Despite the charges against Eldon, his bail was set at a laughable rate and he didn’t spend more than two nights in jail. He was, however, given a restraining order and strict instructions to stay away from his wife. Due to the nature of the abuse and the fact that he had struck Kate in front of the kids, he was only allowed supervised visitation once a week for three hours, starting immediately after his release. The first week he showed and stayed for two hours but he didn’t even bother seeing his kids the week after that.
It was for the best, anyway. Keon Swift, Stephanie’s co-worker, had been present during the visitations as well as a detective from the Family Investigation Bureau. Both had said that the interactions that first week were awkward. Stella was scared shitless of Eldon and Tanner refused to even look in his direction.
Kate hadn’t gone back to the house since the morning she was discharged. She was staying with Elaine and Richard indefinitely and I couldn’t fault her. Stephanie and Rhea had packed up everything she and the kids needed and a lot of stuff they didn’t. Since Kate and the kids weren’t staying there, Eldon was and that meant getting things after the fact would be hard.
Briana had been livid when she came back home from Maine. She was pissed at Eldon but at her family, too, for not telling her immediately. Marco told me that she ranted and fumed about it in between shedding tears for her older sister. Once she finally calmed down, she and Marco had offered to do whatever they could to help.
The Gibson family rallied around their second-born and supported her in so many ways. No one ever faulted her or asked her why she stayed. They just accepted that she had been hurt in the most heinous ways and showered her with love and encouragement.
Despite it all, I could tell Stephanie was visibly shaken. I mean, she knew Eldon was an asshole but the thought that her sister was being physically abused without her knowing left her with a lot of guilt. Whether it was the caregiving big sister in her that felt guilty or the social worker who had seen her share of abuse, Steph was constantly having an internal debate with herself. She never vocalized those thoughts to me, probably because she knew I would tell her that every one of them was unfounded, but I could tell she was thinking them.
Three weeks after everything had happened, I came out of Chris’s room after putting him to bed to find Stephanie standing at the glass doors to the balcony, just staring out into the illuminated city. She was wearing a pair of sweatpants and one of my old t-shirts and her hair was pulled back in a ponytail. Her arms were crossed over her chest and she looked so unlike my strong, take-no-prisoners girlfriend.
No. She looked vulnerable and scared.
I slowly walked up and wrapped my arms around her from behind. Her body instantly relaxed and she leaned into me, uncrossing her arms so she could cover where my hands were resting on her stomach. She released an audible sigh and dropped her head back to my shoulder.
“What’s going through that brilliant brain of yours, Vanilla Latte?” I asked, pressing a kiss to the side of her head. She didn’t respond for a moment and when she did, her voice was quiet.
“I was trying to think back to when we first met Eldon. Were the signs there? Did we all just miss them? Or did he start off a nice guy that changed into the type of man that hits his wife? Like, could the most amazing man in the world somehow morph into an abuser? Where does the line get drawn?”
I stiffened slightly at her words. She must have felt the change because Stephanie was suddenly turned around in my arms with both of her hands touching my face and her blue eyes full of apology.
“The words left my mouth without thinking. I’m sorry.” She shook her head and drew my face down slightly until our foreheads were pressed together. “I just suddenly had this doubt in my mind that I’m missing monsters in front of my face. What if Marco turns out to be the kind of guy who lashes out at Bri? Or even Austin at Rhea? How would it start? Would I miss that, too?” She sucked in a long, shaky breath before continuing. “Make no mistake, Jared Hart- I never even once contemplated the same about you.”
“Good.” I tightened my hold around her middle and pulled her flush against me. “I would never raise a hand to you, Steph. I would do anything to protect you. To protect Christopher. You two mean everything to me.”
She opened her mouth to speak but I pressed my lips to hers briefly before she could. When we pulled apart, I kept going. “As far as monsters go, I think you know deep down that Austin and Marco aren’t like that. I’m willing to bet Eldon wore a good mask but not that good. You told me that you’ve never liked him, not really, and you’re a great judge of character, baby. I think you just like to believe that even the worst people have some good in them, even Eldon Sinclair. No one wants to think that a man physically hurts his wife.”
“I guess but… That’s my baby sister, Jared.” Stephanie’s voice broke as she said the words and my chest ached with the need to take away her pain. “The same quiet little girl that I protected on the playground. The one whose bed and closet I checked for monsters just to ease her fears. He was hurting her and I didn’t protect her.”
“You can’t dish out the what-ifs. Even if you had known, you’ve been around enough abuse victims to know that you wouldn’t have been able to help her until she was ready to accept it. Kate’s accepting your help and protection now, Stephanie, and I know you’ll be there for her every step of the way.”
“I will.” She shifted until her cheek was against my chest. Several long minutes passed before she spoke again. “I love you, Jare.”
I slipped one hand under the hem of her shirt so it was up against the smooth skin of her back. Such a simple act and simple touch made me feel more connected to her. “I love you, too. What would you say to some Netflix in bed?”
“Are we going to Netflix and chill?” she asked with a shameless smirk on her face and I chuckled softly, happy to see her smiling. I honestly just meant watching someGrey’sbut I will never turn down the opportunity tochillwith you, Vanilla Latte.”
An hour later, Stephanie was still naked and laying in my arms. Her eyelids were heavy but her face was much more relaxed than it had been before. I knew that her worries and fears were far from gone but I was happy to give her a moment of peace when I could.
I ran my fingers through her hair and her eyes shut completely. I watched her breathing level out and knew she was asleep. I had no idea how else to help but I knew I would do whatever it took. “What would you say to inviting your family over here for the fourth of July?” I asked Stephanie the next day when we were sitting at the table. She was spooning some baby cereal into Chris’s mouth but paused so she could look at me.
I nodded and gestured to the balcony. “We’ll have a good view of so many of the shows that take place around the city.”
When she made a face, I knew exactly what she was thinking. It was that thought that kept my sliding doors locked at all times. Stephanie was scared shitless when it came to Chris and that balcony. She made me promise that I would never take him out there and that I would keep the sliding door double locked with the safety bar on the track so there was no chance it could be opened.
“We can go down to the fifth floor terrace instead of staying up here. The walls are four feet tall and made of that acrylic fake glass so no one can climb them. We can even set up a different barrier for the kids so they can’t get close. We can watch fireworks, barbeque, and swim, sweetheart.”
“And you promise that no one will go over the balcony?” She wiped the baby’s face with a cloth and I chuckled while nodding my head.
We finished breakfast and I had just pulled the tray to the high chair away when Chris wiggled and held his arms up in my direction. I looked at him for a moment, trying to decide if he knew what he was doing, and he finally dropped his arms. When Stephanie walked back in the dining room, he immediately extended his arms in her direction and I laughed. He was doing it on purpose.
“Look what he’s doing.”
Steph turned her eyes on him and a smile immediately stretched along her lips. “He’s reaching out to be picked up.”
She did just that and swung him around, both of them giggling happily. Every time Chris hit a new milestone, no one was more excited than Stephanie Gibson. When he started sitting up on his own the week before, you might have thought he just won the Nobel Peace Prize. That woman loved my son with every fiber of her being.
We ended up doing Independence Day at the condo and it was perfect. Even from the fifth floor, we were able to see four different firework shows in the valley. Everyone ate, swam, played games, and just talked. It was a distraction Kate’s older two needed and a fun way for everyone else to relax.
Stephanie watched Tanner closely that day, though. Even though he was having fun, the little boy was never too far from his mother. He stuck to her like glue and I couldn’t tell if it was because he was scared to be away from her or if he felt the need to protect her. It was endearing and depressing to watch, though.
Alyssa had joined us, too, along with Dave and his kids, and it had been an experience I had never had in my life. Stephanie had given me so much, including the invitation to be a part of her big, rambunctious family, and I was so thankful to her for that.
Everything was about as close to perfection as it could be. Famous last words, right?