‘She looks so sad,’ Cash thought, his heart hurting. ‘But this is one thing I can’t fix for her, not yet anyway. Once I know everything, I can help her keep healing. Help her move on from that asshole.’ Cash leaned forward and took one of Katie’s hands in both of his.
“It’s okay, angel. Take your time. Nothing you say is gonna change things. I’ve moved past my stupid idiot phase into supportive boyfriend phase.” Katie’s eyebrows shot up in shock.
“Boyfriend?” Katie asked, sounding dumbfounded.
“If you want,” Cash said, blushing, but not breaking eye contact with Katie. “Trust me, I’m already thinking of you as my girlfriend.” Tears filled Katie’s eyes, worrying Cash. “What is it, angel? Too fast?” Katie shook her head quickly.
“It’s perfect,” she said, smiling through her tears. “I want that, Cash. To be your girlfriend. If I ever figure out how to get a divorce without being murdered, I want even more.” Cash leaned forward and placed both hands on her cheeks.
“No one is killing you,” he said fiercely. “No one is laying a hand on you ever again. I promise.” Katie smiled sadly at Cash and placed her hands on top of his.
“We both know you can’t promise that. Bad things happen, Cash. You’re not going to be able to protect me from all of them.”
“Well, I’m going to anyway,” Cash said stubbornly. “Someone wants to hurt you, they have to go through me.” Katie gave a little laugh and kissed Cash before drawing back. He dropped his hands and settled back in the rocking chair, waiting for her to continue.
“I’d been in Nashville a few months when he came into the store. I was the only one working at the time, so of course I offered to help him. He said he wanted a birthday present for his mother. I thought it was so sweet that he was trying to find the perfect gift for her.” Katie paused, then sighed. “I learned later he’d been watching the store, watching me. He knew I was alone, no family, not even friends, just the people I worked with, and I wouldn’t call us close. I was the perfect target.”
Katie shook her head, staring out the window.
“He didn’t even scare me when we met. He was just this nice, normal, charming man. I’d never really dated before, so I fell for him fast. He asked me out to dinner that first day and I was just so excited, of course I said yes. At the time, I think I so desperately wanted to connect to someone, I grabbed onto the first person who reached out to me. It was so stupid.”
“No, angel,” Cash interrupted. “No it wasn’t. You were lonely and looking for someone to love you. It makes sense you fell for the first person who showed you affection. You lost your family. You needed someone.” Katie gave Cash a small smile.
“It took me years to realize that. Realize he’d manipulated me, used my pain and loneliness to make me dependent on him.” Katie shook her head again, looking at her hands.
“We were really happy in the beginning. He gave me gifts for no reason, sent me flowers, wrote little notes saying how much he loved me, how perfect I was. I fell for it. I worshipped him. All that attention after being alone for so long was intoxicating. We’d only been together a few months before he asked me to marry him. I had just turned 17 and in my mind, marriage was the perfect solution.”
Katie let out a bitter laugh.
“I’d finally have a family again, a new family. I wouldn’t be alone anymore. I hadn’t even met his family yet. Whenever I would ask about them, he’d always say I’d meet them at the right time. It just never seemed strange to me that he didn’t introduce me to any of them. He kept telling me they’d all love me. So when he proposed, I said yes. I was so happy, happier than I’d been in years. And then he finally said I should meet his family.”
Katie paused then, trying to gather her thoughts. She gave a big sigh and continued.
“His family was vacationing at their lake house, so he wanted us to go there so everyone could meet me and we could celebrate the engagement. I figured it was some small cabin that they used. I was wrong. When we got there, the house was enormous. Super fancy. It looked completely out of place, there in the middle of the woods, but he was clearly so proud of it. I had no idea he came from money, so I was shocked. His apartment in Nashville was nice, but not ‘my family are millionaires’ nice. When we walked in and I saw his parents, I just...I was stunned.”
“Who is he, angel?” Cash asked, leaning forward. “Who’s his family?” Katie took a deep breath, as if she was bracing herself.
“His name is Damien Crawley. Youngest son of Senator Thomas Crawley,” Katie replied. Cash’s jaw dropped.
“Senator Crawley, as in the guy who’s running for President? The guy everyone’s saying will get his party’s nomination, so the primaries are pointless?” Cash asked, dumbfounded.
“Yeah,” Katie answered quietly. “The senior senator from Tennessee, head of half a dozen important Senate committees. One of the most powerful and influential men in Washington. And he was going to be my father-in-law.”
Cash sunk back in the rocking chair, rubbing his hands over his face. When he finally met Katie’s eyes again, he looked extremely worried.
“I can’t imagine the Senator was thrilled his son wanted to marry a seventeen year old.”
“Oh, he was pissed,” Katie said bluntly. “They all were. Damien’s always been the black sheep of the Crawley’s. He has three older brothers, all respectable, with lovely wives and adorable children. They all look perfect out on the campaign trail. Now, you have to remember, this was years before the Senator announced he was running for president. But during his four senate campaigns, his entire family would help. And it always looked good when he was surrounded by his loving wife, handsome sons, and adorable grandchildren.” Katie took in a breath.
“Damien was a surprise baby. He’s almost ten years younger than his next oldest brother. So he’s been out campaigning for his dad since he was a kid. It’s definitely made him bitter. He always felt like the family never cared about him unless they needed him to campaign. He acted out a lot as a kid, but the Senator always covered it up. He’s good at pretending nothing is ever going wrong with his perfect family.”
“How old was Damien when you got engaged?” Cash asked. Katie blushed, refusing to meet Cash’s eye.
“He was 28,” she replied.
“Jesus,” Cash whispered. “So an admired, respected senator was about to have his 28 year old son marry a minor?” Katie just nodded.
“How the hell did you guys even get married?” Cash asked, incredulous. “I would have thought the Crawley’s would have stopped it.”
“They wanted to,” Katie replied. “When Damien introduced me, everyone could tell I was young, but no one asked until that first night. When I said I was 17, the entire family went nuts; yelling and screaming, everybody forbidding Damien to marry me. But then... Well, Damien told them about me. How my family had been murdered, my college degrees, getting out of foster care, supporting myself in Nashville. Suddenly, I wasn’t a problem. I was an asset.”
“I don’t understand,” Cash said, frowning. “You were still 17. How does your past make you valuable to them?”
“Because I had a ‘fantastic origin story that would sell on the campaign trail’,” Katie said sarcastically. “Direct quote from the Senator, just so you know. I was a victim of gun violence, but I could go out and speak about how guns weren’t the problem, the criminals who had them were the real threat. I could talk about the importance of education, but say I wasn’t even using my degrees to make a living. I got myself out of foster care, proving anyone could do it if they’re motivated enough. I became perfect talking points.”
“So they didn’t see you as a person, they saw you as a valuable commodity?” Cash said angrily. Katie nodded.
“The worst part was that I was willing to go along with it,” she said. “I was willing to compromise my beliefs, my morals, just to be accepted into his family. I wanted their love and approval so badly, I was willing to do anything.”
“Did you?” Cash asked. “I mean, did you go out and do speeches?”
“No, thank god,” Katie replied. “The Senator’s staff ‘leaked’ our relationship to the press. They also made sure people knew what had happened in my past. Suddenly, the age difference, the fact that I was 17, it wasn’t even mentioned. All of these articles came out, talking about how Damien had ‘saved’ me, how the Crawley’s had welcomed me with open arms. Our wedding basically turned into a giant campaign fundraiser. I didn’t know anyone there and all that was expected of me was to look beautiful, grateful, and madly in love. At the time, I didn’t see anything wrong with it. I hadn’t wanted to plan a wedding so when Mrs. Crawley and her minions took over, I was relieved. Only once did I say I wanted a small wedding, but everyone got on my case, saying how important this wedding was, how important the optics were, how important it was for the Senator. No one even mentioned that it should have been important to Damien and me. It was all about the family image. The Crawley’s were a brand and now I was a part of it.” Katie sighed and stared out the window. “There were so many signs something was wrong, but I ignored all of them because I wanted a family again.”
Cash sighed too, then stood up, walked to the window seat, and scooped Katie up in his arms.
“Cash!” Katie cried out, surprised. Cash didn’t say anything, just sat down on the window seat, cradling Katie in his arms as she sat on his lap. Katie laid her head against his chest, listening to the comforting sound of Cash’s heartbeat. Cash knew the worst part was coming up, so he snuggled into her, taking just a moment to make Katie feel safe and loved before she shared the rest.