? And how could I tell him?
“You won’t want me.” I shook my head. I wouldn’t let myself believe that he would accept my child with another man. “Once you know everything.”
“Whatever it is. I don’t care.”
Oh, he would care. It wasn’t right.
“You don’t understand.” The baby deserved to know its father. If I left Brad, the child still bound us together. I would forever have to deal with that man. How could Ethan protect me? He was always thousands of miles away.
Desperately, I threw my arms around Ethan’s neck, clinging to him as if I was clutching a life preserver in the middle of the ocean.
“I’m pregnant!” I blurted out.
“Um … huh?” With his hands still firmly planted on my waist, Ethan stared wide-eyed. His complexion seemed a bit pale and his jaw hung open.
I felt the tears welling up in my eyes as I waited for his rejection.
“That’s right, asshole.” Brad stepped up then. He attempted to insert himself between Ethan and me, but Ethan swung me away.
“That’s it? You’re going to stay with him because he knocked you up?”
“You travel all the time, Ethan.”
“And she can’t take the kid with her, jerk. The law won’t let her take that brat more than twenty miles from me! If she manages to keep the kid. I doubt it … my mother has some powerful friends.” Brad smirked. Oh, he seemed so happy with himself, knowing he had found a way to make me his forever. Damn, I hated Jenithiyah’s child custody laws. I hated the influence Brad’s family had in that town. I was stuck.
“I … have to,” I meekly whined. I turned away from him and wiped a tear away before it could roll down my cheek. I took a deep breath and prepared myself for the certain punishment I would take at Brad’s hand.
“No … no you don’t. I won’t let you go back … not when I know he hits you.”
“I don’t want you to feel sorry for me, Ethan.”
“Woman, I have been going through hell trying to win your heart.” He beamed a big smile. “If you think I’m going to walk out now, after all the time I’ve put into this, you’re insane. I don’t care that you’re going to have a baby.”
“No. As far as I’m concerned, that son-of-a-bitch is nothing more than a sperm donor. This baby …” He touched my belly. “Is mine.”
“Well, I’m afraid it’s not that easy.” Brad would not let us forget his presence. “I’ll never sign away my rights and I’ll never let you take the kid out of town. Is that the kind of life you want for your child, Hillary?”
“Just shut up!” Ethan spat at Brad. “What do YOU want, sweetie?” Ethan laid gentle hands on my shoulders as if he could see how soft my heart could be and how easily Brad manipulated.
“I …” I cried desperately. I’d always been proud of my kind-hearted nature, but I’d never thought someone would use it against me.
That’s exactly what Brad had done every single day. Then it hit me. I wasn’t with Brad because I loved him and I wasn’t there because I was too feeble-minded to walk out. I was with him because I felt sorry for him.
“Please don’t do this,” Brad whined. “I need you. I need the baby.”
But the past was still there, flashing repeatedly. All the wrongs, all the mean words he’d said. I remembered them all. I had every right to love Ethan and my child deserved a caring father, one that Brad would never be. No amount of hopeful thinking could make that untrue.
“I can tell you’re not happy. I want you to be happy. Whether it’s with me … whether it’s with him. I don’t care,” Ethan softly reasoned. “Follow your heart, Hillary.”
“But I don’t really know you.”
“You do … you do know me. I’m everything we talked about on Chatter. Hell, girl, there’s only one thing I didn’t tell you about myself.”
“What’s that?” That comical twinkle in his eyes brought a bit of relief to that serious moment.
“I’m an outsider.” He chuckled. “I was born outside of Jenithiyah.”
“You’re from where?” I took a step back. There it was. The one thing I couldn’t trust.
“Unbelievable.” Of course, Brad jumped at a new way to lure me back. “The guy lives in a fantasy world. He’s a fraud. Outsider … humph … it’s just part of his gimmick.”
“No one actually comes from the outside.” I wanted to scream. Once again I felt like a man had manipulated my heart and Ethan had done it when I was vulnerable. But why that? Did he think it made him exotic? Did he think it made him more desirable?
“But they do,” Ethan insisted, using his slight size advantage to stay closest to me. He pulled out his phone and flipped through photographs. “This is me. That’s the statue of liberty. This is my home in Florida and this … this is the cruise ship. I took this trip just before I ended up here. Read the back … The Miami Princess … Florida, U.S.A.”
“Their fake pictures,” Brad accused.
“See how much older I look. This place … it saved my life. It restored my health and gave me a chance to live a wonderful life, but it could never fix the hole in my heart. Only you can do that … I’ll take you to the hospital in Bermuda Falls if I have to … you can talk to the doctors … anything to prove to you that all of this happened.”
I stared into his eyes, searching for truth. Searching for deception but all I saw was the same raging fire that I felt inside myself. A fire we had both tried to extinguish at the very first spark. Yet it had survived. That meant something. There was no other explanation. Fairytale romances did happen and I know because I had experienced it. I was still experiencing it.
“I want you.” I chose Ethan with no doubts and no regrets. Destiny had brought our souls together, hurdling all obstacles until it led us to that one moment. I saw it all in Ethan’s eyes and I just knew it was going to be happily ever after.
“You’ll pay for this! I’ll see you in court!” Brad vowed and he got in his car and squealed tires out of the parking lot. But I was no longer scared. I was ready to fight … for Ethan … for my child … for my life.
“So how about that date?” Ethan asked with an impish grin.
“When?” I sheepishly blushed.
“I don’t care. Tonight … tomorrow. I want a date with you every day … every night … forever.”
His words caused my lips to spread into a genuine smile. I never thought I would find myself in need of a hero, but sometimes, in some situations, being your own hero is easier said than done.
Sometimes we get involved with someone who seemed okay in the beginning. Someone who knows exactly how to manipulate in a way that mentally scars. These people feel no real remorse and they’ll continue their abuse until they’ve paralyzed you with fear. Constant thoughts of leaving immediately trigger memories of threats and even if you manage enough strength to follow through, this person knows the exact words to destroy that bravery.
I guess that sometimes you need a hero to save you from yourself. Someone I knew had to fight for her life, just because she’d been brave enough to leave. When I found myself in the same situation, I was scared it would happen to me. That fear had caused me to bounce back and forth, up and down like a yo-yo.
Standing there with Ethan, I found my strength and the person I had once been peaked from behind a dark cloud.
Ethan talked about forever … and finally, forever didn’t sound so bad.
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